Ep. #1149: Dr. Stephan Guyenet on Outsmarting Obesity

Dr. Stephan: Cause if you’re having to use willpower to resist a tempting food environment all around you all the time, most people are going to run out of willpower and they’re going to run out of it a lot. But if you can set up the food environment so that you’re not even giving your brain those cues that trigger that craving, that motivation.

Then it’s going to be a lot easier. 

Mike: Hello, hello there. I’m Mike Matthews and this is Muscle for Life. Thank you for joining me today for a new episode on the neuroscience of obesity, on how to outsmart obesity. Now, what do I mean by that? Well, in this episode, I talk with Dr. Stefan Giene, who is a renowned obesity researcher, a science communicator, and author of the book, The Hungry Brain.

And in this interview, Dr. Giene is going to shed light on some of the Complex, but, uh, explained in simple terms for laymen, mechanisms behind our body’s drive to store fat, to get fatter, and to stay, and specifically behind our brain’s reasons for instigating these behaviors or for supporting these behaviors.

And once you understand the principles and the research that Stefan is going to break down in this interview. Of course, you wonder what you can do about it. If your brain is hardwired to produce these obesogenic behaviors, how can you avoid those behaviors consistently for a long time in today’s obesogenic food environment?

Which is a big part of the problem that Stefan is going to talk about. Well, Stefan also is going to Answer that question. What can you do about it? He is going to share some simple evidence based strategies to help you outsmart your hungry brain and Not just get into great shape, but stay that way for the rest of your life without sweating blood, without having a really hard time of it, without having to constantly rely on willpower and discipline and grit How can you create a lifestyle that is pleasant, that doesn’t constantly generate a lot of psychological and emotional friction, and that also allows you to stay in shape, to stay healthy, to maintain a healthy body composition, to not get too fat.

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Hello, Stefan. Good afternoon. Good afternoon, Mike. Thank you for taking the time to do this. I really appreciate it. Yeah, my pleasure. And so we’re gonna be talking about obesity, physiological drivers, environmental drivers, and other things. And we were just quickly discussing offline that maybe a good place to start this discussion is a high level view of how the brain and how brain function and physiology, how that relates to obesity.

And, um, and, and I think from there we can go in many different directions. But. I think that would be a just a good preamble to the larger discussion. 

Dr. Stephan: Yeah, I think this is a really good place to start because I think this is not obvious to a lot of people. I think most people are not used to thinking of the brain as important in obesity.

But I want to point to a couple things. The first is that the brain is the organ that generates behavior. So any voluntary contraction of your muscle that results in any kind of behavior. Is generated ultimately by the brain, right? The brain sends the impulses that contract your muscles to make you do all of the fork in your 

Mike: mouth.

Dr. Stephan: Yes, including putting the fork in your mouth, right? So all of the food decisions that you make, how much you’re eating, uh, what you’re choosing to eat, those things are all decisions that are generated ultimately in the brain, as well as your physical activity behaviors, what kind of food environment you put yourself in.

All of that is the result of brain activity. And so from that perspective, all the things that. We know determined body weight are originating as brain activity. So that’s one thing. And then the other thing is, you know, that’s kind of the theoretical justification. But, um, in terms of direct evidence, we have evidence from genetic studies that have looked at what, uh, genes are involved in determining body weight.

And there are many, many genes that are involved in determining body weight. And when you look at what those genes do, they are heavily enriched for genes related to brain development and brain activity. So the genetics of obesity, what makes some people fatter than others, is primarily related to how your brain is constructed and how it operates.

Furthermore, The only known regulatory system for body fatness, a system that actually regulates your body fat level, is located in the brain. And it’s located in the same place that regulates a bunch of other stuff about your body, like your blood pressure, your body temperature, that sort of thing. So, that’s just three tidbits there, just to emphasize.

What I believe is really the central role of the brain in body fatness and I say, I believe that I’m a, you know, neuroscience of obesity guy, but this is widely accepted in the obesity research field. 

Mike: And can you talk a bit more in the way of specifics with genetics in particular, because this is a hot topic, it’s controversial, it’s interpreted in different ways by different people, some people.

Maybe choose to interpret it in a way that almost implies a lack of free will that the, there’s just this hardwired programming and therefore the, the individual can’t really do much about it and they’re just destined to be obese or they’re destined to stay lean and, and so forth. 

Dr. Stephan: Yeah, I think these are very important questions.

I think one thing that is not controversial and scientifically and should not be controversial. In the public either is that genetics has a very strong influence on body fatness on who has more of a tendency to accumulate fat versus, uh, and someone else who might not have a tendency to accumulate fat.

And I think this is consistent with common sense, right? Like we see in our lives that there are some people who are trying pretty hard and they’re still, you know, they, they still have excess fat mass. They’re having a really hard time losing weight. Other people don’t seem to care at all. And every time you see them, they’re eating junk food and they’re lean and fit.

And so, you know, those are just kind of extreme examples to illustrate the principle that. It’s, it’s not just about the kind of conscious voluntary choices that we’re making. There’s also a genetic susceptibility and it’s pretty powerful. So there are a number of studies that have been done on the impact of genetics on body fatness and most people including myself would say that probably the, the most rigorous type of study in this area is called the twin study.

