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


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

  1. Avatar Miss Mac says:

    I still crave bad food all the time–but I choose to not indulge. I know a burger smells so good when I go running by, but I don’t stop in. Instead, I choose to work out. My goal was to lose weight and eating a burger (or what have you) won’t help me. So why cave? I don’t buy “bad for you” food. I only bring in good stuff. So when I’m craving something sweet after dinner, I eat watermelon or grapes because at least I know it’s something healthy.

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  2. Avatar momengineer says:

    how about tips on HOW to retrain your brain???

    • Avatar Momof3 says:

      This is what I was hoping to read. I pretty much knew what they said but would have liked for some tips.

      • Avatar Yvelily says:

        I think there is some self-talk involved. Notice how good you feel after eating that apple. It was crisp and delicious and when you’re finished, you feel satisfied. You have to kind of remind yourself of that. On the other hand, after I eat sweets, I immediately want more sweets. I try to remind myself how full and unpleasant I feel after the sweets. The biggest thing for me is that I do not feel satisfied after the sweets because I instantly want more. Try and remind yourself not to get into that spiral.

        • Avatar Momof3 says:

          Thanks! It’s always a struggle. There are things that I crave (especially carbs) and that’s all I will think about. Sad.

          • Avatar Nikoah says:

            I was like you, the sad part is, to really retrain, I had to remove the refined carbs completely from my diet for a while to adjust. I feel so much better, my arthritic hip stopped hurting, my mild depression disappeared, and my son’s asthma is all but gone. That made it worth it. Look up functional medicine and wheat to learn more about the damage wheat can do. Knowing that makes it easier. Feel free to friend me if you want to know more.

          • Avatar cbfrider says:

            Try “The Sugar Addicts Total Recovery Program” by Kathleen DesMaisons. There is a forum/fb group for Radiant Recovery that might help you for support/ideas etc. The idea of the program is you work through each step and progress to the next step when you have mastered the step you’re on. You can go at your own pace but step 1 is simply to make sure you have breakfast with protein. If you are a sugar addict and crave carbs its likely you are like the rest of us and want to skip breakfast, cant face eating early etc. But even mastering that step can make a huge difference and sets you up to gradually cut down on the sugar without the cravings. It has transformed my life and I have cut out a lot of sugar without the cravings. You need protein for seratonin which controls impusle control and why even that simple step could make a huge difference.

          • Avatar Momof3 says:

            thanks! I’ll take a look at it. I don’t mind breakfast in the morning. My problem is putting my food together for the day or cooking, in general. I don’t like to cook that much. I cook to eat but that’s it. I just need to find a recipe book that I like, that’s easy, and quick meals for my busy family….WITH common ingredients if that’s possible.

        • Avatar Marion says:

          That’s just how I feel after sweets. I gave in to a bag of toffees a couple of days ago! I will have to focus on that apple

    • Avatar EmptyNestMom says:

      Exactly what I was thinking. I do not “like” this article because it was no help whatsoever.

    • Avatar samantha anastasiou says:

      For me, it’s by knowing that sugar is my drug, and although I bake and eat it, I know I’m craving more, because that’s what it does to your body. So, after a holiday or birthday party, I indulge of course (esp while baking yum lick the bowl!) but then the next week I’m aware so I cut it out day by day until I’m eating a healthy snack. for me, I love apples and peanut butter. It satisfies my cravings. Find a healthy snack that will do that for you is my advice, and knowing that your body is responding naturally to the effects of the sugar also is good to know, because you know that by reducing it and gradually weaning it down, the cravings will go away. I hope that helps! There actually is a book, I think it’s out of print called “Sugar the White Heroin” that a friend gave to me years ago. The title grabbed me immediately! lol! It’s true though, they studied how it affects your body compared to drugs, and it’s very similar. You can do it!

    • Avatar Dyan says:

      In paragraph 2-“This conditioning happens over time in response to eating-repeatedly!-what is out there in the toxic food environment.” In other words repeatedly eating crap you train your brain to crave it. Likewise, if you eat whole, real food you train your brain to crave that!

    • Avatar Lady Manley says:

      It’s more physical in my opinion. If you eliminate refined sugar and reduce your empty carbs, your cravings for those things will disappear. You are also in control of your food inventory. Stop buying junk food and stock up on healthy snacks so that you don’t have any choice when you get the “munchies”.

  3. Avatar Hollee says:

    After eating healthier and not eating greasy or fried food for a while I still crave it. The difference is that when I do eat greasy/fried food, my tummy no longer accepts it as well. It keeps the fast food at bay for me. Sugar, on the other hand, is different. If I do without it for a while, I don’t crave it as much. However, when I do indulge the cravings come back. It’s like crack!

  4. Recently I decided to make a healthier version of the double chocolate chip frappaccino. I use figs, dates, prunes, crushed almonds, roasted and brewed and frozen into cubes and then blended in with almond milk. I use just a few chocolate chips too but you could use carob chips instead
    I suppose.

  5. Avatar psbeverly says:

    french fries are better for you than whole grain pasta. or at least they are equally bad.

