Conditioning ourselves to eat healthy foods on a regular basis can help rewire parts of the brain associated with pleasure and rewards so that we might begin to crave salads over french fries, as opposed to the other way around.
"We don't start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta," explained Susan B. Roberts, a professor of both nutritional science and psychology at the Tuft's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and Tufts University School of Medicine. "This conditioning happens over time in response to eating -- repeatedly! -- what is out there in the toxic food environment."
Roberts is co-author of a new study on how healthy eating transforms the brain. The study was published this week in the journal Nature. Roberts and her colleagues studied MRI images of the brains of obese and overweight participants before and after completion of a six-month weight loss program. The results showed the areas of the brain associated with learning and addiction were transformed, with pleasure response centers becoming more more sensitive to healthier food and less drawn to unhealthy, higher-calorie foods.
"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 lead author Thilo Deckersbach, 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."
Roberts and Dekersbach say there is much more research to be done, but that the results are encouraging -- proof that unhealthy habits aren't necessarily fixed and that improved eating habits can pay off both in terms of shed pounds and more health-prone neural pathways.