Train Your Brain to Prefer Healthy Food

Science 2014-09-11

The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes obesity as one of today’s most blatantly visible, yet also most neglected public health problems. There are many statistics to support this claim, for example obesityamong adults in the UK has doubled over the past 10 years and it now looks set to plague another generation, as a staggering 10% of 4 to 5-year old children were found to be clinically obese in 2012.


The primary target of blame for this global epidemic is the currently rampant market of fast and highly processed junk foods. Is it any surprise with the price and availability of these high calorie meals that people aren’t opting for the healthier options?


We aren’t born craving these unhealthy foods, so there must be environmental factors influencing this behaviour. This gives some promise that it’s something we can control or change. So, what does it take for you to swap the burgers and pizza for fruit and veg?


Many people describe their eating habits as a vicious cycle, the more high carbsalty and sugaryfoods they consume, the more they seem to crave them. It may sound like an excuse, but according to new research published in the Journal of Nutrition and Diabetes, there may be an element of truth to this theory.



study was conducted at Tufts University with a group of 13 clinically overweight and obese adults. Eight of them were enrolled in a new weight loss program call the iDiet, which involves behaviour change education, lessons on portion control and high fibrelow glycaemic meal plans. At the beginning of the study all 13 participants underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans. During the scan the researchers noted the differences in activity of the striatum (part of the brain associated with reward) when the participant was presented with images of low-calorieand high calorie foods. In this initial scan, they found that all participants showed a much higher response to the unhealthier food options.


The control and experimental groups then underwent a follow-up scan after 6 months. They found an increased sensitivity of the striatum to the lower calorie foods and a decreased response for the higher calorie foods among the participants in the weight loss program. So not only did they have a more positive reaction to the healthier foods, they showed a decreased desire for the unhealthier foods. These are two effects which scientists believe, when combined, could be critical in weight loss.


These findings therefore demonstrate the potential to reverse the cycle of unhealthy eating by retraining your brain to crave healthier options. This approach would be an improvement on normal fad diets, as it would be a lifestyle change rather than a temporary cover-up. It could even be an alternative to medical procedures, such as gastric bypass surgeries.


Gastric bypass surgery is an invasive procedure used to treat extreme cases of obesity. The end result of the operation is a reduction of volume of the stomach. Aside from the invasive nature, there are many other drawbacks to this operation. After the surgery there is a long recovery period and many patients claim that eating is no longer a pleasurable experience for them. If proven to work, this diet program could be a viable alternative to the procedure, as it doesn’t remove the enjoyment from eating; it would just be achieved through eating healthier foods instead.


This study demonstrates a positive shift in the activation of a part of the reward system in the brain towards healthier foods after the behavioural intervention. As exciting a prospect as this is, there is still much more research that needs to be done. The study was only carried out on 13 people over 6 months; firstly a larger, longer spanning study needs to be conducted to determine whether the benefits are long-term and apply to individuals of different ages, races and backgrounds. While this study focussed on the striatum, there are other parts of the brain’s reward system that could also be investigated as well, to find the full effect of this program.


This study has presented a promising avenue for behavioural treatments of obesity, but with simple carbohydrates in processed foods triggering a similar response in the nucleus accumbens (the pleasure centre in the brain) as cocaine and heroin, it’s still going to be a difficult process requiring commitment and willpower to gradually make the change.


Would you be up to the challenge? Let me know @PranikaAtNotch



Image source: