The Hungry Brain book update

The Hungry Brain has been available in the US for four and a half months now, and reactions are rolling in.  Here’s a summary of what I’ve learned so far.

Positive feedback

So far, I’ve received uniformly positive feedback from the research and medical communities.  One of my primary goals was to accurately and clearly explain a broad swath of neuroscience and obesity research– much of which has never been available to a general audience– and it seems I’ve accomplished that.

After reading The Hungry Brain, my postdoc mentor Mike Schwartz told me it’s the best general-audience explanation of our field he has seen.  That’s particularly significant because Schwartz is one of the primary architects of our field.  The book also recently received its first review from a scientific journal, which wrote “This is an enthralling book which has lots of cutting-edge research… and is well written” (1).  David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, wrote that it “provides an exceptionally complete understanding of why, despite the prevailing desire to be lean, so few of us are” (2).  Alan Aragon, nutrition researcher and educator, called it an “awesome book” (3).

I attribute this positive reception from the scientific and medical community to two factors:

  1. I made a good faith effort to understand the evidence from the most informed perspective possible, which is usually the perspective of the researchers themselves.  To do that, I read hundreds of papers and interviewed 36 researchers directly.  When a researcher’s perspective didn’t make sense to me, I corresponded with him/her and other experts and read papers until I felt the question was resolved (or difficult to resolve given current evidence).  I also drew from my preexisting knowledge in the area, gained from 12 years of research experience in neuroscience and obesity.
  2. I had subject-specific experts review the majority of the book before publication and I took their comments seriously.

Feedback from popular media and the general public has been very good as well.  The Hungry Brain received a very good review from The New York Times, which called it “essential”, and an outstanding review from Publisher’s Weekly, which called it “a remarkable book” (4, 5).  It also received a good review from the rationalist Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex), who wrote “Not only does it provide the best introduction to nutrition I’ve ever seen, but it incidentally explains other neuroscience topics better than the books directly about them do” (6).  The book currently has a 4.5 out of 5 star rating on Amazon.com.

In February, I accomplished one of my long-standing pipe dreams, which was to give a book talk at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.  The talk had good turnout and was well received (thanks to all the locals who came out!).

To date and to my knowledge, none of the major scientific points in The Hungry Brain have been credibly refuted.  That said, I don’t present the contents of the book as Immutable Scientific Truth.  True scientific beliefs are probabilistic, meaning that there is some probability they will turn out to be wrong.  Beliefs can be wrong either through limitations of the evidence or limitations of the person interpreting it, and I understand that neither the evidence nor I are infallible.  I made an effort to convey uncertainty in the book when I thought it was appropriate.

Despite a very positive response overall, knowledgeable people have pointed out a few mistakes in the book.  The most significant of these is on page 44 of the hardcover, where I use the term negative reinforcement rather than the correct term punishment (first pointed out by Sylvia Karasu– thank you).  It’s an embarrassing mistake, but not one that undermines my point.  If you find any mistakes, please pass them along– I may have the opportunity to correct them someday!

Negative feedback

No book will satisfy everyone, and that is true of The Hungry Brain.  Negative feedback gives me an opportunity to learn about my audience and about the book market.  The primary theme of the negative feedback I’ve seen is that some people wanted more of a practical focus and were frustrated that I didn’t present a simple, novel approach to weight control (some of the weight control strategies in the book are things I haven’t seen in other general-audience books, but most of them can be found elsewhere).  You can see feedback like this on the book’s Amazon page.

I totally understand why people want me to distill weight control into one core idea and use that idea to deliver confident, simple, effective advice that they haven’t seen elsewhere.  In all areas of our lives, we want the most benefit for the least effort– that’s human nature.  Yet eating behavior and weight control can’t be shoehorned into one simple concept– that’s reality.  Another part of the problem lies in the fact that The Hungry Brain isn’t a diet book.  It does provide strategies for managing eating behavior and weight, and I believe those strategies are effective, but the primary focus of the book is on understanding why we overeat.

