Punished by Reward
March 5, 2014 7:19 AM   Subscribe

Neurobiologist Stephan Guyenet provides two video introductions to his intriguing hypothesis about the cause of obesity: frequently eating highly palatable processed foods (foods with high "reward" effect in the brain) alters the hypothalamus, raising the body's homeostatic set point.

While at first this might sound like it belongs in the pages of the journal Duh, Guyenet's research helps to explain why many weight-loss diets fail: merely reducing calorie intake doesn't lower set point, so dieters frequently feel extremely hungry and deprived. On extremely bland diets, however, human test subjects spontaneously reduced calorie intake free from hunger (if not free from boredom).

The set point is the body's homeostatic baseline, the weight it considers to be optimal and will "defend." If weight falls below set point, desire to eat increases and metabolism and physical activity decrease. Likewise if weight exceeds set point, hunger is decreased and metabolism increased through exercise, fidgeting, or thermogenesis. This system is regulated in the brain by the hypothalamus via the signaling hormone leptin.

Guyenet's hypothesis also gives support to some people's success on Seth Roberts' bizarre Shangri-La Diet, which uncouples calorie intake from food flavor and texture in order to lower set point.

PubMed link for the nerdy.
posted by overeducated_alligator (23 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite

 
So we can expect Dr McBlando's Bored to Tears Diet to be the next fad?
posted by pracowity at 7:29 AM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


So the ALL CABBAGE ALL THE TIME diet might actually work?
posted by cosmic.osmo at 7:33 AM on March 5, 2014


I'm... saddened.
posted by Jpfed at 7:34 AM on March 5, 2014


Neurobiologist tricks his own brain, using this one weird psychology trick. You won't believe what happens next!
posted by surplus at 7:45 AM on March 5, 2014 [4 favorites]


Doesn't explain why pets, lab mice, and even wildlife are getting fatter.

Antiknock additives in gas changed about the same time obesity rates did. I'd be looking for those sorts of changes: ones that have modified our environment.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:48 AM on March 5, 2014 [7 favorites]


*tries to think of non-rewarding food items*

*fails*

*eyes the cats' cardboard scratch pad*
posted by Hairy Lobster at 7:57 AM on March 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


I've heard the fatter-lab-mice bit before, when did it get linked to antiknock gasoline??

(or is it "linked")?

I would Google, but anything related to dieting, weight, food purity, etc. on the internet is a fetid swamp of diet pill hucksters and true believers in eating silver. Can you share your sources, fff?
posted by emjaybee at 8:00 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


> I'd be looking for those sorts of changes: ones that have modified our environment.

I think the goal of Guyenet's work is to find a way for people to manage their own bodies and behaviors, because these are more readily and usefully manageable than overhauling entire economies and ecological systems. Otherwise you turn a potentially useful discovery into yet another political/social tool for people to fight over on news shows to no useful consequence.
posted by ardgedee at 8:07 AM on March 5, 2014 [9 favorites]


I've heard the fatter-lab-mice bit before, when did it get linked to antiknock gasoline??

About fifteen minutes ago? It's an example of something that changed in our environment about the same time obesity rates started climbing. (IOW: "Source", me. "Link", unknown)
posted by five fresh fish at 8:12 AM on March 5, 2014 [6 favorites]


See also lead as an additive and crime (very much researched) or cancer rates and use of chlorinated solvents in dry cleaning (not sure if researched but is my personal hobby horse). This theory sounds good however. I think there are going to be more "holy shit we used to do what" discoveries over the next decades but I'm not sure this reaches that aha moment. Definitely in the DUH category.
posted by Big_B at 8:25 AM on March 5, 2014


That's what science often tries to do - validate what we thought was true.
posted by agregoli at 8:44 AM on March 5, 2014


So the ALL CABBAGE ALL THE TIME diet might actually work?

I take you've never had my great-grandmother's cabbage noodles cooked in bacon fat.
posted by lollymccatburglar at 9:44 AM on March 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


Doesn't explain why pets, lab mice, and even wildlife are getting fatter.

But if obese people have a microbiome adapted to obesity, that would have the potential to spread to animals which share environments with people. Which is probably something more likely to have an influence on weight than the environmental presence of chemicals.
posted by ambrosen at 10:14 AM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


Antiknock additives in gas changed about the same time obesity rates did. I'd be looking for those sorts of changes: ones that have modified our environment.

Maybe, but the generation of hypotheses in this regard needs to be supplemented with a decent understanding of the likely mechanics involved in such a causal connection. If your only criteria are matching trend lines and a nice ring, you'll come up with a bunch of dead-end investigatory avenues.
posted by invitapriore at 10:39 AM on March 5, 2014


Antiknock additives in gas changed about the same time obesity rates did.

This is a bizarre "hypothesis" for a large number of unrelated reasons. Are you proposing we go back to leaded gasoline? :-)

The cause of the obesity epidemic is pretty self evident -- it is the availability of fast, cheap, tasty, mostly empty food that is coupled with a creeping culture of material consumption. Surprise, surprise, a culture of consumption actually does motivate people to... consume. All you have to do is look at countries where the obesity rates have only recently started an upward trend and see how the culture has changed to enable that.
posted by smidgen at 11:46 AM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


All I want to know is.. if I don't eat shitty food and do go running or biking a few times a week, will my belly fat eventually shrink?
posted by ReeMonster at 12:09 PM on March 5, 2014


So the ALL CABBAGE ALL THE TIME diet might actually work?

