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Can You Retrain Your Taste Buds?

  • Sep 06, 2019
  • Nutrition

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Our taste buds constantly regenerate, so what’s to say we couldn’t retrain them to like the foods we don’t like?

Over the years we develop our own preferences to food, these can come from habits, our upbringing, culture and memories. But just because we have these preferences now, does it mean they will always be the same?

Changing our taste-buds could be a possibility, but it is a process which may always be helpful. We could come to like something new or re-like something old, but we could end up hating something we once loved.  For example, after having a diet with less sugar or sodium (i.e. salt), you could start to think the crisps you used to eat are too salty or the chocolate bar you had is too sweet.

What are Taste Buds

Taste buds aren’t just in your tongue, they are all over your mouth, but you can’t see them. Each of them is a collection of 50-100 cells that test your food before you swallow it. When we eat or drink, the chemicals in the food are sensed by our taste buds. The buds send signals to the brain which interprets them as taste.

Taste falls under five categories: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami which means “savoury” in Japanese. Flavour and taste are different, flavour is a combination of taste and smell, specifically "retronasal olfaction," which is how your brain registers scent when you eat something.

Our taste buds die off then regenerate every couple of weeks. However, the older you get, the slower your taste buds change as the regeneration cells slow down (in time, this could lead to a loss of taste).

Whether we want to introduce healthier foods into our diet or just want to stop some not-so-healthy food habits, we may be interested in retraining our taste buds. Here are some tips that could help:

Try and Try Again

Like most things in life, the more we see it, do it or try it, the more we get used to it. By getting accustomed to something, we could begin to like it and miss it if we withdrew from it. In relation to food, if we continue to repeatedly eat the food we aren’t keen on, we may soon begin to like it.

A way to do this is to pair the less desired foods with the ones you like, initially hiding some of the flavour, but at the same time slowly helping your brain to make a positive link between them. According to One Medic, you should start to see an increase in your preference for these foods without having to mask their flavour. Another way to increase your preference for foods you don’t like is to use seasoning you like. By mixing up the way you consume them, you could prevent ‘taste fatigue’ which is where you get bored with eating the same food.

Start little by little and try experimenting, you could find your new favourite combination.

Tackle That Bitter Taste

Bitter is a complicated taste and our bodies find it hard to process. Traditionally our brain associated bitterness with that something inedible or potentially poisonous. However, bitter foods have multiple health benefits, with most of them coming from polyphenols, chemicals that act as antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and sometimes prebiotics.

Healthline suggests that If we slowly introduce bitter foods such as broccoli, kale or dandelion greens into our diet, the proteins in our saliva will start to transform. They change how we perceive bitter foods, calming the initial distaste.

A tip for starting to enjoy bitter food is to pair it with something slightly sweet - try it with a little bit of honey or even a sweet vegetable such as a squash. The contrasting flavours will temper the bitterness and balance the dish. Another way to relax the bitterness is to sear, roast or braise your vegetables as it caramelises the edges which deepens the flavour and causes a nutty tinge.

Overcoming Our Sweet, Salty & Fatty Cravings

Research shows that fatty, sugary and salty foods could be lighting up our brain’s pleasure centres. But consuming these foods regularly could potentially be dulling our taste buds and dumbing us to subtle flavours in other foods. Our cravings for these tastes are the hardest to overcome because the more we have them, the more we want them. However, reducing our intake of salt, sugar and fat, doesn’t only promote a healthier diet, it can also reduce the desire to have them, resulting in a new baseline for these flavours.

How can we retrain our bodies to overcome these cravings?   
A good way to start is by trying to cook from scratch more regularly, Havard Health Publishing say that 80% of the sugar and salt we consume is from packaged/processed food. Although many of us don’t have the time to cook daily, preparing our own meals will allow us to gain more control of our diets and gradually taper out these flavours. If cooking isn’t for you, try to be more aware of the levels of sodium and added sugar in your food by reading their nutrition label carefully.

Sugar – To overcome a craving for sugar, eat something with a contrasting flavour (e.g. citrus) to dampen your desire. If you’re still after sweetness try roasting your vegetables to bring out their sweetness or using warm spices to bring out natural sugary flavours.

Salt – When it comes to adding salt to your dish, a tip to limit your consumption is to add it after you’ve tasted it and to do it in small amounts at a time. Many of us have a habit of putting salt into the pan or on our dishes even before tasting it. Rather than doing that, you could replace the salt with wedges of citrus fruits such as lemons and limes to boost the flavour of your dishes without extra salt. You could also replace salt with herbs and spices which will further enhance the taste. By reducing salt, you could quickly notice more of the flavours that this was masking.

Fats – A small amount of fat is essential for a healthy diet. It is high in energy and helps the body to absorb vitamins (i.e. vitamin A, D and E), however putting a limit on trans (meat, diary) and saturated fats (biscuits, cheese, chocolate) could help us achieve a healthier diet. A good way of doing this is by using healthier fats such as coconut oil or avocado and by avoiding fatty food binges. Low-fat dairy products such as skimmed milk or low-fat spreads will still fulfil your body’s needs and could help reduce your fat intake further. Train yourself to cook with less oil (use an oil spray instead) or use a different method of cooking (grilling or steaming) instead of frying.

Limit Your Options

Try limiting the amount of choices we have on our plate at one time to prevent sensory-specific satiety. This happens when you start getting full and losing interest in one component on your plate, but you can continue eating the bit you prefer (which may not always be the healthier one). By sticking to smaller portions and more limited choices at each meal, you should be able to avoid this altogether.

Put Your Thinking Hat On

Educating ourselves on the benefits of certain foods can give us a reason to try them and want to like them. Likewise, if we look up the cons of others it can make us want to reduce how much we eat them. This links to eating mindfully - if we think about the goodness of our food, this could help intensify the flavours we perceive and make us feel more satisfied.

If you choose to try and retrain your palate, it may feel daunting at first, however, perseverance is key. After a short while, you could notice a change in your food cravings and even in the way you perceive some tastes. Try different foods, different recipes and different combinations – it might surprise you what new flavours and tastes you can discover.
Disclaimer: The content of this website is provided for informational purposes only and does not substitute the medical advice from a healthcare professional.