Edited by Kate Findley, The Great Courses Daily
Have you ever wished that when you were hungry, you craved carrots instead of cookies and chips? As it turns out, you can train your brain to crave healthy foods, as Peter M. Vishton, Ph.D., explains.
Are We Born to Crave Certain Foods?
When you alter your eating plan to incorporate healthier foods, several parts of the brain come to the rescue. The most notable is the orbitofrontal cortex, located just above your eyeballs. This area of the brain helps you make the transition from eating certain foods out of obligation to actually craving healthy foods.
We do have some inborn food preferences. Babies like sweet things from the beginning, and even a newborn infant will make a clear aversion response if you present them with a sour or bitter stimulus.
However, humans eat an amazing range of complex things. If you look across the planet, humans eat some things that, at first glance, aren’t clearly edible.
Nattō is a dish common in Japan and Korea that consists of fermented soybeans. Lots of very healthy, happy people will swear that they’re delicious, but if you’ve never had them before, they look and smell rotten. In a sense, they are.
They’re left out for bacteria to consume them, multiply rapidly, and then consume them some more. How could someone find this delicious?
The nattō eaters of the world don’t have a monopoly on this. There are dishes served the world over that some people find tasty, while others find them disgusting: jellied moose nose, haggis, boiled bat paste, and anything made with intestines. Compared to this, fresh carrot sticks start to sound pretty good.
Acquiring Food Preferences
Every time we eat, our body does data collection. It encodes the flavors, textures, smells, and even the social context in which the meal occurred. Then, after the food goes into the digestive tract, it waits to find out what happens.
If you feel nauseous afterward, then your brain—in cooperation with your orbitofrontal cortex—concludes that food is to be avoided in the future. If, on the other hand, there’s a good outcome—if the body gets a boost of energy and feels satisfied—then a positive association is made with the food.
As you eat something repeatedly, your brain forms associations with it. You’re more likely to perform behaviors in the future when you’re rewarded for doing them and avoid those behaviors that result in punishment.
Our adaptability to new kinds of food has been responsible for humans’ spread across the globe.
Not all animals have this system. Pandas are born with a strong preference for bamboo shoots. If you take them away, they won’t learn to eat other things.
Train Your Brain to Crave Apples
“I’ve never been a great lover of apples,” Dr. Vishton said. “As a kid, they were something that was included in my lunchbox. Often, I carried that apple home with me at the end of the day. …Well, more recently, I’ve been eating a lot of apples.”
Dr. Vishton cited the nutritional value of the apple as part of his motivation to eat it instead of reaching for a less healthy snack. He said that he reminds himself that apples are high in Vitamin C and fiber while being low in calories.
“Once I started eating apples regularly, two strange things happened,” Dr. Vishton said. “First, I turned into a picky apple eater. … There are good apples and great apples. If you get them at the right time, when they’re ripe but not too ripe, they have that crisp texture.
“The flavor starts sweet, has a little sour, too, and then it gets sweet again as you chew it. Not all apples taste the same. As I ate a lot of apples, my sensory systems changed. My orbitofrontal cortex learned to appreciate apples in much greater depth. The other strange thing is that, when I got hungry, there were times when I craved an apple. Not cookies, not a donut, but an apple.”
This illustration shows that you can teach your brain to crave healthier foods. When you’re hungry, satisfy your hunger with something healthy. You might not enjoy a delicious experience the first time, but keep doing it.
Every time you give your body that pleasurable experience of satisfying your hunger, you’ll like the food a little bit more. If you do so long enough, you’ll almost certainly get a hunger-induced craving for healthy food.
Dr. Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.