Good news for those wanting to change their diet: the brain can be trained to prefer healthy, low-calorie foods instead of high-calorie ones, a new study suggests.
Scientists at the Tufts University and the Massachusetts General Hospital conducted the study, writes Nature World News.
“We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta,” said lead researcher and professor of psychiatry Susan B. Roberts from the Tufts Energy Metabolism Laboratory in a press release. “This conditioning happens over time in response to eating – repeatedly! – what is out there in the toxic food environment.”
Previous studies have suggested that once you grow addicted to unhealthy foods, it can become extremely difficult to wean yourself off them, which makes it hard for people who have gained weight from a poor diet to change their habits.
To investigate this, Roberts and her team studied the reward system in the brain of 13 overweight and obese men and women, eight of which were already trying to lose weight by following a dieting program that was specifically designed to stop them from getting hungry. They were instructed to get 25% of their energy from protein and fat and half from low-glycemic carbohydrates. The other five participants were not trying to lose weight, so acted as controls.
Their brains were studied via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans at the beginning of the study, and then six months later at the end. The team found that in the weight-loss group, there were changes in the areas of the brain’s reward centre that are associated with learning and addiction – they now had increased sensitively towards healthy, low-calorie foods, and decreased sensitivity towards unhealthy foods. This means when they ate healthy foods, they got greater enjoyment than when they were eating unhealthy foods.
“The weight loss program is specifically designed to change how people react to different foods, and our study shows those who participated in it had an increased desire for healthier foods along with a decreased preference for unhealthy foods, the combined effects of which are probably critical for sustainable weight control,” said one of the team Sai Krupa Das, also from the Energy Metabolism Laboratory. “To the best of our knowledge this is the first demonstration of this important switch.”
The team acknowledges that the sample size is very small, and the study was only conducted over six months, but they say their findings suggest that it might be possible to recondition our brains to crave healthy foods rather than unhealthy foods. “Our study shows those who participated in it had an increased desire for healthier foods along with a decreased preference for unhealthy foods,” said Krupa Das in the press release, “the combined effects of which are probably critical for sustainable weight control.”