Talk to any first time dieter and they will tell you how liberating it is to be in control and how amazing it is to hear compliments and how incredibly energizing it feels to drop the excess pounds. Talk to any overweight chronic dieter and they will struggle to explain why again and again they literally lose their grip on control and discipline and fall apart, every time they try to diet. They will most assuredly tell you that they basically hate to diet, even though intellectually they realize their health is at risk and their quality of life is awful.
New science suggests that we may actually be wired to hate dieting.
Research by scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus suggests that the hunger sensitive cells in your brain, called AGRP neurons, actually make you sensitive to the unpleasant feelings of hunger. Those overwhelming feelings invariably lead you to snack….and snack….and snack some more, every time you attempt to calorie restrict.
Anybody who struggles with weight issues can identify with certain food behaviors. You’re on a diet for a few days, weeks or even months, when all of a sudden you experience an overwhelming feeling of depression, anxiety, sadness, anger, frustration or some other strong emotion, and you lose all sense of control and grab food. It’s called emotional eating and it is often associated with obesity.
The researchers, however, looked at the negative emotions associated specifically with hunger, which makes it hard to consistently continue to persevere on a calorie-restricted eating program. They maintain that based on our evolution, early humans needed a “strong push” to go out and face the inherent dangers associated with pursing animals (our main source of food back then). The neurons may have been directly responsible for the energy and determination necessary to overcome any fears associated with hunting dangerous wildlife. Those AGRP neurons may now be involved in the difficult-to-ignore signals instigated when you perceive hunger, which occurs on a regular basis when you are calorie restricting.
The researchers concede that the role of the neurons is not to directly drive you to eat. Rather they seem to respond to sensory messages (hunger) that cue you to look for food. Nowadays, with food so easily available, you don’t need to look very far, and you are certainly not fighting off wild animals. The researchers categorize the neurons as making us experience feelings of unpleasantness when we feel hungry. To understand the cycle: Your brain senses low-energy levels, meaning calories have not been consumed for a while or inadequate calories have been consumed. The AGRP neurons are then activated. What this new science reveals is that the “motivation to eat” is based on this evolutionary response that was supposed to help you to overcome your fears and seek food sources. In our current food situation, this evolutionary response is still working, quite well in fact, but it is really undermining our efforts to diet successfully.
One final observation, from one of the mouse models in the research program, was to confirm that AGRP neurons are responsible for the drive to eat food. There are also separate SFO neurons that can become stimulated and drive us to drink. The researchers plan more studies that may someday help to create therapies that interfere with AGRP activity, allowing dieters to shed weight and keep it off for good.
My thoughts: It may help to understand this mechanism so that you are armed to “deal with the AGRP response” when it seems to be kicking in. Having predominantly fruits and vegetables at home for snacks means you won’t be grabbing loads of high-calorie, junk food-like snacks when that unpleasant feeling of hunger attacks. You can also prepare other behaviors when you feel real hunger or emotional hunger kicking in and ready to sabotage calorie control. I tell clients and patients to go for a walk, get in a warm bath or shower, pick up the knitting needles, or chew gum to help to distract or delay hunger cues.
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