You Can Train Your Brain to Prefer Healthy Foods

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Mind over muffin: It may be possible to train your brain to prefer healthy low-calorie foods over unhealthy, fatty grub, according to a new study in Nutrition & Diabetes.

In the small study, which included 13 participants, eight followed a weight loss program of high-protein, high-fiber, low-glycemic index, and low-calorie foods. The plan included specific menus and recipes. (To learn more about the diet, visit myidiet.com.) The other five participants continued eating their normal diets.

Both groups underwent MRI brain scans at the beginning of the study and six months later. During the MRI, participants viewed images of low-calorie foods (such as a turkey sandwiches on whole-wheat bread, an apple, baked sweet potato, grilled chicken, and baked salmon) and high-calorie foods (like French fries, fried chicken, cookies, chips, and pizza).

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What the noggin photos showed: Participants who followed the weight loss program had increased sensitivity in reward areas of the brain associated with learning and addiction when viewing healthy, lower-calorie foods and decreased sensitivity when viewing the unhealthy eats. In other words, those who followed the weight loss program actually preferred the lower-calorie options!

Credit a phenomenon called “cognitive restructuring,” researchers say. “The process involves forming new pathways between neurons and make other pathways dormant,” says study author Susan Roberts, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University. “Eating new, healthy foods when you’re hungry is really helpful because hunger pushes the new pathways along.” Another factor that helps retrain the brain is repeating new, healthy foods in your diet and not repeating the old, unhealthy favorites. What’s more, replacing foods you typically crave such as lasagna, chicken parm, and ice cream sundaes with lighter versions also helps because you’re still getting the flavors you like, but with better-for-you ingredients.

Ultimately, Roberts says that consistency is key for making cognitive restructuring—and weight loss—successful. “Don’t give up, persevere, and especially eat foods that help with weight control when you’re hungry,” she says.

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