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Eating Behaviors and the Brain Part 5

How do we decide what we’re going to eat? There are two primary driving forces behind eating. 1) There is homeostatic eating, which is where we eat so we can get the energy and nutrients our body needs to maintain homeostasis or a normal internal environment. 2) Then, there is hedonic eating, which is where we eat for pleasure or to manage our emotional states.

Hormones and Eating

Almost all of our meals are a mix of both homeostatic and hedonic eating. There are many hormones that influence our appetite. One of them is known as ghrelin. It’s often called the hunger hormone. It will stimulate our appetite. It peaks before meals and falls to lower levels during and immediately after eating, as our body knows we’re now getting the energy and nutrients we need. But this is not the only hormone that influences our eating.

There’s also a hormone involved in satiety, or a feeling of satisfaction, called leptin. Leptin is secreted by our fat cells and helps regulate energy balance. What’s supposed to happen as we gain weight is that leptin levels will rise and tell an area of our brain that we should not eat as much, that we have adequately stored energy in our body. However, for many people, as they continue to gain weight, their leptin levels proceed to rise, but they continue to be very hungry. The brain stops listening to the leptin. This is thought to be due to leptin resistance and is one of the challenges of losing weight if you’ve had chronic obesity.

This is a hormonal issue, and not under your conscious control.

Doctor’s Conclusion

Your hunger and eating are shaped by many factors, including your genetics, social cues, learned behaviors, environmental factors, your circadian rhythms, hormones, stress and emotional states, getting enough sleep, and your physical activity. So you see, it’s very complicated. Science still does not have the secret to hunger and eating, although we’re getting closer. We don’t really understand everything that makes us start eating.

But we’ve learned a lot about what causes us to stop eating. There’s more on that in our next post in the series.


There is an uncomplicated and understandable truth about eating and health. We want to make it easy for you. Join us at Health Shepherds, follow us on Instagram, and like us on Facebook.

In a recent article about the correlation of eating fat and weight gain entitled, Largest Study of its Kind Shows Eating Fat is The Only Cause of Weight Gain, it’s crucial to note that the journalist, NOT the scientists who conducted the research, titled the article.

This is just an example of why you have to be very careful when you read articles about health. The journalist chose to use a title that is an incorrect interpretation of the research study itself.

Anti-fat Bias

I’m not going to go into the details of the study. Essentially, it was on mice in a controlled setting. While you can develop models about metabolism based on studies in mice, it’s very difficult to then draw conclusions about the root causes of more complex issues, such as chronic weight gain.

Obviously, the title is meant to get attention. The problem is some people will actually accept the journalist’s conclusions as accurate.

“Consuming a higher fat diet does not cause you to gain weight unless you eat too much of it.”

We live in a time where there is a bias against fat because of the decades of teaching that diets higher in fat cause heart disease and weight gain. We now know this is not true.

Consuming a higher fat diet does not cause you to gain weight unless you eat too much of it. Eating any primary macronutrient—protein, carbohydrate, fat—in excessive quantities will eventually lead to weight gain. It doesn’t matter who you are, a mouse or a man.

Healthy fresh vegetables prepared by two people. Low fat fresh.

Higher Fat Diets Aren’t the Problem

I have many patients with insulin resistance and chronic weight gain issues who really need to use a lower carbohydrate, higher fat diet to correct the hormonal signaling going on in their body so they can begin to lose weight successfully. They are already nervous about eating a diet higher in fat because of all the past information they’ve been exposed to.

“If you were to try to pick one primary cause or contributor to chronic weight gain and metabolic derangement, it would actually be inflammation.”

When they read an article like the one I’m discussing, it reinforces that old and inaccurate bias and makes it even harder for them to embrace the right next steps to actually solve their problem. Chronic obesity is a condition with many contributing causes. It involves genetics, hormones, environmental factors, stress, sleep, body movement, and many other variables. There is no one variable that causes weight gain, and certainly not the eating of fat.

