Training the Brain to Prefer Healthy Foods

by Sandy Todd Webster on Jan 28, 2016

Nourishment

Can you crave better choices?

This might be a tough one to swallow, but it turns out that training your brain to crave vegetables instead of junk food can actually be done, according to a small study.

Scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (USDA HNR-CA) at Tufts University and at Massachusetts General Hospital have observed that we may be able to condition ourselves to want low-calorie foods instead of unhealthy, higher-calorie foods. Published online in the September edition of the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, the brain-scan study involving adult men and women suggests it is possible to reverse the addictive power of unhealthy foods while increasing our preference for healthy foods.

“We don’t start out in life loving french fries and hating, for example, whole-wheat pasta,” said senior and co-corresponding author Susan B. Roberts, PhD, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the USDA HNRCA, who is also a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and an adjunct professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine. “This conditioning happens over time in response to eating—repeatedly!—what is out there in the toxic food environment.”

Scientists have suspected that, once unhealthy food addiction circuits are established, they may be hard or impossible to reverse, subjecting people who have gained weight to a lifetime of unhealthy food cravings and temptation. To find out whether the brain can be retrained to support healthy food choices, Roberts and colleagues studied the brain’s reward system in 13 overweight and obese men and women, eight of whom were participants in a new weight loss program designed by Tufts researchers and five who were in a control group not enrolled in the program.

Both groups underwent MRI brain scans at the beginning and end of a 6-month period. Among those who participated in the weight loss program, the brain scans revealed changes in the brain's reward center associated with learning and addiction. After 6 months, this area had increased sensitivity to healthy, lower-calorie foods, indicating an increased reward from them and more enjoyment of healthier food cues. The area also showed decreased sensitivity to unhealthy, higher-calorie foods.

“The weight loss program is specifically designed to change how people react to different foods, and our study shows those who participated in it had an increased desire for healthier foods along with a decreased preference for unhealthy foods, the combined effects of which are probably critical for sustainable weight control,” said co-author Sai Krupa Das, PhD, a scientist in the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the USDA HNRCA and an assistant professor at the Friedman School. “To the best of our knowledge this is the first demonstration of this important switch.” The authors hypothesized that several features of the weight loss program were important, including behavior change education and high-fiber, low-glycemic menu plans.

“There is much more research to be done here, involving many more participants, long-term follow-up and investigating more areas of the brain,” Roberts added. “But we are very encouraged that the weight loss program appears to change what foods are tempting to people.”

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About the Author

Sandy Todd Webster

Sandy Todd Webster IDEA Author/Presenter

Sandy Todd Webster is Editor in Chief of IDEA's publications, including the award-winning IDEA FITNESS JOURNAL and IDEA FOOD & NUTRITION TIPS, the industry's leading resources for fitness, wellness and nutrition professionals worldwide. Sandy joined IDEA in 2001 as executive editor of IDEA PERSONAL TRAINER and IDEA FITNESS MANAGER magazines and was promoted to lead the editorial team in 2003. More than 20 years in magazine publishing, marketing communications and creative services have shaped her straightforward approach to multi-channel communication. Early experience in Los Angeles as a sports writer/reporter, and then enriching years as a managing editor in allied health care publishing have pulled her across a spectrum of stimulating subject matter. Fitness, health and nutrition reside at the perfect center of this content continuum, she feels. A Chicago native, Sandy grew up fully engaged in various competitive sports. Her drive and dedication as an athlete translate to a disciplined work ethic and unwavering approach to challenge in her career. Shortly after graduating journalism school from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, she was recruited to L.A. for her first post in magazine publishing. After two decades of working on magazines--and now in the throes of applying the unbelieveable multi-media content delivery options available in the magazine 2.0 world--she is still "completely in love" with the creative process it takes to deliver meaningful, inspirational content to end users. She is an accomplished home cook and gardner who would love to combine those skills and passions with her health and fitness background to continue educating readers about a well-balanced, healthy lifestyle.