In a recent podcast interview with Men’s Health, we spoke with a neuroscientist, psychiatrist, and researcher. Dr. Judson Brewer about the brain mechanisms behind overeating.
Dr. Jud explained that while the ‘calories in versus calories out’ (CICO) model should be followed if the goal is to lose weight, it is the process of following a calorie-restricted diet that most of us we fight . Brewer’s shift into “emotional eating,” or simply continuing to eat even when we’re not hungry, are two of the biggest contributing factors to why losing weight is so difficult.
‘I learned that formula (CICO) in medical school. I thought, “Wow, that’s easy. I can remember that.” And then I went into the clinic and it wasn’t easy at all,” Brewer says. ‘The formula is right and that formula is never going to change. The problem is, that’s not how changes happen in real life.’
Brewer adds that although counting calories is simple and can be effective, not sticking to the calories you have planned can make some people feel defeated and may even cause them to abandon their diet. “I’ve seen this in real life, both in my clinic and in the programs we’ve developed,” Brewer says. One of the big problems is that people feel that something is wrong with them; here is this simple formula. Why can’t I follow the formula?
The trick, which Brewer explains in both the podcast and his book, ‘The habit of hunger‘, is to begin to rewire our brains to recognize when we are full, when we are in fact be hungry and learn to differentiate between which foods are really going to work for us and which ones we are looking for due to unconscious habits and survival mechanisms built into our brain.
“Our ancestors had no refrigerators or means to preserve food,” Brewer says. ‘They had to go get food every day and then remember where it was. So we have this very simple but effective system that helps us remember things called “positive and negative reinforcement.”
‘Imagine our ancestors on the savanna looking for food, they find some food and there’s a three-step process: you see the food, there’s the trigger. The second step is to eat the food and if it’s good calories, the third step is for your stomach to send this dopamine signal to your brain and basically tell you: remember what you ate and where you found it.’
The corollary of this, Brewer explains, is that our brain also learns where danger is, triggering unpleasant feelings, and figures out how to make those feelings go away. Imagine our ancestors seeing a tiger in the jungle and hastily escaping.
Brewer says that even though this system worked pretty well for our ancestors, it can cause us to overeat or consume the wrong types of foods. ‘We have refrigerators and 24/7 food availability. Then our brains start to co-opt this mechanism and our wires get crossed a little. Let’s say we are sad, angry, bored, lonely or frustrated: for our brain those feelings are like that tiger. It says “ooh, this is bad, make it go away”, and if we eat some food like chocolate, ice cream or cake, our brain says “ooh, this is good”, and we get this dose of dopamine. Wire our brain to indicate that when we are sad, angry, bored or lonely we should eat something. That’s why it’s called comfort food and anti-stress food.
But what is the solution if this is part of our evolutionary software?
Well, Dr. Brewer says it has a lot less to do with willpower than you might think. “We can try to tell ourselves not to do any unhealthy habits, that might work for a while, but then it tends not to work.” When we look at the behavior change equations, they have nothing to do with willpower, but rather awareness.
‘We’ve done studies with an app called Eat Right Now that makes people pay attention while they eat. We take people who eat highly processed foods or overeat and we can get them to pay attention while they eat. We measure the reward value of the brain and how quickly it changes just by that simple act of awareness. We published a study a couple of years ago showing that it only takes 10 to 15 times for someone to realize they are overeating for the reward value to drop below zero and for people to start changing. their behaviors. So as long as we pay attention, we’ll learn pretty quickly how rewarding or unrewarding a behavior is. This is how we rewire our brains for change. Just paying attention when we eat.’
It sounds deceptively simple, but don’t we run the risk of turning every meal into a neurotic investigation of our own appetites? Dr. Brewer thinks not, and by paying attention to every bite, rather than distracting ourselves with Netflix, we’re giving ourselves a real chance to enjoy our food more while avoiding overeating and weight gain.
‘We can ask ourselves after each bite: “Is this as good, better or worse than the last bite?” If we are having dinner, we may notice that those first bites are really delicious, but at the end of the meal, if we really pay attention, we start to notice that the same food doesn’t taste as good. If we notice that ‘pleasure plateau’, where it’s rewarding at first and then starts to plateau, we can stop.’
You can listen to the full interview announcement for free in the Men’s Health app by becoming a Men’s Health Squad member, or listen to it on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. You can read more about Dr. Jud’s research and how to put it into practice by getting his book ‘The habit of hunger