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Junk food? No thanks

By Flavia Nassaka

US research shows brain can be trained to crave for healthy foods instead of dangerous junk foodstuffs

Barbecue or mchomo, chips and chicken are some of the junk foods craved by many people from all walks of life ranging from the corporate high end class to the lowest in society. These snacks taste great but they are not good for your body.

Medics warn that in addition to being low on nutritional value, junk foods have high fat and calories contents responsible for heart diseases, obesity, diabetics and even cancer as some grilled meats can contain carcinogens- cancer- causing elements. When the meat is grilled, it produces chemicals known as Heterocyclic amines (HCAs), and exposure to HCAs can cause cancer.

Why then do people crave for these unhealthy foods like it’s an addiction? This could soon be dealt with as researchers have found that the brain can be trained to dispel the junk food addiction.

A brain scan study done at Tufts University Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research center on aging in the US, found that it’s possible to reverse the addictive power of unhealthy food while also increasing preference for healthy foods in both adult women and men.

Scientists behind the study  have concluded that once unhealthy food addiction circuits are established, they may be hard or impossible to reverse, subjecting people who have gained weight to a lifetime of unhealthy food cravings and consumption.

To find out whether the brain can be re-trained to support healthy food choices, the researchers studied the reward system in 13 overweight and obese men and women, eight of whom were participants in a new weight loss program designed by Tufts University researchers and five who were in a control group and were not enrolled in the program.

The program taught lessons on portion control and distributed menu plans geared around specific dietary targets, encouraging people to get 25% of their energy from protein and fat and 50% from low-glycemic carbohydrates, with more than 40 grams of fiber per day.

Both groups underwent Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) brain scans at the beginning and at the end of a six-month period. Among those who participated in the weight loss program, the brain scans revealed changes in areas of the brain reward center associated with learning and addiction.

“After six months, this area had increased sensitivity to healthy, lower-calorie foods, indicating an increased reward and enjoyment of healthier food cues. The area also showed decreased sensitivity to the unhealthy higher-calorie foods,” said Susan. B. Roberts, one of the researchers who participated in the study, in a statement published in an on-line Journal Nutrition and Diabetes on Sept. 01.

While reacting to the study, Dr. Elizabeth Kiboneka, a senior nutritionist, said no one is born attracted more to chips and chicken than posho, cassava or fish, but it’s a habit that people pick up from the peers and communities around them.

“People especially young ladies associate these foods with class or being trendy. They are ashamed of being seen eating posho but they don’t know what toll the junk foods can take on their bodies,” said Dr. Kiboneka, citing the increase in cardiovascular complications to be partly caused by eating foods with high cholesterol levels.

She says most people fail to overcome diseases/ disorders because they do not want to change their mindsets. To her, it’s very easy and possible to create a diet plan to reverse the addictive power of unhealthy food and to introduce healthier diets.

She advises people to be careful with the food choices they make while eating out since most of the foods are prepared using unhealthy oils and even worse under unhygienic conditions. The researchers said this research should infuse optimism in those suffering from addictions to and unhealthy cravings for junk food that it is possible to take up a lifelong habit of consuming calorie-laden healthy food and convince their brains to embrace a new outlook on healthy living.

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