Can't Stick to a Healthy Diet? Your Brain May Be to Blame

Scientists shed light on why feeling hungry is so unpleasant

Sticking to healthy diet isn’t easy, and this isn’t just an age-old adage that’s been passed around by nearly every human who’s ever tried to follow a strict diet.

This statement is actually backed by science. In fact, researchers recently pinpointed the specific neurons in our brains called AGRP neurons that they say are “hunger sensitive” and likely the reason why we find it so hard to make smarter, healthier food choices on a regular basis.

Results from a recent study conducted by scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Research Campus suggest that these neurons are the reason we tend to associate unpleasant feelings with hunger, and the authors predict that those negative feelings are part of the reason why “dieting” and even maintaining healthy eating habits can be so difficult for some.

"We suspect that what these neurons are doing is imposing a cost on not dealing with your physiological needs," said Scott Sternson, a group leader at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Janelia Research Campus.

In other words, the study’s authors predict that our biological instincts are kicking into a sort of “overdrive” because the signals sent from these neurons are difficult to ignore in environments where food is easily accessible. This is as opposed to earlier humans who were posed with the risks of venturing into unpredictable territories and situations when hunger cues struck; they needed the signals from these neurons as encouragement to hunt and seek out food.  

“We suspect that these neurons are a very old motivational system to force an animal to satisfy its physiological needs,” Sternson explained. “Part of the motivation for seeking food is to shut these neurons off.”

The AGRP neurons don’t necessarily encourage us to eat directly, but rather they signal us to respond to cues that indicate a presence of food.

To identify exactly how these neurons work, the researchers worked with healthy mice and first fed them each two different flavored gels—one strawberry and one orange. In the second part of the experiment the researchers “manipulated the hunger signals” in the brains of the mice by switching the AGRP neurons on as they tasted one of the two flavors.

Then, in the final test, where no brain manipulation was involved, the mice ended up choosing the flavor associated with the false hunger signals (or the one they were fed when the neurons were turned on).

Additionally, when the experiment was reversed, the researchers found that the mice chose the flavor associated with the “silencing” of the AGRP neurons.

Ultimately, Sternson said that these findings finally helped to scientifically support what most humans already know to be true: hunger is unpleasant.

The results also help to highlight the importance of embracing a positive mentality when it comes to eating healthy, and especially if you’re doing so to lose weight. Of course, doing so will involve “training” your whole brain (not just a specific set of neurons) and also lots of practice and learning.

Just remember, like the study shows, it will probably be a bit challenging, so go easy on yourself and take it one step at a time.

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