If broccoli tasted as good as ice cream, personal trainers would soon be out of work. However, as we’ve learned from experience, “tasty” food is more a matter of perception than it is a clear-cut definition. Working on this idea, a new study has explored whether or not it’s possible to retrain the brain to perceive healthy food being as enjoyable as traditionally unhealthy food. The results suggest it is indeed possible and may be easier than you think.

Can You Unlike Your Favorite Foods?

Before researchers could figure out how to retrain the brain to prefer a healthy option, they first needed to understand when this conditioning occurred. “We don’t start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta,” senior and co-corresponding author Dr. Susan B. Roberts explained in Psych Central. Roberts went on to explain how this addition to unhealthy food occurs after repeated exposure, but unfortunately, once the “food addiction” circuits in the brain are established they are extremely difficult to reverse. Although the circuits are difficult to undo, the researchers were convinced it could be done and conducted a study to find out exactly how.

In order to prove that the brain’s food preference could, in fact, be retrained the researchers studied the reward system in 13 overweight and obese men and women. Of this group, eight volunteers have recently joined a new weight loss program for which the researchers had designed to specifically “change how people react to different foods,” co-author Sai Krupa Das explained. The remaining five were the control group. Over a six-month period the volunteers underwent MRI brain scans to reveal whether or not changes were made to the area of the brain associated with learning and addiction.

Results were exciting. CNN reported that in the six-month period those in the experimental group lost an average of 14 pounds, while the control only lost about 5. “Our study shows those who participated in it 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,” said Krupa Das, as reported by Psych Central. The researchers place the majority of their weight loss program’s success on a combination of three characteristics: behavioral change, education, and high-fiber/low glycemic meal plans.

When Pleasure Center Goes Haywire

Past studies have shown that especially tasty food can elicit the same responses found in additive drugs such as cocaine and nicotine. The reason for this is that they are able to interact with the brain’s reward system. The reward system works by activating the release of orexin neurons in the brain when we do certain activities such as eat food or have sex. It’s a survival tactic that we evolved to have in order to ensure human survival and procreation. Unfortunately, in a twist of irony, the same system that is meant to keep us alive can also kill us when an individual is too overstimulated by excessive eating, drugs, or alcohol.

High-calorie, fatty, and sugary foods have the most profound effect on the brain’s pleasure center. Thankfully, there are many foods that naturally contain high levels of sugar. Fruit, for example, is both a natural and healthy source of sugar and may be able to satisfy those sweet cravings. Many vegetables, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, also contain satisfyingly high levels of natural, simple sugar. Milk is also high in sugar, and anyone who has enjoyed a warm cut of milk before bed or has worked as a barista can attest to the fact that heating up the liquid makes the sweet flavoring more noticeable.

While it’s undisputable that effective weight loss programs do exist, the researchers believe that their study is the first to demonstrate how the brain’s reward system can be switched. This is important because evidence has shown that weight loss surgery often fails due to general dissatisfaction with food. “It takes away food enjoyment generally rather than making healthier foods more appealing,” co-corresponding author Thilo Deckerback explained in Psych Central. Although the study is relatively small and only the first steps toward understanding how to manipulate the brain’s role in food cues, the researchers are confident that with more work their specific weight loss program will work on a wider scale.

Source: Roberts SB, Deckersbach T, Urban T, et al. Pilot randomized trial demonstrating reversal of obesity-related abnormalities in reward system responsivity to food cues with a behavioral intervention. Nutrition & Diabetes. 2014.