Ever plowed through a pint of ice cream? Gone back for seconds (or thirds) at a buffet? Then you know how difficult it can be to put the skids on eating. You might curse your lack of willpower, but this doesn’t help you stop doing the same next time.
The problem is in the brain and you have to first understand what really happens in these kinds of moments, to be able to change your eating behavior.
In this special episode of the Legendary Life podcast, Ted discusses the brain’s influence on weight loss with neuroscientist Dr. Stephan Guyenet.
He also answers burning questions such as “Does insulin resistance cause weight gain?” or “Why stress can make you overeat?” and much more. Listen to this episode to learn proven ways to regain control of emotional eating, so it doesn’t control your life.
Dr. Stephan Guyenet is a researcher, science consultant, and science communicator. He earned a BS in biochemistry at the University of Virginia and a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Washington, where he continued as a postdoctoral fellow studying the brain mechanisms that regulate body fatness and eating behaviour.
His scientific publications have been cited more than 2,000 times by his peers. His book, The Hungry Brain, was named one of the best books of the year by Publishers Weekly and called “essential” by The New York Times Book Review. He is currently a Senior Fellow at GiveWell and scientific reviewer for the Examine.com Research Digest. He grows much of his own food and brews a mean hard cider.
Stephan Guyenet’s Book: The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts That Make Us Overeat
- The Stephan Guyenet vs. Gary Taubes debate [03:42-07:50]
- False things promoted by credible health and nutrition professionals [07:59-21:12]
- Weighing of information and conflict of interest [21:14-26:00]
- Cognitive biases and the human brain [26:02-32:36]
- Does insulin resistance cause weight gain? [32:38-41:05]
- Why stress can make you overeat and how to stop it [41:06-50:20]
- What Stephan is trying to do with going to The Joe Rogan and debate Gary Taubes [53:44-55:55]
- And much more…
Podcast Transcription: How Your Brain Is Making You Fat (And What To Do About It) with Stephan Guyenet
Ted Ryce: What’s up, my friend? My name is Ted Ryce, and you’re listening to the Legendary Life podcast. Today, I’ve got Stephan Guyenet. And Stephan, if you don’t know, he’s a neurobiologist who specializes in studying obesity, what causes obesity. And very recently, he went on the Joe Rogan Show to debate Gary Taubes. And if you don’t know, Gary Taubes is, Gary wrote Good Calories, Bad Calories. He’s written a bunch of other books.
And he went on to debate Gary about the true cause of obesity. Now, I’ll tell you, Gary is the smartest person I’ve ever talked to when it comes to understanding the mechanisms driving the obesity epidemic in the modern world. And we get into not only some of that stuff, because I’ve covered it in previous episodes. Just go to legendarylifepodcast.com, and you can listen to my previous episodes with Stephan Guyenet.
But, today, we’re going to get into some philosophical discussions, too. We’re going to talk about why things like this are happening, why a guy like Gary, who is a journalist, is able to challenge people like Stephan, who have a PhD and have done their due diligence, have done their work, have put in the effort to get her PhD, and have conducted scientific research and have a really good understanding of it.
And we also talk about why other medical doctors and people with PhDs kind of share opinions and viewpoints on nutrition and health that are popular. So we get into all that and more. So, what I’m trying to get out here is if you are a bit confused, you don’t know who to believe when it comes to what you should eat, why people are getting overweight, why we’re dealing with such an obesity crisis right now, you’re going to learn a lot.
And I’m so happy with the way this episode turned out. That’s why I’m so excited to bring it to you because we get into more of this discussion about how to think about the information that we’re all inundated with. So you’re going to learn a lot about that and more. I know you’re going to love this episode as much as I did. So, let’s get to the interview with Stephan Guyenet. Stephan Guyenet, thanks so much for coming back on.
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, good to be here, Ted.
Ted Ryce: Yeah. And last time you were here, we talked about food addiction, we talked about the changes in the brain that occur when our ancient brains come into contact with these modern, hyper palatable foods. It was such a great conversation, but this time, I’d like to take a different approach, because I had the good fortune of getting you on my show. As you were going to just—I guess, a couple of weeks before you’re going to get onto Joe Rogan’s podcast and debate Gary Taubes.
And I’d like to dive into that a little bit, Stephan, because we’re in a very interesting time right now where a neuroscientist, a guy with a PhD, in other words, you, are going on a show that’s becoming one of the biggest platforms around for people to get their information from nutrition and otherwise, really, and you’re debating a guy who’s got a best-selling book, who’s a science journalist. I mean, it’s just a weird situation. Why aren’t you debating another scientist, right? And can I just ask you, how do you feel about that situation? And I mean, what is your perspective around that?
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I mean, I think it’s a reflection of the current media environment and just general cultural climate in this country right now. And I don’t want to say that scientists have exclusive access to the truth, and no one else does. I don’t think anyone would make that argument. But, I mean, certainly, I think it’s self-evident that a scientist is generally going to have more expertise in the thing that he studies, than someone who is not a scientist and doesn’t study that thing.
