By Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., R.D., January/February 2007
Even after decades of hiding uneaten peas, you can learn to prefer healthy foods. This writer’s husband did just that—and lost 55 pounds. Here’s how. (Also see Taste Tips for some common healthy foods and our suggestions for how to learn to enjoy them!)
When I met my husband Jack nine years ago, he was three sizes larger (XXL) than he is now. On one of our first dates, I watched in silent horror as he inhaled a huge slice of pizza piled with pepperoni, sausage and extra cheese—washing it down with Dr. Pepper. I was (still am) a vegetarian and a registered dietitian who teaches people how to eat well. I soon discovered that, more than pizza, Jack loved deep-fried tacos. He rarely touched fruit. Most of the vegetables he ate were battered and fried.
While Jack’s food preferences made sense to me—he was raised in Texas on beef, whole milk and bacon grease—I couldn’t imagine eating the foods he favored. I’d grown up in upstate New York with a family that planted a garden every year. But after the initial shock, I didn’t think much about our drastic eating differences. Jack was charming, smart and sensitive. It didn’t much matter that he chose chicken-fried steak over stir-fried tofu.
Even after we eloped four months later and began eating most meals together, I had no motives to make over Jack’s diet. I kept eating the foods I preferred: whole grains, vegetables and fruits (and chocolate). For a time, Jack stuck to his familiar favorites. At home, we prepared separate meals and ate them together. When we dined out, we chose restaurants that met both our needs (i.e., enchiladas for Jack; black bean soup and a salad for me). I always offered Jack tastes of whatever I was eating. Little by little, he started exploring new foods. He tasted a bite of my veggie (soy) burger, said it wasn’t bad, and eventually, he tried a whole one. Later, when he learned that edamame was soy, too, he gave it a go—and liked it. Eventually, he moved on to tofu, which now, stir-fried with vegetables, is one of his staple lunches.
Soon Jack was showing an interest in eating well and consciously starting to shift his diet in healthier directions. He replaced whole milk with 2 percent and then skim; eventually, we were sharing cartons of soymilk. Noticeable physical improvements—increased energy, improved digestion and a gradually shrinking belly—reinforced Jack’s efforts. Over two years, he shed 55 pounds—simply by retraining himself to like healthier foods. He’s kept the weight off for four years.
I’ve been thrilled by my husband’s eating evolution, but I had never really stopped to consider how a man who had eaten one way for over 30 years successfully pulled off a dietary one-eighty. Then, a few months ago at a nutrition conference, I attended a lecture on taste preferences by Julie Mennella, Ph.D., a scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “What we like to eat is shaped by both biology and experience,” Dr. Mennella explained. Jack’s diet transformation was starting to make sense.
There are five distinct tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami, which means “savory” in Japanese and is associated with meats and cheeses. When we eat, chemicals in our food are sensed by the thousands of taste buds on the bumpy projections (fungiform papillae) of our tongues. The chemicals attach to receptors in the buds, sending signals to the brain, which registers taste perceptions. Receptors also respond to the temperature of foods and chemicals that create physical sensations (think of chili with fiery jalapeños). Smell plays into one’s flavor experiences, too: foods release chemicals that travel up the nose to olfactory receptors, triggering a chain reaction of signals that amplify taste perceptions. (Prove this to yourself by holding your nose and sampling a jelly bean: you’ll taste sweet, but won’t get a burst of “flavor”—the term used to refer to taste plus smell—until you unplug your nose.
To a degree, taste preferences are hard-wired. Across cultures, people generally prefer foods that taste sweet and dislike bitter ones—which makes evolutionary sense. Sweetness is associated with foods that provide energy needed for survival (e.g., mother’s milk). Bitterness often signals the presence of a toxin. How much a person prefers sweet, and dislikes bitter, tastes depends partly upon the number of taste buds and the type of taste receptors he or she inherits. “We know that some people live in a more ‘pastel’ taste world and others, a more ‘neon’ one,” says Valerie B. Duffy, professor of Allied Health Sciences at the University of Connecticut.