Furthermore, I think some readers are looking for a silver bullet that not only doesn’t exist in The Hungry Brain, but doesn’t exist anywhere.  If there is a silver bullet for easy weight loss, no one has figured it out yet (the closest thing we have right now is bariatric surgery).  The truth is that most people with obesity would rather be lean, and many of them go to great lengths to try to slim down, usually without substantial, lasting success.  If there were a simple and easy solution, the US would not have an adult obesity rate of 38 percent.  Yet due to the aforementioned human nature, we’re constantly on the lookout for that silver bullet.  This is why people get swindled by an endless treadmill of ineffective quick fixes.  There is a perverse incentive to tell people what they want to hear even if you can’t back it up.

I know I could have sold many more copies if The Hungry Brain had been about a new miracle cure for obesity, or about the one cause of obesity “they” don’t want you to know about (or both).  I could easily have found a publisher happy to print all sorts of garbage with my PhD stamped on it, and popular media would have amplified my controversial claims.  But I don’t have the stomach for that, and I also don’t have much incentive because writing isn’t my primary source of income.

The future of The Hungry Brain

I wrote The Hungry Brain for a very broad audience.  My goal was to write a book that is accessible enough for a sophisticated general audience, but rigorous and informative enough to interest the research and medical communities–even those who are already knowledgeable about eating behavior and obesity.  I realize that’s a lofty goal, but I think it’s possible, which is why I spent many long hours agonizing over how to present the concepts in a way that’s as easily digested as possible (using both text and professional medical illustrations).  I’ve often been amazed at how much I can learn from a good book, even on a topic I know well.

My hope for the future is that the book will remain relevant and continue to appeal to a broad audience for many years.  I hope it will continue to shift the global conversation on obesity in a more evidence-based direction, and help individuals understand themselves and find compassion for themselves.  I would also love to see the book used in a classroom setting to teach topics related to neuroscience, eating behavior, and obesity.

 

34 Responses to The Hungry Brain book update

  1. Kind of can’t resist making a comment. I did the read the book looking for a simple, novel approach to weight control and this is what I took away from it:

    Whatever approach you follow to eating (paleo, mediterranean, vegan, etc), doing the following things will be somewhat helpful for weight loss:

    1) Increasing protein consumption (self explanatory)
    2) Lowering the overall palatability of your food (processed paleo cookies or vegan bars will probably not be helpful whereas simple whole foods that suit either diet probably will be)
    3) Lowering the overall variety of your food (eating the same thing routinely lowers your appetite whereas novelty raises it)
    4) Anything that lower systemic inflammation will probably be helpful (some foods have a reputation for doing that, sleep and stress reduction also probably help)

    These four mechanisms work by lowering your appetite and making you satisfied by fewer calories – not hungry. Alternatively, concurrent with pursuing these four objectives you should be cautious about limiting food intake in a manner that makes you hungry as your body possesses a starvation response counter-measure that will result in powerful systems in your brain working to regain the weight.

    I’m not sure I interpreted the book correctly, but personally I’ve found all those ideas pretty useful. Am I missing anything?

    • Hi tml_mpls,

      That’s a good summary of some key points. I’m glad to see that you “got it”– I’ve been dismayed to see how many people got the food reward part and seemed to miss practically everything else.

      I’dd add this:

      -The convenience of food is very important and adding effort barriers to eating (even small ones) can help match calorie intake to true needs.
      -Physical activity helps lower the setpoint and supports weight loss, in some people more than others.
      -One key idea in the book that I haven’t seen in other general-audience books on eating behavior and weight is the focus on trying to change your perceptions about a stressful situation, because the same situation can have different physiological/psychological effects depending on whether you perceive it as controllable or uncontrollable.
      -I didn’t really talk about systemic inflammation because the relationship between systemic and hypothalamic inflammation remains unclear. Inflammation in the hypothalamus is what really matters for obesity (if the hypothesis is correct– we still have some uncertainty). That said, diet/lifestyle factors that reduce systemic inflammation could plausibly reduce hypothalamic inflammation as well.

      • I forgot to mention calorie density. I think that’s an important one. The colloquial term for calorie-dense is “rich”. Rich foods tend to be more fattening.

      • Stephan,

        Thanks for the additional detail. The bullet on barriers gives me some ideas, and it’s also interesting to reflect on how calorie density and palatability are similar in some ways but different in others. I suppose there is a fair amount of bland high calorie foods when you stop and think about it.

