Friday, March 9, 2012


I just had a featured article published on Boing Boing, "Seduced by Food: Obesity and the Human Brain".  Boing Boing is the most popular blog on the Internet, with over 5 million unique visitors per month, and it's also one of my favorite haunts, so it was really exciting for me to be invited to submit an article.  For comparison, Whole Health Source had about 72,000 unique visitors last month (200,000+ hits).

The article is a concise review of the food reward concept, and how it relates to the current obesity epidemic.  Concise compared to all the writing I've done on this blog, anyway.  I put a lot of work into making the article cohesive and understandable for a somewhat general audience, and I think it's much more effective at explaining the concept than the scattered blog posts I've published here.  I hope it will clear up some of the confusion about food reward.  I don't know what's up with the image they decided to use at the top. 

Many thanks to Mark Frauenfelder, Maggie Koerth-Baker, and Rob Beschizza for the opportunity to publish on Boing Boing, as well as their comments on the draft versions!

For those who have arrived at Whole Health Source for the first time via Boing Boing, welcome!   Have a look around.  The "labels" menu on the sidebar is a good place to start-- you can browse by topic.


LeonRover said...

"Returning to a diet of simple home-cooked food, made from minimally refined ingredients, would probably stop the obesity epidemic in its tracks, although it would not be enough to return all currently obese people to a lean state. The challenge is finding the time and discipline to do this while commercial junk foods and sweetened beverages are tasty, cheap and constantly under our noses."

Well said, Stephan.

Food Marketeers require Very High Added Value; they get by supplying Very High Reward.

First, Mars, next Coca Cola, then McDonalds, finally Starbucks.

Rob said...

Stephan, awesome article as usual!

"What does the reward system consider desirable? Calorie density, fat, starch, sugar, salt, free glutamate (umami), certain textures (easily chewed, soft or crunchy, solid fat), certain flavors, an absence of bitterness, food variety, and drugs such as alcohol and caffeine."

I think that there is another "texture" that should be included in the list, one that is specific to soft drinks but hasn't received a lot of attention .. CARBONATION. I don't know about you, but I certainly find flat soda to be disgusting!

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Rob,

You're absolutely right. I read a paper a while back on food reward where the author was lamenting that so little research has been put into understanding the reward value of sensations like carbonation, capsicum, and horseradish. Those make food more interesting/complex, and I can speak for myself that I'll eat/drink more if those things are present. Actually I think it's been demonstrated that people eat more food when chili pepper is added to it.

Yoni Freedhoff, MD said...

Hey Stephan,

Enjoyed the Boing Boing article.

What I'd love to see, and I doubt the data exists, is a graph similar to the home/fast food graph, that also included a variable for supermarket purchased but home consumed processed foods and the home cooking of the 60s and 70s, isn't the same as the mixing, reheating and stirring that passes itself off as "home cooking" these days.


Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi Yoni,

I would love to see that as well. I scoured the USDA site for anything related to that, but wasn't able to come up with much. If you find those data, please pass them along!

perishedcore said...

Congrats, Stephan! am so thrilled that you are finding an ever growing audience! Yours is such an important voce!

And @Yoni - I wonder if the folks at Harvard School of Public Health, Boston University School of Public Health or Tufts School of Nutrition Scence wouldn't be able to produce such a graphic. All 3 have active Twitter accounts, and HSPH has live Forum webinars and supported websites.

Yoni Freedhoff, MD said...

I don't know how it'd be quantified.

If I were venturing a guess though, I'd bet the number of meals that truly involved the transformation of raw ingredients has dropped by at least 50% since the 50s/60s.

Obesity theories and approaches aside, would be willing to wager were people to double or triple the number of meals that they actually cooked, we'd see marked improvements in obesity and chronic diseases without requiring degrees in dietetics or the adoption of specific and rigorous macronutrient or food category based regimes.

I certainly won't hold my breath, but that said, it wouldn't be the most difficult experiment in the world to organize and subjects and controls could be stratified on the basis of weight and current number of meals out/non-transformed ingredient meals.

Difficulty may be defining what would count as a raw ingredient transformation.

Anonymous said...