One of the most studied genetic factors affecting taste involves one’s ability to detect bitter compounds. Some people inherit genes for taste receptors that are acutely sensitive to bitterness. Other people, born with genes for receptors that make for less-intense taste experiences, often aren’t able to detect subtle bitter compounds. One can gauge a person’s bitterness sensitivity with a simple test: a slip of paper containing a small amount of a compound known to stimulate bitter-sensing receptors is placed on the tongue. The taster perceives bitterness only if his receptors are the sensitive kind.
I had a chance to see this for myself during Dr. Mennella’s presentation. She asked each of us in attendance to “taste” a paper strip and raise a hand if we detected bitter. I slipped the paper into my mouth and shot my arm high into the air. It was as if someone had dumped a spoonful of dandelion root—one of the bitterest substances on earth—on my tongue. Scanning the room, I was amazed. Some of my colleagues were grimacing like me, but others looked as if they were waiting for something to happen. “What?” their faces said. “I don’t taste a thing.”
If a built-in aversion to bitter might have helped our ancestors to survive and evolve, did this mean I’d gotten “good” taste genes? It’s a logical theory—but, in fact, there’s little evidence that a particularly acute sense of taste offers health protection. In fact, in a world where we “hunt” and “gather” at supermarkets, being easily turned off to bitter may be a liability. Many phytochemicals linked with health benefits—glucosinolates in Brussels sprouts and kale, flavonoids in grapefruit and isoflavones in soy—impart bitterness. And, in fact, research shows that people genetically programmed to detect subtle bitter tastes consume fewer cruciferous vegetables, leafy greens, tart citrus fruits, green tea and soy products—all foods associated with reduced risk of chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s. “We have data that show that people who were more sensitive to bitter tastes consumed fewer vegetables and had a greater incidence of colon polyps, a marker of higher risk for colon cancer,” says Duffy. “This research is preliminary but it connects genetic variations that affect oral sensations with specific health outcomes.”
Luckily, inheriting an ultra-sensitive bitter-detection system doesn’t mean that your diet is doomed. “You can temper the bitterness in foods by pairing them with other sweeter foods or cooking them in ways that bring out their natural sweetness,” says Duffy. “Salt and strong spices, such as garlic, chiles or ginger, also can make bitter foods more palatable.” Jack and I do a lot of this sort of thing at home: we sauté spinach with sweet red peppers and enhance asparagus with garlic and a sprinkle of sea salt. (See “Taste Tips")
Even after bringing the bitterness of a food to a more acceptable level, it can take time to learn to enjoy the formerly off-putting flavors. Says Duffy: “Someone who has had unpleasant experiences in the past has to unlearn connections between unpalatable bitterness and particular food flavors.” One can do this by crowding out the bad memories with good experiences of eating deliciously prepared foods.
You can’t just blame your taste buds for not liking certain foods. DNA doesn’t define taste preferences; it’s just one piece of the puzzle that involves nurture at least as much as nature. Cultivating a “taste” for a specific something (be it expensive handbags or Brussels sprouts) requires exposure. Nutrition experts frequently counsel mothers about the importance of exposing young children to lots of different tastes: it conditions them to accept a variety of healthy foods. They advise parents to try and try again, as research shows that it can take as many as 10 to 15 tastes before a child will learn to appreciate a new flavor. But our first flavor experiences occur even before we’re able to eat solid foods.
Infants are exposed to flavors through breast milk, which reflects the flavors of foods, spices and beverages in mothers’ diets. (Bottle-fed babies are limited to the standardized flavors of infant formulas, one of many reasons that nutrition experts recommend breastfeeding.) Food chemicals with distinct tastes and smells also are transmitted to the amniotic fluid that cushions a growing baby; the fetus swallows this fluid and can sense the flavors. “Taste and smell are fairly well developed in utero,” says Mennella.