Yeah, that's why you never ever see overweight Brits or Eastern Europeans, ever.

I take you've never had my great-grandmother's cabbage noodles cooked in bacon fat.

Clearly it's Nana's fault.

The cause of the obesity epidemic is pretty self evident -- it is the availability of fast, cheap, tasty, mostly empty food that is coupled with a creeping culture of material consumption.

Actually, fast, cheap, processed food has been with us since the early 1900's while obesity rates have spiked more recently. Incidentally, Orwell cites in the Road to Wiggan Pier cheap, tasty, processed, non-nutricious food (and instant entertainment in the form of the radio and cinema) as the reason for political apathy and lack of revolution in the masses despite an obvious take over of government by monied intetrests and the rise of spiraling unemployment and crumbling infrastructure.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:27 PM on March 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


I've lost about 140 pounds in roughly a year and a half, while continuing to eat fast food (it's convenient and easily tracked) pretty much daily. I completely agree with this.

My first instinct is to call bullshit on this hypothesis, since I never feel particularly hungry or deprived.

But then I wonder if I've simply discovered a strategy to bypass the "natural" consequence described here by outsourcing the "hungry" function of my hypothalamus to my phone (which I used to track input), and by giving myself a once-a-week "free day" which helps avoid triggering "food panic" and provides an emotional break as well.
posted by ArmandoAkimbo at 12:41 PM on March 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


I just don't see it. Looking down the road at a diet that is nothing but meat and veggies forever has got to be disheartening and unsustainable. I am having more success with my current diet plan, which allows for occasional pizza or chocolate, than I ever did when I tried to be more disciplined.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:11 PM on March 5, 2014


"I take you've never had my great-grandmother's cabbage noodles cooked in bacon fat."

Damn you lollymccatburglar!
posted by lastobelus at 12:20 AM on March 6, 2014


This line of thinking apparently leads to Noseclipping? In a way it makes sense, my sense of smell dulled significantly sometime in the last decade and I think it has definitely affected my appetite.
posted by smartypantz at 12:37 AM on March 6, 2014


AKA: The "All the ____( Insert Horrible Food )________ you can stomach 'diet'".

FWIW, I'm down 130 pounds from my max weight, and I've been actively managing my weight on a daily basis for over 800 days. I intermittent fast between 8pm and noon ( mostly, it's not a religion, normalizing my eating around 'lunch' and 'dinner' did the trick. Eat satisfying meals, and don't snack b/c I don't want to ruin my appetite for lunch/dinner ... ) and when I do snack, it's very modest... ) and I just eat smaller portions pretty much. I measure and track the change in my weight daily, and that's my controlling metric.

But isn't it wonderful that the human body is setup in such a way that pretty much anything you do that induces a net-caloric deficit over a non-trivial period of time can be effective. You want to use a treadmill for 5 hours a week? Knock yourself out. You want to just eat less. That works too. It makes studying things difficult sometimes.

I had a thought the other day on my way home. While considering the "homebirth/midwives" fpp and the reliance on "safety" as measured with a specific set of metrics, I was thinking ( and this may be the foundation of the rest of my life's intellectual pursuit ) that I'd REALLY like to measure my clients' scientific measures of "Happiness" and "Satisfaction" in an objective way. Maximizing that is the goal. ( Because that's what makes stuff sustainable) Everything else is secondary.
posted by mikelieman at 3:48 AM on March 6, 2014 [1 favorite]


The PubMed article says "In rodent models of diet-induced obesity (DIO), increased inflammatory signaling in the mediobasal hypothalamus (MBH) similarly contributes to leptin resistance and weight gain" and "Here we report that unlike inflammation in peripheral tissues, which develops as a consequence of obesity, hypothalamic inflammatory signaling was evident in both rats and mice within 1 to 3 days of High Fat Diet onset, prior to substantial weight gain" ...

So I guess that the idea here is that eating fat triggers an immune response (I don't understand how?) which causes inflammation of the hypothalamus, and that inflammation somehow causes resistance to leptin? And then leptin resistance leads to obesity?

Looking at the Wikipedia article on obsesity and leptin resistance I see a lot of comparisons to insulin resistance, which is what I immediately thought of on reading the post.

So maybe fat consumption indirectly triggers leptin resistance, and sugar consumption (or artificial sweetners?) can eventually trigger insulin resistance, and both cause weight gain not only because you're storing more calories in the short term, but because they cause increases in appetite? Is that a fair summary of the state of the scientific consensus?

The idea that how much you eat isn't just a matter of willpower and character, but is biologically regulated and can be affected by inflammation in your brain seems important. Calories in and calories out, yes, but maybe we have less control than we think over "calories in" if there really are feedback loops controlling our weight to a "set point."

But if so, then there seem to be all of these different feedback loops. Insulin, leptin, excercise and metabolic rate... And then there are the effects of stress (and of poverty) on both metabolism and on "willpower," and the effects of sleep deprivation and on and on... It almost starts to seem impossible to control, because it goes so much deeper than just choosing to eat better -- you almost have to change your whole lifestyle, which may not be possible if you're a shift worker in a food desert, or a working parent, or both...

On the other hand... Deciding to eat blander foods sounds easier than deciding to eat less, I guess?
posted by OnceUponATime at 2:34 PM on March 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


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