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Thanks for joining us for episode 115 of The Ancestral RDs podcast. If you want to keep up with our podcasts, subscribe in iTunes and never miss an episode! Remember, please send us your question if you’d like us to answer it on the show.
Today we are thrilled to be interviewing Dr. Stephan Guyenet!
Dr. Stephan Guyenet is an obesity researcher and health writer whose work ties together multiple fields of science to offer explanations and solutions for our global weight problem.
He received a B.S. in biochemistry at the University of Virginia and a Ph.D. in neurobiology at the University of Washington.
He’s the author of the popular health website StephanGuyenet.com, formerly called Whole Health Source, and he is a frequent lecturer on topics of obesity, metabolism, and diet history.
The classic prescription for weight loss and maintenance is based on the basic principles of eating less calories and moving our bodies more. Seems simple, right? But we know that in reality there is more to the equation.
Dr. Stephan Guyenet is here to explain the science behind how the brain’s influence on hunger and satiety can affect even our best of intentions for healthy eating and weight loss.
Join us for the conversation as Stephan shares his insight into obesity, weight gain, and factors that affect the brain’s appetite system. As you hear the details of the major contributors to weight gain in our modern world, you’ll recognize the significant impact the interplay between our brain’s hardwiring and our food environment has on eating behavior and weight regulation.
We’ll also examine the validity of common dietary theories perpetuated by the Paleo community, discuss why you might want to rethink liberally adding butter and other fats to your diet, and share new research that sheds light on the low carbohydrate versus low fat diet debate.
Here is some of what we discussed with Stephan:
- [00:05:45] How Stephan got interested in the topic of obesity and metabolism
- [00:14:31] Why it’s difficult to determine the root cause of obesity and translate the research into practical applications
- [00:19:49] Major contributors to weight gain in our environment related to the brain’s influence on hunger and satiety that can be adjusted for successful weight loss
- [00:40:14] Insight into the validity of common dietary theories perpetuated by the Paleo community
- [00:46:39] The truth about the nutritional value of butter and what is the better dairy choice to increase nutrient density
- [00:50:20] Why you should consider reducing added fats in your diet
- [00:55:07] The implications of new research comparing low carbohydrate versus low fat diets for weight loss
- [01:00:51] The lack of evidence to support the fear of sugar as a cause of weight gain
- This episode is sponsored by Paleo Rehab
- The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting The Instincts That Make Us Overeat
- Follow Stephan on Twitter
- Stephan’s review on The Case Against Sugar
Laura: Hi everyone! Welcome to Episode 115 of The Ancestral RDs podcast. I’m Laura Schoenfeld and with me as always is my cohost Kelsey Kinney.
Kelsey: Hey everyone!
Laura: If you don’t know us, we’re Registered Dietitians with a passion for ancestral health, real nutrition, and sharing evidence based guidance that combines science with common sense. You can find me, Laura, at LauraSchoenfeldRD.com, and Kelsey over at KelseyKinney.com.
We have a great guest on our show today who’s going to discuss his viewpoints on weight gain, obesity, and how the modern food environment affects our brains drive to overeat. His ideas are well supported by science, yet he’s created a bit of a stir in the Paleo and ancestral health community in the past. We’re really excited to chat with him today.
Kelsey: If you’re enjoying the show, subscribe on iTunes so that you never miss an episode. And while you’re there, leave us a positive review so that others can discover the show as well!
And remember, we want to answer your question, so head over to TheAncestralRDs.com to submit a health related question that we can answer or suggest a guest you’d love for us to interview on an upcoming show.
Laura: Before we get into this great interview for today, here is a quick word from our sponsor.
“This episode is brought to you by Paleo Rehab, a five week online program designed to help you recover from HPA axis dysfunction, also known as adrenal fatigue. Is your perfect Paleo diet and lifestyle leaving you exhausted? Now is the time to start feeling the health and wellness you know you deserve. If you’re sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, and are ready to take back your health, then head over to MyPaleoRehab.com to get your free 28 page e-book on the 3 step plan for healing from adrenal fatigue. That’s www.MyPaleoRehab.com.”
Laura: Welcome back everyone! We’re really excited to have with us today Dr. Stephan Guyenet, an obesity researcher and health writer whose work ties together multiple fields of science to offer explanations and solutions for our global weight problem. He received a B.S. in biochemistry at the University of Virginia and a Ph.D. in neurobiology at the University of Washington. He’s the author of the popular health website StephanGuyenet.com, formerly called Whole Health Source, and he is a frequent lecturer on topics of obesity, metabolism, and diet history. Welcome to the show Stephan!
Stephan: Thanks! Good to be here.
Laura: It’s so funny, as I was I was reading your bio, I know how to pronounce your name and we had this whole conversation beforehand. As soon as I started to say it, my brain was like oh no! Am I making a mistake? I know I didn’t, but it’s just kind of funny because I got all nervous.
Stephan: You did great.
Laura: For those of the listeners that don’t know who you are, I’m really glad to be introducing them to your work because I feel like your influence is always really helpful. I’ve been following your work for, gosh, I want to say since like 2011. I think the first time I met you was at that year’s Weston Price Conference. I want to say it was in Philadelphia, but I’m not 100 percent sure. Or maybe it was like King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Does that sound right that you did a talk at one of those?
Stephan: Yeah absolutely. I did a talk about Pacific Island cultures’ diet and health.
Laura: I just remember that was before I started my RD program so I was like brand new into all this stuff, barely knew anything about nutrition beyond just like generally what people learn through Women’s Health magazine or whatever.
