By Jess Goulart
Photos by William Ismael.
Does the phrase “eat your vegetables” strike fear into your heart? Does it strum up visions of childhood nights spent sitting at the table long after the family meal was finished, forbidden from getting up until every last green bean was gone?
As an adult, do you find that engrained aversion carried over and, given the option, you now opt for french fries over carrots almost every time?
You’re not alone. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 69 percent of Americans 20 years of age or older are overweight or obese. In addition, research suggests that food addiction may affect about five percent of the general population. That’s why researchers at Tufts University set out to discover whether or not it’s possible to re-program your brain to like healthy foods. Results of their six-month pilot study proved positive.
“What we’re trying to do,” Dr. Susan Roberts, head of the research team, tells BTR, “is create different pathways in the brain. The human brain is designed to make connections and when someone has food cravings, they’ve built up the wrong ones.”
Roberts hypothesized the addiction response can be corrected, not by reducing a person’s pleasure of food but by redirecting that desire.
The study examined 13 overweight men and women, eight of whom participated in a weight-loss program designed by Roberts and her team. The remainder were the control group, meaning they had no weight-loss regiment. At the start of the six months, areas of the brain responsible for pleasure and addiction were identified by Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). At the end of the six months, those centers lit up when the test subjects were given healthy, low-calorie foods, indicating increased enjoyment of them.
It is counterintuitive, but according to the outcome of the study, our tastes are not inherent to us.
“Our taste buds are simply attune to what we eat regularly, but we can learn to like anything at all,” Roberts says.
If you are exercising enough to maintain a normal body weight but still eating junk food, that still entails negative health effects. Sarah Josey, nutritionist, herbalist, and owner of the Golden Poppy Herbal Apothecary, explains to BTR that the expression “you are what you eat” is more literal than people think.
“The cells in your body are made up of a phospholipid bi-layer, which is fat,” she says. “You’re body can’t just generate new cells out of thin air, it has to use what you give it.”
Constantly consuming “highly processed, poor quality fats,” causes a body to be “made out of poor materials.”Josey says that such a diet can lead to health complications far beyond weight and even impact mood and aging, because unhealthy cells die more rapidly than healthy cells.
So how did our neural pathways form incorrectly in the first place? The answer may lie in the work of Clara Davis, a foundational researcher in the health and nutrition field.
In the ‘30s, Davis studied the eating habits of babies and found that they had the natural ability to regulate their energy intake and grow well. Ann Gaba, Assistant Professor and Dietetic Internship Director at Hunter College, points out that humans’ ability to intuitively judge caloric needs gets distorted by huge portion sizes. Certain flavor cravings become altered when we become exposed to the way highly processed foods taste.
“There are some genetic tendencies to like things that are sweet, and dislike things that are sour,” she explains, “and evolutionarily that makes a lot of sense, since if you’re a hunter gatherer and you find something sweet it’s probably not poisonous.”
The issue is that we’ve extracted those sweet flavors and injected them into unhealthy foods. Your brain may think your body is taking in vitamin-filled, fibrous fruit, when you’re really putting sugary, syrupy Skittles into your mouth.
Gaba warns that the analogy of “re-programing” our brains is an overly simplistic view of how they actually work.
“The media is making bigger statements, but the authors of the [Tufts] study themselves are very cautious in interpreting their results, and rightly so. They say that other larger studies need to be done, and I totally agree. It’s interesting, but you can’t just make large blanket claims from a pilot study.”
Still, Gaba thinks that it’s probably true that we can educate our palates to enjoy certain foods, since it’s clear that our taste preferences naturally change as we age. She also points out that recent research in neuroplasticity–the brain’s ability to change and adapt–shows that adult brains are far more capable of re-working long-established neural pathways than was initially thought.
Thus, it makes sense that a diet utilizing that neuroplasticity as its main tool would be successful.
Even with only a pilot study completed, people can still take it on themselves to effectively re-program their brains to consume healthier matter. But how can they start on their own?
The diet is designed for two categories of people. The first is someone who just wants to give it a try and is completely self-directed.
“For them,” Roberts says, “when you are hungry it is the most important time to eat the healthy foods that you would like to enjoy. Have apples, salads, chicken, or Greek yoghurt, because it’s the act of eating those really healthy foods when you’re hungry that has a powerful influence on your food preference.”
The second category is individuals who truly struggle with their weight. She suggests enrolling in a program she designed at www.myidiet.com, and reach out to other supporters that will help get through the process. She cautions that if you go back and forth between losing and gaining pounds, it’s important to have experts who can “hold your hand” and encourage you.
No matter your weight, body type, diet, or goals, Roberts concludes that striving to be healthy is essential to a successful lifestyle.