Can You Train Your Brain to be Addicted to Healthy Foods? (YES!)

A student and I stayed after class once to talk about health and fitness stuff. She and I both shared weight-loss success stories, and I asked her if she'd continue to eat healthy foods if she knew she could eat whatever she wanted and not gain any weight back. She said she'd still prefer to eat clean, but in my mind I was picturing myself surrounded by empty ice cream cartons every night. As much as I do love eating healthy foods (and I know they help me feel my best and fuel right for training) in the end if I could eat whatever I wanted without ever gaining weight I think I'd go straight back to the carb/fat/sugar heavy foods that put me up to 170 pounds all those years ago. A new study in Nutrition & Diabetes performed brain scans on overweight men and women to study their mental reward systems. Eight of the participants were enrolled in a weight loss program at Tufts University, and five were used as controls (they received no treatment.) Both groups had MRI's done at the beginning of the study. and 6 months into the program. During the six months the weight loss program aimed to change how the participants reacted to different foods. At their six month MRI's the weight loss participants brain scans revealed an increased sensitivity to healthy, lower calorie foods. They had been trained to biologically enjoy healthy foods. 

Beautiful Young Woman choosing between Fruits and Sweets

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The researchers believed several factors in the weight loss program contributed to the participants success, including behavior change, education, high-fiber, and low glycemic menu plans. I wanted to know what 'behavior change' meant so I actually used my awesome teacher perks and scored a copy of the original article titled, "Pilot randomized trial demonstrating reversal of obesity-related abnormalities in reward system responsivity to food cues with a behavioral intervention."

Don't you just love reading research papers? The diet they created for their participants was modeled after the iDiet (I've never heard of it.) Their behavioral change was based on the following:

By participation in a group-delivered behavioral program designed to facilitate adherence to recommendations to reduce energy intake by 500–1000kcal per day, with novel intervention components included to facilitate sustainability of reducing energy intake via reducing hunger and devaluing existing associations between unhealthy food consumption and reward in parallel with reinforcing associations between healthy food consumption and reward. Specific behavior changes taught and supported in the intervention included the use of portion-controlled menus and recipe suggestions, with high-satiety menu plans, recipes and tip sheets provided by the investigators.

So, nothing fancy really. Just taught people to eat less with proper portions and healthy, filling (fiber rich) foods.

I thought there was going to be some big magic secret they used to get participants BRAINS to actually light up differently at the sight/thought of healthy foods. Apparently, eating healthy makes you want to eat healthy. Crazy talk! Humans evolved to crave fat/sugar/salt (high calories and necessary for survival) but we take that to the extreme and associate high fat/sugar foods with feeling happy and comforted. It's not surprising that we can learn to associate healthy foods with similar emotions of we deliberately try.

Do you have to force yourself to eat healthy? Why do you think you crave the foods you do?