I have this vivid memory of us, and when I say us, it was my mom, me, Chris Masterjohn, and you sitting at a table eating the leftover buffet from the Weston Price Conference on…I want to say it was like Monday morning or something, or right after the conference was over. And you and Chris were having this conversation about probably, I don’t know, palatability research or something like that, talking about mice studies, that kind of thing, getting like insanely scientific as people can imagine. I remember my mom was kind of like cutting in a little bit to have a somewhat balanced conversation. I was just sitting there like, what in the world are they talking about?
So that was my first experience of your research just kind of sitting there being like I have never heard about any of this before. I don’t know if you remember that meal at all, but it was like my first foray into the ancestral health community and networking like that.
Stephan: That’s cool. Yeah, I think I do. I think I do remember that meal.
Laura: Maybe a little less momentous for you than it was for me.
Stephan: I certainly remember the conference.
Laura: Like I said, for those listening that don’t know who you are, you I would say are one of the more prominent obesity researchers in the ancestral health community. How did you get into the topic of obesity and metabolism?
Stephan: It was kind of a convergence of a couple of different interests for me. I’ve always been interested in nutrition, and health, and fitness. I think there’s certain things that people are just kind of constitutionally directed towards. And for me, that was it.
I’ve always been interested in how to eat right, and exercise, and stay healthy, and healthy aging in particular. I’ve also been very interested in the brain from a young age, always been very scientifically oriented, and very interested in the brain in particular because it’s a very, very complex organ and it is also the organ that probably more than anything else makes us who we are in terms of generating our behaviors, and our thoughts, and our feelings, and all that. And it’s also because of its complexity something that we still have a lot to learn about. That’s perhaps a bit less true today than it was back when I initially developed my interest in the brain, but we still have a lot to learn about the brain.
It’s this really interesting scientific frontier for me. I went to college and got a B.S. in biochemistry with the idea that I would form a foundation for myself to then go into neuroscience for graduate school, and that’s what I did. In graduate school I studied neurodegenerative disease and I was studying a relatively rare, very rare actually, neurodegenerative disease. I kind of ended up thinking I wanted to study something that was more impactful.
Scientific research uses a lot of resources. You’re using a lot of money, tax payer dollars for the most part You’re using a lot of plastic, you’re using a lot of different chemicals, you’re using animals lives. And so for me it had to be something that I really felt was worthwhile to be worth all the costs that are involved in that research as well as my own time and effort of course.
Eventually I started learning more, on the side I was I was learning more about health, and nutrition, and body fat and then I started to see this very powerful convergence between eating behavior and obesity, the science surrounding that, and the science of the brain. I saw this as an opportunity for me to kind of shift gears to study something that was, A- more impactful. In the modern world today is hard to imagine, there’s not a whole lot of things related to health that are more impactful than obesity, or I should say excess body fatness in general. And second, it was something that brought together my own personal interests, A- of brain, and B- of health and fitness. To me this was like a great opportunity to take my research into a direction where I believed I would be able to help more people and also do something that’s a little more interesting to me.
As a post-doc, I joined the lab of Mike Schwartz, who’s a guy who’s been doing research on the neuroscience of obesity for decades. He’s really one of the architects of that field. Basically very quickly I realized that we were studying the right organ. I mean it’s really kind of common sense if you think about it, which is what kind of blows my mind that more people don’t see it from this perspective, don’t see eating behavior and obesity from this perspective.
The brain is the organ that generates all of our behavior, right? You believe in science, you believe that the brain is the organ that generates all of our behaviors, and all of our feelings, all of our thoughts, all of our cravings, all of it, how we react to things in our environment, how much we’re going to exercise or not exercise, how much sleep we’re going to get. All of that is generated by the brain. In addition to that, in addition to generating our behaviors, and thoughts, and feelings, and impulses, it also regulates a lot of our physiology.
We’re coming to understand that a lot of the physiology in the body is actually directed by the brain, not necessarily controlled in great detail, but kind of like nudged in one direction or another by high level control circuits in the brain. And that also applies to body fatness, and regulation of blood glucose, and body fat distribution, and those things are all influenced by the brain. Actually body fatness is very strongly influenced by the brain. We’ve known this for about a hundred years and now we know a lot more about it than we did. But we’ve known that it was very important for about 100 years.
To me, this brain centric perspective was a real revelation. In that post-doctoral work we were studying…by the way, we were studying brain regulation of body fatness, and we were studying how that changes over the course of the development of obesity, and how that causes obesity to be maintained once it develops, and why is really hard to lose weight. Basically it was kind of a revelation to me that the brain was kind of the central node for understanding this condition of obesity and of excess body fatness as well as the things that are downstream of it like diabetes, and to a large extent cardiovascular disease, orthopedic problems, all the many, many things that are downstream negative consequences of that.
And then the other thing I realized is that this was really not a perspective that was very common. This was one of the things that really motivated me to write in my blog and later on in my book was trying to educate people about this brain centric perspective that really it doesn’t take much more than common sense and thinking through it a little bit to see how important this perspective is.
I consider myself very, very lucky to have had the opportunity to write the first general audience book that really focuses on, takes a brain centric view of eating behavior and obesity. It’s kind of like one of these things that once you think of the idea, it’s obvious and once you write the book, it’s obvious. But it just wasn’t a niche that had been filled yet so I feel very lucky to have been able to fill that with my book The Hungry Brain which came out in February.
Laura: We’ll link to that book in the show notes because it’s a really interesting book and like you said, it’s kind of a different angle to the obesity and weight gain topic. I feel like the obesity topic in general is really complicated because on one hand there’s a lot of people out there that would say it’s very simple, it’s a calories in/calories out issue, and if you want to lose weight if you’re obese, you just need to eat less and move more.
