How to Train Your Brain to Crave Healthy Foods
If my favourite ice cream is in the freezer, I find it hard not to think about it when I'm at home. I have to battle to stop myself walking across to the kitchen for just a few scoops. If black chocolate Brazil nuts are in the cupboard, or this morning's soft French bread anywhere within a five minute walk, I just can't resist. It's the same with hundreds of other foods - if they are within easy reach, I just can't stop.
I know they're not healthy foods, but they are just so moreish. Just a handful more, another scoop, and on it goes.
The caveman's instinct
There's a good biological reason most of us crave ice cream rather than carrots.
"For most of human history, people didn't have enough to eat, so fat was something you really needed to seek out," says Marcia Pelchat (2), a food psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. It's a survival instinct.
To avoid dying of starvation, the brain is wired to seek calorie-rich foods. This is why the sweet chocolate chip cookie on the plate in front of you is so irresistible, or why seeing a sign for a doughnut shop draws you in even when you know it's not good for you.
There are certain foods, usually high in fat, sugar and salt, that make you want to pursue them. Pursue means put effort into
getting those foods, regardless of your body's actual need for them. Also, many people are addicted to sugar.
Free 20-second sugar addiction test.
According to David Kessler (1), "The cold, creamy pleasure of a milkshake, the aroma of chocolate cake, the texture of crispy chicken wings sweetened with a honey-mustard dipping sauce-all stimulate the appetite. And it's that stimulation, or the anticipation of that stimulation, rather than genuine hunger, that makes us put food into our mouths long after our caloric needs are satisfied."
Pelchat explains (2) that even though we are born with cravings for sweet and fatty high-calorie foods, we also start to crave whatever we eat in large quantities. After she fed a group of people a vanilla-flavoured drink low in saturated fat every day for two weeks, about a third of them reported craving the drink, even though, "It was chalky and not very yummy."
Many Japanese women crave sushi. Research at Tohoku University in Japan showed that their cravings were influenced by their culture and the foods that they traditionally eat. It makes sense. You crave the foods that everyone around you is eating, and the foods that you grew up with.
Learn to crave salad
Here are three steps to switch your cravings from high-calorie foods to healthy foods:
- Clean out your home.
Remove every bit of chocolate, every last spoon of ice cream, every single cookie, can of soda, sweet and bad treat from your home and, if possible, your workplace. If you need to buy chocolate for a special occasion, get rid of it immediately after.
"My neighbours came round for dinner last night, and brought a tub of ice cream to share for dessert. When they left I threw out the remainder. It seems like a terrible waste of food, but I know in my heart that it was the right thing to do."
- Carry around healthy foods.
I have a friend who carries an apple in her bag and keeps a box of high-fibre muesli in her car so she can scoop up a handful whenever a chocolate craving hits.
If I'm going out for a while, and particularly if I expect that there'll be food temptations on offer, I'll bring my own healthy snacks with me. Perhaps a boiled egg, or a banana or whatever's in the fruit bowl.
- Bury craved foods in the middle of a meal.
If you eat chocolate at the start of a meal, your brain will associate chocolate with the relief of hunger as you "find" food. If you have chocolate at the end of a meal, your brain will come to expect a delicious sweet ritual at the end of every meal.
For the first two weeks, try to avoid all unhealthy craved foods. But after two weeks, allow yourself just a small portion of the craved food in the middle of the meal.
It was tough at first, but my friend Janet, once a chocoholic, now rarely craves chocolate. Sometimes it actually makes her nauseous! "I couldn't believe it, but last week we were at a friend's house for dinner and when they served a chocolate mousse dessert, I thought to myself, I'd really prefer a bowl of my own muesli."
"I make a salad every night for dinner - grated carrot or beetroot, leafy greens and chopped up cucumbers or whatever's in season. I whip a little olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a pinch of herbs and pour it over. Now I crave the natural taste," she says. "This is such a huge difference for me."
A study of a group of people who ate one serve of leafy green vegetables per day showed their brain function was the equivalent of being 11 years younger in age. (3)
1. David A. Kessler.
The End of Overeating. Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite.
2. Author interview in (1) above.
3. Martha Clare Morris, Yamin Wang, Lisa L. Barnes, David A. Bennett, Bess Dawson-Hughes, Sarah L. Booth. Nutrients and bioactives in green leafy vegetables and cognitive decline. Neurology Dec 2017, 10.1212/WNL.0000000000004815; DOI: 10.1212/WNL.0000000000004815.