Trigger Foods: A Recap of my Conversation with Stephan Guyenet
Who is Stephan Guyenet?
Last year, a friend of mine (a fellow nutrition and fitness professional) sent me a link to a new book, The Hungry Brain. Always skeptical about “diet books,” I bought it with misgivings, but quickly forgot my doubts as I devoured it chapter by chapter.
On the Barnes and Noble bookshelf that is typically dominated by get-thin-quick schemes and silver-bullet solutions, this scholarly yet accessible hardcover gets to the scientific and behavioral heart of overeating. It just came out in 2017, and I can guarantee you – it is a breath of fresh air. Without promoting any particular diet or method, it delves into the studies and experiments that provide a comprehensive, 360-degree view of eating behavior. From the brain to the gut, it is a fascinating book.
Since then, I have recommended this book to dozens of clients, and have created some new fans. Last month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephan via Skype, and with his permission, I’m sharing some of the insights that I gained from our conversation!
Stephan holds BS in biochemistry and a PhD in neuroscience, and specializes now in neuroscience research regarding obesity, eating behavior, and the neuroscience of weight.
In other words…
I cite the studies. He writes the studies.
He’s the real deal.
“Pushing a Couple of Buttons”
One of the first questions I asked Stephan was about sugar addiction, and trigger foods in general. Sugar has become a villain in the “pop” nutritional world, with sugar-free devotees scouring ingredients lists to purge every gram of sugar from their diets. I have to admit I come at this topic from a bit of bias myself – while I advocate a low-processed, lower-sugar diet (as well as discriminating label-reading), I also don’t think that sugar addiction can be diagnosed as a phenomenon in itself.
Stephan – I quickly learned – is really great at creating perspective as a neuroscientist. “Sugar is part of a bigger picture of what motivates the brain,” he pointed out. Instead of zooming in onto studies about sugar intake vs. fat intake, he zoomed out to the bigger lens of palatability, and that it is often combinations of ingredients that can have addictive qualities – not sugar alone.
For a food to be “seductive,” he remarked, “it needs to be pushing a couple of buttons.” Those buttons? The familiar (if you read my blog) hyperpalatability combinations of fat, sugar, starch, and salt.
In other words, one element alone is not enough to push addictive buttons. For example, potatoes are often maligned for their high glycemic load, and are avoided by many people on diets. However, Stephan pointed out that the humble white potato “is nutritionally very close to a complete food,” replete with vitamins and minerals.
Furthermore, Stephan delineated satisfying foods from over-stimulating hyperpalatable foods. For example, a potato, a starch alone, is a satisfying food. French fries, a starch fried in fat and salted, is a hyperpalatable food. Despite their high glycemic load, it is difficult to become addicted to potatoes, even though they turn quickly to sugar in the digestive system. They are extremely satisfying, which means that is difficult to gorge on plain potatoes.
In fact, Stephan believed so much in the power of the potato that in one year, he harvested 1500 pounds of white potatoes, and for one week he lived exclusively on a potato and yogurt diet. The verdict? He felt fine. “I was a little groggy for the first three days,” he admitted – but overall, the nutrients provided by the potatoes and yogurt satisfied his nutritional and energy needs.
But if we’re debating sugar “addiction,” doesn’t the very word “addiction” need definition?
Motivation, Cues, and Associations
When we’re talking about trigger foods, you may notice that there is shared language between addiction research and nutrition research. It’s no accident.
In Stephan’s words, “An addiction is basically a habit, where motivation crosses a line of intensity, so that it damages your life.”
He used cigarette smoking as an example. If you smoke, every time you inhale nicotine, your brain quickly releases a dose of dopamine, which makes you feel good. If you quit smoking, you will experience strong cravings for that hit of dopamine, especially when you’re exposed to cues that remind you of smoking. In other words, you’re motivated by the dopamine to smoke.
Over time, however, as you strengthen your habit of not smoking, the brain’s pathways “forget” to be excited by smoking cues, because the associations between, for example, taking a walk outside and smoking a cigarette gradually become weaker.
Eventually, you “get over the hump,” and you’re a non-smoker.
However, it takes time, and this is often where changing our relationships with food hits bumps – we’re not prepared for the intensity of cravings and the power of the associations in our brains, and we don’t know that it will get better later.
Much like cigarettes, hyperpalatable foods trigger a complex cascade of hormones in our brains, and we build associations between activities and foods. When we’re not aware of the strength of these ties, we underestimate the effort that it may take to instigate a major change in our lifestyle. In that sense, yes – the way we interact with foods can certainly mimic addiction-like qualities.
Stephan added, “We don’t live in a society that stigmatizes unhealthy food, and the consequences are not as obvious… We’re very attached to the way we eat. When you restrict it, it comes into focus how our palates are entertained three times a day, and the instinctive parts of our brain like it.”
Besides, with many addictions, it is easy to sever ourselves from the cues. When we stop smoking, we stop keeping packs of cigarettes in the car. When we stop drinking, we stop going to bars or liquor stores. When we stop doing drugs, we stop hanging out with our dealer. But when we resolve to stop overeating or somehow change our diets, we can’t stop eating completely. Inevitably, we must learn to change our relationships with the cues that are woven into the fabric of our lives, like parties, weddings, and holidays.
Despite his erudition, Stephan is eminently practical. Unlike many diet gurus who ultimately make lifestyle change unnecessarily convoluted, his advice is refreshingly straightforward. My three unique takeaways from our conversation are:
- When you are making a major dietary change, be sure to add in positive elements as much as you may be reducing your food intake. Regular physical activity, getting enough sleep, and managing stress will help to counteract the draining quality of making big changes.
- In response to my (possibly loaded) question, “How do you know if a diet is too restrictive?” Stephan replied, “You have to ask yourself, ‘Is it a net positive in my life, or a net negative?'” In other words, do the benefits outweigh the tradeoffs (over time) of a lifestyle change?
- When I asked if he would vouch for any specific “commercial” diet (for my folks who like structure), he recommended the Loren Cordain (original) Paleo diet – high in fiber, high in protein, moderate in fat, and low in processed carbohydrates (not the “Paleo” imposter diets featuring piles of bacon and butter). You’ll notice that this diet emphasizes satisfying foods, while minimizing hyperpalatable foods.
Sane. Sensible. Balanced. Workable. Smart. Moderate. Research-driven. If you are looking for these qualities in your fitness and nutrition lifestyle, check out his website, or buy The Hungry Brain on Amazon!
(Please note I get a small commission on Amazon purchases like this, which help to support my blog!)