“It’s been a pretty tough day,” he said. “No sense making it worse with a salad.”
― Susan Juby, Home to Woefield
Wouldn’t it be great if you could train yourself to like the taste of healthy low-calorie foods better than unhealthy but good yummy foods? According to new research1 from Tufts University and Massachusetts General Hospital, it might not be so far-fetched an idea.
This brain scan study of adults suggests that it is feasible to reverse the addictive power of unhealthy food while also boosting a preference for healthy foods.
“We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta,” says senior author Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D. “This conditioning happens over time in response to eating — repeatedly! — what is out there in the toxic food environment.”
Food Addiction Reward Systems
The suspicion of scientists has long been that, once unhealthy food addiction circuits are established, they may be almost impossible to reverse. People who have gained weight were thought to be pretty much locked in to a lifetime of unhealthy food cravings and temptation2.
“The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.”
― Julia Child
To discover whether the brain can be retrained to support healthy food choices, Roberts and her team studied the reward system in thirteen overweight and obese men and women; eight of them were participants in a specially designed weight loss program and five in a control group were not enrolled in the program.
Each group underwent MRI brain scans at the beginning and end of the six-month study. Among those in the weight loss program, the brain scans showed changes in areas of the brain reward center associated with learning and addiction.
After six months, this area had increased sensitivity to healthy, lower-calorie foods, indicating an increased reward and enjoyment of healthier food cues. The area also showed lowered sensitivity to the unhealthy higher-calorie foods.
“The weight loss program is specifically designed to change how people react to different foods, and our study shows those who participated in it 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 co-author Sai Krupa Das, Ph.D.. “To the best of our knowledge this is the first demonstration of this important switch.”
Low Glycemic High Fiber Diet
The authors theorize that several features of the weight loss program were important, including behavior change education and high-fiber, low glycemic menu plans.
“Although other studies have shown that surgical procedures like gastric bypass surgery can decrease how much people enjoy food generally, this is not very satisfactory because it takes away food enjoyment generally rather than making healthier foods more appealing,” said first author Thilo Deckersbach, Ph.D., a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “We show here that it is possible to shift preferences from unhealthy food to healthy food without surgery, and that MRI is an important technique for exploring the brain’s role in food cues.”
A low-glycemic diet is one that selects foods on the basis of minimal alteration of circulating glucose levels. Glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL) are measures of the effect on blood glucose level after a food containing carbohydrates is consumed.
Glucose is one of the body’s main sources of energy; it is the fuel used by the brain, muscles, and other organs. Glucose is set at 100, and all foods are indexed against that number. Low GI foods affect blood glucose and insulin levels less and have a slower rate of digestion and absorption.
Switching from white bread and pastas to whole grain, from breakfast cereals to oats, bran or barley, adding more fruits and vegetables when cooking, and reducing potato consumption can all aid in lowering glycemic index. Supporting the concept of the low-glycemic diet is the research demonstrating the quality of the caloric intake is influential in weight loss.3
“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 added. “But we are very encouraged that, the weight loss program appears to change what foods are tempting to people.”
(1) T Deckersbach, S K Das, L E Urban, T Salinardi, P Batra, A M Rodman, A R Arulpragasam, D D Dougherty, S B Roberts.
Pilot randomized trial demonstrating reversal of obesity-related abnormalities in reward system responsivity to food cues with a behavioral intervention.
Nutrition & Diabetes, 2014; 4 (9): e129 DOI:10.1038/nutd.2014.26
(2) Batra P, Das SK, Salinardi T, Robinson L, Saltzman E, Scott T et al. Relationship of cravings with weight loss and hunger. Results from a 6 month worksite weight loss intervention.
Appetite 2013; 69: 1–
(3) Increasing Adiposity- Consequence or Cause of Overeating?
David S. Ludwig, MD, PhD1,2; Mark I. Friedman, PhD
JAMA. 2014;311(21):2167-2168. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.4133
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