A few years back, Mennella and her colleagues conducted a study in which pregnant women planning to breastfeed were randomly assigned to one of three groups. Women in all groups consumed 1 1⁄4 cups of carrot juice or water four days a week for three consecutive weeks during the last trimester of pregnancy and again during the first two months of breastfeeding. One group consumed carrot juice during pregnancy and water during lactation. Another group, the reverse (water, then carrot juice). The third group drank water both times. Later, when it came time to introduce the infants to solid foods, the researchers observed the babies as they were fed cereal prepared with water on one occasion and cereal made with carrot juice on another. After each feeding session, the scientists also asked the mothers to rate their babies’ enjoyment of the cereal. When fed the carrot-flavored cereal, infants whose mothers had drunk the carrot juice while pregnant or breastfeeding displayed fewer negative facial expressions than the babies whose mothers had sipped water. These infants also appeared (according to their mothers, who were unaware of the scientists’ research question) to enjoy the carrot-flavored cereal more than the one made with water. “Prior exposure to the carrot juice made the taste familiar, and therefore more acceptable,” says Mennella.
Of course, after I learned this, I was eager to relate this to my, and Jack’s, earliest flavor experiences. I knew that I’d been bottle-fed, as was common when I was born. But my mother loves all kinds of fruits and vegetables and, lucky for me, my birthday is in September, which means she ate loads of in-season produce for most of her pregnancy. To find out about Jack, I asked my sister-in-law, who was a teen when her brother was born. She told me that while their mother was pregnant with Jack and then breastfeeding she’d eaten the typical Texas fare she always served: beef brisket, meatloaf and fried chicken.
Do these first flavor exposures explain my husband’s early love affair with meat and how I came to love vegetables despite my sensitive taste buds? It’s possible they played a part—but likely a small one. There’s yet another layer to this onion.
As kids transition from infancy to the toddler years, “nurture” overtakes “nature” in respect to developing eating patterns. “Children learn the rules of eating from their caregivers,” says Mennella. Adult role models teach kids what constitutes food and how foods should be prepared. They set rules about when certain foods should or should not be eaten.
One of the foremost experts on the development of eating behavior in children is Jennifer Orlet Fisher, Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Fisher’s research, and that of her colleagues, shows that young children learn to prefer foods that are familiar and ones presented as “acceptable” in their homes.
During early childhood one begins to associate both positive and negative experiences with particular foods. Offering a child a certain food as part of a fun celebration or ritual (e.g., birthday cake) enhances his preference for that food. On the other hand, insisting that a child eat something in order to get a reward—“finish your peas and then you can watch television”—usually creates a negative food association. “These ‘contingency’ strategies are effective in the short run: they do get a kid to eat peas,” says Fisher. “But over the long haul, they tend to backfire.” In other words, bribing a child to eat something tends to reinforce the negative associations with that food.
The best way to teach someone that healthy foods are important (and delicious) is to eat them yourself. In a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Dr. Fisher and her colleagues showed that parents who ate lots of fruits and vegetables generally had daughters who consumed plenty of produce, too, whereas parents who pushed fruits and vegetables but ate few servings themselves tended to have daughters who had low intakes of fruits and vegetables. Moral of the study: If you’re trying to help someone to eat a healthier diet, show—don’t tell—them how to do it.
After speaking with Dr. Fisher, I realized that my parents never had to force me to eat vegetables or fruits because I’d learned to associate them with fun experiences, such as selecting fresh cherries at the farmer’s market with my mother. These activities emphasized that a juicy peach or a watermelon was the prize. Seeing my mother enjoy salads and sweet potatoes reinforced that concept. Could watching me enjoy healthy foods have suggested to Jack that they were “good” and encouraged him to try them for himself? Perhaps. Says Fisher: “We see other people enjoying different foods, and so we try them too.”
If one’s taste preferences truly stopped evolving during childhood, people who immigrate to the U.S. would always continue eating their native diets. Yet, for better or worse, most change their diets significantly, says David Himmelgreen, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida and former president of the Council on Nutritional Anthropology. “Changes in immigrants’ eating preferences stem from a combination of many social and cultural factors,” says Himmelgreen. For many, necessity drives change. For example, moving to the U.S. may mean longer commutes and extended workdays, which can force a shift toward more convenience foods. Or, if one’s traditional foods are far more expensive in one’s new home, it may be impractical, or impossible, to continue eating them.
