Why we like all those calories
There is almost universal agreement in the mainstream health community that the “calories in, calories out” formula explains why we get fat. The truth is that this basic formula is much too simplistic as I have explained in my prior posts on BMR Basal Metabolic Rate and The Energy Balance Equation.
Paraphrasing from Robert H. Lustig, MD in his outstanding lecture video Sugar: The Bitter Truth – “We don’t get fat because we are gluttons and sloths”. The standard “calories in, calories out” formula assumes that if you have too many calories you eat too much (gluttony) and if you don’t burn them off you are too lazy to exercise (sloth).
The truth is that determining that the number of calories to keep our weight stable is much more difficult than a simple equation and is constantly being affected by changing metabolism and by the food choices we make. Contrary to mainstream belief, a calorie is (Not) a calorie.
This is not to say by any means that calories don’t matter – in fact the subject of this post, Stephan J. Guyenet, Ph.D., believes that calories are the ONLY thing that are scientifically proven to drive weight gain or loss. Stephan has written an excellent book titled The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts That Make Us Overeat which argues that to a great extent our brain is working against us to control those calories.
It has not been that many generations ago that the next meal was not a guaranteed expectation. Our bodies are physiologically prepared to survive periods of little or no food by burning stored body fat. When food was abundant our brain wanted us to eat as much as we could so it could store some of those excess calories for the next fasting period that was sure to come.
Today of course we in the developed world rarely have to go without a meal and as a result our brain is constantly trying to store extra for a need which never comes. The result, pound after pound of excess body fat as the years roll by.
Stephan Guyenet – The Hungry Brain
I am linking below to both a podcast and a transcript of an interview with Stephan J. Guyenet, Ph.D. Stephan holds a BS in biochemistry and a PhD in neuroscience and has spent a total of 12 years in the neuroscience research world studying neurodegenerative disease and the neuroscience of eating behavior and obesity. His publications in scientific journals have been cited over 1,400 times by his peers. Stephan is interviewed about his book The Hungry Brain by Chris Kresser, functional and integrative medicine practitioner, author, premier researcher, and creator of chriskresser.com.
In the interview Stephan discusses the background of why the brain rewards and drives us to overeat high calorie foods. To a large extent these influences come from the subconscious portion of the brain which is why we have such an issue with willpower when dieting – the subconscious drives are just too strong to resist.
However, hope is not lost in the struggle against our own brains. Stephan identifies four strategies in the book which we can adopt to avoid triggering these subconscious impulses.
- As much as possible try to eat foods which are lower in calories per a given volume. Fruit and vegetables are examples of foods high in fiber which will make you feel full with a lower amount of calories, as will protein sources such as meat.
- Opt for natural foods as opposed to refined foods – refined foods are actually engineered to be recognized by your brain as “high reward” foods which deliver a lot of calories for the buck and the brain rewards us for eating them with releasing generous doses of the “feel good” hormone dopamine. This is why sweet or refined foods such as baked goods, pastries, cookies potato chips, candy ice cream or pizza are actually somewhat addictive as we want to get that dopamine release again and again.
- It sounds completely unrelated, but not getting enough sleep has been proven by numerous scientific studies to increase food consumption by an average 300 calories per day. Dr. Guyenet makes the point that the sleep deprived brain tends to act similarly to the starvation mode brain in that it interferes with our normal “fullness’ signaling which tells us when we have had enough to eat.
- Controlling the food environment you live in is something which can be used to avoid those subconscious reward impulses that come from seeing a calorie dense high reward food. If you do not have these foods in your house where they are easy to obtain, you will avoid many of the cravings which tend to get folks in trouble with not having the motivation to resist them.
The podcast is about an hour, which is a bit longer than many want to spend on any given subject. I have also included the transcript which you can read through in a shorter time. I can only cover some highlights in this post, and I do encourage you to spend some time with one or the other. Stephan is one of the most respected sources I go to for discussion about the causes of obesity and also for exposing some of the mainstream diet beliefs which are not really supported by science.