How "Hungry Brain" Could Be Ruining Your Diet

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Research is increasingly showing dieting just doesn’t work.  A recent Harvard study found people who went on a low-fat diet lost only about 7 pounds, on average, in a year.  Most gained it back.   And researchers at King’s College in England found obese people have a better chance of hitting the lottery than reaching a “normal” weight.

So why is losing weight and keeping it off so difficult?  It may come down to a battle between your brain and your willpower.

See if this scenario sounds familiar: you want to lose weight, and you're doing all the right things.  But all you can think about is eating.  Emory internist Dr. Sharon Bergquist says you may be experiencing something researchers call "hungry brain,"

"Our hormones are really wired to tell us we're hungry when we're really not hungry,” Dr. Bergquist says.

This drive to eat goes back thousands of years to when food was scarce and dieting… well, there was no dieting.   Bergquist says our bodies developed a biological set point – or a comfortable weight that signaled we’re getting enough to eat. 

Now, when we diet, and begin to drop below that set point, our body senses starvation.  So, our appetite hormones kick in, telling the brain we need to eat. 

Say you lose 10 pounds.  You're walking around feeling like a champ.  But, your appetite hormones are really calling the shots, and they’re telling your brain you need food.  Bergquist says this urge to eat continues for a long time after you lose weight.

"Clinical studies have shown those hormones are telling you to eat and regain weight to your set point for a a year after you've achieved the weight loss,” she says, “That's how powerful and persistent the dysregulation of hormones becomes."

Dr. Bergquist says, the current advice to "eat better and exercise" just isn't enough.  She says you need structure and support to outsmart a "hungry brain."

“It is so hard to tell your mind that, even if your hormones are telling you you're hungry, that you've eaten enough,” she says.

And Dr. Bergquist says people trying to lose weight may want to consider medication sooner than later, especially drugs that help regulate our appetite hormones.

"They're not simply stimulants or trying to help you burn calories,” Bergquist says. “That's part of the role. But another part of the role is to regulate those appetite hormones you they're in sync with what your needs are."

Still, she warns, medication alone won't do the trick.  You still have to be willing to diet and exercise.  But, you knew that, right?