Can you re-train your brain to prefer healthy food?

healthy versus junk food

Study shows that food addictions can be changed

Scientists from Tufts University have found that the brain can be trained to prefer healthy food over unhealthy and high calorie junk food, using a diet that does not leave people hungry.

The team scanned the part of the brain linked to reward and addiction in 13 overweight and obese men and women, eight of whom were taking part in a specially designed weight-loss programme. The diet programme focused on changing food preferences by prescribing a diet high in fibre and protein, and low in carbohydrates, but which did not allow participants to become hungry because this is when food cravings take over and unhealthy food becomes attractive. The other five adults did not take part in the weight-loss plan.

The results showed that after six months, there were reported changes in the brain’s reward centre, with those on the diet plan producing an increased reaction when shown pictures of healthy and low calorie foods, depicting a greater enjoyment in healthy eating. The scans also revealed a decreased sensitivity to junk food. This shows that the brain can be re-trained to enjoy healthier and lower calorie foods.

Watching what you eat

The Boston researchers also say that gastric bypass surgery, while solving the problem of weight loss, can take away food enjoyment rather than make healthier foods more appealing.

Prof Susan B Roberts, senior study author and behavioural nutrition scientist at the Boston university, told BBC News “We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, wholewheat pasta. This conditioning happens over time in response to eating – repeatedly – what is out there in the toxic food environment. There is much more research to be done here, involving many more participants, long-term follow-up and investigating more areas of the brain.”