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Yes, You Can Retrain Your Taste Buds

Dysregulated eaters too often rule out the possibility that they might over time enjoy nutritious, tasty fare more than the high fat/sugar/carb foods they now eat. They won’t even consider that their taste buds can be radically altered. In fact, they can.

I was reminded of this amazing fact one night watching a TV commercial for pizza, a food I used to adore and eat to excess decades ago. I took one look at the image on the screen and said aloud, “Yuck!” My revulsion to pizza surprised me. What happened to the college coed who could eat leftover cold pizza for breakfast and think she’d won the lottery? Or to the ecstasy, I used to feel in an Italian restaurant when a waitress plonked down my order and, asked: “You the extra cheese?”

I certainly could eat and maybe even mildly enjoy a slice of pizza now, but I know without a doubt that it wouldn’t trigger a release of dopamine in my brain nor put a smile on my face. It simply would not taste as good as it used to. Why is that?

According to David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, FACLM, author of “The Case for Taste Bud Rehab,” US News & World Report, https://health.usnews.com/health-news/blogs/eat-run/2013/10/28/the-case-for-taste-bud-rehab, accessed 2/1/19) and endorser of Helping Patients Outsmart Overeating, a book I co-wrote with Paige O’Mahoney, MD, “Taste buds are adaptable little fellas. When they can't be with foods they love, they learn to love the foods they're with.” He explains that “The job of taste buds is all about survival; they are sentinels at the main gate to our inner world. Their job is to distinguish friend from foe.” Due to their evolutionary purpose of helping us keep on keeping on, taste buds like to stick with what they know—familiar, safe foods— and also are open to trying new, unfamiliar foods rather than let us starve.

Humans (and other animals) have lasted so long because they have the life-sustaining capacity to habituate to change. We learn to drive automatically to our new job after decades at our old one by repeatedly following an initially unfamiliar route. We adapt to a smaller house, walking on crutches, life without our beloved deceased cat, saying goodbye to old friends, and making new ones. Dr. Katz tells us that we may initially shy away from foreign tastes, “But if we stick with a food for a while, we tend to like it more and more as it takes on all the reassuring comforts of home.”

Just as John and Yoko advised us to do with peace, we also need to give new foods a chance—or better yet, a lot of chances—so that our taste buds can get used to them. Imagine it: Someday you too might turn your nose up at pizza!

Best,

Karen

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