Dietician: Brain Can Be Trained to Prefer Healthy Food

25. August 2015

Henri Ruul, dietician at the East Tallinn Central Hospital, gives advice at on how to train the brain’s reward system to respond to healthy food. Also, he offers tips on how to avoid excess sugar consumption in the summer season.

It often seems that summer and ice cream are inseparable. After enjoying a refreshing treat on the beach, you probably find that there is enough room in your stomach for a second or even third one. The downside is that food with low nutritional value – which is often rich in calories – curbs your appetite for more healthy and nutrient-dense food and may be the underlying cause of unintended weight gain. People often blame giving in to temptation on weak willpower.

People actually tend to reward themselves with various kinds of food not only when on vacation, but also after an exhausting day at work. Time and again, sugary treats – such as chocolate, pastries and snacks – are viewed as a reward and, as a consequence, excess weight starts to pile on faster than expected. The brain has been trained to form an association between two events (A and B) and, as a result, a habit is developed. So, on a hot summer day, we tend to dream about refreshing ice cream and on a stressful day at work, about chocolate. How can you battle this tendency and avoid an expanding waistline?

A recent study looked into the problem and analysed ways for training the brain so as to make healthier choices when rewarding yourself. Although this research has some major weaknesses, such as a small sample size and the highly varied diets of participants in the initial phase of the study, a number of conclusions well worth looking into were drawn from its results.

In the study, 13 participants were divided into two groups. In one group, nutrient-depleted fast food was replaced with meals high in fibre and protein. Also, researchers tried to keep the taste of these meals as similar as possible to the taste of the food the participants are used to eating. The second group was a control group, which means that their eating habits were not changed.

In addition to registering changes in their body weight, the participants’ brain activity was also recorded. All participants underwent brain MRI scans at the beginning and end of a six-month study period to measure the brain’s reaction to different foods. This included showing them pictures of tempting sugary treats (candy, chocolate) as well as low-calorie raw salads. The researchers found that in those who increased the fibre and protein content of their diet during the six-month study period (by replacing unhealthy choices with healthier ones), the brain’s reaction to unhealthy food (sweets and chocolate) was more muted. This means that the neural responsiveness of the test groups’ reward centres had changed and cravings for unhealthy meals had become significantly less strong. Also, a considerable difference in body weight emerged between the two groups: in the test group, −6.3 ± 1.0 kg versus in the control group, +2.1 ± 1.1 kg.

So, does it mean that we should forget about ice cream in summer?

A little ice cream does no harm, but the point is to swap some of the ice cream for some fruit (for example, raspberries, cherries or strawberries) or rolled oats. Such a strategy helps to increase the fibre content of your meals and does not spike your blood sugar, which in turn triggers hunger.

We have known for a long time that food swaps are great for cutting calories, but now this research proves for the first time that they can work with our brains, training them to prefer healthier food. This, in turn, helps improve your quality of life and keep off excess weight.


Source: Elutark