Harvard’s scientific trick: Healthy food becomes irresistible?

By: Dr. Victor Marchione | Brain Function | Monday, October 06, 2014 - 05:02 AM

healthy eating, brainDon’t like the taste of wheatgrass or cod liver oil? How about broccoli, my least favorite childhood vegetable?!

If it sounds like something you wouldn’t ever try, or can’t bring yourself to eat, think again. Recent research has suggested that there is, in fact, a way you can be “trained” to like those less than palatable foods.

A new study by Harvard Medical School and Tufts University, published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, has revealed that unhealthy food can be made less appealing to the brain while healthier food can be made more appealing.

We don’t start out in life loving French fries

In other words, the brain is “plastic” when it comes to food addiction. Circuits in the brain’s reward center can be completely reversed. That can mean good things for your health, if the new information is used properly.

“We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta,” senior author Susan B. Roberts, who teachers at Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, told Medical News Today. “This conditioning happens over time in response to eating – repeatedly – what is out there in the toxic food environment.”

RELATED READING: When cereals and snack bars become dangerous

How your brain controls what you eat

Researchers looked at the brains of 13 overweight and obese men and women. Eight of the participants were enrolled in a six-month behavioral weight-loss program designed by Tufts University and the remaining participants were not. But all participants underwent brain scans at the beginning and end of the program.

What researchers found was that those who followed the weight-loss program lost a significant amount of weight, 6 kg on average, while the others put on an average of 2 kg.

The first group also saw an increase in the activity of their brain’s reward center that was only activated as a response to seeing images of low-calorie foods at the end of the program – and decreased activity in response to high-calorie foods.

Basically, the combination of lowering the addiction to unhealthy food and boosting cravings for healthy food are keys to sustained weight loss.

Food addiction is a very real concern which brings new importance to this type of study.

A common sign you may be experiencing a food addiction is if you feel yourself using food to feel better, or as a reward for overcoming an emotional issue. Sound familiar? I know how a bowl (or three) of ice cream can soothe and calm those frayed nerves.

Food addicts will need to break the cycle of “eating for reward” to overcome the addiction. This study could bring new hope to overweight individuals suffering from an addiction to unhealthy foods.

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From junk food to superfood…

Although previous studies have shown that surgical procedures, such as gastric bypass surgery, can actually decrease how much people enjoy food in general, this idea never really caught on in the medical community.

That’s because it takes away food enjoyment instead of making healthier foods far more appealing, which for food addicts, could be a big part of the healthy changes they make to their diets. In this new study, however, researchers show that it’s possible to shift preferences from unhealthy food to healthy food – without surgery – and that brain scans are necessary for exploring the brain’s role in food cues.

Food is medicine. A vast body of research supports my conviction that what we eat is the most important first step to keeping ourselves well, free from illness and disease. If we can train our brains to crave quality, nutritious foods instead of all the junk food that’s available at every turn, the implications for overall good health are huge.

I may even start eating broccoli once a week!

There’s still more research needed to confirm the findings. That includes studies of other parts of the brain, studies involving more participants and those with long-term follow-up.

After all, it’s unclear exactly when people become addicted to unhealthy foods. And does this mean that the brain circuits that strengthen addiction are fixed for good, or can they be reversed? If they are fixed, will people trying to lose excess weight or control their blood sugar, have to fight temptation and ignore food cravings altogether?

A case for mind over matter

Nevertheless, researchers say that this is the first study showing a possible shift in food preferences. Maybe the idea of “training” your brain to dislike junk food seems a little extreme. But if it makes it easier to eat more of the whole, nutritious foods our body needs (and resist dipping into the bag of Oreos), that’s a mind over matter strategy worth trying.

In the meantime, while science perfects this new discovery, try to do your own legwork and keep only healthy food in the house. As I always tell my patients, if it’s not in plain sight when you open your cupboard or refrigerator, you won’t be tempted.

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