I have times in my life when I’m feeling down and struggle with eating healthy. Even though I’ve tried to “train my brain” for years, I still get sugar cravings every now and then (especially if I let myself super hungry) and the only thing I feel like doing in those moments is to have a bar of chocolate. That’s why I never keep junk food or candies stored in my house! The things you don’t have, you less likely crave for.
But nowadays, I have to say that if I do fall into a temptation of candies or sweet desserts, I don’t seem to get the satisfaction from them anymore. Instead, I seem to get more satisfaction from healthy options such as my energy bars, cashew ice cream and raw cheesecakes and they don’t even leave me feeling bloated, tired and irritated. So why am I reacting to food differently than before? Is there some chemical changes happening in my brain through the change of eating habits?
The fascinating thing is, that there’s actually scientific evidence that a healthy diet, in general, can improve one’s feeling of happiness. For example, a research made in University of Warwick’s Medical School found that an individual’s fruit and vegetable consumption were consistently associated with high and low mental wellbeing. The research was made using data from the Health Survey for England and it was published by BMJ Open. Dr Saverio Stranges, the lead author of this research says: “The data suggest that higher an individual’s fruit and vegetable intake the lower the chance of their having low mental wellbeing.” Make’s you want to consume more fruits and veggies, right? But what if I don’t like veggies and the whole idea of eating healthy makes me depressed?
Can I teach my brain to actually LIKE vegetables?
Now that we know eating more fruits and vegetables will improve your feeling of happiness, how can we get the eating itself be an enjoyable process that we can look forward to, instead of forced eating?
A group of researchers at Harvard and Tufts University had a presumption that it would be almost impossible for people to change their preferences. Especially if addicted to unhealthy processed foods, fast food, candies, sweet desserts and carbonated drinks. Professor Susan B. Roberts, the senior author of this study, and her colleagues did a small study of 13 overweight and obese men and women, examining the brain reward circuits. The aim was to determine if the brain can be re-trained to prefer healthier food choices.
During the study, the participants were not allowed to become hungry, due to the fact that this is the point when the cravings for unhealthy foods trigger. They followed a low-calorie diet, which was rich in healthy proteins and high in fibre, low glycemic fruits and vegetables. Foods that keep the blood glucose in balance and promote long satiety. This pilot study lasted for six months and the brains of the participants’ were MRI scanned before and after.
A big surprise for the researchers
What the researchers found out, was that not only the brain was able to create heightened reward from healthy food but also did no longer actively respond to high-calorie, unhealthy options! Professor Susan B. Roberts and her team found out that the brain indeed is capable of being re-trained and actually receive a stronger reward system from healthy food.
So if we consider both of these aspects that science has been able to enlighten: by eating more fruits and vegetables, I can be happier AND even though I might feel depressed about the idea of eating plant-based food at the moment, I’m able to train my brain to like the healthy food over time. After a while, getting even more of that feeling of high, than from eating unhealthy foods. I think this is encouraging!
Brant Cortright, PhD has written a book with a title The Neurogenesis, Diet & Lifestyle, Upgrade Your Brain, Upgrade Your Life. The book covers all the key tools for training one’s mind with such simple things as diet and lifestyle. Neurogenesis is the process in our brain where new neurones or brain cells are created. It’s about the renewal and upgrading of the brain. When your neurogenesis is high, you also feel good, your memory is better and you learn faster. High neurogenesis also protects from stress and illnesses by elevating immunity. On the contrary, poor diet leads to poor brain function, lower neurogenesis and degraded quality of life.
Brant Cortright says that in the past century neuroscience has done a revolutionary discovery by understanding how neurogenesis works and how our lifestyle choices can make a huge difference in our brains’ condition and the feeling of happiness. Probably the most interesting discovery has been, that the brain can renew itself at any age and at any time of your life by the choices you make in everyday life. The old believe that the brain cells die and reduce as you age, is no longer valid. Lifestyle changes include all areas in body, heart, mind, spirit and nutrition. The type of diet that protects the brain from inflammation, oxidation and glycation, can support neurogenesis. Cortright claims that our food choices play a big role in either promoting or reducing the neurogenesis. Studies show that foods such as blueberries, omega-3 fatty acids, green tea and curcumin can increase neurogenesis significantly. See more neurogenesis boosting foods below.
10 Foods and Nutrients that Stimulate Neurogenesis
- omega-3 fatty acids, (especially DHA and EPA) extracts from fish oil (or flax oil or algae)
- green tea and green tea extracts containing the catechin EGCG
- curcumin, from the spice turmeric (found in curry)
- whole soy foods such as tofu, edamame, soy milk, soy nuts and soy isoflavone extracts containing daidzein and genistein
- ginseng extract
- vitamin E
- piperine (found in black pepper)
- goji berry, aka wolfberry
If I only get through the resistance period
What actually happens inside of our bodies on a cellular level when we consciously work to form new positive habits – like eating healthy? Todd Herman, a high-performance coach, speaker and author, claims that no matter whether it’s a new job, diet, exercising or learning new skills, our brain takes some time to get used to this new way of being and to make the new habit stick.
Todd explains that before there’s improvement, there’s always some resistance, on a cellular level. That’s the point when people often feel it’s too hard for them or this exercise or a diet doesn’t suit them. That’s when I tend to give up for the chocolate bar. But if we only get past that resistance period, things will get a whole lot easier. And knowing this happens for all of us, can be a powerful key to success in all aspects of life. My motto is – just make a small step forward every day. Keeping the big goal in mind (slimmer waistline, healthier body, new relationship) can also be helpful with motivating you past the resistance period.
What keeps me on track?
The main reason that helps me to continue eating healthy is the fact that I want to be happy and healthy within my ideal weight. Isn’t that what we all want in the end? But health isn’t always on the top of our minds, especially if we feel “ok” at the moment. If wanting to lose weight, the goal might feel too far away from reach. That’s why I choose to concentrate on the feeling of happiness. That’s something current right now, right at this moment. Feelings of love, clarity, openness and a deep fulfilling engagement with life. Being creative and in a search of my greatest potential. Sounds good right? Those are the things that make me want to continue with healthy eating even when I’m struggling.
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