Six ways to outsmart your hungry brain

hungry brain
“The nonconscious brain has a powerful influence on our eating habits. Although these ancient circuits kept our ancestors alive and fertile in an environment of scarcity, they get us into trouble today by following the rules of a survival game that no longer exists. The same responses that once helped us thrive now drive us to overeat, gain fat, and develop diseases that kill us and sap our vigor.” –STEPHAN GUYENET, AUTHOR OF THE HUNGRY BRAIN

When we were hunter gatherers in an environment where food was scarce, having a calorie-seeking brain improved our chances of survival. But, today, when all it takes is a phone call to Domino’s pizza to get a 5,000 calorie bomb dropped off at your door, the same brain has become a liability.

The food we eat today takes minimal effort to locate and prepare whilst being far more calorie-dense, and highly-palatable than anything our ancestors ate.

When you combine this with chronic stress, sleep deprivation and a natural aversion to physical activity, overeating and its resulting excess body fat have become the new normal.

Guyenet identifies six key areas you need to focus on to make your brain less hungry and your body less fat.

1. Fix your food environment

always hungry image

If you’re surrounded by enticing, highly-rewarding, calorie-dense food in your daily environment then it will be hard to resist the drive to overeat. By reducing your exposure to food cues you won’t have to make life so difficult for your non-conscious brain all of the time.

What to do:
  1. Get rid of all tempting, calorie-dense foods at home and at work, especially those that are visible and close to hand, for example on desks, tables, and in the car.
  2. Reduce your exposure to food cues in general –this includes TV, internet, any media with advertising that is incessantly trying to push your buttons so you buy and eat their products.
  3. Create barriers to eating: nuts in their shells, fruit that has to be peeled, kids’ snacks made as inaccessible as possible.

2. Manage your appetite

manage your appetite

When a majority of the calories you consume come from highly-processed, nutrient-sparse, calorie-dense food, your brain will never feel satisfied and you will likely overeat. If your brain thinks you’re starving, it will eventually wear you down, no matter how much will power you think you have. So, what’s the solution? Give it the cues it needs to realise that you aren’t starving.

What to do:
  1. Choose foods that provide strong satiety signals but contain a moderate number of calories. Foods with a lower calorie density, higher protein and/or fibre content, and moderate palatability, e.g. fruit, veg, potatoes, meat, seafood, eggs, yoghurt, whole grains, beans, lentils. Get starch from water-based foods like potatoes, beans, oatmeal, instead of flour-based foods with a high calorie density and low fibre content like bread and crackers.
  2. Eating more protein deserves repeating as this is the macronutrient that provides the strongest satiety signals. Around 30% of the calories you get from protein are used just to digest it. And if resistance training is part of your routine (which is advisable if you want to maintain your lean body mass), additional dietary protein will aid muscle protein synthesis after your workouts.
  3. Limit highly-rewarding foods (see below).
  4. Exercise, sleep and stress management also have an effect on appetite (see below)

3. Beware of food reward

food reward

There’s a reason so many of us love ice cream, pizza, pastries, bacon, chocolate and french fries so much. Their calorie-dense combinations of fat, sugar, starch, protein and salt make them much more rewarding than any of the foods our distant ancestors ate. They drive powerful cravings which lead to overeating, and eventually, the development of deeply ingrained unhealthy eating habits.

What to do:
  1. Identify the reward foods that can be problematic for you. Whilst you can allow yourself to eat them as an occasional treat, if you avoid keeping them in your personal food environment you’ll be much less likely to overeat them.
  2. Be especially careful of foods and beverages containing habit-forming drugs, such as alcohol, caffeine, and theobromine (found in chocolate) which as well as being inherently rewarding, are often high in calories and low on satiety–a potently effective combination for gaining excess body fat.

4. Move your body

move your body

While it’s not enough to rely on exercise alone to lose weight, it’s still a hugely important component of a healthy lifestyle. The obvious benefit it provides is increasing the number of calories you use, making you less likely to consume more calories than your body needs.