So what they do is they compare The body fatness of identical twins, which of course are genetically approximately identical, versus fraternal twins, which only share half of their genes. And so, if you know how genetically related those two pairs are, and how similar their body fatness is, you can then calculate how much of that body fatness is being determined by the genetics.

And those studies, on average, are reporting that about 75%. Of differences in body fatness are the result of genetic differences between individuals. So, very strong and There’s debate around this. So, you know, there’s different kinds of estimates. They’re interpreted in different ways. All types of evidence have their limitations.

So, you know, some, some people might say it’s as low as 40%. Some people might say it’s 80%. The best evidence is probably on the upper end of that range, in my opinion, but any way you slice it, it’s really important. Yeah. I don’t think it’s significant. Nobody’s 

Mike: arguing 5%. 

Dr. Stephan: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. But I think, you know, a place where people immediately object when something like this is said is they’ll say.

Okay, well, you know, you’re telling me that body fatness is mostly genetic. Well, what explains the obesity epidemic then? You know, it’s like the whole world is getting fatter and it’s not like our genetics are changing, right? And, you know, I see people, you know, are you saying that the choices that I make and the food that I eat, et cetera, has no impact?

No, no, it’s the opposite. It’s, it’s that it does have an impact. Yeah, of course. I mean, it does have an impact. And those, those percentages, those are heritability estimates to, to put a technical label on it. Those don’t, they don’t really tell you how important the environment is in a broader sense that people are really, that people really care about.

What those numbers mean is that. In the specific context that that study was done, that’s the percentage of differences in body fatness between individuals that were explained by genetics. And so, just to give you an example of how it could potentially be misleading, if you go to a place where every single person smokes cigarettes and they all smoke the same amount, you’re not going to find any impact of smoking cigarettes on lung cancer.

Cause that. You know, there’s no variation in the environmental exposure, right? Yeah. And exactly. So. In a country like the United States, almost everyone is consuming a very unhealthy diet and leading a fairly unhealthy lifestyle from, from an obesity and metabolic health perspective, you have this, you know, very few people, no one’s eating the diet of a Nigerian subsistence farmer, right?

Or a hunter gatherer. Or you could 

Mike: say you could take anyone of any genetics and put them in a prisoner of war camp. They’re going to end up lean no matter what, but that’s 

Dr. Stephan: not 

Mike: that 

Dr. Stephan: we don’t live in such a controlled environment. Yeah. So the point is that, you know, the obesity epidemic was caused by a change in environment.

I think that is just logically indisputable. It was not caused by a change in genetics. And so that demonstrates that in fact, Environment, including the types of food that you eat and the food environment you put yourself in, physical activity patterns, probably a bunch of other things does actually can have a very strong impact.

So it is very genetic, but it is also very environmental, I think, would be a way to sum it up. But if you allow yourself to just kind of go with the flow of what everyone else is doing in a country like the United States, your body fatness will primarily be determined by your genetics, and it will probably make you get fat.


Mike: for Most people listening, of course, they are interpreting everything you’re saying within the context of energy balance, but for maybe anyone listening who doesn’t know what that is, not, not to get off on a tangent with the limited time, limited time that we have, and you can, you can correct me if you, if you disagree, but of course what you’re getting at is Uh, the only way to meaningfully increase body fatness is to consistently eat too many calories, more calories, uh, than, than you burn.

And some people’s genetics predispose them to a lifestyle that consistently produces caloric surpluses and that those caloric surpluses result in surpluses or result in excess body fat. Whereas other people without thinking about it, they naturally engage in behaviors that lead to. Um, maybe states of, of more, more balanced, just energy maintenance or, or some people, uh, I mean, I’ve seen many people have worked with many people over the years, men in particular who are quote unquote, hard gainers who have very small appetites there.

They probably struggled just to even get into a consistent maintenance type of diet where they tend to under eat more consistently than even. Meet their body’s energy needs. 

Dr. Stephan: Yeah, I agree with that. I, I had a life situation, uh, last year that. Caused my calorie intake to increase and my gains in the gym were massive.

It, it feels pretty nice. Like you, you get into that consistent surplus and you then you’re doing the same type of training. 

Mike: It feels like your perceived effort, it gets halved. Basically it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s great. It’s fun until you get too fat and it’s not so fun, 

Dr. Stephan: but for a bit, it’s fun. Yeah. I gained a little bit of fat, but I was like, Hey, you know, if I’m going to be gaining weight, I’m going to be hitting the gym harder.

And I’m going to see if I can channel some of this into the muscle. And I think most of the weight I gained was muscle and, uh, yeah. And the strength gains really haven’t gone away yet, even though the. The positive energy balance has gone away. Yeah, I mean, 

Mike: that makes sense because obviously most of your strength is going to be driven by your muscle mass and then neurological efficiency and your skill at the lips.

So, so long as you didn’t lose a bunch of muscle, if you kept training, you should be able to maintain 

Dr. Stephan: a fair amount of that strength. Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, I think that is, that is what happened. Yeah. And I think, I think this is interesting because, you know, why do we have this drive to eat so many calories?

Like, why would we be genetically influenced in such a way that it’s causing us to eat too much and, and get fat? It doesn’t make a lot of sense, right? Like why would, why would our own genetics make us want to get sick? But it makes a lot more sense in the ancestral context. When we look at how our genetics evolved.

