Retraining Your Taste Buds

Between a slice of molten chocolate cake or a killer bowl of kale salad, which one would taste better to you? While the obvious answer might be the slice of cake (who wouldn’t want cake?) there’s actually a number of you who might have chosen the kale salad. Why?

The answer is because our taste buds are individual and unique. Every one of us has our likes and dislikes when it comes to food. But what’s even more exciting is that our taste buds are changeable, meaning we can train and even retrain them with a bit of work. Crazy, right?

Many of us grew up on a diet of processed foods and dessert every night, so it’s no wonder that our taste buds prefer the salty and sweet sensations. But just because you are a sugar fiend right now doesn’t mean you have to be one forever. Research has shown that reducing our salt and sugar intake over time leads to a lower preference threshold for these tastes. In other words, we can teach our taste buds to accept less sugar and less salt without giving up the pleasantness of what we are eating. And with some mindfulness and determination, we can actually retrain our taste buds to prefer subtler tastes like bitter and pungent – the tastes that are in kale and other healthy whole foods.

Here’s what the process looks like:

Eat mindfully.
Taking the time to notice the flavors and textures of what we put into our mouth goes a long way in educating our taste buds about what we like and what we don’t. Next time you sit down for a meal, try turning off the TV and putting away your phone. Focus on the food in front of you and ask yourself, does this taste good? Oftentimes, we find that processed foods high in salt and sugar really don’t have much taste other than, well, salt and sugar.  

If you don’t like it, try it again.
Exposing our taste buds over and over again to the same foods has a huge impact on whether we end up liking it or not. Parents will often feed their infants foods like mashed peas multiple times before the baby stops spitting it out. It’s the same idea for us as adults. Part of the retraining process requires us to become accustomed to foods that we previously shunned. After a few times of eating steamed broccoli we may just find that we like it.   

Add variety.
In addition to trying different foods multiple times before we decide whether we like them or not, it’s also important to focus on increasing variety in our diet. The more foods that our taste buds are exposed to, the more likely we are to end up liking a bigger variety of foods. 

Cut out artificially flavored and sweetened foods.
Removing these foods from our diet will go a long way in helping us retrain our taste buds to enjoy the natural taste of whole foods. Artificially flavored and sweetened products “trick” our taste buds into thinking that food needs to be super salty or super sweet to be tasty. But as a result, we miss out on all the other delightful tastes like sour, bitter, and umami, a taste best described as “savory”.

Make your plate pretty.
There’s a saying that chefs around the world like to say – “you eat with your eyes first”. And it’s true. Researchers have found that when we make our plates look appetizing, we tend to perceive that food as being more delicious than foods that do not look appetizing. A big part of making our plates look tantalizing is to add lots of colors and textures.  

Don’t judge a food by its smell.
Have you ever lifted the lid off a steaming pot of broccoli or popped open the lid of sauerkraut? If you have, you probably know that these odors don’t exactly smell enticing. There are some foods such as these that give off stinky aromas, but in truth they actually taste pretty good! So please, don’t judge a food by its smell because your taste buds might just perk up at the flavor. 

Spice it up!
I get it, food can be plain and boring. Why eat carrot sticks when you can have zesty Doritos? The good news is that healthy food doesn’t have to feel like a sacrifice. A few dashes of your favorite spices can really go a long way when you’re trying to make a healthy dish more flavorful or a snack – like carrot sticks – a bit more exciting. If you need some inspiration, check out these spice blends from around the world.

Be patient.
Retraining our taste buds takes time! About 6-8 weeks to be more precise. Just like losing weight, learning to like new foods is not going to happen overnight. It will take mindfulness and determination, but I promise it’s possible.

 

References:

Rossy M. Mindfully training your taste buds. Tasting Mindfulness. https://www.umsystem.edu/newscentral/mindfuleating/2013/10/09/mindfully-training-your-taste-buds/. Accessed February 23, 2016.

Pagan CN. 6 tricks for training your taste buds to crave healthy foods. Women’s Health Magazine. http://www.womenshealthmag.com/weight-loss/how-to-retrain-your-taste-buds. Accessed February 23, 2016.

Schaeffer J. Taste better, live better– Using flavor to retrain palates and fill up on less. Today’s Dietician. 2008;10(10):54. http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/092208p54.shtml. Accessed February 23, 2016.

Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake. Taste and flavor roles of sodium in foods: A unique challenge to reducing sodium intake. In: Henney JE, Taylor CL, Boon CS, ed. Strategies to Reduce Sodium Intake in the United States. Washington D.C.: National Academies Press; 2010: 67-90.

Wise PM, Nattress L, Flammer LJ, Beauchamp GK. Reduced dietary intake of simple sugars alters perceived sweet taste intensity but not perceived pleasantness. Am J Clin Nutr. 2016;103(1):50-60. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.115.112300.

Castle M. Does the way we see food affect its taste? HuffPost Taste. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/Menuism/does-the-way-we-see-food-affect-taste_b_1872204.html. Accessed February 23, 2016.

 


Becky Timbers is a Health Coach originally from Vermont, but now living in Seattle. She holds a Masters in Nutrition from Bastyr University. When not coaching people toward better health she can be found either making recipes for her blog, Traveling Fork or playing on her yoga mat.