Physiological Regulation vs. Reward Regulation

PHYSIOLOGICAL REGULATION VS. REWARD REGULATION

If we were to peer back into time and look at the way humans evolved to interact with, select, and consume food, we would find clues that help us understand the modern obesity epidemic of today.

Thousands of years ago, it took hours–maybe even days–to find food. That meal might have consisted of some plants and salty fish. It took six hours to find and prepare it all. And several days later, you might be able to get your hands on some animal fat and organ meats. And depending on what region you lived in, maybe you’d be able to find a piece of fruit at some point. The sweet taste was safe, because a bitter flavor meant it could have been poison. The palette and brain evolved to favor savory fats, sweet tastes, protein, and saltiness–for safety and caloric density. The next meal could be days away.

Also at work in this scenario are the physiological mechanisms that are in charge of managing energy expenditure, hunger, satiation, nutrient absorption, satiety, and reward. Gastric distention (stomach expanding), hormonal satiation, and the leptin feedback loop all helped the body manage its energy storage over long periods of time in order to avoid unnecessary weight loss or gain.

Today, those taste preferences still reside in humans. After all, those are the preferences that got us here. Sweet was safe. Fat was calorically dense. Protein was a must. Salty was pleasing and fresh. These items were separate, required work to find, and helped our ancestors get safe calories in while they had the chance.

Those taste preferences are now running rampant in our modern world. And for the first time, the carbohydrates and the fats can be found together. They might be creamy, sweet, and even crunchy. They can be found within minutes from the home–or even delivered right to the door–for just a few bucks. No work necessary. No energy expended to harvest it. And unfortunately, this food contains few traces of vitamins, minerals, fiber, or useful nutrients–its rich in calories but low in its ability to satiate and nourish the body. It lights up the reward center of the brain but leaves the physiological mechanisms in charge of our metabolism confused.

If we took all the hunter-gatherers of the paleolithic era and placed them in a Waffle House, they’d pig-out just like us. Savory waffles with maple syrup and creamy butter, with crunchy fried chicken, and then ice cream at the end? Gronk and Groot want in, too.

But after this delicious binge, there are no days without food. There’s only a few hours, if that. And there’s no physical activity required of us.

We’re binging for a famine that never comes.

Our Physiological Regulation Knows What To Do

From a health sciences perspective, this is a very challenging problem to solve. Ancient parts of the brain are accidentally working against the logical part of the brain–the part of us that wants us to be healthy, confident, and able to self-regulate.

In a healthy, well-fed, and active human being, the mechanisms that manage our energy expenditure and body weight are properly dialed-in. They allow us to feel sated after appropriately sized meals, they prevent us from getting hungry too quickly, and they help maintain a healthy body weight. Some of the important hormones in our metabolism include:

Leptin

Insulin

Ghrelin

Cholecystokinin (CCK)

GLP-1

Amylin

And collectively, they influence things like:

Appetite

Hunger

Satiation

Nutrition Absorption

Energy Storage

Food Intake

Ghrelin is a hormone that can stimulate our appetite. It rises before meals, and falls during and immediately after eating. Leptin is a hormone that keeps our brain up-to-date on how much energy we’ve taken in and how much energy we have stored as fat. The more fat someone has, the more leptin is in their blood.

Cholecystokinin (CCK), GLP-1, and Amylin can all be thought of as hormones that help our brain know when we are full (satiation), how long we are staying full (satiety), and when to eat again. Insulin tells our brain that energy is being consumed and used, and to stop eating.

Collectively, these mechanisms all help regulate our food intake–before meals, at the time of meals, while digesting, and hours after meals.

The leptin feedback loop is a system that helps our body manage energy balance long-term. If body fat stores and leptin levels in the blood remain relatively stable over time, we are regulated by this feedback loop pretty easily. However, if body fat is being lost, leptin will generate some anti-starvation strategies–like decreasing our non-exercise activity thermogenesis and stimulating our appetite.

However, if body fat stores start rapidly increasing, and the leptin levels in our blood are rising, this leptin feedback loop can’t always save us from over-eating. These physiological loops work well when we’re eating real food, moving, and listening to them. But they can become dysfunctional.

