We often think about the relationship between food and taste in the most basic sense: Does a particular food taste good or bad? However, the reality is that this way of looking at it is a massive oversimplification. In reality, taste is much more complex and multi-factored.
For weight loss patients and the dietitians who work with them, the topic of taste is particularly germane. Here are six things to know about how taste impacts diet, nutrition, and overall wellness.
Emotional eating is a very real thing, with roots dating back to the origin of the species. According to research published in Informed Health Online: Current Medical Knowledge: “This strong link connecting taste with emotion and drive has to do with our evolution: Taste was a sense that aided us in testing the food we were consuming. It was therefore a matter of survival. A bitter or sour taste was an indication of poisonous inedible plants or of rotting protein-rich food. The tastes sweet and salty, on the other hand, are often a sign of food rich in nutrients.”
The more we understand about the emotional triggers that lead to overconsumption, the better prepared we’ll be to address them toward the establishment of healthier eating patterns.
Think children get hooked on sugar from eating an excess of sweets? Think again. “Scientific literature suggests that children's liking for all that is sweet is not solely a product of modern-day technology and advertising but reflects their basic biology. In fact, heightened preference for sweet-tasting foods and beverages during childhood is universal and evident among infants and children around the world,” says research published in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care.
Not only that, but we may actually be programmed to prefer sugary foods.
“The liking for sweet tastes during development may have ensured the acceptance of sweet-tasting foods, such as mother's milk and fruits. Moreover, recent research suggests that liking for sweets may be further promoted by the pain-reducing properties of sugars,” concludes the article.
While we are lucky to have abundant food options to choose from, this can be a blessing and a curse when it comes to the issue of obesity and society — especially when you factor in a market saturated with foods designed to appeal to food cravings that aren’t good for us.
“The modern food environment is a tremendous source of pleasure, far richer than the one our ancestors evolved in, and the preferences we inherited from them — along with a food industry that’s increasingly adept at selling us what we like — often lead us to adopt unhealthy habits,” explains National Geographic.
But just because people can develop addictions to foods that are high in sugar and salt doesn’t mean they will stay addicted forever.
“The good news is that our inborn taste inclinations are not immutable. People who succeed in reducing salt in their diet typically find that their tolerance for highly salted food declines. And our natural resistance to broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and other healthful but bitter foods can be overcome through experience,” continues National Geographic.
In other words, as weight loss patients learn to make healthier choices, the more predisposed they’ll become to continuing on this path.
In fact, according to the results of a recent study published in Nutrition & Diabetes, the human brain can actually be conditioned to crave healthy foods.
Specifically, researchers determined that after six months on a low-fat diet in conjunction with counseling aimed at supporting positive lifestyle changes, a group of people who were overweight and obese exhibited less activity in the reward regions of the brains when shown photos of unhealthy foods. At the same time, their brains showed more reward region activity when looking at images of healthy foods.
Says The Conversation of these findings: “Our relationships with food are complex, and we cannot simply flick a switch in our brain that makes us choose an apple over a cupcake. But for people embarking on a long term change in diet it is important to recognize that we are not slaves to our desires. We might not get the same immediate ‘kick’ out of eating healthy foods, the long term rewards are much more tangible than we might consider at first.”
While cravings are still part of the post-op life, bariatric patients may have an inside edge when it comes to learning to make healthy choices. How? Because according to research published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, there is a link between weight loss surgery and newfound aversions to sweet foods and meats.
Ultimately, there’s no denying that reaching and maintaining a healthy weight is a lifelong journey for people who struggle with obesity. And while weight loss surgery is an invaluable tool along the way, it's not enough in and of itself. Other factors, including both awareness of and attitudes toward taste and cravings, can offer a vital partnership in laying the groundwork for success.