Can we train our brain to prefer cabbage to chocolate?

You intend to buy a salad. You look at the menu: there’s a whole salad section. Your brain starts playing tricks, and instead of going green and nibbling on a tasty salad niçoise, you find your eye drawn to the people next to you, and Mrs Table No 5’s burger. You order the burger – why? Two scientists think they know why, and their disagreement has bipolar consequences for our ability to ever truly master our impulse to eat.

The Study

brain | Longevity LiveAccording to a study published in Psychological Science by the Montreal Neurological Institute’s Professor Alain Dagher, your brain makes its decision based more on a food’s caloric content than taste, suggesting brain games determine diet.

Based on the brain scans of people asked to examine pictures of various foods, and rate which foods they would like to eat, as well as offer an estimation of the food’s calorie content, his team of researchers reached a radical conclusion: although we’re generally terrible at estimating the actual number of calories in various foods, our choices and willingness to eat things largely centres on a food’s calorie content.

“The study aimed to investigate whether our knowledge of a food’s calorie content influenced our food choices,” he explained. Elaborating on the findings, Dagher said that, while earlier research found the ready availability and low cost of high-calorie food to be responsible for the rise in obesity, in reality, brain activity tracks the true caloric content of foods, and leads us to make choices which are higher in calories, regardless of other considerations.

In an interview with Longevity, Dagher explained that decisions about eating are linked to a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. He hypothesises that now that we know where such decisions are made, we might be able to influence how they are made. “There are different ways to train yourself to make different food choices; one, of course, is to make a plan for healthy eating and stick to it. Easier said than done, unfortunately.” He added that some researchers are trying to train the brain to make healthy choices automatic, for example, by repeatedly telling yourself you will purchase the healthy items at the shops, and by trying to make the behaviour a habit, they hope it will become easier to implement and eventually become the effortless norm. But it’s not all that easy, and, as Dagher concludes, variety is our own worst enemy.

Opportunities and Decisions Overload

brain | Longevity Live“The problem is there are so many food options, opportunities and decisions in everyday life that it is difficult to train yourself for all of them.”

But not all have looked upon Dagher’s conclusion with ready acceptance. If, as the Montreal professor proposes, our brain knows the true caloric density of foods – and is to blame for our choosing pralines over pears – then it would imply that there’s a pretty finite limit on the extent to which human agency is involved in food choice. And this is precisely where Ohio University’s Professor Gary Wenk, the author of Your Brain on Food and world-renowned expert on food-mood relationships, disagrees with Dagher’s conclusions.

“Most of these internal mechanisms are simply ignored by us,” he says, but adds: “Human agency in our culture today – which chooses dopamine releasing chocolate over cherries – usually manages to undermine our good health.” Wenk’s work, which has thus far dealt in part with diet and symptom alleviation in depressive patients, has found that, although most foods have an effect on dopamine release, this is most obvious with unhealthy foods. “Foods that produce a feeling of happiness are usually quite unhealthy,” he explains.

That said, what is important to understand is that “good-mood foods” fall, broadly, into two categories: those that have an effect on dopamine (chocolate, doughnuts and the lovely, battered variety) and those which, over time and by virtue of containing certain chemicals, in the long term alleviate depression and balance mood (the Mediterranean diet).

brain | Longevity LiveThe implications? Surprisingly, Wenk’s pessimistic-sounding summary of our inclination to eat junk holds a lot more room for improvement in our eating habits than Dagher’s. While the latter says, “Forget Weigh Less; your brain will always sabotage your attempts to eat smart”, Wenk’s verdict leaves room for … learning. “Some of the pleasurable response to food is learned,” explains Wenk. “Learning means that it might be possible to retrain our brains to associate eating cabbage with pleasure.” But how?

Brain Change

Brain games? How about brain change? If one area of neurological research is the hallmark of the 2010s, it’s precisely this. So for scientists leading the field in the neuro side of dietetics, it seemed logical to look at how our brains are wired – and how we wire our brains on a daily basis – to come up with a solution to the calorie-craving impasse.

And so, in September 2014, Dr Andrea Grossman and her team at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging in Massachusetts published a breakthrough paper. Its conclusion? That training the brain to prefer healthy low-calorie foods over unhealthy higher-calorie foods was a definite possibility. Pointing out that we don’t start out in life necessarily craving high-calorie foods, Grossman’s premise was that a lot of what we crave is conditioned, and also by what surrounds us and is repeatedly eaten.

So, by enrolling her study participants in a specially designed dietary programme which increased exposure to health foods, and decreased exposure to “comfort foods”, she hoped to retrain their brains to associate pleasure with the new, healthier options. The results? Not only did the subjects stop craving the unhealthy options, but they also experienced a significantly lower “pleasure” response when finally confronted with them. Their preference for health food had also increased.

brain | Longevity LiveSo, the next time you’re sitting in a restaurant and you intend to order a salad, look at the menu and pour over the whole salad section. Don’t look at Mrs Table No 5 and her bacon and avocado burger. Look long and hard at those salads – hell, even stand near the salad bar, if there is one. Surround yourself by salad, savor it when you order it, and, in time, it is possible that the next time you sit down to order, you might very well crave it.

Weight Goal? Follow the link to read which 5 food felons you should avoid.

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