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Eating Right: Teach Your Brain to Crave Healthy Foods

When we were kids, my sister and I were not big fans of eating right. We hated vegetables so much that my stepmother once joked, “Nothing green shall cross these lips.” Today, I love vegetables, and my sister is a vegetarian. (Beets and I remain enemies to this day, however.) So I wasn’t surprised to learn that your tastes are not static: you can actively train your brain to prefer healthy foods.

That’s the conclusion of a study published last month in the journal Nutrition and Diabetes. Researchers from Tufts University studied a group of 13 overweight and obese adults. Eight were enrolled in a weight loss program and the other five served as the control group. The members of the weight-loss group were prescribed a high-fiber, high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, but they were encouraged to eat enough so they didn’t go hungry. (This last fact is important because hunger leads to food cravings, and makes it difficult to resist potato chips and cupcakes.)

The researchers scanned the participants’ brains at the beginning of the study and again at six months. Specifically, they looked at what happened to the parts of the brain linked to reward and addiction when they showed the subjects pictures of different kinds of food. After six months of eating right, subjects showed increased signs of reward at the sight of low-calorie, healthy foods. Not only that, they also showed decreased signs of interest in higher-calorie, unhealthy foods.

This experiment suggests that your brain can be re-wired to prefer healthy foods, even if your food preferences are already well established.  After all, those preferences weren’t set at birth. In the words of lead researcher Susan B. Roberts, “We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta. This conditioning happens over time in response to eating—repeatedly—what is out there in the toxic food environment.”

The researchers stressed the importance of using behavioral approaches to weight loss rather than surgical ones, such as gastric bypass. This surgery can decrease people’s pleasure in eating all foods, including healthy ones, which can lead to malnutrition—a terrible outcome for people striving to be healthier.

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

So, what’s the take-away? Just by choosing healthy foods like fruits and vegetables repeatedly over a period of months, and by rejecting extreme diets that leave you feeling hungry and deprived, you can start to find your salads more tempting and the sweet or salty treats in the vending machine less so.

I can speak from personal experience. After eating right for several years, if I now go a day without eating greens, I start to feel a little bit crazy. And while sometimes a plate of French fries looks appetizing, a lot of times my reaction is: “Yuck. Give me real food.” (Trust me, it wasn’t always like this.)

I think one of the most interesting findings of the Juice Plus+ Children’s Health Study is how taking Juice Plus+ affects the eating and drinking habits of both kids and adults. For example, after 4-8 months of taking Juice Plus+, study participants report:

· Over half of children and nearly two-thirds of adults are eating more servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

· Two-thirds of children and adults are eating less fast food and drinking fewer soft drinks and/or high-sugar children’s beverages every day.

· 63% of children and 68% of adults are drinking more water throughout the day.

What this says to me is that once the body starts receiving the nutrition it needs, it begins to crave it daily!

Have you found eating right gets easier with practice? Do you have any tricks for resisting cravings?

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