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09/04/2014 08:20 am ET | Updated Sep 04, 2014

You Can Trick Your Brain Into Craving Healthful Food

Julia Khusainova via Getty Images

science of us
By Melissa Dahl
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Eating healthfully would be approximately 100 percent more fun if you craved good stuff like broccoli instead of junk like Doritos, and now new research hints this could actually happen -- although not overnight. A brain-scan study published in Nature by Tufts University researchers showed that after overweight and obese adults spent six months following a healthy diet, their brains responded less strongly to images of high-calorie foods like fried chicken or French fries.

For the study, five volunteers formed the control group and made no changes to their eating habits; the other eight participated in an eating program called the iDiet, which was developed by Tufts scientists and mostly features foods that are high in fiber and low on the glycemic index (a way of measuring the impact of a food's blood sugar on our bodies).

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The authors write that brain scans suggested that following the healthy diet seemed to dampen that rewarding effect that junk food had previously triggered in the participants' brains.

Says the press release:

Both groups underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans at the beginning and end of a six-month period. Among those who participated in the weight loss program, the brain scans revealed changes in areas of the brain reward center associated with learning and addiction. After six months, this area had increased sensitivity to healthy, lower-calorie foods, indicating an increased reward and enjoyment of healthier food cues. The area also showed decreased sensitivity to the unhealthy higher-calorie foods.

In other words, when they were shown images of different foods, the dieters' cravings for unhealthy, higher-calorie foods lessened, and they showed more interest in the healthier foods.

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It's a very small study, with just 13 participants, and without any further check-ins with the participants, it's too early to make any assumptions about the long-term impact on the dieters' food cravings. Still, it's reassuring to think that maybe our brains aren't completely powerless against the junk-food addiction cycle.

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