        I think what’s useful about this approach is that it can be applied in a way that’s “diet agnostic” and on a practical day-to-day its actually pretty easy to see ways to make small changes to your current habits that move you in this direction.

        I also felt like a lot of the value of the book for me was that it explained how and why a lot of what I’ve done over the years to lose weight had worked (or not worked). I definitely encountered the starvation response in my early weight loss efforts, and eating certain moderately palatable foods on a habitual basis has been a lot of what’s powered my weight loss, though I’d never really made that connection before.

        I might have over-interpreted the discussion of inflammation, but I think its a really interesting idea. It seems at least possible that there could be a connection between fermentable fibers and short-chain fatty acids in the large intestine, lower overall inflammation, which then translates to some beneficial effect on the set point. Personally I’ve found my attempts to eat more resistant starch and other fibers helpful in weight loss, including some supplementing with prebiotics, so fully understanding the mechanism behind that is an interest of mine.

      • Dr Guyenet, do you have anything to say about Dr. Susan Roberts’ work? It seems to mesh with yours so perfectly that I googled your names together to see if you had done any work together or commented on each others’ work, but I was disappointed to come up with nothing. She has the same basic idea that we seek food reward and we need to find hacks to work around them in order to adhere to a diet.

        Regarding variety, she says that you should increase your variety for low-reward healthy foods and decrease your variety of high-reward calorie-dense foods. So if you treat yourself with a fatty sugary dessert once a week, make sure it is always the same fatty sugary dessert. But if you eat healthy salads for lunch every day, then change around which vegetables you eat.

        I’m going to pick up her book as soon as I have finished with yours. I might write a compare and contrast if anybody would be interested?

  2. I still haven’t purchased your book although I’ve been excited to read it. I would like a silver bullet, but I know, like you said there isn’t any. I weigh in everyday and that has helped me not peak out at my previous highs, my last high was 197 when my mind clicked and said, “OK you said you want to be lean now you really need to do it!” So, reading your book I hope to gain an understanding of weight gain/loss and its relationship with the mind and maybe come up with ideas on how to stop myself from binging at get togethers. So, I’ll make sure to order a copy today. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. Stephan, congrats on the great reviews.

    One trick that works for me is to learn to think of hunger pangs as good (because they mean you’re eating less than you need) rather than bad. I was raised to think of hunger pangs as bad. If we whined that we were hungry before dinner was ready, no one said, “You’re not going to starve to death. Dinner will be ready in 30 minutes.” Instead we were given a piece of bread with no butter, on the theory that if you were willing to eat that, you were really hungry. And being really hungry was bad.

    • Hi Gretchen,

      Interesting thought. I would imagine that would be hard to do for most people because hunger is an innately aversive state. But maybe we can learn to react to that aversive state in different ways, or be less reactive to it.

    • Haha, well, I do this with my kids: if they whine about being hungry when dinner should be served only half an hour later, I propose they have a snack consisting of a single boiled potato (I always have them handy in the fridge since they are a significant part of our diet). It works wonders 😀

  4. By coincidence, I just finished the book a couple days ago. I thought it was incredibly valuable… so much about hunger, food drive, weight loss, etc. has fallen into place for me. For anyone trying to lose weight or just stay lean, this is absolutely the #1 book I’d recommend. Thanks Stephan and great job!

  5. Slightly off-topic – Have you got any reply from Sam Harris? The episode with Gary Taubs was really frustrating and I would love to see you appear on the podcast.

    • Hi Jacek,

      I sent Harris an email (via his website) and haven’t heard back from him. It is disappointing. It’s possible that he doesn’t check his email. Even if he doesn’t want to have me on the show, I’d be happy to get him in touch with other knowledgeable people.

  6. I read your book last week and thought it was absolutely fascinating. It actually spurred me into changing my MSc research paradigms module to the concept of hyper-palatabilty. I really think that this area has played a huge part in the obesity epidemic. Great stuff.

  7. As a non-professional in the field but having a strong interest in this subject, I found I had trouble putting the book down once I got into it. It was my literary chocolate cake. Fortunately, no excess calories or other adverse effects from binge-reading.
    Congratulations to Dr. Guyenet on an outstanding book. I predict it will move the needle at least in this country on weight control.

