Train Your Brain to Love Healthy Food

Cake or fruit choiceWe weren’t born loving cheeseburgers and hating spinach. Our “taste conditioning” has been developed via many years of eating high-fat, high-sodium, and sugar-laden foods offered by restaurants and a plethora of processed “convenience” foods. A recent study by the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center has determined that we can, in fact, re-condition our taste buds to enjoy healthier options.

Personally, I grew up eating a lot different than I do now. After all, I wasn’t born a nutritionist! I was raised in a time before anyone had even heard about cholesterol and saturated fat, nevertheless worry about it. Breakfast was defined as a few strips of bacon, followed by a couple or three eggs over easy (cooked in the leftover bacon grease!). If you did have cereal, you wouldn’t think of taking a bite before showering it with sugar. And you dare not bite into corn on the cob without slathering butter all over it, followed by a good dousing of salt. To further date myself, there were no “diet” products when I was a kid. When you had a soda, it was anything but sugar-free.

Fast-forward to my nutritional rebirth as a registered dietitian. One-by-one I confronted each unhealthful food and beverage preference. I remember biting into my first corn-on-the-cob without salt and butter. Wow I thought, “So that’s what corn-on-the-cob tastes like – not bad!” All previous encounters had provided an overwhelming rush of butter and salt with but a hint of corn flavor. Ditto with mixed nuts. Most types come encumbered with loads of sodium, so that you get very little of the nuts’ flavors. Now I choose to eat the non-salted varieties and can sharply distinguish the divergent tastes of the almonds, pistachios, Brazil nuts, cashews, hazelnuts and peanuts. Oh yeah, and the soda. At first I didn’t like the taste of diet soda; but knowing that each 12-ounce can has about 10 teaspoons of sugar, I wasn’t going to retreat. After only a few attempts I got used to diet soda. Now if I try to drink a regular soda it tastes like syrup.

Having experienced this, I knew it was possible to train your taste buds to enjoy healthier fare. But my experience was only anecdotal and lacked empirical evidence. People could say “sure, you forced yourself to do it because you’re a nutritionist, but that won’t work for just anyone.” This is why I was so happy to see the aforementioned USDA study, showing that acquired taste is a physiological phenomenon that could happen for anyone.

So basically the take-home message is: If you want to improve your diet by making healthier choices, give your taste buds a chance. You may be surprised at how adaptive they can become!

Source: Tufts U. Health & Nutrition Letter, January 2015

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