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Can You Teach Your Taste Buds to Prefer Healthier Food?

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For some people, healthy food is a bad word. It conjures up images of dry salads or endless quinoa bowls. Who needs it? Much safer to stay with the meaty, cheesy goodness you’re used to. 

If you’ve given up on trying healthy foods because you don’t like the taste, it might be time to try again. 

“Adding whole foods like vegetables, fruits and whole grains to your diet is linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and chronic diseases like diabetes,” said Bonnie Buckingham, a registered dietitian with Samaritan Weight Management Institute

Additionally, research conducted by the University of Warwick’s Medical School using data from the Health Survey for England found that a diet high in fruits and vegetables was associated with high mental wellbeing. 

Retraining your taste buds to enjoy the wholesome flavors of healthy foods can take time, but Buckingham assures that it is possible. 

Start With One Goal

When you evaluate your diet, you can probably identify areas with room for improvement. Start with one goal; maybe eating a vegetable with every meal or cooking with less salt. Then give yourself at least six weeks to make incremental changes to get to your goal, and six months to love your new choices. 

“A blanket decision to ‘eat healthier’ can often be overwhelming and lead to people choosing foods they really don’t enjoy or that they won’t eat over the long run,” said Buckingham. “Start with the one thing you want to improve and then focus on ways to meet your goal.”

How Long Does It Take to Change Your Tastes?

Once you’ve chosen your goal, know that it will take time to reach it. If you want to try a new food, you will likely have to eat it several times before you learn to like it. A 2010 study found that children who initially disliked a vegetable could grow to like it after trying it eight or nine times. In her experience, Buckingham notes that adults are not much different.

If your goal is to change your cooking habits to include less sugar, butter or salt, reduce the amount you use slowly over the course of several weeks. Buckingham recommends reducing the ingredient consistently across all your meals to help your taste buds acclimate more quickly. 

A study in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that participants who reduced how much salt was in their food were able to readjust how much salt they enjoyed within 24 weeks. At the end of the study, participants preferred low-salted food. 

Research published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Research found that people who ate a low fat diet for 16 weeks lost their desire to eat high fat foods and increased their desire for low fat foods. 

“Learning to like healthy foods is like learning anything else that’s new: it takes lots of practice,” said Buckingham, “and making lasting change takes time.”

Healthy Food Should Taste Good!

While you’re waiting for your taste buds to adjust, search out recipes that look appetizing.

“Remember that healthy food can and should taste good!” said Buckingham. “This is a great time to experiment in the kitchen and find ways to prepare food so that you find it tasty and look forward to eating it.”

Stick with your eating plan and you may find it hard to go back.

Taste Bud Targets & Tips

Below are five common goals Buckingham helps clients achieve, along with her favorite tips to help transition your tastes. 

Increase Vegetables

  • If you are working on liking vegetables, roast or grill them with a little olive oil and herbs like rosemary, thyme or sage. This will add more flavor than steaming or blanching. (Check our recent article on tasty herb combinations.)
  • Try cooking vegetables with onion, garlic, vinegar or bacon, or garnish with toasted nuts after cooking.
  • Brassicas like kale, Brussels sprouts and broccoli can taste bitter if you’re not used to them. After cooking, try a squeeze of fresh lemon juice or a splash of vinegar to improve the flavor.
  • Look for recipes that support a Mediterranean-style diet.

Increase Whole Grains

  • Wean off refined grains like white flour, white rice and pasta by mixing 50/50 with a whole grain equivalent like whole wheat flour, brown rice or whole wheat pasta. Note that some cooking times may be longer for whole grains, and baking recipes may also need adjustments.
  • Buy whole grain bread that lists whole wheat flour as the first ingredient.
  • Use whole wheat or corn tortillas in place of white tortillas.
  • Cook enough steel cut oats in a crock-pot or pressure cooker on the weekends to eat throughout the week for breakfast instead of boxed cereal. The sturdy grains hold up well to being reheated. Serve with fresh fruit, nuts and a dash of cinnamon.
  • Keep a variety of grains in your diet: whole wheat, corn, oats and brown rice are a good start. Get adventurous and explore quinoa, millet, farro, amaranth and more.

Reduce Salt

  • If you are reducing salt, go slowly. Reduce the amount of salt in recipes by ¼ at first. After four weeks, reduce it by another ¼ so you are using half as much salt.
  • Remove the salt shaker from the table.
  • Try adding herbs and vinegar for a similar kick.
  • Buy “no salt added” or “low sodium” canned goods like broth, soup, beans and vegetables.
  • Snack on unsalted nuts instead of chips.

Reduce Sugar

  • Check the nutrition information to make sure your pantry staples don’t have added sugars: bread, spaghetti sauce and peanut butter are common culprits.
  • Choose “plain” varieties of yogurt. Add jam or honey if needed at first and work toward enjoying it topped with fresh fruit or berries.
  • Choose “plain” or “unsweetened” varieties of non-dairy milk. Add a small amount of plain, about one tablespoon, to your usual selection for the first week. Double the amount of plain you add each week until you have fully converted.
  • For your morning coffee, use low-fat dairy or plain dairy alternatives instead of flavored creamers. Add raw sugar, honey or stevia as needed and reduce the amount of sweetener you use each week.
  • Replace regular soda with seltzer water and fresh fruit.
  • Make your own treats to control how much sugar you are consuming.

Reduce Fat

  • When cooking, use healthy fats like olive oil, avocado oil or canola oil instead of butter or Crisco.
  • Dip bread in olive oil and balsamic vinegar instead of using butter or margarine. Try toast with nut butter in the morning.
  • Roast foods in the oven you might normally fry.
  • Use an oil mister, which can help you lightly oil your pan or vegetables.
  • Choose low-fat varieties of dairy products like milk, yogurt and cottage cheese.
  • If using cheese in a recipe, swap half of the cheddar for skim-milk mozzarella. If the cheese is a garnish, try a small amount of freshly grated hard cheese like Parmesan instead.

“As you explore healthier eating options, pair foods you already like with foods you are learning to like in a meal,” said Buckingham. “Looking forward to what you eat goes a long way toward changing your attitudes about food, and that makes it more sustainable in the long run.”

Interested in learning about more healthy options? See our article on whole foods and the benefits of eating antioxidant-rich foods.

See our video recipes for some healthy inspiration!