With the rising obesity epidemic, researchers are actively trying to determine what role neurological pathways and reward mechanisms play. Studies have looked at the hyperactivation of reward centres in the brain, and find that high calorie foods provide more rewards than low calorie foods. What happens after years and years of eating high calorie foods? Are people destined to crave high fat and sugar foods forever?
Susan Roberts, a professor at Tufts University states that “ we don’t start out in life loving French Fries and hating good quality foods. This conditioning happens over time in response to eating.”’ It has been suspected that once these unhealthy circles start, they are impossible to break. This sets people up for a lifetime battle of unhealthy cravings. A recent study out of Tufts University finds that it is possible to train the brain to prefer healthy foods over processed high calorie foods.
Roberts and her colleagues studied the reward system in thirteen overweight men and women. All subjects had MRI scans at the beginning and end of the 6 month study. The brain scans revealed changes in areas of the brain reward centre associated with learning and addiction. After six months, this area had increased sensitivity to healthy, lower calorie foods indicating an increased reward and enjoyment of healthier food cues. The area also showed a decreased sensitivity to the unhealthy higher calorie foods.
By designing a weight loss program that focus on healthy eating, researchers were able to positively influence the brain’s reward centres and alter the course of food cravings. The conclusion of this study is that weight loss programs that focus on balanced, healthy eating will result in better weight maintenance and better management of food addiction.
My conclusion from this study is that slow and steady weight loss wins the race. We are only beginning to scratch the surface of the health benefits that a healthy diet and lifestyle will provide. When you embark on a lifestyle journey you are changing so much more than your weight.