  8. I am an editor, currently freelance but was in house for about 10 years. Stephan, in many ways it is remarkable that you didn’t have to go the self-published route, and that PW and the NYT reviewed it. None of which has anything to do with the value of your work. Just that the industry these days is geared to what people are willing to pay for within a 12-month period. That you were not pressured to include a diet plan, and the book copy is not misleading in that way, is a credit to Flatiron.

    What should be happening, of course, is people grasping the principals you present, and working with a professional (or through trial and error) to find the best combination of foods. We want the book to do all the work, when that attitude has a lot to do with why so many of us struggle.

    • Hi Sue,

      Thanks for your comment. Here are the reasons why I think I was able to get an offer from a major publishing house. 1) I have a pre-existing platform. It’s not huge but I do have tens of thousands of people who follow my work on some level, and more that have at least heard of me. 2) The premise of the book is novel and interesting. The idea of writing a book that explains eating behavior and obesity from a brain-centric perspective is obvious but it hadn’t been done yet. I feel very lucky that I’m the one who got a chance to fill that gap. 3) I got help with my proposal from the right people. Chris Kresser shared his very successful proposal with me, and I had mine professionally edited by a local outfit called Girl Friday Productions. Girl Friday has connections with Ross and Yoon agency, and Howard Yoon liked the book and agreed to represent it. Howard Yoon is a big shot agent and he did a nice job of helping me work on the proposal and then shopping it around to publishers.

      So as with most things, it was a combination of preparation, lots of work, and serendipity.

      My publicist at Flatiron (Steve Boriack) sent it to PW, the NYT, and a number of other places.

      Flatiron did push me in a prescriptive direction with the book, but they did it in a way that was mostly tasteful and respectful. There was some negotiation. They wanted the title to be “Outsmarting the Hungry Brain” but we compromised by putting “outsmarting” in the subtitle. I don’t like the “outsmarting” part but I felt it was an acceptable compromise. I never felt like they were trying to turn it into a cheesy diet book, which was a huge relief.

      In fact, they had very little to say about the book’s contents. They encouraged me to add an advice chapter, which I did, and I think the book is better for it. They were surprised by how little editing and copyediting the manuscript required. It had already gone through a round of editing before Flatiron saw it, but even that wasn’t extensive.

  9. I’ve long thought that the greater variety of food in the western diet in the past few decades has been a factor in weight trends. I was really interested to read your book and to see that there was some validation from a scientist of my gut feeling.

    An interesting side-study would be an exploration of how big a variety of food-stuffs are needed in a diet to satisfy nutrients needs … perhaps less than nutritionists generally push?

    Very much enjoyed the fresh perspective of your book.

    • I’ve thought about that a lot too. I think it results from portions that are much larger than needed in our culture. A giant bowl of ramen or udon is a normal portion in Japan, but is not an appropriate portion for sedentary Americans eating burgers and fries at the next meal.

  10. I pre-ordered the book and received the Kindle download the day it was released. I immediately read most of the book (got side-tracked and never got around to reading the last two chapters) and I feel that I learned a great deal.

    I started eating in a way that is similar to what is advocated in the book about a week or so ago and I’m already down 14 pounds. I’ve reached the point where this is my last attempt at non-surgical means and I have an appointment tomorrow with the best bariatric physicians in the state. Fortunately, they have a non-surgical option that sounds similar to your basic principles and I will start that program in the near future with an option for surgery, if needed.

    It was serendipity that I happened to check this blog today. It hadn’t occurred to me that I should go back and re-read your book and apply those principals to my current eating plan.

    Thanks for posting this and thanks for writing the book!

  11. I liked the book but can understand people’s frustration with not having an on-off switch for hunger. The only really effective switch is eating.

    While hunger operates in the subconscious, the ability to override hunger signaling is a result of conscious mindfulness. All the mnemonics you teach are effective, but all of them require mindfulness to become habits.

  12. I don’t know why you always shy away from the one proven silver bullet: the bland liquid diet, which seemed to dramatically reduce weight in obese people and maintained weight for the non-obese. It is also something that is (theoretically) easy to keep up with outside of the research setting where they were investigated.

    A while back, I made liquid shakes,which verged on being unpalatable: this worked wonders. Of course, I didn’t keep up with it, but the potential is there!

