Retrain Your Brain Cravings

A widening stream of credible research is making the connection between diet, exercise and Alzheimer’s disease. The idea that we can perhaps delay or prevent the whole terrible process of cognitive collapse is comforting and should be compelling. So why isn’t it, for us Americans, struggling as we are with the physical consequences of a less-than-optimum diet? Why aren’t we all eating mainly organic vegetables and fruits, the right fats and nuts, non contaminated fish and other healthy foods? Why are we still reaching for the cheese puffs, microwave popcorn, soft drinks, packaged cookies, and chicken nuggets?

Here’s an answer from experts at Harvard Medical School and Tufts University: because your brain, the very organ you are probably most interested in protecting, is screaming at you that it wants those donuts, dammit! We’ve trained our brains to jump up and down like happy puppies* about foods that have been highly processed, deep fried, and dipped in sugar. Researchers set up a pilot study (admittedly small) in which they measured subjects’ brain reactivity over time to photos of high calorie, high glycemic foods, such as fried chicken and fake-fruit cereal, in comparison to photos of less seductive foods and nonfood items. Participants were divided into a control group and an intervention group—the intervention being a carefully devised diet** supported by much hand-holding and peer encouragement. Not surprising that the members of this intervention group lost weight. Surprising that their brains actually changed in a way that made dieting easier: The involuntary clamoring shifted in favor of healthier foods, as measured by MRI.

I proved this to myself last year with my main Christmas present of 2013, a Vitamix super blender that can liquify everything I’ve put in it, short of the accidental stainless steel spoon. Last year I began making myself lunches consisting of organic blueberries, slightly steamed kale, a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar, a big spoonful of plain Greek yogurt, coconut milk, filtered water, chia seeds, almond butter and a handful of supplements including omega-3 fatty acids, curcumin, magnesium, vitamins B and D, acetyl-L carnitine (despite the mixed press), and alpha-lipoic acid. Researchers need look no further than me to find proof that we can retrain our brains. I now crave this icky, thick, mud-colored shake. I go through the afternoon with more energy, I’m not famished at dinner, and I feel free to treat myself occasionally to French fries, which are—I hate to admit—just as delicious and conducive to brain-clamoring as ever. For a chef’s instructions on how to make French fries in a healthy way, try this link from "Mansome."

*See the introduction: “conditioned hyperactivation of the reward system for high-calorie (HC) versus low-calorie (LC) food cues"
** See paragraphs 2–3, subsection 2 (“Groups”), part 3 for details; it was based on the iDiet.

Source: Nutrition & Diabetes (2014) 4, e129; doi:10.1038/nutd.2014.26
Published online September 1, 2014