What Diets Really Do To Your Brain

A new study finds that hungry brain cells won't let you starve -- but that might not be good news

I hope you've had breakfast already, because here's some cheery news, courtesy of new research in the journal Cell Metabolism (via ScienceDaily): "When we don't eat, hunger-inducing neurons in the brain start eating bits of themselves. That act of self-cannibalism turns up a hunger signal to prompt eating."

The researchers figured this out by studying the brains of hungry mice. They learned that when the mice didn't eat, lipids within certain brain neurons were mobilized, generating free fatty acids. Those fatty acids in turn boost levels of AgRP, a hunger signal. The technical name for this cellular process is autophagy, but I like "self-cannibalism" better.

So here's how we know that I'm not going to make a billion dollars in the pharmaceutical industry any time soon: My first reaction, upon reading this news, was "well, no wonder diets don't work!" Your brain is designed to start eating itself if you don't feed it properly. What better proof do we need that humans just aren't built for crazy calorie counting, food group restricting, and other deprivation-based weight loss tactics? 

But the neuroscience researchers who published the study are thinking along different lines. "Regulation of hypothalamic autophagy could become an effective intervention in conditions such as obesity and the metabolic syndrome," they conclude. Or as ScienceDaily puts it: "[co-author] Rajat Singh of Albert Einstein College of Medicine [...] says the new findings in mice suggest that treatments aimed at blocking autophagy may prove useful as hunger-fighting weapons in the war against obesity." 

Translation: If we can make a pill that lets people go hungry for longer without eating their own brains, we're all gonna be rich. 

Now I'm all for better living through science. And I'm guessing there are some people for whom this autophagy business is in overdrive and maybe they'd really benefit from a pill that turned down the hunger signals to at least a dull roar.

But in general, if your neurons are eating themselves in order to tell you to eat, I'm thinking maybe you should listen to what your body is trying to tell you. It's pretty smart. And it's sole purpose is to keep you alive and healthy, which frankly, it does a darn good job of most of the time without even having to bother you about it. Your heart pumps, your lungs breathe, your kidneys flush out toxins all on autopilot, without you doing a thing to stop or start the engine every day.

Of course, they all work better if you do your part and take care of your body by moving it around, putting it to sleep and feeding it well. Drop one of those balls and then, oh boy, your body is going to let you know it, by making you feel lethargic, sleepy, hungry and/or generally terrible.

And the more science can tell us about how those signals are communicated, the better we can listen and give our bodies what we need. Or we can figure out how to make drugs to shut our bodies up. We know what the pharmaceutical and diet industries will be doing with this new information. What about you?

Connect with Us
Follow Our Pins

Yummy recipes, DIY projects, home decor, fashion and more curated by iVillage staffers.

Follow Our Tweets

The very dirty truth about fashion internships... DUN DUN @srslytheshow http://t.co/wfewf

On Instagram

Behind-the-scenes pics from iVillage.

Best of the Web