In a more hunter gatherer context where food was more scarce, might’ve been less energy dense and was a lot more work to obtain in terms of both time, energy expenditure and risk. And in that context where you’re kind of like teetering on the edge of not getting enough all the time, it makes a lot of sense to have genetics that build a brain that always wants a little more, right?

Cause if you can get that little more, especially if it’s really easy to do, if you have an opportunity, let’s say to, you know, get a lot of calories by chance or whatever, get a lot of calories easily, like a big game kill or a big, uh, you know, lots of honey that you found, or, you know, a tree full of fruit.

If you have that opportunity, it makes sense to kind of stuff your face, right? It makes sense to eat a little more than you might need that day. And that way you can avoid all of the, um, expenditure of time and energy and risk the next day a little bit and save yourself all those, those headaches later.

And so, you know, we have the situation where for millions and millions of years, eating what now we would consider too much. Was actually good for us. It was good for our survival. It was good for our reproductive success. I mean, it was necessary factually, there was no other way 

Mike: to make it. 

Dr. Stephan: Yeah. And that, that is how we made it.

And that wiring is still there. I think that’s, you know, the wiring is still there, but the environment is very different. And the environment now is very permissive, uh, and even encouraging of a much higher calorie intake than, than it was, You know, in, in the context where we did most of our evolving and.

I think that’s really the basic story of why we get fat. 

Mike: And can you talk a bit more about that environment? Because there are different elements of it that, that people discuss. There’s, uh, well, the food itself, and you have a lot of highly processed food versus less processed food. You have the whole media, advertising, industrial complex.

Uh, and I don’t, I watch basically no TV, but. Uh, on the random occasion that I do, and I see an actual TV commercial, a lot of these food commercials are, they’re slick, they’re highly produced, everyone’s happy, and it’s, it’s always very highly processed foods. Yeah. They’re paying a lot of money to try to get you to buy those foods.

Yeah. Yeah. And that starts with the food science, right? Or even engineering this stuff. 

Dr. Stephan: Yeah, so I think they’re yeah, so nutrition is really complex eating behavior is also very complex that the brain integrates a lot of different information. Into the decision of what and when to eat and those, you know, the kind of some of the key considerations have changed radically from our hunter gatherer ancestors time to now.

And so you can think of it as kind of costs and benefits of eating. So in the benefits column, you have. Uh, the energy that that food is supplying and how, you know, how tantalizing is that food for your brain in terms of the energy is supplying the way that things are combined, like the fat and sugar, uh, additional things that might be desirable, like salt is, you know, obviously a motivator, even, even 

Mike: right, the, the experience of chewing.

Now, I remember reading about it was, I believe it was regarding Cheetos and it was the guy I forget his name who, who made the Cheeto and he was so proud of this because it checked all these different reward boxes and part of it was also the crunch, but then it melts in your mouth and, but you, you, you don’t feel the provides minimal volume once it’s in your stomach.

So you can eat a whole bag of Cheetos and you, you feel like you haven’t really eaten that much. Well, now I want Cheetos, 

Dr. Stephan: but are you willing to drive to the store and buy some Cheetos? Probably not. No, I’m not. I’m not. Yeah. And so, and then, you know, so there’s benefits of food, the energy and kind of how it, you know, titillates your brain.

And then there’s the costs and the costs are the amount of time you have to spend, the amount of energy you have to spend. The risk, any kind of bitter flavors, any kind of digestive inhibitors or fiber that might be in that food, non nutritive substances like fiber. And basically, in the time of our distant ancestors, the benefits were lower and the costs were way higher.

So today, you know, a lot of people like to complain about the cost of food today, but We spend in the United States, about 10 percent of our disposable income on food. And you go back less than a hundred years ago, it was 25%. And then you go back 10, 000 years ago and your full time job is just to get food, right?

And so progressively it’s required less and less of our resource expenditure to obtain food. And so in terms of the time that it takes both directly to produce You know, forage that food or indirectly by working, you know, for money that you exchange for the food. The effort to get to the food is like nothing these days, right?

You’re strolling through a grocery store, you’re putting it in your cart. And all these products, you know, they engineer the palatability, of course, but they also engineer heavily for convenience. And that’s one of the main things that they’re engineering for, because people are very responsive to convenience.

So you have these foods where the effort barriers are very low. Now for the modern diet, there’s foods all around us, like At the hardware store that, you know, in the checkout, there’s candy all over the place, just to give a, a concrete example. And then the food that we have today, like nobody’s going to buy food that has a lot of bitter flavors or non nutritive substances.

Like we have so much choice, you can get whatever pleases your palate. Right. And so all of those costs are like almost negligible compared to how they were for our ancestors. And so if you think of it as a seesaw of costs and benefits that are. You know, determining our eating drive, the seesaw is, it’s not balanced at all.

It’s way in favor of the benefits versus the cost these days. And so from that perspective, being surrounded and steeped in a food environment like that, it’s not surprising at all that it would promote. Intake, right? And some people 

Mike: think, okay, so though, as we get fatter and fatter, there is a point where objectively it’s, it’s no longer healthy.

