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Hunger, Food Insecurity or Stress?

Is hunger an “alarming” and “dramatic” problem in the United States today? Widespread famine is the impression one might get from headlines in the New York Times (“Hunger in the US at a 14-year high”), USA Today (“1 in 6 went hungry in America in 2008”), and The Washington Post (“America’s economic pain brings hunger pangs”).  In fact, a closer reading indicates not so much a decrease in food availability (which is reported to be at or near historic highs), as much as a decrease in food security. The reason for the insecurity (“Will I have enough food for me and my family?”) has been linked to the current and persistent economic downturn.

maslows-hierarchy-of-needs1Since time immemorial food insecurity has been and continues to be one of the most important stressors of the human race. The innate and genetically programmed need to eat enough food is the primary driving force of human activity. Food is at the basis of the pyramid of needs (Maslow,1943), along with water, warmth, clothing, shelter and rest. It supersedes all other needs, including safety, relationships, self-esteem, and creativity. Which means that, for food, humans will take the greatest risks, go to war with each other, stoop to begging and stealing, and revert into pure hunters and scavengers. Such is the power of the food insecurity drive.

Too Little or Too Much

Depending on type and duration, stress can either increase or decrease food intake. Mental disorders such as depression and anorexia nervosa trigger changes in food intake that are activated by the stress response. The psychological alteration in perceived body image is a factor not only in anorexia but also in obesity; both conditions are associated with a variety of psychological stressors, primarily interpersonal in nature.

When stressed, 70% of individuals experience mild to severe anorexia, whereas 30% tend to overeat. For stressed overeaters, chewing appears to be as important as the actual type, quality or quantity or food. In other words, chewing is reported to be the stress response, rather than the food itself. When the stressor is boredom, overeating appears to be the most common behavior.

Well, I think probably the main reason people overeat is stress.
–Jenny Craig

Here’s a brief technical explanation of how stress influences the brain’s perceptions and contributes to the formation of the food insecurity we often mistake for real hunger.

The Technical Explanation

The energy homeostasis model is the currently accepted explanation for problems connected with food intake and stress. This model describes how chemical signals from the stomach area, such as molecules secreted into the circulation from the gut and the adipose tissue, are received and processed by the brain and integrated with visual stimuli, smell, the presence of food, social habits or social behavior, and stress. The purpose of this coordination of signals is the
matching of food intake with energy expenditure. The presence of stress throws a monkey wrench into this complex mechanism, giving false reading to the brain that either food is no longer necessary (anorexia reaction) or much more is needed (obesity reaction) in order to feel good again.