September 3, 2014 1:46 pm

Can you train your brain to crave healthy food in 6 months?

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Ashley Fraser / The Ottawa Citizen

TORONTO – You can train your palate to crave carrot sticks and apples instead of cookies and chips, according to new U.S. research.

If you’re reaching for fries and pizza whenever you’re hungry, you’ll prefer the salty, sweet, and processed meals. But you can break that habit and learn to like healthy fare – if you eat it often enough, Tufts University and Massachusetts General Hospital scientists say.

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“We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta,” lead researcher Dr. Susan Roberts explained.

“This conditioning happens over time in response to eating – and repeatedly – what is out there in the toxic food environment.”

Health officials around the world have conceded that food addiction is very real. Roberts and her team sought to understand if changing bad eating habits can be pulled off or if our cravings for junk food is permanent.

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Thirteen overweight and obese men and women were included in the study – eight were enrolled in a specially designed weight loss program. The remaining five were in a control group.

The diet had three meals per day, focusing on fibre, protein and cutting back on carbohydrates. The group on the special diet was taught how to order healthy fare in restaurants, what to stock in their kitchen at home and how to satiate their hunger without overindulging.

At the onset of the study, and again at the six month mark, the scientists scanned both groups’ brains to see how they were responding to food.

The MRI scans showed a change in the brain reward centre linked to learning and addiction. Half a year in, the group on the diet program had “increased sensitivity” to healthy, lower-calorie foods. The researchers suggest this indicates they enjoyed the healthy food more than they did before.

Participants also had a decreased response to the unhealthy, calorie-laden dishes.

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“Our study shows those who participated in [the diet] 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 scientist and co-author Dr. Sai Krupa Das.

“To the best of our knowledge this is the first demonstration of this important switch.”

It’s a small study and the researchers admit much more research – with more participants – needs to be conducted.

“But we are very encouraged that the weight loss program appears to change what foods are tempting to people,” Roberts said.

Her team’s complete findings were published this week in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes.


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