The brain-based booby trap that’s keeping you fat

As you’ve probably noticed, I don’t often write about animal studies. Not because this research isn’t valuable. But because, without clinical evidence to back it up, it just doesn’t mean much for actual human patients.

I do make exceptions for certain studies, though — usually when their findings confirm what we already instinctively know to be true about human health. And today’s topic most definitely falls into that category.

I often tell my patients that we don’t only eat when we’re hungry, we eat for many other reasons —  most of which are emotional. And anyone who’s ever had issues with weight knows this all too well.

Let’s not forget, either, that in actuality, you physically get full 20 minutes before your brain actually tells you to stop eating. So needless to say, it’s easy to overdo it, even when you’re not eating your feelings.

Those are two key things to understand when you’re trying to maintain your weight loss — or even just trying to eat healthier — over the long haul. Because if you’re not watching out for them, these pitfalls will get you every time.

You might be tempted to think that your lack of will power is a character flaw — and that only a lazy dieter would surrender to a bottomless bag of potato chips after a bad day. But actually, that’s not necessarily true.

Because according to a team of Japanese researchers, it’s not your fault you cave to pizza or chocolate under pressure. You’re just doing what your brain’s telling you to do.

In fact, these researchers have isolated the exact brain cells responsible for carb cravings. It’ll come as no surprise that these are the same neurons that respond to social stressors. And when activated — in mice at least — they send the craving for carbs soaring.

Specifically, mice with these activated neurons ate three times the high-carb fare that mice under normal conditions did. And if that doesn’t jive with the lived experience of human dieters, I don’t know what does.

This may be among the first studies to lay out the exact role that the brain plays in carb addiction. But the story it tells is as old as time.

The researchers concluded: “Many people who eat sweets too much when stressed tend to blame themselves for being unable to control their impulses, but if they know it’s because of their neurons, they might not be so hard on themselves.”

And if you’re familiar at all with the way medical matters work in Japan, then you’ll notice how this quote pretty well sums up how they treat most illnesses. It’s a very paternalistic, traditional system — one where a wife would be spared bad news about her health and her husband would be entrusted with her health care decisions.

For all the flaws in American healthcare, I dare say this is one case where our emphasis on personal accountability and patient empowerment gives us a razor-sharp edge.

True, this finding could lead to a new “breakthrough” diet drug. But I don’t think that’s too likely. These neurons obviously control other pathways besides carb cravings. And simply turning them off with a pill could create a whole set of other, potentially more serious problems.

And that’s assuming it’s even possible at all — something that would take a whole lot more research (including humans trials) to establish.

Ultimately, I see a deeper value to this new information. Some people might view it as an excuse to sidestep responsibility for your dietary choices. But I view it as vital preparation for a challenge that you might not have seen coming otherwise.

If you know that booby trap is waiting in your brain, you can plan your route to lasting health and weight loss success around it. The A-list Diet works for me. It works for my patients. And if you commit yourself and give it a chance, I promise it can work for you, too.