Chocolate, french fries, cakes and mac and cheese; surrounded by tempting treats it’s not so surprising that people crave unhealthy foods and snacks. Let’s face it, a celery stick is not as moreish as a stick of candy for most of us. But is this all in the mind? Is it a case of simply resisting temptation or can you actually teach your brain to like healthy foods?
Do you remember as a child how much you loved anything sweet? It’s easy to come up with the theory that such is life – we are programmed somehow to love high calorie, high fat and high sugar foods. In other words, it is sometimes simpler to make the excuse to ourselves that such foods are intrinsically what we want on some deep, innate level. Instead, there is a lot of habit forming social conditioning which feeds into our diets. And the more unhealthily we eat the greater our appetite is for more of the same.
So, the question posed by researchers at Tufts University and Massachusetts General Hospital was whether the brain could be trained to prefer healthier, lower calorie foods.
Researchers looked at a group of 13 overweight and obese men and women. Out of this group, eight were part of a weight loss program created by the university. The remaining five participants acted as a control group. MRI brain scans were taken of each participant at the start of the study and then at the end, after six months. The weight loss program involved behavior change education and high fiber, low glycemic menu plans.
The scans revealed that a change in diet could create changes in the brain’s reward center, the area that deals with addiction, as well as learning. At the end of the study the weight-loss group showed an increase in their desire for healthier foods; an increased reward and enjoyment of healthy food cues. At the same time, there was a decrease in the craving for unhealthy foods.
Learning how to love healthy foods
What this means is that in order to lose weight you may need to start eating healthily so the brain can gain momentum in helping you lose your addiction or craving of high calorie foods and boost your sensitivity to lower calorie foods instead. This research is one reason why surgeries such as a gastric bypass aren’t always successful, as this works by taking away the ability and enjoyment of eating. What this type of surgery doesn’t do is encourage a more positive attitude to healthier meals.
When you first start eating less calorie-rich dishes it is understandable that your body, and your mind, might start to reject these healthier options. If the brain has been taught to respond better to unhealthy foods then you are going to prove to be your own worst diet enemy at the start where there will be mutiny in the reward ranks of your brain. The key to quashing this rebellion is to continue to follow the improved diet to discipline the brain into actually liking the good stuff too.
The best approach is to not be too extreme to begin with and start off eating healthy foods that you actually really like. Over time you will soon begin to find these more appealing than you ever thought possible and realize that you are not destined to be a victim of a toxic food environment.