Have you ever made poor food choices? We all have. We come home, mulling over our dinner choices. We know what sounds healthy, but that isn’t always what sounds good. How many times have you wished you could crave that broccoli or carrot—and still found yourself craving junk food and reaching for cookies instead?
Researchers have long thought food cravings were firmly established and very difficult to change, but new research demonstrates it may be possible to train adults to prefer healthy foods over unhealthy foods.
A small study published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes examined the MRI scans of the brains of healthy adults before and after six months of intensive dietary counseling. They found that after six months, the group that received the dietary counseling had changes in their MRIs consistent with a reduction in cravings for high-calorie foods and an increase in cravings for lower-calorie foods.
This means that after just six months, the participants had undergone significant changes in the cravings they experienced. These outcomes are very encouraging for people who want to make changes in what they eat in order to lose weight.
If you want to stop craving junk food and train your brain to prefer healthy foods, try some of the strategies the subjects in this study used:
1. Make big changes
Study participants made dramatic changes to what they ate and stuck to those changes over the six-month period of the study, which allowed them to retrain their brains with consistent stimuli. Choosing to eat healthy one or two days a week and making no change the rest of the week is not likely to cause this kind of change in food cravings. Many diet plans advocate making small changes over time, but this study suggests dramatic changes work better for reprogramming the way we think. Brain retraining is more likely to be effective if you make dietary changes and stick to them very consistently—the majority of the days of the week—for a significant period of time.
2. Control your hunger
In the study, the dietary changes aimed to achieve a one- to two-pound weight loss each week. The diet emphasized portion control and menus that combined low-glycemic index carbohydrates—like beans and whole grains—with foods higher in fiber and protein. They encouraged evenly spacing meals and a few low-calorie snacks for hunger relief.
3. Buddy up
Study participants received extensive counseling. Frequent interactions with a support group, friend or health care professional have consistently been shown to help maintain weight changes and habit changes; those findings proved true in this study as well.
If you are trying to make changes to your diet, holding yourself accountable to a friend, family member, weight-loss group, online community or doctor can be an effective way to support change. Create a support system that will help you maintain changes.
4. Commit to change
Habits and cravings are hard to change—it takes time and persistence to do so. Making changes to your diet and lifestyle that you will be able to maintain over the long term is the most important step to maintain weight loss. If you want to retrain your brain to prefer healthy foods, the best thing you can do is consistently eat healthy foods and take joy in preparing delicious meals that are also healthy.
About the Author
Shawnti Rockwell, N.D., is a resident at the Bastyr Center for Natural Health (www.bastyrcenter.org), and sees patients there. She has particular interests in family medicine, gastrointestinal health, pediatrics, women’s health and diabetes.