Taste buds, the tiny little things that cover the surface of our tongues, are extremely adaptable. Dr. David Katz says it best:
"When your taste buds can't be with foods they love, they learn to love the foods they're with."
Our taste buds can certainly make us happy; like after eating a delicious meal, but that is not their intended purpose. The job of the taste buds is all about human survival, they help us determine what is friend and what is foe.
Any time our early ancestors tried a new food, there was always a chance that it might be poisonous. However, with the alternative being that they could die from starvation, they had to take their chances and try new foods to survive. Our taste buds are designed to prefer flavors that are familiar to us because they are likely to be safe to consume (and not kill us!). Most people do not like foods that taste bitter at first, because it is unfamiliar to our taste buds. However, over time, they become better tolerated, and even enjoyed. A perfect example of this is coffee or alcohol. Most people do not initially like the taste of either of these things, because they can be bitter and not taste like anything else that is familiar. At first someone might only tolerate coffee if it has a lot of sugar and cream in it, but eventually they may begin to enjoy the taste of coffee without diluting the flavor as much.
Anyone who has ever switched from drinking whole milk to skim milk can probably tell you how much they didn’t like skim milk at first, and thought it tasted like water. But over time their taste buds adapted and now when they try whole milk, it tastes like they are drinking butter since it is so high in fat. The same can be said about a person that needs to start following a lower sodium diet. At first, the food may taste bland and boring. Your taste buds eventually adjust, and then when you go out to eat at a restaurant, you cannot believe how salty the food is! You are left feeling extremely thirsty, and may notice swelling in your fingers or feet afterwards. Your body is trying to get you to drink water to flush out the excess sodium that it doesn’t need and is not used to.
It’s Time Your Taste Buds Got Trained
Typically when new parents begin introducing foods to their baby, vegetables do not top the list of their child’s favorite food. But don’t give up and throw in the towel – the taste buds just need time to get familiar with the taste, which can then turn into a preference for a certain food. The taste buds are being ‘trained’ in a sense. And guess what – you can do the same thing as an adult!
But why is it that our taste buds welcome sweet, salty, and fatty foods instead of preferring nutrient dense foods like kale, apples, and beans? Thinking back to our ancestors, there are not many foods that are naturally sweet or salty, but our bodies need salt and carbohydrates to survive. High fat foods contain the most calories, which our ancestors also needed to stay alive, so our taste buds welcome these flavors with open arms. These were lifesaving mechanisms in ancient times, however, in modern society they are what is causing deteriorating health for many people.
This information is no secret to food scientists who develop new products for consumers. They work hard to create foods that are highly palatable and delicious, so that we keep coming back for more and purchase their product. Highly processed foods are purposely formulated to be high in sugar, salt, fat, and carbohydrates knowing how much it will make our taste buds happy. Unfortunately, what’s good for our taste buds is not always good for our health. These foods can be somewhat addicting for many, and the more you eat, the more you want it. So what can we do?
Try This 10 Day Experiment at Home
- The cells that make up our taste buds undergo continual turnover, with an average life span of about 10 days. Just as your taste buds can learn to crave salty/sweet food, they can also unlearn this preference as well.
- Challenge yourself to reduce or eliminate any foods with added sugar (not naturally occurring sugar like fruit or dairy) for 10 days.
- On the 11th day when you try something sweet, you will be shocked at how much sweeter the item tastes, to the point where it is overbearing.
- You can also try this with salty foods. Season your food with salt-free herbs and spices, lemon juice, fresh garlic, and/or vinegars and avoid any salty canned/frozen foods and snacks.
- Try something salty and see if you notice a difference it how it tastes to you.
You can also try repeatedly exposing your taste buds to healthy foods that you may not currently care for. For example, I never really liked tomatoes or broccoli when I was young. As I got older, I realized how healthy these foods are so I slowly began adding in 1-2 cherry tomatoes when I made salad, until I began to really love them and now I add 5-6! Once I learned how good broccoli can taste when it’s been roasted and seasoned with lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, and parmesan – it quickly became one of my favorites! Sometimes veggies need a little extra help to get them to make your taste buds smile :)
If your taste buds are hijacking your health, it’s time to send them to food rehab!
1. The Case for Taste Bud Rehab. US News 2013, By Dr.David Katz MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP
2. How to Train Your Taste Buds. Otamot Healthy Tips Blog. By Jessie Shafer RD