Studies have shown that the brain can be trained to prefer healthy foods over unhealthy foods, by using a diet that will not leave you hungry. So if you are addicted to those sweet treats and processed foods but you want to lose weight and be healthier, the answer might be closer than you think.
Scientists at the Tufts University in Boston, U.S., found that it is possible to train the brain to prefer healthy food over unhealthy options, by using an eating plan that does not leave people feeling hungry. This study was performed on a small group of people that had the parts of their brains scanned that were responsible for addiction; the results showed increased cravings for unhealthy foods. But after putting them on a controlled diet, the same scan showed increases in cravings for healthier, lower-calorie foods.
The participants were given an adapted version of the iDiet. They followed a portion-controlled menu and recipes provided by researchers. The menus had a specific dietary composition that used low-glycaemic index carbohydrates, protein and high fibre. They derived around 25 percent of their energy from protein and fats, and 50 percent from low-glycaemic carbohydrates. They also consumed around 40g of fibre per day. After six months, they showed a significant change; they craved healthier, lower-calorie foods and also lost weight.
“We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta,” says Professor Susan B Roberts, behavioural nutrition scientist at the Boston University. “This conditioning happens over time in response to eating – repeatedly – what is out there in the toxic food environment.”
An unhealthy diet can lead to a variety of health issues, like obesity, diabetes and more. The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes obesity as one of the most blatantly visible and most neglected health problems today. Obesity in the UK has doubled in recent years and an astounding 10 percent of children between four and five years of age were found to be obese.
Triggering the Brain
This study also found that eating processed foods and meals high in simple carbohydrates triggered similar response in the nucleus accumbens, also known as the pleasure centre, in the brain. This explains why it is so hard for some people to break the habit on their own. Breaking this habit will require dedication and willpower, but it is possible to make a change for the better.
Another study done by the Connecticut University showed that Oreo cookies had the same brain response than actual drugs. Although the study was done on rats, it suggests that it might be relevant to humans as well. After ingesting Oreos, the rats showed an increase in the protein c-Fos in the nucleus accumbens. The study was also presented at the Society for Neuroscience’s Annual Conference in 2013.
Breaking the Habit
Researchers know that once people are addicted to unhealthy foods, it’s hard for them to change their eating habits and lose weight. Being exposed to unhealthy, high-calorie foods for long periods of time can cause excessive activation of the brain’s reward system, making it more likely for a person to choose a chocolate pudding over a fruit salad. This happens over time and some people may even find it impossible to turn back the clock.
Although there are surgical options like gastric bypass surgery, it is an invasive procedure that results in a reduction of the stomach. You will need a long recovery period and eating may very well not become an enjoyable experience anymore. That is why medical professionals and dieticians prefer to recommend a lifestyle change for patients, as this will likely lead to a natural change in habits, while foods are still enjoyable, without the risk of invasive surgical procedures.
The focus on a healthy diet should start with foods that are high in protein and fibre, and low in carbohydrates. But it is important for patients not to get hungry as this can easily be confused with food cravings, making them fall back to their old habits.
There is still a lot of research to be done, but these studies suggest that there might be a much easier way to change your habits than opting for surgery or other complicated options. With dedication and commitment, you can turn your life around for the better, making healthy food choices that comes naturally to you, and enjoying the benefits of a happier, healthier you.
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- TUFTS, Training Your Brain to Prefer Healthy Foods.
- Connecticut College, Student-Faculty Research Suggests Oreos Can Be Compared To Drugs Of Abuse In Lab Rats