How Our Physiological Regulation Gets Disrupted

Think of the leptin feedback loop as our physiological regulation. Our physiological regulation gets overthrown when we allow ourselves to be run by our reward regulation.

So what is reward regulation?

Hyper-palatable, processed food that contains all the pleasure-inducing flavors in one bite light-up the reward centers of our brain. Creamy, fatty, sweet, salty, crunchy, and easy-to-get items populate the food environment we live in. Manufacturers design food that we literally can’t stop eating. The brain gets thrilled by these flavors–they’re safe, they’re calorically dense, and who knows when we’ll eat again, right? Eat, eat, eat!

The problem with these foods is that our brain loves them but our bodies hate them. We’re eating, but not many nutrients are coming in. We’re pigging out, but we’re not getting full or satisfied. And as we consume these frequently overtime, our physiological regulation becomes overrun by our reward regulation. Once that happens, the body is being operated by pleasure eating and not homeostatic eating. Over time, these processed foods cause our brain to become inflamed, and this further disrupts our ability to self-regulate properly. Once the hypothalamus is inflamed, it can become leptin-resistant, which can drive our bodies to get hungrier and want to store even more body fat.

Real unprocessed food → hormonal satiation → homeostatic eating → physiological regulation

Hyper-palatable processed food → semi-addictive → pleasure eating  → reward regulation

The Top 6 Sources of Calories in the U.S. now are:

  1. Grain-based desserts (cakes, cookies, donuts, pies, crisps, cobblers, and granola bars)

  2. Yeast breads

  3. Chicken nuggets and chicken tenders

  4. Soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks

  5. Pizza

  6. Alcoholic beverages

Additionally,

  • Children and adolescents consumed on average 12.4% of their daily calories from fast food restaurants

  • Americans now drink 350% more soft drinks than we did 50 years ago

  • Soybean oil (inflammatory industrial seed oil that’s used in highly-processed foods) accounts for 8% of all calories that Americans consume

These processed, industrial foods are dominating our food culture here in America. If chicken nuggets, pizza, alcohol, and ice cream are entering the body frequently, its no wonder why our obesity epidemic just continues to rise. Millions of people now suffer from reward regulation and physiological dysregulation–even children. We eat more hyper-rewarding food, we consume less nutrients, our brain becomes addicted to the high of palatable foods, we move around less, our bodies get confused because they don’t know why they’re moving so little and receiving so few nutrients, so we feel fatigued, then we want more food to give us energy…and the dilemma goes on and on. The longer this dis-eased state continues, the harder it is to turn back. But fortunately, there are strategies for maintaining or restoring healthy metabolic regulation.

Healthy Metabolic Regulation

To heal or prevent this lack of physiological dysregulation, we have to change our relationship with food to mimic a more natural interaction. Taking the time to prepare real, whole foods seems almost crazy to many people–but that lack of effort toward our nutrition is an inciting event of obesity and metabolic diseases. Trusting corporations to make our food while we stay at home just isn’t a recipe for success–pun intended.

First, food quality has to be mastered. Whole, fresh, and unprocessed foods will provide our body with nutrients that our cells recognize, understand, and know what to do with. This means cooking at home with fresh ingredients. Excellent food sources include:

  • Fresh vegetables of all kinds

  • Quality proteins like pasture-raised beef, eggs, chicken, or wild fish

  • Valuable fats like nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, and fatty wild fish

  • Fibrous starches likes sweet potatoes, oats, squashes, and legumes

Secondly, we must find new ways to reconnect with our bodies. Eating slowly, drinking plenty of water, and learning to listen to appropriate hunger cues will all help guide us towards physiological regulation.

Thirdly, we need to move. Studies show that the mind and body can’t even regulate its own caloric intake if its moving less than 7,100 steps per day. It’s absolutely critical to engage in resistance training, adequate steps per day, and enjoyable athletic activities like hiking, kayaking, and sports. Get outside and have some fun.

These strategies might feel totally foreign, and even difficult at first. But they will reap fantastic rewards overtime if you give them a chance to work. What once was difficult becomes easier, what once was hard work becomes habit, and what once was dysregulated becomes regulated.

PHYSIOLOGICAL REGULATION VS. REWARD REGULATION

If we were to peer back into time and look at the way humans evolved to interact with, select, and consume food, we would find clues that help us understand the modern obesity epidemic of today.

