You can train your brain to crave healthier food, just like you train a puppy. OK, well, not exactly like you train a puppy, but in the sense that, if you apply a little time and discipline, you can reduce the epic hold those fatty, sugary foods have on your willpower.
In a new study, researchers divided 13 overweight individuals into two groups and measured their brain responses to an assortment of food photos with fMRI (that's functional magnetic resonance imaging, or a type of MRI that focuses on the brain activity). The "intervention group" was asked to follow a high-fiber, high-protein diet to curb appetite and cravings while also reducing their calorie intake by 500 to 1,000 calories each day to lose weight. After six months, the intervention group dropped an average of 14 pounds, whereas the control group lost just five.
The researchers also had the participants undergo fMRI one more time, and measured the brain's response to healthy food photos like a turkey sandwich and unhealthy food photos like French fries or pasta. Particularly, they looked at the reward center of the brain, the striatum, which is known to control cravings. For instance, activity tends to be high when you see a photo of ice cream, because the brain is expecting a shock of pleasurable dopamine after a sugar rush.
However, researchers found that there was less activity in the striatum when the intervention group looked at high-fat, high sugar foods after six months of their diet when compared to the control group, and more activity when they gazed upon healthier fare.
"We don't start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta," says study author Susan Roberts, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Energy Metabolism Laboratory. "This conditioning happens over time in response to eating—repeatedly—what is out there in the toxic food environment."
The researchers say they're "very encouraged" that healthy eating can actually trigger a shift in cravings, even though more research has to be done—but I think this study can be motivation for you to eat healthier right now. Think about it this way: if you can resist that oatmeal chocolate chunk cookie today, it will be even easier to say no again tomorrow. (Here's to progress!)