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January 30, 2023

Can't stop eating junk food? The brain can be trained to prefer healthier options

Scientists say consistently choosing nutritious meals and snacks – particularly when hungry – overwrites troublesome cravings

Healthy Eating Junk Food
Healthy Meal Vegan Source/Image licensed from Ingram Image

Emotional eating, and the overindulgence of junk foods, can make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight, and lead to various other health issues. But scientists say it is possible to rewire the brain to prefer healthier foods.

Do you turn to a pint of ice cream after a stressful day or mindlessly munch on a bag of chips while binge watching a favorite show? Most of people have been there, despite knowing how bad it is for their health.

Emotional eating, and the overindulgence of comfort foods, can make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight, and lead to various other health issues. But scientists say it is possible to rewire the brain to prefer healthier foods.

Many ultra-processed foods – like soda, candy, chips, hot dogs and french fries – have been manufactured to trigger the brain's reward center and increase dopamine levels when people eat – or even see – them. When the brain releases dopamine, a chemical messenger, people feel pleasure. The combination of sugar, salt, fat and artificial flavoring and sweeteners in ultra-processed foods cause dopamine levels to spike, making people want to eat more, even if they are physically full. 

Sugary, sweet foods can be particularly addicting. Because the brain adapts to frequent stimulation of its reward center, people eventually need to eat more to gain the same pleasurable feeling. The idea of food addiction is controversial because people need food to survive, but some experts believe it is possible to become dependent on certain types of food – just like alcohol or drugs.

In a 2016 research review, scientists found that processed foods — especially those containing added sugar — can cause habit-forming behaviors.

Emotions also play a role, nutritional psychologists say. If people eat a lot junk food when they are sad or stressed, their brains will associate eating these foods as a coping mechanism. Some people also unknowingly turn to junk food as a way to distract themselves when they are bored or don't want to think about something going on in their lives.

But people don't have to be stuck with unhealthy eating habits. People can wire their brains to think differently, according to Dr. Uma Naidoo, director of Nutritional and Metabolic Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of "This is Your Brain on Food."

"The brain has the profound ability to adapt to its environment, form novel circuits and train new habits, also known as neuroplasticity," Naidoo told Vogue. 

"The brain is constantly generating new cells called neurons, and with our various inputs and outputs, i.e. our experiences, environments, thoughts and actions, we 'wire' new pathways into these neurons and their connections, called synapses. ... The more we use a neural pathway, the stronger it becomes (and diminishes older ones), which may underlie why habits may take some repetition before they stick."

How to establish healthy eating habits

Consistently choosing healthier food options – fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins – and being cognizant of emotional triggers can help people rewire their brains to either crave healthy foods or not have any cravings at all, some scientists say.

Researchers at Tufts University in Massachusetts found that eating meals that are high in fiber and low in salt and sugar when hungry can help people crave healthy foods rather than junk food. They theorize that the pleasure people feel from what they eat increases with hunger. So by eating healthier options when hungry, people create new circuits in their brains, linking pleasure to healthy foods. 

But people need to make this choice consistently. Functional MRI brain scans have shown that this circuit reconfiguration only happens when people change what they eat on a regular basis. In the Tufts study, obese people ate healthy, low calorie foods choices every time they felt hungry for three weeks. The reward centers of their brains showed less activation to images of junk food. And after six months, their fast food cravings had disappeared.

"We don't start out in life loving french fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta," researcher Susan Roberts explained at the time of the study. "This conditioning happens over time in response to eating (repeatedly) what is out there in the toxic food environment."

The researchers noted that people don't have to wait until they are starving for this to work, but the transformation will happen faster if they eat the new food choices on a empty stomach.

Though this may seem like an easy prescription to follow, cravings can be hard to ignore. It is expected that people might fall off the wagon before solidifying their new habits. Here are some steps to have a healthier relationship with food.

• Find recipes that you genuinely enjoy and feel like an indulgence, even though they are healthy. For example, if you love pancakes, you might try a recipe for oat and banana pancakes.
• Keep a food diary to better understand the relationship between what you eat, how much you eat, how you are feeling when you eat and how hungry you are at the time.
• When you know you have eaten recently, distract yourself from cravings until they pass.
• Find healthier coping mechanisms for stress, boredom and other emotions that trigger unhealthy eating. Try going for a walk in the park or calling a loved one on the phone.
• Stock the kitchen with healthy snacks and ingredients for meals so it will be easier to ignore junk food cravings. When spending long hours away from home, pack snacks so you are less likely to hit vending machines or eat other unhealthy foods when you get hungry.
• Allow yourself the occasional treat so you do not feel deprived, which can increase the intensity of cravings.

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