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Training might teach the brain to prefer healthy food

Sept. 1, 2014
Courtesy of Tufts University, Health Sciences Campus
and World Science staff

It may be pos­si­ble to train the brain to pre­fer healthy low-calorie foods over un­healthy higher-calorie foods, ac­cord­ing to new re­search.

“We don’t start out in life lov­ing French fries and hat­ing, for ex­am­ple, whole wheat pas­ta,” said Su­san B. Roberts, di­rec­tor of the En­er­gy Me­tab­o­lism Lab­o­r­a­to­ry at the U.S. Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­men­t’s Hu­man Nu­tri­tion Re­search Cen­ter on Ag­ing. “This con­di­tion­ing hap­pens over time in re­sponse to eat­ing – re­peat­ed­ly!—wha is out there in the tox­ic food en­vi­ron­ment.”

Roberts is sen­ior au­thor of the study, pub­lished on­line Sept. 1 in the jour­nal Nu­tri­tion & Di­a­be­tes. The find­ings sug­gest one could re­verse the ad­dic­tive pow­er of un­healthy food, the in­ves­ti­ga­tors said.

They en­rolled 13 overweight and obese adults for the stu­dy, eight of whom joined a new weight loss pro­gram de­signed by re­search­ers at Tufts Uni­vers­ity in Bos­ton. The pro­gram in­clud­ed be­hav­ior change educa­t­ion and high-fiber, “low-glycemic” men­u plans. Low-glycemic foods are ones that don’t ab­ruptly af­fect blood sug­ar lev­els.

Both groups un­der­went brain scans at the be­gin­ning and end of a six-month pe­ri­od. Among those who un­der­went the weight loss pro­gram, the brain scans re­vealed changes in ar­eas of the brain re­ward cen­ter as­so­ci­at­ed with learn­ing and ad­dic­tion, the re­search­ers said. Af­ter six months, they added, this ar­ea showed more sen­si­ti­vity to healthy, lower-calorie foods, and less sen­si­ti­vity to the un­healthy higher-calorie foods.

“The weight loss pro­gram is spe­cif­ic­ally de­signed to change how peo­ple re­act to dif­fer­ent foods, and our study shows those who par­ti­ci­pated in it had an in­creased de­sire for health­i­er foods along with a de­creased pre­ference for un­healthy foods, the com­bined ef­fects of which are probably crit­i­cal for sus­tain­a­ble weight con­trol,” said co-au­thor Sai Krupa Das, a sci­ent­ist in the En­er­gy Me­tab­o­lism Lab­o­r­a­to­ry at the cen­ter. “To the best of our knowl­edge this is the first demon­stra­t­ion of this im­por­tant switch.” 

“Although oth­er stud­ies have shown that sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dures like gas­tric by­pass sur­gery can de­crease how much peo­ple en­joy food gen­er­al­ly, this is not very satisfacto­ry be­cause it takes away food en­joyment gen­er­ally rath­er than mak­ing health­i­er foods more ap­peal­ing,” added co-au­thor Thilo Deck­ers­bach, a psy­chol­o­gist at Mas­sa­chu­setts Gen­er­al Hos­pi­tal.

“There is much more re­search to be done he­re, in­volv­ing many more par­ti­ci­pants, long-term fol­low-up and in­ves­ti­gat­ing more ar­eas of the brain,” Roberts said. “But we are very en­cour­aged that the weight loss pro­gram ap­pears to change what foods are tempt­ing to peo­ple.”


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It may be possible to train the brain to prefer healthy low-calorie foods over unhealthy higher-calorie foods, according to new research. “We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta,” said senior author Susan B. Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. “This conditioning happens over time in response to eating – repeatedly!—what is out there in the toxic food environment.” Published online Sept. 1 in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, the study suggests one could reverse the addictive power of unhealthy food, the investigators said. They enrolled 13 overweight and obese adults for the study, eight of whom joined a new weight loss program designed by researchers at Tufts University in Boston. The program included behavior change education and high-fiber, “low-glycemic” menu plans. Low-glycemic foods are ones that don’t abruptly affect blood sugar levels. Both groups underwent brain scans at the beginning and end of a six-month period. Among those who underwent the weight loss program, the brain scans revealed changes in areas of the brain reward center associated with learning and addiction, the researchers said. After six months, they added, this area showed more sensitivity to healthy, lower-calorie foods, and less sensitivity to the unhealthy higher-calorie foods. “The weight loss program is specifically designed to change how people react to different foods, and our study shows those who participated in it had an increased desire for healthier foods along with a decreased preference for unhealthy foods, the combined effects of which are probably critical for sustainable weight control,” said co-author Sai Krupa Das, a scientist in the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the center. “To the best of our knowledge this is the first demonstration of this important switch.” “Although other studies have shown that surgical procedures like gastric bypass surgery can decrease how much people enjoy food generally, this is not very satisfactory because it takes away food enjoyment generally rather than making healthier foods more appealing,” added co-author Thilo Deckersbach, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “There is much more research to be done here, involving many more participants, long-term follow-up and investigating more areas of the brain,” Roberts said. “But we are very encouraged that, the weight loss program appears to change what foods are tempting to people.