Our brain's thoughts on dieting
Stephan J. Guyenet, the author of The Hungry Brain states multiple times in the book that the human brain is the most complicated thing in the universe. The brain is where all the inputs of the senses and the influence of past experiences mix into our perception of the world. This perception is adaptive and ever-changing. It is the filter through which we interact with the world. The brain also doesn’t need our conscious input for many of the tasks it performs. The Hungry Brain does wonders for highlighting this complexity and distilling down how the brain impacts individuals’ choices regarding food consumption. Below is a summary of the author’s description of 6 features of the brain that affect how individuals think and respond to food.
Our brain’s thoughts on food
Basal ganglia: Monitors food’s fat, protein, and carbohydrate concentrations within the digestive tract. It pushes up to eat more calorie-dense foods.
- This appears to be a very direct gut-brain interaction, so it operates beyond our five primary senses. This is not a process that is easily influenced by our conscious thoughts.
Orbitofrontal cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex: Calculates the cost of obtaining food verse calories received from the food. It will encourage us to eat more when the food is calorie-dense and easy to obtain.
- Our brain is going to promote us to be lazy with food acquisition when it can. If we have high-calorie and highly palatable food accessible, we will be drawn to eat it.
lipostat: Controls the release of the hormone leptin, which regulates appetite. The goal of the lipostat is to ensure the body adiposity does not decrease.
- Leptin is a hormone that regulates the desire to eat. There is a lot going on within this system, but it’s best looked at as a one-way switch. The lipostat is a very powerful motivator to get you eat more, but not necessary a strong motivator to eat less. The lipostat system is highly influenced by genetic factors.
Brain stem – satiety system: meal-to-meal regulator of fullness. Unconscious and based largely on the quality of digested food.
- Another gut brain connection based mostly on the volume of food present. This can be directly influenced by our food choices. Sugar has a very low satiety factor. High-volume, low-calorie density foods like potatoes have the highest satiety value. The satiety system is strongly influenced by individual genetics.
Sleep and Circadian rhythm systems–hypothalamus: Lack of sleep increases appetite for high-calorie dense foods.
- Sleep affects most of our conscious choices, including our desire and ability to resist eating urges. Interestingly, the body seems to schedule major activities like digestion during periods where it expects you to be asleep. Therefore eating in line with these expectations helps keeps other regulatory systems on track.
Threat Response System – Amygdala : Increased exposure to stress increases cortisol, reducing the lipostat system’s sensitivity. Eating highly palatable food is a mechanism for self-regulating internal feelings of stress.
- A prolonged stress response is very damaging to our bodies. Today this is usually brought about by mental stressors. Worrying about employment, finances, and other matters brings about a stress response. Food, specifically sweet food, is often a means of addressing self-regulating this stress.
Identifying that these factors exist helps illustrate just how many elements influence an individual’s eating behavior. The truth is that most of these elements push us to pursue and eat a lot of calorie-dense food. That can make the idea of dieting for weight loss feel daunting, but the truth is that these systems have been in play for the cumulative existence of humans, and no societies of the past faced the prevalence of weight concerns that our Western cultures do today. The factors prime us for weight gain, but they do not determine that it will happen. It’s only when specific environmental conditions exist that we see rapid and sustained weight gain in individuals. Therefore it is essential to understand what elements of the environment we can influence to achieve the eating habits we seek.
trichonomy of control – our diet
Things we can’t control Lipostat and basal ganglia
Our bodies ability to respond to leptin and register the calorie makeup of the food we consume is beyond our direct influence. These factors will make losing weight easier or harder for you. But that details doesn’t matter because at the moment, there is not a mechanism for changing them.
Things we have some control over Stress and Sleep
Being less stressed and getting more sleep is possible but often not easy. These systems are influenced by a massive number of inputs in our everyday lives, so there will not be a single solution that will move things forward. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth working for. If you are living a life of low stress and calm and easy sleep, I would wager that things are going very well. Sleep and stress are barometers of sorts—tools for understanding how all the other little pieces of your world are joining together.
Things we can (mostly) control brain stem and orbitofrontal cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex
These features are most directly impacted by our environment. What are you choosing to put on your plate? What food options are available?
As we noted with the satiety system, different foods will impact your feeling of fullness. It’s unlikely that you will ever feel full consuming corn syrup enhanced soda, but how much plain oatmeal do you really think you can stomach? Focusing on eating simple high fiber high protein food ensures that your conveying that feeling of fullness to your body. It’s a choice you can make. It’s not easy, but it will affect the volume of food you want to consume.
What food do you have access to? Your brain is always going to be running the math on the calorie/effort measure of eating a specific food. If you open your freezer and see frozen peas and ice cream, you will be pushed to eat the ice cream. You don’t need to cook it, or wait for it, it tastes better and it has a high calorie density. This is not really a competition. Yes, you can make the choice to override your brain’s best attentions and choose the peas, but that is hard. The better option is to eliminate the choice altogether.
Make visible the food that you want to eat.
Hide and make it difficult to retrieve the food that you don’t want to eat. Or get rid of it.
Make a choice not to eat out or order food from a restaurant.
Prep meals beforehand so you don’t have to make a choice about what to eat.
The options go on, and they all can make a significant impact. Again these are not easy things to do, but they are choices you can make when you not hungry and eliminate the need for making a choice in a moment when you are.
Friend or Foe
The brain is a most valuable asset and often our largest hurdle when it comes to achieving a directed behavioral change. Don’t underestimate its power on either side of the equation.