Can You Retrain Your Brain To Love Veggies? 3 Steps To Healthier Eating Habits
There are so many healthy eating guidelines out there, and while one diet may work for some people, sometimes it'd be nice if we could just learn to crave the foods we know are good for us. And psychiatrist and neuroscientist Jud Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., thinks we can.
On an episode of the mbg podcast, Brewer shared the simple steps we can take to "hack" our own eating habits and to train our brain to look at healthy eating as something we want to do, not just should do.
First, understand the rewards-values system.
The key to the start of Brewer's strategy for learning to love vegetables it to look back at our relationship with one of the ultimate indulgences: a piece of cake.
"How rewarding a behavior is determines how likely we are to repeat it in the future. So if we eat the food—let's say you eat some broccoli versus you eat some chocolate cake—from a survival standpoint, your brain is going to compare those two, and it's going to say, which one has more fat and sugar? Because it wants the calories."
"This is actually set up as a very, very basic survival mechanism," he explains. "And the simplest elements there are three elements: a trigger, a behavior, and a reward or a result." But it's not just about the cake; it's about the conditions that surround our relationship to it.
"When do we typically learn to eat cake?" he asks. "When we go to birthday parties when we're kids, right? And so there's cake. There's ice cream. There are friends. There are presents. It's a lot of fun all packed into one."
All those additional external factors only reinforce our mind's original perception of the cake as good based on its fat and sugar content.
Pay more attention to what you eat and how it makes you feel.
So much of adhering to healthy diets involves eliminating the bad foods—but that's not always the best option. Or maybe it's not a diet you're after: You just want to love veggies as much as they deserve.
Brewer proposes an alternative mindset to the restrictions that go with traditional diets: "This isn't about demonizing or telling ourselves not to eat cake," he explains. "It's about one simple ingredient: It's about paying attention."
What do we pay attention to? The way we feel, essentially, and we use that to break down the habits we learned as a child.
"As we start to pay attention when we're eating a certain food," says Brewer, "we can really see how rewarding it is now." Rewarding can mean a lot of different things, but as adults we are more likely to be more able to tune into the way the foods we eat fuel our body: Is it a sugar high followed by a crash, or is it a sustainable good energy?
"You're describing taking a piece of cake, totally savoring it, enjoying it, and being satisfied with that," he explains. Our habits associated with food, as Brewer pointed out, go past just the physical response to the food's flavor and nutrient profile: There are emotional and memory-based baggage that go with food habits too.
For example, food and stress are often intertwined. If it's sweets that you turn to in those moments, he suggests thinking it through: "That might distract me for a little bit or give me a sugar rush, but that's not actually going to fix the root cause of my stress."
Then, build on these habits.
To make use of this new knowledge, Brewer offers two crucial thoughts to use while you're eating to really tap into changing how your brain perceives the reward value of the food.
"One is, if they eat, and they really savor it [...] how little is enough?" says Brewer. "It's much easier for them to stop. If they can't stop, we said, 'OK, go for it, but pay attention afterward,' just so that they can update that reward value in their brain."
The crucial point is after perhaps indulging too much, we use that feeling to update the way we think about that food—and it can go both ways, not just toward lowering reward value on indulgences when we enjoy a bit too much.
So what happens when you've tapped into the different influencers on your relationship with different foods? You can move on, eating what makes you feel good and even occasionally enjoying the things that don't—if you even want to anymore.
"We actually become enchanted," says Brewer. "We become enchanted with the new [habits] because they just feel better."