The effects of dieting on your brain

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Shutterstock.com/ TijanaM

With the amount of information that people are bombarded within the media and in social media from dieting gurus, everyone should be dieting experts at this point. The problem is, these so-called experts tend to have conflicting advice. There are over 40 million people dieting every year, and most of them are failing.

Some experts believe that your brain is programmed to keep you at a certain weight, so your efforts to defy this dictum often are met with great opposition by your brain and the hormonal systems of your body. This theory, known as “set-point weight,” has been around for decades. It asserts the fact that your weight is controlled by your brain rather than your intentions or moral compass when it comes to laziness or self-sacrifice.

Your brain’s set-point is why a lot of diets don’t work, especially the traditional “calories in, calories out” approach. When your caloric intake goes down, the brain turns down the “thermostat,” so-to-speak, in your body so that you burn less fuel, which thwarts your efforts to lose weight. If you manage to overcome the brain’s efforts to derail your diet, the body will fight to get back to your set-point weight.

The part of the brain that controls your body’s thermostat is the hypothalamus. This part of the brain controls a variety of physiological and emotional behaviors in order to adapt to various situations.

The amount of body fat that you’re carrying also affects the brain. Greater amounts of body fat increase the levels of the hormone leptin that is secreted into your bloodstream. Leptin decreases hunger when your body fat goes above a certain level. The problem is your body uses a set-point of body fat to determine when to increase leptin levels. If your set-point is higher than normal, your body will fight to stay overweight. When leptin levels drop, it’s what scientists refer to as the “starvation response.” Your hunger and cravings for carbohydrates increase while your metabolism slows down.

If you don’t carefully monitor your calorie intake while on a diet, your brain will naturally force you to regain any lost weight by increasing your hunger. This often happens without people even realizing that they’re eating more calories than normal. Even if you’re eating a healthy diet, your body can easily gain back weight that was lost.

Lab tests have shown that reducing weight increases tendencies to binge eat. Sugary foods are particularly attractive for binge eating episodes because they activate reward centers in a similar fashion to drugs like heroin or cocaine.

These rebound responses of the brain are what lead to the syndrome of “yo-yo dieting.” It turns out that one of the main reasons for the increase in obesity statistics is dieting. This is because people tend to be more susceptible to weight gain if they have gone on a diet and lost weight. When they regain weight, it usually results in a higher weight than before the diet.

This doesn’t mean that weight-loss efforts are futile. To avoid the backlash that the brain imposes after losing weight, make diet changes that don’t trigger starvation responses. Most people will naturally lose weight just by replacing refined carbohydrates with natural whole foods.