  6. Avatar Miranda says:

    I’ve notice that I usually crave what I eat. If I eat lots of junk food, I tend to crave more junk food. If I eat healthy, I crave healthier snacks!

  7. Avatar Ivonne says:

    I think it has to do with quitting cold turkey. When I stopped eating fast food, and a lot of the packed junk food, I had withdrawal symptoms for about two weeks. I didn’t give in and after about three weeks I noticed that I didn’t miss a lot of the “bad” foods. I also forced myself to eat fruits or veggies when hungry.

    My body now craves healthy foods, more specifically fresh produce, when I’m hungry, so I’d rather eat that apple than the candybar. After I stopped eating junk food, I’d say for about two or three months, I started eating fast food occasionally, but I can’t eat a whole meal anymore. And I also don’t crave it even if I catch the scent when driving by.

    I think retraining the brain and body works, but it’s not the same for everyone. And it’s not that easy for everyone.

    • Avatar Nikoah says:

      I agree cold turkey is the way to go. I started Neo-Paleo 3 months ago and my cravings are basically gone. I am allowed 1 cheat day a week where I can eat anything except wheat, but I don’t typically do it, I don’t want it anymore.

  8. Avatar DebbyB says:

    I have done exactly what the title says. I used to eat a Lunar Bar, a York Peppermint Patty and sweetened creamer in my coffee every day. It added up to a lot of extra sugar. I adopted a “just say no” policy for any sugar during the week with the exception of high quality, dark chocolate in limited amounts. When I get hungry, I eat a measured amount of nuts. I no longer crave sugar or carbs, which I also limit to complex carbs like oats or farro.

    • Avatar Rebecca says:

      For me it setting up a plan. Making sure I have all the healthy foods on my plan available. Then the choice really becomes easier.

  9. Avatar Jessica David, CHC says:

    Eat an apple grown without pesticides and make your own doughnuts made with real food ingredients. Still not sure, bridge the gap with 25+ phytonutrients. Ask me how I know! =)

  10. Avatar Nikoah says:

    I love this study. I wish it had more participants as 13 is just not enough, but anecdotal evidence is available too. On June 30, 2014 I began down a path of eating Neo-Paleo, no wheat, no refined sugar, but I still drink raw milk. At first it was hard, but now it is easy. I like all the veggies. The biggest testament though has to be my kids. My 9 year old daughter has always been willing to eat her veggies, but last night she got 3rds, yes 3rds of broccoli, and ate every one. My 5 year old son who would eat anything green only under pressure, but complained the whole time scarfed his broccoli and his okra last night and said several times how good it is. My kids brains are changing!!! I am so excited. It takes time, but it can be done.

  11. Avatar Foodahz says:

    I believe this is happening to me. I never really cared for apples but I love the crap out of them recently. And other stuff…

  12. Avatar cleanliving says:

    It’s been my experience that the brain retrains itself. When I eat exclusively healthy food for a while then decide to splurge, it’s never as tasty as I remembered it to be. After a bout of my “no meat, no wheat, no sweet” living, I tried eating a hamburger and the only tasty part was the fresh lettuce and tomato. The patty and bun ended up in the trash. Junk food is especially unappealing when I visualize the effort it would take to burn those extra calories. Look up the calorie cost of your favorite binge, then compete a workout to burn that amount of calories. Keep that memory fresh and you won’t find junk food as enticing.

  13. Avatar NATALIE KATERBA says:

    Nikoah I do the same thing!! I’m not as strict about it and splurge more. I could definitely get better. This article didn’t help much, but it’s so nice see others who don’t look like I have just spoken a foreign language when I mention we don’t eat wheat.

  14. Avatar MaryM says:

    I fell like crap when I eat high fat high-sugar foods now. It’s been 47 weeks with a 75 pound weight loss. I completely agree with the retraining yourself to truely enjoy the fruits and veggies. And beans and rice. Low and no fat proteins. I eat 25 or less fat grams per day. But I always get my 7-9 fruits and veggies in every day so I have plenty of food throughout the day. Breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, dinner, snack. Every day. You have to find what works for you. Make sure it’s healthy eating and stick to it.

  15. Avatar jeff says:

    actually this has happened to me beginning Mid July. I was a life long carnivore but have only had meat 4 or 5 times and I’ve lost 30 lbs and eat high nutrient, low calerie foods that have allowed me to completely give up animal products, even dairy! There are several delicious recipes that provide all the nutrients needed. Get the book Eat to Live, read it completely then follow it and it will change your life. I am back to my teenage weight without counting calories.

    I no longer crave sweets or salty foods, although, I have lost enough weight that I can afford to eat badly once a day and still lose weight, but I don’t want to. Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?

    This is not an evolution, but a planned, detailed but very easy change. Evolution is random, not planned or intentional so let’s drop that word from our lexicon when speaking about things that change through intelligent actions and not random chance.

