Craving change

Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, is a Certified Health Coach and longtime fitness instructor at the Jewish Community Center.

By Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach

The kids have just arrived home from a fun day at summer camp.  They are happy, tired, sun-tanned…and they are hungry.  Fresh air, sunshine, sports and swimming will do that every time!  The problem is, dinner won’t be served for another hour, and the kids are already clamoring for the chips and pretzels in the pantry.

Before you reprimand the active youngsters for potentially ruining their appetites for dinner, perhaps a more kid-friendly approach can be taken, one that will end up being mutually beneficial. 

We can hardly blame our children for craving what we consider to be empty-calorie junk food.  After all, the majority of food products they see advertised on television and in magazines tend to fall into the “fun” category, and rarely into the nutrient dense column we might prefer as parents.  How can we ensure that our children are building strong healthy bodies when they automatically seem to crave unhealthy snacks?

Research emerging from Tufts University has demonstrated that it is possible to rewire our brain circuits to prefer and ultimately crave healthy foods.  The key is to enjoy these foods when you are particularly ravenous. According to Dr. Susan B. Roberts, Professor of Nutrition and Psychiatry at Tufts University, ”Hunger helps form neurological connections between taste and pleasure.” By consuming a healthy snack on an empty stomach, we can fast-track formation of new habits. The process may require several attempts, but it is possible to alter cravings in just two weeks.


The research study is the first to use MRI scans to study the parts of the brain that are linked to reward and addiction. Thirteen subjects participated in the project, males and females who were overweight and regular junk-food snack aficionados.  Over a six-month period of time, during which these men and women engaged in a specially designed weight loss program known as The Instinct Diet, scientists began to see changes in their brains’ responses to healthy and unhealthy food choices.

One interesting aspect of the Instinct Diet that sets it apart from other meal plans is its emphasis on behavior change and education.  Since the suggested food choices are high in both protein and fiber, as well as low on the carbohydrate glycemic index, the protocol effectively eliminates hunger, allowing the participants to feel genuinely satisfied.  This in turn significantly reduces the desire for cravings, especially unhealthy choices, since when intense hunger kicks in, junk foods seem to become much more attractive. After 6 months on such a plan, brain scans showed an increased sensitivity to images of healthy, lower-calorie foods; scientists interpret this as indicative of an increased reward and enjoyment of healthy “food cues.”  In fact, the subjects who most closely adhered to the meal plan showed changes in the areas of the brain’s reward center associated with addiction and learning.

Returning now to our hungry campers: If dinner is still in the oven, have a plate of cut-up raw vegetables and a dish of hummus or low-fat Ranch dip ready when they run into the house and toss their backpacks on the ground as they run to the kitchen. Sliced apples with peanut butter or almond butter is another great option.  Sure, they may protest at first, preferring the usual chips or cookies as their post-camp/pre-dinner snack.  It is important top remain understanding yet firm as you stick to your guns.  Before the first session of camp is over, you just might have created new neurological pathways that will alter your children’s taste buds for life.  By the time they are young adults living on their own, you may find that Dorito’s are not even on their grocery lists!