I’m sure as an obesity researcher you have come to the conclusion that it’s not that simple for a lot of people. I feel like there’s about a million different theories about what causes weight gain and how to cure obesity. There isn’t really anything that’s been, I guess we haven’t really come to a scientific consensus on the topic yet. Because obviously if we had, we wouldn’t have at least a third of the western population being obese. In your opinion, why is obesity research so difficult to not only kind of pin down what the root cause is but also to translate into a practical application?
Stephan: To go back to what you started with in this question, I mean it does come back down to calories. And if you can eat fewer calories than you’re burning, you will lose body fat. In that sense it actually is very simple, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Just because it’s physically possible to eat less calories and lose weight, doesn’t mean that is the most effective strategy in real life to take if you want to regulate your body weight.
The reason for that that we can get back to is basically that body weight is not passively regulated, it’s actively regulated by the brain. Your body fights back so you can’t just make conscious, rational decisions to eat less calories without meeting resistance from these physiological systems and these appetite systems that are governed by the brain. It’s simple, but it’s not easy basically, the basic concepts of it.
I think that HIV is a really good analogy here because we understand HIV really well. We know what causes AIDS, it’s the HIV virus. We know the sequence of the HIV virus, we know how it gets into cells, we know how it inserts into the genome and goes dormant and comes back out. We know so much about the HIV virus, but yet AIDS is still a persistent problem.
I the situation is very similar with obesity. I mean we really do have a lot of information about obesity and I think a lot of that information is reliable about how people become obese, about how to not become obese. But I think that it’s just in the real world actually applying that information is very challenging because the things that cause obesity are deeply woven into the fabric of our modern lifestyles. It’s the same situation where it’s like we actually understand, I believe we understand the problem really well, but that doesn’t mean that solving it is easy or even realistic in the current context of the modern world.
With HIV for example, even barring a miracle vaccine or a miracle drug, if every government and every individual in the world behaved in the optimal way for preventing HIV transmission, we could have it eradicated in two generations, completely gone. But that’s just not realistic because it’s not realistic with human nature is what it comes down to.
I think the situation is the same with obesity and this is what my book is all about. We have these impulses, we have these desires that are generated by our brain and those are not things that are very easy for us to control. There are things that influence our behavior in a direction that causes us to eat more than is optimal or eat types of food that are not optimal, cravings and things. They are very difficult for us to really maintain this kind of like iron willed command over because our brain is not really set up to do that.
Laura: Right. I was just going to say I’m sure just like the HIV example, there’s a lot of different factors that will affect a person’s ability to listen to more conscious control as opposed to what their brain’s impulses are sending them.
Stephan: Yeah, absolutely. There are different ways to attack the problem. You can try to reinforce conscious regulation of behavior or you can try to modify the things that are governing the impulses. For example with your food environment, you can change your food environment. You can change the types of foods you expose yourself to and you can actually reduce these impulses, like the cravings that would drive you to do unhealthy things.
There’s a couple of different lines of attack that you can take toward the problem, but I tend to think that changing the cues that you’re giving your non-conscious brain that are driving your impulses, I tend to think that that is going to be the more productive strategy, but it’s not mutually exclusive.
Laura: I want to talk about something that you were just mentioning where it comes to changing your environment to be able to make positive changes in somebody’s weight. Like we were saying, yes, calories in/calories out is the basic biochemistry of what causes weight loss, but a lot of times that actual process requires more than just the conscious decision to eat less and move more. What would you say are some of the major contributors to weight gain in our modern environment that can be adjusted for successful weight loss?
Stephan: There are a couple things that I think are really important, and these relate to different brain systems that feed into your drive to eat, and your satiety, and your hunger. One of the things that is most influential of our eating behavior is our food environment, so the foods that are around us. Basically brain is set up intuitively, instinctively to highly value and to motivate you in situations where you can get easy calorie dense foods. The brain evolved over more than 600 million years and one of the main things it does is try to get you the food that your ancestors needed to survive.
In the context of our ancestors where food was pretty tough to get, the brain had to basically motivate us to get calorie dense, easy foods whenever they were available. So the easier, the better and the more calories, the better. We’re still kind of wired that way even though it’s not good for us in our modern context. If you’re in a situation, like imagine yourself at a buffet or imagine yourself in a room with like free pizza, and ice cream, and pastries.
Laura: I’m laughing because I literally just got back from an all-inclusive resort, so I’m like I was literally just there about five days ago.
Stephan: Yeah, so you understand. It becomes kind of hard to restrain yourself to a healthy calorie intake when you’re in that kind of environment.
There’s actually a really interesting study that I talk about in my book where a researcher named Eric Ravussin and his team locked some people up in a metabolic ward, which means they were basically locked up without being able to go in or out for a week, and put them in a situation where they had an unlimited access to free calorie dense, tasty foods.
This was not a weight gain or weight loss study. These people were not told to eat any particular amount. It was just kind of a pilot study to see whether they could accurately measure food intake in a free choice type of setting. The people ended up gorging. They ate almost twice as many calories as they needed and they gained five pounds in just one week.
They repeated this in men and women, in Caucasians and people of Native American descent, and it was the same in everybody. When you put people in an environment where there is calorie dense, tasty, easy, cheap food, they will tend to overeat and they won’t even realize they’re overeating.
That’s the scary part about it is that you don’t even feel any different. You don’t feel like you over ate presumably because your brain is kind of facilitating that consumption for you because your brain views that situation as desirable. It views those foods as desirable and the situation as desirable.
