Carbs, MOs, and Hunger: Why “Deprivation” Is Too Vague

By Nick Green, M.S., BCBA

Guest Author

Mmm…donuts. My favorite Sunday morning treat. “I will take one glazed and one Boston cream, to go please.” Carbohydrates, carbs, sugary snacks, our “cheat” meal, who doesn’t like a sweet treat every once in a while? Carbs are not bad per se, they should just be used sparingly. This is nothing new. What does matter though, is that after I eat any carbohydrate goodness whether it be a donut, pasta bowl, or bag of chips, these carbs will have the same effect on my body: I will be hungry again sooner than later.

Many behavior analytic texts leave the topic of hunger and motivating operations vague. We read something such as “food establishes water as a reinforcer,” and the details stop there. Yet, as scientists we are eager to manipulate variables and record data, often missing relevant information: the nutrition of what we consume. Food, and specifically its nutritional content is a variable that we can manipulate. Why not track and manipulate such variables that are present in the food themselves, which in turn, may increase or decrease the probability of specific food consumption?

The topic of hunger is of great societal importance. By the year 2030, experts predict that 1 out of every 2 adults in the world will be overweight (McKinsey, 2014). Let me say that again: 1 out of 2 adults!!! This is currently a huge problem; more than 2/3 U.S. adults are overweight (Ogden, Carroll, Kit, & Flegal, 2014). The obesity epidemic will be an even BIGGER problem in the near future. Puns intended. These are alarming statistics.  As food and hunger are tightly linked, we can discuss how behavior is related to the types of food we consume.

Before addressing how the nutritional content of food affects our motivation, we need have a basic primer on nutrition.

Macronutrients and Eating

No matter what we consume, food is made up of one of three macronutrients: protein, fats, and carbohydrates. When these foods enter our bodies, each are broken down into amino acids, fatty acids, and glucose (sugar), respectively. Our focus here is on carbohydrates.

By frequently eating breads or packing our plates with foods containing added sugars, sets the stage for the daily problem of habitual hunger. When carbs and sugar are digested, they enter our bloodstream. Sugars do not belong in our bloodstream, so our pancreas releases insulin to get rid of the extra sugar. If the sugar is not used for energy immediately, then insulin stores the excess sugar as fat. In turn, sugar is removed from the bloodstream producing powerful side effects: individuals tact hunger and engage in behaviors related to eating.

An excess of glucose in the bloodstream is toxic to the body. Eventually, a little too much sugar is removed from the bloodstream and the hunger pangs sit back in and routinely bring with them the common associated symptoms of lightheadedness and dizziness. What usually happens next? To “feel better,” one might access another sugary treat. Ever had what is termed a sugar coma? After consuming vast amounts of carbohydrates and/or sugars, your behavior may change such as an increased latency to respond or diminished response effort.

The major key to managing hunger is controlling how often insulin is released. Only carbs spike insulin. So how do we reduce how often insulin is spiked? By working backwards, we systematically limit or reduce access to the foods in our diet that will flood our bloodstream with sugar and cause insulin release: Carbohydrates.

Exploring the nutritional content of food is critical when discussing motivating operations related to hunger. So if the world has weight problem, how can we frame possible solutions? Enter motivating operations.

Motivating Operations and Their Vagueness

As a quick review, we know the motivating operations have two effects: a value-altering effect and a behavior-altering effect (Michael, 2004). Consuming food or waiting too long to eat changes the value of food as a reinforcer and changes the momentary frequency of behavior related to food consumption. Simply put, we stop eating after we are full and get hungry after not eating for a while.

Now, what is NOT discussed in our classic behavior analysis textbooks that describe hunger and satiation is how the type of food you consume affects your body, and in turn, your behavior. Depending on what someone eats may change the future probability of food-related behavior. The inter-response time between meals may likely decrease and collateral behaviors (e.g., saying “I’m hungry, let’s eat”, searching the refrigerator) may temporarily increase.

Skinner alluded to this in Science and Human Behavior “…hungers are more readily conceived as physiological” (p.143). Not much for instructions on how to work with hunger, but a good sign post nonetheless.

