Training Your Brain to Like Healthy Food

steaming mixed vegetables in the wok, asian style cooking vegetarian and healthy, selected focus, narrow depth of field
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If we can train our bodies to achieve physical goals and we can train our intellect to achieve academic goals, who’s to say we can’t train our brain to achieve behavioral and habitual goals?

What I’ve found both professionally and personally is that most people have a small knowledge deficit, but a large application deficit. The most common statement I hear is, “I know what I need to do; I’m just not doing it.” The various reasons generally boil down to priorities. We all have time (all of us have the same 24 hours each day!), a budget (some a bit more wiggle room than others), and resources (kitchen facilities, skills, access to information). Most often, we fail because we prioritize preference and convenience over making the right choice.

So what would it look like to “re-train” our brains to think differently? Here are a few ideas:

Talk to yourself more than you listen to yourself.
Your brain is a muscle and needs to be exercised just like any other! We are not simply passive creatures set on algorithmic mode, subject to respond to whatever the world throws at us. All of the thoughts in your head are not your own. Every day we’re bombarded with ads, propaganda, and social situations that are subtly inoculating us to make poor health decisions. Don’t let them — you have control over what you think about and dwell on. Quit listening to society and start telling yourself how much you like vegetables!

Develop positive associations with healthy practices and negative associations with unhealthy ones.
From Coca Cola to McDonalds, junk food companies try to associate their products with happiness, wealth, prosperity, intimacy, etc. Instead, try thinking about images of diabetic feet or a dialysis machine when you see a bottle of soda. Or picture how well your jeans will fit when you think about exercising or eating vegetables.

Try new things with an open mind.
If you wrinkle your nose and brace yourself when you think about kale or Brussels sprouts, but have never tried them, chances are you aren’t going to like them. Convince yourself you like healthy food beforehand and it will go much better. If you don’t think this will work, look back at a picture of yourself from the 80s and remember that at one time you managed to convince yourself that was cool!

Keep your eyes on the prize.
Remember your goal — whether you want to achieve a former weight, improve blood glucose control, be able to keep up with your grandchildren, or live long enough to see your children married, remember that nothing tastes as good as achieving those goals will feel. Strategically place post-it notes, pictures or inspirational quotes around your home, refrigerator or in your car to remind you why your health is so important.

Get back on that horse!
There is no such thing as a perfect diet — we all slip up at one time or another, and having an occasional treat is not going to destroy your health. It is the ongoing, habitually poor lifestyle that sends us into a slippery slope of declining health. When you mess up, don’t dwell in a state of guilt and discouragement; instead, live and learn and get back on track tomorrow!

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Beth Michaels
Beth Michaels, RD, MS, is a registered dietitian employed at Southern Illinois Healthcare. Read her blog, Nourishing Passions. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.