Are we hard-wired to hate dieting? A new study explains how your brain could be your biggest enemy along your weight loss journey

By Markham Heid
April 28, 2015
Corbis Images

If you've tried dieting for weight loss, you know those days or weeks when you eat less are rough. Turns out, one specific group of brain neurons may be to blame for those unpleasant, hangry feelings that make it super difficult to stick with it, according to a new study. (Have you tried these 11 Ways to Fat-Proof Your Home?)

Of course, it makes sense that feeling hungry would be unpleasant. "If hunger and thirst didn't feel bad, you might be less inclined to take the risks necessary to acquire food and water," says Scott Sternson, Ph.D., a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and co-author of the study.

Sternson and his colleagues found that, when mice lost weight, a group of neurons-called "AGRP neurons"-switched on and seemed to foster "unpleasant or negative emotions" in their little rodent brains. And Sternson says it's already been shown that these hangry neurons exist in people's brains too.

It may seem obvious that going hungry would lead to "bad" feelings. But Sternson's study is one of the first to explain where these bad feelings come from. He says AGRP neurons live in the part of your brain that helps regulate everything from hunger and sleep to your emotions.

Why does any of this matter? Sternson and his team also showed that, by switching off these AGRP neurons in mice, they were able to influence the types of foods the mice preferred and even the places they liked to hang out.

Creating a drug that silences these hangry neurons could be a great weight-loss aid, he says. (Taking the research to another hypothetical level, if you tend to snack a lot on your couch at home, these neurons could play a role in strengthening your desire to stick with that unhealthy habit.)

But all that's for the future, Sternson explains. "At this point, our study just provides a bit more awareness of what people are up again when they try to lose weight," he says. "People need a plan and they need social encouragement to overcome these negative emotions."

If you're searching for the right plan, research suggests Jennie Craig and Weight Watchers are good diets to try. Sipping red wine (seriously!), sticking to a regular sleep/wake schedule, and turning down your thermostat are more great ways to support your diet goals.