Consuming processed foods that fit the undesired carbohydrate profile such as chips, candy bars, and sugary soda will eventually drop blood sugar. And after a period of time, sensations of hunger arise, increasing the probability of engaging in behaviors related to food consumption. The vicious cycle repeats itself when the next food selected is a carbohydrate (e.g., cookie, bagel, muffin). There is no wonder everyone is hungry by 10 o’clock on Bagel Mondays!

Conversely, when diets include greater portions of fats and proteins (routinely described in this literature as a high-fat, low-carb diet) studies show that participants report having increased “energy levels” and fewer complaints of hunger (see Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes for explicit detail).

Unfortunately, these situations repeat themselves day in and day out. A sugary coffee and muffin for breakfast establishes the value of food as a reinforcer in a couple hours…Another granola bar for a morning snack establish the value of food as a reinforcer in a couple hours…not the kind of feedback loop we want, right OBMers!?!?

It may be true that “once you pop, you can’t stop,” but if we consider my rationale and explanation above, then the saying may be transformed to “once you pop, you put yourself into an eternal state of hunger and the marketing team got me!” And to throw another curveball into the mix, research widely demonstrates that insulin can be released at the sight, sound, smell, or thought of a certain food!!! Enter classical conditioning. More precisely, this process is called cephalic-insulin release. When these stimuli are present, insulin is released, your blood sugar drops, creating sensations of hunger…the environment strikes again!

The above information is not intended as a substitute for medical advice, but educational in nature to inform behavior analysts how food, specifically what its nutritional contents is, may influence behavior related to eating. Creating or modifying an intervention for yourself or a client should include collaboration with a nutritional expert. This is important to ensure that behavior analysts remain within our scope of practice. Examining motivating operations are a great first step, but we need to dig deeper and examine the food itself. By combining a little health science with behavioral science, we can really make a difference in this world!

Let us know what you think about food and motivation in the comments below.  Also, be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


McKinsey & Company (2014). How the world could better fight obesity. Retrieved July 16, 2016 from:

Michael, J. L. (2004). Concepts and principles of behavior analysis. Western Michigan University, Association for Behavior Analysis International.

Ogden, C. L., Carroll, M. D., Kit, B. K., & Flegal, K. M. (2014). Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. Jama, 311(8), 806-814.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. Simon and Schuster.

Taubes, G. (2007). Good calories, bad calories. Anchor.

Nick Green HeadshotNick Green M.S., BCBA is the founder and CEO of BehaviorFit, an organization dedicated to improving the health and well-being of others through behavioral science. Visit BehaviorFit to learn more about workshops, consulting services or read other articles related to health and wellness. You can contact him at [email protected].

Nick previously worked in a clinical setting for 5 years under the guidance of Dr. Carl Sundberg. He recently graduated from the Florida Institute of Technology earning an M.S. in organizational behavior management. Nick is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida and is interested in improving employee health with behavioral interventions. His research specifically aims to increase employee physical activity by evaluating variables such as education, prompting, goal-setting, and feedback.

2 Comments on "Carbs, MOs, and Hunger: Why “Deprivation” Is Too Vague"

  1. Excellent read andrefreshing to read about an overwhelming social problem through a behavior analytic lens!

  2. Mary Katherine Hawryluk | August 9, 2016 at 10:01 am | Reply

    While some people who are obese or who overeat may actually experience “hunger” or “tact hunger”, many would not even pretend that hunger is what prompts them to eat. The MO is often an internal feeling of agitation or stress that is in fact reduced by eating high carb or high fat foods. The research documents that sugary, or fatty foods affect the brain much the way other substances like alcohol do. There is also just the physical sensation mediated by the taste buds that high carb, fat etc foods provide (maybe not much different than the pleasant sensation from other activities like playing with a certain toy, or sexual activity) The person need not be “deprived” although they may label the experience with a deprivation tact, not sure. Addressing obesity from a nutritional perspective will only help some people and I am skeptical that it will help long term — unless our understanding of MOs that lead to eating is expanded.

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