Indulging in “hedonic hunger” keeps many people from reaching a healthy weight—and many runners from reaching their racing weight.
It is a well-documented fact that the amount of food that a person eats is affected not only by internal factors such as hunger hormones but also by environmental factors such as food availability and food advertising. Experts believe that the overabundance of cheap food and the omnipresence of food marketing in our society today cause many of us to eat too much.
Runners are as susceptible to such influences as non-runners. In fact, some of us may be even more susceptible because of an increase in appetite and hedonic hunger (or the drive to eat for pleasure) that results from high levels of exercise. While runners are less likely to be overweight than non-runners thanks to all that exercise, our goal is loftier than simply not being overweight. We want to attain our ideal racing weight, and in order to do that many of us may need to resist the environmental influences that are causing us to eat more food than we need.
New evidence of environmental influences on hedonic hunger comes from an interesting study conducted by Italian researchers. The experiment involved adult men and women who were healthy and not overweight. The subjects were fed a standardized breakfast and then asked to rate their level of hunger. An hour later, each subject was presented with his or her favorite food and asked to reassess his or her hunger level. On a separate occasion the experiment was repeated, but in this case the subjects were presented with a food that they did not like.
The subjects reported experiencing a sudden spike in hunger when they were presented with their favorite food just one hour after a satisfying breakfast. When presented with an unappetizing food in the same circumstance, however, there was no increase in appetite. What’s more, blood samples revealed that there was also a spike in ghrelin (a hunger hormone) when the favorite food was displayed—a spike that did not occur in the presence of the unappetizing food.
Fortunately, nobody ever comes to your home or office one hour after you’ve eaten breakfast to tempt you with your favorite food. But there is evidence that our society today encourages us to overeat in more insidious ways. For example, in the last two decades of the twentieth century restaurant portions and packaged food serving sizes increased significantly as lower food costs encouraged competing companies to win customers by providing more “value”. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, and other researchers have demonstrated that human beings are natural “plate-clearers”; we tend to eat whatever is put in front of us whether it’s just enough or too much. Thus, as consumers have been served more, they have also eaten more, and as a result they now weight more.
It seems that most of us these days are guilty of a certain amount of hedonic eating. Some people may do little enough that it does not affect their weight, while others may chronically overeat just slightly and consequently struggle to attain a healthy body weight—or, in the case of runners, an ideal racing weight.
As a sports nutritionist and author of a book on racing weight, I encourage athletes to focus on improving the quality of their diet more than they do on reducing the quantity of food they eat in their efforts to get leaner. But I recognize that some athletes may need to consciously eat less. And I recently discovered that I’m one of them.
Two weeks before I ran the L.A. Marathon in March I was still five pounds above my ideal racing weight. Desperate to lose those five pounds, and unable to improve the quality of my diet much more than I already had, I decided to try eating less. The reduction was modest, since I knew that a drastic decrease in the number of calories I consumed would ruin my training. I achieved this slight reduction by eliminating all snacking between meals. Although my usual snacks—nuts, fruit—were perfectly healthy, so was everything else I ate, and by cutting them out I was able to eliminate about 250 calories from my daily intake.
I must confess that I was all but certain I would go mad with unsatisfied hunger during those two weeks, but to my considerable surprise I did not. Before the change in my diet I ate a snack whenever I felt certain queues emanating from my stomach. During those two weeks I simply ignored those queues, assuming they would become increasingly intense. My assumption was wrong. Thus, I could only conclude that those queues were not true hunger but something close to the hedonic appetite that the subjects of the Italian study experienced when tempted with their favorite foods.
Are you being held back from attaining your ideal racing weight by the sort of chronic, slight overeating I recently discovered in myself? Maybe, maybe not. If you think it’s possible, try an experiment like the one I tried. First, ensure that there’s little room left for improvement in the quality of your diet. Then make a modest reduction in the amount of food you eat each day, particularly by tuning in to your appetite and not eating when you’re not truly hungry and not eating more than you’re truly hungry for. You never know where this little test might lead you.
About The Author:
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Iron War: Dave Scott, Mark Allen & The Greatest Race Ever Run (VeloPress, 2011). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit www.mattfitzgerald.org.