To get a little bit more specific to get outside of generalities and make it a little more practical, one big factor is calorie density. The number of calories per unit volume or weight of a food is one of the big determinants of total calorie intake. So if you eat food that’s very, very calorie dense, it takes up less volume in your stomach and that sends fewer signals to your brain that promote satiety.
Per calorie that that food contains, if it’s more dense, it’s more rich, it will make you less full. And so if you eat foods that have more water and more fiber in them, things like fruits, and oatmeal, and vegetables, and fresh meats, and things like that that have a lot of water content or fiber, those things are going to create a higher level of fullness than things like crackers, and pastries, and really, really fatty meats, and things like that. Bacon I think is a great example.
If you think about this, if you think about the properties, if you think about the types of food that have properties that don’t make us feel full because they’re very calorie dense, they’re very palatable, They’re low in fiber, you think of all the junk foods. We’re talking about ice cream, we’re talking about pastries, we’re talking about donuts, candy, all that stuff, pizza, stuff that we know is fattening, we intuitively know is fattening. One of the big reasons is because it doesn’t make us as full per unit calorie because of its physical and chemical properties and the way that those interact with our brain’s satiety systems.
That’s a big one; calorie density. And another one is palatability, or I should say food reward, which is the motivational, and pleasure, and learning value of food. This is basically a measure of how much your brain values a particular food. Basically the rule of thumb is simple, or I shouldn’t say rule of thumb, the principle is simple. The more your brain values of food, the more it’s going to promote the consumption of that food. Something tasting really, really good is a sign that your brain intuitively values the food. The better it tastes, you’re going to have a tendency to eat more of it.
When you eat things that really make you crave things that really are like over-the-top enjoyable when you eat them, like really, really decadent ice cream, or brownies, or pizza, those types of things because of that value that your brain intuitively places on them…and if you want we can talk about the mechanisms why that happens… but just on a practical level, those things will tend to drive over consumption.
And then another one is how much work do you have to do to eat that food? So if we lived in a world where everybody ate nothing but pizza, and hamburgers, and soda, but you had to walk five miles and climb a tree to get that food, I’d be willing to bet that there would be a lot less obesity than we have today. There are two reasons. It’s not just the physical activity level, it’s the fact that if you have to go through that effort to obtain the food, you’re not going to do it unless you’re genuinely hungry.
Stephan: You’re not going to passively eat French fries that are right in front of you. If you have to if you have to do work to get those French fries, then you won’t do it until your level of hunger motivation and therefore low energy status has motivated you sufficiently to overcome that effort barrier.
This is very relevant to hunter gatherer situations. Like if you imagine a hunter gatherer, there’s no easy food in their environment, or at least not a lot of easy food. If you want to eat an antelope, you’re going to have to work really hard. And they do eat it, they do eat antelopes. And when they get it, they’ll eat large amounts of it. But I mean to achieve that, you have to do a lot of work, usually days of tracking and hunting, if not weeks.
Even just like picking fruit, getting honey, I mean hunter gatherers will chug honey. They love honey. But how do you get it? You have to climb up into a tall tree and like stick your hand in there, and make a fire, and smoke them out, and then get stung a bunch of times. I mean it’s a lot of work and effort. You have to really want that honey.
Stephan: And they do want that honey if they don’t get it, they don’t survive and they don’t have kids. It’s easy to imagine this and visualize it in a hunter gatherer context, but that same cost/benefit calculation happens in our brains everyday even in the modern world. Convenience of food is a major factor in our intake.
If you’re sitting at a desk all day and you have food within arm’s reach of you, something tempting like let’s say a bowl of M&Ms, or donuts, or something like that, it’s highly likely unless you have the will of steel that you’re going to eat more of that stuff than if it was across the room, or let’s say it’s across the street and you have to pay for it. Those are going to generate very different levels of intake of those foods that pretty much everyone knows are not good for you, and knows are fattening, and knows will contribute to excess calorie intake, ill health down the road, etc., etc.
I think that if you can create small effort barriers for yourself in your own food environment such as having a screw top lid on your jar of nuts so every time you want nuts you have to unscrew it, or even better having your nuts be in the shell so that you have to actually crack those nuts to eat the nuts. Or like peeling an orange as opposed to having something that you can just grab and put in your mouth without any effort. Those are really trivial effort barriers. We’re not talking about hunter gatherer level effort barriers.
Laura: Climbing a tree for your Kind Bar or something.
Stephan: Exactly. I mean this is really trivial stuff, but it matters, it really matters in the way that our brains work. It’s enough to mean that we have to have a certain minimal level of motivation to clear that effort barrier and to eat that food. And that can be enough for a lot of people to help them match their calorie intake to their body’s true calorie needs.
Kelsey: I’m always amazed at like just the visual aspect. Like for me, if I have something that I know it for me is very palatable and I just put it in a cabinet, even that little barrier…and maybe it’s just out of sight out of mind, I’m not sure exactly what psychologically is going on there…but that little step that I have to take to like remember that something is in the cabinet and I can eat it makes a huge difference for me and how often and then again how much I will eat of that food, too.
Stephan: Yeah, absolutely. There’s basically two things going on there. One is you’ve created a small effort barrier. And the second one is that our cravings, and a craving is a food specific motivation, our cravings are triggered quite often by visual cues. Another way of saying that is that our motivation to eat specific foods is triggered by the sight of those foods.
