Why do we crave junk food?
We’ve all fallen into the trap. You get hungry, and before you even think about it you’re elbow deep in a bag of Doritos.
To make it worse, it almost feels like our brain rewards us for eating junk. You’re about to learn why – and what you can do to make cravings a thing of the past.
Today we’re here with neurobiologist and author of The Hungry Brain, Stephan Guyenet, PhD. Stephan offers a fascinating look at how evolution predisposes us to crave calorie-dense food.
On this show, you’ll learn:
- Why we eat nearly 300 more calories per day than we did 40 years ago
- How to turn off your instinctual craving for unhealthy food
- How to reshape your food environment
- One simple trick to make sure you don’t overeat nuts
- And much more …
Let’s hang out with Stephan.
STEPHAN GUYENET: WHY WE OVEREAT (AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT)
Abel: Stephan Guyenet is an obesity researcher and neurobiologist who places cutting-edge biomedical research into an ancestral health framework. His research spans neurodegenerative disease, aging, nutrition, and obesity, but in recent years it has been focused primarily on the neurobiology of eating behavior and obesity.
He holds a PhD in neurobiology from the University of Washington, and his peer-reviewed research has been cited over 1,200 times by his scientific colleagues. His upcoming book The Hungry Brain will explain the neurobiology of why we often overeat despite our best intentions. Stephan, thank you for joining us.
Thanks. Good to be here, Abel.
Abel: I’ve been following your work for years. Let’s start here – why do we overeat, and what can we do about it?
There are a lot of reasons why we overeat. To try to boil it down to one thing, I would say that we evolved in a situation where it was difficult to get calories, and so we evolved a lot of systems to try to increase our calorie intake, to make sure we could sustain the intake we needed to live a really rigorous lifestyle. And those brain systems are still in place today. A lot of that is hardwired into our brains. And so now we’re in a situation where we don’t live that rigorous lifestyle anymore, but we have more opportunities than ever to satisfy those hard-wired desires.
But that expresses itself in many different ways, including our food environment—like easy availability of food and reduced cost of food. And not just the financial cost, but the convenience of food. That’s part of the food environment, as well as changes in food composition.
The food that we eat has increasingly come to mirror the innate preferences of the human brain.
Basically, we’ve engineered our food environment, and we’ve gained, through technology and affluence, an increasing control over the properties of food. So we get what we want out of food. And when the brain sees food it wants, it tends to eat more of it than food it isn’t that crazy about. To put, “What can we do about it?” into a nutshell, I guess the best way I can put it is that there are a lot of different facets to that question.
WHY WILLPOWER FAILS
You don’t want to rely on willpower every day. You don’t want to have to put yourself in a situation where you have to say no to something that you really, really want. So how do you do that?
Since our eating behavior to a large extent is influenced and governed by these intuitive and instinctive circuits in the brain that we inherited from our distant ancestors, the key goal is to manage those circuits in such a way that your instincts and impulses are aligned with your conscious goals of managing your weight and your health in a constructive direction. So things like controlling your food environment, controlling your food composition, your sleep, your stress, that sort of thing, so those circuits are working in a way that is supporting your goals rather than opposing your goals.
Abel: So essentially, living in the modern world is like staring a piece of chocolate birthday cake in the face all day long, every day. You have all this hyper-palatable food and our brains don’t stand a chance. It’s very emotional for us to all this processed food that wouldn’t have existed in human history.
Yeah, absolutely. The difference between a hunter-gatherer food environment and the modern food environment is like the difference in the drug environment between what most people experience and having a crack pipe strapped to your face. If it’s strapped to your face, you’re going to be more likely to take a hit off it. That’s just human nature.
Abel: And we’re outmatched. So what do you do about that mismatch yourself? How do you manage your daily life?
My wife Alyson and I spent the past 2 years living in the middle of nowhere off the grid, and we noticed that our food cravings started to disappear. We didn’t really think about food all that much, and hunger meant a different thing… unless we were hauling our RV from state to state and you see billboards for hamburgers, fries, chicken nuggets, shakes, desserts. With the barrage of billboards in your line of vision while driving, all of a sudden, I REALLY want a hamburger and fries. How do you combat that?
