Retrain Your Taste Buds

on August 1, 2010

As a registered dietitian and a devout veggie lover, I always considered my diet healthy. So, when I got the opportunity to write a book on “eating clean,” I thought it would be a no-brainer. A hot trend among weight- and health-conscious types, eating clean means cutting out most processed foods and reducing sugar, salt and fats in favor of whole foods like fruits, vegetables and grains like whole wheat and brown rice. A cinch, in other words, for someone like me.

Despite my already pristine diet, though, I found my first “clean” meals surprisingly bland. I missed salty sauces, rich cheeses and crispy breading on meats. But after a few weeks, I found myself craving roasted Brussels sprouts and steamed green beans sans salt. I started to enjoy—not just tolerate—simple sauces of lemon and oregano splashed over broiled fish and finished with only a drizzle of olive oil.

But controlling my sugar cravings was a bit more challenging. That’s common among people trying to clean up their diets, says Danielle Reed, taste researcher at Monell Chemical Center in Philadelphia. “If you follow a low-sodium diet long enough you can lower your taste preference for salt, but humans are hard-wired to like sweetness,” Reed says. Even so, after fasting from sugar for a handful of weeks, the homemade triple-fudge brownies I was once unable to resist completely overpowered my newly refined taste buds, making it easy to stop at just one.

Without the heaviness of salt and sugar to mask their flavors, I discovered that many fruits and vegetables tasted fuller, brighter, more interesting. Suddenly, sweet spring peas and earthy mushrooms seemed more intense, more robust. While I still use salt to enhance the flavor of chickpeas and lentils or a fresh slice of tomato, I stopped relying on it for flavor and opened the door to exploring other herbs and spices.

By cleaning up my diet, I retrained my palate to appreciate and enjoy foods in their natural, unadorned state—a valuable asset when you’re trying to stick to a healthful diet, whether your goal is to lose weight, control blood sugar or lower blood pressure. I also ended up feeling lighter and more energetic than I had in years. Maybe eating clean wasn’t the no-brainer I thought it would be, but in the end, it was worth the effort.

Get-Started Steps

Purge your kitchen.
Toss out foods high in salt, sugar and artificial ingredients. Group things you just can’t part with and treat them as “once in a while” foods.
Check ingredient lists.
The shorter the list, the better.
Start cooking.
Home cooking spares you the salt and fat found in restaurant and fast foods, and allows you to control the seasoning.
Give it time.
Although I quit eating sugar cold-turkey, most experts recommend a gradual change. “It can take as long as five months to change taste preferences,” says researcher Danielle Reed.

Found in: Nutrition