It may feel like your cravings for junk are unbeatable, but science is proving that isn't the case. You might be able to train your brain to prefer healthy food, according to new research in the journal Nutrition and Diabetes. Imagine a life of constantly salivating over kale salads and fresh fruit, then read on for how to make it one step closer to reality.
Scientists at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (USDA HNRCA) at Tufts University and Massachusetts General Hospital set out to determine how cravings for junk become so ingrained in not only our bodies, but our minds. They administered brain scans to 13 study participants at the beginning and end of a six-month trial, during which some of the subjects followed a healthy-eating plan.
After six months, scientists analyzed participants' MRIs, looking specifically at the striatum, the neurological "reward" center activated by things like illegal drugs and sex. In people who followed the healthy-eating plan, researchers noticed reduced activation in response to images of high-calorie foods like macaroni and cheese and donuts. There was also increased activation in response to healthy foods like grilled chicken and dark chocolate. Participants were actually teaching their brains to respond more favorably to food that did their bodies good. Not only that, they lost around eight percent of their body weight in the process.
"Conventional programs have you weighing yourself weekly and putting up with hunger in the name of willpower, then eating indulgent treat food in moderation," says Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., senior scientist at the USDA Nutrition Center at Tufts and co-founder of the online iDiet weight loss program. "This turns that on its head so you’re less hungry, but you're also actually getting pleasure from these foods that are better for you."
Much of the study’s success is in the type of foods participants ate. They specifically used the iDiet program, which translates into low-calorie foods with a focus on adding fiber and protein and while reducing refined carbs.
"The filling food is a big part of it," says Roberts. "Foods that give a rush of calories from carbs and fats set off a whole cascade of brain changes: They become strongly liked, then they start boosting addiction circuits for anticipating eating them. It’s a predictable sequence." Think of that afternoon craving that hits like clockwork and leaves you struggling to resist the office vending machine. "When that time comes around, your brain starts prodding you to go. You imagine the peanut M&Ms, or whatever the craving is, and then you've set off a metabolic reaction that includes real hunger," says Roberts.
Stopping the cravings before they hit is key. "We have to reverse that process," says Roberts. "It’s about getting people to eat good-tasting foods that digest more slowly to weaken the link between certain food tastes and the hyper-activation of the addiction centers."
Another factor is keeping a steady stream of healthy food coming. "Hunger happens between meals," says Roberts. Snacks that reinforce how good healthy food can taste are crucial so you don't end up overdoing it later.
Although the study was small, based on its findings and previous studies Roberts has done, she is confident that the results can be extrapolated to the general public. "I think disrupting addiction centers is the way of the future," she says.
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