It’s no longer positive in the sense of having energy reserves for surviving the next famine until we kill the next animal and so forth. And that the body would have it. Physiological countermeasures to what down regulate appetite to try to get us to eat less because it’s fine. Now, it’s good. It actually doesn’t want any more body fat.

For example, I mean, well, you get into different hormones and so forth. And why, though? Does it appear that these countermeasures, they’re not working very well, clearly, right? 

Dr. Stephan: Yeah, so I think, yeah, a few, couple different ways to answer this. One is that we actually do have countermeasures to excessive positive energy balance, and those are really observed in short term overfeeding situations.

So if you take people, and this, this happens with lean people, it happens with people with obesity, It seems to be, it varies by individual, but it doesn’t seem to depend totally on weight status. If you take people and you overfeed them by a lot, like, you increase their calorie intake by 30 or 50 percent.

So, you know, really very substantial overfeeding. And you do that for a few weeks, what you’ll see is that after you stop overfeeding them, they will rapidly lose most of that weight. And that corresponds with a sharp drop in their appetite below baseline. And so there is a regulatory process that is happening.

It’s just that it doesn’t seem to protect against that slow, gradual weight gain that happens to most of us as we get older. So. There, there’s a system. It just doesn’t seem to work very well against that kind of long term weight gain. And I think, you know, we can only speculate about why that is, but I think a compelling possibility is that there was just no need for that kind of system in our ancestors.

Like obesity was not a problem in our distant ancestors. And that certainly was true in hunter gatherers. I literally have never, ever come across an account of a hunter gatherer living a true hunter gatherer lifestyle that has obesity. Never a single individual in all the reading I’ve done through different hunter gatherer cultures.

I mean, it’s basically 

Mike: mathematically impossible. If you just looked at. Calories and what would be required over expenditure for how long to get there and to stay there. And then you looked at logistically, how are you going to get all those calories while keeping your, the math, it makes it basically possible, I would guess.

Dr. Stephan: And then, you know, for a person, a hunter gatherer with obesity becomes difficult to forage. Right. So it’s like a self correcting problem. Now you’re on 500 calories a day. Let’s see how long this lasts. Yeah. And then if you look at agricultural populations, you do see there can be people with obesity Uh, certainly there are some people who have overweight, but it’s not prevalent, like traditionally living subsistence agriculturalist.

There’s not, there’s very little obesity. There’s not a lot of overweight. And so it’s, it’s really not until the modern industrial era that you see high prevalences of obesity. And really, you know, even in the United States. Not since really the eighties, have we really seen like a large share of the population have obesity.

So it’s a very recent phenomenon and it’s just not something that we’ve had time to adapt to. Like, like, why would you need a system that works really well against positive energy balance and large amounts of fat gain when that was just not even was when that was scarcely even a possibility for millions of years for our species.

So I just, you know, we do have a system, I just don’t think it works very well in most people. I should say in most people, I think actually in some people it works pretty well. And I think the, you know, at least the plausible reason for that is there was never any need for such a system to evolve historically.

And so then 

Mike: a lot of that’s going to come down to, I guess you could say executive function if you wanted to be maybe, uh, technical about it. But we can’t just rely on our hardwiring unless we are wired in such a way that we just, you know, We tend to overeat and we tend to stay active, uh, just with non exercise type activity and so forth.

But if that’s not the case, and for many people, it’s not the case. Would, do you think it’s accurate to say then, I mean, it takes, it takes conscious effort. It’s probably a fairly normal experience to regularly not eat as much as you would like to eat and, and it just kind of always feeling that way, not hungry necessarily, but you feel a drive to eat more and you just have to say no.

And that doesn’t mean there’s anything even wrong with you. And that is just part of, of living in our modern world. Would you say that’s. And I’ve certainly heard that story from many people, but yeah, I 

Dr. Stephan: mean, that is one. Way that you could think about it or approach it, but I think it’s, you know, Again, doing the comparison with the ancestral situation, the ancestral hunter gatherer situation, it’s a lot easier to say no when it’s not actually an option, you know, like, and it’s, it’s not even in your mind very much.

If it’s not an option, if it is an option, if your brain knows that there’s ice cream in your freezer and that you could easily open the door and eat it. Then a, that motivation, that feeling, that craving will be generated. So, you know, your dopamine reward system knows where the ice cream is. And if it’s an option, it will create the motivation required to, uh, you know, favor behavioral execution of that option.

One of the reasons I generally just don’t keep pints of ice cream around. Yes. Cause also you can’t just eat like two spoons and be satisfied. At least I can’t, that’s not ice cream for me. Yeah. Right. And I think that people differ in their capacity to exert long term cognitive control or we would say willpower.

People differ in their ability to exert that and most people Do not have the ability to resist a consistent physiological drive, or you call it physiological, or you could call it a reward drive, a desire, a craving, most people do not have the ability to resist that on an ongoing basis. And that’s not a failure.

That’s just like, those systems aren’t really designed to be overridden, right? Like those are, those are the system. Those are the systems trying to keep you alive. They’re, they don’t want. Okay. The prefrontal cortex telling them what to do, they want to do their business and keep you alive and not be subject to all the, you know, fleeting, dumb ideas that the prefrontal cortex might have.