You’re really striking at the heart of what it is to be motivated as a human being and the broader concept of reward, which is the brain process that determines your motivation and your pleasure and your intuitive learning about things. Basically, the way reward works is, if there’s something really good, something that the brain views as valuable, such as a really calorie-dense food—hamburger, fries, or whatever—when you eat that food, it goes into your gut and there are many kinds of sensors in your gut that detect the properties of that food and send that information to your brain. And it tells your brain all the awesome stuff that’s in that food, and that’s how your brain interprets it as being really awesome, because it’s wired to do that.If you were a hunter gatherer, a hamburger and fries would be the best thing you ever ate. @whsource Click To Tweet
Abel: You just won evolution.
Seriously, reproductively, because we were shaped by the process of natural selection, and that’s all about reproductive success. And when you look at hunter-gatherers, one of the main determinants of reproductive success is how many calories they’re bringing in.
So the brain is very, very strongly wired to care about calories. It has ways to detect it, and when it detects that you’ve achieved the goal, whether it’s really good food, whether it’s sex, whether it’s getting warm when you’re cold, anything the brain views as valuable, even getting a raise—all of the circumstances that were associated with you getting that goal—it notes them and it turns those into motivational triggers, and that triggers your motivation in the future.
So if you ate a really good hamburger and fries, the next time you see a picture of it or you smell the fries or smell the hamburger or whatever, any sensory cue that you experience that reminds your brain of that awesome thing happening last time, that triggers your intuitive motivation, which is what we call, in the context of food, we call it craving. And if that goes to an extreme, we call it addiction.
So, what you are experiencing is a previously reinforced cue triggering a motivation or triggering a craving. This is fundamentally, in the broadest sense, a good thing. It’s what allows us to learn how to achieve our goals over the course of our lives. And in the context of our ancestors, even the food cravings would have been really good, because those calorie-dense foods were the ones they needed to survive and compete.
But today we’re in a bit of a different environment, where eating too much is a lot more of a threat than eating too little, at least in the affluent United States and Western Europe. So it’s a very different scenario. Those same impulses that were good back then are now literally killing us—at least many of us.
There’s a lot of research on how this stuff works in the brain, how it works psychologically, and one of the things that researchers have figured out is that if you don’t expose yourself to the reward (so let’s say you don’t eat a hamburger and fries for a year), its power over you gradually diminishes. The brain basically forgets slowly, very slowly, over time. The intuitive systems that govern your cravings and motivation gradually forget how awesome it was to eat the hamburger and fries, and the degree of motivation the cues that predict those foods trigger in you diminishes over time as well.
So, you don’t eat the hamburger and fries for a year, you see that billboard, you smell the fries, it’s going to trigger a lower level of motivation in you than it would if you ate the same thing just a few days ago.
Abel: Now, if I walk into a McDonald’s (which I don’t normally do), the smell is repugnant. It smells like chemicals and rancid oil. And if I were to taste that food, because occasionally I do eat foods that aren’t 100% squeaky clean, it also tastes like chemicals. And I just realize that it’s less about the smell or the taste itself, and it’s more about what you’re attaching to that, what your brain is associating with the stimulus.
That’s where we want people to get. We want to be turned off by processed, hyper-palatable food. If you stay away from that long enough, you let those connections disappear or diminish.
Yeah, but I think we have to acknowledge that on a very basic level, to the brain, those foods are delicious. They have a lot of the things the brain wants. They’re really dense in calories; they’re easy to digest. I’m not saying they’re good for you today, and maybe they never were. But they do have fundamental properties that the brain seeks.
So first of all, if you don’t eat them regularly, they don’t have the same kind of pull on you. But second of all, we’re learning more and more that there are other things that can affect those cravings and those intuitions. And some of them come from the higher-order, more rational parts of our mind. So if you have a perception of a food as unhealthy, like if you associate a hamburger with something that’s going to make you have a heart attack and kill you, that may make you less likely to eat it and even less likely to crave it.
