The Nature of Feeding Behavior and Appetite Regulation

Mammalian feeding occurs regularly and intermittently and despite a general lack of conscious nutritional knowledge on the part of the animal, usually appears to match energy intake (EI) and nutrient intakes with requirements. How is this achieved? The common explanation is that appetite, EI, or feeding behavior are regulated to ensure that physiological requirements are met. However, there is a lack of direct evidence for this regulation. It may be that neither feeding behavior nor appetite are regulated in a strictly physiological sense since: (1) neither are held constant within certain narrow limits; and (2) feeding responses are not an inevitable response to an altered physiological signal or need. Feeding behavior is responsive to a number of induced states such as pregnancy, cold exposure, growth and development, and weight loss. These responses have often been cited as evidence of a system that is regulated. It is probable that aspects of body size and composition are regulated and that changes in feeding behavior are functionally coupled to those regulatory processes. Indeed, feeding behavior might be said to be adaptive rather than regulated since patterns of food intake are flexible, responsive, and anticipatory, enabling the animal to adapt to changes in the state of the internal and external environment.

Hunger and satiety often have a large learned, anticipatory component rather than being the direct consequences of unconditioned physiological signals per se, such as reduced gastrointestinal content. Such physiological events can act as important cues for feeding but they do not necessarily directly determine that behavior.

The mechanism by which feeding behavior is coupled to physiological (and other events) is the process of learning. To understand feeding behavior, hunger, and satiety processes, the mechanism by which learning links feeding behavior to physiological, sensory, nutritional, situational, and other learning cues must be appreciated. This is true for mice and men. This mechanism is termed 'associative conditioning' of preferences, appetites, and satieties.

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