This is very simple Pavlovian conditioning, for people are familiar with Pavlov’s dogs. Basically we learn to associate the sensory properties of a food, such as its appearance, and its smell, and its taste, as well as its location and many other things, everything about that food we learn to associate that with the fat, and starch, and sugar, and all that good stuff that it delivers to our bodies that our brains intuitively value.
When you eat that pastry or whatever it is, or let’s say a brownie. When you eat the brownie, your gut starts sending all these signals up to your brain that are saying essentially this is an awesome source of starch, and sugar, and fat and your brain registers that and it says whoa this is this is awesome! And not awesome today, but it would have been awesome for our ancestors who are always working for their calories.
Our brains are wired like that. Your brain is like whoa! On an instinctive level, this is the hardwiring we’re born with. Your brain is like whoa! I’m going to remember everything about this brownie. I’m going to remember the appearance. And this all happens because of dopamine spiking, by the way. That’s how it works, dopamine spiking in the ventral striatum and other related parts of the brain. Your brain remembers the smell, and the appearance, and where you ate it, and the taste, and all that stuff.
And then when you encounter that again, when you encounter the smell or the sight, then that triggers, that fires your dopamine back up and it triggers your motivation. Because it reminds your brain, it says, oh wow, I know that the visual appearance of a brownie is associated with this awesome source of sugar, and starch, and fat that I remember from last time.
It tells your brain, when you encounter those sensory cues, it tells your brain, this is an opportunity for you to get all of this stuff that you’re hardwired to want to get. And so it ramps up your motivation, your instinctive, your intuitive craving level gets ramped up as soon as you experience that visual cue or the smell cue of the brownie or whatever it is.
But if you don’t have that, like if I were to tell you behind this wall there’s a brownie, but you can’t smell it or see it, that’s very different than if I piped the smell the brownie in and you could smell it, or if I let you see it through glass. Those sensory cues are the things that really start to trigger our motivational level to eat that food. In other words, our level of craving to eat that food.
Kelsey: I think that companies, I experienced this with two different companies: Subway and weirdly Dunkin Donuts where you walk by their store and I swear they’re like pumping out the smell of the food. I would never think, oh I’m walking by Dunkin Donuts or I’m walking by Subway, I should go in and get something. But that smell is such a strong, like it’s a pull to get you in there. I swear it must be like a fake smell because a lot of these places, I mean I think the Dunkin Donuts that I happen to smell it at, they’re not cooking the donuts in there or anything that would actually create that smell.
It was just a weird experience and exactly what you’re talking about here. It just makes such a difference in how strong that instinct is to go and get something.
Laura: In high school we used to call that “Subway stink” because if you went to Subway for lunch, everyone could smell it on you when you got back to school.
Stephan: That’s funny.
Laura: I wouldn’t be surprised if it was fake because it really would linger on your clothes for just hours.
Stephan: I took a trip to France not too long ago and outside of the stores that sell pastries, it smells really strongly of croissants. I can’t even pronounce it in English. It’s hard for me to pronounce in English. I’ve heard that they pipe that smell out and it’s like, it’s so tempting. I mean that smell is so tempting.
But I mean it is how they get you. Advertisers have long known that these sensory cues, and they may not think about it in these terms, but they understand this principle. These sensory cues drive consumer purchase and consumption behavior.
And it works for visual cues, too. This is one of the main reasons why advertising works on TV for food. Like what is Coca-Cola? It’s sugar water. How do you get people to drink sugar water? There’s basically two things, you show it to them on TV, people pouring an ice cold glass, and then it’s aspirational. They’re like young people, they look cool, they look like people you might want to hang out with, and they’re having fun and good feelings.
But it’s sugar water. The product is not something where like with a car you can advertise the quality. You can say well this goes 0 to 60 in whatever, and it gets good gas mileage, and it’s got a great finish. But it’s sugar water. How do you sell it? You have limited options for selling sugar water and so you rely on these cues, this dopamine reinforced motivational behavior that’s triggered by cues. And so you show people billboards, and TV, and whatever with Coke, and hamburgers, and whatever it is.
People spend tens of billions of dollars doing this. In the United States alone more than $10 billion a year they spend showing us pictures of food. And the reason is that they make more than that back by driving our purchasing consumption behavior. I mean it’s got to be insanely effective, otherwise they wouldn’t be spending billions of dollars on it.
The smells and the visual cues, all of that stuff is part of creating a food environment that promotes consumption of whatever the product is. But the net result is we just eat too much of everything.
Laura: I want to take this and pivot a little bit because I’m sure a lot of the people listening to our show are fully aware of the weight gain issues surrounding things like Coke, and ice cream, and pizza, that kind of thing.
I think one of the things I love about the work that you do, Stephan, is that you’re kind of like one foot in the ancestral community and one foot in the more conventional obesity research community. I feel like you bring a lot of balance to what the Paleo community is talking about when it comes to things like weight gain, and food reward, and low carb versus high carb diets, that kind of thing.
I know it’s easy to imagine how this all applies to somebody eating McDonald’s every day, but what about people eating a Paleo diet? Are there things in the research that you’ve discovered that actually go against what a lot of the ideas and theories are perpetuated by the Paleo community? Are there theories that you just think are flat out wrong based on the research that would be helpful for people to know about?
Stephan: Yeah, that’s a good question, good pivot. First of all, I think that there’s a lot of diversity in the Paleo community and especially in the broader ancestral community. I think there’s a lot of value certainly to the ancestral concept and also to the Paleo concept. I think it gets applied in different ways by different people and some of them I would say are better aligned with mainstream scientific thought and some of them are less well aligned.
But some things that I see that are less well aligned, again these aren’t necessarily things that all people in the Paleo community believe or adhere to, but I think probably the lowest hanging fruit for me is bacon. I mean come on people, bacon is not healthy. Give me a break! It’s like deep fried meat. It’s like the fattiest, saltiest, most palatable…
Laura: Sometimes sweet too because there could be some sugar on it.
Stephan: Yeah. It’s got nitrates, it’s got preservatives, it’s probably carcinogenic. I’m not saying strongly carcinogenic, like you can probably eat it sometimes and it’s not a big deal. But it’s not a healthy food. l don’t understand how bacon got associated with the Paleo movement. I think it’s just this kind of like macho pro-meat kind of thing that went along with Paleo. I mean honestly, I think there’s there’s a section, there’s a portion of the Paleo community that’s basically like young men who want an excuse to eat tons of meat, honestly. I’m not saying that is representative of the community as a whole, but that’s a piece of it.
I think bacon is the low hanging fruit, and just generally the idea that it doesn’t matter how fatty or calorie dense a meat is, it’s all good for you. I’m not anti- fat and I’m not really anti-fatty meat either. But I think there’s a moderation principle here that is valuable and I think that if you’re eating very, very fatty meats, you’re going to be increasing the calorie density of your diet and it’s just going to be easier to over-consume calories.
I think there are still some questions that remain around red meat as well. Red meat is a very highly nutritious food and I do eat it sometimes. But I don’t know, there’s been enough research questioning it particularly on the colon cancer issue. Eating lot of it probably does increase the risk of colon cancer somewhat. I think that there are still some open questions, still some uncertainty that remains about how wise it is to eat large amounts of red meat.
And again, I think red meat can be a healthy food. I think it can be part of a healthy diet. I just wonder once you’re eating large amounts of it, there’s a certain amount of uncertainty that starts to enter into my understanding of how healthy that is based on some of the research that I’ve seen.
And just in general, I think there’s a lot of contrarianism in the Paleo community. Basically I think a lot of people are drawn to it who are like the type of person who have the attitude of you can’t tell me what to do, I’m not going to listen to the authorities, I’m not going to listen to The Food Pyramid.
Laura: A little rebellious.
Stephan: Yeah, there’s a rebellious attitude, personality that tends to go along with that. I think that sometimes that can be taken a little too far where people maybe discard some things that don’t need to be discarded or feel very highly confident that mainstream nutritional science is wrong when maybe the truth is that nutritional science, maybe there’s some uncertainty around this question or maybe it’s not as certain as we thought it was originally, but it’s doesn’t necessarily mean that we can say for sure that it’s A-Ok.
Like salt for example. For me, the salt issue, I’ve looked into it some, not really deeply. But, man, the more you look, the more uncertainty there is. I mean there are pretty compelling arguments on both sides and I’ve kind of concluded I’m just not really going to write about it and not really even worry about it too much in my diet because it’s so unclear whether it’s bad for you or not. There are people who say, no, we definitely know for sure that salt is good, we should be eating tons of salt. I just don’t think we have that level of certainty right now, and about other things as well.
Laura: Yeah. Just on that vein, one of the things I wanted to ask you about…because I thought when you were saying low hanging fruit, I thought you were going to go for like butter in the coffee as a low hanging fruit topic.
Stephan: Yeah, that’s another one.
Laura: You recently wrote a blog post about your thoughts on butter in general and how they’ve changed recently. I think butter is kind of an interesting food where eating some is probably fine, but putting tablespoons of it in coffee in the morning, maybe not. So what do you think about butter?
Stephan: Yeah, I agree. I realize that posts probably didn’t win me any points with the Weston Price crowd. If you look at butter, if you really look at the nutritional value of butter, it has a little bit of nutritional value, but not much. I mean it’s got a little bit of vitamin A, it’s got a little bit of vitamin K, and particularly K2 which might have some nutritional significance. It’s got some short chain fatty acids. It’s got some other things that may well have benefits. But you know what? All of that stuff is in whole dairy too. All that same nutrition plus a lot more is in whole dairy.
The problem is right now for most people…I’m saying generalities here but there could be people who have different priorities. But for most people, we’re already eating too many calories. So why are you going to concentrate the calories in a food, and concentrate the palatability, and create a scenario where you make it even easier for yourself to eat too many calories when you’re already eating too many?
I mean because butter, let’s be honest, it’s a refined food. It constitutes about three to four percent of the weight of milk as it comes out of the cow. You’re basically concentrating the fat in that milk and then adding it to other foods as a partially refined ingredient.
I’m not saying butter is going to kill you. I’m not saying don’t ever eat it. I think if you’re making some vegetables and you want to put some butter in, that’s fine, that’s normal putting some fat in vegetables. It’s not necessarily as a whole dish going to be a calorie dense item, but you put enough fat in it to make it palatable so you want to eat it. I don’t see any problem with that. But yeah, when it gets to larger amounts where you’re putting in your coffee, and you’re putting on your bread, and you’re using it liberally in all these different ways, if you’re trying to just make your diet as delicious as possible, then you’re doing a great job. But if you’re trying to maximize the nutritional value of your diet, then you’re not doing a great job.
What you should be doing is eating whole sources of dairy. I think yogurt is a great, great way to eat dairy. It’s got everything that came out of the cow, plus most of the lactose is gone and you get probiotics. Plain whole milk yogurt I think it is a great food if you eat dairy. I realize some Paleo folks don’t. It’s certainly not essential. But I think if you eat dairy, that’s a great way to eat it. So it’s not that butter is toxic. If you really want to maximize the nutritional quality of your diet, you’re better off eating other forms of dairy than butter.
