Winter 2014

Broccoli on the Brain

You can learn to crave healthy foods


Illustration: Betsy Hayes,

People tend to assume that they were born with a hunger for high-calorie junk food, because it’s so much easier for us to turn down a serving of broccoli than a batch of french fries. But a small study done at Tufts in fall 2014, published in Nutrition and Diabetes, showed that our appetites are formed in response to learned behavior.

“This conditioning happens over time,” says Susan Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging. Once established, patterns can last a lifetime. To determine if the same process of conditioning can train our brains to select healthy food, Roberts’ team studied 13 overweight and obese men and women, eight of whom were already enrolled in a weight-loss program at Tufts and five of whom were in a control group.

Participants in the weight-loss program were put on healthier diets at the same time they were being educated about better food choices. The idea was to build up an association in their minds between healthful foods like broccoli and living a better life. Results after six months were impressive. MRI brain scans of the test subjects revealed changes in the area of the brain reward center associated with learning and addiction, showing an increased sensitivity to healthy choices and decreased sensitivity to the high-calorie options the study subjects formerly craved.

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