So, yeah, I mean, I think, you know, we—and this goes back hundreds of years in the United States, this is not exclusive to the 21st century, but we kind of have this culture in the United States of self-reliance. You know, that’s a very core cultural trait in the United States, of self-reliance.
And part of that is feeling like we can figure anything out. And just because someone has gone to school and studied something for many years, and then spent most of their life doing full time research on it, that does not really qualify someone to have a greater level of expertise than a person who just kind of mucks around on the internet and thinks about stuff in their spare time.
And so, I think that’s kind of the cultural perspective that we have right now, that allows a person like Gary to be put on a platform that’s equal to or higher than the platform that we put researchers on in terms of respecting expertise and listening to what they have to say. So, I would say that’s kind of like the negative perspective on it.
I would say that there’s also a positive perspective on it, and that is that, you know, I think that there are some things that he’s saying that are right too, you know, like, he is saying, “Hey, this low carbohydrate diet, it’s not going to kill you, maybe it will help you.” And there are some people that were kind of saying that it would kill you. And I think that he’s on the right side of that argument, and people are trying to diet and they’re not dropping dead, and they’re losing weight, and their health is improving. And so they’re saying, you know, this guy must be right, and everybody else is wrong.
So, I would say that’s kind of like the positive way to look at it. But yeah, I mean, I think if I were having a debate with a scientist, it would either not be a debate, or it would be a very different type of debate. I think there’s really not a lot of scientists who I would have like large beefs with that I would even want to do a debate like this with, it’s only someone... The only way I would want to have this kind of debate is with someone who I’m fairly confident is wrong.
Ted Ryce: That’s funny. Well, interesting answer—well stated. I would add something to that as well. It definitely means something if someone has an MD after their name or a PhD, it definitely means they’ve gone through this qualification process in school and advanced education. It means a lot. But we’re in also a strange time in our culture in that sometimes, it still doesn’t mean that they’re right.
Case in point, Jason Fung talking about fasting. I think he’s changed his tune a little bit. And maybe that would have been a better person to—or if we wanted a more scientific debate, that different type of debate that you were talking about. So, he promotes fasting and talks about like the hormonal benefits of fasting, the norepinephrine, the growth hormone that gets released and the low insulin that accelerates fat loss faster than would a typical deficit done without fasting.
And maybe you have some different even opinions about that, but I want to just briefly share a story where one of my earlier clients came on and said, “Ted, you’re telling me that, you know, it’s just about the calorie deficit and keeping your protein at a certain amount and doing a resistance training program with progressive overload. This doctor came on and said the opposite that you’re saying with nutrition. How can I listen to you over a doctor?”
And what I said was, “Well, look at what they’re writing and look at the papers they’re referencing.” There are some doctors who do the research, some PhDs and MDs as well, but a lot of us are getting the information from the same place. And if you’re getting the wrong information or making—if you’re extrapolating things from the research that you’re getting, but not really thinking critically about it.
For example, like all the low carb research that was done, but didn’t equate protein, right? So I could say, low carb diets are superior. Look at the results of this study, that person ate a lot more protein. That’s going to change everything and has very little to do with the low carbohydrate versus low fat, it has more to do with the protein. Can you talk a little bit about that? What are you…?
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah. So, I mean, I think there’s a big difference. People who are not researchers can be obviously well educated on these topics. But I think the problem comes when you want to go rogue and you want to say, “Hey, I may not have the research background in this, I may not have been studying this for decades, but I think all these guys that have been doing that are wrong.’ And then you go to the public and make those kinds of statements. I mean, I think that’s when you start doing...
Ted Ryce: In your best-selling book, right?
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah. I think that’s when you start to run into hot water. And if you’re an educated lay person and you have beliefs that are consistent with a lot of the most educated people in the world on those topics, that’s not the situation that should be raising concern. The situation that should be raising concern is when your opinion differs substantially from the most knowledgeable people in the world.
And, you know, of course, the most knowledgeable people in the world could be wrong, too. I’m not saying that they are never wrong. They could be wrong for a number of reasons, including stubbornness and bias, and whatever. So, it’s not that they’re never wrong. But I think that if you really think you’re right and you really think they’re wrong, I think it should, at a minimum, lead to some serious soul searching, that maybe you’re not as right as you think you are. Because that’s usually what ends up being the case.
And I think the case of Jason Fung is an interesting one too, to examine more closely because he is trained as a nephrologist, the kidney doctor, so he’s not an expert in obesity. He’s not anyone who’s done research on the mechanisms that underlie body fatness, underlie diabetes, underlie cardiovascular disease.
So, really, I mean, he has an education in the fundamentals. Of course, I’m sure he knows a lot about anatomy. And I’m sure he’s gone through all the biochem and organic chemistry and things that doctors go through. So, I’m sure he has a lot of fundamental medical knowledge like any doctor would, but that doesn’t make him an expert in the mechanisms of obesity or diabetes. It makes him an expert in working with patients, particularly from a nephrology perspective, which is what he specializes in.
So, I think that’s yet another case of someone kind of attacking the research community from a position of less knowledge than the research community is in. So, it’s not actually that different than someone without an MD making those same claims. Now, if he was an obesity researcher, then I would feel differently about that. I would say maybe we need to look at this more seriously.
