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Managing the Hunger Mood

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I decided to take a try at the great problem of our time: how to lose weight without any effort. So I did an experiment on myself. I was ripe for it, if truth be told. Here I am eight months later and 50 pounds lighter, so something must have worked. My approach to the problem was different from the usual perspective. I’m a psychologist, not a doctor. From the start I suspected that weight regulation was a matter of psychology, not physiology.

If weight were a matter of calories in and calories out, we’d all be the weight we choose. Everyone’s gotten the memo. We all know the “eat less” principle. Losing weight should be as easy as choosing a shirt color. And yet, somehow it isn’t, and the United States grows heavier. It’s time to consider the problem through an alternative lens.

Whatever else it is, hunger is a motivated state of mind. Psychologists have been studying such states for at least a century. We all feel hungry before dinner and full after a banquet, but those moments are the tip of the iceberg. Hunger is a process that’s always present, always running in the background, only occasionally rising into consciousness. It’s more like a mood. When it slowly rises or eases back down, even when it’s beneath consciousness, it alters our decisions. It warps our priorities and our emotional investment in long-term goals. It even changes our sensory perceptions — often quite profoundly.

You sit down to dinner and say: “That tiny, little hamburger? Why do they have to make them so small? I’ll have to eat three just to break even.” That’s the hunger mood making food look smaller. If you’re full, the exact same hamburger looks enormous. It isn’t just the food itself. Your own body image is warped. When the hunger mood rises, you feel a little thinner, the diet feels like it’s working, and you can afford a self-­indulgence. When satiety kicks in, you feel like a whale.

Even memory can be warped. Suppose you keep a log of everything you eat. Is that log trustworthy? Not only have you drastically misjudged the size of your meals, but you’ve almost certainly forgotten items. Depending on your hunger state, you might snarf up three pieces of bread and after the meal sincerely remember only one. One recent study found that most of the calories people eat come through snacks between meals. But when you ask people, they deny it. They’re surprised to find out just how much they snack.

The hunger mood is hard to control, precisely because it operates outside of consciousness. This might be why obesity is such an intractable problem.

Michael Graziano is a neuroscientist, novelist, and composer. He is Associate Professor of Neuroscience at Princeton University in New Jersey. His latest book is Consciousness and the Social Brain (Oxford University Press, 2013).

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For more on dieting check out 7 Half-Baked Fad Diets.

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