Sometimes, education and social support motivate positive dietary changes. “When people discover the benefits of healthy foods and learn that it may not be so difficult to implement new ways of eating, they generally want to change,” says Himmelgreen.
In retrospect, I realize that an increasing awareness of nutrition probably was part of Jack’s motivation to change. Anytime I wrote a nutrition article or prepared a presentation, I tried it out on him. He’d give me feedback on what sounded too technical and what was interesting. It wasn’t long after Jack became my professional sounding board that he started making intentional dietary shifts.
And somewhat like the immigrants Dr. Himmelgreen studies, Jack’s eating preferences were shaped by a new environment: we’d moved from Texas to Florida, where we now live. Tampa isn’t exactly a health-food mecca, but you’d be hard pressed to find many restaurants that serve chicken-fried steak, dumplings and fried okra. Our home was stocked conveniently with whole grains, fruits and vegetables, which I enjoyed regularly in Jack’s company, consistently offering tastes but not pressuring him to try anything. Basically, I’d created the very sort of positive eating environment that helps cultivate healthy taste preferences in kids, according to Dr. Fisher and other experts.
People often tell me that they are wowed by Jack’s healthy transformation and weight loss. My response always has been, “He did all the work.” He did. But now I realize that I helped set the stage. What would Jack be eating today, if he’d never met me? I wondered. So I asked. “Crispy beef tacos with extra cheese,” he told me. “And wearing my size-40 pants,” he added, sitting comfortably in his 34s.
—Cynthia Sass, M.P.H., R.D., is a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and a lecturer at the University of South Florida.
Cultivating a taste for Brussels sprouts starts with palate-pleasing preparation methods. The EatingWell Test Kitchen cooks are always looking for ways to transform less-than-popular, nutrient-packed foods into unexpected crowd-pleasers. Here, a few of our favorite techniques.
Common Turn-Offs: Earthy flavors, mushy texture, G.I. issues.
What’s to love: Super-lean protein, fiber, folate. Cheap too!
Test Kitchen Wisdom: Pair with a flavorful dark meat like beef or chicken thighs. Combine with crisp ingredients for textural contrast (think celery in bean salad). Mash or puree beans to thicken sauces or creamy soups. Puree with herbs and olive oil for a creamy dip. For firmer texture, cook beans “from scratch” rather than using canned beans; change soaking water to reduce gaseousness.
Common Turn-Off: Pungent flavors
What’s to love: Cancer-fighting phytochemicals, carotenoids, vitamin C, fiber.
Test Kitchen Wisdom: Add assertive flavorings: bacon, toasted nuts, vinegar. Use creamy elements like cheese sauce (broccoli, Brussels sprouts). Don’t overcook (it makes flavors more pungent); vegetables should be tender-crisp, greens still bright.
Common Turn-Offs: Soft texture, bland taste.
What’s to love: Soy protein, isoflavones, calcium (in some types).
Test Kitchen Wisdom: Dredge extra-firm tofu in flour, cornstarch or breadcrumbs, then sauté for a crisp outside, tender inside. Counteract blandness with extra-flavorful ingredients in a stir-fry.
Dark, Leafy Greens
Common Turn-Off: Bitter taste.
What’s to love: Potassium, folate, vitamins A, E & C, fiber.
Test Kitchen Wisdom: Balance bitterness with sour flavors (lemon juice, vinegar), creaminess (sauce or dressing) or richness (flavorful cheese).
Common Turn-Off: “Fishy” flavor.
What’s to love: Omega-3 fatty acids, protein, calcium (in canned fish with bones).
Test Kitchen Wisdom: Soak fish in milk for an hour (in the refrigerator); discard milk and pat dry before cooking. Serve with lemon or other acidic elements (vinegar-based sauce, flavorful salad dressing, strong mustard or hot sauce). Make fishy fish an element in the meal rather than the star (think salads, spreads, sandwiches).