Thousands of years ago, it took hours–maybe even days–to find food. That meal might have consisted of some plants and salty fish. It took six hours to find and prepare it all. And several days later, you might be able to get your hands on some animal fat and organ meats. And depending on what region you lived in, maybe you’d be able to find a piece of fruit at some point. The sweet taste was safe, because a bitter flavor meant it could have been poison. The palette and brain evolved to favor savory fats, sweet tastes, protein, and saltiness–for safety and caloric density. The next meal could be days away.

Also at work in this scenario are the physiological mechanisms that are in charge of managing energy expenditure, hunger, satiation, nutrient absorption, satiety, and reward. Gastric distention (stomach expanding), hormonal satiation, and the leptin feedback loop all helped the body manage its energy storage over long periods of time in order to avoid unnecessary weight loss or gain.

Today, those taste preferences still reside in humans. After all, those are the preferences that got us here. Sweet was safe. Fat was calorically dense. Protein was a must. Salty was pleasing and fresh. These items were separate, required work to find, and helped our ancestors get safe calories in while they had the chance.

Those taste preferences are now running rampant in our modern world. And for the first time, the carbohydrates and the fats can be found together. They might be creamy, sweet, and even crunchy. They can be found within minutes from the home–or even delivered right to the door–for just a few bucks. No work necessary. No energy expended to harvest it. And unfortunately, this food contains few traces of vitamins, minerals, fiber, or useful nutrients–its rich in calories but low in its ability to satiate and nourish the body. It lights up the reward center of the brain but leaves the physiological mechanisms in charge of our metabolism confused.

If we took all the hunter-gatherers of the paleolithic era and placed them in a Waffle House, they’d pig-out just like us. Savory waffles with maple syrup and creamy butter, with crunchy fried chicken, and then ice cream at the end? Gronk and Groot want in, too.

But after this delicious binge, there are no days without food. There’s only a few hours, if that. And there’s no physical activity required of us.

We’re binging for a famine that never comes.

Our Physiological Regulation Knows What To Do

From a health sciences perspective, this is a very challenging problem to solve. Ancient parts of the brain are accidentally working against the logical part of the brain–the part of us that wants us to be healthy, confident, and able to self-regulate.

In a healthy, well-fed, and active human being, the mechanisms that manage our energy expenditure and body weight are properly dialed-in. They allow us to feel sated after appropriately sized meals, they prevent us from getting hungry too quickly, and they help maintain a healthy body weight. Some of the important hormones in our metabolism include:

Leptin

Insulin

Ghrelin

Cholecystokinin (CCK)

GLP-1

Amylin

And collectively, they influence things like:

Appetite

Hunger

Satiation

Nutrition Absorption

Energy Storage

Food Intake

Ghrelin is a hormone that can stimulate our appetite. It rises before meals, and falls during and immediately after eating. Leptin is a hormone that keeps our brain up-to-date on how much energy we’ve taken in and how much energy we have stored as fat. The more fat someone has, the more leptin is in their blood.

Cholecystokinin (CCK), GLP-1, and Amylin can all be thought of as hormones that help our brain know when we are full (satiation), how long we are staying full (satiety), and when to eat again. Insulin tells our brain that energy is being consumed and used, and to stop eating.

Collectively, these mechanisms all help regulate our food intake–before meals, at the time of meals, while digesting, and hours after meals.

The leptin feedback loop is a system that helps our body manage energy balance long-term. If body fat stores and leptin levels in the blood remain relatively stable over time, we are regulated by this feedback loop pretty easily. However, if body fat is being lost, leptin will generate some anti-starvation strategies–like decreasing our non-exercise activity thermogenesis and stimulating our appetite.

However, if body fat stores start rapidly increasing, and the leptin levels in our blood are rising, this leptin feedback loop can’t always save us from over-eating. These physiological loops work well when we’re eating real food, moving, and listening to them. But they can become dysfunctional.

How Our Physiological Regulation Gets Disrupted

Think of the leptin feedback loop as our physiological regulation. Our physiological regulation gets overthrown when we allow ourselves to be run by our reward regulation.

So what is reward regulation?

