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How to Train Your Brain to Love Healthy Foods

By Maggie Moon, MS, RD ; Updated June 20, 2016

If we all craved cucumbers instead of cake, losing weight would be easy. Sure, once upon a time nourishment was scarce, so it was useful for the brain's reward system to light up at the thought of food -- especially high-calorie food. But research now suggests that crossed wires in this system can lead to obesity and may even be what keeps us from losing weight.

To make matters even more difficult, today's food environment bombards us with highly palatable but nutrient-poor foods that are all too easy to overeat, which conditions our brains to preferentially seek them out over more nutrient-rich foods. "Our taste preferences are malleable," says Los Angeles-based dietitian Kristen Mancinelli. "I've worked with many parents who tell me that their children simply won't eat vegetables, but they make this determination after 'pushing' broccoli on the child twice. Two tries are simply not enough. Their latent broccoli-loving taste buds are not getting a fair shot."

Read More: Foods to Keep Out of Your Kitchen

What if it was possible to prove it? What if we could rewire the brain to crave the foods linked most to being healthy and lean: fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains and yogurt?

A thought-provoking new study from researchers at Harvard and Tufts universities, published in Nutrition & Diabetes, suggests it is possible.

In a small pilot study, overweight adults were randomly assigned to either six months of a behavior-based weight-loss program or a control group that received no weight-loss guidance. Both groups had MRI brain scans at the start and finish in order to see how the brain's reward center acted after seeing images of commonly consumed foods and healthy alternatives (e.g., fried chicken versus grilled chicken).

Brain activity in the reward center for those in the weight-loss program shifted in promising directions. Higher-calorie foods became less appealing (dampened reward-center activity) than at the start of the study, and lower-calorie foods became more alluring (greater reward-center activity).

Read More: Ever Feel Like Everything Is Making You Fat?

To rule out any basic response to the images themselves, the researchers also took scans after participants looked at non-food objects of similar color, size and visual complexity, and they confirmed that there was no impact on the brain's food-triggered reward center.

How the Diet Plan Works

The diet encouraged behavior change that would lead to a daily 500- to 1,000-calorie reduction in order to lose one to two pounds per week. Some of the tools used were portion control, high-satiety menu plans, recipes and tip sheets.

To reduce hunger, the diet plan was high in fiber, which is slowly digested, and high in protein, which keeps blood sugar from spiking and keeps hunger from fluctuating. The overall diet was 25 percent protein, 25 percent fat and 50 percent carbohydrates, with at least 40 grams of fiber per day. Naturally, the intervention group lost significantly more weight -- about 14 pounds compared with the control group, which actually gained about five pounds. That's a total difference just shy of 20 pounds.

Images Used in the Study

If you regularly choose foods from the "Visualize This" list over foods from the "Forget That" list, you could save more than 550 calories a day, leading to meaningful weight loss over time. And if the info in this study is correct, you'd even grow to love it.

Keep in mind: It was a small pilot study with limited participants, so it's nearly impossible to draw strong conclusions. Nevertheless, it's encouraging to see that fundamental changes in how we feel about healthy eating are possible.

Readers -- Can you imagine a day when you drool over an egg-white omelet or a bowl of broccoli? What's your favorite healthy food? What's your favorite unhealthy food? Is there an unhealthy food you used to crave that no longer appeals to you? Leave a comment below and let us know.

Maggie Moon, M.S., RD, is a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian. She authored a book on food sensitivities, The Elimination Diet Workbook, and continues to provide nutrition counseling and contribute to healthy-living media as a writer and an expert source. Previously, she led health-and-wellness initiatives for online grocer FreshDirect.com.

Maggie was an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Health and Nutrition Sciences at Brooklyn College in the City of New York in both undergraduate and graduate programs. She also developed and implemented nutrition curricula for NYC public schools. She holds a B.A. in English Literature from UC Berkeley and a Master of Science in Nutrition and Education from Columbia University. She completed her clinical training at New York Presbyterian Hospital of Columbia and Cornell.

Connect with her at maggiemoon.com and on Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

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