In “The Hungry Brain,” obesity researcher Dr. Stephan Guyenet provides a fascinating look into the reasons why many first-world countries are battling an obesity epidemic.
His thesis boils down to the idea that modern humans face an evolutionary mismatch. Our genes were designed to help us store fat, because food used to be hard to come by in the wild. We couldn’t have survived, pre-agriculture, without intense biological drives to eat as much food as possible when it was available and to store as much fat as possible.
For better or for worse, we now find ourselves in an environment where you can buy a 5,000-calorie pizza for eight bucks. We have not had the time to evolve biological mechanisms for navigating a world in which calories are cheap and abundant. For this reason, many of us consistently overeat. Thus, there’s been an explosion of the the dreaded “diseases of civilization,” such as heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension.
As I read the book, I found myself thinking about the parallels between dieting and budgeting. Each one is essential for living a happy and healthy life as part of the developed world. Overeating causes health problems, and overspending causes financial problems. And even though most people have a good idea of what constitutes a healthy diet and a sustainable financial plan, millions of people still find themselves overweight or in debt, or both.
The parallels are striking. Here are some of the ways in which the modern world creates an environment conducive to making us both physically and financially unhealthy. I’ll also offer some ideas on how we can fight back.
Cheap Calories and Easy Credit
Our brains are wired to seek out the calories that require the least possible effort to acquire. In a world where you had to exert a lot of effort to hunt or forage for your food, this made sense. But when you can buy an entire birthday cake for about the same price as a salad, it makes a lot less sense.
Similarly, we have engineered a society where you can have access to a lot of money without having to actually earn it. It’s called credit.
While capitalism could not function without it, we all know what happens when lending practices spiral out of control. In the housing bubble that preceded the crash of 2007-2009, it wasn’t uncommon for lenders to issue “no-doc” mortgages, meaning you could conceivably take out a giant loan on a five-bedroom mansion without even having to document your income – or the fact that you were already overleveraged on another house.
Much like a delicious fast-food meal that only costs a few bucks, easy credit proved too good a deal to resist. We are prone to seeking out deals that look good in the short term without properly considering the long-term consequences.
The resulting real estate crash, and subsequent loss of wealth worldwide, was the financial equivalent of thinking we could eat McDonald’s every day and avoid health problems.
The decision to open a line of credit can be damaging without being so dramatic. Credit card debt and student loan debt are often taken on for noble reasons, but still can cause massive problems if we overextend ourselves. Similarly, we can eat too many calories without scarfing down massive pizzas everyday. Well-meaning consumers sometimes don’t realize how their morning coffee drink, or their afternoon soda, can saddle them with hundreds of extra, hard to get rid of, calories.
Advertising as Culprit
Our hankering for junk food is not entirely our fault. It’s engineered into society, via the incredibly powerful advertising industry. The Coca-Cola Company spent over $3 billion on advertising in 2013. Companies like McDonald’s and Nestle are not far behind. This level of spending has real, lasting effects on our eating habits.
We’re driven to eat via our exposure to food cues, and our brains appear to have a hard time distinguishing between viewing an advertisement and seeing food in front of us. Both have the same result: We get hungry for those foods, and we buy more of them. When the majority of ad dollars are spent marketing unhealthy food, the result will be an unhealthy population.
It’s not hard to see similarities with the way we eat and the way we spend our money.
The money deployed toward food marketing pales in comparison to the money spent on advertisements by the retail industry. In 2016, U.S. retailers spent $16 billion on digital advertising alone. When a population already owns more than enough stuff, it takes a Herculean advertising budget to get them to continue shopping. Sadly, it works. While $16 billion seems like a lot of money to spend, it doesn’t feel like very much when you learn that consumers responded by spending $395 billion online last year.
We’re buying more stuff than ever before, even though 78% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. We just can’t help ourselves from wanting to keep up with the Joneses. The ads make us want the next best thing, even if what we have is more than good enough. They tap into our emotions, and often try to make us feel left out if we don’t buy a certain product.
In a world that inundates us with advertisements, we understandably start to eat food that’s unhealthy – and buy things we don’t need.
Chasing a Dopamine Hit
Bad food literally makes us feel good. It can ease stress by stimulating the release of certain brain chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine. In theory, this should be good. Our brain releases these chemicals to signal something like, “This is calorie dense, enjoy it and seek it out whenever you can!” Unfortunately, it doesn’t only send these signals when you’re eating a tasty but healthy salad or grilled salmon. It sends them when we’re eating delicious yet unhealthy foods, too.
In a way, our brains are being tricked. Food that would have been fantastic to stumble upon in the hungry wild can be very bad for us in the modern world. But, our brains have a hard time making that distinction. We are, in a way, being fooled by a Taco Bell food scientist who spent years getting that burrito to have the highest reward value possible.
Similarly, research has shown that we make impulse shopping purchases for many of the same reasons we eat bad food — buying things make us feel good in the moment by giving us a rush of dopamine.
This creates a feedback loop that encourages more impulsive shopping. Retail therapy is a cliché, but there is truth to it. If you’re feeling down, buying something can make you feel better in the moment.
But, as many of us know, there can be a shopping hangover as well. It’s interesting how the feelings of guilt, regret, and lethargy can be much the same whether we’ve just eaten three king-size Snickers bars or purchased a shiny tech gadget that we no don’t really need or even want.
While we face an uphill battle, with an obesity crisis and unmanageable levels of debt of all kinds, there are ways we can move in the right direction. At the end of “The Hungry Brain,” Dr. Guyenet offers up six steps that can help lead to a slimming lifestyle: Fix your food environment, eat satiating foods, eat simple foods, make sleep a priority, move your body, and manage your stress.
Since many of the same triggers that cause overeating also lead to overspending, those same steps will likely help us make better spending decisions.
One way to improve (or “fix”) your spending environment is by limiting your exposure to TV, which makes you less likely to see advertisements. This, not to mention the cost savings, is a good reason to consider cutting out cable.
The spending parallel to eating satiating and simple foods could be buying high-quality items instead of junk, with a “buy it for life” mentality. Owning well-built, long-lasting items will reduce your desire to constantly upgrade to the next best thing.
The other suggestions are all related to stress management. If we don’t get enough sleep, don’t exercise, and generally live high-strung lifestyles, we’re cultivating a stressful environment. Stress is known to make us spend more, and to spend impulsively. So, to the best of your ability in this busy world, try to make small changes toward a healthy lifestyle. Getting on an exercise regimen and maintaining good sleep habits may seem far removed from your spending, but I hope this piece has convinced you that they are intimately intertwined.
Finally, we must find a way to rein in our instincts to “gorge” on easy credit. Just as a restaurant will happily bring you entree after entree, lenders may still extend to you more credit than you need; don’t feel compelled to buy the biggest house you can possibly afford, or to test the limits of your credit cards. Strategies like cash budgeting or using a zero-sum budget can be effective ways to keep your credit card spending under control.
I am not a neuroscientist, but I do know what it’s like to be semi-addicted to buying cheese, which hurt both my health and my wallet. I know how hard it can be to change spending and eating habits. I hope that by seeing similarities in the framework that causes us to overeat and overspend, we can find solutions that help us simultaneously with both issues.
At the same time that we’re working to change our habits, we should be kind to ourselves and others who are struggling. It’s not always a lack of willpower that trips us up so much as the irresistible temptations that arise due to the way we have constructed society. No one is perfect. If we embrace the bumps along the way, we can slowly work toward getting ourselves into shape and bringing our financial houses in order.
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