If you set a New Year’s Resolution to go on a diet this year, you’re in good company. Surveys estimate 45-60 percent of us make the same goal. But if you’ve already fallen off the wagon, you’re in really good company: Over 80 percent of us will have quit that diet by Feb. 1.
There’s a good reason diets don’t last long and it’s not terribly surprising: They suck. You’re hungry, you feel deprived and for many of us these feelings can lead to a host of other negative emotions like depression, anger and anxiety. Even with the best intentions to lose weight, it can still set off a cascade of sadness. There’s a reason for this, say researchers from the Howard Hughes Medical Center, and it’s because the same neurons in your brain responsible for hunger are also the ones that report negative emotions like pain and sadness.
Specifically, this is because AGRP (agouti-related protein-expressing) neurons in your hypothalamus stimulate food-seeking behaviors to eliminate the negative feelings that come when your body starts burning more calories than you’re consuming, like we do on a diet. The location of these neurons is key because the hypothalamus controls basic things like eating and sleeping but it’s also responsible for mood regulation. Mess with one and you mess with the others! (Perhaps this is why so many of us eat emotionally?)
“Eating feels good and being hungry is uncomfortable,” the researchers write (obvious science). But they add that labeling hunger as mere discomfort may be doing us all a disservice. Rather, we should be telling people embarking on a diet to expect a range of negative emotions.
People looking to lose weight will likely be more successful when they do it in ways that don’t trigger those neurons, or trigger them less. Severe diet restriction, like crash diets, led to a much stronger negative response from the brain. So while you won’t lose weight as quickly, making little food changes may be more helpful in the long run.
In addition, we should expect some feelings of sadness and anger and look for healthy ways to deal with them. Exercise of all types is a great tool for combating the sads. Hanging with friends and family, doing a hobby you love, meditating or reading a good book are all healthy science-backed ways to distract yourself. But be wary of binge-watching TV or surfing the web (especially social media), as studies have shown that those not only increase depression and anxiety but can also make us feel hungrier.