Diets don’t work. Anyone who has lost weight and successfully kept the pounds off will tell you it’s about a lifestyle change, which if you’re a yo-yo dieter, will probably annoy you. A new study looking into why our bodies don’t work well on typical diets found that the problem is, at least partly, in our heads.

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Researchers looked at a group of neurons that regulate appetite, agouti-related neuropeptide, or AGRP, to see how they inhibit or cause hunger. In a study using mice, the team manipulated the neuron to essentially turn on and off. The critters were housed in special chambers so scientists could measure how many calories they burned. Probes were implanted to gather data on temperature, which is often used to represent calorie burn. Varying levels of food were used to look at how the body reacts to eating fewer calories.

The team found that AGRP neurons help regulate how we burn calories. When activated, they create an appetite so we eat, however, when food isn’t around, the neurons subdue attempts to limit how many calories are burned, which slows down weight loss. However, when food is readily available, the neurons act accordingly and we burn calories at the normal rate.

"Our findings suggest that a group of neurons in the brain coordinate appetite and energy expenditure, and can turn a switch on and off to burn or spare calories depending on what's available in the environment," says study co-author Dr. Clemence Blouet, in a statement. "If food is available, they make us eat, and if food is scarce, they turn our body into saving mode and stop us from burning fat."

Even though the study was not evaluated in humans, scientists chose mice because they share many similarities and are a good model to look at how things work in our bodies.

"While this mechanism may have evolved to help us cope with famine, nowadays most people only encounter such a situation when they are deliberately dieting to lose weight, says Blouet. "Our work helps explain why for these people, dieting has little effect on its own over a long period. Our bodies compensate for the reduction in calories."

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This is why moderate weight loss is often suggested over quick fixes, which is aggravating for those who can’t wait to fit into a smaller size. According to the Centers for Disease Control, research shows that it’s best to lose about one to two pounds a week in order to keep it off. Rather than trying a special diet, making small lifestyle changes, like cutting out soda and hitting the gym, are your best bets for losing weight. Cutting 500 calories per day will result in a one-pound weight loss per week as 3,500 calories is the equivalent to one pound.

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