Inflammation and its Role

If you were to try to pick one primary cause or contributor to chronic weight gain and metabolic derangement, it would actually be inflammation. Chronic inflammation is a major cause of many chronic diseases. There are various contributors to chronic inflammation. You can read about them in our resources.

I would suggest that if you eat fake, industrialized fats, such as vegetable oils, canola oils, soybean oils, and other inflammatory sources of fat, then you will create inflammation and therefore gain weight. In this case, eating a lot of fat could cause weight gain. But it would be primarily because you were eating unhealthy fats. Eating healthy fats reduces inflammation and can help with weight loss.

Read between the Lines

I suspect you get the point. You have to read things carefully. Whether it’s to sell more papers, or get people to consume large amounts of sugar, there’s always an agenda. I don’t know the agenda behind this article, but it wasn’t to accurately communicate applicable conclusions from this study.

Man on park bench reading fat fact article.

If you’d like to know the truth about what causes chronic weight gain, and how to lose weight successfully, please review our videos and resources. There is a simple and understandable truth about health. We want to make it easy for you. Join us at Health Shepherds.

Food manufacturing methods have changed drastically in the last several decades to provide us with boxed and prepackaged options in the grocery store for the sake of convenience and low cost. As a result, our diet has made a massive shift from what our bodies were designed to handle, and it’s really showing—particularly in our expanding waistlines.

We’ve all heard how bad for us highly processed foods are, but not everyone knows why such processing is harmful. So let’s break it down and examine the details.

Higher Sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup

Boxed foods often contain excess sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) as an additive to make up for flavor removed through the manufacturing process. These sugars boost the caloric content without adding nutrition to the food, and we’re all aware increased consumption of sugar and HFCS increases the body’s insulin resistance, which has led to increased diagnoses of Type 2 Diabetes in Americans. Sugar has so many more detrimental effects, but in essence, too much is a bad thing.

Artificial Ingredients

In order to prolong shelf-life, prepackaged processed foods contain preservatives, coloring, added textures, and flavors that are also removed in the manufacturing of the food. Chemicals in our food—some added to the actual food and some leeched in through the packaging—can be detrimental to our bodies. The phthalates found in macaroni and cheese boxes have been known to interfere with testosterone production, resulting in low sperm count, genital birth defects, infertility, and a higher rate of testicular cancer later in life in males.

Competitive Companies Engineer “Rewarding” Foods

The competition in the food industry is fierce. Between the marketing surrounding whose tastes better and whose is better for you, it’s difficult to decipher the truth. Because evolution gave us taste buds to facilitate good choices in our natural food surroundings, we gravitate toward sweet, salty, and fatty foods because they contain energy for survival. The food companies know this, and engineer their foods to be as desirable as possible. By tripping our brain’s “reward” mechanism when we consume their food, they’re bypassing our body’s natural evolutionary process and harming our metabolic flexibility—how our bodies burn energy—so we crave their product over all others.

Food Addiction

This can actually result in food addiction. Our brain releases dopamine as encouragement when we consume good tasting food on the assumption that correlates with healthy food. In some people, reaction to that dopamine infusion is as powerful as the high from drugs like cocaine. The problem is, we can’t cease eating like we can alcohol or drugs to overcome these addictions.

Refined Carbs

Refined carbs are simple carbs, perfect for food processing. They take the body very little time to break down, which results in rapid spikes in insulin and blood sugar levels. This energy burns fast, which means we crash fast, and are hungry (often for more refined carbs) much quicker than we should be. So we eat more. Lather, rinse, repeat. Overall, processed foods require less time and energy to digest, so over time, we consume more frequently, resulting in not enough time between meals to burn up what calories we’ve eaten. The leftovers get stored as fat.

Fewer Nutrients, Including Fiber

To extend shelf life, the manufacturing process strips whole foods of what makes them perishable—this means nutrients, including fiber necessary to slow down carbohydrate absorption so we feel satisfied longer with fewer calories. Not only that, synthetic vitamins and minerals are added back in to make up for this lack of nutrients, but synthetics are nowhere near as complex as those naturally found in whole foods. Science is only just beginning to grasp all the trace nutrients found in whole plant and animal foods and their benefits on the human body. Synthetic supplements are a poor substitute. Once those nutrients and fiber are processed out, there’s no getting them back.