I think that food reward is definitely a factor in causing people to overeat. However, my experience as a child was having to live on mainly plain potatoes and bread scraped with tasteless cheap margarine. My family didn't have much money (as my stepfather was a chain smoker and that's where most of the money went). Dinners were often onion and potato gruel, porridge or bread and milk for breakfast. This was an exceedingly low reward diet of mainly cheap starchy foods and I was always starving hungry so I had to eat constantly and I got fat. Later as an adult I was always on a low fat, low calorie diet eating eg bran cereal with skimmed milk. Again, extremely low reward, yet I was constantly hungry. These days I eat less starchy food and more fat and am therefore not hungry all the time, but food is much nicer and I probably eat more because of that. A combination of lowish carb with lowish reward would be worth experimenting with.

Dan said...

Great Article Stephan. I think I understand much better the whole foor reward/palatability thing but one thing that is still not clear to me is the fat setpoint. I understand what it is but could you explain in layman's terms how high reward/palatability foods raise the setpoint? I know there where some links to the studies suggesting that but it would be nice to get a simplified explanation. That is the one area that I am still not clear on.

Dan G

Nyx said...

I think you might have to go back further in time than the 70s to get at "real" cooking. I grew up in the 70s and I remember having things like chef boyardee pizzas which we made at home using pre-prepared stuff from the store, also some kind of chow mein out of the can, a lot of canned meals like hormel chili and dinty moore beef stew. Also, this was before microwaves but we had those TV dinners that came in the aluminum foil try that you put in the oven. Later we got healthier and some sandwiches were multigrain bread and the captain crunch got replaced with raisin bran. however, dinner was still often partly prepared with something out of a box or a can.

I hate to say this, because I am a working woman and I am liberal, but now that I am older I have started to admit to myself that a big part of this problem probably happened when women left the kitchen to enter the workforce. It's hard to do all that meal planning, preparation, and cooking! and if you're doing it for a family of four while working full-time, well, it's even more challenging. If you have lots of money it's easier. But if you have an extremely limited food budget, like most people do, and have limited time on top of that, it's a recipe for disaster, if you'll pardon the pun.

I don't know the answer, but I wonder if we will wind up outlawing junk food the way we outlawed cigarettes.

Bill said...

Came over from Boing Boing; great article!

Anonymous said...

I wonder why peanut butter manufacturers add vegetable oil and sugar to the product?


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Jenny said...

Congratulations! It's great to see someone posting informed, documented discussion of diet getting some face time with the World.

Huffpost next. They could really use a dose of reality in their Health section.

Don S said...

Could you please do a post reviewing how you currently put together how the reward and hedonic systems, and the D1, D2, various cannabinoid receptors, opioid receptors, and probably others, overlap, and how the genetic predispositions (given the environmental triggers) to overconsumption of food and to various substances of abuse differ and possibly compete?

So far my cursory review has it that D2 receptor variants are most strongly associated with drugs of abuse, and perhaps more so by increasing the hedonic value, and alternatively that persistent D1 receptor changes may underlie some of the long term effects of a "cafeteria diet" to greater degree. But that the interplay is complex with likely multiple genotypes contributing to different degrees of predisposition and huge gene environment interactions. I can imagine, for example, that long term exposure to a cafeteria diet could lead to down regulation of D1 receptors, making D2 receptor stimulation resulting from drugs of abuse more salient as hedonic triggers ... but I think my speculations are getting far ahead of the data.

If you could reassure me that I have it right so far and flesh it out some for all of us, it would be appreciated. Thanks.

Logan said...

So is the cafeteria diet responsible for the infamous and ubiquitous "freshman fifteen" observed in college students?

also @NYX the weston-price association does have some nice advice for working families on time saving suggestions for keeping real food a real option.

elhnad said...

very happy for are slowly becoming big. Stay true to the truth!

SK said...

Dr. Guyenet,

I recently graphed out my own weight fluctuations over the last 15 years as I struggled with obesity. What you mentioned in the article about obese folks defending a higher threshold of body mass definitely rings true in my own experience, as the overall trend on my graph seems to indicate.

I graduated high school weighing 160 lbs and hit my heaviest of 264 this past summer, with many ups and downs in that range during the last 15 years. Thanks to Dr. Harris' outline that I've been following fairly strictly since November 1st, I'm currently 198 lbs.