Hyper-palatable, processed food that contains all the pleasure-inducing flavors in one bite light-up the reward centers of our brain. Creamy, fatty, sweet, salty, crunchy, and easy-to-get items populate the food environment we live in. Manufacturers design food that we literally can’t stop eating. The brain gets thrilled by these flavors–they’re safe, they’re calorically dense, and who knows when we’ll eat again, right? Eat, eat, eat!

The problem with these foods is that our brain loves them but our bodies hate them. We’re eating, but not many nutrients are coming in. We’re pigging out, but we’re not getting full or satisfied. And as we consume these frequently overtime, our physiological regulation becomes overrun by our reward regulation. Once that happens, the body is being operated by pleasure eating and not homeostatic eating. Over time, these processed foods cause our brain to become inflamed, and this further disrupts our ability to self-regulate properly. Once the hypothalamus is inflamed, it can become leptin-resistant, which can drive our bodies to get hungrier and want to store even more body fat.

Real unprocessed food → hormonal satiation → homeostatic eating → physiological regulation

Hyper-palatable processed food → semi-addictive → pleasure eating  → reward regulation

The Top 6 Sources of Calories in the U.S. now are:

  1. Grain-based desserts (cakes, cookies, donuts, pies, crisps, cobblers, and granola bars)

  2. Yeast breads

  3. Chicken nuggets and chicken tenders

  4. Soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks

  5. Pizza

  6. Alcoholic beverages

Additionally,

  • Children and adolescents consumed on average 12.4% of their daily calories from fast food restaurants

  • Americans now drink 350% more soft drinks than we did 50 years ago

  • Soybean oil (inflammatory industrial seed oil that’s used in highly-processed foods) accounts for 8% of all calories that Americans consume

These processed, industrial foods are dominating our food culture here in America. If chicken nuggets, pizza, alcohol, and ice cream are entering the body frequently, its no wonder why our obesity epidemic just continues to rise. Millions of people now suffer from reward regulation and physiological dysregulation–even children. We eat more hyper-rewarding food, we consume less nutrients, our brain becomes addicted to the high of palatable foods, we move around less, our bodies get confused because they don’t know why they’re moving so little and receiving so few nutrients, so we feel fatigued, then we want more food to give us energy…and the dilemma goes on and on. The longer this dis-eased state continues, the harder it is to turn back. But fortunately, there are strategies for maintaining or restoring healthy metabolic regulation.

Healthy Metabolic Regulation

To heal or prevent this lack of physiological dysregulation, we have to change our relationship with food to mimic a more natural interaction. Taking the time to prepare real, whole foods seems almost crazy to many people–but that lack of effort toward our nutrition is an inciting event of obesity and metabolic diseases. Trusting corporations to make our food while we stay at home just isn’t a recipe for success–pun intended.

First, food quality has to be mastered. Whole, fresh, and unprocessed foods will provide our body with nutrients that our cells recognize, understand, and know what to do with. This means cooking at home with fresh ingredients. Excellent food sources include:

  • Fresh vegetables of all kinds

  • Quality proteins like pasture-raised beef, eggs, chicken, or wild fish

  • Valuable fats like nuts, seeds, avocados, olive oil, and fatty wild fish

  • Fibrous starches likes sweet potatoes, oats, squashes, and legumes

Secondly, we must find new ways to reconnect with our bodies. Eating slowly, drinking plenty of water, and learning to listen to appropriate hunger cues will all help guide us towards physiological regulation.

Thirdly, we need to move. Studies show that the mind and body can’t even regulate its own caloric intake if its moving less than 7,100 steps per day. It’s absolutely critical to engage in resistance training, adequate steps per day, and enjoyable athletic activities like hiking, kayaking, and sports. Get outside and have some fun.

These strategies might feel totally foreign, and even difficult at first. But they will reap fantastic rewards overtime if you give them a chance to work. What once was difficult becomes easier, what once was hard work becomes habit, and what once was dysregulated becomes regulated.

2018-08-31T14:31:08+00:00

About the Author:

mm
Erin is a graduate student working toward a Masters of Science in Nutrition and Health Promotion, as well as completing the Didactic Program in Dietetics to become a Registered Dietitian. She’s also a Precision Nutrition Certified Nutrition Coach and Certified Sports Nutritionist.