    • Avatar Betty says:

      I’m happy that ETL has worked so well for you. Congrats! I did the plan a few years ago and loved it so much myself. I lost 35 pounds ( more than I ever expected or wanted to) got really really healthy and never felt better. I was 47 years old and felt healthier than I did in my 20’s. But after several months on the strict plan, I started allowing myself “cheats” and slowly before I even realized it I was eating my old SAD diet again. Soon, I gained all my weight back, and I was sicker than ever, suffering a heart attack 2 years later. So now I’m doing a modified version of ETL. Mostly high nutrient, and being very aware to get my GBOMBS in everyday. I’ve lost 14 pounds in 3 months, and am slowly regaining my health. Not as efficient or ultra healthy as ETL, but at least I know I can sustain this kind of eating forever.

  16. Avatar Madeline says:

    Any suggestions for getting rid o f the diet coke craving?

    • Avatar Betty says:

      I switched to all natural diet soda first ( hansens/blue sky etc) and then after a short time switched entirely to flavored mineral water. Then after awhile, I no longer even wanted the mineral water, the carbonation began to bother me. Now I don’t crave the soda anymore and I only drink decaf coffee in the mornings and water the rest of the time. Maybe an occasional mineral water. I used to drink diet cola everyday.

  17. Avatar Forever thin.. says:

    This is absolutely true. I fell out of love with sugary softdrinks in my teens (I’m currently 60). After 11 years on WW, I couldn’t eat a burger from a fast food restaurant much preferring my ground chicken breast seasoned with feta cheese. Chicken with skin? Grosses me out these days. After vacations I actually crave my self-made ww recipes and low cal foods. I get tired of everything drenched in sauces and dressings and dripping with American cheese. Yuck.

  18. Avatar samantha anastasiou says:

    For me, sugar is the problem. Sugar is the white heroin! It affects your body just like a drug, and once you eat candy, cupcakes, etc,. it makes you crave more! It affects your body that way. I love to bake, but, after a birthday or party where I do a lot of baking, I’m going crazy constantly licking the buttercream icing! So, I have to slowly cut it out of my diet day by day until I’m back to where I’m eating that apple with some peanut butter for a snack instead of that cupcake!

  19. Avatar Betty says:

    Of course it’s possible, I’ve done it, but it takes a lot of willpower in the first several weeks. Which means NO forbidden foods at all. And beware, if you ever taste a donut again, your brain will have a party and will begin craving those foods again immediately and with great determination. It’s like being an alcoholic. That ice cream addict, if he really wants to retrain his brain, can’t EVER eat ice cream again. Because if he does, he will trigger his addiction and he’ll find himself right back where he started. Trust me, I know. Try reading about The myth of moderation. It’s much more helpful and informative than this waste of words article.

    • Avatar Kayla says:

      I think its different for everyone. I used to be addicted to Dr. Pepper. I haven’t had a full one in years now. My husband still drinks them and when I have a sip I’m fine. In fact, it doesn’t taste that good to me anymore. Moderation works for some people.

      • Avatar Betty says:

        I suppose you’re right;-) I was in an all or nothing kind of mind frame when I wrote this. I’m just getting kinda tired of these kind of fluff pieces on nutrition and eating. It’s a very serious problem, and it needs to be treated as such. People need real answers and solutions.

  20. Avatar ZBuffBod says:

    I don’t know if I am lucky or what, but sugar is not an issue for me. I can go without for a long time, eat a donut or slice of cake, and be fine and not crave extra. Now cheese, cheesy sauces, gravies, sauces served over meats…those are my achilles heel.

  21. Avatar Chad says:

    I can’t speak for others but as for me I definitely agree that we can change what our food cravings are. I attribute most of my success in doing so to sustained consistency of eating healthy foods that fuel what my body needs. In other words, If I am eating healthier foods then my body won’t crave the junk foods as much. For example: The thought of having a chocolate chip cookie may cross my mind but if I think about why my body is craving that cookie I realize that it’s carbs that I need and it’s sugar and chocolate that I want. So I eat a plain or wheat bagel instead. It also boils down to what foods I have available in my cupboard. If I don’t by junk food than I start to look for what I do have to fulfill my craving.

  22. Avatar Rinnie says:

    I have bad knees what exercise would be good for me?

  23. Avatar Lady Manley says:

    I have found it to be absolutely true! I am a certified health coach and I help people lose weight with a low-glycemic, high protein, low-carb diet. After just a few weeks (sometimes less), my clients are shocked at how their cravings for sugar and empty carbs seem to disappear, and how their bodies now crave healthy food! It’s definitely possible!

  24. Avatar Sunnydays14 says:

    This article barely helped, but I wanted to share how I train my brain to crave healthy food. I tell myself that (insert healthy food here) is satisfying and will give me energy, and that (insert junk food here) is loaded with preservatives and artificial junk. And hot dogs I tell myself “do you know what’s in those things?!” (No, I’m not a vegetarian.)
    Even the hundred percent beef ones I don’t eat. I lost the taste for them after putting them down so much. I don’t deprive myself, though. My goal is only one fast food meal per week, which isn’t bad. I have been logging on my fitness pal for sixteen days now and I’m not planning to stop anytime soon. A few times I even had stomach problems after eating fast food (a decent meal, too) which made me want junk food even less. Now I’m some sort of health fanatic. I just don’t pay attention to calories, but also protein and fiber and other healthy stuff.

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