One of life’s unfortunate truths is that most foods that are bad for us taste so good. Of course, that’s no mistake.
Food makers have packed these foods with sweet, salty and fatty flavors to light up our brains’ reward centers.
But you don’t have to give in to this fate. With just three weeks of “taste bud rehab,” you can learn to enjoy much healthier foods.
Don’t believe it? When study participants in the landmark Iowa Women’s Health Study adopted a plant-based, lower-fat diet, they actually developed an aversion to unhealthy processed and fast foods within a few months.
To rehab your taste buds, follow these steps (sequentially or concurrently, based on your preference) for three weeks, at which point those unhealthy foods won’t be calling your name…
Step #1: Look for added sugar and salt—everywhere—and dial it back. Whether it’s pasta sauce, salad dressing or breakfast cereal, processed foods are easy targets because they are chock-full of unneeded sugar and salt. As your taste buds adjust to lesser amounts, they will become more sensitive to sugar and salt, giving you the same pleasure at lower doses.
Label-reading tips: Keep added sugar to less than 10% of total daily calories—or, even better, 5%. Be sure to watch out for sneaky forms of sugar, such as sucrose, cane juice, agave and corn syrup. Stick to foods with less than 100 mg of sodium per 100 calories, aiming for a daily total of less than 2,300 mg of sodium.
Also, opt for foods with fewer ingredients—tortilla chips made with just corn, oil and a little salt, for example. Be wary of foods that combine sugar, salt and fat, such as candied nuts or honey-mustard pretzels. This trifecta of ingredients is the hardest to eat in moderation.
Helpful: If you have the time, spare yourself the unwanted ingredients by whipping up a tasty vinaigrette salad dressing from olive oil, balsamic vinegar and fresh herbs.
If that’s not your thing, focus on healthier supermarket versions. Once you find a lower-sugar sauce or a lower-sodium dressing you like, stick with it. Consistency helps you stay on track when choosing healthier foods.
Step #2: Think beyond sweet and salty. Our taste buds also detect sour, bitter and umami (savory) qualities—all found in many nutritious foods. These include bitter vegetables such as kale and broccoli…sour foods such as grapefruit and plain yogurt…and umami-rich foods such as seafood (including seaweed) and mushrooms.
The problem: If we are not exposed much to these flavors, especially as children, our taste buds often reject them.
The solution: Repeated exposure and combining new flavors with those we already love. Children require 10 to 15 samplings of a new flavor to accept it, according to research. But adult taste buds are less sensitive and can be won over with fewer tastings.
For example, you can learn to love beets by pairing them with walnuts and blue cheese in a spinach salad…or add some mushrooms to your stir-fry. Added tip: Roasting, broiling or grilling can bring out the sweetness in bitter foods, such as brussels sprouts.
Step #3: Manage cravings. Learning to love kale will not instantly extinguish cravings for chocolate. To minimize cravings, eat a healthy meal or snack every three to four hours. When you get a craving, go for a walk or drink a glass of water. Research shows that many cravings pass within 10 to 15 minutes.
When your sweet tooth demands satisfaction, opt for a contrasting flavor, such as a cup of mint tea…or a food naturally high in sugar, such as fruit.
Your rehabbed taste buds may find it hits the spot!