In Pathway’s newest genetic test, Pathway Fit™, we analyze a person’s genetic makeup for the propensity for a variety of eating behavior traits. Eating disinhibition and food desire are two of these traits, and are sometimes confused. But these two traits are different.
While eating disinhibition describes a person’s tendency to eat more than normal in response to a stimulus, food desire, on the other hand, is measured by the amount of effort a person is willing to expend to get their favorite foods. Said another way, eating disinhibition describes someone who chows down on snacks at a party, while food desire describes someone who drives 20 minutes out of their way to get their favorite barbecue.
Eating disinhibition occurs when a person loses control and overeats, which can occur when a person’s favorite foods are available, in times of emotional stress, or in social gatherings. In a 2010 study involving 729 people (381 females and 348 males), researchers examined the association between eating disinhibition and the rs1726866 marker in the TAS2R38 gene. This association was found only within the female participants in the study (PMID 19782709).
For food desire, on the other hand, there are no objective methods to quantify an individual’s fondness for certain foods. Despite this hurdle, behavioral scientists are able to measure an individual’s motivation to consume food and compare it to others’ motivations to consume food. This method of measurement is called the reinforcing value of food, and it evaluates the effort an individual is willing to expend to access his or her favorite foods (PMID 16257474).
The reinforcing value of food can be measured through a series of tests. In each of these tests, the person being examined is requested to complete a task in exchange for a small portion of his or her favorite foods. Initially, the task of obtaining the food is not difficult because the tasks are simple. But, as the tests continue, the tasks become more and more difficult, and eventually the person will stop trying to complete the tasks because the food is no longer worth the effort – the reward no longer holds its power to that person. The point of this experiment is that individuals who quit later in the series, compared with individuals who quit earlier, are high in food reinforcement.
In a 2007 study, researchers analyzed the reinforcing value of food in the eating behaviors of 74 participants who completed a questionnaire, participated in food reinforcement task sessions, and underwent genetic testing. Among 29 obese subjects in the study, those who had the T allele at the rs1800497 marker (which affects dopamine activity) were more likely to exhibit increased levels of food reinforcement. The study also concluded that individuals with high food reinforcement were more likely to have higher energy intake (i.e., food intake) compared to individuals with lower food reinforcement (PMID 17907820). So, if you have high food reinforcement, you are more likely to eat more.
What do you do if you find out your genetics predispose you to eating disinhibition or food desire? If your genetics show that you may be eating disinhibited, try to figure out what stimulates overeating for you. For example, if you eat more during social situations, or when you’re stressed out, you’ll know these are times when you need to really strengthen your willpower. If you have food desire, try keeping healthy foods close by, and move the unhealthy tempting foods out of easy reach.