Hunger and Eating Behavior

If hunger is biologically useful and a subjective experience that indicates a depleted nutritional state, then a close correspondence between hunger and eating would be expected. So hunger should be either a necessary or a sufficient condition for eating to occur. However, this is not invariably the case. Instances of people deliberately refraining from eating in spite of hunger (fasting for moral or political conviction) show hunger not to be a sufficient condition. And examples in research and daily experience, of eating a tempting food when otherwise satiated, show hunger not to be necessary for eating to take place. But while the relationship between hunger and eating is not based on biological inevitability, in many circumstances they are closely linked.

Unfortunately, the lack of a one-to-one correspondence between hunger and eating has been used as another way to question the validity of hunger ratings. But should a high correlation between hunger ratings and subsequent food intake be expected in all circumstances? The previous examples show that in certain circumstances the two can be disengaged. So, for example, eating can occur when hunger is low (such as when highly palatable food is offered unexpectedly) and not at other times when hunger is high (when food is unavailable or other activities have

Breakfast Morning Lunch Afternoon Dinner Evening Bed

Figure 3 Ratings of hunger made across the day by a group of obese women taking an appetite suppressant drug (dotted lines) or placebo (solid lines).

Breakfast Morning Lunch Afternoon Dinner Evening Bed

Figure 3 Ratings of hunger made across the day by a group of obese women taking an appetite suppressant drug (dotted lines) or placebo (solid lines).

priority). In addition, many experimental analyzes of the correlational relationship between hunger and food intake report the relationship only when subjects are hungry. In other words, the correlation is only examined for a small portion of the available scale. Very few studies have looked at the association between hunger and food intake when hunger has been represented in all its possible degrees.

It is clear that hunger ratings cannot be used simply as a proxy measure for food intake. Equally, there is good evidence that in most circumstances self-report ratings of hunger correlate statistically and meaningfully with eating. This association exists not simply across single meals, but across the entire day as shown in Figure 3. The rhythmic oscillation of hunger is tied closely to the overall pattern of food intake in this group of individuals. As such, it presents an elegant and experimentally useful way of examining diurnal variations in the experience of hunger.

In questioning the relationship between hunger and eating, we are also forced to place the action of hunger within a broader context of social and psychological variables that moderate food choice and eating behavior. Eating patterns are maintained by enduring habits, attitudes and opinions about the value and suitability of foods, and an overall liking for them. These factors, derived from the cultural ethos, largely determine the range of foods that will be consumed and sometimes the timing of consumption. The intensity of hunger experienced may also be determined, in part, by the culturally approved appropriateness of this feeling and by the host of preconceptions brought to the dining table. Hunger is therefore only one portion of the range of determinants of eating in any given situation.

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