Healthy Food? Blech!

One of the main impediments that many people cite in avoiding healthy foods is taste.  When the average American is faced with the choice between a Frappuccino and a kale salad, it’s no mystery which one will be chosen.  Our brains are hard-wired to seek out fats, sugar, and salt for survival — but with the modern food-industrial complex, these once-scarce resources are available in virtually endless supply in our country.  I’ve gone into a lot of detail previously on what constitutes a healthy diet:  Mediterranean-style eating, high in fiber, low in refined flours and sugars, with moderate amounts of healthy fats (such as olive oil and nuts) and lean proteins (such as legumes and fish).  So how do we get over the hurdle of transitioning to this style of eating… and more importantly, how do we adopt this on a permanent basis?  It can be easy to stick with any “diet” for a few weeks, but long-term health requires a lifestyle change.

Kids.  As a parent, I know how challenging it can be to introduce healthy foods in the face of the “beige diet:” chicken nuggets, corn, bananas, pizza, cereal, cookies.  The key here is persistence and repetition:  Food experts tell us that it can take 10-12 times of encountering a new food before young children will accept it.  Just keep putting that broccoli on their plates, and requiring at least one “thank-you bite.”  Eventually, they’ll get used to it.

Adults.  Are we just “in the habit” of eating unhealthy foods — or are we actually addicted to them? While this term is controversial, there have been studies that show the same brain areas light up on functional MRI in response to refined sugar as they do for cocaine (1).  In 2007, a rat study found that the animals actually preferred the sweet stuff over cocaine when given a choice (2).

So how do we break this addiction?  Mark Hyman, MD, recommends approaching it the same way you would with any other addiction:  go cold turkey.  In this case, it means absolutely no sugar or refined grain products for at least 10 days.  This gives a chance for the taste buds and (more importantly) the reward centers of the brain to hit the reset button, so that we are not so sensitized to the sweet stuff.  We can then actually start tasting other foods, and they taste better by comparison.

A small pilot study by researchers at Harvard and Tufts Universities (3) used functional MRI to measure brain reward response in overweight and obese individuals before and after a structured low-glycemic index diet.  This plan, called the iDiet (or “instinct diet”), overcomes the natural tendency toward sweets by substituting healthier ingredients in familiar dishes, encouraging more frequent eating of healthy meals to avoid hunger, and involving interpersonal support.  After 24 weeks, the reward centers of the brain showed less reponse to high-calorie foods, and more response to low-calorie foods.  In plain English, this proves that on a neurological level, the brain can be rewired to enjoy healthier foods.

So it takes some effort, but it shows that old habits can be changed.  Dr. Hyman emphasizes that willpower is not the issue here:  the combination of our neurobiology with what K. D. Brownell (4) calls a “toxic food environment” creates a trap for us.  A structured kick-start might be just what we need to turn over a healthier leaf.

1. Avena N et al.  Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake.  Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2008; 32(1): 20–39.  Published online May 18, 2007. doi:  10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019
2. Lenoir M, Serre F, Cantin L, Ahmed SH (2007) Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward. PLoS ONE 2(8): e698. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000698.
3. Pilot randomized trial demonstrating reversal of obesity-related abnormalities in reward system responsivity to food cues with a behavioral intervention.  Nutrition & Diabetes (2014) 4, e129; doi:10.1038/nutd.2014.26.  Published online 1 September 2014.
4. Brownell KD, et. al. Personal responsibility and obesity: a constructive approach to a controversial issue. Health Aff (Millwood). 2010 Mar-Apr;29(3):379-87

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