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Hunger and the Brain

Have you ever heard someone say, “I’m so hungry, my stomach is eating itself?” Maybe they are on to something, although it’s not the cells in your stomach that are eating themselves. A recent study discovered that certain types of brain cells that regulate hunger actually begin eating themselves when you haven’t dined in several hours. This sets off a cycle that basically tells the brain you are hungry. 

The study, conducted by Rajat Singh and his team at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, found that AgRP neurons in the brain—the cells that control hunger—begin a process called autophagy when you go without food for many hours. Autophagy means that the cells are consuming themselves. This happens all the time throughout the body, but it is intensified when you haven’t eaten for a while. The process of autophagy releases proteins that tell the body we are hungry.

Hunger and Metabolism

You often hear that you’re supposed to eat small, frequent meals to regulate your metabolism. Your body uses food for fuel, and when you limit its source of fuel, it stores extra fat—just in case. Instead of using the food, your body slows down and saves as much as it can to use for later, and this can add pounds and fat to your body. 

However, if you eat small meals and snacks throughout the day, your body takes energy from the food you’re eating to help your organs work efficiently and to give you momentum to get through your day. Instead of sitting like a fatty lump on your midsection, the food you eat is burned efficiently to keep you going.

Hunger Cells in the Brain

In light of this new study’s findings, perhaps boosting your metabolism is not the only reason to eat smaller, more frequent meals. When you haven’t refueled your body with food, your body does start to break down triglycerides, and fatty acids circulate throughout your bloodstream. Your brain registers this increase in fatty acid circulation, which triggers your hunger cells to tell you you’re hungry. Perhaps this is obvious—you don’t eat for a while, so you get hungry. But this study has more complex implications for the way you diet.

The Yo-Yo Cycle

How many times have you successfully gone on a serious diet, only to find yourself bingeing afterward, gaining back all the weight you gained, and perhaps even more? These days, it has become trendy to go on a detox diet or a juice cleanse.  But when you’re starving your brain cells, it will backfire on you. With those fatty acids constantly floating around your body, your brain continues to send you one signal: “Feed me.” Maybe that’s why food is the only thing you can think about while you’re dieting. 

Changing your Diet Mentality

So how do you move away from the brain-body hunger cycle and move toward losing weight the healthy way? Feed your brain. Eat small, healthy meals. When you feel the urge to eat, do it. Just watch your fat and calories. Snacking on some shredded lettuce with a fresh carrot and ginger dressing can put your fatty acids back where they belong, stopping your brain cells’ hunger cycle. Crunching on popcorn can tame your cravings and satisfy your hunger. If you eat low-fat options when you feel hungry, you’ll give your brain the signals you need to stop eating.

Even though it seems obvious to eat when you’re hungry, it’s not necessarily such an obvious choice when you’re on a diet. But letting yourself go hungry may only cause you to overeat later. Instead of snacking on reasonable options, you eat everything in sight and wonder why you’re not losing weight. Although your health, exercise level, and metabolism play a factor in helping you lose weight, your brain is the ultimate regulator. Letting your brain know you’re not starving and maintaining a steady intake of calories throughout the day can be the trick to breaking that cycle of weight gain in which you’re so often stuck.


[author] [author_info]About the Author

Guest writer, chef and nutrition consultant, Audrey Summers is intrigued by the body’s abilities to promote weight loss when it is fed properly. Audrey is also a content contributor for cliqstudios.com, a kitchen makeover site featuring hundreds of choices for kitchen cabinets and accessories such as knobs and pulls, and crown molding.
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