If you are plagued by afternoon ice cream binges or late night snack attacks, it may seem like there is no way to break the cycle and get yourself on healthier footing with your food. But a new study has found that it is possible to train your brain to crave healthy foods. The trick? Following a healthy diet.
"We don't start out in life loving french fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta," senior author Susan Roberts, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Energy Metabolism Laboratory, said in a statement. "This conditioning happens over time in response to eating -- repeatedly -- what is out there in the toxic food environment."
For the study, researchers randomly assigned 13 overweight or obese participants to one of two groups: a control group and an experimental group. To start things off, each participant underwent an MRI to record brain activity in response to photos of various foods.
The participants in the experimental group were then essentially asked to go on a diet. They were asked to reduce their calorie intake by 500 to 1,000 calories a day and to follow a high-fiber, high-protein diet to prevent hunger and cravings. They were given portion-controlled menus and participated in weekly support group sessions.
After six months, the participants in the experimental group had lost an average of 14 pounds, while those in the control group lost around 4 pounds. More interestingly though was how the brains of those in the experimental group had changed in their reactions to food. Following another MRI, researchers found that there was less activity in the area of the brain that is associated with the brain's reward system - when participants were shown pictures of high-calorie or high fat foods and more activity in that area when they were shown healthy foods. This is the opposite of what they found during the initial MRIs. And this did not hold true for those in the control group. They had the same brain reactions for both MRIs - high activity in the reward center when shown unhealthy foods.
"There is much more research to be done here, involving many more participants, long-term follow-up and investigating more areas of the brain," Roberts said. "But we are very encouraged that the weight-loss program appears to change what foods are tempting to people."
This study was published in the recent issue of the journal Nutrition and Diabetes.