Our hunter-gatherer brains work well to keep us alive and thriving when food is hard to find or when the supply of food is somewhat irregular. It makes sense for a hunter-gatherer to eat as much as possible and then some, when food is available because those calories may have to last for a day or two. Not so much for us though, where a tempting candy bar is in a jar on the kitchen counter or someone's desk, and the refrigerator is full of ready to eat stuff.
I really enjoyed reading about how to make a rat overeat. Apparently rat chow with added fat doesn't do it quickly enough, but give them Froot Loops, chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter and you have obese rats in no time. Not surprisingly, this works for humans as well. Give humans bland nutritious food and they will eat just enough, give them nutritious food plus make Nacho Cheese Doritos and M&Ms available and they will eat double the amount they need.
The book explains the why and how of overeating scientifically and does so in an interesting and accessible way. I think it will be interesting even for people who are not usually inclined to read anything scientific. Stephan Guyenet not only explains the science, but also offers strategies for negotiating our harmful food environment with our hunter-gatherer brains that are hard wired to seek calories.
"....We may have a hard time fighting our nonconscious urges to eat tasty, calorie-rich food when they are right in front of us, but with a little bit of advance planning, we can prevail without having to exert too much of our limited willpower. The key is to control food cues in your personal environment. Ultimately a little bit of planning goes a long way." (page 57)
In the final chapter, he suggests 6 strategies for "how to outsmart the hungry brain." Perhaps the most important strategy is to fix your food environment. Look at your food environment at home and at work and get rid of chips, candy, crackers, and other unhealthy snack foods that are easy to grab and eat. Remember that junk food on the counter or desk is junk food in the mouth. If you watch TV, fast forward through food ads and limit any other tempting food cues you have in your environment. Create effort barriers to eating. Instead of ready sliced apples in a bag, have whole fruit available and instead of shelled and salted nuts, have nuts in shells that you have to crack open to eat.
Beware of "healthy" convenience foods such as bags of shelled nuts, sliced apples and bags of peeled baby carrots, etc. What's wrong with ready sliced and bagged apples and shelled nuts? Too easy to grab and eat. But apples and nuts are healthy, right? Yes, but not if you eat more than you need. It's easy to grab a handful of shelled almonds out of a bag. Now, I have seen people count the almonds they take out and I admire their discipline, but perhaps a more intuitive way is to have to crack them out of a shell yourself. How many will you eat then? If you have sliced apples in a bag, will you just eat one bag or a few more?
By the way, cracking nuts might help relieve stress too. Managing stress is another strategy that Stephan Guyenet discusses, along with moving your body and getting enough and good quality sleep. No surprise to me that these are being suggested.
Managing your appetite and being aware of food reward are two more important strategies he discusses and these basically boil down to eating simple unadulterated foods such as vegetables, potatoes, meats, seafood, eggs, yogurt, whole grains, and beans. He suggests avoiding bread, even when it's made from whole grains because it is calorie-dense and easy to overeat. He recommends potatoes, beans, and oatmeal instead. I tend to avoid bread when it comes in the form of a sandwich or even a wrap, but I do like a very small slice of home made whole grain sourdough bread every now and then. When I bake bread, I make sure to cut, slice and freeze it as quickly as possible. If I leave it on the counter, it would be too easy to cut off a slice and eat it, and repeat. Freezing it and getting it out of sight and smell creates that little effort barrier that I need.
I agree with the author that fixing the food environment also needs to happen on a national/ population level. Health foods need to be more affordable than unhealthy foods. In my opinion, creating a soda tax and making it possible for people to use food stamps at farmers markets are steps in that direction, and school cafeterias are a great place to start creating a healthy food culture.
I got a lot out of reading this book. I now understand why our brains are overwhelmed with buffets and why buffets lead us to overeat. Most importantly, I now know how to deal with buffets. One strategy is to avoid them altogether, or follow Steven Guyenet's advice. What is his advice? Well, you'll just have to read the book.
Check out Stephan Guyenet's blog www.stephanguyenet.com/