By Christine Stiparo
Up until the age of 28, all beer tasted the same to me. No matter if it was Natty Light or Dogfish Head 60 Minute, all I ever tasted was a mixture of bitterness and soap. I’d drink beer on occasion at parties or if I wanted a cheap drink at a bar, but the thought of choosing beer based on taste – and possibly paying more money for it – was a completely foreign concept to me.
One night a friend of mine who worked at a brewery came over and brought a sampling of beers. He led a few of us in a tasting, explaining the different styles, how they’re made, and what flavors and sensations to look for. Suddenly, I started noticing hints of flavors where before there had only been bitterness. I realized I could now tell the difference between hoppy IPAs and malty lagers.
After that night I began trying more beers, becoming more familiar with the different styles and my preferences. It felt like a whole new world had opened up to me – one that admittedly hasn’t been the best for my wallet or waistline, but one that I’ve fully enjoyed exploring.
But how did it happen, how did this beverage I had always detested suddenly became so appealing? Could my taste buds have really changed that much in one night?
And how is all this talk about beer helpful if you don’t like healthy food?
Taste plays a major role in the foods you choose to eat.
I’ve worked with a lot of people who think they can’t change their diet because they don’t like healthy food. They worry they’ll have to stick to the same old salad and baked chicken because the healthy recipes they find always contain foods they don’t like.
While I completely understand their concern, we actually have a lot more power over our food preferences than we think. Understanding how our food preferences develop, and how to alter them, can make changing our diets so much easier!
We’re all able to detect five basic tastes – sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory/umami. And while taste is important, the distinct flavor of a food actually comes more from smell than taste. For example, imagine you have two red gummy bears, one cherry and one strawberry. If you were to hold your nose and eat one at a time, would you be able to tell which is which? You’ll be able to taste sweet for each one, but you’ll miss out on the specific “cherry” and “strawberry” flavor because your sense of smell is diminished. Every time we experience flavor it’s a combination of smell and the five tastes, which is how we’re able to experience such a wide variety of flavors.
How our tastes change
We’re all born with an innate preference for sweet and an aversion to bitter. New and unfamiliar foods also tend to make us wary. Our natural preferences are thought to help protect us from the danger food could represent: bitter foods may signal danger and new foods could potentially cause illness. On the other hand, sweet foods are associated with nutrition and calories.
As we age we become less sensitive to taste, which means foods that made us turn up our noses in childhood may become more appealing. We also start losing the ability to detect smells, which means when we’re older our food starts tasting more bland.
Developing food preferences
While a preference for sweet and a dislike of bitter are predetermined by genes, these can easily be unlearned. My newfound appreciation for beer is a perfect example, as is anyone who loves the bitterness of black coffee.
Our preferences are actually more influenced by our experiences and exposure than by genetics. We tend to prefer foods that we’re more familiar with; for example, if you grew up eating avocados, you’re more likely to include them in your diet as an adult.
We’re also more likely to choose foods that we see the people around us eating. When I first moved to Seattle I was wary of kombucha; I had never heard of it before and I didn’t understand the hype over fermented foods. But everyone I met was drinking the stuff – some were even making their own – so eventually I decided to give it a try. Turns out I actually do enjoy the taste, and I’ve even found it to aid with my digestion at times. However, I probably never would have given it a chance without the influence of the people around me.
How we can change our food likes and dislikes
In college I decided I was going to start liking tomatoes; I never liked them as a kid, and for some reason, I decided college was the time to change that. I started including them in my sandwiches and salads, continuing to eat them even when my meal was rendered less than desirable. It took a while, but at some point, I stopped minding the texture and flavor so much. Eventually, I even started to like them. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to bite into a tomato and eat it like an apple, but I do regularly include them in my meals now.
Start looking for opportunities to include new foods in your diet.
Even if you don’t enjoy them at first, you’ll be able to appreciate them more as they become more familiar to you.
You can also start replacing foods in your diet bit by bit. For example, if you want to switch from white rice to brown rice, start with a batch of ⅓ brown and ⅔ white. Little by little, increase the ratio of brown to white rice, giving yourself time to become more familiar with brown rice.
Give yourself reasons to like a food you don’t naturally prefer.
I’m actually not super fond of salads; something about the coldness of the raw vegetables and the texture of greens doesn’t appeal to me. However I know eating vegetables is important for my health, so I remind myself of that whenever I notice myself not wanting to eat the salad I’ve packed for lunch. I also try to keep my salads interesting by experimenting with add-ins and dressings to find flavor profiles I prefer. It seems to be working – since eating them more regularly I occasionally even find myself craving one.
Now, it is possible that you’ll occasionally come across a food you just can’t convince yourself to like. No matter how often you eat it, how many different ways you prepare it, or what you tell yourself about it, it’ll stay on your dislike list. This is because we do have some genetic preferences that can’t be altered all that much – I’ve tried Brussels sprouts many times throughout my life and still can’t get myself to like them.
We all have foods like this, which is perfectly ok. The trick is making sure that only a FEW foods fall into this category. And that every couple years you give them another try, just to be sure.
Our guest Food, Nutrition, and Your Health columnist today is Christine Stirparo, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified Dietitian. Christine is a nutrition coach, blogger, and founder of Master Your Nutrition LLC. She works with individuals struggling with bingeing and overeating, and blogs about creating positive, permanent changes in health habits and behaviors. She completed her training through the University of Delaware and now practices in Seattle, Washington. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook to learn things like how to create more time for healthy meals and how to end late night snacking for good!