And so those systems aren’t really designed to be overridden on a consistent daily basis. Sure for, you know, temporarily to achieve some objective, but. Which is kind of like when you’re in the grocery store. That’s the time, that’s the time 

Mike: to, to execute all the willpower you have and just pedal to the metal as you go right past the, uh, 

Dr. Stephan: frozen goods aisle.

That’s right. And that’s where I’m going with this long, long winded explanation is I favor setting up a situation where you’re not going to have to exert that kind of willpower all the time. Cause if you’re having to use willpower to resist. A tempting food environment all around you all the time. Most people are going to run out of willpower and they’re going to run out of it a lot.

But if you can set up the food environment so that you’re not even giving your brain those cues that trigger that craving, that motivation. Then it’s going to be a lot easier, something that, 

Mike: uh, I, I know many people do, which I think is smart for this is let’s say once a week, they want to kind of have a treat meal or kind of off plan.

They just want to eat, um, whatever they like to eat, whatever is very rewarding to them. And many people like to go to restaurants, but many people don’t, they want to make their own food or eat at home. Uh, but often what I’ve just heard over the years from people who have worked out a lifestyle that allows them to.

Maintain a good level of health and fitness without having elite anti obesity genes, so to speak, is whatever they’re going to be eating in that meal, they don’t buy, they, they drive to the store that day and they buy whatever amount they’re going to be eating in that meal and then they go home and they make the meal and they eat it.

They don’t stock the pints of ice cream throughout the week. If it’s going to be ice cream, they’re going to go and they’re going to buy their one, whatever amount, and then they’re going to take it home and they’re going to eat it. And, uh, Just a little tip for people listening that, uh, allows you to have stuff that you like, but adds just enough friction to, to your brain is probably, it’s going to have a hard time motivating you on a Tuesday night at 9 PM to drive to a grocery store is probably closed.

Maybe it’s not like, or the gas station or something to buy ice cream. You’re just going to go and forget it. 

Dr. Stephan: Yeah. Yeah. That makes sense. And you know, if you walk into my kitchen, there’s not a whole lot you can just grab and stuff in your face. Same people will come over and complain 

Mike: like, where are the, where are the snacks?

Like, well, 

Dr. Stephan: there’s fruit. I mean, you want to, you want an apple? That’s a good snack. I have some, uh, I, I have some nuts. You want some nuts? No, I don’t want nuts. I want snacks. Yeah. People will open my fridge and. They’ll tell me it’s empty and I have a small fridge and there’s food in there, but it’s food that you would have to heat or prepare in some way, mostly, and, and like you, there’ll be fruit, unsalted nuts, but like, if you’re not, if you’re not prepared to peel an orange or crack some nuts, then you’re probably not that hungry.

Mike: Yeah, I, I joke that, uh, if, if, if you think you’re hungry, um, and you imagine that you had a bowl of boiled beans, would you eat the beans? Okay, that’s probably physical hunger than if you would eat them. If you wouldn’t eat them, probably not physically hungry. Maybe you want to eat, maybe you’re bored, maybe something else is going on, but it’s probably not physical hunger.

Dr. Stephan: Yeah. And it’s complicated too, because craving interacts with hunger. So. I’ve been in situations where I’ll pack myself a healthy lunch for work, something that I feel is, you know, consistent with my Goals for myself for my energy intake and my, my nutrient needs and I eat it, I feel totally satisfied, everything’s good, and then I go to a meeting and there’s pizza on the table, and I walk into the room and I, and that smell hits my nose, and instantly I’m hungry again, and I’m like starving, even though just a moment ago I wasn’t hungry at all.

I was totally satisfied now. I have this craving and I’m hungry and I’m sitting there. I’m ready to eat three or four pieces of pizza. And so that’s just an example of the interplay that can happen between the reward system and The energy homeostasis system, the system that generates our hunger and regulates the body’s energy status.

How many calories 

Mike: should you eat to reach your fitness goals faster? What about your macros? What types of food should you eat? And how many meals should you eat every day? Well, I created a fitness plan. free 60 second diet quiz that will answer those questions for you and others, including how much alcohol you should drink, whether you should eat more fatty fish to get enough omega 3 fatty acids, what supplements are worth taking and why, and more.

To take the quiz and get your free personalized diet plan, go to muscleforlife. show slash diet quiz, muscle F O R life, Show slash diet quiz now answer the questions and learn what you need to do in the kitchen to lose fat, build muscle and get healthy. I’m sure there, there also are just interactions between a lot of the stuff you’ve been talking about, genetic and certainly neurological factors and, and also people’s propensity to.

Maybe use eating as a coping mechanism, maybe as something when they become stressed or other emotional type factors that, uh, even, even boredom, um, that, that’s pretty common and, and that varies individual to individual. But as you’ve been saying, I’m sure that there are genetic components there in play as well and, and, and brain stuff going on.

Like I’m not that person if I’m stressed. I don’t have a drive to eat food It probably would go in the other direction for me personally, but it can be very different for other people. 

Dr. Stephan: Yeah, it’s very individual So if you look at studies that have been done on the impact of stress on eating Some people, I think about a third of people, if I’m recalling correctly, um, will reduce their food intake and about 43 percent will increase their food intake and typically when, you know, you’ll see some people will increase their food intake and then you’ll see qualitative shifts as well toward more comfort foods and more comfort foods and more.

