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Chapter: Introduction to Human Nutrition: Energy Metabolism

Factors influencing food intake

Several factors in the digestive system exert a short-term influence over food intake.

Factors influencing food intake

Digestive factors

Several factors in the digestive system exert a short-term influence over food intake. The presence of food and drink in the stomach and intestine and the resul-tant pressure that they exert may regulate food intake. This effect is known as gastrointestinal distension. In addition, the stomach produces a hormone called cholecystokinin (CCK) in response to food intake, which may, in turn, regulate food intake. Furthermore, when subjects have fat or carbohydrate infused directly into the small intestine, they report feelings of satiety. This suggests that factors in the intestine regulate food intake. Indeed, receptors in the intes-tine have been identified that recognize the presence of specific macronutrients; these receptors are linked to the brain and therefore can communicate directly with the central nervous system, resulting in regula-tion of energy balance. In addition, other gastrointes-tinal hormones, such as glucagon-like peptide-1 and -2 (GLPs), CCK, and glucose-dependent insulinotro-pic polypeptide (GIP) are likely to play a role in the mediation of gut events and brain perception of hunger and satiety.

Central nervous system factors

 The main contributory factor regulating food intake in the central nervous system is the hypothalamus.


The hypothalamus is linked to specific parts of the brain that are known to modify feeding behavior, specifically the paraventricular nuclei and the nigro-striatal tract. These areas of the brain respond to various neurotransmitters as well as sympathetic nervous system activity. In general, food intake will decrease as sympathetic nervous system activity increases, and vice versa.

Circulating factors


After consumption of a meal, food is broken down into its basic components (i.e., carbohydrate is broken down to glucose, protein to amino acids, and fats or triglycerides to glycerol and fatty acids) and the cir-culating levels of some of these breakdown products increase in the blood. Consequently, glucose, amino acids, glycerol, and fatty acids are further metabo-lized, primarily in the liver, or used for immediate energy (e.g., in muscle or brain). There is evidence to suggest that this resultant metabolism, especially in the liver, may in turn regulate food intake. After meal consumption, the circulating levels of nutrients fall (within minutes for glucose, several hours for triglyc-erides) and the feelings of hunger return. The link from nutrient metabolism to central control of food intake occurs through signals from the liver to the brain via the vagus nerve. Thus, circulating factors provide a link between the digestive system and the central nervous system, which provides another system for regulating food intake.

Signals from the periphery


Leptin is a hormone that is produced by fat cells and communicates with the central nervous system through leptin receptors in the hypothalamus. Reduced production of leptin, or lack of sensitivity of the hypo-thalamus to leptin, may regulate food intake and play a key role in the etiology of rare forms of obesity in humans. Leptin and the other peripheral hormones with a central effect on appetite are divided into two broad categories: (1) the so-called adiposity signals, which are tonically active providing information on body fat stores to the CNS and (2) the satiety signals which are released in response to food intake and are thought to be involved in short-term regulation of energy intake. Currently known adiposity signals are insulin, leptin, and adiponectin, which are considered as long-acting signals reducing energy intake. Among the satiety signals are the hunger hormone ghrelin, which is secreted in the stomach, and the short-acting gut- and pancreas-derived satiety signals CCK, peptide YY (PYY), GLP-1, oxyntomodulin (OXM), and pan-creatic polypeptide (PP). Many of the peripheral satiety signals have receptors in the arcuate nucleus (ARC) of the hypothalamus, which plays an impor-tant role in appetite regulation. The ARC contains neuropeptide Y (NPY)- and agouti-related peptide (AgRP)-expressing neurons acting to stimulate food intake along with the adjacent pro-opiomelanocortin (POMC) and cocaine- and amphetamine-regulated transcript (CART)-expressing neurons which inhibit feeding. Besides the ARC, the nucleus of the solitary tract (NTS) and the area postrema (AP) receive appe-tite-regulating inputs from vagal afferents and circu-lating factors and are connected to the hypothalamic nuclei controlling food intake.

External factors


Various nonphysiological or external factors are also known to modify food intake, and these effects may be mediated through the intrinsic factors described above. Psychological factors such as depression may lead to either increased or decreased food intake, or changes in the consumption of specific types of foods. Environmental factors are also important, the most obvious being food availability. Even when food is available, some of the specific properties of foods make them more or less appealing, thereby modifying food intake. Important physical characteristics of food include taste, texture, color, temperature, and presentation. Other cultural influences in the envi-ronment, such as time of day, social factors, peer influence, and cultural preferences, can also play a role in influencing food intake.

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