Can You Retrain Your Brain to Enjoy Healthy Foods?

Can You Retrain Your Brain to Enjoy Healthy Foods?

(Last Updated On: March 30, 2019)

Can You Retrain Your Brain to Enjoy Healthy Foods?

Prepare to be blown away! A new study shows you can learn to love healthy fare as much as junk food like French fries. Researchers at the Jean Mayer USDA Nutrition Center on Aging came to this conclusion after studying the brain activity of a group of junk-food munching volunteers. It seems you can learn to appreciate the taste of healthy foods even if you’re a habitual junk food lover.

Can You Learn to Love Healthy Foods Over Junk Food?

Researchers used MRI brain scanning to scan the brains of a group of volunteers who ate junk food on a regular basis. One group mended their ways and adopted a healthier diet while the other continued on their merry junk food binges. Surprisingly, after six months of healthy eating, the first group showed brain activity suggesting an increased sensitivity to the taste of healthful foods like fruits and vegetables. Plus, the group that changed their diet displayed a stronger desire for healthy foods and less of a taste for unhealthy ones. This study shows you can “retrain” your taste buds to enjoy foods that are good for you and lose some of your cravings for unhealthy ones.

Why is the Love of Junk Food and Sugar so Strong?

Why do people embrace junk food and shun healthier options? Experts have long believed that processed foods, fast food, and sugar carbs are addictive. In fact, eating sweet foods like pastries, cookies and ice cream light up portions of the brain associated with “reward.” One such area of the brain is the nucleus accumbens, a portion of the brain activated by addictive drugs and other vices like gambling.

The nucleus accumbens releases a brain chemical called dopamine that sparks motivation, drive, and reward. Certain actions like eating tasty food cause a flood of dopamine to be released. Later, you try to recreate that experience so you can again experience dopamine release and enjoy the feeling of being rewarded.

Based on the dopamine, model, it’s not surprising that processed and sugary foods are so popular! Processed foods are carefully researched and engineered to have a taste and texture that activates reward centers in the brain and stimulates dopamine release. Manufacturers want you to feel “rewarded” when you eat their offerings so you’ll come back for more – and most people do.

High-Glycemic Carbs versus Low-Glycemic Carbs

As you might expect, carbs that have the most addictive potential are high-glycemic ones, carb sources that rapidly raise your blood sugar level. These are the carbs you find in most processed foods. Evidence suggests limiting high-glycemic carbohydrates like sugary foods, white potatoes, white rice and foods made with white flour helps prevent cravings and reduce the desire to overeat.

High-glycemic carbs impact your brain differently than low-glycemic ones. In one study, researchers gave a group of men one of two milkshakes. One group drank a sugary, high-glycemic shake while the other drank a milkshake with low-glycemic ingredients that were absorbed more slowly. As you might expect, the men who drank the high-glycemic shake experienced a sharp increase in their blood sugar level.

What’s more interesting is when researchers scanned their brains, the nucleus accumbens (the reward center) lit up. Keep in mind; this is the same portion of the brain activated by addictive drugs. The men who drank the high-glycemic shake also experienced a more rapid return of hunger compared to those who drank the low-glycemic shake.

Just as concerning is the fact that eating a diet of processed carbs increases insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a precursor to a number of health problems including type 2-diabetes and heart disease. Research has already linked high-glycemic carbs with a greater risk for diabetes and heart disease in women.

You Don’t Have to Go Low-Carb – Go “Healthy Carb” Instead

Based on this research, the more you stay away from processed carbs and high-glycemic carbs the better. Giving up high-glycemic carbs doesn’t mean you have to go “low-carb.” Carbohydrates are a good source of energy. In fact, most people don’t feel their best on a very low-carb diet. Instead, choose more low-glycemic carbohydrates. Low-glycemic carbs are absorbed more slowly and cause a gradual rise in blood sugar and an equally slow fall.

Examples of low-glycemic carbohydrates are fiber-rich vegetables, whole grains and low-sugar fruits like berries. Think fiber. You can further reduce the glycemic response to carbohydrates, and keep cravings in check, by eating them with a source of protein. Protein also helps stabilize blood sugar levels and reduce hunger for a longer period of time.

 Retrain Your Brain For Healthy Foods

The best way to eliminate the allure of processed carbs is to gradually wean them from your diet. Do it slowly because sudden and extreme dietary changes are rarely sustainable. Over a period of weeks, your brain will become less accustomed to sweetness and your taste buds will adapt. Try some of these tricks for making healthy food more appetizing:

.   Roast vegetables to bring out their natural sweetness.

.   Add interesting spices, sauces, and marinades to vegetables to enhance their flavor. Use salsa, mustard, low-sugar tomato sauce or horseradish sauce to add intrigue to veggies.

.   Sprinkle vegetables lightly with parmesan cheese.

.   Experiment with recipes and new ways of preparing healthy foods.

.   If you’re not a vegetable fan, try baby vegetables. They usually have a less intense, slightly sweeter flavor.

.   You don’t have to give up chips and other crispy foods entirely. Find a healthier alternative liking making roasted kale chips in the oven.

.   Be in the know. Read up on the unique health benefits each fruit and vegetable offers. When you know the exact benefits you’re getting, you have more incentive to eat a particular vegetable or fruit

 The Bottom Line?

Processed carbs may be addictive, at least to some degree, but you can learn to love healthier fare by slowly changing your diet and by being a little creative in how you prepare healthier items. When it comes to your health, it’s worth it!


References: “Refined Carbs May Trigger Food Addiction”

Am J Clin Nutr. Published online June 26, 2013.

Nature 500, 575-579 (29 August 2013) doi:10.1038/nature12475.

International Archives of Medicine 2010, 3:24  doi:10.1186/1755-7682-3-24.

CBS News. “Processed carbohydrates are addictive, brain study suggests”

Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Mar;97(3):584-96. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.041467. Epub 2013 Jan 30.

J Am Heart Assoc. 2012 Oct;1(5):e000752. doi: 10.1161/JAHA.112.000752. Epub 2012 Oct 25.


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