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I lived to 14 without strawberries, 19 without Indian food, and 21 without hummus. Through luck, peer pressure, and experimentation, I've managed to right my picky habits and develop a strategy for liking both new cuisines and individuals foods. 

Tired of being a picky eater? I’ve teaming up with Sherly Li, Registered Dietitian and currently undertaking a PhD Nutritional Genomics to explain the science behind being picky, and to offer some strategies for changing your habits.  I’ll provide the life stories and Sherly will follow up with scientific evidence on taste and diet. Find her data and input in blue Science section. 

Major Takeaway #1:  Our food preferences are learned, and therefore changeable. 

Major Takeaway #2:  Changing your diet can lead to other lifestyle improvements. 


Learning food preferences

Experience

I drank apple juice instead of water as a child, but now can’t stand sweet processed juice or cordial. I often drink IPAs or eat beets and grapefruits, all of which were disgusting only five years hence.

Science
Humans have an innate preference for sweet and salty and rejection of sour and bitter taste. When you ask children what their favorite food is, often the answer is lollies and cakes (sweetness) and the answer to foods they hate probably is a vegetable of some sort (bitterness). Using facial expressions, studies involving infants have shown that they preferred sweet solutions to water, possibly because one of the first tastes infants are exposed to and therefore prefer is of breastmilk, which is composed significantly of carbohydrates to create a sense of sweetness.  But by 6 months of age, preference for sweetness was associated with the infant’s dietary experience and ‘learned’ experiences as scientists have found that foods of other tastes were increasingly preferred. This indicates that our experience can easily change our taste preferences.

Overcoming food-phobia




Experience
Just because they are learned does not me it is an easy process. I never used to like trying new foods. For me, most foods were in the category of “I’ve tried it once and didn’t like it”, and trying it once was traumatic. I still remember the first time I tried sauerkraut. I’d never tasted something so vile, and I avoided vigorously it for the next decade. Now I’ve tried so many new foods that the experience is almost always positive and rewarding.

Science 

Food neophobia, meaning ‘fear of the new foods’ explains avoidance of new foods. Scientists believe that this is a predisposition that served to protect us from consuming potentially toxic and lethal items back in the day. However,  with experience we can change an initial rejection of a new food into a preference. This may explain why despite disliking a certain food on initial trial (eg. Chili, coffee, dark chocolate, etc) when we try it over and over, we can develop a liking for it, which some may have coined it as an ‘acquired taste’. Studies have shown that when 2 year olds were given different numbers of opportunities to taste new fruits and cheeses, their preferences increased with frequency of exposure. This agrees with the idea that neophobia is only reduced as we learn that the food is safe to eat. How? With more and more trials of that food.  

Changing picky habits 

Some tips we've put together for changing eating habits:

  • Enlist the help of a friend (preferably who likes the food you don’t or haven’t tried). Make meals together, try new restaurants and new food types. Introduce one another to new foods.
  • Eat a substantial amount of the food you want to like. Don't eat only one olive, eat ten. Then repeat at least once a month. 
  • Eat new food with people you like, and at happy times in your life. (see appendix on food and emotion)
  • Visit new restaurants, and ask the waiter about a good “beginning dish”. Korma curry for Indian food (not spicy), falafel and hummus for Mediterranean cuisine, etc. 

And lastly, persevere! The goal doesn’t have to be to love this food plain and uncooked, or to love all of the dishes in a certain restaurant. The goal is to never again have to pick the food out of a certain salad or meal.


From Pickles to Push-ups

The benefits of eating a wider range of food extend beyond greater variety, more flavors and textures, and a greater nutrient diversity. For me, learning to change my eating habits has opened a path for greater personal change.
 
It all starts with the self control and drive needed to develop a taste for new/distasteful food. Following the steps of learning to like a new food can be applied to almost any personal change, and changing a few tastes can also help you gain confidence and momentum for other changes. It’s much harder to quit smoking or lose weight than it is to like mushrooms. And trying new food varieties could lead to trying other new things, like new exercises, new vacation destinations, etc. It’s all connected. I’m a more open-minded and accepting person today because I opened my mouth to new foods and food types.


"There isn’t a magic overnight effect, it’s often a long process of learning to like the tastes that aren’t particularly innately preferred." - BBC Doc  on Taste

So start that process, experiment with new foods, and add some flavor to your life. 

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Kurt Berning & Sherly Li


Seize the Day
Hug the Rhino


Appendix

Here is some research that didn't make it into the body of the article, but it still worth knowing for those interested. 


The Taste Process

Experience
I’ve had a cold the past week, and eating food has seldom been drearier. Even with this minor sickness the flavors I sense have narrowed to subtle sweetness and bitterness. Without the nose, my tongue’s ability to sense flavor is almost negligible.

Science
Flavor is created through the combined taste and smell sensation. A loss of one can impact on our perception of a food’s flavor! Whilst your taste buds can detect chemicals that differentiate the basic tastes (ie. Salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami), it is your nose that picks up volatile compounds within foods and combines them with taste in your brain to evoke a unique flavor. Someone who loses a sense of smell can taste sweetness from ice cream but is not able to tell which ice cream is strawberry and which is vanilla. Bizarre but true…your senses (taste, smell, touch, sight) all play a role in forming a special flavor from the foods you eat.


Are you picky because you're a Supertaster?



Experience

I always felt like how I ate was unchangable, and that certain things I liked and disliked were predetermined. Parts of how we experience food have been determined since we were born, embedded in our genetic code.

Science
Recent advancements in genetics research demonstrate that genetics can influence our perception of taste. Using a chemical to stimulate bitterness, scientists have discovered that differences in a specific gene  may be responsible for taste sensitivity. A study of 59 healthy individuals found that people with a particular version on the gene were more sensitive to bitterness. Those who were categorized as ‘Supertasters’ have a higher average number of taste buds and therefore experience tastes (salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami) more vibrantly. The individuals also consumed fewer vegetables in their normal diet because vegetables have been associated with bitterness. This finding demonstrates that the reason some people can’t tolerate bitter foods may in part be because they are Supertasters and therefore more sensitive to taste sensations such as bitterness.

Food and Emotion


Experience
When I was six I ate a pack of skittles while watching the movie Fievel Goes West and lounging in our living room bean bag. Don’t ask me how or why I remember this.  But since then I’ve had a strong affinity for that round, sugary fruit candy.  I seldom eat skittles, but when I do I associate it with home, youth,  relaxation and enjoyment.

Science
Quite rightly so, science has revealed that we associate difference emotions and experiences with certain foods. Another reason why most of us love sweets and cakes is that these are often the foods consumed at memorable and happy times of our lives (eg. Birthdays, celebrations, etc). It makes sense that eating these foods can trigger happy memories. Some may even consume more of these foods during times of sadness to counter-act this negative emotion with happier ones associated with the food.
Mind blown. The connection of emotion to food can also help us learn to try new foods.