Cookies make your brain sparkle, at least during an MRI. These sparkles are the visual representation of the release of dopamine in the brain that occurs when we experience something pleasing, like eating a cookie. This is the brain’s reward system and it is generally programmed to sparkle more for unhealthy foods like cookies, cake, and candy than for the foods we should be eating like broccoli and carrots.
This is one of the reasons it is so hard to make healthy food choices day in and day out; we are often fighting with our own brains to choose carrots over cookies. Wouldn’t it be great if we could change the way the reward system in our brains works so that veggies made our brains sparkle too?
This was the question a small study recently published in Nutrition & Diabetes sought to answer.
The study included 13 overweight and obese adults who were followed over the course of 6 months. The participants were all involved in a behavior modification program that provided menu plans that focused on satiety along with recipes and tips.
As part of the study, each participant was given an fMRI at the start of the 6 month period and again at the end. The fMRI focused in on the reward system portion of the brain and during the scan participants were shown pictures of both high and low calorie foods. As each picture was shown, the desirability of the food item pictured was rated by the participant.
Over the course of the study, those participants who opted to follow the program lost more weight than those who did not. But more importantly, the post-6 month scans of the participants who followed the program showed a change in how their brains responded to both kinds of food. Those who followed the program had brains that sparkled more for low calorie foods than they had at the start of the study and less for the high calorie foods.
In essence, they had reprogrammed their brains to treat eating healthy foods as pleasing and rewarding.
While the study size was small and there is much that remains unknown about our ability to convince our brains to like carrots more than cookies, these findings are promising. They indicate that it may be possible to curb cravings, manage weight, and follow a healthier diet without feeling a sense of deprivation. This is important as we face an unprecedented obesity crisis and most other long-term options, like gastric bypass, seem to have the opposite effect on the brain, decreasing the enjoyment people get from their food.
As we expand our understanding of the role the brain plays in how we choose the food we eat and get better at using technology like the fMRI to get a glimpse at what’s going on inside, the hope is that we will be able to develop better solutions for losing weight, managing weight, and making healthier food choices.
We have many delicious, and healthy, recipe options on Fill Your Plate if you are looking for new ideas as you train your brain towards better health.