You see this a lot in the vegetarian and vegan communities: One of the tools that they use to discourage eating animal foods is to associate them with these really gross names. Those images of animal abuse, and parasites, and people having heart attacks and atherosclerosis, and gross things, to create a sort of visceral and moral revulsion against eating those foods. Again, it not only makes people not want to eat them on a rational level; it actually affects their intrinsic motivation to eat those foods.
I think that’s part of it too. I don’t enjoy soda anymore, but when I was younger I liked soda. Soda’s gross to me now, it’s too sweet. But I’m no saint—I don’t claim to be a saint. I still love pizza, I still love ice cream, french fries are amazing. So I’m not trying to say that I’m some kind of saint, and I do eat those foods sometimes. I’m also not trying to say that I abstain, but I don’t make them a regular part of my food environment, because I know that I’m vulnerable to overeating those foods.
Abel: How effective is that association, though? Look at cigarettes, for example. I think it was in Canada where I saw the pictures of lung cancer and tumors on the packaging itself. The first time I saw pictures of tumors on tobacco, I was taken aback. But if I recall, I’m not sure that it was all that effective in terms of changing purchasing decisions for people who are already addicted.
Yeah, that’s a really good question, and I don’t actually have any data I can fall back on specifically on the effectiveness of that. It’s called counter-marketing, but I’d suspect it’s at least somewhat effective. And the reason I say that is that it’s the opposite of regular marketing, which is trying to associate a product with positive feelings.
Abel: Like cereal and soda?
Yeah, like Coca-Cola. How do you get somebody to buy sugar water? It’s the same product you’ve had on the market for the last 100 years. It’s just sugar water, so how do you get people to buy it? You have these commercials that have young, good-looking, diverse, hip people doing fun things and enjoying life and just cutting loose. And it takes those good feelings that it generates and it associates that with the sugar water, and that increases your positive feelings about it, and your likelihood of buying it. It’s creating a form of reward in that ad.
There are different ways of advertising. One way of advertising—if you make a really good car that’s really good quality, you can talk about how good quality it is. But Coca-Cola has pretty limited options there. It’s sugar water.
Abel: They don’t even have cocaine in it anymore.
Yeah, that’s true; there’s not even cocaine. So, what’s the argument based on? This is better than Pepsi’s sugar water? I don’t think I can even tell the difference in a blinded taste test. So, what do they do? They have limited options. They try to create a reward association by associating their product with positive feelings, things that we already like, and it really works. And I think the evidence is to be found in the amount of money that companies spend on that kind of advertising. It’s immense.
Food advertising alone in the United States is over $10 billion a year. Compare that to about a billion dollars that goes into funding for obesity research. So basically, there’s a lot more money going into the campaign to try to convince you to eat than the campaign to deal with the problems caused by overeating.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that I think the flip side of that is counter-marketing, where you try to associate bad things with the particular product, like images of lung cancer and whatever. And again, I don’t have data to support this, but I suspect it works. The fundamental principle is sound, and the flip side of it works.
But what I will say is that counter-marketing is just one part of this effort, but there’s been a really broad effort to reduce cigarette smoking in the United States. I don’t know exactly how long it’s been—thirty or forty years—and this is funded by massive, massive tobacco settlements, billions and billions of dollars. And cigarette consumption in the US has gone down by 70 percent per capita. And it’s had profound, profound public health consequences. Heart attack mortality has gone way down; lung cancer mortality has gone way down. It’s not exclusively to do with cigarettes, but it’s a big part of it. It was part of a broader strategy that was extremely successful.
DO “CALORIES” CAUSE OBESITY?
Abel: Setting up your environment to make the right choices is extremely important. So how do you do that in a world pitted against us, especially as it relates to food?
Obesity is, in a lot of ways, a much tougher problem than cigarettes, because with cigarettes you can really point your finger at one thing that’s the culprit, and you can say, “This is not a necessary element of human existence.”
If cigarettes were to disappear off the face of the planet tomorrow, we’d all be okay. If food were to disappear off the face of the planet, we’d have problems.
In obesity, you have to split nutritional hairs, and that’s a lot harder than condemning a drug wholesale. And the other problem is that we’re talking about a lot of calories here. We’re talking about something like 220 calories a day that we’re eating more than we used to back in the 1970s.
