Can You "Train" Your Brain to Favor Healthy Food? 
Sunday, November 23, 2014
LifeTime WeightLoss

What if, instead of chocolate, you craved broccoli every time stress hit you at work? 

Or when you were hungry, you salivated for a huge salad versus a shake and French fries from your favorite drive thru?  For some of us, the healthier choice may seem easy. For many people, however, persistent cravings and even food addictions are reality. 

A recent study, however, reveals promising results for reversing the addictive power of processed or sugary foods (while increasing the brain’s reward response for healthier options).

Do your cravings get the best of you? Learn what research says about our brain’s adaptability and what strategies can help you transition to favoring healthier fare.  

What Brain Scans Show

Research shows time and again that our brains light up like Christmas trees after consuming unhealthy foods that are loaded with sugar and other processed ingredients. This reward system reaction (which is similar to our brain’s response to drugs, alcohol, sex, etc.) makes it clear why food addiction exists and how big food companies have made a profit by creating food products that strongly trip that reward trigger.

A recent small-scale study conducted by Tufts University demonstrated, however, that this reward system reaction can actually be reversed

Researchers studied the brain scans of 13 individuals over a six month period, conducting MRIs on each of the individuals in the beginning of the study and once again at the six month mark. During the six months, eight of the individuals followed a high-fiber, low glycemic diet to promote weight loss, while the other five continued to practice their traditional diet. 

For the participants who followed the healthier diet protocol, brain scans conducted at the six month mark showed an increased sensitivity to healthier foods in their brains’ reward centers. The same individuals also showed a decreased sensitivity to the less healthy foods that once elicited a strong reward response. 

Among the factors that aided this “reverse switch” in the brain for the diet protocol group were the study’s behavior change education and menu plans that made healthier foods more favorable and enjoyable to prepare and eat.

Not New News?

In my years of working with clients, I’ve seen again and again that craving healthier foods is a regular side effect of their programs. They learn to prepare healthy, whole foods to taste better and be more fulfilling while also learning to better enjoy the experience of eating. Most often, when they do turn back to highly processed or dessert foods, they often complain about these items not tasting the way they remembered or disliking them because they now seem overly salty, sugary or too rich.

What’s great about this preliminary study is the way it illustrates how the way we feed our bodies also impacts our brains. One of my favorite books that I recommend to clients is The End of Overeating, by David Kessler.  His book explains how today’s manufactured foods (often loaded with specific combinations of fat, sugar and/or salt) are designed to activate the reward system in our brains, causing us to want more and more of that particular food.

For many individuals, seeing the actual scans of how the brain reacts to different foods can be dramatic enough evidence to change what they put in their bodies. Although this study was done on a small population, it demonstrates a positive outcome for people who believe they are doomed forever by food addiction. We needn’t be dependent on willpower. Our biology will, indeed, work with us as we transition to a healthier diet.

What You Can Do 

Although most of us won’t have access to MRI scans to see how our brains respond while we modify our diets, we’ll benefit from the same natural shifts. As we change our eating choices, we'll gradually train our brains to enjoy and even favor healthier foods. Here are a few tips I encourage you to consider if you feel you struggle with persistent cravings or have experienced food addiction.

Know your trigger foods. 

For some, it’s chocolate. For others, it’s macaroni and cheese. Our trigger foods can be as varied as we are! Knowing which foods create that happy chemical reaction in your body by just thinking about them will be important in finding healthier options that can create the same response.

Learn to cook. 

For many of us, healthy foods don’t sound very good because they haven’t tasted very good to us in the past. That can be fixed by having the skill set to make whole foods appealing, flavorful and fulfilling. Sign yourself up for a cooking class in your community or simply find healthy recipe blogs/websites that offer tips and recipes for you to practice at home.


Sometimes to get out of the craving game, you need to go cold turkey – at least for a while. I always challenge my clients with “stretch goals” and have them commit to eating clean for 20-30 days if they can. Sometimes that’s all you need to say goodbye to cravings. After a certain time frame we’ve agreed upon, I’ll have them reintroduce certain foods and ask them to notice how they can feel and taste a difference.

Start again. 

For many of us, we’ve gotten rid of the bad stuff but somewhere along the way brought certain items back into our diets. Although we may have never intended so, we now recognize that much of the food we consume is unhealthy or highly processed. Have confidence that you can break the cycle again. Food choice is in large part habitual behavior. Restart positive eating behaviors, and practice them as often as you can to rebuild your momentum.

List your rewards.

In reality, many of us still use food as a response to emotions. We celebrate with food when we’re happy. We turn to food for comfort when we’re upset. Emotional eating, whatever its source, can easily take us off track. Allow yourself to explore other indulgences that appeal to and fulfill you during these times. When you find yourself stressed, go for a walk at your favorite park, take ten minutes to listen to a favorite playlist, enjoy a hot bath, etc. You deserve the advantages of healthy indulgence - and a healthy body!

Are you looking for ways to turn your diet around? Talk to one of our club dietitians today for a fully personalized program and individualized support! Thanks for reading, everyone.

In health, Anika Christ, Senior Program Manager of Life Time Weight Loss

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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