Brain Training: How You Can Learn to Like Healthy Foods

Some of you may know Jim Gaffigan. He’s a stand-up comedian who frequently talks about food. Jim performed in Boston last year, and part of his monologue centered on kale. He’s not a big fan of kale, and he aptly described it as “spinach with hair on it.” Jim also joked about how kale is one of those foods that we’re “supposed” to like because it’s a “superfood.”

Now, I don’t know how you feel about kale. I’ll admit, it’s not one of my favorite vegetables, probably because I’m not a big fan of bitter-tasting greens. I do know people who seem to enjoy kale, and I say more power to them. But whether it’s kale, quinoa, kombucha, or tofu, we all know that there are foods that we should be eating because they’re good — or even great — for us. Therefore, we may feel compelled or pressured to include these foods in our daily menus, even if we don’t care for them or downright hate how they taste. Not liking them may make us feel like there’s something wrong with us or like we’re not following the trend to keep up with good health.

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On the other hand, there are plenty of people who enjoy foods that aren’t good for them: Twinkies, soda, chips, fast food, frozen pizza…the list can go on. Why do we like these foods, and not the foods that we know we should be eating? We know that Twinkies and chips aren’t superfoods, yet these are often the very foods we turn to when we’ve had a bad day at work, when we feel down, or when our stomachs are growling with hunger.

In my years as a dietitian, I’ve talked with plenty of people who have told me that they just don’t have a taste for fruits or vegetables or whole grains or skim milk, for example. But might it be possible for people to learn to like foods that are good for them and turn off their taste buds for the less healthy foods? Scientists seems to think so.

Brain rewiring
Last week, a small study was published in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes that set out to evaluate the accuracy of the notion that some people simply don’t like healthy foods. The study was done at the USDA’s Energy Metabolism and Obesity Laboratory at Tufts University and involved 13 overweight and obese people (a very small study, indeed). The people were divided into two groups, the experimental and the control groups. Participants in both groups had a brain scan before the start of the study. The people in the experimental group cut calories by 500 to 1,000 per day, controlled their portions, and attended support group sessions. Their diet was high in fiber and protein to help control hunger and cravings. The control group did not partake in this eating program.

After six months, the experimental group lost an average of 13 pounds, while the control group gained an average of 4 pounds. Both groups had a repeat brain scan. When the experimental group was shown pictures of high-calorie foods, the region of the brain that usually responds to fatty, sugary foods showed less activity. This “pleasure” center of the brain typically responds to these foods, setting you up to crave them even more. But this wasn’t the case after people followed the Tufts diet program. And the pleasure center showed more activity when they were shown pictures of healthy foods! What about the control group? No change — their pleasure center continued to respond to those fatty, sugary foods, as would be expected.

Again, this was a small study, and we can’t make concrete conclusions from a study involving just 13 people. However, it’s encouraging. It tells us that we can learn to like and reach for healthier foods, and in addition, we can lose our taste and cravings for less healthy foods.

More tips
What else can you do to retrain your brain so that healthier foods are more appealing? Here are some other ideas to consider:

• Limit foods and beverages that contain artificial or nonnutritive sweeteners. Some researchers believe they stimulate your brain to continue to want sweet-tasting foods, even more so than natural sweeteners.

• Learn to like those “smelly” vegetables, like Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and broccoli, by roasting them instead of steaming or boiling them. Roasting prevents the sulfury smell from getting into the air (the smell can negatively affect your taste buds).

• Splash a dash of vinegar on your foods if you’re aiming to cut down on sodium. Unsalted or low-sodium foods can taste bland when you first try them. Adding vinegar (which has no sodium) can put back some flavor and add a bit of zest.

• Keep trying. Maybe you tried a food years ago and disliked it. It’s time to try it again. You CAN acquire a taste for food (how do you think people learn to appreciate fine wines or single-malt Scotch)?

Try new and different foods. It’s OK if you really don’t like a particular food, but don’t let that stop you from trying other healthy foods. Disliking a particular type of fruit doesn’t mean you won’t like any kinds of fruit. Be adventurous and keep an open mind!

  • Sheree

    Thank u I’m gonna try this, I’m 11 with diabetes and tachycardia and I eat a lot of junk food and never eat fruits or veggies but I know it’s time for a change. Thanks for the advice!:’)