Thoughts on "The Hungry Brain" book

I just finished reading The Hungry Brain, and, boy, what a fascinating read!

The book, apart from providing instrumentally useful advice on how to improving your dieting habits, also explains relevant neuroscience topics in a very clear and illustrative way. It’s the kind of book that I just had to read in 3-4 sittings because I wanted to learn more and more about the brain and about the countless number of very interesting mice and rat studies

So what’s the TL;DR; of the book? What things should I record so that I can revisit these notes later? What follows is my loose interpretation of the book.

“Calories in, Calories Out model” is the underlying mechanism of how people gain and lose weight. However it doesn’t explain the obesity epidemic: it just explains how it is happening, not why. By understanding the why, however, we might be able to improve our waistlines without obsessive calorie counting.

The underlying point of the book is that our waistlines have been ballooning since 1970s and common explanations of the phenomena are too superficial. sedantary lifestyles? Sure, but they had been sedentary way before 1970s.

So why is it happening then? Dopamine and habit-forming loop. If you eat rewarding foods you will get “addicted” the same way other habits are formed. You will start eating just for the pleasure of enjoying food and not because you are hungry.

This part of the book explains dopamine very well. I always associated dopamine with pleasure. I was wrong. Dopamine is a reward chemical. High levels of dopamine in your brain makes you more impulsive: because it is easier to get rewarded for spontaneous actions. Think about weed and being high. Low levels of dopamine, on the contrary, make you lethargic and apathetic.

The main thesis of the book, is that modern, Western food industry, has figured out a way to make food a) exceptionally rewarding b) incredibly not-satiating (through the power of capitalism).

Both factors make such food very difficult to resist eating. Moreover, the more you succumb to temptations, the more your body will demand such foods.

And the way to deal with all of this? The way addicts deal with addictions! Which is to: “STEP AWAY FROM THE SNACKS: Don’t make it too easy for yourself to eat food throughout the day”. Here I praise the book for making me realise the importance of creating an environment void of triggers when you are dealing with an addiction.

For example, want to start drinking less alcohol? Just don’t buy it, don’t keep in the fridge and, possibly, don’t have spare cash so that you can’t buy from next door. (I am yet to decide whether I want to implement this).

But one thing that I have already implemented: I stopped buying foods that I find exceptionally rewarding (cookies). I will now try to convince work to follow my lead: they are quite keen on providing all of us with snacks, which isn’t great of our collective waistlines.

Another interesting trivia is about how little it takes to actually become overweight with time. The difference between lean people and overweight is about 10% excess calorie intake a day. Which is, you know, a couple of Kinder Buenos (or some Oreo cookies).

The book goes into much more neurological justification of why we tend to find modern, refined foods exceptionally rewarding and not satiating. And why eating refined, delicious and tempting food makes you to eat more of it later. These are all empirical statements and they are all backed by numerous studies on rats and humans. I won’t be recollecting these here though.

But more practical tips follow: eat foods that are high on satiety index. In other words, eat food that makes you feel full per calorie eaten. Potato is one of those superfoods that is not only full of nutrition, but is also quite high on such index. This explains why people who implement “potato-only” diets are typically very successful. However if you don’t want to just eat potato all the time, google for satiety index. Protein is also exceptionally high on such index, so look for ways to replace fat/carbohydrates with protein in your diet. This is another piece of evidence explaining why, empirically, Paleo diets seem to work better than low-fat diets.

Food that is high on satiety index tends to be simple and not refined. Beans, fish, some vegetables, a steak. Complete opposite of french fries, Doritos, cookies, pizza. You know what I am talking about.

Another way of decreasing a reward from food is to decrease variety. Variety explains why we have a “dessert stomach” even if we are stuffed. A practical tips for visiting buffets follows: a) avoid them b) if you find yourself in a buffet, choose 4 kinds of dishes that you will consume out of the selection and allow yourself to only eat these. Variety is just another way of making food more rewarding and almost impossible to stop gorging on.

And yet another way of making the temptations easier to pass by is a technique of visualising yourself in the future. This simple trick makes your present-you value your future-you more.

Finally, not getting enough sleep makes you more prone to impulsiveness. This often leads to making short-term rewarding decisions (ordering a pizza) over long-term rewarding decisions (going to the gym). So, yeah, get enough sleep, dah. Another one, closely related thing, is stress. Avoid comfort eating and substitute comfort eating with taking a warm bath, going for a jog or having a yoga session instead if you want to make yourself feel better right now.

So where does it all leave us? If you want to lose some weight you should identify what patterns of behaviours cause you to overeat the most. Is it availability of snacks? Bad sleeping habits? Lack of exercise? Comfort eating?

Once you identify the biggest weaknesses in your current lifestyle, make appropriate adjustments. Let the knowledge of the Habit Forming Loop guide your way.

If you are intrigued about the book and want to know more then read this review or listen to this podcast.

The long story short, controlling the pleasure you derive from food is yet another tool that you should consider when you are implementing a diet. Calculating calories and exercising is another tool. Cutting off sugars is yet another instrument at your disposal, albeit related. Fasting is yet another one.

Moreover, people who go on calorie-restriction diets are, empirically, less successful, than those who change diets completely, as outlined by the book. After all, there’s a monkey inside all of us, which is difficult to control.

Anecdotally, after I changed my eating habits away from rewarding foods (and stopped having cookies lying around) I lost 3 kilograms. It is not an enormous amount, but I love how effortless it was. I didn’t realise that I was losing weight: I simply wasn’t hungry.