CAN YOU TRAIN YOUR BRAIN TO PREFER HEALTHY FOODS?

For most of us, if we are presented a piece of cake and some steamed broccoli, then we are asked to choose only one of them to eat, the results are pretty predictable (a piece of cake, if you will).

If making the right food choices was easy, the struggle to lose weight would be practically nonexistent. But what if you could train your brain to not only make better choices, but to actually prefer the healthier options? According to researchers at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (USDA HNRCA) at Tufts University and Massachusetts General Hospital, that may just be possible.

“We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta,” said senior author Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the USDA HNRCA. “This conditioning happens over time in response to eating — repeatedly! — what is out there in the toxic food environment.”

Experts have suspected that once we establish unhealthy eating habits over a period of time, those cravings are fixed, leaving many of us to a lifelong struggle fighting against what our bodies want. But the brain scans conducted in the Tufts University study shows evidence to the contrary.

There were 13 overweight and obese adults involved in the study, eight of whom were placed in a weight loss program designed by the researchers. The other five were not placed in the program.

An MRI brain scan was performed on each person at the start of the weight loss program and at the end of the six month process. By showing each participant images of high- and low-calorie foods, researcher could observe activity in the reward centers of the brain.

After six months, those who participated in the weight loss program showed increased reward center activity to low-calorie foods and decreased activity to unhealthy foods, indicating increased enjoyment of healthier foods.

While this was a very small study, researchers were encouraged that the power of unhealthy food addiction may be reversible.

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