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A Twist on Food Addiction

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September 25, 2014 by Johanna Burani

Some people wake up craving a warm breakfast croissant, oozing with butter and a rich cream filling.  Others “can’t live” without potato chips, cheeseburgers and fries.Male doctor examines X-ray picture of a human brain

These people feel “addicted” to these foods.  No surprise: sugar, salt and fat are food’s most effective flavor enhancers and the brain’s reward center pays close and affectionate attention to them when they enter the body.  This can lead to deep-rooted neurological pathways for food addictions.

Is Brain Change Possible?

Researchers at Tufts University wondered if this brain wiring could be harnessed for healthful food choices too.  They enrolled 13 overweight or obese adults in a pilot study: 8 followed a weight loss program (intervention group) and 5 received no intervention (control group).  The intervention group followed high-fiber (40 g/day) meal plans consisting of 50% energy from low-glycemic carbohydrates and 25% each from protein and fat. They attended organized lectures, and group and individual support activities.

The researchers studied the participants’ brain scans via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at baseline and at the end of the 6-month study.  They looked for changes within the brain’s reward center responsible for learning and addiction.  Can the brain shift its reward system’s mechanism using specific behavioral change strategies?

Can Brain Change Be Measured?

The researchers measured all subjects’ brain activities specific to reward processing when equally exposed to either low-calorie or high-calorie food images.  Subjects were also asked to give a desirability rating to the same food images.  This was done at baseline and at the conclusion of the study.  Using sophisticated clinical procedures and analytical measurements, the researchers calculated mean changes over time.

What Changes Were Found?

The behavioral intervention group lost more weight than the control group, as expected, since they were following a weight loss program and the control group was not.  More importantly, in contrast to the control group, the brain scans of the intervention group at the end of the study revealed greater activity in the brain’s reward center for the low calorie foods versus the high calorie foods.  In other words their brains’ reward centers shifted favorably toward the low calorie foods.  This overlapped with their recorded changes in the food preference ratings for the food images.

What Does This Mean?

Bottom line: The goal of this study was to determine if the brain’s reward center could be trained to prefer healthful low-calorie foods.  The results thus far point in a positive direction.

Your takeaway message:  Watch your portions, shoot for high fiber, lower your fat a little, increase your heart-healthy protein a little and eat low-glycemic carbohydrates to reduce calories without feeling hungry or deprived.  Addiction or not, this is a sensible and sustainable behavioral change.


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Gushers vs Tricklers


"Gushers" are quickly-digested carbohydrates that cause a rapid rise in blood glucose and fuel appetite.

"Tricklers" are slowly-digested carbohydrates that are gradually released into the bloodstream and sustain satiety. These are the good carbs.


Johanna Burani
MS, RD, CDE
Nutrition Works LLC
Morristown, NJ, USA

Expert in individualized, low-glycemic index (low GI) meal planning.

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