Many of us manage to eat healthily for at least some of the time by sheer willpower. Wouldn't it be much easier if we just loved healthy food and didn't have to make an effort to choose it over less healthy options? Here are some strategies for manipulating your taste preferences.
Most of us know, broadly speaking, which foods are good for us and which ones are not. In a perfectly rational world, we would favour vegetables over chocolate, grilled chicken over a bacon sandwhich, and fruit over chips. But we are far from being entirely rational beings (thank goodness!), and our food preferences are governed by all sorts of emotive and practical variables that get in the way of us eating a balanced, healthy diet. Willpower helps up to a point, but there are temptations around every corner.
It would all be very easy, of course, if we just loved the healthy stuff. If our cravings were for broccoli rather than crisps, healthy eating would be a complete non-issue. So is it possible to learn to like the healthy stuff, to the extent of preferring it over unhealthier “treats”? Psychologists working on diet and nutrition think it is. They start from the basic premise that almost all of our food preferences are a matter of nurture rather than nature – that is, apart from an innate fondness of sweetness and dislike of bitterness, what we like and dislike is shaped by our experience, and is therefore open to manipulation. So how do we go about manipulating our tastes into healthier preferences?
Learning about flavours
We learn about different tastes by making associations between different flavours, in a process that is pleasingly called “flavour flavour learning.” This is not a tautology or a typo: We learn about flavours from flavours. To simplify a complex concept: A recent study found that feeding children sweetened broccoli taught them to enjoy the taste of plain broccoli more. The lesson for anyone trying to eat more healthily? Put your meals together so that you associate tastes you like with what may seem like boringly healthy options. Don't just boil up a bunch of vegetables and expect to love them – make them more appealing with a little cheese, different spices or a honey glaze, for example.
Slow change is best
It can be tempting to decide that what you need is a fresh start, and to cut out, say, sugar, salt or fat, completely. For a while, you'll probably be carried along on by the momentum of your extreme virtue. But only for a while. The key to lasting change is to make tiny, imperceptible alteration to what you're eating. That way, your body has time to adapt to the changes so that you don't actually notice them as changes at all. So don't go from having 3 sugars in your tea to none over night. Start with half a teaspoon less and go gently. After three months, you'll probably be surprised how sickly sweet tea with sugar now tastes!
In the domain of food, familiarity does not breed contempt. Quite the opposite. Mere exposure to a given food substance almost always results in increased liking (there are certain odd exceptions to this, such as a genetic predisposition to loathe the taste of all brassicas – broccoli and cabbage to you and me – but the general rule still holds). So one very simple strategy to help you enjoy eating healthy things is to keep eating them until they become familiar old friends.
Knowledge is power
Knowledge can work on many levels when it comes to our food preferences. To an extent, knowing how good or bad something is for us can change our view of it – but only to an extent (see the point made above about us not being perfectly rational beings!). There's also a subtler way in which knowledge works: If we invest time and energy becoming an expert in something, we tend to like it more, whatever that something is. So rather than writing off green vegetables in general because you're only really familiar with peas and green beans and have no idea what to do with curly kale or sprouting broccoli, spend some time filling in the gaps in your knowledge. Confront your prejudices about brown rice – just give it a go! Approach healthy eating the way you might a wine tasting: There is much to be learned and lots of flavours to be discovered. Just like with wine, there is no reason why you should already be an expert. It's okay to be a beginner and to try things out.
Eat with your mind
There is nothing like eating mindfully to improve your diet. Mindful eating is basically the opposite of shovelling a microwave meal down your throat while watching TV, barely tasting what you're eating and hardly conscious of the fact that you're actually nourishing your body. Much of the junk food industry thrives on this sort of autopilot eating. When you eat mindfully, you take time to savour your food and all of the sensations associated with eating. Eat slowly and deliberately. Try to maintain a curiosity about what you're putting in your mouth. And pause for long enough to become aware of feeling satisfied.
Have you made a deliberate attempt to change your food preferences? Perhaps you've reduced the salt or sugar levels in your diet? What has worked, and what hasn't?