Uh, kind of less healthy typically foods and yeah, so I mean, I think stress is absolutely a factor. I have a chapter on that in my book because it’s something 

Mike: people point to often, even for trying to help understand how did we get to this, this very alarming and increasing rate of obesity and okay, so stress generally levels and supported by.

Various psychological research and so forth. It it’s getting worse as well. And so maybe is that one of the driving factors? 

Dr. Stephan: I mean, I will say this, I don’t know what role, like how much that could explain the rise in obesity. Um, but I do think it contributes to elevated calorie intake and worse health in some people.

I mean, you know, excessive stress. I don’t think I need to work hard to convince anybody that it’s not good for you. You know, part of the problem here is that food is one of the most effective ways to comfort yourself and make yourself feel good. Right? Like there’s not a lot of other, well, there are other things you can do, but there’s not a lot of other things that are.

At the level 

Mike: of food. I mean, you have drugs, you have alcohol, you have sex. I mean, it’s, it’s top tier. I think 

Dr. Stephan: probably. It 

Mike: is. 

Dr. Stephan: It’s top tier and it’s easy. That’s part of it is like. Some people may not want to do drugs for various reasons, or might not have access to drugs. And then sex, like, is great, but it involves some, like, it involves some effort, right?

Like, you come together with a person, maybe some people might not have access. But food, like, you can go out and buy almost any food you want. And you don’t even need to go anywhere. Now you just, you, 

Mike: you get on your app and you just order whatever you want. Especially if you live in a big metropolitan area, you have everything 

Dr. Stephan: right there.

You just tap a couple of times. So it’s, it’s hard to compete with really. Um, it’s effective and it’s easy. And so, you know, in my, in my book, for example, I talk about alternatives, uh, calling a friend, taking a bubble bath, uh, sex, uh, reading a book and, and those are all great things. It’s just like fundamentally, it’s really hard to compete with food as, you know, in terms of the ease and effectiveness of it.

And I think that’s part of the problem. I’ll add to the list, doing a workout exercise can be great. Yeah, exercise. Yep. That is what I mentioned in the book. Yeah. And that’s, but again, that’s like, and it’s very, that’s one of the most effective, I think for stress, but, but it’s a lot of work. It’s also one of the most effortful.

Right. And so for a lot of people, it’s just like, if I could get that good feeling, at least, you know, that the short term good feeling I could get that from eating a pizza too, and I don’t have to do all that work. I think just, just on the level of like the really basic like caveman brain, I think that’s a really good value proposition and it really kind of, you know, hits the sweet spot for a lot of people.

Let’s, let’s talk about 

Mike: weight loss and how there are many people who they, they get very, they get overweight to obese or worse and, um, they bend that way for some time. Um, And then they lose weight. Maybe they go about it in a less than optimal way. Maybe it’s kind of starvation dieting or something that could have been improved upon, but they lose, they lose weight.

And as I’m sure many people listening even know that the vast majority of people who lose weight. Are not able to maintain that, that new body weight or maintain a healthy body weight and over the course of the next couple of years, majority of people are gaining that weight back, um, from a neurological perspective and just from the context that you’ve been speaking from, from that perspective, what is going on?

And why does it seem to be so hard for, for some people to keep the weight off? They can lose it fairly easily just with brute force and, you know, rub some dirt on it and get it done. But then it’s, it’s staying there. That is the real challenge. 

Dr. Stephan: Yeah. This is a huge problem and a huge frustration for.

Millions of people in the U. S. alone, unfortunately, what happens, so we have, I’ll just start by explaining that we have this regulatory system for body fatness in our brains, and I like to call it the lipostat, so lipo means fat, and stat means the same. So in a similar way to how a thermostat regulates the temperature in a house, Uh, by measuring the temperature and then applying heat and cold to try to maintain the temperature that you set, the brain has a kind of set point that it’s trying to maintain for your body fatness.

And it measures your body fatness using a hormone called leptin that’s produced by your fat tissue in proportion to its mass. So fat tissue produces leptin. That circulates in your blood in proportion to how much fat you have your brain, particularly a part of your brain called the hypothalamus is measuring that and is using that to enact a behavioral and physiological program to maintain your current level of fat mass.

Now, as we talked about, that system works better at preventing weight loss than weight gain over time, at least over long periods of time. And so that allows people to gain weight. But one of the, the thing that’s really perverse about the system is that set point or the defended level of fat mass, it goes up in people who are gaining weight and people who develop obesity.

The system is regulating around the obese state. It’s not like they have gained weight past their set point. The set point has moved up with their body weight. And so now, the heavier body is being actively defended against weight loss. And I think that’s really important. Probably the main reason why people regain weight over time, we don’t know exactly how much of it is just like habits versus even lack of 

Mike: education.

I mean, many people who they, they follow some sort of fad diet and they think that they lost the weight because maybe they cut out the carbs and, but that’s not a lifestyle that they’re willing to commit to just never eat carbs again. And, but they got it out and they get there and, but then they, they don’t understand the things you’re talking about here.

And so. They gradually just kind of go back to like, okay, well, I’m not going to, I’m not going to follow this keto thing forever. So I guess I’ll just start eating carbs again and, and then naturally fall back into a pattern of overeating just because they don’t understand. 

Dr. Stephan: The two, the two big factors that I tend to cite are one adherence, which is what you’re talking about.

