At some point we’ve all made that promise to “eat better,” only to quickly realize that our cravings eventually get the best of us. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a magic pill that helps us shed pounds while taking the addictive power of unhealthy eating out of the equation? While this miracle weight loss pill remains to be discovered, emerging research reveals the role the brain has in food cues and how to rewire your brain for making better food choices.

One recent study published in Nutrition & Diabetes, researchers used a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to map the brain’s response to foods. After a 6-month high-fiber, high-protein and low-glycemic index diet behavioral intervention, the intervention group showed a decreased brain reward response toward high-calorie foods compared to the control group. Additionally, they had a significantly “increased” brain reward response to low-calorie food than the control group. Subjects in the intervention group lost an average of nearly 14 pounds of body weight compared to an average weight gain of almost 5 pounds in the control group.

In the study, researchers from Tufts University conducted a 24-week diet behavioral intervention to 13 overweight and obese men and women. Of them, eight were in a weight loss program and five were in the control group that received no intervention. The intervention program included the use of portion-controlled menus focused on high protein, high-fiber and low-glycemic foods, recipe suggestions, and individual support from nutritionists with experience in behavioral weight management.

In theory, a hyperactive brain reward system for high-calorie versus low-calorie food cues lead to overeating and thus overweight and obesity.  According to the authors, findings from this study can serve as a beacon of hope in the fight against obesity. “We show here that it is possible to shift preferences from unhealthy food to healthy food without surgery, and that fMRI is an important technique for exploring the brain’s role in food cues,” said Thilo Deckersbach, first author and psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital.

BONUS: Previous research has associated the role of the brain chemistry in compulsive eating as well as certain brain chemicals with alcoholism and overeating. One study using rats found sugar to be even more addictive than cocaine.

Published October 1, 2014