Takeaways from the Book “The Hungry Brain”
Note: This is based on my understanding of what the author discussed in “The Hungry Brain” and while I think I got the basics right, I may have missed some nuances. I suggest reading the book if you want more details. It was fascinating to follow all of the experiments and investigations that went into the findings.
I recently finished the book The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts that Make Us Overeat by Stephen J. Guyenet. It was an intriguing look at the way our brains work and interact with our eating behavior. Here are some of my takeaways and thoughts on the author’s suggestions for “outsmarting” these instincts.
Eating certain foods makes it harder to be mindful
If you’ve worked on becoming mindful about your eating, you’re probably aware that it’s not always easy. But you may not know that part of the reason is the way our brains are wired.
Early on in The Hungry Brain, the author discussed the fact that our brains consider certain foods to be highly valuable: sugar, fat, starch, and salt. In recognition of their value, when we eat them, our brains activate the reward system. This makes us consider those foods even more desirable because we feel good about eating them, and this encourages us to seek them out even more.
Lack of sleep also impacts the reward system, and not in a good way. Those who are sleep deprived will feel that reward response to food more strongly, and since it’s difficult to remain mindful when you’re sleepy, this increases the chances of overeating.
Economic choice system
In addition to the reward system, our brains have an “economic choice system.” This factors in the effort and time involved in getting food and how many calories we’ll take in, with the goal being to get more calories for less effort. This goal isn’t in our conscious brain, though. It’s a nonconscious part that still drives much of what we do without our awareness.
These systems make sense from an evolutionary standpoint. Our ancestors didn’t have the easy access to food that we did or to food with the high-calorie content we’re used to. They had to work hard for their meals, so it makes sense that on the rare occasion when they could get something with less effort, or they got access to something sweet and high-calorie like honey, they’d take advantage of it.
Of course, our environment these days is very different, and it makes those nonconscious systems of the brain somewhat problematic.
Satiety system and highly palatable foods
And then there’s the matter of what the author calls highly palatable foods. These are modern, processed foods, full of those things that trigger the reward system – think pizza, ice cream, fried foods, cookies, chips, etc.
These foods can bypass the brain’s satiety system. This means that when we eat those foods, they don’t trigger a feeling of fullness until long past the point of overeating, which makes it very easy to overeat them. I’ve noticed this myself, and it’s one reason why I don’t eat some of those foods as much anymore.
All this adds up to making it very hard, sometimes, to make conscious choices about what to eat and when to stop eating.
Our bodies fight against changing weight
One of the reasons diets don’t work, and why it’s best not to focus on losing weight, is that our bodies seem to be designed to reach a certain weight and stay there. For some people, this means they tend to stay thin even when they overeat, but for many more people, it means that once you reach a higher weight, your body will make it challenging for you to lose weight.
This is due to the lipostat, and again, it goes back to evolution. In earlier times, losing weight could mean missing out on a chance to have children, so it made sense for the body to try to keep that weight on.
This is also the reason why people who go on diets experience a type of starvation response, where they start obsessing about food and craving things more than ever before. That’s the lipostat in action, trying to make sure you don’t lose too many calories.
Plus, stress may impact the lipostat, particularly when the stress factor is out of your control. When stressed, you’re also more likely to reach for comfort foods – which are those highly palatable foods – and that can trigger weight gain. And these days, especially this past year, it seems like uncontrolled stress is all around, which may be part of why so many people have been overeating.
Steps to outsmart the hungry brain
That may all sound discouraging, which is why the author suggested some actions to try to outsmart those nonconscious responses. He suggested some changes we may need to make in society, while others are individual suggestions. I agreed with some of the individual suggestions, but I have quibbles with some of them.
First, though, the ones I agree with:
Get adequate sleep (for some, I know this is easier said than done, but it can help)
Find ways to manage stress, whether it be meditation, removing stress factors when possible, getting out in nature, or something else
Incorporate some movement and activity into your day
The suggestions that relate directly to food are the ones I question a bit more.
First, the author suggested “fixing” your food environment, in the sense of clearing out all tempting foods, reducing exposure to food cues, and creating barriers to food (putting things in cupboards, buying nuts still in the shell, only having food that needs to be cooked or reheated, etc.).
I agree with this to an extent. Having food out of sight can help you pause before automatically eating the food, although not always. I also feel like the author underestimates the effort people will sometimes make to get the food they’re craving. And I think about the fact that if you clear everything out of your house, you may go overboard the next time you’re exposed to those foods in reaction to that earlier restriction.
As for food cues, unless you stop watching TV, going online, reading magazines, and listening to the radio, you’re always going to get exposed to some food advertisements. Plus, if you work anywhere except your own home, it’s pretty much impossible to completely control your food environment. People bring snacks to the office, offices might have vending machines, and if you work in a grocery store or convenience store, forget it.
That being said, it may make sense initially to keep some foods out of your house, but that’s more of a band-aid solution. A better option is to learn to eat that food fearlessly, as the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating program teaches.
Focus on your appetite
Next, the author suggests managing your appetite by focusing on foods that are higher in satiety, which means ones that are lower in calorie density and higher in protein and/or fiber. He also pointed out that many people who eat a high-protein diet may naturally end up eating fewer calories because those foods help you feel full, and eating more protein dampens the body’s starvation response to fewer calories.
In general, this makes sense to me, but to get there, it helps to change your relationship to food. If you’ve been turning to food for comfort, stress relief, and alleviating boredom, you need to understand those behaviors first.
You also need to know how to tell when you’re hungry or satisfied before you can make some of these other changes.
Think about the reward system
Finally, the author suggested reducing the amount of food that triggers the brain’s reward system and instead eat foods that are close to their natural state. He also said it helps to pay attention to high-calorie beverages, including ones like coffee that can become high-calorie with lots of add-ons. The basic idea is to have food that tastes reasonably good and save the highly palatable ones occasionally.
I think he makes some good points, but again, my concern is that this doesn’t address some of the underlying issues. If someone turns to food a lot for the good feeling that comes from triggering the reward system, and suddenly they don’t experience that, they’re very likely to feel restricted and rebellious and want to get those foods even more.
On the other hand, if you can learn to eat more mindfully and find other ways to address the underlying need, then you’re less likely to crave those highly palatable foods.
Understanding the brain can help
What I liked best about reading the book was understanding where some of our food impulses come from and why it can be hard to change them. It’s a useful reminder that how we eat isn’t about character or morals – mostly it’s about how our brains are wired, our genetics, and food access.
Once you understand those things, it becomes easier to notice how you respond to food without judging yourself. You can tell yourself, “Oh, look, there’s the reward center of my brain lighting up,” or “I can feel my satiety system at work.”
That, in turn, makes it easier to start changing your relationship to food and incorporate changes that will truly help you outsmart the nonconscious instincts of your brain.