I’m a girl who loves her bread. Warm, melt-in-your-mouth dinner roll; fluffy focaccia; that dark honey loaf I can spend a whole day craving… Plunk me down in any restaurant, pass the bread, and the rest of the meal becomes almost irrelevant. I’ll be totally satisfied if you just keep refilling the bread basket.
There’s just one problem: While I love bread, it doesn’t like me. After years of wondering why I always have a stomachache, I’ve recently discovered a wheat sensitivity that’s been wreaking havoc on my digestion. All of a sudden, my Pavlovian response to the bread basket is off-limits. In order to be healthier and feel better, I have to learn how to unlike a food I’ve become accustomed to loving. Not an easy task, but one that Susan B. Roberts, director of the USDA’s Energy Metabolism Laboratory at Tufts University, suspects can be accomplished through reconditioning to make different food choices.
Roberts says, “We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating whole wheat pasta” — we learn to love those things through conditioning, a process that pairs an originally neutral stimulus (i.e., the sight of McDonald’s fries) with an unconditioned stimulus (i.e., the actual taste of the fries).
The process of conditioning significantly involves the cortical areas of the brain: various regions of the outer layer (the cerebrum or cerebral cortex) that play a significant role in consciousness. Studies suggest that when it comes to conditioning, the brain displays increased activation in the right hemisphere. Specifically, PET scans show increased cerebral blood flow in the orbito-frontal cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, inferior and superior frontal cortices, and inferior and middle temporal corticies.
While the process of conditioning may happen in a conscious area of the brain, however, those conditioned responses operate below consciousness. Conditioned brain circuits become involuntary. Though behaviors can be suppressed, the urges associated with them require intervention to be altered.
How Conditioning Affects Food Choices
If you want to change your diet to be healthier but are finding it tough to resist your conditioned food choice habits, then the new study Roberts co-authored will offer some inspiration. Roberts and a team of nutrition scientists at Tufts conjectured that through years of negative food choices, consumers establish conditioned brain circuits that led to mental addictions to certain foods. Based on the neurons that fire together wire together theory of neuroplasticity, it’s easy to believe that many occasions of pairing certain foods with positive feelings and experiences would create a state of conditioning deeply embedded in neural pathways. The synapses of neural pathways strengthen with use, so years and years of French fries would produce an incredibly strong condition that could be challenging to reverse.
To test the possibility of reversing such food conditions, the Tufts team engaged both obese and normal-weight subjects in a weight loss/control program that included brain imaging and rewards for behavioral change.
Sai Krupa Das, co-author of the study, explains, “The weight loss program is specifically designed to change how people react to different foods.”
Study results prove that although the strength of food conditioning may run deep, it absolutely can be changed by the power of the mind. Subjects who successfully lost weight showed brain changes in the reward center associated with learning and addiction—specifically, an increased reactivity related to healthy foods. This suggests increased sensations of reward and pleasure when eating healthy foods.
Krupa Das interprets the study as showing that “those who participated… had an increased desire for healthier foods along with a decreased preference for unhealthy foods, the combined effects of which are probably critical for sustainable weight control.”
How to Rewire Your Food Conditioning
The idea of brain change in the area of food and nutrition opens up a new space in diet and weight loss. If you’re feeling like you could use a crash course in reversing your food conditioning, Caryl Ehrlich, author of Conquer Your Food Addiction, suggests the following options:
- Tally Your Consumption: Keep a weekly log of how often you choose the undesired food option. Each week, make your goal to be to lower the tally.
- Kick Your Addiction: In a full-fledged addiction, the portion size and frequency keep increasing. Overcoming that process means consistently reducing both over a sustained period of time.
- Reduce Your Daily Intake: Identify how many times a day you make poor food choices. Then systematically reduce the number according to a pace that feels comfortable to you.
- Pick One: If your negative food choices fall into more than one category (popular items include bread, sugary beverages or snacks, and alcohol), choose to have no more than one negative choice per meal.
- Talk to Yourself: Make your choices more conscious than subconscious. Literally say to yourself, “Instead of that slice of cheesecake, I’ll have a cup of herbal tea.” At the same time, remind yourself why you are doing this. For example, “With this choice I am going to feel better, have more energy, and experience fewer headaches.”
- Set Limits: Retraining your brain doesn’t have to happen cold turkey. Allow yourself that forbidden food, but only one reasonable portion—no second helpings!
Suppose you try all these things and still feel that the changes you’re striving for aren’t happening. In that case, up the ante by implementing this 4-step process for behavioral therapy’s habit-reversal training:
- Become Aware: Every time you make a bad food choice, describe it to yourself and/or a friend or family member. Notice the sensations, thoughts, situations, and urges that precede the decision.
- Develop a Competing Response: Identify an opposite behavior/choice. Preferably this will be something that can be applied anywhere, anytime, regardless of your location. For example, bring your own healthy food alternative so you don’t have to rely on a restaurant’s limited menu.
- Build Motivation: Make a list of all the problems that result from bad food choices. For every time you resist such a choice, offer yourself a reward. This can be anything from a kind word to yourself to a purchase. (Studies show that small rewards are actually more effective in breaking and maintaining resistance to an addiction, so you don’t have to break the bank on this step.)
- Generalize Your New Skill: Having discovered ways to redirect your conditioned food urges in restaurants, apply this process to other areas of your life, including dinner at a friend’s house, grocery shopping, and impromptu snacking.
I used several of these techniques in my quest to rewire my bread conditioning. Today, I’m 100% wheat-free. In the beginning, the toughest part was feeling I was being deprived. What helped lessen the sting was discovering more and more alternative tasty options. And now I’m conditioned to a wholly new idea: I can find satisfaction in food sources other than the bad choice I used to make. The happy outcome is that in addition to a more comfortable stomach, my taste buds are having new and more varied experiences, which just might even be increasing my neuroplasticity: The brain loves diversity!