Hooray! Science Says It’s Possible to Retrain Brain to Want Healthy Food

Great news for those who have a sweet tooth that makes their mouth water for all the wrong foods: Scientists say it may be possible to re-educate the brain to prefer healthy, low-fat food over unhealthy high-calorie choices, IFL Science reported.

A new pilot study published in Nutrition and Diabetes has found it is possible to reverse the addictive power of unhealthy food while also increasing preference for healthy foods by manipulating the brain’s reward system responsivity to food cues. 

Thirteen overweight and obese men and women were recruited to take part in a specially designed weight-loss program which included behavioral changes and a high-fiber low-glycemic menu in a bid to observe (and change) how people react to food. Eight were participants and five were in a control group placed on a waiting list.

At the beginning and end of a six-month period, both groups underwent MRI brain scans to investigate activity in the part of the brain responsible for reward processing, revealing some promising results. When shown images of healthy food at the end of the study, those in the diet group showed increased brain sensitivity, increased reward and enjoyment of lower-calorie food cues, and decreased sensitivity to unhealthy choices. Those who participated in the weight-loss program also showed changes in the areas of the brain reward center connected to learning and addiction.

The results indicate that it is possible to shift preferences from unhealthy food to healthy choices without invasive surgery (like gastric bypass designed to decrease stomach capacity and enjoyment of food). While acknowledging that the study sample was quite small, scientists say the results are encouraging for weight loss and health and they hope to follow up with more long-term investigation.

“We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta,” co-author Susan Roberts said. “This conditioning happens over time in response to eating—repeatedly—what is out there in the toxic food environment.”

Scientists have long assumed that once unhealthy food addiction circuits in the brain are established, it is difficult to reverse the trend, which in turn leads to a lifetime of unhealthy food cravings, temptation and often obesity, Newswise reported.

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