No Joke, You Can Train Yourself to Eat Healthier

Korin Miller
Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Fries, cookies, greasy (delicious) bacon… There’s a reason why we love food that’s bad for us: It tastes so good. But according to a new study from Tufts University, it may be possible to train your brain to stop craving unhealthy food.

In the study, participants underwent brain scans at the beginning and end of undergoing a six-month diet. During those six months, scientists put them on a healthy weight loss program that was designed to change bad food habits into healthy eating habits. Miraculously, at the end of the six months, participants showed an increased urge to eat healthy and a decreased urge to eat unhealthy foods.

Sound too good to be true? Experts say it’s possible to train yourself to follow a healthier diet, even without being part of a doctor-monitored study. It’s all about breaking those bad habits.

Of course, there is some willpower involved. You don’t just eat ice cream every night and then magically crave plain Greek yogurt instead. Registered dietician Jill Weisenberger, author of “The Overworked Person’s Guide to Better Nutrition,” recommends starting slow by “swapping up.” If you love buttery crackers, try whole wheat crackers. If you’re into white pasta (and aren’t we all?), opt for one that’s a mix of white and whole grain, and work your way up to 100% whole grain pasta. “Eventually, tastes change,” she says, and you’ll end up preferring the healthier option.

Mareya Ibrahim, a chef who specializes in healthy eating and the author of “The Clean Eating Handbook,” cautions that breaking sugar cravings is especially difficult because they’re physiological. Receptors for sweet tastes are on the tip of your tongue and consequently cause a strong pleasure sensation when you get your hands on cookies, gummy bears, ice cream, and the like.

When sugar cravings strike, she recommends grabbing a handful of strawberries or raspberries for a treat. If you need to start slow, dip them in antioxidant-rich dark chocolate (70 percent dark chocolate is ideal—it’s low in sugar and has the most health benefits of any chocolate) and eventually phase out the chocolate.

Ibrahim says sugar cravings can also be prevented by increasing your protein intake. Why? We tend to crave sugar because it’s a quick energy source, she says, and protein will help keep you feeling more energized and full longer.

We know what you’re thinking: How long is this going to take? Weisenberger says that conventional wisdom claims that it takes 21 days to make or break a habit, but it really depends on the individual person and their motivation.

If you still can’t live without your regular bacon cheeseburger habit, she suggests pairing it with something healthy, like a salad. Eat the healthy part first to fill you up a little more so that you eat less of the unhealthy stuff. Eventually, you’ll connect the two together in your mind and won’t feel right having junk food without the healthy option. Isn’t the human brain incredible?

Read more: 5 Healthy Diet Tweaks to Make Right Now