How your taste buds can help you tackle weight loss
Learn all about taste perceptions and it’s connection to eating behaviours
Here’s the problem: We Homo sapiens evolved to cope with conditions that predominated during the Palaeolithic period, when humans hunted and gathered, and fat, salt, and sugar were in short supply. To ensure that we ate adequate of supplies, we evolved a craving for them. In fact, some of the brain mechanisms involved in our pleasurable response to sugar and fat are the same as those involved in our response to opioid drugs like morphine and codeine.
But now we live in an environment brimming with food and drinks that satisfy these cravings and, in the process, make us overweight, cause illness, and shorten our lives. An adult can get by on as little as 500 milligrams (mg) of sodium a day and can certainly live without sugar (and, in fact, without any kind of carbohydrate as long as some fat and protein are available).
There’s nothing natural about today’s food environment; agricultural and food policies and interests, past and present, determine food choices, prices, and even the locations where we can buy food. But as individuals, we must cope, choose wisely, and resist the temptations presented to us.
Many people say that adopting diets low in salt, fat, sugar, or animal products alters their food preferences, and there’s some scientific evidence to support this experience. Researchers have also investigated methods of modifying one’s food preferences so more healthful foods will be more appealing. In general and not unexpectedly – flavor and food preferences are more malleable when we’re young (indeed, in utero), but as adults, we can still work on them.
WHAT IS FLAVOR?
What we colloquially call flavor is not just taste, but a combination of smell, texture, and taste, processed by separate sensory nerves and then, quite remarkably, combined into a single experience in the brain.
The smell of food gets processed in two different ways, according to where it’s perceived. In the oronasal passages in the front of the nose, it’s perceived as aroma, while in the retro nasal passages in the back of the mouth, it gets folded into the broader perception of flavor.
Five types of tastes have been identified. Four are familiar to most people: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. The fifth is umami, which is triggered by salts of glutamate – the best-known of which is monosodium glutamate – and is sometimes described as a meaty or Savory taste.
Fat is interesting. There’s no question that it supplies texture, giving food viscosity (thickness) and lubricity (slipperiness). But there’s also some indirect evidence that we taste fat through fat receptors that may function like those for sweet, bitter, and the other well-recognized tastes.
Taste perception was a survival skill for hunters and gatherers. All herbivores and omnivores have an inborn liking for sweetness, probably because it’s an indicator of high caloric content in plants. And there may be an inherent craving for fat (also an abundant source of calories) that leaves us hungry and in search of calories until it’s satisfied.
MODIFYING YOUR FLAVOR PREFERENCES
Several studies have shown that a baby’s taste preferences can be altered by what the mother ate and drank while she was pregnant. The children of mothers with bad cases of morning sickness have a stronger preference for salt than the children of mothers who didn’t have morning sickness. It’s thought that the salt preference might be the consequence of the mothers getting dehydrated from vomiting.
But it does seem that flavor preferences can shift even when we’re older. Several studies have shown that people who manage to follow a low-sodium diet for several months wind up preferring lower concentrations of salt in their food.
One expert on nutrition and behaviour change has developed a number of behavioural techniques for reducing ingestion of unhealthy calories. Brian Wansink, a Cornell University professor and author of “Mindless Eating,” has identified five situations where people are particularly at risk for ingesting large quantities. He has called them “meal stuffing,” “snack grazing,” “restaurant indulging,” “party bingeing,” and “desktop or dashboard dining.”
To reduce meal stuffing, Wansink suggests using a smaller plate, and serving the meal from the stove, not from the dining table. “Our research shows you eat 22 percent less on a 10-inch than on a 12-inch plate,” he notes. To reduce snack grazing, keep the snacks at least six feet away from your desk or from wherever you’re sitting. The distance forces you to think before you grab another bite, and Wansink’s research shows that it can translate into a 125-calorie reduction in your daily energy intake (every little bit helps). The same distancing advice applies to party bingeing. You should also put no more than two items on your plate on any trip to the snack table and start with the bulky, low-calorie stuff – the raw vegetables.
Wansink also advises people not to try more than a couple of his techniques at one time. “We find that if people can maintain changes for a couple of months, they will then make a second, or third, or fourth change,” he says.
DEVELOPING A TASTE FOR VEGETABLES
Altering our palates so we don’t like unhealthful salt and sugar is one way to go. But an alternative strategy is to increase our taste for foods are that certifiably healthful, like vegetables.
Most vegetables are calorically sparse, an asset in a high-calorie food environment, but part of the reason many people find them unappetizing. Vegetables also contain bitter compounds – and some people have a genetic propensity to experience more bitterness from vegetables (as well as other foods) than other people do. Heightened bitterness can also obscure sweetness. Vegetables tend to be more palatable to more people when the bitter and sweet tastes are nicely balanced and form that complicated bittersweet experience.
We’re programmed to seek variety in order to obtain all the nutrients we need. Thus, eating a variety of vegetables at a single meal is another way to encourage greater intake. Conversely, you can use this information to reduce consumption of sugar and salt by limiting the number of those calorie-dense foods you eat at one meal.
DEVELOPING A TASTE FOR WHOLE GRAINS
The genetic variations that affect reactions to bitter-tasting vegetables may also influence a person’s liking of whole grains. According to dietary guidelines, at least half of the grain-based food we eat should be made from whole grain. At least in the early going, one strategy for making whole grains more appealing is simply to mix in some refined grains. In one study, researchers estimated the consumption of buns served at school lunch to children in kindergarten through sixth grade. Over the course of the school year, the proportion of whole-wheat flour included in the buns was gradually increased from nothing to 91 percent without the students’ knowledge. The kids ate similar amounts of the buns until the percentage of whole grain flour reached about 70 percent. After that, the amount of discarded bread increased.
GIVE IN TO YOUR DESIRE – A LITTLE
Weight-loss and other kinds of diets have a long history of poor long-term success. One possible explanation – among many – is that completely excluding certain foods, and their Flavors, stokes our appetites for them. Once again, moderation is a good idea.
Research has shown that dieters are more sensitive to food cues than non-dieters: when they see an enticing food item, they’re less able to stop thinking about it than non-dieters are. This holds true even if they’re consuming just as many calories as non-dieters.
To put it another way, an excessive dietary restriction can lead to bingeing. In one experiment, female dieters and non-dieters were served either nothing, one milkshake, or two. Then they were asked to taste and rate some ice cream. Dieters who felt they’d broken their diets responded by overeating the ice cream, regardless of whether they’d had one or two milkshakes. The non-dieters did no such thing.
CHANGING PRECONCEIVED NOTIONS
Although the sensual experience of eating probably has the biggest influence on our gustatory desires, our ideas about food can also shape them. When researchers told college students, they were getting an “energy drink” (even though it wasn’t), the students’ pulses rose following ingestion – which did not happen in control subjects.
In this day and age, advertising is a particularly powerful form of suggestion. This may be especially true for children. It’s not all bad. Studies have shown that exposure to advertising makes children, who are naturally wary of new foods, more receptive to trying them.
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