Laura: And maybe would you say using different fats? Or do you just think that in general isolated fats are kind of lower on the spectrum of nutrient density?
Stephan: Yeah. My absolute honest opinion is I think we would be much better off if we used no isolated added fats at all. I honestly, genuinely believe that and I think the evidence pretty strongly supports it.
That said, and again I’m not saying that fat is bad. I think if we eat fat as part of whole foods that have physical and chemical properties that make us feel full at the appropriate times, things like fresh meats, and eggs, and avocados, and nuts, whole foods, I think that’s a different story. But when we’re isolating fats, and I mean fats are insanely concentrated in calories. Isolated fats are much more calorie dense than any other food that we eat. It just makes it very easy to over consume I think is the bottom line.
I genuinely think that we would all be better off if we didn’t eat any of it. That said I think it’s a pretty hard sell for people to completely cut out isolated fats because we really like them, we’re accustomed to them, they’re deeply ingrained in our diets. And I eat them too. I eat them too, but I don’t claim that it is nutritionally optimal.
The primary fat primary added fat that I use is extra virgin olive oil. I think that there’s more research than for any other fat by far suggesting that extra virgin olive oil from a chronic disease perspective at least is better, or is healthy relative to other added fats. There’s actually a fair amount of research that seems to be pretty good for cardiovascular disease, and metabolic diseases, and some suggestive evidence it might be better for weight gain because of the monounsaturated fat. I think if you’re going to use added fats, extra virgin olive oil is a good way to go for the majority of your added fat use.
But again, I think if I really had a problem with fat gain, and I was really susceptible to it, and I really wanted to kind of optimize around losing weight and keeping it off, I would not be eating any added fats at all.
Laura: It’s interesting because when I work with clients who are on more of like that moderate carb Paleo, actually maybe even a higher carb Paleo diet… I mean high versus moderate, it’s so hard to define carbohydrate percentages…but I find that for a lot of those people if they are struggling with some fat loss and they’re pretty active and just generally eating a pretty whole foods diet, taking out or at least reducing the added fats, like cutting the amount of oils they’re using, butters, that kind of thing is a really easy way to actually promote some weight loss without having to make any major changes to the diet.
It kind of covers a lot of those environmental factors that you were talking about about calorie density and palatability. Because when you cut the fat out, like the added fats, it’s not like you’re going on a crazy low fat diet because you’re still getting things like you said egg yolks, avocado, fatty meats, that kind of thing. But it’s that palatability factor of adding things like butter, and olive oil, and coconut oil, and that kind of thing that I think you lose a lot of that when you remove it and it doesn’t make a huge difference in the satiety of the meal.
Laura: It is something that I think is pretty impactful for people that are already following like a more Paleo, whole foods kind of diet that are struggling with extra weight.
Stephan: I was just going to say I don’t think people really understand. Most people, I don’t think they understand how many calories are actually in added fat. I mean one tablespoon, which is really not that much added fat, is 120 calories. If you have one tablespoon with each of your meals, again not a huge amount of added fat, you’re having 360 extra calories. So yeah, I mean I totally agree.
I have one thing I want to add because I think you’ll find it interesting and I think your audience will find it interesting is that one of the things that we’re coming to realize…so there have been all these studies done, I’m sure you’re familiar, comparing low carbohydrate to low fat diet interventions for weight loss. We see that in general the lower carbohydrate diets tend to promote more weight and fat loss than the lower fat diets up to about a year duration.
For a while the idea was, well okay, reducing carbohydrate is more effective than reducing fat. But one thing that’s been coming out lately that I think is really fascinating is that when you really look at these low fat diets that are the comparison diets to the low carb diets, they’re really quite wimpy. Not only are they not very low in fat, but they’re kind of processed. It’s like sugary, there’s no focus on quality. It’s like sugary refined starch, like kind of junky diet.
Laura: SnackWell’s cookies and that kind of thing.
Stephan: Yeah, and white rice and just things that I don’t think any nutritionist would really… maybe I shouldn’t say any, but I don’t think a wise nutritionist would look at a diet like that and say, yeah, this is a really slimming diet.
There are these studies that are coming out now that are focusing on high quality and they’re saying we’re going to we’re kind of run these studies again and we’re going to try to get people on high quality diets that are either low in carbohydrate or low in fat and then we’re going to see what happens in terms of weight loss.
There was one actually conducted really recently, it’s not even published yet, just the abstract was published at a conference, which is how I know about it, by Chris Gardner. This was a study that was funded by NuSI recently. The idea was to get people to adhere better to the diet program than ever before and to really get quality high and compare low carb versus low fat diets.
What they found was first of all, when you have people eating a higher quality diet, you get better weight loss and better fat loss. They got pretty good results. And second, there was basically no difference between the two diet arms. They both lost approximately the same amount of weight. And so I think kind of the conclusion that… and I’m not saying this is like completely set in stone yet… but the conclusion that seems to be emerging from the research recently is that actually when you when you have a high quality diet, it can be restricted in carbohydrate or it can be restricted in fat. For the “average person,” it could differ by individual, but for the average person either one of those could be equally effective.
Laura:Which I feel like for the Paleo community most of the messaging getting put across is that carbs are inherently fattening and that if you want to lose weight you have to avoid carbs.
Stephan: Yeah, and I don’t think that’s true as a generality, but I think that we have to acknowledge where a lot of these people are coming from. I think a lot of these people are people who tried the kind of like low quality, low fat diet and it didn’t work well for them. Some people respond better to low carb, others respond better to low fat, and whether they’re just constitutionally not responsive to a low fat diet, or whether they just didn’t use a high quality version of it, either of those things… if you try a diet and you’re putting all this effort into it and you’re not seeing results, and then you try a low carb diet and you see results, you’re going to be like this thing that people were telling me is baloney and the opposite is true.