Every day, the average American is eating some 220 calories more than they would have back in the ’70s.
That’s the magnitude of the difference in our calorie intake that’s accounting for this obesity epidemic. But what that really means is even more challenging, because not everyone overeats.
Some people, for whatever reason—either just genetics or the way they live their lives—don’t overeat. And so what we’re really seeing is that people who are overeating are overeating by 300-plus calories a day. It’s really a difficult problem. How do you get someone to eat 300 fewer calories a day, or burn 300 more calories a day? And what I’m driving at here is that there have been a lot of anti-obesity efforts in the United States already at this point, and especially in other countries, but they’ve been kind of half-hearted. We’re really not using the policy tools that are going to be the most effective at solving the problem.
I respect people’s reasons for not wanting things, like food taxes, taxation on sugar-sweetened beverages and calorie-dense foods, and things like that. I respect that people have views on that that differ from mine. But the reality is, if we want to do something about the problem, we’re going to need to start using those tools. We’re going to need to start reshaping the food environment. And the reason is that humans are not these purely rational agents that we assume ourselves to be. To a large extent, we’re reactive to our environment and we’re driven by our own instincts and impulses. That’s the reality that both psychology and neuroscience have been revealing to us.
Abel: One that’s being taking advantage of by brain scientists hired by food companies, don’t you think?
Absolutely, absolutely. They play us like marionettes, honestly. And to an extent we do it to ourselves too, because really they’re catering to our instincts. We’re the ones that create the demand for this fattening food, and then we kill ourselves with it.
It’s going to take changes that don’t require people to exert iron willpower on a continual, daily basis. It’s going to take structural changes to the food environment and to the environment in general, that promotes healthier diet and lifestyle patterns where the default pattern of behavior is doing things that are healthy.
So whether that involves food taxes—I think food taxes are one of the more effective potential instruments, regulating food advertising. And to a degree it is regulated in the United States. There’s industry self-regulation, which is definitely a step in the right direction.
We shouldn't have food advertising to kids, in my opinion. @whsource Click To Tweet
I understand adults. You want to be able to choose your own path; you don’t want people telling you what to do. But children can be obese before they have any choice in the matter. And I think we have to give a lot of thought to how we’re going to protect children from this fattening food environment, so we don’t literally handicap them before they even have a choice in the matter—handicap them physiologically and physically.
It’s a huge problem that our country is facing: 17 percent of children are obese. And if you think about what that means, if I think back to what I did when I was a kid, I was always running around, climbing up trees, and doing the monkey bars. And I respect these people and their families, but I think at the same time, we have to see that there’s a problem here with these kids not getting everything out of life that they could be getting. And that predisposes them to so many problems later. So I think, especially regulating how children are exposed to food and food cues are really, really critical.
So those are just a couple of ideas. But I think there are a lot of other things. Encouraging active transportation, I think, would be really great—increasing infrastructure for walking and cycling. I know not everyone’s going to take advantage of that, but if the infrastructure isn’t there, people aren’t going to do it. So those are just a few ideas for large-scale things that can be done through the government or other large-scale organizations. And then of course there are a lot of things we can do as individuals as well.
Abel: True. Now you mentioned that we’re overeating by 300-ish calories a day. Do you have a favorite hypothesis as to why that would be the case? Especially in the recent decades, we’ve seen that tick up, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going down.
It comes back to the fact that our food environment and our food composition have gradually evolved to mirror our innate preferences.
I’ll start with convenience. If you go back 100 years in the United States, people were cooking almost all their own food in the home. They would go to the store, they would buy single ingredients, and then they would make their own food. And a lot of it, they were making really basic things, like, they’d make their own bread. Not all families would do that, but a lot of families would make their own bread. And today that’s really quite rare.
And if you look at how food expenditures have changed—in the 1890s we spent more than 90 percent of our food expenditures on food to be eaten at home, whereas today, it’s about fifty-fifty. And a lot of food we’re bringing home today is already prepared. And our reliance on fast food has increased ninefold over the last fifty years—our expenditures, I should say. And basically what this revolves around is convenience.