  13. I used to read your blog around 2011. I was deep in the paleo woo nonsense and had an ED. I stopped reading any nutrition blogs to recover. I saw your book on display at our local library. I recognized the name and read the book. I really enjoyed it. I liked that it didn’t push for one diet over another, and it fits into how I try to eat (with desserts, can’t restrict those!) Thank you for a sane, rational book on nutrition.

  14. Why can’t a large part of the solution be that the USDA needs to work in the favor of US citizens and not agribusiness? Why don’t we have stricter definitions of food? Why don’t we have more restrictions on how food is processed and what things are added to those processed foods? Why don’t we have restrictions on advertising?

    I think the problem is very cultural and geographical (urban vs rural and suburban).

    Where I live, Portland, OR, people are health conscious and food conscious. People live completely different lifestyles here than where I grew up (suburban Midwest), they thrive on outdoor activities. People are more likely to walk and ride bikes here.

    What’s interesting to me is, some people try to get the symptoms of health, but without being healthy. They get artificial tans vs actually being active outside. To be slim, they restrict their calories vs eating whole foods. This to me indicates that many people still don’t understand what a truly healthy lifestyle entails. Probably because they don’t know anyone who has one.

    Humans are comprised of beliefs, and we act on those beliefs. A lot of them are just plain inaccurate. Until we stop being fed and believing false ideas about health (and the world in general), then we’re going to remain unhealthy.

    I’d like to blame the US government, big business, agribusiness, the media, advertising, our medical system, and ignorance for this problem.

    Put someone is a healthy, enriching environment, and they’ll mostly be a healthy person. There’s so much working against the average American, and they’re just completely ignorant to what health truly is. I know I was before I moved here.

    • Hi La,

      The government has the power to substantially improve the US diet but it’s constrained by politics. The bottom line is that most Americans don’t want the government interfering with their food choices. Also, powerful players oppose changes to the food and agricultural system that could hurt corporations and/or farmers.

  15. Good job, Stephan! Researchers who can blaze new trails while keeping the scientific and medical community on their sides are few and far between, and they’re worth more than their weight in gold. Thank you!

  16. So happy to see it on audible. As a Mom of three young kids I need to be able to “read” while doing laundry, dishes and cooking 🙂 can’t wait to start.

  17. I have been a fan of your blog for a while. Your book was engrossing. I am so happy I read it. I have gone from being morbidly obese to being overweight and back up to being severely obese. Thankfully, I am on a downward trend along the obesity trail and your book has supported me immensely. Of course, the strategies were really helpful in identifying what turned my hungry brain off. The HUGE thing that I took away from your book was this new perspective on nutrition and losing weight. I don’t know how it is for others but a lot of times I end up beating myself up for doing something or not doing something else. By explaining what my brain is doing and really SUPPOSED to do, your book produced a shift for me. When I drive by the Krispy Kreme and the scent of the freshly baked donuts sends me into spasms of eagerness, it doesn’t make me weak or wrong. I am just programmed that way. Your book helped me figure out how to avoid those spasms of eagerness while eliminating the self-flagellation that usually accompanied any type of weight loss in my past. I don’t drive on the Krispy Kreme road just like I don’t eat a carbohydrate with fat without having a substantial amount of protein with it. My brain finds that combination EXTREMELY rewarding. My brain can have just one orange or apple but has trouble saying no to bananas unless you give it some yogurt too. You provided that framework of avoiding things that will trigger the cascade of natural hunger responses as opposed to the traditional framework of being good means restricting. I learned that someone else is driving the car but your book helped me figure out how to program the navigation system. I am not sure I explained that as well as I could have. So, I will just end on a heartfelt thank you for what you do.

    • Hi f,

      That’s great! So happy my book was useful to you. What you described makes perfect sense and it’s one of the things I was hoping people would get out of the book.

  18. I came across your book at Barnes & Noble and couldn’t put it down. With so many celebrities publishing books about nutrition and exercise, full of unsupported claims, I found it so refreshing to read a book supported by research and deep thought, yet not overbearingly scientific to where all the science lingo distracts the main focus.

    Do you have a blog of a public Facebook page? I’d love to follow!

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