Adherence to whatever the program or diet is, and two is push back from this lipostat. And those are probably not two separate things. Probably one reason why people don’t adhere well is because they’re getting this push back and they’re feeling all this hunger and cravings and stuff. But essentially what happens is when you lose weight and you’re going below your current set point, your brain triggers.

Physiological and behavioral response to regain that fat, and I call this the starvation response. I think that’s an accurate description for it. And essentially, just in the same way that in regulating temperature, your brain would tell you to go to a warm place, make you shiver. Contract your capillary blood vessels in your skin, a whole behavioral and physiological program to protect you against the cold.

It does something very similar to restore the body fat mass. It ramps up your hunger. It ramps down your metabolic rate. It increases your interest in calorie dense foods, your cravings, and that collectively that program tends to bring the fat back and you can resist it like your conscious, you know, rational brain can resist it, but it’s hard and it’s a grind.

And if you’re going to, you know, most people are not able to do that for years, is that, is that 

Mike: really what you would expect it to take to, and, and really, I guess the first question to ask is, can it work in the other direction if you’re able to maintain that new lower body weight or is it, is it just a one way, 

Dr. Stephan: uh, street as far as, so I would say the evidence is not very strong on this right now, but as far as the evidence that there is.

It suggests that it is a one way street, which is, I mean, that’s, that’s terrible. I know it’s really, it’s really sad, right? Uh, it’s really unfair, but I think it is helpful at least for people to know about it. So they don’t blame themselves so much like, yes, this is why you’re struggling. It’s not because of some, you know, personal failure.

But, you know, I, I, I do want to specify there are, I do think there are ways to lower the set point, but in terms of permanently lowering it, like going on some diet, and then you can go back off the diet, and your weight will just stay in the same place, like, there’s no evidence that that’s true, and The evidence that there is suggests that it’s probably not true.

And so 

Mike: then, um, by that really what, what we’re looking at is maybe not having to quote unquote diet per se forever for people listening, but being conscious of, uh, of, of your calories. And it doesn’t mean weighing and tracking everything, but being conscious of your calories or your macros if you want to play it that way, or having really good rules in place for portions and the types of foods that you eat and so forth.

Dr. Stephan: Yeah, I mean, that’s one way to do it. I, you don’t have to be directly thinking about calories or portions. You don’t have to be thinking about quantity another way to do it. And this is the way that I tend to favor is to set up the diet such that your food environment and the types of foods that you’re eating naturally leads you to a lower calorie intake.

So just to give one example. If you’re eating lower calorie dense foods, higher protein foods, you are going, your appetite will be satisfied with fewer calories, and then you won’t need to be tracking your calories. You’ll just be naturally eating fewer of them and hitting your goals ideal, well, hopefully hitting your goals without having to do the tracking.

And, and, you know, I tend to think of this as a more natural way of interacting with food. Like, you know, our ancestors, their way of staying lean wasn’t counting calories. It was just having a food environment and a diet that interacted with their brains and their physiology in such a way that leanness was the result.

And so that’s kind of the way that I favor, but that said, you know, nothing against forcing control, nothing against counting calories for people that works for, um, you know, whatever tool works and that does work for some people. Whatever works is fine by me. 

Mike: And in my experience, many people who feel compelled, uh, who are not naturally drawn to calorie counting or meal planning, I do know though, that many people get benefit from doing it for at least a period of time.

a short period of time. And I’ve just heard from so many people over the years who didn’t realize even what proper portions look like. Okay. So they burn on average, let’s say it’s um, it’s a woman who’s burning a couple thousand calories a day on average. She didn’t know what 2000 calories of nutritious food even looked like no idea.

And so that can be very beneficial for people just to get an idea of, Oh, cool. So that’s a couple of oatmeal and that’s a couple hundred. Okay. And get, get a sense of the foods they like to eat to kind of just calibrate their eye for Does a meal, a balanced meal look like, especially if they came from a place of consistently eating way too much of not necessarily nutritious foods, but just eating too much.

Dr. Stephan: Yeah, makes sense. I know a lot of people benefit from tracking at least for a little while to generate awareness. And what other 

Mike: practical tips might you suggest for just dealing with, um, a lot of these factors that, um, that you’ve been talking about and, and obviously, um, you’ve made it clear and I, and I think you’re right that, that being aware of your environment and consciously engineering your environment is a, is a big one.

Are there any other things that. Um, people might want to consider to just make it easier to naturally maintain a healthy body composition without having to expend a lot of cognitive effort on not overeating, making sure I eat the right things. 

Dr. Stephan: Yeah. So the two big ones I tend to focus on are, and not to say that these are the only ones that matter, but just for sake of time, focusing on high value items.

Food environment, which we’ve talked about a little bit and and then high satiety foods, so food environment, um, not having foods or food images, including food advertising in your personal environment that are going to create attempting scenario or attempting mind state for you to. Uh, engage in eating unwanted eating, I should say.

And then, um, creating little effort barriers. So, you know, you could have oranges on your table and if you’re really hungry and you’re willing to peel that, then sure, you can have the orange, but don’t have A soda or, you know, cookies or something like that sitting on your counter. And then with the satiety piece, I’ll skip the neuroscience part of it just for the sake of time.

