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Can You Teach Your Brain To Crave Healthy Food?

It takes a little practice.
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As much as we can try, healthy food doesn't taste like salty, sugary, fatty junk food. It just doesn't. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying with their pants on fire.

If junk food tasted bad, then eating healthily would be a cinch. But what if we could train our brain to crave healthy food? Sounds impossible, right? It might not be.

Peta Stapleton, associate professor at Bond University in the School of Psychology, researches the effectiveness of psychological techniques for food cravings by removing negative emotions surrounding food. Other techniques such as mindful eating may also help manage unhealthy food cravings.

Let's first take a look at where unhealthy food cravings come from.

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Why do I crave unhealthy foods?

According to Stapleton, our current unhealthy food cravings often start way back when we were children -- that is, what foods we ate growing up and how we linked (both personally and because of our parents) food with certain emotions.

"This is the basis of where it all starts -- it's what you're exposed to," Stapleton told HuffPost Australia.

"We set up these [negative food] associations and they can be set up in childhood, where a little kid falls down and hurts their knee, and mum gives them a lollipop. It sets up very strong associations which we are still teasing apart in 60-year-olds in therapy.

Food will never be the answer to make a negative feeling go away.

"It just adds another layer if you've done this to your kids when they were growing up. This is certainly is a problem when little ones are used to having McDonald's every afternoon after school."

In other words, oftentimes we connect sadness or anger with a reward or a fix: junk food. And breaking down these associations is the challenge. While food and emotions are closely linked, as Stapleton explained, "food will never be the answer to make a negative feeling go away".

"We talk about a craving being a physiological urge to eat something, and obviously it can have an emotional attachment as well."

Then, of course, there's the fact that processed foods and drinks -- particularly those high in sugar -- trigger certain responses in the brain.

"For the unhealthy food choices, you get that added component of too much sugar triggering certain brain functions, so their cravings later on in life (if they've had a lot of junk food in their childhood) will respond the same way addiction does," Stapleton added.

"It's not just a bad habit, it's actually being driven, which is why people have withdrawal symptoms if they go cold turkey on sugar."

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Is it possible to crave healthy foods?

Okay, so what about people on other end of the spectrum? People who always (and happily) eat healthily, are never tempted by the office birthday cake or doughnuts, and have a positive relationship with healthy food. Although this might be frustrating or envy-inducing for non-healthy food lovers, what this shows is the possibility to crave healthy food.

"It does happen for a lot of people who don't have any of the more negative food cravings. They just have a natural inclination to want to eat fresh foods like fruit and vegetables," Stapleton said.

"They do describe the same type of craving and feelings that we see in people with not useful cravings.

"These people tend to be driven more by how it feels when they eat something. Because fruit and veg feels better when you eat it and for the next couple of hours, this is what drives their urge to naturally feel more inclined to eat these foods next time.

"If you're just eating healthy, fresh fruit and vegetables, that's a lifestyle. It's not that you have an addiction to healthy food."

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If you're not one of those people who naturally desires healthy foods like vegetables, there are strategies to help train your brain, including keeping a food diary, mindful eating and managing stress.

Stapleton's research involves participants undertaking psychological acupuncture, also known as EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) or "Tapping".

"First up we always target the negative food cravings to remove them," Stapleton explained.

"This psychological technique uses pressure points -- but we don't use needles like traditional acupuncture -- to target the emotional connection in the food craving. What we're finding is, when that connection is released, people lose their desire [for these unhealthy foods], as it targets a part of the brain which sends out that stress response.

"Once they lose the desire to eat these unhealthy foods, what we find is the natural inclination to want to eat healthy foods emerges by itself."

However, there is much criticism of the effectiveness of EFT, with one study concluding "there is scant support for the radical theories underlying energy psychology techniques". Another review cites that the "small successes seen in these therapies are potentially attributable to well-known cognitive and behavioural techniques that are included with the energy manipulation".


How to crave healthy food

Here are other ways to train the brain to crave less unhealthy foods and, as a result, naturally crave more healthy foods. And you implement them easily into your everyday life.

1. Keep a food and mood diary

Research shows keeping track of everything you eat actually encourages you to less calories, with one study of nearly 1,700 participants showing that keeping a food diary can double a person's weight loss.

"I would say keep a record of [everything you eat] so you can look back, as so much of this happens unconsciously without you paying attention," Stapleton said. "People forget what they've eaten in a day. Even kids can do it.

"Apps are fantastic for this as they are immediate if you've got your phone on you. Many apps will also give you the opportunity to record how you were feeling when you ate it. This starts the awareness for you to pay attention to what you're eating."

2. Manage stress and emotions

If you constantly feel "emotionally hungry", and turn to foods as a way to fix a situation or deal with stress and emotions, focus on constructively managing stress and emotions -- whether that's by exercising, talking to a close friend or professional, or meditating.

"I think people find lots of excuses to blame their eating on, but the reality with hunger is, you should only be hungry every three or four hours," Stapleton said.

Find a constructive way to help you relax -- perhaps walking on the beach or reading in the sunshine.
Find a constructive way to help you relax -- perhaps walking on the beach or reading in the sunshine.

"The way we describe physical hunger is it gradually builds over time from the last time you ate, whereas emotional hunger hits you in the head immediately.

"If you find that you suddenly feel like eating chocolate, I would ask: is there an emotion going on there instead? If you get home and hit the fridge immediately but you've eaten lunch two hours earlier, or if you're hungry right after you've eaten dinner, this flags there is an emotion there and you're trying to use food to feed that."

3. Eat without distractions

Mindful eating comes up time and time again, and with good reason -- it works.

"Whenever we do eat, sit down and try to do nothing else except eat. If you're watching TV, reading a book or on your phone, you can end up eating more 20 percent more if we're distracted because you're not actually paying attention to the sensations of eating and fullness," Stapleton said.

"This is called mindful eating, and it is really powerful and you could literally do this immediately."

Put the phone away.
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Put the phone away.

4. Try eating blindfolded

While Stapleton isn't saying blindfold yourself for every meal, this mindful eating technique is a way to make you tune into the feeling of fullness, as in "I've had enough".

"There have been studies in Sweden where they blindfolded participants and got them to eat a meal where they could see it, and then to eat the exact same meal at the same time of day the next day, except blindfolded. They find, that by taking vision out of the equation, you eat less.

"I, in private practice, will suggest to try this and put on an eye mask when they eat dinner. You'll still find your mouth, but when you remove vision (and all the rules we grew up with to 'finish everything on your plate because there's starving children in Africa'), you end up eating less.

"Some of my clients will come back and said they stopped eating when they were full, and when they took off their blindfold there was still food on their plate. You probably serve yourself way more food than you need.

"These tips can help get the process started. If you've got intense food cravings and you really don't know where they come from, you might need to see someone that can help."

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