Added Fats and Hydrogenated Oils

To reinvigorate the boxed contents into looking more food-like during cooking, food processors add in high amounts of cheap fats—oils from vegetables and seeds. Many of these oils and fats are hydrogenated, which then become trans fats and Omega-6 fatty acids, which are linked to increased risk of heart disease and inflammation in the body.

Pretty much everything about processed foods is bad. Chemicals are added both intentionally—preservatives and synthetic nutrients—and unintentionally—from plastics and inks in the packaging as well as manufacturing equipment like conveyor belts and tubing. Additives designed to addict us to the high of eating these foods are “just business” and our bodies’ natural processes are paying the price through lack of metabolic flexibility.

But the answer is as simple as the carbs in a box of mac and cheese: eat mostly whole, unprocessed foods and bypass the chemicals altogether.

Fasting is not a new concept to human biology.

Our bodies were designed to handle periods of food scarcity by using something called metabolic flexibility, which is our body’s ability to switch energy sources when one source is low. Our most immediate source of energy is the calories we consume, the fats and carbohydrates in our diet. When we burn through those, we have fat stores. Then, we have amino acids that can also be converted to glucose for energy use.

But in our modern society, most people don’t face food scarcity.

We don’t burn through all the energy available from our caloric intake, so what happens?

The calories remaining are stored as fat for later use—a use we won’t likely ever get to. This is how we gain weight. We’re not going through our energy thoroughly enough for metabolic flexibility to switch systems and deplete our fat stores.

So how do we break the storage cycle to regain our metabolic flexibility?

We fast. Studies are beginning to show that short, periodic fasting practices can reset your body to burn those fat stores and use your natural metabolic flexibility functions. In fact, the jump start to your fat burning machinery can be more significant than traditional calorie restricting nutritional approaches. Initial testing on intermittent fasting is showing a plethora of benefits:

  • Reducing blood pressure, stress levels, cholesterol, and overall disease risks such as diabetes and heart disease
  • Improved control of blood sugars, cardiovascular function, and appetite
  • Increased fat burning, metabolic rate (not immediate, but in the longer term), growth hormones, and cellular repair.

But intermittent fasting’s benefits don’t stop there. There are psychological benefits that people are surprised to learn.

  1. Hunger is not an emergency

What happens when we skip a meal? There’s a hunger pang that can trigger a panicky feeling. This is ingrained; it’s our stomach’s way of reminding us we typically eat again this many hours after our last meal. But skipping a meal doesn’t result in muscle loss, imbalance of body systems, or a true emergency. We were designed to handle hunger. It’s not catastrophic to miss a meal, and doing so can jumpstart our body’s metabolic flexibility. “Oh, my caloric energy source has dried up. There’s fat stored over here, so I’ll burn that instead.”

  1. Physical Hunger vs Psychological Hunger

We also experience physical and psychological hunger. Fasting allows us to learn the difference, what real hunger feels like. It’s not a bad idea to let that feeling percolate, recognize it for what it is, and use that knowledge to realize when you’re truly hungry or just have an urge to snack. At the end of a fasting day, you’ll know what true hunger feels like, so when psychological hunger strikes, you won’t be fooled.

  1. Not Everyone Eats Regularly

There are people in America for whom three meals a day isn’t possible. They’re not starving, but there’s not enough to go around. They may skip meals to put their children’s nutrition first, and even then, that might not be enough. With the help of food banks, charities, and government programs, they can get by, but one thing is certain: they don’t take food for granted. Knowing what real physical hunger feels like can help us appreciate those for whom intermittent fasting is not a choice.

  1. Eating is Not Just a Privilege, but a Responsibility

Knowing true hunger can help us respect the food we have access to and make it easier to prioritize nutrition over junk. Why pick the nutritiously devoid option when we have access to the healthier option?

