Train Your Brain to Crave Healthy Foods? (Yes, It’s Possible!)

Diana Keeler
by Diana Keeler
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Train Your Brain to Crave Healthy Foods? (Yes, It’s Possible!)

If you feel like you’re stuck obsessing over chocolate—or doughnuts, or, in my case, nachos from Moe’s—there’s some good news. Researchers now believe we can “retrain” our brains to prefer healthy foods—even if we’ve been saddled with, say, an ice cream addiction for years.

According to a study published in Nutrition & Diabetes, even long-standing preferences can be reengineered. “We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta,” says Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the USDA HNRCA, and a professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. “This conditioning happens over time in response to eating—repeatedly!—what is out there in the toxic food environment.”

And unfortunately, that conditioning can continue despite even hard-fought weight loss, as the study’s co-author, Thilo Deckersbach, Ph.D., a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, points out. “Surgical procedures like gastric bypass surgery can decrease how much people enjoy food generally.” What it doesn’t accomplish is the type of retraining described in this study: teaching the brain to actually prefer healthy food.

However, Roberts and Deckersbach proved that it could be done. In their small study of 13 participants, eight were enrolled in a weight-loss program that included healthy eating education and meal plans emphasizing high-fiber, low-glycemic foods. Both groups (the eight enrollees and the five members of the control group) had brain scans at the beginning of the study, and six months later.

At the six-month mark, those in the weight-loss program showed changes in their “brain reward centers,” indicating fuller enjoyment of healthy foods. They also showed a “decreased sensitivity” to unhealthy ones. Meanwhile, members of the control group, presumably, went on craving the same jalapeno poppers they’d always craved: their scans showed no such evolution.

If nothing else, consider this proof your wholly detoxed, healthy-living buddy—the one who claims to love kale smoothies after a lifetime of Kit Kats—might actually be telling the truth.

What do you think? Can your craving for cheese fries be tweaked in favor of side salads? Let us know in the comments below!

About the Author

Diana Keeler
Diana Keeler

Diana Keeler has written about travel, health, and adventure for The Wall Street Journal, Marie Claire, Outside, and other outlets. She’s run two marathons and done P90X on five continents—but still struggles to cut fried shrimp from her diet. She once drove from London to Mongolia in a 1990 Nissan Micra; for reports and pretty pictures from some less demanding trips, follow her on Twitter and Instagram

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