So, I guess I would say that he’s maybe halfway there, but he’s not all the way there in terms of having that high-level of expertise that you would want to have in someone who’s kind of like trying to overturn the kind of majority opinion on some of these matters.
Ted Ryce: Yeah, I hear that. I’ve got a question, it’s not really a personal question, but I guess it’s about your personal views. Some of these people, are they lying? Or are they just...? Obviously, you don’t know the answer to that in terms of like, you don’t know what’s in their mind, even though you’re a neuroscientist, a neurobiologist, Stephan, but are these people lying? Or are they just really into their own beliefs, into their own confirmation bias?
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, I mean, I really don’t know. Like you said, I can’t see what’s going on inside people’s heads. And I try not to make any assumptions about what’s going on inside people’s heads. I certainly see some pretty remarkable levels of bias. But whether that is inadvertent or deliberate, I really can’t speculate on that.
Ted Ryce: Okay. Yeah, it’s something I wonder about sometimes, and I feel like, sometimes we have to ask that question. So, also, I will say this, I’m into getting my name out there, into marketing and branding myself, and I see these guys, they form like, you know, like partnerships, and they all sort of promote each other.
And there is a strong financial incentive to keep going with what you’re doing, especially when it’s working. Yeah, I don’t know whether they’re lying or not either, Stephan, but it is an interesting situation that we’re in. And that’s why so many people who listen to my podcast, come to this podcast to kind of get the truth, or at least closer to the truth, right?
And it’s a tough position for a lot of people to be in, especially when they hear doctors talking about something that, you know, talking about how it’s really carbohydrates that are driving obesity, versus anything else. And they don’t know what to think. So, one of the things…
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, I just want to...Sorry…
Ted Ryce: Yeah, of course.
Stephan Guyenet: …I’m just going to say this real quick here. I mean, throughout American history, there has been so much bullcrap promoted by doctors. And I’m not saying that most doctors are like that, at all. I’m not trying to insult doctors in general. But I mean, there have been a lot of kind of rogue doctors throughout American history that have promoted some absolutely ridiculous nonsense, and I don’t think that has ended today. Just to give you an example, I read this book, Grain Brain, by Perlmutter. I forget his first name.
Ted Ryce: Oh, yeah, David Perlmutter, mm-hmm. He’s one of the ones in the group that’ll promote this to people.
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, he’s like a media sensation. I mean, I was flipping through channels one time when I was visiting my parents, and he was having this like, hour long infomercial, promoting his DVD and stuff. He has like, I mean, this is like an empire. It’s like a financial empire. It’s really impressive. And the guy’s incredibly… he’s incredibly…
Ted Ryce: Wrong?
Stephan Guyenet: Eloquent.
Ted Ryce: Eloquent.
Stephan Guyenet: But he’s very eloquent and persuasive when you hear him talk, he’s incredibly charismatic. That’s the word I’m looking for. He’s a very charismatic person. He could have been a preacher, I think, in a different life. But, I mean, he makes some claims in that book that are just like, head-scratchingly ridiculous. Like, there’s one claim that the diet of our ancestors was, I think he says, like 5% carbohydrate, 80% fat, and 15% protein. No citation.
Ted Ryce: Wow!
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, no citation, just, “Hey, the general diet of all of our ancestors looked like this.” And that was kind of like part of his rationale for recommending that kind of a diet for us now. And then also, there was the claim that the US diet was lower in carbohydrate and higher in fat 100 years ago, which is actually the opposite of what it actually was.
So, this kind of stuff has always existed and has always been promoted by doctors, at least, you know, a small fraction of doctors that, you know, I don’t know what their reasoning is in their head, but certainly, it benefits them a lot financially. And yeah, I think it is a really big problem, because these are people who have credibility by virtue of their medical degree.
And it’s not just doctors. I shouldn’t blame this all on doctors. There are scientists who do this too. There’s, you know, in any profession. Anybody who’s ever worked for NASA, too, has like instant credibility and can say whatever BS they want. So, yeah, there are these labels that give people credibility, and they can be abused. And again, I’m not saying that people are deliberately abusing them. I really don’t know what’s going through their heads, but certainly, you know, promoting viewpoints that are not very evidence-based, and doing harm to public health as a result of having that credibility built in with their degree.
Ted Ryce: Yeah, I mean, how do you eat 80% fat if you’re in Africa, you know, like the Hadza? Maybe if you’re an Inuit and eating whale blubber, but that just doesn’t make sense, just in terms of the geography for a lot of indigenous cultures, it’s like when you get that much fat naturally...
Stephan Guyenet: Exactly.
Ted Ryce: …That ratio of carbohydrate to protein, come on.
Stephan Guyenet: It’s completely implausible. And I mean, even Inuit, yeah, they probably would eaten like that during some seasons, but not year-round. I think for a lot of the year, they were eating more protein and less fat than that. And they also ate some plant foods, you know? So, I think, yeah, it’s just absolutely, completely implausible, and there’s no evidence to support it, so it’s just like, why did he write it? I don’t know the answer to that question.
Ted Ryce: Yeah, it would be interesting. Unfortunately, I probably won’t ever get the—because if I ever got those guys on, that’s what I would be asking them. And I don’t think that’s going to go down too well. Maybe, maybe not, we’ll see. But those are the types of questions that I have for those people. There’s another one who talks about the damaging properties of dietary lectins and why we shouldn’t be eating too many?
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, Gundry?
Ted Ryce: Yeah, yeah, him, and it gets really confusing for people. I will say this, though, Stephan, there’s a lot of loss of trust in experts, or at least mainstream experts, especially when they’re not so eloquent with making their cases, I think the whole thing that we’re seeing with vaccinations right now with the public, being very wary, or a substantial percentage of the public being very wary about vaccinations, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.
But I think partly, it’s the mainstream establishment that has kind of cut the—or created that negative relationship as a whole, where it’s, you even hear some of the people criticize some of the studies, it’s like, well, who are they paid by? It’s like, well, of course, every study has to be paid for by someone. It doesn’t necessarily negate the validity of a study...
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah.
Ted Ryce: …Anyone who paid for it. Even if you could say it’s a little shady, it doesn’t necessarily negate it.
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, I agree that. I mean, if you can’t find a problem, a specific problem that makes you think that those researchers were biased as a result of the funding source, then I just don’t think you have much of a case. And, I mean, I think when people make these kinds of claims, often you should examine the person making the claim first, because often, they have massive conflicts of interest.
I think these types of conflicts of interest, you know, you see journalists like Gary Taubes, and Nina Schultz and people like that, they kind of style themselves as these independent thinkers who are pointing out conflicts of interest in others, but they have a massive conflict of interest. I mean, their entire success of their careers, depends on continuing to promote these controversial ideas to the public.
And so, I mean, I think conflict of interest is something that can apply to anyone and can be very insidious. And yes, it definitely is something that is concerning in the scientific community and in scientific research. I’m not trying to minimize that in any way. But at least in science, there are systems in place to control conflicts of interest. If you’re looking outside of science, if you’re looking at the publishing industry or in the food industry or places like that, there’s no controls in place. There’s no guard rails there to protect the audience against bias arising from conflicts of interest.
And so I think, yeah, I guess I find it a little humorous when the pot calls the kettle black in situations like that. I mean, that said, I think it’s obviously not irrational to worry about where a study’s funding source comes from. There are some concerns there that should exist. But I think people blow it out of proportion and they kind of use it as a cudgel. What I see most often is people will use that argument, only on studies that return findings they don’t like.
Ted Ryce: Right.
Stephan Guyenet: Oh, they’ll say, oh, you know, this was paid for by, I don’t know, big, something, big meat, or big, sugar or whatever. But then when a study that was funded by an industry they like comes out, then nobody really talks about the conflict of interest there. So you see a lot of that.
And actually, this is something that I see a lot in Gary’s writing, where he’ll write chapters and chapters about the conflicts of interest of people who were not anti-sugar back in the 50s through 70s, and 80s, people who thought fat was more of a problem than sugar, but then won’t talk about the massive conflicts of interests of the people who were saying that really, the problem was sugar and not fat.
Like John Yudkin, probably had bigger conflicts of interest than anyone else that Gary has ever written about. And yet, there’s not a word about that in his books. I mean, he was massively on the payroll of meat and dairy and other higher fat animal food industry to kind of do what he did to publicly attack sugar. So yeah, anyway, it cuts both ways on that.
Ted Ryce: Let’s give the benefit of the doubt to everyone we’re speaking about and just say it’s these cognitive biases that they have, right? And we can even tease out...we can even say even before they started getting financial success, they had to do this thing, right, promote this certain viewpoint. Is there a neuro biological reason you can share with us that this type of thing happens even with some of the most brightest, smartest, most educated minds?
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, I mean, I can’t really give you the neuroscience on it. But I mean, certainly, you know, the human brain is not optimized as a truth-seeking organ, the human brain is optimized as a self-interest-seeking organ. And sometimes truth benefits self-interest, and sometimes it doesn’t. And I think the human brain is very good at convincing us that something is true when it’s in our self-interest.
And so I don’t think you have to assume that there’s any ill intent when someone promotes things that are false. I think, often, maybe they actually believe that thing, you know, and it’s just something that kind of, on some level, some part of their brain recognize that it would be beneficial to promote this thing, and so they do it.
But I also, you know, I don’t want to be too hard on Gary or on Jason Fung and those other people here, because I want to acknowledge that there is some benefit that they’re bringing. Like, a guy like Jason Fung, he’s treating patients and probably benefiting them. He’s advocating a low carbohydrate dietary approach for diabetes, which I think is a very reasonable thing to do. He is advocating for fasting, which has a long history of usefulness in diabetes management, I think going back like a century, maybe even further than that.
So, you know, I don’t want to completely say these people are devoid of value, but I just wish that some of the stuff that came along with the value was a little bit more evidence-based, I guess, you know? And I would also say like with Dr. Fung, he takes a very aggressive attitude toward trying to “debunk” everything that kind of challenges his beliefs. And he’s very quick to say that people who disagree with him are liars and scammers, even mainstream doctors, the people who gave him his medical license, his colleagues are basically scamming people with diabetes and lying to them. And I guess I wish that we could just have the beneficial parts of what they do without the conspiracy stuff and the hot air associated with it.
Ted Ryce: I appreciate that perspective, especially the fact that you’re willing to recognize the value in those people who may be say and do things that kind of rubbed you the wrong way, and rubbed me the wrong way. But they’re also, if you look at what they’re doing, they are bringing value, they’re helping people with their lives.
I’ve had Dave Asprey a couple times on this show, not in a while, because I really, in my search for the truth, or scientific objectivity, so I could get better results for the coaching clients who pay their hard-earned money and spend their valuable time to work with me, I was curious about what he was up to. And I had him on a couple times. And I’ve got to say, in his case, I really liked the guy.
And a lot of the people in the evidence-based, or who would identify as evidence-based, really, some people reached out to me, and not people who really know me or listen to the show very much, but just saw that I had interviewed him and I promoted the interview, and attacked me for it. And I was curious, I wanted to talk to the guy and I ended up talking to him twice. And you know what, Stephan, he was a nice guy.
He’s very successful, financially successful, doing very well, doesn’t have to come on this show, you know? And he did it. And he was nice to talk to. And I’ll tell you, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the research—I forget the name of this study. But it’s basically how negative people in your life, for lack of a more scientific criterion, but how negative people bring down individuals, and also even groups, more powerfully than positive individuals do.
And I feel like there’s a strong negative vibe going on in at least the evidence-based health and fitness and nutrition circles that I see. And that’s something that I would wish would change about the other side, the side that supposedly is on the side of truth. It’s like, well, you’re not helping your case, when you’re just busy trolling and not helping your clients as much as you should or trying to get good information out there just talking negative about everybody. It’s not really helping.
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, I hear you. I hear you. And I wonder sometimes whether I’m falling into that category, I probably do sometimes.
Ted Ryce: I don’t think so. I follow your stuff regularly. I don’t think so.
Stephan Guyenet: All right. Well, I appreciate that. In any case, it’s an issue that I’m certainly aware of. No, I agree with you. I mean, I think there are certain personality types who just love to criticize. And, you know, they’re not necessarily creating value. They’re just, you know, trying to take down things that they perceive as wrong. And I don’t know, there’s a place for that, I guess. But I could see you not necessarily wanting to have that be your only source of information.
Ted Ryce: Yeah, for sure. Well, hey, let’s change gears a little bit. You mentioned something on your website in one of your articles about how insulin might be related to the effects of fat loss, something that guys like Gary Taubes have argued with the carbohydrate insulin model of obesity. And you think that the carbohydrate insulin model the whole idea, in case you’re listening right now, you haven’t heard that term before.
It’s basically, you eat carbs, carbs raise your blood sugar, that raises insulin, insulin makes you store fat. So that’s kind of the big deal versus how much total food you eat, in terms of how many calories or whatever. It’s really about these carbohydrates. And that has proven to be false time and time again. But you had said there might be some hormonal effects specific to insulin that may affect fat loss. Can you talk about that?
Stephan Guyenet: I’m not sure exactly what you’re referring to. Are you talking about the genetics study? The Mendelian randomization study that David Ludwig was involved in? Or was this just a general comment that I made?
Ted Ryce: Yeah, it was a general comment that you felt there was some...
Stephan Guyenet: Okay. Yeah, sure. Yeah, I think I know what you’re talking about. So, I mean, basically, there are many different versions that you could articulate of the insulin obesity hypothesis. And the version that Gary Taubes advocates, which is very similar to the version that David Ludwig advocates is an extreme version, that’s like, you know, carbs raise insulin, it acts directly on fat cells and makes you fat, and that’s the primary cause of obesity.
So that’s like a very strong argument, you know, a very strong model, you’re basically saying this is it, this is what causes obesity. But I mean, there are a lot of different versions that you could make. So, insulin does a lot of things in the body and insulin resistance changes a lot of things. So there’s a lot of opportunity for one of those things that have something to do with obesity.
And one thing that would immediately make the hypothesis more plausible is if you were instead of saying, “Hey, this is the cause of obesity,” if you were to say, “Hey, this is one contributing factor,” because if you tell me that this factor accounts for 10% of variation in body fatness between individuals, that’s a lot harder to refute, than the hypothesis that it accounts for 95% of the differences in body fat between individuals.
If you’re saying it’s 95%, you better have a pretty damn ironclad evidence to support your hypothesis. If you’re saying it’s 10%, then it’s not very easy to refute at that point, and it’s also not that easy to detect. So you could say, well, maybe we just haven’t detected the effect yet. So that’s one way in which it could be more plausible.
And then there are—and that’s not my preferred way, but I’m just acknowledging that that’s a possibility. So like, if Gary came out tomorrow and said, “Okay, yeah, calories matter, I just think in the long term, maybe insulin kind of boosts fat gain a little bit.” That would be something where I’d be like, “Okay, that doesn’t piss me off, because at least it’s not obviously wrong.”
But there are the other possibilities. So you know, we have these circuits in our brains that regulate body fatness and appetite. And these circuits respond both to signals from inside the body and signals from outside the body to set your appetite and your preferred level of body fatness. And one of the most powerful signals that we probably talked about last time, maybe we did, I don’t remember is leptin. But another signal is insulin.
And the effects of insulin on the brain and on appetite and body fat regulation, were actually known even before we discovered leptin. And that was some of the work that my mentor, Mike Schwartz, was intimately involved in. So, if you take some insulin, and you inject it into the brain, animals will eat less, and they will lose fat, if you do it chronically. So, there are receptors that are in some of these same parts of the brain that respond to this other hormone, leptin.
And insulin is kind of like leptin’s kid brother, it mildly suppresses appetite and food intake. However, if you become insulin resistant, then that insulin cannot exert its effect like it once did. And so if those circuits suddenly aren’t responding to that insulin very well, because you become insulin resistant, then maybe you’re going to lose that appetite suppressing effect. And you’re going to have a hard time controlling your appetite and your body fat.
So, I would say, you know, that’s certainly a way in which the hypothesis could be plausible as well. And that would be the version, you know, if I had to like pick one version that I find the most plausible, that would be it. But again, I really would have a hard time believing that that would be the primary driver, but could be a contributor.
And I’ll also say that, you know, as I mentioned before, there are many different things that insulin does, many things that insulin resistance changes in the body. And so, there are potentially a million things that could relate to obesity, but there’s just not a lot of very strong evidence right now that any of them are playing a major role.
Ted Ryce: Yeah, I hear you. And I’m glad we got into that, but it was more for the people who are maybe falling, or getting seduced by this idea of like, oh, weight loss is all about hormones. It’s like, yeah, well, if that’s the case, it’s about insulin and leptin and how that affects your behavior, but it’s not directly related to whether you lose fat or not.
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah. And also, one other thing I want to clarify is that a lot of people, you know, the idea of hormones being in control is this very seductive idea that’s like very intuitively plausible. And hormones obviously are important, but I think what some people haven’t been cued up to is that hormones are only one avenue for physiological regulation, and they are an important avenue, but the neuro system is another very important avenue.
And we know that the brain regulates a lot of physiology. It has nerves going everywhere, it regulates body fatness, it regulates your blood pressure, it regulates your digestion, your body temperature. So, a lot of physiology in your body is being regulated directly by your brain, through nerve impulses, not through hormones, necessarily. And that is a major avenue of physiological regulation. And so, I think hormones clearly are important, but I think we can’t lay everything at the feet of hormones. That’s not how the body works.
Ted Ryce: Yeah, Menno Henselmans actually put forth like an interesting idea and backed it with quite a bit of research, is that if you want to optimize your hormones, you lose fat the way pretty much every bodybuilder and every dieter and everybody who’s successfully lost fat, you lose fat. In other words, you lose fat to optimize your hormones, or you address your sleep to optimize your hormones or your cravings, right? It’s just not as sexy and seductive to talk about it like that.
Could you talk a little bit about the other things? I mean, we dove into addiction last time, talked a fair bit about it, it was a fascinating discussion. And I’ll make sure the link to that episode is up on the show notes for this interview, in addition to the first time you’ve been on the show. This is actually your third time. But the idea that there are these other things that make us eat more. Can you talk a little bit about stress eating and what the neuroscience says about that?
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, absolutely. So, if you look at surveys conducted by the American Psychological Association on stress, these surveys are called Stress in America, what they report is that a lot of people overeat when they feel stressed. And it’s actually not universal. Some people under eat, some people overeat, but more people tend to overeat and under eat, and that’s particularly true for women, actually. Women are more susceptible on average, than men to stress overeating.
And yeah, so this is a big deal, so why do we do that? There are probably a couple different reasons. One of them is this hormone, cortisol, where once your brain detects stress, there’s this kind of cascade of nerve impulses that end in your adrenal glands and start producing cortisol, and cortisol goes back to the brain, then it kind of dampens some of these circuits that regulate body fatness and appetite and makes them favor higher appetite and higher body fatness.
And so you see this in people who take cortisol as a drug. Cortisol is an incredibly powerful anti-inflammatory drug. And I should say it’s not literally cortisol, it’s drugs that act on the cortisol receptors. And that’s an incredibly powerful anti -inflammatory drug. And so it’s used when necessary, medically, but when you give people this drug, it makes them gain fat, and particularly around the midsection, and it really screws up their metabolism, so brings them closer toward a diabetic state.
And the evidence, I would say is not ironclad on this, but it’s seems like the amount of cortisol that is released during everyday stress is enough to kind of push us in that direction. And we see this in observational studies too. People who experienced a lot of job-related stress, tend to gain more weight over time, tend to have higher rates of diabetes, tend to have higher cardiovascular disease rates. It’s really not good.
And we see this in primate experiments, too. I wrote about some of those in my book as well. And so that’s one way that it can happen. And there’s another way too, which is that stress makes us want to eat comfort food. And comfort foods tend to be calorie dense, refined foods that are more fattening than the types of foods that we might normally consume.
And so, the interesting thing about that is that it actually dampens the brain circuits that promote stress. And so this nerve activity, the neuron activity in your amygdala and other parts of your brain that mediate these stress responses, actually is dampened—at least animal research suggests this—is dampened by eating really tasty food. And it’s kind of interesting; you can do with sugar, you can do with fat, and you can do with sex. So, it doesn’t even have to be food.
And again, this comes from animal experiments, so they had, I guess, mice and rats hoping to see what would happen in the brain during stress, so it’s not exclusively food. So, basically, anything that makes you feel good dampens the stress response. So it’s not just comfort food, it’s comfort anything, you know, bubble bath, going for a walk, calling a friend, going for a bike ride, having sex, whatever it is that you enjoy.
And I would argue that a lot of those other activities are probably more constructive than eating comfort food. But obviously, comfort food is particularly seductive, because it’s easy, you know, like…
Ted Ryce: Yeah.
Stephan Guyenet: You know, if you went for a jog, you’d probably feel a lot better. But that requires, you know, clearing this effort barrier. Eating comfort food does not require clearing an effort barrier, it actually is effortful to not eat delicious food, you know, so it’s like, pleasurable to eat it and it relieves your stress, and it doesn’t require any effort.
So that’s pretty tough to compete with, I would say, from other types of natural rewards. But, I don’t know, I mean, even if you can just get partial relief by going outside or taking a bath, calling a friend, I still think that might be enough to stave off some of the unhealthy food consumption.
Ted Ryce: Yeah, great points. Stephan. It makes me think about some of the clients that I’ve worked with. And some of the stories that I’ve heard from people who listen to the show...I had a client once tell me, he’s like, “I don’t have a lot of pleasure in my life and food is one of the few sources of pleasure? And so, a big part of the coaching was trying to help him facilitate other, like, better connections with people, more of a community of friends, other things that he was into, to give him pleasure in his life, so that he wouldn’t turn to food.
And I’m thinking, you mentioned sex, and like you said, there’s this barrier of effort. And there’s a barrier of effort in terms of the effort that it takes to go for a jog or to even pick up your cell phone and call your family or friends, versus just run to the refrigerator and reach for the chocolate cake or the ice cream in the freezer.
But there’s also a situation where a lot of people have these tough lives where they have kids, they’re sacrificing themselves in part for the kids, taking them places, making sure the kids are on point with what they need to do to excel in life. And then they work these jobs with long hours, and maybe they don’t get to see their partner as much, or they’ve started putting on weight over the years.
And now that they look at each other, and it’s like, “Hmm, you know, sex or chocolate cake? Hmm, you know, we’re kind of older, we’re a few pounds heavier. I’m not so attracted to you. And you know, that chocolate cake, let’s have some Netflix and watch some Netflix and food instead of doing all these other things that you’re talking about.”
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, I mean, I recognize that it’s challenging. I don’t have an easy answer for that at all. All I will say is that I think it’s worth trying to make the effort because ultimately, regularly indulging and comfort food is destructive. And it’s worth at least trying to find other ways to either manage that stress. Or maybe if you’re able to reduce the stress, even just making a plan to think about how you can address the stress. You know, even just having a plan you If you don’t even successfully execute it, having a plan makes you feel more in control.
And the worst type of stress is uncontrollable stress. That’s the kind that has the greatest physiological and psychological response. If you can get control, that’s the best. But even if you can just make yourself feel like you’re getting control that even as valuable, but yeah, I mean, like I said, it’s not an easy problem to solve. And I don’t pretend to have simple, easy solutions. But I do think that if you’re someone where that’s a major sticking point for you in terms of your weight and health, it’s certainly worth examining strategies to address it.
Ted Ryce: Yeah. Well said, I guess that will that’s spoken like a true researcher. And I guess that’s the other side where we need kind of the people like me to go and work with individuals and coach them pass these issues. Stephan, I have one… actually, two more questions. One big question, then it’s just a final parting question. Do you have time for those?
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah.
Ted Ryce: Cool.
Stephan Guyenet: So, something I’ve been thinking about a lot, Stephan, is what it takes to make a breakthrough in someone’s life. And when I say that, I think immediately, at least I do anyway, about the brain and the experiences that cause us to create a permanent shift in our behavior, or shift in our perspective, to where we end up living lives differently.
I mean, it could be a death in the family; change happens so quick, you don’t have to think about how you feel about that situation, it just hits you hard. And I think the same is also true when you find the right positive situation. And from the...I hesitate to call it research, but from the reading that I’ve done, and from some of the studies that I’ve looked at, it seems that this idea of embodied learning is really important.
This idea that even though I love having these conversations with people like you, Stephan, people who listen to them, it’s not going to create a big, emotional charge in them, maybe they enjoy listening to it, maybe they go to work feeling all pumped up, but then they get sucked into their daily life, and just that energy that listening to this podcast created is gone.
