The following extract from “The Hungry Brain” was about an experiment in which the behavior of monkeys was observed. (I hate the way poor monkeys have to provide data for us humans.) The monkeys were stressed by their normal interactions with each other but the reactions of the dominant monkeys was different to that of the submissive monkeys. “When Wilson’s team feeds its monkeys healthy, unrefined, high-fiber chow, stressed subordinate monkeys eat less and lose weight while dominant monkeys maintain weight. Yet when the researchers give the monkeys a choice between standard chow and a very rewarding high-fat, high sugar diet, the monkeys’ eating behavior changes dramatically. First of all, not surprisingly, both dominant and submissive animals prefer the rewarding diet and eat it at the expense of the healthy diet. Yet the dominant animals keep eating the same amount of food as before. In contrast, the stressed subordinates double their daily calorie intake. So in the context of a strict healthy diet, stress makes monkeys undereat, whereas when they have a choice between healthy fare and junk food,” (my conclusion) the stressed subordinate monkeys overeat a lot. The equivalent among humans are that some humans feel overwhelmed by stress (like the subordinate monkeys feel) and some just find stress challenging (like the dominant monkeys). So for us humans there are two possible behavior changes we could make. One is that we can manage stress so as to keep it in perspective e.g. through thinking about things more constructively (cognitive psychology) or by lowering the emotional temperature through meditation and/or exercise which helps to keep things in perspective. In addition, if we choose to avoid junk food when we are stressed, we may find ourselves feeling less hungry and actually losing weight. It’s difficult to make that choice because stress causes our body to send more fat and sugar into our bloodstream, probably creating a feeling that we should replenish our reduced supplies of fat and sugar so we naturally reach towards chocolate or some such food. However if we stuck with healthy food, we would probably be able to eat enough for our real needs without overeating as we do with fast food. It’s apparently harder to judge when enough is enough if you are overstressed and eating junk. This is just one of the fascinating insights I’m gaining as I read this interesting book. Time will tell whether I can incorporate these insights into any lasting behavior changes.
At last someone has explained to me in terms I can grasp what the hell is going on in my brain - why I often feel powerless to manage my own weight, despite the fact that I am an intelligent, motivated adult.
In his fabulous book, The Hungry Brain, Dr Guyenet explains the complex computations and instructions performed by my brain around the simple act of choosing what and when I’ll eat.
Turns out I’m hard-wired to maximise food reward for minimal effort. That’s how my ancestors survived scarcity long enough to have babies. Rational decision-making focused on some slim and healthy future self was of no use to them and no match for this ancient drive.
And here I am a modern human, living in an environment of plenty (stacks of easy meals at the local supermarket, cabinets full of delicious delights at the cafe, a well-provisioned pantry at home) - all perfectly designed to satisfy that primal need to accumulate body fat.
Reading Dr Guyenet’s book reminded me of an article I read in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2006 by Ross Gittins, called The Mind Has an Elephant of its Own, it discussed work done by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. That was the first time I’d heard of the brain’s ancient reptilian core, which is capable of overriding our most sensible, reasoned intentions. He likened it to riding an elephant - you can direct things by pulling the reins but the elephant will comply only if it wants to. If the elephant chooses another, more compelling direction, the tiny rider has no power to persuade it otherwise. That perfectly described how I felt about my own body.
The Hungry Brain has given me the basics to understand what drives my elephant and to work with her.
I always wondered why weight control seemed to be doomed to failure. I just couldn't grasp why it should be so difficult. This book was very eye-opening. I enjoyed reading about the experiments and how our brains are wired. The advice at the end was useful.