So as we become more affluent, we can afford to eat at restaurants more, and we can afford prepared, processed food more. And our time has gone down—and what I mean by that is, now you typically have two working parents instead of one, so there’s a lot less time available to prepare food—you have this massively increased demand for consumption of very, very convenient food. It’s all around us; it requires basically no effort to prepare and consume. And when something requires no effort—we know this from a lot of experiments that have been done; Brian Wansink is one person who comes to mind—or the more convenient it is to eat a food, the more of it we’re going to eat. That’s just a very basic feature of human intuitive economic behavior.
But also the type of food that we eat has changed. And again, it’s come to mirror the innate preferences of the human brain. So the human brain is wired to look for certain properties in food—and I really mean wired, hard-wired, to look for certain properties. These are the things that people in every culture appreciate. Calorie density, fat, sugar, starch, and umami, which is that meaty glutamate flavor that’s in soy sauce and cooked meats and bone broth. Those are things that titillate the brain circuits that drive us to eat. And so those are things that were less available in the time of our distant ancestors.
For example, I think a really great example is glutamate. And this, again, is that meaty umami flavor that tastes really good. Originally, the place we got it was cooked meat. That’s the first place we got umami and that’s probably why we like it, because it was associated with cooked meat. And we’re talking about possibly hundreds of thousands of years ago, or maybe longer ago, that we started eating that.
Abel: Cooked meat and marrow actually helped humans grow our brains from an evolutionary standpoint. There was a huge caloric reward for cooking our meat back then compared to eating everything raw like other primates.
Yeah, cooked meat. It makes a whole lot of sense that we’d be very motivated by that. You cook meat and you considerably increase the amount of calories and protein you can extract from it by digesting it, and you kill parasites. Yeah, cooking meat is a really great idea. And then, as technology proceeded, we developed bowls and things, and then we developed the ability to boil bones and make bone broth, and that’s a richer source of glutamate.
And then as technology continued to proceed, we learned how to make fish sauce and soy sauce. The ancient Romans used to make a sauce called garum that’s very similar to fish sauce—2000 years ago—and that’s very, very high in glutamate. And then this kind of technological process of increasingly concentrated glutamate culminated in 1908 when a Japanese researcher isolated pure monosodium glutamate. So basically, we figured out over time how to isolate the active ingredient in things that taste meaty, that our brains crave. And now we can use it in crystalline form and add it to whatever food we want. But the key point is that this active ingredient at this point is totally divorced from any sort of nutrition that it originally was associated with and originally pointed us toward.
It’s the same concept as cocaine. The traditional people in South America use the leaf of the coca plant as a mild stimulant and appetite suppressant. It’s kind of like caffeine down there. You just chew on the leaves and it’s a very mild drug that they use in a very constructive way. But if you purify out the active ingredient, the thing that makes your dopamine spike in your brain, you get cocaine, and now you have an addictive drug. Then, if you further process that, so that the compound crosses the blood-brain barrier really easily, then you get crack cocaine, which is even more addictive. So basically, what I’m trying to draw a parallel between here is this process of technological development where we’ve been able to purify the properties that specifically trigger this overboard pathway in the brain.
So glutamate is one thing. If you look at added fat, that’s another thing. Our total fat intake hasn’t really changed that much over the last 100 years—it’s gone up a little bit, but our added fat intake has increased quite a lot. So we can take things like soy bean oil or butter or anything else, and add it to foods that would ordinarily not contain a lot of fat, and dramatically increase their reward value to the brain.
And sugar is another great example. Adding sugar is analogous in many ways to glutamate or monosodium glutamate, in the sense that we’ve really purified it down to the absolute active ingredient in crystalline form. Since 1822, our consumption of sugar has gone up something like twentyfold. I’m talking about added sugar. That doesn’t include the sugar that’s naturally found in fruits and vegetables. Although I’m sure our total sugar intake probably went up too. So I think those are some good examples of how, in addition to the convenience of our food changing and pervasiveness in our personal environment, the actual properties of food have changed in a way that make them more appealing to the brain and drive consumption to a greater degree.
