Are you overweight? If so, you may be one of the millions of people around the world who are plagued with chronic hedonic hyperphagia.
If this is the first time you’ve heard this term, you aren’t alone. Until April 2013, ordinary folks—indeed, even members of the medical community—were generally unaware of this syndrome.
In research presented at the 245th meeting in New Orleans of the American Chemical Society (the members certainly meet a lot, don’t they?), Tobias Hock, PhD, explained this condition.
According to Dr. Hock, hedonic hyperphagia is the “scientific term for ‘eating to excess for pleasure, rather than hunger.’” He added, “the chronic form is a key factor in the epidemic of overweight and obesity that here in the United States threatens health problems for two out of every three people.”
Here are four ways to tell if you suffer from this syndrome (identifying with any one of them may indicate a positive test result):
1. You open a bag of potato chips and don’t stop eating them until they are all gone.
2. You open a bag of Oreo cookies and don’t stop eating them until you run out of milk.
3. You are at a dinner party and completely full—no appetite whatsoever—when the hostess brings out your favorite dessert. You proceed to eat an extra large portion—and then have another serving.
4. You weigh a bit more than you like despite your continuing resolve to cut back on eating.
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To understand the dynamics of hedonic hyperphagia, researchers mapped the brain activity of rats using high-tech magnetic resonance imaging devices. Some wired rats quit eating the boring rat chow and other (non-potato chip) food alternatives when they were satisfied. But the brain-wired rats given chips had an insatiable appetite for the snack food.
When viewing the activity in the brains of the rats that became chip-aholics, scientists concluded that the chips triggered the reward center in their brains. Even though the rats had eaten plenty of food, they continued to eat the chips. Just like humans who can’t stop with one chip, the rats were exhibiting the typical behavior of hedonic hyperphagiacs.
But does this condition deserve its own scientific term? Critics might argue that Dr. Hoch and other researchers are simply giving gluttony a technical label. Or perhaps the critics would state the problem more succinctly, as Orson Welles did when he said, “Gluttony is not a secret vice.” For most of us, eating too much shows up when we look in the mirror, stand on the bathroom scale, get a positive test for diabetes or are diagnosed with high blood pressure.
Critics might also argue that the willpower to choose not to eat large quantities of snacks is essential if we are to avoid becoming obese. In this case, strengthening willpower through the practice of moderation would be the remedy, rather than medicalization of a human foible.
While the discussion and research continue, I intend to avoid labeling my eating behavior either as hedonic hyperphagia or gluttony. Instead, I take a practical approach. What I’ve learned, for example, is that if I bring a package of Oreo cookies home from the store, I will eat all of them—and rather quickly, I might add, in one sitting.
After repeated experiments, I know for certain that I lack the willpower to eat one Oreo cookie and put the rest away. So until scientists find a way to add an ingredient to broccoli or Brussels sprouts that activates the reward center in my brain, I need to figure out for myself which of the essentially nutritionless foods trigger a bout of recreational eating—and keep them out of my kitchen.
This may not be a workable solution for everyone who suffers from hedonic hyperphagia, but it is offered as one way of coping. What’s your strategy?
Photo: Kelly Bailey on Flickr.