Background

Hedonic hunger, or the psychological drive to eat outside of caloric needs, has been implicated in the growing obesity epidemic. This study looks at two aspects of this concept: 1) whether hedonic hunger is associated with problematic eating behaviors commonly linked to weight gain and 2) whether emotional distress may relate to increases in reported hedonic hunger.

Methods

Participants (N=286) were selected from the clinic database of patients in fee-for-service weight control programs between 2007 and 2018 and who had filled out the Power of Food Scale (PFS), a 15-item questionnaire designed to measure hedonic hunger. Other self-report information supplied at intake included the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9, a measure of current depressive symptoms), the Night Eating Questionnaire (NEQ, a measure of hunger and nighttime eating patterns), frequencies of binge-eating behaviors, weight cycling, and histories of sexual assault and suicidal ideation. Correlations were computed for PFS with PHQ-9, NEQ and binge frequency. Additionally, ANOVA was used to compare PFS scores of participants who endorsed vs. denied histories of suicidal ideation and of sexual assault. The relation of weight cycling frequency to PFS was examined with hierarchical linear regression controlling for age.

Results

PFS scores were positively correlated with higher NEQ scores (r=.30, p<.001), binge eating frequency (r=.41, p<.001) and weight cycling (B= .27, p<.001). PFS scores were higher for participants who reported a history of suicidal ideation (p=.001), but were not related to PHQ-9 scores (r=.061, p=.58) or history of sexual assault (p=.81).

Conclusions

Hedonic hunger is positively associated with poorly regulated eating and weight control behaviors, such as night eating, binge eating, and weight cycling. Higher hedonic hunger may contribute to the difficulty in making long-term lifestyle changes necessary for achieving and maintaining weight loss.