HOW TO CHANGE YOUR FOOD ENVIRONMENT
Abel: So what’s your strategy to combat all the things that you know are against us?
The main thing that I do is control my food environment. I do a lot of things, but I think in terms of bang for my buck, that’s probably number one. If you walk into my kitchen, you’re not going to see a bag of chips on the counter. You’re not going to see anything tempting like that. You’re not even going to see a bowl of salted nuts. What you’re going to see is foods that require a bit of effort to eat. For example, I have a bag of peanuts in shells, unsalted. So if I want to eat those peanuts, I have to do a little bit of work to get to them. So you’re going to see foods that require a little bit of work—not necessarily a lot of work.
Abel: That’s enough to change your behavior. You can take handfuls of those salted nuts as much as you want. But when you have to break them open, it slows it the process down to a crawl. I do exactly the same thing.
And there’s actually good research suggesting that it makes a huge difference. Even small effort barriers make a huge difference on consumption. And second, I don’t put things in my personal food environment that I find extremely tempting. So, like I said, I love fries, I love ice cream, I love potato chips. Those are not things that I keep in my personal environment. They’re not on my counter, they’re not in my cupboard, they’re not in my fridge. I cannot eat those things unless I go to the store, and that’s a pretty substantial effort barrier. But interestingly, it’s not just that it makes it harder to do it, so you don’t do it—it actually makes you want it less. If it’s not even an option, you tend to have less of a craving for those foods.
Abel: Right. If there’s Ben & Jerry’s in the fridge, your brain knows it’s there. You can try to forget that, but you know it’s there.
I know that my brain doesn’t forget it, so I just don’t bring those in. And fortunately, I’m kind of the chef and the food architect in our house, so I can control it, and my wife goes along with it. So that’s really important, the food environment.
In terms of the quality of the food, I try to eat food that is as unrefined as possible, and it’s not particularly calorie-dense and not overly palatable. So I like to eat well, but I tend to eat simple foods. I grow a lot of my own food, and I’ll eat vegetables. I eat a lot of potatoes that I grow. In the interest of eating less refined and calorie-dense foods, I don’t use a whole lot of added fat. I do use some, but it’s mostly extra virgin olive oil. And I basically use the minimum amount that I need to make my food palatable and to satisfy my appetite.
Abel: So, you want it to taste good, but not like, “uber good, I-have-to-stuff-this-down-my-face-non-stop” good.
Yeah, and I think most people understand that distinction. I mean definitely there’s a grey area, and you can’t really draw a line and say one food is and one isn’t. And it’s individual. But I think most people understand that concept. There are certain foods, certainly for myself, that I can eat and I enjoy them, but when I’m full, I stop. And there are other foods that I won’t stop.
Abel: So your potato, for example, how do you eat that normally?
I normally either eat it plain, or I will have it plain and put whatever dish that I’m eating on top of it. So if I make some kind of stew or soup, I’ll throw a potato under it. But I don’t usually put anything on the potato, except mixing it with whatever else I’m eating.
Abel: So that’s a far cry from the chips you’re talking about, or the fries, right? It may be the same food, but the way you react to it is completely different. And the way that you fill up on it (or not, as the case may be), is completely different. I think that’s a really good point.
It’s very, very different. And potatoes aren’t especially calorie dense. It’s actually one of the most filling foods per unit calorie. So if you’re just eating potato, that’s compatible with good appetite regulation and weight management. But if you’re putting a huge amount of sour cream and butter and calorie-dense toppings on it, or if you’re deep frying it into fries or chips, that’s a whole other ball game. So I avoid doing that. I just eat my potatoes plain with whatever else I’m eating. But I’ll mix it up with sauce or whatever, to make it go down a little easier.
Abel: One of the things you’re touching on here is really important to point out. You don’t want your food to be, “Punch me in the face, this is the best thing ever.” You really want to fill up on food. You want it to be nourishing, and you want to feel good ten minutes, ten hours, ten days later from eating it.
