Hyperphagia is a dysfunctional eating behavior characterized by an “abnormal” increase in the sense of hunger and in the amount of food ingested.
Hyperphagic hunger is not satisfied by eating and in the long run can lead to weight gain, even leading to obesity.
Hyperphagia is not a disease in its own right but rather a sign of the presence of other medical or psychological conditions. It represents the most common symptom of diabetes but is also associated with the presence of hypothyroidism, premenstrual syndrome, bulimia nervosa, frontotemporal dementia, atypical depression and others.
It turns out to be highly dysfunctional behavior. For this reason it is of fundamental importance not to underestimate its presence because it could affect not only the development of the child but also the psycho-physical health of the adult.
What is Hyperphagia?
Hyperphagia or polyphagia is characterized by the presence of an excessive and persistent hunger that is never satisfied. It is not a disorder or disease in its own right but a symptom of other conditions.
It is a dysfunctional eating behavior characterized by a persistent and strong feeling of hunger associated with an excessive and extreme increase in food intake. This “abnormal” hunger is never appeased despite the ingestion of food and is not conditioned by the quality or characteristics of the food.
The terms hyperphagia and polyphagia derive from the Greek “-fagia” which means to eat and from the prefixes “iper” and “poli-” which respectively mean “beyond” and “a lot”.
The cause of this behavior is to be found in various biological and psychological factors which are characterized by an alteration in the regulation of the hunger-satiety ratio.
Some specific situations such as fasting, physical exercise or hypoglycemia can lead to an increase in the sense of hunger which however subsides with the ingestion of the food itself.
In hyperphagia, on the other hand, the ingestion of food does not make the sense of hunger disappear despite the ingestion of large quantities of food. The treatment cannot be determined a priori but develops and is specified according to the triggering cause.
Hyperphagia throughout life
In the evolutionary and developmental period of the child it is not difficult for episodes of hyperphagia to occur as well as periods of total refusal of food. These periods are generally transient and linked to specific moments of marked stress and anxiety.
Throughout the course of development and aging, the relationship with food is constantly changing. As in development, even in physiological and/or pathological aging, eating disorders ranging from anorexia to hyperphagia are frequent. In frontotemporal dementia, hyperphagia, especially towards sweet foods and alcohol, is frequent.
Added to this is the fact that with aging loneliness (perceived and real) increases as do chewing and digestion problems and reluctance to prepare a meal or go shopping.
This translates into a selective choice of food to ingest and exceeding the ingestion of some foods over others even in the absence of physical hunger, when one gets bored.
Both in the elderly and in children and adults, stressful or boring situations can trigger an emotional hunger in which food becomes the means of comfort in which one takes refuge to ward off negative emotions that one does not want to face.
If this condition were to continue over time, it could cause psycho-physical discomfort to the individual and lead to obesity or an eating disorder or other medical conditions. In this case it is of fundamental importance to contact a doctor or a health professional who can help us.
Compulsive hyperphagia is a type of hyperphagia in which the desire to ingest food and the sense of hunger is continuous and compulsive. The compulsion is a repetitive behavior that feels like you have to act regardless of the consequences.
This condition, also known as compulsive overeating, is characterized by the ingestion of large amounts of food following specific stressful events. Eating becomes a compulsion, a remedy, an obligatory behavior that the individual must implement to deal with a problem.
The compulsion to ingest food generally follows an obsession and is intended to reduce the anxiety, negative thoughts or psychological discomfort that one is experiencing. Obsessive thoughts or ideas can either be about low self-esteem, or thoughts about one’s status, one’s fitness, etc.
Whenever a problem, an idea or an unpleasant image arises, food is used to drive it away, thus alleviating the pain or negative emotions associated with that problem.
Once the stressful stimulus-relieving food association has been learned and created, this is triggered even in the absence of the stressful stimulus, for the sole purpose of producing relief-satisfaction.
Hedonic hyperphagia is the tendency to ingest food for the sole pleasure of doing so without a need to satisfy (hunger). An example of hedonic hyperphagia (or non-homeostatic hyperphagia) is represented by the ingestion of french fries.
The basic idea is that the ingestion of particular foods such as french fries activates brain circuits involved in the pleasure and reward systems. In fact, a German study has shown that the brain circuits involved in reward and pleasure processes are more active in mice that follow an exclusive diet of french fries than in those that follow other types of diets, including those based on fats and starches.
This suggests that hedonic hyperphagia triggers a vicious cycle that activates the pleasure centers and drives the individual to seek more pleasure by increasing hyperphagia behavior.
It is similar to the phenomenon that we have all experienced at least once in our lives when we say “one leads to another” referring to chips, popcorn, chocolates or other specific foods.
Hyperphagia and depression
Hyperphagia is a warning sign for the presence of a medical condition or a psycho-physical health problem. In fact, increased appetite is one of the symptoms of many organic and psychological pathologies such as hypothyroidism, diabetes, DCA or depression.
The latter is a psychopathological disorder closely linked to an alteration of appetite. In fact, depression represents one of the major risks for the onset of obesity following hyperphagia.
This risk varies according to the type of depression and is very high in the presence of an atypical major depressive disorder. In fact, in this typology, in addition to a high mood reactivity, there is hyperphagia (increased appetite) associated with hypersomnia (increased sleep). The consequence is weight gain and the onset of obesity.
The mood swings typical of depression are closely related to the sense of appetite and can vary from person to person. Following the onset of depressive disorder it is not surprising that while in some people there is a decrease in appetite, in others it increases, resulting in weight gain.
Whether you lose weight or gain it, the reason underlying the alteration of eating behavior lies in the presence of unsatisfied needs or in the need to ward off negative and unpleasant emotions by seeking relief in food.
If you are interested in the topic, discover our in-depth study on depression.
Symptoms and diagnosis of hyperphagia
Hyperphagia is the main symptom of other medical and psychological conditions. The symptoms are many and vary according to the cause of the hyperphagia itself.
Since it is not a disorder in its own right, there are no diagnostic criteria useful for its diagnosis. Surely, however, some basic characteristics can be identified that help us understand whether we are in the presence of hyperphagic behavior or not.
Hyperphagia, in most cases, manifests itself with large binges or in any case with the ingestion of large quantities of food at any time of the day.
Other times, however, it can occur with the ingestion of small quantities of food continuously during the day (continuous snacking). This behavior is associated with a large and exaggerated sense of hunger that almost never seems to go away.
As a result of this behavior, weight gain often leads to obesity.
Hyperphagia is characterized by:
- Desire and irrepressible need to eat.
- Ingestion of a disproportionate amount of food without the body requiring it (large amounts during meals or small amounts continuously throughout the day).
- Chewing is minimal or absent altogether and the speed of ingestion is high.
- There are no food preferences, it varies from sweet to savoury, from hot to cold dishes, from drinks to solid food.
- Lack of control of eating behavior.
- Feeling of unsatisfied hunger despite ingestion of food.
- The sense of hunger is not satisfied even if food is ingested.
- Weight gain.
- Excessive thirst and increased urine output.
- Fatigue and exhaustion.
- Digestive problems, nausea and heartburn.
- Feelings of personal dissatisfaction.
- Sometimes a sense of shame for the inability to control oneself.
- Sometimes there is an obsession with food.
- Compensatory behaviors are rarely associated…