Can You Train Your Brain To Like Healthy Foods?

by The Health Sciences Academy — 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.

How so?

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!

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  • Kathryn

    Reply Reply October 16, 2014

    It started with D’Adamo’s “Eat Right for Your Blood Type” 15 years ago and then became even more routine after a (ick!) parasite cleanse 4 years ago: morning smoothies with lots of blueberries, apple, cranberry juice etc. with our supplements, a simple sandwich of homemade spelt bread and perhaps a couple of olives and dinner with relatively small portions of rice or quinoa, mainly chicken or fish and a little bigger one of veggies. To many this sounds boring, but my chef husband uses beautiful herbs and spices in lieu of lots of salt and we have the occasional pasta evening, sauerkraut and smokies, etc, to keep things interesting.

    Go to snack food? Almonds! And the occasional dessert of small square of dark chocolate. Red wine in the evenings and not a soda to be seen at any time – find the taste repulsive now. No breads outside of spelt and no milk although there’s always cheese for sandwiches in the fridge.

    We also indulge in an occasional meal of “ugly food” when the mood strikes – I had my first hamburger in a year about a month ago – the cravings go, as you say, and even the interest in fast food, fries, etc. becomes almost non-existent.

    Tip: At first, allow yourself (only) one meal of “ugly food” a week so that you don’t have the feeling that you are depriving yourself! You WILL find that it becomes less and less attractive as your taste buds are reawakened and your clothes fit better!

    • Alex

      Reply Reply October 16, 2014

      Kathryn – love your hamburger example, thanks for sharing :-)

  • Victoria Robson

    Reply Reply October 16, 2014

    I have been fighting with an ugly food addiction for a while now, mainly sugar and chocolate and bread. I eat plenty of healthy veg from my allotment – lots of beetroot soup but every day I fight with my mind and every day my mind wins. Every night I go to bed and think – failed again, will do better tomorrow but never do. I really want to break this cycle so hoping the nutritional course I am studying along with interaction with these types of blogs and the opportunity to discuss my issues will help me break it. Todays report has been really helpful – thankyou.

    • Alex

      Reply Reply October 16, 2014

      Victoria – you’re not alone, your course will definitely help, but also have a look at the Advanced Clinical Weight Loss certification, which covers hunger hormones, cravings, and the neurobiology of food addiction extensively and gives you the latest tools to overcome it. And of course, keep an eye on our Thursday emails, I’ll be covering more of this :-)

  • david

    Reply Reply October 16, 2014

    Victoria it’s sounds like you are in a state of perceived starvation, meaning you constantly crave carbs. I’ve found through many clients, friends and relatives that insulin resistance plays a huge role in this. You can try any diet under the sun but if you are still insulin resistant you will get those cravings as your body is hormonally out of balance from the high levels of sugars, it’s a viscous cycle and can lead to pre diabetes in a lot of people. If the hormone Leptin (master hormone) is reset this will resensitise you to insulin meaning your body can better regulate blood sugar and learn to produce the enzymes to break down better energy sources that don’t cause huge blood sugar spikes which will vanish cravings for inferior processed low nutrient high toxin foods. for the average person it takes around 1-2 months to become resensitised and then you should be able to handle higher volumes of carbs without getting the highs and lows.

    • Victoria Robson

      Reply Reply October 17, 2014

      Thanks for that David. Off to research Leptin now. I really appreciate your taking the time to reply to me. I’ll let you know how I get on. Warmest regards.

  • skip

    Reply Reply October 16, 2014

    Yes I think this article is true, I have been eating a lot healthier. Sprouted whole grain bread, sea salt, stevia instead of sugar and an abundance of fruits & veggies. But I still have a problem at night, I have a glass of organic red wine before bed, but find myself wanting cheese to go with it.

  • Joe Patch

    Reply Reply October 19, 2014

    I have found this weeks email really interesting.

    It is our daily habits that make us who we are, and with the majority of food that has been offered to us in supermarkets over the last thirty or so years its easy to see how it can be easy for us to fall into the habit of eating lots of food lacking in nutrients but high in refined carbohydrates.

    Last year i tried a personal experiment of removing anything processed from my diet for one month. I had fantastic results and since then have drastically improve my diet. On reflection i was puzzled as to why i was able to succeed in completing this experiment when so many attempts to improve my diet before had not worked.

    After thinking it through i realized that what i had done in the very beginning of the experiment was to link enough good thoughts and images to the healthy food and enough negative thoughts and images to the unhealthy food.

    I was giving myself big enough reasons to stick to the healthy foods. I had linked enough of a negative response in my brain to the majority of the food in the supermarket and linked enough pleasure to fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, nuts etc.

    As the days/weeks went on the task became easier as the habit sunk in.

    So from my personal experiment i would conclude that to succeed I repeatedly visualized how i would look, what i would be able to do more of, and how much more energy and time id have and what i would do with it.

    I also asked myself questions that would provoke the right feelings about the healthy and unhealthy food i.e. How will i feel after eating this? Is this food taking me closer to or further away from my goal?

    On top of that affirmations helped. My main one being:


    In short i trained my brain to like the good stuff ; )

  • skip

    Reply Reply October 20, 2014

    Yes this is a great reply, its not the willpower that’s lacking it’s the bad habits that we need to break. Thanks

  • Susan

    Reply Reply October 22, 2014

    Satiety and upbeat mood helps keep our hormones in check which I believe is the root to all our problems. No matter how much diet and exercise we do, if we are depressed or not eating enough each day or not sleeping enough our hormones are what will stop us from losing weight, being happy and being healthy.

  • Myriam

    Reply Reply January 3, 2015

    I’ve been eating clean for so long that bread doesn’t even appeal to me anymore. I used to suffer from so many ailments when I ate gluten, grains,dairy and corn, (not even processed foods), that I don’t ever look back! It can be done! And when you start feeling so good that you can’t believe you’re not congested all the time, or headachy, sore all over or foggy in the head, with digestive issues and immune problems, as I was, it’s a no brainer to make the change!

  • Neeta Sanders

    Reply Reply September 10, 2015

    With the right kind of herbs, spices, home made sauces veggies can actually taste pretty good – trust me I teach vegetarian cooking classes and I teach a lot of “bored with veggies”, “unhealthy people” to learn to love the food they eat – they’re always surprised at the classes and often remark “I had no idea that veggies could taste this good!”

  • Dwight Jessup

    Reply Reply December 20, 2015

    I am a bit surprise that there has not been a mention of the book by Steven Peters, The Chimp Paradox.

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