That’s the critical step that most people need to take, is realizing, “No, I’m not going to eat a hamburger and fries just because that’s what’s there, and that’s what I think tastes good right now. I want to eat the whole food that’s going to fill me up, so I feel good and can get back to work.” Right?
I think in the modern world where… It’s thought, because we’re accustomed to having our palates constantly entertained in a really extreme way, that none of our ancestors for the last thousands or millions of years would have experienced it. And so it’s tough to give that up if you’re used to it. But what I tell people is, “You want to eat simple, satisfying food. So, you can’t eat something that you don’t enjoy at all. You want to enjoy it. You want it to feel satisfying, but if you’re chasing the dragon every day on your plate, it’s not a good thing health-wise. It’s not a good thing weight-wise.”
Abel: Before we go, what are some other things we should know about our brains, where we can step in and alter our behavior in a positive way?
I think one of the things a lot of people don’t realize, and that is really, really important, is that the brain actually regulates body fatness. And this is something most of my personal research is, or was, on. And basically, you have a system in the brain that detects how much fat you have, and it tries to keep you from losing that fat. So this is true, whether you’re lean or obese. It’s tough to lose weight, and it’s even harder to maintain that weight. And this is something that anybody will tell you who’s tried to lose weight, and it’s something you see in the studies.Weight regain is the rule rather than the exception. @whsource Click To Tweet
This is like this huge elephant in the room that people really aren’t addressing or thinking about when they’re talking about weight management. So I think it’s really critical to know what you’re up against and to try to manage it, instead of just pretending like it doesn’t exist. And so understanding that there is a system in the brain that’s going to resist weight loss, that’s a good starting point. And then you can start thinking about how you can manage it.
There are a number of ways to do that. Without getting into too much detail, I’ll just list a couple of strategies that I focused on. One of them is eating a higher protein diet. That feeds back into some of the same circuits that regulate body fatness. One of them is, again, not eating food that is too palatable, because hyper-palatable foods, like some of the ones we’ve been talking about, they actually also affect that system that regulates your body fatness.
There is pretty good evidence to suggest that when you eat a lot of foods like that, your brain kind of lets you plump yourself up in order to allow you to eat these foods that it perceives as extremely desirable.
And then, regulating your sleep appropriately and managing your stress appropriately are integral components. That doesn’t mean no stress; it just means not constant, chronic grind. Uncontrollable stress is one you especially want to avoid, where you’re in a situation where you don’t feel like you can control what’s happening to you. So, if you can, finding ways to be less stressed, or if you can’t do that, finding ways to make that stress feel more controllable. Like you have some way to determine your own fate, that could help manage the negative consequences of that stress, including overeating, particularly in women.
Abel: I found working with some folks up-close and personal, you just do one little tweak to their morning routine, where you insert the things they know they should do, and it sets the day in the right direction, giving them that little bit of control. Even if it’s a super stressful environment, that seems to really help.
That’s what I do for myself, and I know it’s helped me. The more out of control my life is, the more I’ll try to put in these little moments where I feel like, “This is exactly what I need to be doing right now. This is what I want to be doing right now.” And if you feel that element of control, it starts to cross over to other parts of your life. I think that’s a great point.
Before we go, will you tell folks where they can find you, and a little bit more about your book, The Hungry Brain?
WHERE TO FIND STEPHAN GUYENET AND THE HUNGRY BRAIN
My new book is called The Hungry Brain, and it’s coming out on February 7, 2017. I’m really excited about it. The premise is that nobody wants to overeat, and certainly nobody wants to overeat for ten or twenty years, and develop overweight, obesity, and chronic disease. But most of us do, judging by the statistics.
Where is the disconnect between the conscious, rational parts of our brain that have these wonderful goals about weight management and health, etcetera, and our actual behavior?
Turns out, our behavior is guided, to a large extent, by these unconscious intuitive circuits. My book is an exploration of what those circuits are and how they determine our behavior, as well as what we can do about it.
Some of the things we touched on today about brain circuits are things that I focus on in much greater depth in my book. It’s a book that’s written for a general audience, so you don’t have to be a researcher or a doctor to understand it. Anyone who’s interested in health, the brain, and body weight should be able to understand it.
BEFORE YOU GO
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