I think that’s a lot of what you see in this community is people who were kind of failed by the traditional weight loss advice and who sought an alternative and found it to be more effective. But I think that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s more effective for everyone. But I think this is a community of people, many of which it is more effective for.
Laura:It’s funny because I’m sure for every person that had that experience, there was like a 30 bananas a day vegan person that got the exact same experience where they’re like eating meat was so bad for me and now I feel so much better. So it’s just crazy to see that the diversity that exists. I feel like trying to come up with any sort of one size fits all recommendation is essentially impossible.
Stephan: Yeah, I agree with that. At the same time, I think that there are some things that we can say that tend to work more often than not. I think that coupled with an attitude of being willing to do some personal experimentation and tweaking, and perhaps working with a dietitian to help facilitate all of that, I think those two strategies together is probably a good way to go.
Laura:Definitely. Well, I feel like we could talk about this forever basically, which I guess Kelsey and I technically do all the time. But we really appreciated having your input, Stephan. There’s a lot of topics we could have covered. I was hoping to ask you about sugar, but I feel like I’ll just send people to your critique. Was it Gary Taubes who wrote something about sugar?
Stephan: Yeah, The Case Against Sugar.
Laura: Right, and you had a bit of a rebuttal there about sugar not being necessarily like this evil just 100 percent weight gaining food. I mean obviously high palatability and combining it with fat, probably not a great idea. But a little bit on its own, probably not the end of the world especially when it comes to fruit.
It amazes me how many people that I work with that are still so afraid of eating fruit. Like bananas for whatever reason just tend to be this really, almost like a gateway food into a higher carb diet. It just kind of amazes me that people are fine to put four tablespoons of coconut oil in their coffee in the morning, but they’re afraid to eat more than half a banana because they’re worried the banana is going to make them fat.
Laura: I feel like there’s a lot to be said about the kind of people that feel this way as far as body image issues, that kind of thing. But just the amount of confusion that’s in the Paleo community because of this war against carbohydrate, it’s kind of gotten us to this point where it’s like science really isn’t being paid attention to in a lot of places where people are afraid to eat a banana, but they’re totally fine eating like I said coconut oil and butter just by the spoonful.
Stephan: Yeah, I totally agree. I have to share an anecdote on this.
Stephan: I was on a panel one time for a TEDx conference that I went to. I was on a panel with Rob Lustig. One of the guys, I think it was either, it must have been Walter Willett or David Ludwig asked Lustig… Rob Lustig is the big anti-sugar guy by the way in case people don’t know in the audience. One of them asked him, they said do you have any evidence at all that fruit is fattening? You think sugar is fattening, do you have any evidence at all that fruit is fattening? He thought for a second and then he cited this study where they had looked at orangutans in the jungle who had this seasonal fruit binge. They would like binge on fruit when all the fruit got ripe in the jungle and then they would gain weight. And that was his evidence that fruit was fattening.
I think the point is there’s literally, as far as I know there is zero evidence. This is like just pure ideology and repeating something until it becomes true.
Laura: Or like isolated fructose feedings in lab mice that, oh well, that must mean that fructose in fruit is bad for you. And it kind of just goes from there, which it drives me nuts because I feel like fruit is an actually really healthy food. All the research that has been done shows that it actually prevents or at least is associated with lower weight, and less disease risk, and lower risk for diabetes and all that.
Laura: It amazes me that people are so afraid of it, like literally afraid of it to the point where if I tell them to put a whole banana in their smoothie, they’re just like I can’t, that’s too much! It’s amazing.
Stephan: The ironic thing is that even refined sugar is not very fattening in experimental animal models. Fat is way more fattening than sugar is in a variety of different animal species. There’s a lot of belief that goes into there that’s not necessarily evidence based. Not to say that it doesn’t have a grain of truth, more than a grain of truth.
Laura:I think everything is in context. Like we saying, butter is not necessarily bad for you. But if you’re trying to lose weight, then using lots of butter on your food, probably not a good idea. The same goes with if you have diabetes you probably don’t want to be drinking Coke, but having a banana may be okay. I think there’s just so much like we said, context on all the environmental, but DNA, and genetics, and historical diet. It gets really, really complicated.
When people wonder why nutrition degrees take so long and so much effort to get, it’s because there is so much you have to learn and it becomes more of an art sometimes than a science when you’re working with people individually.
But we really appreciated your time, Stephan. It was awesome to have you on the show and hopefully we’ll be able to have you on in the future to talk about some more interesting topics. In the meantime, where can our listeners find your work?
Stephan: My blog is at StephanGuyenet.com. Or if that’s hard to spell you can go to WholeHealthSource.org and that’ll take you to the same place. I’m also pretty active on Twitter. A lot of what I tweet is pretty technical, a lot of papers and things. But if you’re interested in the science side of it, my handle is @whsource.
My book is The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting The Instincts That Make Us Overeat. That’s available online. And then besides that, I just appear periodically on podcasts, and guest articles, and conferences, and that sort of thing.
Laura: Great! We’re going to link to all of that in the show notes. If people want to check that out, they can go to TheAncestralRDs.com and this will be episode 115, so you can find all that good information there.
And again, we really appreciate your time, Stephan, and like I said, hope to have you on in the future.
Stephan: Okay, thanks. I’ll look forward to that.
Laura: Awesome, take care!
Stephan: You too.