It’s often been said that exercise is only a small part of the fitness equation – about 30 percent. The remaining 70 percent of your fitness progress is influenced by your diet. And, while there’s no way to really prove these numbers, experience has shown that this is roughly the way things go. Regardless of how hard your workout, it’s frustratingly easy to undo all of that good with a junk food binge.
But the sad fact is that many people simply do not enjoy healthy foods. Research into how the brain reacts to foods has shown us not only how we’ve gotten into this mess, but also how to get out of it.
Misused Reward System
To put it simply, your brain has a way of training you to repeat positive behaviors – those that it perceives as being key to your survival. To do this, your brain floods itself with dopamine and other “feel good” chemicals.
This is a major oversimplification of your body’s Reward System. Under normal circumstances, the whole process is a fantastic way of keeping you happy and healthy, since you will naturally seek out behaviors that previously earned you a reward. The problem is that modern processed foods as designed to give you a massive spike of reward hormones – much bigger than you would normally get from any food found in nature.
And this creates food addictions.
Just like most other chemicals, your body will eventually develop a tolerance to these endorphines after constantly being exposed to unusually high amounts. As a result, you begin to crave more and more junk foods to get the same high. And I’m not being overly dramatic by calling it a “high.” Multiple studies have shown that the process by which we develop addictions to and cravings for food is identical to the brain chemistry of a drug addict.
In fact, a steady diet of these foods can change your thoughts and behaviors in a way that is typical of any addict.
So there’s the problem. But – while you might not have realized the extent of the damage – you likely already knew you had to ditch the junk food. As we’ve seen, though, that is extremely difficult. It is, after all, a legitimate addiction.
Breaking The Cycle
For a long time, researchers where not sure if people could ever be fully free of these cravings once the neural pathways were established. The thought was that, even if eating habits changed, it would be a struggle for the rest of the addicts life.
To get a definitive answer, a team at Tufts University recruited 13 overweight or obese men and women for a new study on the reward system. Eight of the participants were enrolled in a weight loss program, which included a dietary overhaul while the other five remained the control group. At the beginning and end of the 6-month study, both groups received MRIs to monitor the reward centers of their brains.
Interestingly, the weight loss group showed a complete change in the reward pathways of their brains. Not only did these individuals now receive a greater feeling of reward when they ate healthy foods, they had a significantly reduced reaction to junk food.
Even though the cravings associated with years of poor dieting are powerful, and exert a surprising influence on the brain, this study give us hope that we can retrain out brains to actually prefer healthy foods.