Food and Behaviour Research

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BBC News - Brain 'can be trained to prefer healthy food'

The brain can be trained to prefer healthy food over unhealthy high-calorie foods, using a diet which does not leave people hungry, suggests a study from the US.

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Obesity has been shown to involve unusually strong preferences for high-calorie 'junk foods' - ultra-processed foods that are typically high in sugar and/or salt, and unhealthy fats. 

Such foods are specifically designed to be highly palatable to anyone - but they effectively appear to be 'addictive' for some people in terms of the cravings they can set up, which play a key role in both obesity and other eating disorders.

Breaking patterns of unhealthy eating is not easy, but new research using brain imaging has shown that preferences for healthy, lower-calorie foods over high-calorie ones can indeed be achieved over time. 

After successful behavioural treatment for weight loss, adults with obesity showed significant changes in activation of so-called 'reward areas' of the brain, indicating an increased preference for healthier, lower-calorie foods, and lower preference for the higher-calorie junk foods.

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Scientists from Tufts University say food addictions can be changed in this way even if they are well-established.

They scanned the addiction centre in the brains of a small group of men and women.

The results showed increased cravings for healthy lower-calorie foods.

Prof Susan B Roberts, senior study author and behavioural nutrition scientist at the Boston university, said:

"We don't start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, wholewheat pasta.

"This conditioning happens over time in response to eating - repeatedly - what is out there in the toxic food environment."

Scientists know that once people are addicted to unhealthy foods, it is usually very hard to change their eating habits and get them to lose weight.

But Prof Roberts' research, published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, suggests the brain can learn to like healthy foods.