The idea that it is possible to retrain the brain from switching its desire for unhealthy junk food to healthy food has been put to the test, and with positive results.
People are not born with an innate desire to eat hot chips, pizza and cake – it is something that develops over time in response to repeatedly eating these foods. Could it be conceivable then that through retraining, it may be possible to replace desires for these foods with healthier foods?
Training your brain to eat healthier
Making the first baby steps in this research field, a research team from the United States set out to see if a 6-month behaviour change program could elicit real changes in the brain for food desire.
The study was very small in design with just 13 overweight people. Each person was randomly allocated to take part in either a weight loss program or to serve as the control group.
The weight loss intervention was multifaceted. It comprised a goal of modest weight loss realised through a group support program. The program was all about achieving sustainability of eating changes through hunger awareness and devaluing associations between unhealthy foods as rewards and replacing the same associations with healthy foods.
So what changes did the people experience? Firstly, the weight loss intervention worked, with significant weight loss of around 6 kilograms on average. What was most interesting though was information gleaned from MRI brain scans of all participants at the beginning and end of the program.
The scans showed that those in the weight-loss program had changes in their brain area involved in learning and addiction. This brain area had greater sensitivity to healthy low-calorie foods and less sensitivity to high calorie foods by the end of the program.
What it all means
Training your brain to eat healthy may just be a thing. This first study of its kind has given in principle support to the idea that the brain can be retrained from ingrained food habits with the right behavioural change switches. Such changes are unlikely to be overnight, but support the idea that our brain reward system has a role to play in making slow gradual lifestyle changes that can be sustained long term.