Next time you find yourself reaching for that umpteenth slice of cold pizza from the fridge, or find yourself, again, at the orange-dusted end of a bag of Doritos, you should probably give the scientists at Tufts University a call.
In a study of the part of the brain that's linked to reward and addiction, researchers have found that our grey matter can be trained to not just like but prefer healthy food over high-calorie stuff that's crappy for us.
The university's senior study author and behavioural nutrition scientist, Professor Susan B. Roberts, told the BBC that "we don't start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta."
Our cravings for such foods, rather, are conditioned. They happen over time, when we eat, she says, "what is out there in the toxic food environment."
We know already, though, that once people are addicted to unhealthy, "toxic" foods—invariably those high in saturated fat, refined carbohydrates and, ultimately, sugar—that the pattern is hard to break. It's more hard-wired than repeated flights of fancy; once you are addicted to sugar, for example, going cold turkey is like going, well, cold turkey. It's not just about losing weight for those with food addictions—it's attempting to re-wire the brain and its impulses.
Professor Roberts' research, which is published in the Nutrition & Diabetes journal, suggests that the brain can learn to actually like healthy foods. The key is in studying that reward centre.
Our brains register all pleasurable things in the same way. Whether that pleasure comes from taking drugs, having really good sex, a great meal or coming into large sums of money, it's all processed the same. Pleasure causes the release of dopamine—a neurotransmitter—from a cluster of nerve cells (the nucleus accumbens) under the cerebral cortex. The release of dopamine in this area is synonymous with pleasure—hence it being named the pleasure centre.
Roberts and her team studied this part of the brain in 13 overweight people and focused on shifting the food preferences of eight members of the group by prescribing a low-carbohydrate, high-fibre and high-protein diet. Crucially, participants weren't allowed to become hungry, because that's when food cravings become a big, un-ignorable monster, when four slices of toast covered in Nutella are hoovered up before you can even come up for air.
After six months, those following the diet had MRI scans to look for changes in the brain's reward centre, and yes, you guessed it—it was the healthier foods, the salads, vegetables, and whole grains that provoked pleasurable reactions.
Essentially, they were getting brain boners for salad, and this is a great thing. Although this was a small study, it does indicate how an increased sense of reward and fulfilment from healthier food can happen. Not only that, but Roberts' team found that the brain's reward centre showed decreased sensitivity—or was turned off—by the unhealthy foods.
When it comes to treating food addiction and obesity, things like gastric bypass surgery might work—often dramatically—but can make food and eating really fucking miserable. If this kind of research could be rolled-out more widely, or stimulate studies into other areas of the brain, maybe we can move towards a point where, when treating those with food addiction and obesity, a greater emphasis on food enjoyment can be found.