The brain can be "trained" to crave vegetables over cookies and french fries by following certain weight loss programs, according to a small study published in Nutrition & Diabetes.
For the study, Tufts University researchers analyzed the brains of 13 overweight and obese adults over six months as they participated in a weight-loss program. The program focused on consuming high-fiber, high-protein, and low-carbohydrate foods so participants would not feel hungry and allow cravings to encourage them to make unhealthy choices.
At the start of the program, researchers scanned the participants' brains with an MRI while showing them photos of high-calorie foods such as french fries and low-calorie foods such as grilled chicken. Their brains' reward centers lit up when they viewed photos of high-calorie foods.
After the six-month program, the researchers scanned the brains of the participants again and found that their brains' reward centers lit up less when they saw photos of unhealthy food. Moreover, their reward centers lit up more frequently when they saw photos of healthy food.
"We don't start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta," says lead author Susan Roberts, adding, "This conditioning happens over time in response to eating—repeatedly—what is out there in the toxic food environment."
Fellow study author Thilo Deckersbach says the findings show "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."
"There is much more research to be done here, involving many more participants, long-term follow-up and investigating more areas of the brain," says Roberts, adding that the researchers are "very encouraged that the weight-loss program appears to change what foods are tempting to people" (Beck, The Atlantic, 9/3; Wilson, CNN, 9/1; BBC News, 9/2).