Perhaps the hardest part about starting a new diet, or eating healthy foods, learning to shut out those voices in your head that are telling you that you absolutely need a soda and a donut… right now.
Sugar cravings are intense. They can feel like someone else is controlling your brain, and that’s because your brain is actually addicted to the sugar high. Sure, you may say you have a “sweet tooth,” but your teeth are innocent bystanders in this sugar battle between your brain and your body.
Is it possible to make your brain crave healthier foods? Yes, but it takes work.
Train Your Brain
The secret to preventing sugar cravings lies in disrupting addiction centers in your brain, forcing it to crave healthy foods instead. If the thought of becoming “addicted” to broccoli sounds a little too far-fetched, you’re in for a surprise!.
Scientists at Tufts University and Massachusetts General Hospital determined that it may be possible to train the brain to prefer low-calorie, healthy foods over unhealthy, higher-calorie foods.
To find out whether the brain can be rewired to make healthy food choices, the researchers studied the “reward system” in overweight and obese men and women, by administering brain scans at the beginning and end of a six-month study. One group of participants followed a healthy eating plan, others did not. Participants were given brain scans before and after the study.
After the six months, brain scans of participants who took on the healthy eating plan were markedly different.
The scans revealed changes in the same brain reward center that affects addiction, showing an increased sensitivity to lower-calorie, healthy foods and a decreased sensitivity to unhealthy higher-calorie foods, in those that took on the healthy eating plan.1
So, with that good news, what can you do at home to skillfully trick your brain into wanting healthier foods? It’s actually quite simple – eat more healthy foods.
Here’s a six-step plan to help you get started:
1. Revisit Childhood Veggies You Wouldn’t Eat
So many adults won’t eat their vegetables because of bad experiences as a child. But most of them haven’t given the veggies a chance to prove themselves. Have you hated Brussels sprouts with a vengeance for all these years? It’s time to give them another go. Why? Because as you’ve gotten older, your taste buds have evolved. You may be able to enjoy a greater range of tastes now, including bitter things you never liked as a kid.2
Still not sold on the idea of eating Brussels sprouts? Liven them up by roasting them in the oven with extra-virgin olive oil and a little salt and pepper for a crispy, delicious side dish. Or try them with some balsamic vinegar, sliced almonds, and thyme.
2. Choose Filling, Nutritious Foods
Foods that keep you satiated for longer have the advantage of thwarting unhealthy snacking. Foods high in protein and fiber can help you feel fuller, so add them to your eating plan. Foods filled with lots of refined sugars create blood sugar spikes, meaning you’ll feel full for a much shorter amount of time.3
Choose lean meats, low-sugar yogurt, avocado, nut butter, tempeh, eggs, cottage cheese, legumes, nuts, seeds, and load up on salad and vegetables. In fact, you can have as much salad and leafy green vegetables as you like.
3. Eat a Plant-Based Diet
Eating a plant-based diet does not mean you have to become a vegan. It just means that the bulk of your diet should come from plants. When you focus on plant choices, you naturally steer away from pre-packaged, sugar-packed, high-calorie, addictive foods, and you tend to buy and cook fresher ingredients. So by all means, buy yourself a serving of lean meat (no bigger than the size of your palm), but try to focus more on fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and steer clear of anything that comes in a packet.
4. Surround Yourself with Only Healthy Options
This one is huge: You can’t eat what you don’t have. Nutella weakness? Don’t buy it. Find that one Oreo cookie always turns into four or five? Don’t buy them. If you only have healthy snacks to turn to, then, when hunger strikes, that’s all you’ll have to turn to.
Taking this one step further, try sugar-proofing your office. You can’t control that there’s a vending machine on your floor, but you can pack plenty of nutritious snacks, so that you won’t need to resort to the vending machine when hunger strikes. The same goes for lunch meals.
Office snacks could include carrot sticks and hummus, celery sticks and almond butter, cottage cheese and tuna, a handful of nuts, or fresh fruit sprinkled on low-sugar Greek yogurt.
5. Get Your Sweet Kick from Vegetables
Did you know that many veggies have a sweet side? Ever poked holes in a sweet potato and roasted it in the oven? The natural sugars ooze from the holes. In fact, roasting vegetables often brings out sweet flavors. You can easily caramelize veggies like carrots, Brussels sprouts, onions, or whole cloves of garlic with only their natural sugars for a sweet, crispy finish. You don’t need to add a thing. At most, you could try adding a little extra-virgin olive oil prior to baking for a boost of healthy, omega-3 fatty acids.
6. Ask Yourself: Am I Really Hungry?
Is your stomach really rumbling? Sometimes, your sugar-addicted mind can fool your body. Try drinking a big glass of water first. You may actually be dehydrated, and the hunger pangs you feel are actually generated because you’re thirsty.
If you’re truly hungry, you’re apt to eat whatever’s in front of you. This, naturally, leads to many bad decisions. But it can work to your advantage, as well. Only surround yourself with the good stuff, the healthiest foods, and you’ll be more likely to dive head-on into it – and with glee. You’re starving, after all!
Healthy Foods: The Takeaway
It may be called “comfort food,” but all junk food does is feed the addiction centers in your head. And, junk food comes in many disguises. It isn’t just candy bars, chips, and cookies. Consuming too much sugar or salt from any food can activate those addiction centers.
So, be sure to read labels carefully, especially if a food comes in a packet. Processed foods are often full of hidden sugars and salts.
Embrace the good food available around you wholeheartedly, and in no time, you will start to increasingly crave healthy foods. Your body will thank you for it!
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