by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
Have you ever struggled with what feels like an addiction to unhealthy, tasty foods?
You know that feeling, like you just want more and more of the very stuff you know you shouldn’t have.
Most of us fear that once we become hooked on sugars, fizzy drinks and fast food, it may be impossible to stop.
Let’s take a step back.
Good news has arrived!
Just because you’ve developed a liking for unhealthy foods, it doesn’t mean you’re doomed to a lifetime of temptation and cravings. The good news goes back to our beautiful, wonderful, intelligent, 1.5 kg organ – our brain!
You’re about to discover that you can train your brain to like healthy foods and ‘reverse’ addiction to unhealthy foods.
Grab some water and carrots sticks and join me.
Are most of our preferences learned?
Maybe you know from experience or have a client that has gradually gained weight because they give in too many times to temptations that support their cravings for unhealthy foods. It’s almost like they have somehow learned to prefer the bad stuff and keep going.
Now, if that is true, then it begs a curious question. Is it possible to actually un-learn to like unhealthy foods?
In other words, if we could learn to prefer unhealthy food choices, then can we re-train our brain to like healthy foods and dislike unhealthy foods?
Yes, we can re-train our brain’s reward circuits
A group of researchers at Harvard and Tufts University used to believe that overweight and obese people are destined to a lifetime of unhealthy food cravings and temptation. They thought that it is nearly impossible to change anyone’s preferences, specially once we become addicted to unhealthy choices like snack foods, candy, sweet desserts, fried fast food, cakes, biscuits, and sugary carbonated beverages.
Might you agree?
While research shows that natural, unprocessed foods are great for health, not all of us actually eat like that on a regular basis.
Professor Susan B. Roberts, who is the senior author of a study conducted by those same researchers at Harvard Medical School and Tuft University, asserts:
We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta. This conditioning happens over time in response to eating – repeatedly! – what is out there in the toxic food environment.
Roberts and her colleagues did a small study which involved examining the brain reward circuits in 13 overweight and obese men and women. Their goal was to determine if the brain can be re-trained to support healthy food choices.
The focus of this pilot study was centered around not allowing the participants to become hungry, as this is when cravings for unhealthy foods take over and the act of ‘caving in’ materialises. They achieved this by primarily prescribing a low-calorie diet containing foods that promote satiety, including healthy proteins and high-fibre, low glycaemic fruits and vegetables.
MRI scans of the brain, both at the start and finish of the six-month period, showed positive changes in the brain’s reward centres, in particular those associated with learning and addiction.
It was found that healthy, low-calorie foods produced a stronger reaction in the brain’s reward system.
Translation: The study participants experienced a heightened reward (more pleasure) and enjoyment from healthier food cues.
Even more surprisingly, their brains didn’t actively respond to the high-calorie, unhealthy foods.
But can we really be happy eating vegetables?
Many people, in particular those who acquired a taste for unhealthy foods, associate eating vegetables with poor mood and a low mental well-being.
In other words, the prospect of changing their diets and eating vegetables depresses them.
But here’s some interesting new research that can turn their fear around.
Research conducted by the University of Warwick’s Medical School, involving 14,000 participants in England aged 16 or over, found that those who ate 5 or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day were the happiest.
When the researchers further analysed the data, they discovered that the reverse was also true: the lower a person’s fruit and vegetable intake, the higher their chance of having low mental well-being.
Dr. Saverio Stranges, the research paper’s lead author, who was positively surprised, said: “These novel findings suggest that fruit and vegetable intake may play a potential role as a driver, not just of physical, but also of mental well-being in the general population.”
Put simply, increasing your intake of vegetables means more than just losing weight or preventing heart disease and cancer. It can enhance your mental well-being and put you in a state in which you feel good, more optimistic, and function better.
As the World Health Organization defines it, mental well-being is a state “in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
Studies have also shown that solid mental well-being makes you more resilient to stress and offers protection against physical disease.
Yes, it’s all connected.
Time to re-train your brain around food
Food addiction and cravings are not a perpetual condemnation. Through consistent repetition over a period of time, your brain will eventually feel more pleasure from healthier foods, and its reward centres will not respond as actively to unhealthy food cues.
We’ve also learned that an increased intake of vegetables is associated with good mood and mental well-being. If you’re struggling to add more vegetables into your diet, try new recipes and food combinations.
Here’s another useful resource to keep you going:
And if you’d like to become a go-to expert on the subject, we dive really deep into the neurobiology of food addiction and hunger hormones in our Advanced Clinical Weight Loss Practitioner online course.
What do you think?
Has this article given you hope? Do you have a certain food addiction that you’d like to resolve, once and for all? Or have you had success (personally or with a client) in training the brain to prefer healthy food over junk food? If so, how did you do it? Would you call it brain training?
Jump in on the conversation below to share your ‘tips for success’ with our community. Please pass this onto someone who struggles with a seeming addiction to bad food. Help them turn it around themselves!