Two Body Systems that Make Us Eat

Steph Wagner MS, RDN

February 8, 2022

Get the bariatric recipes and tips YOU need!

Take the Quiz

Is food really just fuel??

“It’s all in my head. I’m not hungry but I want to eat.”

^^ Posted by a member who was on her liquid post-op diet over Easter. She wasn’t hungry, but she was at a family event with food everywhere. It doesn’t take much imagination to image THAT WAS HARD!

Why??  If food is just fuel and she wasn’t hungry, shouldn’t she be able to handle that just fine?

Actuallllllly, no. Because the biology of the human body triggers us to think of food for other reasons.

In this post we’ll look under the hood (and inside the head) about emotional eating. We’re talking:

Why stress eating is human nature
Why food is more than just fuel
Why some foods are more addictive than others

….and I will introduce you to all my other blogs that dive into specific emotions that turn up our food cravings.


But first…grab your freebie! The emotions that trigger us to eat and WHY



Allow me to introduce you to the TWO body systems that influence our eating.

The Homeostatic System and the Hedonic System.

These are some “sciency” words so we will break them down in this blog! The reason WHY we are going to break them down is because knowledge is power.

The more we understand why our brains and bodies are triggering us to think about food, the more we are able to think through our next steps to answer those triggers.

As we move forward talking about emotional eating after bariatric surgery, knowing these two systems will help set the foundation.



The homeostatic system (keeping our bodies in balance)

This is the system in the body that we often think about when it comes to eating. It has more to do with needing food for energy.

The hypothalamus (located in the brain) is key for helping our bodies stay in equilibrium. You may have heard that word before and it’s similar to saying we need to stay in balance.

An example would be insulin and blood sugars. Insulin is a hormone and the hypothalamus regulates blood sugars and detects when insulin is needed. By the way, Type 1 Diabetes is when the body doesn’t make insulin and Type 2 Diabetes is when the body is resistant to insulin.

This is an example of the homeostatic system. It is a very delicate dance in the body communicating to the brain when it needs fuel or energy. This is the system we think of when it comes to eating for hunger. This would be a physical cue from the body telling you to eat for energy. (If you’ve heard about ghrelin or leptin, those hormones are involved in this system and impact hunger cues.)

But alas, there is another system that influences eating and this is the one to talk about when it comes to emotional eating. Before we move on, I want to make the point that managing emotional eating is more doable when we have met physical needs of the body related to the homeostatic system.

If you haven’t been drinking enough water or you skipped breakfast and then you get stressed out at work, it’s much harder to manage stress eating. Make sure your basic body needs are being met (water, protein based meals, sleep, exercise).



The hedonic system (the “pleasure reward system”)

You may have heard someone say before “food is just fuel” which is true and yet, isn’t the full story.

You see, if food WAS just fuel, meals would feel more like a chore we have to do three times a day like washing dishes or folding laundry.

Thankfully, food is not just a chore, it’s enjoyable! This is actually a really good thing!

When we eat, we experience taste, mouthfeel and smell that allow us to detect if the food is good and even safe to eat. Food also releases a really powerful neurotransmitter called dopamine.

Dopamine is nicknamed the “gas pedal of pleasure” and allows us to feel happy and have enjoyment in life. It’s a wonderful thing!

Dopamine is super important to know about as we talk about emotional eating because there are reasons why dopamine may drop and our brains may trigger us to eat something to feel happier.

Dopamine is so powerful that sometimes it can override the homeostatic system. We may not be hungry at all, but feel the strong urge to eat something. This is the hedonic system and dopamine is likely involved.



Food addiction and highly palatable foods

This is also one of the theories behind food addiction.

There are some foods that are so “highly palatable” such as those really high in sugar or fat that release a lot of dopamine and create that cycle of wanting more.

In fact, there has been research connecting highly palatable foods with a similar pathway in the brain as drugs of abuse. Repeated exposure of highly palatable foods can alter the brain in a similar way as drugs of abuse.

This is not meant to sound scary or that we are doomed! Again, knowledge is power so understanding that these highly palatable foods have such a strong dopamine effect can help empower us that it’s not just our weaknesses. There are actual strong brain signals driving us to those foods.

This is a case for setting your home turf up for success. Having conversations with the family, putting tempting foods in dark bins with a lid at the bottom of the pantry or keeping the most tempting things out of the house may be in order to set yourself up for success.



Next we’ll connect the dots with the hedonic system and bored eating

Knowing about these two systems is really helpful as we move forward to talking about the emotional reasons we eat.

If you read last weeks blog, boredom was the top reported emotion that triggered post-ops to eat as reported by over 200 people via survey.

So next up we shall covered bored eating!


Become a Member




The information was presented at a live INR Seminar in 2014 entitled “Food Addiction, Obesity & Diabetes”

Copyright 2014, INR (Institute for Natural Resources)

image link to blog on stress eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach image link to blog on sadness, loneliness and depression eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach image link to blog on fatigue eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach image link to blog on boredom eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach image link to blog on anxious eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach image link to blog on anger eating emotional eating blog series on bariatric food coach

2 thoughts on “Two Body Systems that Make Us Eat”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *