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493: How To Outsmart Your Hungry Brain with Stephan Guyenet, Ph.D.

Most people fail to understand how their environment could be making weight loss difficult for them. Could the mainstream diet and lifestyle be making you fat? Figuring out how your genes, environment, diet, and lifestyle contribute to obesity is important in understanding how to lose weight and keep it off.

Why do some people gain weight more easily than others? Is obesity a chronic brain condition? Can food be addictive and why? Do you believe that you need to spend hours in the gym to change your body? Learn the truth about the people who are the most susceptible to weight gain and why that may be.

Have you ever wondered about the link between stress and obesity? How does psychological stress affect cardiovascular disease risk? And how can you improve stress levels and optimize your sleep? Understand how to work with what we’re dealt when it comes to optimizing our health.

In this episode, our special guest, neuroscientist Stephan Guyenet Ph.D., explains the neuroscience of eating behavior and obesity; and how your brain is making you fat.

Tune in to learn the causes and effects of obesity, the link between stress and obesity, how to improve stress levels and optimize sleep, and how genes can influence our weight.

 

Today’s Guest

Stephan Guyenet

Stephan J. Guyenet, Ph.D. After earning a BS in biochemistry at the University of Virginia, Stephan pursued a Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Washington, then continued doing research as a postdoctoral fellow.

He spent a total of 12 years in the neuroscience research world studying neurodegenerative disease and the neuroscience of eating behavior and obesity. His publications in scientific journals have been cited over 1,400 times by my peers.

Today, he continues his mission to advance science as a writer, speaker, and science consultant. His book, The Hungry Brain, was released on February 7, 2017. Current consulting clients include the Open Philanthropy Project and the Examine.com Research Digest. He is also the co-designer of a web-based fat loss program called the Ideal Weight Program.
Stephan lives in the Seattle area, where he grows much of his own food and brew a mean hard cider.

Connect to Stephan Guyenet

Stephan Guyenet’s Website

Follow Stephan Guyenet on Twitter

Stephan Guyenet’s Book: The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts That Make Us Overeat

 

You’ll learn:

  • Can food be addictive and why?
  • The medical definition of obesity
  • Is obesity a chronic brain condition?
  • How the environment affects our weight
  • The people who are most susceptible to weight gain
  • The causes and the effects of obesity
  • The link between stress and obesity
  • Psychological stress and cardiovascular disease risk
  • How to improve stress levels and optimize sleep
  • How genes can influence our weight
  • The brain science behind hunger and satiation
  • Why do some people gain weight more easily than others?
  • How your brain is making you fat
  • How to train your brain to beat food addiction
  • And much more…

 

Links Mentioned:  

Join the “FIT TO LEAD” Facebook Group Now!

legendarylifeprogram.com/apply

www.redpenreviews.org

 

Related Episodes:  

307: How To Retrain Your Brain To Beat Food Addiction With Stephan Guyenet

237: Dr. Stephan Guyenet: The New Science Of Fat Loss

465: The New Science Of Fat Loss with Dr. Stephan Guyenet

354: How Your Brain Is Making You Fat (And What To Do About It) with Stephan Guyenet

 

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Podcast Transcription: How To Outsmart Your Hungry Brain with Stephan Guyenet, Ph.D.  

Ted Ryce: Stephan Guyenet, thanks so much for coming back on the show. Super excited to have you back, man.

Stephan Guyenet: Thanks for having me, Ted.

Ted Ryce: Yeah. And today…I mean, we’ve covered so many things the last few times that you were on. We talked a bit about how food can be addictive. And I want to dive a bit deeper into that conversation today because it’s something that...I don’t know, I think it needs to be discussed. I’ve got a lot of personal questions about it, honestly. So, can we just dive right in?

Stephan Guyenet: Absolutely.

Ted Ryce: If you look at the medical definition of obesity from the American and the Canadian medical authorities, obesity is described as a brain disease. And so, there’s this brain disease model, it’s also talked about as being highly genetic.

And yet, there’s definitely a behavioral component to it as well. And there’s definitely a bit like an environmental change that has happened. What I’d love you to do, can you just talk about the medical definition? Or the medical perspective, rather, of obesity as a brain disease and talk a little bit about your thoughts, since you’re a neurobiologist?

Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, absolutely. So yeah, I mean, there are a number of different topics that you just raised that we can dig into. So, I’ll start with the idea of obesity as a brain disease. I’m not real clear on what qualifies something as a disease versus not a disease or condition. So, I don’t really have strong opinions on whether we should call it a disease or not.

I think a lot of the question of whether we should call something a disease or not relates to how we want to relate with it medically. So, do we want that to be something that is formally recognized within the medical system and is explicitly treated as opposed to just being treated to be a means to an end of preventing diabetes or preventing heart attacks or something like that? So is it an end in its own right?

But as far as… I mean, it is… whether you want to call it a disease or not, and think about it as a disease or not, it is definitely a chronic brain condition. So, there are changes in how the brain processes information related to body weight regulation, related to your relationship with food that are durably altered in obesity.

And so, a person who has obesity, it is possible to take people who have obesity, it’s possible for them to lose weight and become lean again, or at least leaner.

Physiologically and neurobiologically, a weight-reduced person with obesity is not the same as someone who never had obesity at that same reduced weight, if that makes sense. So, let me explain it a different way to make sure everyone’s following me.

So, let’s say we have someone who is lean, who has never had obesity, and then we have someone else who is lean, who formerly had obesity, those two people are not the same physiologically and neurobiologically.

The person who formerly had obesity has a much higher risk of developing obesity again, of going back to that obese state. There’s a neurobiological and physiological force pushing that person’s weight back up. And that relates to things that happened in the brain.

And it’s not just genetic, it’s a gene-by-environment interaction. So, there are certain environments that are obesity-promoting, you know, related to the characteristics of the food environment and psychological stress and physical activity and all that. Certain environments will be more obesity-promoting than others. But how much that actually fattens you, depends on what your genetic makeup is.

And so, if you look in the general population, differences between individuals in a country like the United States or whatever affluent country you want to look at, are primarily due to genetic differences between individuals.

So basically, the interpretation is we’re all swimming in this fattening environment. And for the most part, the ones who do not develop obesity are people who have obesity resistant genetics; the ones who do develop obesity, have obesity susceptible genetics.

Ted Ryce: Can we just unpack that? Because I feel like someone’s going to listen to that and say, “Oh, well, I’m obese. It’s my genes.” And I heard it on this podcast from this neurobiologist.”

Can you just talk about specifically what’s going on? Because I’ve been there in a place where I was struggling to lose fat. And I was a low-carber, to the point where I was going out of my way to put coconut oil on my veggies and butter things because healthy fat helps you burn more fat.

And when it didn’t happen for me when I was struggling, I started coming up with all these physiological reasons, even though I wasn’t knowledgeable enough to really understand. I wasn’t an expert with the knowledge to be able to self-diagnose, but there I was, just like so many other people, it’s like, well, it’s got to be my hormones. And I was just eating too many calories. Can you talk about what specifically is at play?

Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, so I mean, it’s all a gene by environment interaction. The same people that today are developing obesity, if they were, let’s say, in the United States, 43% of US adults have obesity, if you take those people, and you put them 200 years ago, in the United States, most of them would not have obesity, even with the same genetics. So, it is very dependent on the environment.

And I don’t want to make it seem like individuals don’t have any control, because I don’t think that’s true. But if you’re just going with the flow and doing things that are culturally typical in your culture, your body fatness is mostly going to be determined by your genes, because you’re doing stuff that’s similar to everybody else, you’re all doing stuff that tends to be fairly fattening. And so, if you don’t get that, it’s because you’re not really very susceptible to those environmental fattening influences.

But we know that weight loss diets can be helpful, people can lose weight, people can prevent weight gain, but you have to get yourself off the beaten path environmentally. So, if you’re not getting yourself off of the mainstream diet and lifestyle that’s making everybody fat, then you can’t expect to experience a different outcome if you’re a person who is genetically susceptible.

So, I don’t want to give people the impression that there’s nothing that we can do about it, I think there really is. I think it is harder to reverse obesity than it is to prevent it. Because once you have that established state in your brain, it’s very difficult to get rid of that.

And I know there’s always success stories about people who managed to become lean and stay lean and that’s wonderful for those people. But that’s really a small minority of people with obesity who succeed with that.

And some of that is related to having the right strategy and the right support. But some of it is just that those people are struggling against systems that are hard to struggle against, just non-conscious brain systems that don’t want them to lose weight. And I don’t think that can be underestimated.

Ted Ryce: Can you talk about how it shows up, though, because someone might hear this gene talk, and you’re doing a great job of sharing how it’s, you know, you shouldn’t give up hope.

But someone might say, “Well, I’m fat because of my genes,” but not understand the mechanism. Like, is it hunger? Is it mostly hunger? Is it that people who have obesity are more susceptible to hyper palatable foods? I mean, what exactly is going on? Is it that when they try to lose weight their body just—they don’t move as much because they downregulate their fidgeting? What is it specifically that the genes are causing? In other words, the behaviors that people are really struggling with that they may be unconscious of?

Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, that’s a good question. And we still have a lot to work out in this regard, so I don’t want to give people the impression that we know everything.

However, some things that we do know are that if you look at differences in body fatness in the general population and you look at what are the genetic factors that account for those differences in body fatness, primarily, the genes that are showing up are genes that are primarily brain related.

So essentially, the main thing that determines who gets fat and who does not in the general population of affluent countries, is how our brains developed and run genetically throughout our lives. So, to put that another way, how our genes influence how our brains develop and how they operate. And if you think about like, what impact could the brain have on body fatness, there are a lot of different ways in which you could think about how the brain might influence body fat.

And so, the most obvious one is via food intake.

The brain is the organ that generates eating behavior. So, the brain has everything to do with both what you eat and how much you eat. And also, the brain is the only known site in the body that contains a system that actually actively regulates your body fatness.

So, just like you have a system that regulates your body temperature to keep it in the right range, there’s a system that regulates your body fatness, and in people with obesity, that system is regulating at a higher level.

And so, there are probably many paths; you have to be the type of person whose body fat regulatory system is willing to reregulate up to a higher level. But you also have to be a type of person who has a large enough appetite, either because you’re highly susceptible to particularly being tempted by tasty foods or because you don’t feel as much fullness when you eat the same amount as another person.

Maybe there are genes related to how likely we are to do physical activity. There are probably a number of different paths that all interact. And then there are genes related to how much self-control we have.

One thing that’s been seen in studies of obesity is the people who are I should say, studies of weight gain, the people who are most susceptible to weight gain are people who have a really strong eating drive and who have a lower ability to regulate that via cognitive control.

And so, if you have that combination of leadfoot, and warm breaks, they call it, then you could be highly susceptible. And those things are all genetically influenced. They may not be something that we typically think about or like to think about, but everything about our personality and eating behaviors, is genetically influenced.

So, all those things are potential pathways by which genes could impact how our brains are constructed and how they operate, and thereby, impact our body fatness. And I think probably in different people, different things might be more or less important.

Ted Ryce: Yeah. So, what I hear you saying, we’re not quite sure... So, we know that the genes that influence obesity are mostly in the brain. And it seems like there’s a number of different ways that those genes could influence everything from our eating behavior to our tendency to exercise, or whether we like exercise, because I was reading—actually, going through a course. And apparently, some people are more susceptible to the pain of exercise of the buildup of metabolic byproducts when you’re doing hard exercise and it feels much worse. I might be one of those people, actually.

Stephan Guyenet: I totally believe that. Oh, really?

Ted Ryce: Yeah.

Stephan Guyenet: I mean, I know people who it’s not even about hit, like just any exercise more than just walking is really unpleasant for them. Like, going for a jog is out of the question. So yeah, I think there are people like that.

Stephan Guyenet: Yeah. And you said something else that’s really interesting, and something that I work with my clients on a lot. It’s the idea that if we’re going to make some type of behavioral change, we really need our executive functioning working, right? And our prefrontal cortex, and its ability to kind of take control this situation.

And certainly, I mean, I’ve worked with a lot of very high net worth guys worth $100 million and up, and they’re not the same. And I don’t think it’s just that they have more experience running businesses than other people.

They seem like different people, and they don’t understand other people, some of these guys. And it’s like, well, they’re very gifted. I don’t know what the difference would be, if it’s just IQ or…

Stephan Guyenet: You mean like they’re gifted in self-control?

Ted Ryce: Gifted in self-control, getting themselves to do right, getting themselves to follow up on work, and how they look at work and what needs to be done. And just the most successful guys, the guys who built it themselves, and it wasn’t generational wealth, they’re just different.

I mean, I’ve worked with so many people…Obviously, this is not very scientific of an analysis, but there’s something different about them personality wise, and it’s really hard to pin down. I would even go as so far to say one of the problems that they suffer with in managing teams is they don’t understand why people just don’t do what they need to do, and they get really frustrated sometimes. I’ve heard a lot of that.

So, one of the things that we need is we need that ability to control impulse to have self-awareness. And if I’m correct, and obviously, you’re the brain scientists here, so if I get something wrong, please chime in. But we need our prefrontal cortex working, right? And if we have too much…

So, we come into the world with certain genes, and I believe you’re referring to the studies on monozygotic twins that were separated at birth, and the personality studies that were done, and showing like 40 to 60% of our personality of the five personality tendencies, they seem to be consistent, even when people were raised in completely different environment, even when these twins were raised in completely different environments.

And then we have our childhood experiences, if you’re raised in poverty, or go through some type of trauma, physical abuse, sexual abuse, that makes it harder to control your impulses, more triggerable, and then you end up obese, and then you’re trying to change it.

I was reading a meta-analysis showing how the prefrontal cortex—or more specifically, executive function was compromised in people with obesity. Now, I’m not the best at reading studies, maybe you know about this study.

But they also said like, well, obesity seems to make pre frontal kind of ramp up sympathetic drive, in other words, make you more likely to be stressed, make that executive function area of your brain less likely to work. But it also seems that it might be implicated in developing obesity in the first place.

So, I know I kind of just rambled on there, but can you help unpack this stuff for me and other non-brain scientists who are trying to understand this connection, this new conversation going on that’s very separate than like, “Oh, carbs make you fat, or do they not make you fat or calories?” and now we’re talking about brains. It’s kind of a big leap to make.

Stephan Guyenet: So, I will say that I’m not real deep into the research that you were talking about, about changes in executive function in obesity. I know that there have been some publications on that. And there have been publications on a number of different aspects of brain function that are different in people with obesity.

And I think there are a lot of people asking the question right now, what’s the cause and what’s the effect? Are these susceptibilities that people already have that tend to cause them to develop obesity? Or are these things that develop as a result of the obese state? And I think for a lot of this, we don’t really have clear answers. However, we do have some answers from animal models.

And one of the things that I think is particularly striking, that you see in animal models is if you give animals access to highly preferred, palatable, fattening foods, they develop really marked changes in reward-processing regions of the brain. So, parts of the brain that secrete dopamine and respond to it and set our motivational drive, our kind of gut level motivational drive for things.

And these circuits by the way, they’re directly stimulated by drugs, but they really evolved to guide us toward certain types of food and sex and other evolutionarily valuable goals. And what you see is that animals, the more they eat this palatable food, their reward threshold increases. So essentially, they need more reward to feel stimulated, to feel satisfied.

And their brain implicitly devalues healthy food. And so, once they get used to this higher value, calorie dense fattening food, they don’t want healthy food anymore, even though it’s better for them, they just do not want it, that does not have the combination of properties that’s implicitly valued by the brain.

And that is something that is observed in addiction. So that is something that’s observed in drug addiction, you see exactly the same thing, the increase of the reward threshold. And you can do this really cleanly.

You can let animals literally self-stimulate themselves in their own brain in their reward centers and you see how much of a electrical signal do you have to provide for the animal for it to be worth it for them to press that lever to stimulate themselves.

And an animal that is addicted to drugs of abuse has a higher threshold. So, you have to give them more of a stimulus there for them to think it’s worth it to stimulate their own brain in that way, so it takes more.

And that’s because their brain becomes habituated to this massive stimulus from the drug. And my way of thinking about it as your brain is like: well, this is my new baseline, is that this drug is so awesome, why would I care as much about things that are less awesome?

That’s basically my way of conceptualizing it of what the brain does. And it does the same thing with food.

So, if you give animals these fattening, highly palatable, highly preferred foods, it takes more of an electrical stimulus to make their brain care about stuff. And this is something that…

Ted Ryce: When you say, to care about stuff, do you mean food in general? Or does it demotivate them for everything, or…?

Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think it’s general, because what the experiment is specifically doing is looking at this actual electrical stimulation of the brain, which is not specific to food at all, you’re just lighting up the reward center, generally. So, I don’t think it’s specific. I don’t actually know if they have tested to see whether that process causes non-food rewards to be specifically devalued.

Like, if you had an animal, if you wanted them to work for like, sex or something, would they be less willing to work hard for that after being habituated to this type of diet? I don’t know the answer to that. But it definitely causes them to devalue healthy food.

And this actually dovetails with data from the obesity research literature in humans going back half a century or more, where essentially, in both animals and humans with obesity, if you make the food unpalatable or undesirable in some way, that has a much larger impact on food intake in people and animals with obesity than in lean animals and lean people.

So, that’s a sign, again, that if it’s not that exciting food that’s really highly stimulating the brain in the obese state, the brain devalues it. Does that make sense?

Ted Ryce: Yeah, sure. It reminds me of that Guns and Roses lyric, “I used to do a little but a little was a little, so a little got more and more.” It just takes more and more. And certainly, I’ve been in a situation where I’ve felt that way – with food? I don’t know, but with marijuana, I was like that. I used to party.

And so, I’ve had that experience, where you’re just trying to recreate this high that you felt in the past, but kind of interestingly, you never quite get there, no matter how… I mean, I’ve smoked a lot of weed in a day, trying to achieve that, again, when I was in high school, and it just never is like that time that you remember, but you still try to do it, you still try to recreate, you still hope that if you do it again, you’re going to get that feeling again, you know?

Stephan Guyenet: Yeah. So, just to bring that back around. I just wanted to emphasize that was just an example that I was giving of a way in which the brain changes in the context of obesity. And there are other changes that occurred too in terms of how these body fat and food intake regulating circuits are affected as well.

Ted Ryce: And what would you say is important for people to know? Because I know we’re talking a bit heavy here in talking about genes and potential mechanisms in animal research. With someone listening right now who might be struggling to make sense of some of that, because it’s a new conversation for them, what do you think is important for them to know?

Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, the first thing I will say is it doesn’t change anything about whether diets can affect body fatness, diet and lifestyle changes. So, I don’t want people to come away from this conversation feeling like they have no control or no influence because I don’t think that’s true.

I think the effectiveness of diets for weight loss tends to be overestimated in popular conversations, but we have data on this, they do cause weight loss, and getting the proper guidance and support is really, really important to outcomes.

But these things are effective to some degree for weight loss, and to a large degree for health improvements.

But the other thing is, I think a lot of people find it really helpful to hear that there’s this strong of a genetic influence, because they feel like, “Well, I’m doing the same thing that my friend is doing but my friend is lean and jacked, and I’m fat.”

And the truth is, maybe you are doing the same thing, maybe you’re doing exactly the same thing. I’m never going to be LeBron James, it doesn’t matter what I do, how I train, I’m never going to be Lebron James. I’m not genetically capable in any way of being LeBron James. Even if I was as tall as him, I probably would never be Lebron James.

And so, we’re different, everybody is different, and we were dealt a different hand from the genetic deck. And so we have to work with what we were dealt. And we all have different levels of susceptibility to the problems that life brings to us. And that doesn’t mean we have no control. But I think it’s helpful for people to hear that, to understand that it’s not just about the decisions that they made in their life relative to somebody else up to this point.

Ted Ryce: Yeah, there’s a big genetic influence, and some people end up leaner and some won’t. And I’ve been what I tell people, it’s like, “Well, listen, the more things that you have working against you, the harder you’re going to have to work. What are those things that you’ll have to do?” I’ve had clients, I’ve referred them to psychotherapy, I’ve had them do sleep studies.

We’ve looked at how they’re running their business and started to see where can they delegate things to create more time for themselves and less stress—and really about stress management, to be honest. But what you’re saying is important.

However, I do want to ask you, though, I want to challenge you a little bit. When you say, “well, you’re doing the same thing that your friend is doing.” But when you say that though, you’re not talking about well, he’s eating 1500 calories, and I’m eating 1500 calories. And he’s working out three times a week, 10 exercises, three sets till failure, and I’m doing the same thing, and he’s getting results, and I’m not getting anything.

You’re just saying the level of… like, because if someone who’s overweight, even if their genes are, let’s say very unfavourable to obesity, they’re still going to lose weight, if they lower their calories, right? Or is there something new coming out that I am missing?

Stephan Guyenet: No, no, no, no, I mean, bodyweight is heavily influenced by calories. But I mean, it’s not just influenced by your calorie intake, it’s also influenced by your expenditure, and that also has a genetic component. And it’s not just determined by your lean mass.

One of the things that I learned from Herman Ponsor and some other groups is that even people with the same amount of lean mass can have different metabolic rates.

So, just sitting there, some people’s muscle per unit, per pound burns more energy just sitting there than somebody else’s. And I say muscle—muscle isn’t actually even the main determinant: muscle, liver, brain, all the organs, some people’s organs just burn energy at a higher rate just sitting there. So, there are just a lot of variables that can go into it. But I mean, also, most people are not accurately counting their calories anyway.

And so, if two people are trying to eat healthy, and just trying to eat a generally healthy diet and not eat junk foods, not overeat one person, they may be putting in the same amount of perceived effort into their diet, but one person could still be eating 20% more calories than another one just because of how their appetite works.

And there’s that and then there’s differences in your metabolic rate. So, I mean, you could, in theory, have two people who are putting in the same amount of effort, who are eating the same types of things, who are working out at the gym similar amount and doing similar things in the gym, and who are not experiencing the same results.

I’m not saying there will be no results. The person who’s doing all that who is more susceptible to obesity, they’re probably going to be way better off than if they were not doing that, so it’s not pointless, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to get six pack abs like their friend would.

Ted Ryce: Right. So, you’re talking about, like an elite, or whatever you want to call it. You can be very lean. I’ve seen homeless guys with six pacts. But I know what you mean, right? Like a high-level elite homeless people. One guy in Miami Beach, he’s always running, but his shoes are always new, but he’s definitely homeless, for sure. But I guess I give a lot of high-quality stuff way. Anyway, so you’re talking about just that level of leanness that you see in the magazines?

Stephan Guyenet: Well, it doesn’t even have to be that. The point is just that different people can be doing similar things and not experiencing identical results just because of how their bodies are set up.

Ted Ryce: Right. Now, this might be my ignorance… and it might be more actually bias, not just ignorance here because I don’t have the same training as you do as a neuroscientist. But I always try to figure out okay, well, how can we improve someone’s stress levels? How can we improve their sleep? How can we get them to make food choices based on satiety instead of perceived health benefits?

I don’t know about you, but if I buy a five-ounce bag of cashews, or a one-ounce bag, or a 10-ounce bag, that bag is disappearing in a day, day and a half tops. Now very, very poor for satiety, especially if they’re roasted and salted.

But nuts, if you look at the research, very, very healthy for you, in terms of health outcomes when you eat them.

So, what can you tell us about the stress side? What do we know about the stress side and its influence in obesity?

Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, I think it matters. And I think it matters to obesity and I think it matters a lot to overall health. Just to take a little bit of a tangent here and then I’ll come back.

I was kind of poking around the cardiovascular literature recently on the connection between psychological stress and cardiovascular disease risk. And man, that field has progressed so far in the last 10/15 years.

I mean, psychological stress looks like a huge factor in cardiovascular disease. Actually, I know somebody really close to me who just had a heart attack. And he was a fit guy, never smoked in his life, blood lipids were all in the right range, and he had this totally unexpected heart attack.

And he’s been under a huge amount of stress for years. And I don’t know exactly what caused his heart attack, but I suspect it could have been due to that.

So yeah, anyway, I think stress is really important. It’s interesting and complicated, because a lot of it is just how our brain processes events, like stuff happens in the world and that’s not stress, what is stress is how it interacts with our brains. And so, it might cause one person to feel stressed and it might not cause another person to feel stressed the exact same things happening, or it might cause more or less stress in different people.

So there’s a lot of processing that determines what stress is to us, and how it affects our bodies.

And one dimension of that is whether it’s perceived as controllable or not controllable. So, if you look at the physiological impacts of stress, whether you feel like you have control in the situation or not is a huge determinant of how much impact it has on you physiologically and probably how much impact it has on your eating behavior and body fatness as well.

So, you can see it in the cortisol response, for example, much higher cortisol in people who feel like they are not in control of the situation. And that cortisol, that is thought to be one of the mechanisms whereby stress can impact body fatness, but there are probably several mechanisms. So, cortisol, it acts in the brain, it kind of dampens leptin signaling, which is this body fat-regulating hormone.

And the data is not ironclad, but it looks like it’s probably is one of the ways in which stress can cause people to gain fat, especially around the midsection. And then the other thing is that certain types of food are stress-relieving, and those generally are not healthy foods.

And so, when people feel stressed, they gravitate toward calorie-dense comfort foods. And those things, we all know this, anecdotally, but it’s been confirmed scientifically that those things do help relieve stress.

Eating junk food, at least in the short term does help you feel better when you’re feeling stressed. And you can even show this in lab rodents, you can demonstrate it via brain activity. So, I think that’s another way in which stress can impact obesity risk. But I would not be surprised if there’s quite a bit yet to learn about this.

Ted Ryce: Yeah, I’m with you on that. And one of the things that I believe you’re trying to do is trying to help with the weight stigma, right? Because it’s so easy to see like, oh, well, we can all see how much weight you’re packing. And because of that, I have some judgments about you; about your health, about maybe the type of person you are. And I think that’s really important.

I mean, I’ve heard of some people responding well to shaming, mostly guys, like former military or whatever. I don’t know maybe what that says about them and their relationship with themselves, but whatever, it helped motivate them. But it’s important to start to understand that.

And also, I think, what we don’t perhaps—not that we should develop stigma about it, but we should develop at least some awareness and maybe a bit of…not some, but some judgment, or not a bit, but… just kind of getting confused.

But what I’m trying to say is, man, people are stressed out and living these stressed-out lives, and they may be lean, but they’re not healthy, is what I’m getting at.

We’re really sorry to hear about your friend. Of course, nobody wants a friend to go through that. And if he’s a friend, I mean, that’s really important that we know—just to nerd out—we know how important social connections are to our health, lower inflammation levels and whatnot.

But yeah, the conversation, broadening it out to be more aware of like, you can be lean, and you can exercise a lot and eat all the right foods.

But if you’re a stress case, and you’re suffering major anxiety issues or perhaps even depression, and you have an alcohol problem but you stay lean, that’s not really healthy either, even though we can maybe see the outline of your abs.

So, it’s strange times. I’m loving being a coach right now, but it’s interesting times, and certainly more information’s coming out.

Stephan Guyenet: I agree with that. And I think that one thing that’s relevant here is that if you just look at survey data on the impact of stress on eating behavior, I think it’s like 43 or so percent of Americans report that when they are stressed, they will over consume comfort foods, but something like 30% of people report that they skip meals. And so, I think it can really have…And maybe some of it has to do with the type of stress but I think some of it is also just the personality.

Some people eat more when they’re stressed, and I think that’s more common, but some people eat less. And so yeah, I mean, leanness, like you said, is not necessarily equivalent to health. If you are unnaturally lean, because you’re super stressed and you’re not eating enough, that’s probably not a good thing.

Ted Ryce: I’ve got a friend who lost 40 pounds because he went through a bad breakup. He thought he was with the one. Actually, he’s more of a friendly acquaintance, but lost 40 pounds and seems like he’s managed to keep it going, just from the stress of the breakup. Yeah, it wasn’t like, “Oh, because I had this terrible relationship, I’m going to take better care of myself.” No, it was stress related.

Stephan Guyenet: That’s rough.

Ted Ryce: Yeah, for sure. It seems like he’s managed to turn it into a positive for himself in keeping up with the behaviors. One thing I wanted to say too, because I think this is important, is I had a problem.

I’ve always been lean, except for a few years in my 30s after some really tough events happen. I also did this program to gain muscle, but I mostly gained fat. But I had mostly been lean for the majority of my life.

But I was binge eating, I was not emotionally healthy. And I didn’t have good eating behaviours. Like again, I would binge eat till it hurt, but I could still be lean.

So, if you’re listening right now, understand that there are people like that. I’ve got another friend of mine, former NFL player, turned coach, health coach, and he was in the same sort of ballgame, same sort of situation.

And then, Stephan, there’s also orthorexia, which doesn’t get talked about enough. Can you talk a little bit about that? Do you know much about it? Seems like a lot of people have it. I feel like I used to.

Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, I wouldn’t say that I know a lot about it, but it’s essentially people are eating in a certain rigid way and they have fears around food that are not really serving them well anymore. It’s not a bad thing to say I try not to eat these unhealthy foods and I try to focus more on these other more healthy foods.

I feel like that’s a totally constructive, responsible attitude. But once you get too intense about it and you start developing these fears, that’s where it starts to get less healthy. That’s my understanding of it, but I’m not that knowledgeable about orthorexia.

Ted Ryce: I would love to have someone on this show to talk about it. Hopefully, they wouldn’t be too biased. I feel like we’re in a weird time where it’s like, “No, it’s okay to be fat, because if you…” Or, I mean, weight-challenged, excuse me, but you know what I mean? It’s hard to find the middle; people tend to go towards the extremes these days, for whatever reason.

But man, I used to only eat organic food, and I thought I was poisoning myself if I eat other things, and I had a lot of physical problems. Fast forward a decade, I started realizing, oh, there’s a stress component to this, this is more emotional, I need therapy.

Stephan Guyenet: Yeah.

Ted Ryce:  I need to fix some of the underlying sources of stress in my life, my business and everything. And so, yeah, it’s more complicated.

Stephan Guyenet: That makes a lot of sense to me. Yeah, I have this pet hypothesis that I don’t have data for. But I tend to think that people often are trying to solve problems by a diet that probably are better solved by stress and psychology.

Ted Ryce: I remember you said something on Twitter recently about chronic pain, and dealing with stress and psychological issues.

Stephan Guyenet: Chronic pain, IBS, fatigue, I think those things have a psychological component. And if you’re stressed out all the time, maybe diet’s not the first thing you need to be working on.

Ted Ryce: Yeah, nootropics, for sure, first line of defense.

Well, Stephan, I feel like we could talk for a long time. It’s been, I think, a few years since we talked, or at least a year and a half. It’s been a while.

And I would really love to have you back on the show. It’s been a pleasure chatting with you again, and definitely want to hit you up in a few months and not let so much time go by. Is there a new place? Where would you like people to go? Obviously, we’ll have your Twitter on the show notes, but where else would you like people to go?

Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, so there’s my website, www.stephanguyenet.org. But I think the main thing I want people to check out is Red Pen Reviews, the place where myself and other expert reviewers publish expert book reviews of popular nutrition books.

Ted Ryce: We’ve got to get you on to talk about that, because it’s such a great resource. Well, that would be a good part two.

Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, www.redpenreviews.org. Yeah, I’d love to come on anytime. And if there’s a book on the site that you think has a topic that would be particularly interesting, we could focus it around that and then talk more generally about what we do. Just an idea.

Ted Ryce: www.redpenreviews.org. If you’ve ever had the question of okay, this is a popular diet book, how much of it is actually based on science? And we’re not talking about how big is their bibliography, we’re talking about, do the studies that they cite actually match up to what they say in the book? Is that correct?

Stephan Guyenet: Yeah, that’s part of what we evaluate them on. That’s one of our three key metrics, yeah.

Ted Ryce: Oh, man. Yeah, I don’t want to even get started because that’s a whole nother podcast for sure. We’d love to have you back on and talk about that. Well, thank you so much. Great to connect with you again. You’re looking good, and we’ll speak soon.

Stephan Guyenet: Okay. Thanks, Ted.

Ted Ryce
Ted Ryce
Ted Ryce is a high-performance coach, world-class fitness trainer, and a longevity evangelist. A leading fitness professional for over 20 years in the Miami Beach area, who has worked with celebrities like Sir Richard Branson, Rick Martin, Robert Downey, Jr., and dozens of CEOs of multimillion-dollar companies. In addition to his fitness career, Ryce is the host of the top-rated podcast called Legendary Life, which helps men and women reclaim their health, and create the body and life they deserve.

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