We are hard wired to love high-calorie foods. This is the fried chicken, hamburger and fries, roast beef with cheese nation.
My temptation is ribs. I salivate at the sight of them.
Is it possible to overcome this desire?
There is an obvious evolutionary benefit to crave high-calorie foods. In fact, nature created “the reward system” in the brain precisely to keep us seeking energy rich foods for our survival.
We literally feel better when we reward ourselves with a greasy meal. It’s in our biology.
This is Homo sapiens killing the big animal and savoring the feast (or finding a good piece of fruit).
This reward system has betrayed us. Because of our constant cravings and mankind’s triumph of agricultural science we now live in a world of abundance. Sugar, fat, salt and spices are scientifically concocted to make irresistible foods that are making us fat. Yet in many cases we are nutrient poor.
No one craves broccoli unless it is coated in cheese or next to sweet and sour chicken on a bed of fried rice.
What if we could retrain our brains to love the broccoli and other healthy foods?
This is what the researchers at Harvard and Tufts University have attempted to answer in a pilot study recently published in the journal Nutrition and Diabetes.
They took 13 healthy overweight or obese men and women and split them into two groups: a control group and an intensive weight loss intervention.
Functional MRI was completed of their brains before and after the 6 month intervention to see if the reward system could be “re-wired.” In particular, the researchers were interested in the striatum, which is a region known to be involved in the reward system.
Participants were shown images of high-calorie foods and low-calorie foods. For control, they were also shown inanimate objects that matched the food for size, color and image complexity (check out the images below).
The intervention group received 19 one-hour long group sessions with nutritional professionals in behavioral management techniques for weight loss management over the 24 week period. In addition, they received weekly emails from their nutritionist for additional individualized support.
The behavioral changes focused on portion-control and recipes that were meant to be healthy and filling to combat hunger. They combined a low-glycemic index carbohydrate with high fiber and higher protein foods. These foods fill you up and cause a slower emptying of the stomach that may suppress hunger.
The foods aimed for 25% of energy from protein or fat, 50% from low-GI carbohydrates and had more than 40 grams per day of dietary fiber. This was a higher range of fiber intake than national recommendations but supported by research showing that higher fiber intake can help with weight loss.
The groups showed significantly different weight loss.
The behavioral intervention group lost on average 13.8 pounds, while the control group (no intervention) GAINED 4.6 pounds.
This is quite a difference between the groups. And it occurred ONLY with behavioral interventions . . . just teaching people what to do to be successful. It is not making them exercise or preparing food for them. They were just given “mental tools” to use.
Granted this intervention is intense – hours of education, counseling and professional help.
However, they achieved significant results of about 2 pounds of weight loss per month of intervention.
The most interesting tale of this story is the functional MRI results.
It appears that brains were “re-wired” to desire healthier foods.
The right ventral putamen showed increased activation when shown low-calorie foods. The left dorsal putamen showed decreased activation when shown high-calorie foods.
The brains shifted towards preference for the low calorie foods.
The participants also rated the desirability of foods. This rating also shifted towards preferring the low-calorie foods.
The behavioral intervention seems to have rewired the brains to be rewarded by the healthier low calorie foods.
This gives us hope that we can change our brains with training to not crave the highly addictive foods and maybe shift our brain to desire the healthier foods.
To temper this a bit we do need to realize that this is a tiny study of only 13 people. More research is needed to draw solid conclusions. However, this study gives us hope that the brain is “plastic” and can be molded to reward us for healthier behaviors.
Unfortunately, it may not be practical for you to go through a long and intense behavioral training program with professionals skilled in weight loss management using behavioral change.
One take away from this study that may help you lose weight: “EAT THIS and NOT THAT”
If you simply focused on avoidance of the high-calorie foods and ate more of the low calorie foods you would be on the right track.
The substitution of healthier versions of your favorites is an easy and less painful way to eat fewer calories, increase your fiber intake and control your hunger.
Take the list below and post it on your fridge or bathroom mirror for refrence (PDF Provided: Eat This, Not That).
Eat This (Low Cal):
Turkey sandwich on whole-wheat bread w/ lettuce and tomato
Bowl of fiber cereal
Baked sweet potato
Frozen yogurt with berries
Greed salad with tomatoes
Bean or lentil soup
Pasta with meat sauce
Sliced raw vegetables w/ hummus
Whole-wheat pita pizza
Peanut butter toast
Egg-white omelet with vegetables
Cup of coffee
Not That (High-Cal):
Roast beef and cheese sandwich on white bread w/o vegetables
Bowl of fruit loops
Ice cream with chocolate sauce
Macaroni and cheese
Chocolate chip cookie
Buttermilk pancakes w/ maple syrup
Eat This, Not That (PDF Download)
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Deckersbach, et al. Pilot randomized trial demonstrating reversal of obesity-related abnormalities in reward system responsivity to food cues with a behavioral intervention. Nutrition & Diabetes, 2015.