The Food Reward Hypothesis: A Rule Of Thumb For All Successful Diets

Readers, I’m not an expert on anything (except for maybe shoestring travel in Europe).  But every now and then, I hit the nail on the head without thinking.

Literally, after just posting this comment on another fitness blogger’s post on Food Logging

Food diaries are the absolute best tool for facilitating weight loss. Statistical fact.
When I first woke up from my junk-food induced coma and realized I was (again) way too fat, I bought a book on diet and weight loss, written by a business man.

Key point was to treat calories like money. Create a daily deficit, and you will lose weight and go broke.

Easy. I lost 40 pounds in three months.

But I am totally OVER food logging. As long as I don’t eat over-stimulating food, my body, which has thankfully repaired its hunger/satiety gauges through clean whole foods eating, tells me when to quit.

I eat a lot. 3,000-4,000 calories a day, on average, and no—I’m not working out.  Just living. I try to eat as much variety as possible, and tracking ALL THAT FOOD is a pain.

–I began to read an article I’d left open yesterday in my browser, on the food reward hypothesis.

From the article,

The food reward hypothesis of obesity states that the reward and palatability value of food influence body fatness, and excess reward/palatability can promote body fat accumulation.

In other words, when food is yummy, we eat more of it.  Too much eating eventually leads to overweight/fat accumulation, and/or possibly brain damage (i.e. damage in the hypothalamus, where appetite is regulated) and obesity.

Now, this might sound like a no-brainer, right?

Wrong, if you’re a low-carber.  If you’re like Gary Taubes (the “journalist” to which the fabulous article was written as a response piece), or a no-cash-crop-Paleo promoter, you probably want us to think that it is the type of calorie, not how tasty it is.  In other words, carbs, by virtue of their caloric type, cause fatness, and fats and proteins do not.

The author of the paper, Stephan Guyenet, explains the backwardation of this “no brainer” as follows,

I thought it would be more productive to discuss one of the core elements of [Taubes'] position, which has arguably been one of his greatest influences on the public.  This is the “paradigm shift” he promotes, away from thinking about obesity as a problem of energy imbalance (energy in vs. out), and toward thinking about it as a “disorder of excess fat accumulation” where energy imbalance is the result rather than the cause of fat tissue expansion (36)…He uses this argument to brush aside much of the last 60 years of obesity research, and the opinions of many seasoned researchers, arguing that they are largely irrelevant because they operate under the wrong paradigm (logical framework).

And the pages of Good Calories, Bad Calories came screaming back to me!  As well as the feelings I’d had after reading it, which led me to compose my longest article to date, which is little more than my amateur attempt to piece together the words of other experts and my own knowledge–a blunder, out of focus, but there, nonetheless, and I hope not far off the mark.

All I have to say is Taubes is reaching with his new paradigm.

Back to my little blog comment, though: “As long as I don’t eat over-stimulating food.”  Over-stimulating, aka, highly palatable food.

It did not take my subsequent years of voracious consumption (pun intended) of nutritional information to learn this.  It just seemed sensible.  I knew that if I bit into a cookie, I’d Tasmanian Devil the whole box.  Most women know this.

Me, especially after a workout.

I knew that if I wanted a slice a bread, I certainly wasn’t going to eat it as-is.  It would have been a vessel for delivering fat and/or sugar into my mouth!

Fat! Sugar! Married in a sandwich! NOM NOM.

I knew that some foods (like corn chips) are “like crack,” and other foods (like carrots) have a very rapid diminishing return on pleasure–and yet, both are high carb foods.

You’d never ask your waiter to bring over another basket of carrots.

So if you don’t blow your brains out with fat, salt, and sugar, or any combination thereof, you’ll probably be on your way to weight loss until you’ve “kicked the habit.”

Yeah… the habit.  We can be addicted to food.  We can also be overly-habituated to certain food presentations (i.e., “I can’t eat Thanksgiving turkey without cranberry sauce!”).

I hate to strip food of its beauty–of its aroma, flavor, and interplay with our olfactory and visual senses.  I hate to strip away its relationship to culture: food as a gift, food as a gesture, food as religion, food as identity–but if we take a moment and identify food solely as fuel, and treat it as such, we begin to lose our psychological dependence on it, and allow it to guide our health in more appropriate directions.

Guyenet states is beautifully in this other article,

Diet trials have shown that a ‘simple’ diet, low in palatability and reward value, reduces hunger and causes fat loss in obese humans and animals, apparently by lowering the ‘defended’ level of fat mass (30313233). This may be a reason why virtually any diet in which food choices are restricted (e.g., Paleo, vegan, fruitarian), including diametrically opposed approaches like low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets, can reduce food intake and body fatness in clinical trials.

I said it on my Nutrition Page, “Whether you follow a meat-centered, vegetarian, vegan, macrobiotic, or raw food diet, there is one common denominator for success: that the foods are of high quality and unadulterated.

So here’s the rule of thumb, if you’re trying to eat less.  Eat whole foods, or process them in your own kitchen.

Leave a comment


  1. I will be re-blogging this next week on my blog because
    1. It was a good read. I hadn’t heard of the food reward hypothesis, but it makes a LOT of sense in why people overeat. This week I have been treating myself to a processed candy treat that I stood in front of for about 5 minutes at the grocery store debating whether or not I was prepared to take it home and eat it. I did and I have been making sure not to over eat but once I had a little, it consumed my mind the following days. Yesterday, I didn’t have any and today, only now do I realize that I didn’t have any because going without it for a time has broken my addiction to it. Which brings me to…
    2. I want to share this because while many people joke about having food addictions, the truth is many of us have a food addiction that we don’t even know about until we are forced to go without that food. But having started to live on non-processed foods (or stuff I process at home), has made it easier to not be drawn into the temptation to eat the foods I have been addicted to in the past. It also seems to make it easier to actually eat “in moderation,” which for me is a serving max per day. I try to limit myself to half servings if at all possible. But when I stop eating addicting food, it isn’t so much of a challenge.
    Anyway, thank you for posting this! :)

  2. While I totally agree with the concept that avoiding highly palatable foods will make weight maintenance simple, being the hedonist that I am, I choose to eat highly palatable foods (not junk or processed, but devilishly delicious) and keep myself honest with the damn food diary.

  3. Oh, and BTW, that “Tasmanian Devil” pic is hilarious! Yes, I cannot eat just one either. I MUST NOT take that first bite, because those damn cookies are such a slippery slope!

  4. The story of my life, I find an awesome blog…that is no longer active. I hope you’re just on hiatus because your site is wonderful. I found you because I’ve been watching Kelly Brownell’s Yale Lecture series on food. He’s an engaging lecturer, but about half of the first lecture in, I’m like, “How can this guy be so fat and an expert on diet and taken seriuosly.” It’s like a melanoma expert who sunbathes…from ten to two each day! I started Googling him, and your blog was the first mention of his obesity, and you were like five pages in. Your entry about Brownell was great, but now I’m going to spend an afternoon reading your other entries. I hope you’re coming back to The blogosphere soon!

    • Caroline, thank you for the comment. I wanted to tell you that this blog is still active… just not super active. I’m on a backpacking trip around the world, and my energy goes into blogging about my travels at the moment, but I still think about this fitness blog often. Feel free to subscribe. I’ll write something again.


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