But certain types of foods are a lot more filling than others. And that feeling of fullness is in large part what determines at what point we stop the meal and how many calories we have ingested total at that meal. When we hit that fullness point. That can happen after 1500 calories, or it can happen after 700 calories, depending on.

What kind of foods were eating and so foods that tend to have a higher satiety level per calorie are foods that have some combination of lower calorie density, so fewer calories per gram. Think about like oatmeal is mostly water versus crackers, uh, with a very similar nutrient composition are a lot less Satiating because they have very little water in them, less volume filling up your stomach and then, um, protein.

So higher protein is more satiating and then you have fiber. So higher fiber is more satiating and another factor is palatability. So foods that taste really good, foods that taste amazing are less satiating per calorie. Your brain basically takes the brakes off. This is my way of thinking about it. At least when you’re, when it’s a food that’s highly desirable to your.

You know, instinctive, that’s the one you just keep eating and you’re not even hungry. You know, you’re not hungry, but you’re like, it’s too good. I’m, I’m still eating this. And your brain just kind of takes off the brakes and it takes more to feel full in order to allow you to eat more of this food that some part of your brain thinks is highly desirable.

And yeah, so those factors can have a very large impact on how many calories it takes for you to eat before you feel full. So between that and the food environment, I think those are two. Pretty potent levers. And of 

Mike: course, not surprising to, to, to many people, uh, to hear that, um, they’re, they’re supposed to do those things.

But in the context of this conversation, I thought it would be good to, there’s a lot of information that has led up to that advice. Um, and that is, if I’m hearing you, right, is. We, we have this, in a sense, it’s almost an adversarial relationship at this point with, with some of the, the genetics that are not changing anytime soon.

And, uh, if, if you’re an outlier and your genetics actually push you in the opposite direction, fine. But most people are going to have to You have to either try to constantly fight against a lot of these things you’ve been talking about, which I think you’re right in that nobody, even the grittiest alpha male, uh, in the world is going to lose that battle.

Eventually you will lose and so it’s either that or you choose not to fight essentially. And, and if I’m hearing you, that’s, that’s kind of the theme of. Of the strategy that, that you are recommending is, uh, there’s nothing having these types of reactions and these types of urges is totally normal.

There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s not going to change. Unfortunately, that is just the way it is. And you’re not going to be able to beat it in a hand to hand combat. So you’re going to have to out think it. 

Dr. Stephan: Yeah. You’re going to have to outsmart it. Your brain’s just doing what it’s supposed to do. Just like your heart pumping and your, you know, your, your gut’s digesting.

Those parts of your brain are just running their instinctive program. And yeah, you’re not, most people are not going to win in hand to hand combat with it. Yeah. That’s a good way to put it. So you have to outsmart them. And 

Mike: I can speak to myself and anyone listening, um, even if you consider yourself to be highly disciplined and maybe not, not heavily predisposed to these types of behaviors, but I can speak for myself if I think during holidays.

Of course, I’ve experienced everything you’re talking about and I’m in a different food environment and a different social environment and I’m okay with it. And I accept that. Yeah, I’m going to eat more than I normally would, and it’s not going to be a big deal. Uh, but anyway, just, just, just saying for, for, uh, the sake of, uh, that point of no matter how disciplined somebody might be, we’ve all experienced that.

And if I lived in that holiday environment, if that was my normal everyday environment. I, I’m, I don’t know if I would have abs, maybe I wouldn’t because, uh, it’s easy because I do the things that, that you’re talking about. I’ve done them for a long time and that really does make it easy. But when I deviate from that, um, it’s not so easy anymore.

Dr. Stephan: It’s 

Mike: just not. 

Dr. Stephan: And in the context of, you know, you bring up the holidays, I think it’s worth saying that in the United States, about half of our annual average weight gain occurs during the six week holiday period. So. That’s a particularly influential time in terms of population level weight gain. So if you’re going to focus your efforts somewhere, that might not be a bad place to start.

Or minimally, 

Mike: just, just plan on doing a little, little diet period after. If you want to eat, drink, be merry, have fun, I understand. Maybe you gain a bit of body fat, but do the work to lose it afterward. And, uh, we’re, we’re up on time. I know you have to run, so I don’t want to keep you longer, but let’s just wrap up with, uh, where people can find you and find your work, um, your book, anything else you want them to know about.

Dr. Stephan: Yeah, so my book is The Hungry Brain, and, uh, it’s available from all major booksellers. I’m most active on Twitter. My handle is S-G-N-A-G-U-Y-E-N-E-T, and yeah, that’s it. Well, thanks again for your time. This was 

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Barnes and Noble stores. Well, I hope you liked this episode. I hope you found it helpful, and if you did, subscribe to the show because it makes sure that you don’t miss new episodes. And it also helps me because it increases the rankings of the show a little bit, which of course then makes it a little bit more easily found by other people who may like it just as much as you.

And if you didn’t like something about this episode or about the show in general, or if you have Uh, ideas or suggestions or just feedback to share, shoot me an email, mike at muscle for life. com muscle F O R life. com. And let me know what I could do better or just, uh, what your thoughts are about maybe what you’d like to see me do in the future.

I read everything myself. I’m always looking for new ideas and constructive feedback. So thanks again for listening to this episode and I hope to hear from you soon.


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