Can we train our brain to dislike the food we crave?

What makes ice cream so very tempting? Let’s start with the obvious: It’s sweet, and humans – even babies – naturally prefer sweetness. We’re also naturally drawn to foods that have high caloric content; this probably served our species well during the majority of our food-scarce existence. 

If that weren’t enough, the next layers of desire rely on ice cream being paired repeatedly with pleasure and positive feelings, conditioning us to crave it. We learn to want certain foods from advertising, food placement in the supermarket, from the product’s packaging and visual appeal, from its association with characters and places that we're fond of. 

If ice cream were associated with filth, disease and desolation, rather than with long summer days, azure beaches and beautiful, fit, thin, sun-kissed people could we overcome our sweet tooth and like it just a little less?

That’s exactly what a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition tried to find out. The researchers from the university of Colorado, led by Kristina Legget, went for visceral, automatic responses – implicit ones – rather than conscious ones, such as associating high calorie food with obesity. Volunteers were shown disgusting images of cockroaches, vomit and unclean toilets for an ever-so-brief moment – below the level in which they could consciously recall they’ve seen anything or what they’ve seen – followed by the image of high calorie foods, while low calorie foods were primed by positive images of happy babies and kittens. The 22 people that were primed with disgust rated the highly caloric food lower – they wanted it less – when compared with the 20 people in the control group, who were primed with neutral images before the 90 food images.

We can learn to eat better by thinking our way through nutrition education and the food-disease connection, but this study shows that there’s potential for changing our eating habits with the shortcut of contextual food cues. Mind you, that’s exactly what food marketers use to push our buttons. 

When New York City's health department employed disgust in the service of curbing soda consumption (see below) the reaction was pretty strong, suggesting this approach really does get to us.

Dr. Ayala

there’s potential for changing our eating habits with the shortcut of contextual food cues