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Experts say inflammation in the brain may be a factor in appetite and hunger. Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty Images
  • Researchers report that regions of the brain are larger in young adults with obesity and other weight issues.
  • They say inflammation in the brain may influence appetite and hunger.
  • Experts say you can reduce inflammation in the body by eating a healthy diet with fewer fats and processed foods.

The hypothalamus, a small region in the brain, was significantly larger in young adults who had obesity or were overweight in a new study published in the journal Neuroimage: Clinical.

Researchers also reported there was a significant relationship between the volume of the hypothalamus and body mass index (BMI) among study participants.

The hypothalamus works as a control center for hunger and feeling full. However, there is a minimal amount of information about this brain region, partially because it is small and difficult to see in MRI scans.

The researchers pointed out that previous research on animals shows that there are interacting pathways between the hypothalamus and other cell populations acting together in the brain’s “appetite control center” to tell us when we are hungry and when we are full.

The researchers suggest that inflammation may play a role in these brain relationships.

For example, they explain that previous animal studies show that high-fat diets cause inflammation of the hypothalamus and can lead to insulin resistance and obesity.

Some studies suggest that chronic inflammation of the hypothalamus can cause a necessity to eat more before feeling full.

The researchers employed an algorithm that used machine learning to analyze scans of 1,351 young adults with a range of BMI scores. They found that the hypothalamus was significantly larger in those with obesity or overweight.

The researchers did not determine whether the inflammation is a cause or consequence.

“We knew the hypothalamus was involved with hunger,” said Dr. Mir Ali, a bariatric surgeon and medical director of MemorialCare Surgical Weight Loss Center at Orange Coast Medical Center in California. “But we have so much more to learn.”

“One concern is inflammation. The researchers suggest this could play a role, but if there is inflammation in any part of the brain, it is very serious,” Ali told Medical News Today. “We must look at all factors that might contribute to a person’s obesity. The hypothalamus might be one. Physicians can check their patient’s hormone level, but problems with this are rare.”

“We should treat obesity as a long-term illness,” he added. “There are new medications available that are very effective. But these should be used as a tool to help people make long-term changes, not as the only treatment.”

The World Health Organization defines overweight and obesity as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents health risks.

A BMI of more than 25 is considered overweight and over 30 is considered obese.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the last reported incident rate in the United States (2017) was nearly 42%. It had increased from 30% in 1999.

Obesity and overweight increase the risk of developing heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.

These conditions are among the leading causes of preventable, premature death.

They are also associated with poorer mental health outcomes and reduced quality of life.

Experts say getting to a healthy weight is not easy. Often, people need help.

Ali suggests starting with your primary care doctor for a full evaluation and having any health issues addressed before starting a diet and exercise program.

“Look closely at your diet and start with small changes and build upon those. The same goes for exercise,” he said. “For people with a BMI between 30 and 40, diet and exercise interventions, including medications might work. However, for people with a BMI of over 40, weight loss surgery might be necessary.”

Anne Danahy, a registered dietician and the owner of the website Craving Something Healthy, offers the following tips to Medical News Today for reducing your weight:

  • Remember, not all fat is bad for you. Eating healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, nut butter, and avocados can help balance your meals and promote satiety. Adding some healthy fats with meals and snacks can help fill you faster and keep you feeling full for longer, so you eat less throughout the day.
  • Most highly processed foods (packaged snack foods, fast foods, frozen dinners) contain unhealthy fats. These promote inflammation and contribute to weight gain, especially belly fat, which harms your health. If you rely on these foods for convenience, avoid them for a few weeks. Cook more meals at home and snack on fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Most people who go on a “fast food fast” are amazed and how quickly they lose weight and how much better they feel when eating whole foods.
  • Avoid saturated fats such as butter, cream, large amounts of cheese, and red meats. Replace these with olive oil, lower-fat milk, skinless poultry, and fish when possible.
  • Often, excess weight is due to too much sugar or refined carbs in your diet. Be conscious of how often you eat desserts, starchy snacks such as crackers or chips, and sugar-sweetened beverages. Cutting back on these can promote weight loss.