Want to shun that oh-so-appealing but obesity-causing junk food and learn to prefer some healthy alternatives? It may be possible to train our brains to do just that, a U.S. study suggests.

Even well-established addictions to less-than-healthy foods can be overcome, the researchers suggest.

"We don't start out in life loving French fries and hating, for example, whole wheat pasta," says Susan B. Roberts of Tufts University.

"This conditioning happens over time in response to eating -- repeatedly! -- what is out there in the toxic food environment," says Roberts, a professor of nutrition science and policy and also a professor of psychiatry at Tufts' School of Medicine.

In a study appearing in the journal Nutrition & Diabetes, the researchers described how they made baseline brain scans of 13 people, concentrating on the portion of the brain identified with rewards and addiction, and then put eight in a behavioral intervention program designed to guide them toward weight loss.

It emphasized portion control and menu plans centered on healthy food choices.

Brain scans conducted six months into the program showed that portion of the brain linked to learning and addiction showed changes in people in the behavioral program while the control group showed no such changes.

Among people in the behavioral weight loss group, that portion of the brain commonly referred to as the reward center appeared to show more sensitivity to healthier foods and react more strongly to them, while displaying less sensitivity to highly-caloric junk foods.

While it is possible to take away the enjoyment of foods with other methods, such as gastric bypass surgery, that's an unsatisfactory strategy because it removes the enjoyment of all foods instead of making healthy foods more attractive, says study lead author Thilo Deckersbach, a psychologist at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital.

"We show here that it is possible to shift preferences from unhealthy food to healthy food without surgery, and that MRI is an important technique for exploring the brain's role in food cues," he says.

Further research is necessary, the researchers acknowledge, but they say the initial findings suggest strong but less-than-healthy food cravings can be reconditioned.

"Our study shows those who participated in it had an increased desire for healthier foods along with a decreased preference for unhealthy foods," Tufts researcher and study co-author Sai Krupa Das says, "the combined effects of which are probably critical for sustainable weight control."

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