  1. Food Advertising is Subconscious

Food marketing is everywhere, but we’re never more aware of it than when we’re fasting. This awareness shows how ubiquitous and subtle food companies are in pushing their message on us. By becoming aware of pervasive food advertising, we begin to see all the micro-manipulations food companies use, and in turn, are better able to resist.

Intermittent fasting is just that: intermittent. It has the power to show us the importance of food, and place a stark light on our nutrition mentality. Fasting for one day makes us see what real hunger is, jump starts our bodies’ biological systems, and improves our mental awareness of what food means to us and how we are conditioned by outside forces to view food. Once we get past the idea that skipping meals = bad for us, we can see that really, it’s what our bodies were designed to do.

 

It’s not just our imaginations: obesity in America is on the rise, and with it, chronic conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome. But why are Americans gaining weight when public health experts increasingly agree we’re not consciously choosing to overeat?

Why are Americans obese and what is quietly sabotaging our success?

Our Food Environment

The way food is perceived and moved in America is a big part of the change in our weight. Since the 1960s, average weight in both men and women has increased. Women are, on average, 24 pounds heavier, and men are closer to 30 pounds heavier. Why? Because the most accessible, most enjoyable foods are typically the tastiest, cheapest foods served in increasingly large portions. The average fast-food sized meal is up 40% from the 1950s, according to the CDC.

Food is a source of socialization, entertainment, and comfort.

When we get together with friends, we often meet at restaurants or bars. Rewards for a job well done are often centered around food: got a raise or a promotion? We celebrate with a nice dinner. A child’s report card boasts all As? Sounds like a trip to an ice cream shop is in order.

With fast-paced careers, busy family events with our children active in sports or music lessons or other extracurricular activities, it’s sometimes easier to “just pick something up” for dinner on our way home. Two-income households are increasingly necessary, so one parent isn’t always home to have dinner on the table.

We need convenient, quick meals to keep ourselves going.

The result? In 2015, for the first time, Americans spent more money on eating out than eating at home.

Fight Obesity with Smart Food Choices

A Multitude of Factors

But it’s not just our love of convenience food that’s contributed to our expanding waistlines.

  • We drink more sugary drinks than ever before: soda, energy drinks, and fancy coffee. Empty calories with a caffeine boost changes where our energy comes from, and when that energy wanes, we grab another cup to go instead of looking for nutrient-rich foods to consume. Americans lead the world in soda consumption.
  • Advertising for unhealthy, scrumptious looking food in huge portions is the norm, so we don’t even realize we’re overeating. Supersize is the new normal.
  • Our meals are more dessert-like than ever, just like our coffee. For example, we don’t bat an eye at whip cream or chocolate covered pancakes, donuts in more varieties than some dessert menus, or cupcakes for breakfast.

Learn to tackle obesity by understanding how our food culture really works.

Supply and Demand

Healthy food costs more. The cheapest options for low-income families are often the highest calorie, processed options. Dinner in a box with processed carbs and seasoning powder to flavor the sauce costs less than $2-$3, and can satiate hunger as much as a quality grouping of protein and nutrient rich meats and vegetables for five times the price. Preservative and filler laden food abounds. Just add water!

According to the USDA, our fruits and vegetable consumption is inadequate at best. Only 10% of Americans get the recommended amounts, and for the other 90% of us, our vegetable intake is woefully simplistic. Half our veggie consumption consists of potatoes and tomatoes. There’s no variety in that.

But what if we were to start consuming the daily fruits and vegetables health officials recommend? The US would face a food shortage. There is not enough healthy food in enough variety for our country to eat quantities of fruits and vegetables as recommended by health officials.

It’s Not About Choice. It’s About Environment.

America’s not consciously overeating. We’ve been conditioned to go for the most convenient, easiest to consume food to accommodate our busy lives. We’ve learned it’s smart to get the greatest value for our dollars. This means bigger portions, cheaper options full of fillers like potatoes, sugary energy sources like soda or coffee, and of course, the All-American Value Meal in the drive thru. When our environment reinforces these behaviors, is it any wonder our stats—both on the scale and in the doctor’s office—are going up?