I have more details, but here's the basic graph:

My biggest problem foods were pizza, sodas, donuts, chocolate milk, mac&cheese, PB&J's, biscuits, and excessive condiments (to name a few). Whenever I tried to be restrictive with these foods, I almost always relapsed rather viciously. I now think it was because the version of a "healthy diet" I kept trying to replace it with was still the conventional wisdom "low-fat" way of eating.

I also found a picture of myself recently from when I was about 4 years old, stuffing my face with cotton candy at a lake retreat. According to WikiPedia, "In the 1970s an automatic cotton candy machine was created which made the product and packaged it. This made it easier to produce and available to sell at carnivals, fairs, and stores in the 1970s and on." Yet another popular commercial junk food item that really took off in the 1980s. I can't tell you how many stickfulls of that tasty spun sugar I sucked down growing up.

To me, the reward factor involved in these kinds of commercial junk foods is too critical to ignore, and I just wanted to thank you for your research and insight into this aspect of the obesity problem.


Jin said...


I have had similar thoughts re: women leaving the kitchen & entering the work force.

Recently, I've thought it would be so much easier if we were not surrounded by hyperpalatible, highly rewarding foods.

I work full time and can manage simple, nutritious, often boring meals for our family of when I was a kid in the 60s!

But, it's very very hard to compete with food from the outside. Even if the outside food is not the cafeteria diet, it's exciting! Different! Available in 5 minutes or less! And, you don't have to wash the dishes after mom has cooked!

Stephan Guyenet said...

Hi skw,

Thanks for sharing your story. It's always valuable when people collect data over the time period you have. I wish you luck with your new endeavor. Please keep us up to date.

Tsurugi_Oni said...

Hard to say that food patibility is a dominant cause of obesity, but the concept does make a lot of sense when considering overeating.

As an experiment I tried eating 100% pure brown sugar one day by the spoonful to see how much I could get in. I got to about 1600 calories by the end of day while pounding it back while at work and at home.

As a foodie I understand the concept real well. Not even fat + starch. Take fat and acidity. All great chefs know that acidity reduces the richness of fat.

Even as non-caloric additive acidity (vinegars) will allow one to consume a ton of fat. Salad dressing. Pickled foods when eating cured meats/cheeses. Foods like Pork Belly Adobo use vinegar + soy sauce to cut the richness. Balsamic reductions. White wine reductions. In essence "balancing" dishes , especially richness, is about bypassing your tongue's sensors to allow the flavors/textures of the dish to be enjoyed bite-for-bite.

It makes a lot of sense that it's a significant contributing mechanism towards overeating.

Sara said...

But, what, what, WHAT?? is the photograph that heads up the article on Boing, Boing?

Sara said...

@nix I agree with you, and I feel like a traitor saying it! I walked out of a big career to finish my degree and work part time from home. This allows me to spend time every day prepping food, cooking dinner from scratch. I can also bake from scratch and keep a garden. We have both lost weight and become healthier, also happier. I'm considering... after the big expensive degree.. I might just prefer to remain a housewife :-/ NEVER thought I'd hear myself say that.... in a million years.

Keenan said...

I thought I saw you comment that skinny people couldn't become obese on a high food reward diet? Implying that a low food reward diet is good for weight-loss but a high food reward diet won't make a skinny person fat?

Kamal said...

@perishedcore and @yoni...

There is a professor here at the Tufts School of Nutrition (where I'm a student) who has a tiny chance of having said data. Will browse his articles.

Also, great work Stephan!! You are a very concise and clear writer.

Unknown said...

perhaps of interest:

Deirdre said...

Congratulations! It's great to see your work becoming more recognized - you are a valuable resource. Have you been in contact with Kelly Brownell and/or The Rudd Center at Yale University? They have been conducting their own research into food addiction and how it relates to public policy. There might be some interesting synergy there.

Puddleg said...

I see a new diet book coming on; "The Bad Taste Diet" - lose weight in two weeks by cooking or seasoning all meals to taste DISGUSTING.
Watch the pounds drop off.
- how to burn an omlette
- how to undercook potatoes
- switch salt for sugar
- ammonia and sulfur as seasonings
- rotten meat - the magic ingredient!


Anoopbal said...

Hey Stephen,

What do you think about Friedman's claim that the major cause of obesity is genetics.

And the so called obesity epidemic in the 80's is only an average population weight gain of 8-9 lbs!