A team of neuroscientists from Harvard Medical School, led by Dr. Thilo Deckersbach, recently published the results of a pilot trial showing how a behavioral intervention, combined with a sensible eating regime, can "retrain" the brain into preferring low-calorie foods. Their findings may prove invaluable to those who struggle to maintain a healthy eating plan.
Dr. Deckersbach's team used a type of brain imaging test known as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure changes in brain activity when confronted with different types of food. In this study, 13 overweight or obese adults were assigned at random to either a weight loss program or to a control group. The weight loss program involved low-fat and high-fiber foods as well as 20 hours of in-person behavioral training. The fMRI scans were performed both right before starting the program and at the end of it.
What Came out of it?
At the end of the study, those who participated in the weight loss program had not only achieved significant weight loss, but their fMRI scans showed their brains were less responsive to images of high-calorie foods (e.g., fried chicken or French fries) than previously, while they became more responsive to those of low-calorie foods (e.g., grilled chicken breast) or non-food items.
The brain scans used were focused on an area of the brain known as the striatum. This part of the brain has been reported to release "pleasure hormones" (like dopamine) in order to "reward" a person for a specific behavior, such as gathering or looking at food. This mechanism was designed to promote hunting, gathering, and other time-consuming activities that were necessary for early humans to fetch food. However, modern obesity is associated with an excessive reinforcement of this reward mechanism that leads to overeating and a strong preference for high-fat foods.
What Does This Mean?
It is estimated that up to 74% of those who lose weight through a structured weight loss program will regain most - if not all - of the weight within five years, mostly because the cravings for unhealthy food are said to "never go away." Although this is only the first study to successfully demonstrate the possibility of realigning the brain's food preferences, it opens up fascinating new possibilities for those who are interested in improving their health for the long term.
It is possible to commit to a balanced lifestyle and a sensible exercise regime, especially as there are plenty of low-calorie surprises around, such as these 6 Kitchen Staples with Surprising Health Benefits. There are many ways to achieve wellness!
- National Health Service, Can we retrain our brains to prefer healthy foods?, 2014