How to trick your brain to like healthy food

It is a sad reality. The foods that we crave the most are, in terms of nutritional value, the worst. Salty chips, chocolates, burgers, pizza, ice cream… the list goes on trial. In fact, sometimes even the thought of these types of foods can set off the most intense craving.  However, it’s not all in your head…well, actually it is. In fact, it is all in your brain.

Many of our favourite snacks have been carefully modified and manipulated by manufacturers to contain the perfect combo of sugar, salt, fat, additives and – most importantly – flavouring, designed to make you crave more.

The science of “wanting more”

You have up to 10,000 taste buds, spread over your tongue, mouth and throat. Each taste bud contains up to 100 taste receptor cells, which send messages to your brain about different substances in food. Your brain receives these messages and gives you “taste”. But you don’t only eat with your mouth. The taste, smell, sound and even the sight of food triggers a cascade of hormonal processes within your body before you’ve had your first bite. As you sample your meal, reward centres in your brain start to light up. The brain then sends out its own messages to get you to have another bite so that it can repeat, or at least maintain, those feelings of reward.

Certain foods, such as sugar, salt, certain types of fat and processed chemicals (e.g. artificial sweeteners) are potent natural reward-drivers. These foods not only light up key areas of the brain but KEEP them alight. This reaction occurs because they trigger the release of key “pleasure” brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, more so than their healthy counterparts. That explains why it’s hard to resist something like a chip, but quite easy to forgo a carrot stick.

And there you were, thinking it was all about willpower!

Retraining your brain

You aren’t born loving pizza! Rather, your taste preferences change over time thanks to repeated exposure. So, when it comes to wanting to make healthier choices, repeated exposure to healthier options is the obvious solution. There are a few other ways though. The bad news is that you do need some willpower – especially when you start out, but the good news is that you can retrain your brain.

  1. Form new habits

What do you do every day at 3pm? Choose a sugary snack to see you through the rest of the day? Besides giving your brain the rush of sugar, you’re also programming a (bad) habit. Shake up your daily routine and ensure you avoid the afternoon slump by having lunch with protein and fat. Also, choose to snack on nuts and biltong instead of the vending machine to stop any cravings before they hit.

  1. Gradually reduce the amount of processed food you eat

Going cold turkey will likely just frustrate you, so instead of stopping altogether, start adding in more fresh produce at every meal. In other words, add don’t subtract. Because processed food can start to dull your taste buds, the less of it you eat, the less of it you’ll want and the more you’ll start appreciating flavours and textures of healthier options.

  1. Eat healthy foods that you like!

Just because Kale is in the news as the latest superfood doesn’t mean you need to eat it at every meal. Don’t like carrots? No problem! Choose options that are enjoyable to YOU and that you know will satisfy your taste buds.

  1. Chew. Repeat

Don’t inhale your meal. It can take up to 20 minutes after you’ve eaten something for your brain to realise there is something in your belly. Eating too quickly means you’re more likely to overeat before this messaging starts to happen. Focus on your food and be mindful of your eating experience. Soak up the colours, aromas and textures of your meal and let things settle before jumping for desert.

  1. Get some sleep

Poor sleep interrupts your natural circadian rhythm, or your body clock. This in turn, causes a disruption of your hunger hormones. Ghrelin, the hunger hormone, goes up and leptin, the fullness hormone, goes down. This is one reason you have all those cravings after a bad night’s sleep. Ensure you give sleep the priority it deserves and aim for between 7 to 9 hours each night. When you wake up, have a healthy breakfast to get your brain in a healthy mindset for the rest of the day.

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