Another thing that I saw is for learning to take place. And I learned this from books talking about how to speak better, which is when—and we’ve talked about dopamine in the arena of food addiction and food cravings last time when you were here, but also, experiences that create a high amount of dopamine will lead to changes, it can lead to state change that may lead to a behavior change later. Do you have any thoughts on that what it takes to create new habits or to create a breakthrough in someone’s life?
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, I mean, I think that is a good question and it’s an important question. The bigger question, I guess is, how do you motivate someone to make lasting positive changes? And unfortunately, I’m just going to have to say that this is not really something that I know that much about. It’s more a matter of psychology than neuroscience, I would say, and I’m not a psychologist, but I’ll simply agree with you that it’s an important question, but I think I’ll have to leave that to other folks.
Ted Ryce: Okay, I appreciate that man, you know, staying within your boundaries there, I appreciate that. You don’t even have anything like personal that you could share?
Stephan Guyenet: Not off the top of my head, no.
Ted Ryce: All right. So, man, I really enjoyed this conversation a lot. It took a really different trajectory than what we spoke about last time. And I think it’s an important conversation that needs to be had. And man, just really psych that we were able to hop on before your Joe Rogan experience with Gary Taubes.
I guess the thing that I’d like to ask you is, what is the one thing that you want people to take away from your interview today and what you’re trying to do with going on Joe Rogan to debate this guy who you think is just 90% wrong?
Stephan Guyenet: I guess maybe the most important thing that we talked about today is this general principle that we live in a cultural and media environment that does not really respect expertise. And it’s not limited to the health and nutrition world; we see this in politics. We see it all over the place in the kind of like, post-truth attitude that we have in a lot of information that surrounds us in this country.
And so I think just kind of recognizing that and allowing it to inform our attitudes going forward, I think is important. As far as my debate with Gary, you know, I want to show very clearly that his idea is incorrect. And I think there’s a lot of evidence that supports my position on that, and I’ll be citing that evidence.
But more than that, I also want to present an alternative. I want to present my alternative, which is the one that most of the scientific community believes in, and the one that doesn’t get a lot of airtime in the type of large media platforms that Gary usually is able to command. And so I think, you know, kind of showing people, “Oh, hey, the researchers, maybe they’re not just all idiots, like, Gary would say, maybe they actually have a point. And maybe we should think twice before swallowing a hook line and sinker the stories of folks like Gary.”
Ted Ryce: Gotcha, yeah, that’s going to be a good one. Really looking forward to see it.
And Stephan, man, thanks for being you. Thanks for being...You’re one of my favorite people to speak to and to learn from because you have this, what I feel is a very balanced position where you’re able to see the good, the bad, you’re able to, you know, tease things out and not get, you know, you’re passionate about what you do, but you’re able to control your emotions, so you don’t end up sounding like some of the people who were trying to get people away from right. Thanks so much for coming on today and sharing your wisdom again, and most importantly, spending your time with the listeners.
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah. Thanks, Ted. Good to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
Ted Ryce: And I’ll have all the links to your websites and all your books and everything. Is there anywhere else where you’d like people to go? I know you’re quite active on the Twitter.
Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, Twitter is really the main place where I’m putting out information right now. So, a lot of it’s just research papers, some of its me making comments on various things and getting annoyed at people for writing stupid things. But, yeah, Twitter would be my most active place.
Ted Ryce: Okay, you got it. Well, I hear a crying baby in the background. I know you’ve got to go.
Stephan Guyenet: That is correct.
Ted Ryce: So thanks again, Stephan. And looking forward to your talk with Joe and Gary, and looking forward to having you on again in the not too distant future.
Stephan Guyenet: All right, thanks. Sounds good.
Ted Ryce: That wraps up another episode of the legendary life podcast. And I hope you got a lot out of today’s episode. We dived into some information. We took this conversation in directions that aren’t the usual for my interviews with Stephan. I wanted to get a little bit deeper and talk about this climate that we live in, and to try to understand what is going on here with our culture with the obesity epidemic.
And with this culture of information overload, where nobody knows what to believe, nobody knows who’s telling you the truth, who really believes in what they believe in, but it doesn’t have to be true and why other people know, at least, let’s not use the truth, but what the best evidence says, but why they’re not getting their message out there. So, we got into that. You took a lot away from that.
And by the way, just to remind you, I really appreciate everybody who’s reached out to me and told me what they wanted more of on the podcast. So, if you have some ideas, if you want to let me know how you thought about this episode, and what you’d like to hear on this show in terms of topics, in terms of guests, you can go to either Facebook or Instagram and find me @TedRyce. And let me know what your suggestions for the show are. Let’s take podcasts in a direction where it’s serving you better and covering the topics, getting the guests on that you want to hear.
Thank you so much for checking out this episode of the Legendary Life Podcast. If you haven’t done so already, please take a minute and leave a quick rating and review of the show on Apple Podcast by clicking on the SUBSCRIBE BUTTON on your left. Then, write a sentence or two saying what you love about our podcast. It will support the show and help us to keep delivering life-changing information for you every week!
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.