Apart from the calories that you burn during exercise, there is evidence to suggest that physical activity may also help maintain the 'lipostat' in the brain - the mechanism which dictates the body’s stable level of body fat, commonly referred to as the ’set point’.

When diet alone is used to lose weight, a person’s ‘set point’ often remains high, meaning it’s extremely difficult to keep any lost weight off.

In other words, your brain thinks obese is the new ‘normal’ and thwarts any efforts to reduce body fat levels by making you hungry all of the time. However, it’s believed that physical activity can help reduce this ‘set point’, making weight loss maintenance much easier.

What to do:
  1. Incorporate more movement into your daily life. Walk or cycle to work, take the stairs when you can, use a standing desk, have standing/walking meetings, etc.
  2. When you include resistance training as part of your training program, supported by adequate protein intake in your diet, it’s possible to increase or at least maintain your lean muscle mass while you lose excess body fat.
  3. Experiment with different types of activities/sports that you actually like doing so that you’re more likely to stick with them for the long run. When it comes to cardio some people naturally do better with low intensity steady state (LISS), whereas others do better with high intensity interval training (HIIT).

5. Make sleep a priority

make sleep a priority

Sleep is just as important as nutrition and exercise when it comes to improving your health, performance, and body composition. When you don’t get the sleep that you need, your brain tells you that you’re energy-deprived, increasing your food reward system’s responsiveness to food cues. This, in turn, causes you to eat more despite your best intentions not to.

What to do:
  1. Most people need from 7-9 hours per night to wake up feeling fully restored. Start with 7 hours as your baseline and count back from when you need to get up the next day to make sure you don’t cut yourself short. You can also add half an hour to give you time to settle in bed and read before going to sleep. So, for example, if you have to get up at 6.30am, make sure you’re in bed by 11.00pm. Modify according to how you feel when you wake up.
  2. Make sure your room is completely dark at night.
  3. Respect your circadian rhythm by going to bed and waking up at about the same time each day.
  4. Moderate alcohol and caffeine intake before bed.
  5. Implement a pre-sleep routine, e.g. have a bath, do a ‘brain dump’ (write down anything you're worried about or that you have to do the next day), practice relaxing diaphragmatic breathing exercises, turn off all electrical devices an hour before going to bed.
  6. If you must use an electronic device before bed, install a program such as f.lux to reduce your exposure to blue spectrum light which interferes with melatonin production.

6. Manage stress


In our not too distant evolutionary past, our threat response system improved our chances of survival when we were faced with acute danger such as an attack by a sabre-toothed tiger, or an ambush by a rival tribe.

However, in the modern world the same threat response system is often put on continual alert by low-level stressors such as a highly-strung boss or personal financial difficulties. This type of chronic stress plays havoc with our hormones, undermines our quality of life and often causes us to overeat, despite our best intentions.

What to do:
  1. Identify whether or not you’re a stress eater. If you are, then you probably already know.
  2. Identify the stressor(s)—particularly chronic stressors you don’t feel you can control. Common stressors include work stress, money, health problems, prolonged caregiving, interpersonal conflict, and/or a lack of social support.
  3. Try to mitigate the stressor:

    a) If you can’t fix it or avoid it, try to make an uncontrollable stressor a controllable stressor by outlining a concrete plan of action to improve the situation. For example, if you’re stressed about a dead-end job, making a plan to actively search for other jobs will make you feel more in control of the situation.

    b) Practice mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is a state of intentional, nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment, and meditation is an effective way to cultivate it. This can help you live the present moment instead of obsessively worrying over things that may or may not happen in the future.
  4. Replace stress eating with more constructive coping methods. Instead of reaching for the fridge to make yourself feel better, refer to a list of alternative actions you can do depending on your situation: calling a friend, going for a walk, reading a good book, taking a hot bath, drinking a non-caloric beverage, breathing exercises, etc.
  5. So important, it’s worth repeating: remove calorie-dense comfort food from your personal surroundings at home and at work. In the absence of highly rewarding items, there’s less of an incentive to self-medicate your stress with food.