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Train Your Brain to Prefer Healthy Food

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Many people struggle to eat healthy, stay physically active and lose weight. One of the hardest parts of eating healthy is that you are constantly surrounded by junk food. Every time you turn on the television you are inundated with ads for delicious-looking, high-calorie foods. Driving down the road, you are flanked on the left and right by fast-food joints and restaurants, begging you to stop in. Our environment makes it difficult to stay on track with eating healthy, and those unhealthy foods taste soooo good!

But what if you could train your brain to actually prefer healthy foods over junk foods? Wouldn't that make it so much easier to eat the kinds of foods that are good for your body? Well, even though it sounds too good to be true, it may be possible to train yourself to crave healthy foods over those high-fat, sugar-laden, calorie catastrophes. New research out of Massachusetts General Hospital and Tufts University shows promise in rewiring your brain to desire lower-calorie, healthy foods rather than higher-calorie, nutrient-poor foods, essentially showing that it is possible to turn the tables on the addictive powers of junk food for good.

The Study

Scientists have long speculated that once a person's reward system in the brain becomes addicted to high-calorie foods, it sets that person up for lifelong habits of unhealthy eating and subsequent weight gain. However, researchers also theorized that people can reverse this conditioning that occurs over time after repeated exposure to highly-palatable junk foods.

In the small study, published in September 2014 in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, 13 participants (both men and women) who were categorized as being overweight or obese were split into two groups -- one group was enrolled in a weight-loss program and the other (control group) was not. The weight-loss program centered on a portion-controlled diet of low-glycemic index (GI) foods high in fiber and included education on behavior change. The diet was roughly 50% low-GI carbs, 25% protein and 25% fat, and included 40 grams of fiber daily. The diet group also attended support group sessions and communicated with a dietitian weekly via email.

The study lasted six months. At the beginning and end of the study, both groups had magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans done on their brains. What the MRI scans revealed was exciting for the researchers: in the weight-loss group, areas of the brain's reward center exhibited changes correlated with addiction and learning, showing a heightened sensitivity to healthier foods lower in calories. Additionally, the MRIs found a lowered sensitivity to the high-calorie junk food. This demonstrated that those in the weight-loss program had an elevated desire for the healthy stuff with a simultaneous decreased desire for the junk food.

How Do I Get Started?

Here are some simple, easy pointers to start a sort of "re-circuiting" of your brain to help you activate that reward center when you eat healthy foods.

  • Keep healthy snacks around. We most often get cravings for junk food when we are famished. Don't allow yourself to get so hungry that your willpower diminishes.
  • Don't keep high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods in your house or at your office. Out of sight, out of mind.
  • Allow about three weeks for your body to adjust to your new healthy-eating lifestyle. Your taste buds will adapt.
  • When you feel like a junk-food craving is about to hit, distract yourself with an activity that will keep the temptation at bay -- go for a walk, call a friend, clean your house, anything. Cravings usually pass within about 20 minutes.

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    Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered, Licensed Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children.


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