Willpower can only get you so far when it comes to eating well. But many psychologists believe there are tricks we can use to change our tastes. What are they and how do they work? Delicious … can we teach ourselves to like the right kinds of foods?
Usually by now, the New Year diet, detox or other form of extreme denial will have hit a wall, and the merciful retox will be fully under way. It has been proven time and again that quick-fix diets are counterproductive in the long run, and it’s not just willpower failure making dieters regain the weight (and then some). A 2011 study indicated that depriving oneself of food changes the levels of hormones that control our appetites, fuzzing up our hunger compasses and making us eat even more. Furthermore, dieting has been shown to exacerbate an «emotional response to food».
The holy grail, surely, is to learn to love health food more than junk, thus avoiding the binge-fast vicious circle. A colleague of mine used to describe his mid-afternoon Mars bar and Diet Coke as giving himself a «wee hug on the inside». Is this skewed view fixable?
We know that most of our food likes are a triumph of nurture over nature, with the exceptions of an innate fondness for sweet, and distaste for bitter. «There may or may not be an innate preference for umami flavour, and there’s a debate about fat flavour,» says Anthony Sclafani, professor of psychology at Brooklyn College. «But other than that, when we’re talking about real foods, let’s assume most of the preferences are learned.»
‘Flavour flavour’ learning: Our taste biases develop in various ways. Flavour flavour [sic] learning, for instance, is a form of Pavlovian conditioning. For example, if you drink Coca-Cola, says Sclafani, you may enjoy the taste at first because you already like sweetness. Then, the more you drink it, the fonder you will become of the other gustatory characteristics of that particular brand.
A 2006 study into whether flavour flavour learning can help children feel more positively about broccoli produced encouraging results. After being fed sweetened broccoli, the kids liked the taste of plain broccoli more.
Lower your taste thresholds: We all have different thresholds for feeling satisfied by tastes. These are controlled in part physiologically – the abundance and function of our taste buds differ, making us more or less sensitive to tastes – but over time we also get used to certain levels of, say, sweetness and saltiness. If you don’t salt your pasta water, you’re going to think most ready meals taste of rock pool. It’s all relative.
I once gave up anything with added sugar for a month. I quickly became an evangelical bore, yammering on about how apples now tasted better than cake to me. However, this transformation didn’t last. To make permanent changes, you need to reduce the levels little by little, so each step is imperceptible.
«A number of [food] companies are facing the necessity to reduce salt or sugar or fat,» says Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University. «What happens if you do that suddenly? People don’t like the product any more. But execute the same change over a much longer period, very gradually, then we keep adapting,» he says.
The feel-good factor: Another form of preference learning stems from the positive post-ingested nutritional effects of what you consume. So, returning to the Coca-Cola example, the glucose sends a positive message to the brain because that is its primary energy source (hence my colleague’s Mars bar hug). But you can get a similar kick after consuming more nutritious foods. I can get a hug from brown rice. There, I’ve said it.
Decent exposure: Repeated exposure to pretty much any kind of stimulus brings a familiarity that breeds quite the opposite of contempt. One 2010 study showed that repeated tasting increased a liking for vegetables (except peppers, weirdly) among nine-and-10-year olds. «I believe that the same methods would work with adults though I don’t know of any studies with adults,» says Professor Jane Wardle of the Health Behaviour Research Centre, at UCL in London. It took just nine or 10 tries before the children said they liked the veg. Some even ticked the «like a lot» box.
Knowledge is power: Barb Stuckey, food developer and author of Taste What You’re Missing: the passionate eater’s guide to why good food tastes good, believes the best way to drum up enthusiasm for a type of food is to become an expert on it. Turn your nose up at greens and she’ll say: «let’s taste every single bitter green as if we are doing a horizontal wine tasting.» You might notice that spinach is less bitter and has a soft mouth feel compared with kale, which is more tough and fibrous. Suddenly you’re appreciating nuances in foods you previously only tolerated.
Mindless v mindful eating: Stuckey believes that the way forward is respecting and savouring food. I agree, but perhaps we’re idealists. Brian Wansink, professor of consumer behaviour at Cornell University, certainly thinks so: «Most people come home from a 10-hour day of working and commuting. The kids are screaming and they have 16 things on their to-do list before going to bed. They can’t cut a pea in half and say: ‘Let me savour the pea.’ The solution is not mindful eating – let’s create an environment where we can mindlessly eat less without thinking about it.»
He has a point. And as Wardle admits: «When food is being used for comfort, or as a pick-me-up, most people choose something sweet or salty, and usually high in energy. Fruit and vegetables don’t seem to cut it – with the possible exception of one of the most energy dense fruits – the banana.» If you think you’re overdoing the junk-food treats, know this: Wansink recently found that you can eat just 25% of your usual snack portion and be equally satisfied 15 minutes later. His research is behind many of those eat-less tips that are so simple you could easily dismiss them as too obvious: you’ll have a smaller dinner if it’s served from the stove rather than at the table; if you use smaller plates you’ll eat less but feel just as full.
I think that if you don’t find a food disgusting, all you need is the right recipe to get you loving it. I used to skip past kale in the fruit-and-veg shop until I discovered how delicious it is with garlic, chilli, anchovies, parmesan, pasta and a squeeze of lime. I love this dish so much that I no longer blanch the kale before frying it. I love to chew the goodness out of the stalks. I actively crave kale (and chocolate and cake, obviously).
Have you successfully trained yourself to need less sugar, fat or salt? Or learned to love healthier foods?