Keeping your weight in check is all down to eating well, being active and having willpower, right? An increasing body of robust scientific evidence suggests otherwise.
While lifestyle is important, complex neurobiological mechanisms play a role in regulating hunger and cravings.
Two areas of the brain are involved in regulating hunger and cravings: the hypothalamus (hunger center) and the mesolimbic reward system.
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Activation of certain neurons in your hypothalamus can either trigger hunger or reduce hunger, which in turn leads to weight gain or weight loss.
The neurons that reduce hunger are called POMC neurons. When these neurons are activated, they release a neurotransmitter that reduces the desire to eat. The hypothalamus also has a negative feedback loop that stops this POMC activity and signals that it’s time to start eating again.
The mesolimbic reward system is involved with feelings of pleasure during rewarding experiences such as eating. When you eat – or sometimes even just think about foods rich in sugar, salt and fat – it can stimulate the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Over time your brain seeks to repeat those rewarding eating experiences, which is how cravings begin. At times, those cravings can seem uncontrollable, even when you’re not hungry.
*Other areas of the brain may also be involved in weight loss.
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There is evidence that the human body is programmed to actively defend against weight loss and maintain a certain range of body weight, known as ‘set point’.
Your set point may be determined by your heaviest past weight. When you lose weight and drop below your set point, your brain causes hunger and cravings in an attempt to bring you weight back up to your set point.
The human body is programmed to defend itself against weight loss, actively trying to maintain a set point determined by your heaviest past weight.