It’s Easy to Make People Like Healthy Food…Just Rewire Their Brains

A new study imaged brains of women of different weights and found dramatic differences in how their brains responded to food

Woman Thinking of Healthy Food
Stefan Kranefeld/Westend61/Corbis

We all know about the dangers of too much delicious junk food, but greasy, sugary treats somehow always seem to win out over foods we know are good for us. But new research shows that it could be possible to turn that all around and create a preference for things grilled, green and low in fat. All it takes is a bit of brain rewiring.

A Tufts University scientist thinks she knows how to retrain the brain to prefer healthier foods, Robert Boos reports for Living on Earth. When Susan Roberts and her team performed a study comparing the brains of 50 women (31 of them lean, 19 of them overweight or obese), they found surprising differences between the two groups of subjects.

Boos tells how the study went down:

Researchers placed participants in an MRI scanner and showed them images of “healthy” and “unhealthy” foods. They then compared brain activities between the control group and intervention group. “There [were] green salads, grilled chicken, all the things that people know are healthy,” Roberts said. “There was also things like french fries, big deluxe chocolates and fried chicken; things that everybody knows it's not good to eat too much of...This was a study about what tempts people, and the results are really quite amazing.”

The MRI studies showed different brain responses between obese and lean women stimulated by pictures of healthy and unhealthy food. For example, lean women responded more to foods that were full of protein and fiber, while their brains seemed unmoved by fatty, high-calorie foods. But for the group of overweight women, things were quite different. The higher the subject’s BMI, the higher her response to junk food—sometimes, it even approached brain activity levels found in people addicted to drugs like nicotine and heroin.

Given the difference in brain response, Roberts thinks that a process called cognitive restructuring may be able to help rewire food preferences by changing how the brain responds to external stimuli. And though her study doesn’t show how that cognitive restructuring might work, it’s helping lay a foundation for future brain science to help us change our brains for the healthier.

But why wait for a widespread, sure-fire way to restructure your gray matter? Try tricking your brain instead. Research shows that simple tricks like putting out a bowl of fruit and moving the location of healthy foods in your cupboard could help trick you into weight loss.

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