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Exploring the Impact of Hedonic Hunger: Dr. Michael R. Lowe’s Journey from Theory to Real-Life Applications - Stories of Impact Series

February 14, 2024

Drexel Applied Innovation is dedicated to expanding the impact of Drexel research through technology transfer. We are excited to introduce the first of many “Stories of Impact” that we will be sharing. Drexel innovators are achieving incredible, inspiring feats across campus; the aim of this series is to showcase the research being conducted by these innovators and demonstrate how that research is being implemented to create real-world impact, thereby impacting the broader Drexel innovation community and beyond.

Michael R. Lowe, Ph.D., a clinical psychology professor in Drexel’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, spoke with Drexel Applied Innovation to share his story of impact related to eating behaviors through the identification of hedonic hunger and the Power of Food Scale. For more information on the Lowe lab, please visit his faculty page:

Can you please provide a general overview of the innovation you are working on?

The seed of the innovation was actually planted about 20 years ago during weight loss groups I was running as part of a NIH-funded study.  I noticed that many group members said they thought about food “all the time.”  I wondered why this might be happening, especially since these individuals had gained a lot of weight over the years, implying they might have less reason to obsess about food.

Traditional hunger resulting from food deprivation (also known as homeostatic hunger) obviously gets weaker as we eat.  Yet many of us have strong desires to eat even when we are not hungry.  Such eating isn’t driven by a need for calories, so I reasoned it must be driven by a desire for pleasure from hyper-palatable foods.  Counter-intuitively, this second type of hunger might get stronger the more often we engage in it.  Such “hedonic hunger” is driven by the constant availability of delicious food, not from a need for nourishment.  Since such a desire for food-based pleasure wasn’t driven by caloric need, it could manifest almost any time and anywhere.  My lab members and I therefore went about creating a self-report questionnaire to capture this new dimension of hedonic hunger, which we called the “Power of Food Scale.”  It measures thoughts about and urges for delicious food – when not physically hungry - at three levels of availability:  when food is available but not present (24/7 in our culture), when it is present but not tasted and when it is first tasted.  

How did you realize that this would have applications beyond the lab? Was there a turning point?

There have been a number of developments that made me realize this.  First, several hundred researchers around the world have licensed the scale to include it in their research.  Second, the two papers introducing the concept of hedonic hunger and the PFS have now been cited in over 1,500 publications.  Third, the term “hedonic hunger” has become part of the lexicon in psychological and health research, often without reference to its origins.  Fourth, research has found that the PFS is related to a wide range of biological and psychological outcomes, including loss-of-control eating, chocolate cravings and consumption, snacking frequency, increased eating in those with low self-control, body dissatisfaction, worse sleep quantity and quality, brain activation to food cues, higher insulin and leptin levels, poorer glycemic control in diabetes and reduced weight loss following bariatric surgery.  Finally, over the past 15 years, large companies have licensed the PFS for inclusion in their clinical trials with over 10,000 research participants worldwide.  I am hoping to work with these pharmaceutical companies to see if the PFS predicts weight losses on their weight loss medications.  Further, a media storm emerged recently regarding the dramatic reduction in so-called “food noise” brought about by new weight loss drugs on the market.  Because “food noise” is very similar to the concept of hedonic hunger, pharmaceutical companies’ use of the PFS to evaluate outcome in their clinical trials makes a lot of sense.  

As you transitioned towards the applications of your innovations, did you discover new resources available to support that work?

I have collaborated with more and more colleagues who are testing ideas about hedonic hunger in their research.  One collaborator developed a children’s version of the PFS that is now being used by numerous researchers.  The licensing fees from pharmaceutical companies are bringing considerable funds into Drexel to support future work.  Finally, I am working with Drexel Applied Innovation in the process of developing a marketing plan to inform relevant companies of the relevance of the PFS in evaluating weight or eating-related interventions.  

Innovations can take a long time to have an impact. How were you able to remain motivated and focused on your mission?

Although the concept of hedonic hunger is novel, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will relate to real-world health or psychological functioning.  So doing the research to learn about its many relationships to biology and psychology (described above) showed that this theoretical concept had real-life consequences.  We are currently excited about new evidence indicating that experiencing “pure” hedonic hunger (in situations completely divorced from food) has different consequences than experiencing stimulus-bound hedonic hunger (i.e., in response to immediately present food cues).  

What excites you the most about translating research?

Actually, what excites me the most is coming up with new theoretical concepts like hedonic hunger.  But when this work is translated into clinical applications, I inevitably learn new things that I never expected, which is also exciting.  An example is that the PFS actually shows very little correlation with BMI.  This suggests either that the process of becoming overweight itself changes level of hedonic hunger or that the PFS measures a problematic tendency (like loss-of-control eating) that occurs across all weight levels, not just in those with obesity.