It would be great if instead of chocolate, you regularly craved vegetables. And it actually can happen—you just have to stop eating the chocolate and start eating the vegetables.
In a study released today, researchers from Tufts University and Massachusetts General Hospital found that changes in eating habits eventually changed the foods people prefer.
The researchers took MRIs of the study subjects, all healthy adults who were overweight or obese, measuring their reactions to images of unhealthy, high-calorie foods like fruit cereal and french fries, as well as healthier, low-calorie foods like baked salmon and an egg-white omelette. Then, for six months, the participants followed the Instinct Diet, created by one of the study’s authors, Susan Roberts. (She also wrote the book The Instinct Diet and is co-founder of the iDiet program.)
The study subjects were responsible for preparing their own food but followed the guideline’s menus and recipes, which combine carbohydrates low on the glycemic index with more fiber and protein. Those foods lead to slower digestion and more stable levels of blood glucose—it’s the spikes and crashes that drive you to crave and eat unhealthy foods. After six months, the scientists showed the subjects the same images. By then, the subjects had developed more of a preference for the healthy foods than they had shown at the start, and less of a preference for the unhealthy foods.
So if you’re trying to change your eating habits, there’s hope. Here are some tips from nutrition experts:
Keep the flavors you like, but change the composition
Occasional “cheats” that appear in many diet programs won’t reduce your cravings over time, because you’re still giving yourself a rush of calories and sugar, even if it’s smaller. Instead, choose a food that you love and create a healthier alternative—for example, the iDiet’s “ice cream sundae” involves sugar-free ice cream, fiber cereal, and a square of dark chocolate melted on top, says Instinct Health Science CEO Norm Gorin. His company administers the program that was tested. As you implement these substitutes over time, you’ll start craving the original one less, because your body isn’t used to getting it. The replacement foods will make you less hungry and are more satisfying than the high-calorie, high-sugar versions, so you won’t feel the need to cheat as much.
Eat at a fancy restaurant
There may be a food that you refuse to eat, because you hated it as a kid or never had it prepared correctly. But our tastes evolve as we age, as does our opportunity to find higher-quality iterations of dishes we wrote off long ago, writes neuroscientist Darya Rose. If you don’t like brussels sprouts (that was Rose’s kryptonite), go to a nice restaurant and try them there—chances are they’re prepared much differently than you remember. Once you’ve established that you indeed can enjoy this healthy food, try making it yourself. Just experiment with different recipes—healthy ones, of course—until you find one you like.
Be aware of taste satisfaction
Sit down with four bites of your favorite indulgence food, and eat the first three bites one by one, very slowly, focusing on your reaction to it, how it affects your taste buds and whether you are enjoying it. When you get to the fourth bite, ask if your body and taste buds genuinely want more. It’s pretty likely they won’t. This is a good way to become aware of “taste satisfaction,” which is how much you actually enjoy a food. When we eat a lot of something, and quickly, your tastebuds effectively shut down—and if you’re not enjoying the chocolate chip cookie and it’s not good for you, why bother eating it at all? This idea is a large component of the practice of mindful eating, which encourages you to react to what you actually want and need, according to psychologist Jean Kristeller, a founder of the Center for Mindful Eating. Do this with other foods, including healthy ones, and you might find yourself starting to prefer the healthier foods because they often have more complex flavors and textures, compared with a candy bar that’s way too sugary and greasy for your taste buds to enjoy in large quantities.
Don’t be distracted
When you’re learning a musical instrument, it’s hard to make progress when you’re practicing with the TV on and other people surrounding you, Kristeller points out. The same goes for learning how to eat properly. If you want to improve your eating habits, it’s good to know why you’re eating in the first place and how you’re taste buds are reacting—and that mindfulness is hard to develop when you’re distracted. Take the time to sit down and understand what you’re putting into your body—otherwise, you might not be hungry anymore, but you’ll keep eating because there’s more on your plate and you’re watching Breaking Bad. Once you get the hang of it and know how much your body needs, you can start bringing in distractions again because the hunger monitoring will become more like second nature, Kristeller tells Quartz.
Take deep breaths
Eating well requires focus, which is something you can harness just by paying greater attention to your breathing. Kristeller suggests that your mealtimes include a “mini meditation,” in which you take a deep breath before taking a bite of food. This allows you to focus, and also forces you to take a break before eating more, prompting you to think about whether you actually need or want another bite. Plus, eating slowly is good for digestion.
A lot of people decide to change their eating habits, or at least become more aware of them, for a specific reason—you want to set a good example for your kids, you want to fit into your old jeans, or there’s a family disease you want to lower your risk for. Those are great motivations. So is the understanding you’ll gain with an education in how your body works and why certain foods are more healthy for it than others. Nutrition professor Brian Wansink, who wrote a book on mindless eating, found that people make many food choices without thinking about them at all—if you know that, you’re more likely to be aware when you’re shopping for food or deciding what to eat.
Plan ahead, but give yourself options
Everyone’s busy. If you plan ahead, you can make meals for the week, separate them into portions, and grab-and-go as needed. Kristeller suggests giving yourself a few different options, though. This applies even if you haven’t cooked the meals yourself—if you’ve stocked your freezer with healthy options from the frozen-food aisle, don’t just grab one on the top—instead, give yourself 30 seconds to think about which one you prefer to have that day. It’ll make you feel more satisfied, because you’ve made a choice about what you want to eat.