WHEN SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT...

Are Your Taste Buds Sabotaging You From Eating Healthier?

May 18, 2022 - Katie McCallum

When you think of a snack, what's the first thing that comes to mind?

A bag of your favorite chips? Me too. (It's hot fries for me.)

And even when you try to make a healthier choice, like a piece of fruit, you're not alone if your taste buds end up undermining your best intentions.

"Food manufacturers are experts at making foods that are highly palatable," says Angela Snyder, a wellness dietitian at Houston Methodist. "They pour a lot of time and money into researching how to create foods that are multisensory, resulting in processed foods that can absolutely manipulate our taste buds and trigger the reward centers in our brains."

For instance, Snyder notes that cheese straws don't just taste great, they also seem to melt in your mouth. It's a snack packed with flavor that somehow never quite leaves you satisfied ... leading you to come back for more, bite after bite.

The problem, of course, is that nature's bounty doesn't come with this advantage.

Whole foods, which are packed with the nutrients our bodies need, can have a natural sweetness, saltiness or richness to them. But what chance does broccoli stand compared to a cheese straw designed to send the neurons in our brains firing?

"Processed foods almost always contain added sugar, salt and saturated fats at just the right amounts — and these are additives that our palates not only come to expect, but even crave," says Snyder.

The problem is that this then makes it hard to appreciate the whole, nutrient-dense foods we should be primarily eating.

It's why your taste buds might need a reset.

Why retrain your taste buds in the first place?

When consumed in excess, the additives found in processed foods — those added sugars, salt and saturated fats — can harm your health over time.

  • Added sugars are empty calories that can lead to weight gain and increase your risk for unfavorable health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes. (Related: Added Sugar: How Bad Is It?)
  • Salt is an important electrolyte, but eating too much of it — which many of us do — can cause long-term health consequences, including high blood pressure, heart disease and kidney disease. (Related: What Happens If You Eat Too Much Salt?)
  • Saturated fats are the unhealthy fats that can cause high cholesterol and may lead to heart disease. (Related: Which Fats Are Unhealthy?)

"We want your food to have flavor," Snyder adds. "We just don't want that flavor to primarily be coming from additives that can, over time, cause problems."

But eliminating them from your diet is easier said than done.

For starters, one or more of these additives is found in virtually every processed food you find at the grocery store — from desserts, snacks and soft drinks to frozen dinners, bread, cereals and condiments.

This has led to taste buds that are trained to expect foods that are ultra-sweet, ultra-salty and ultra-rich — to the extent that meals devoid of them simply aren't satisfying.

"When you're craving sugar and your taste buds are expecting a brownie, an apple in most cases just isn't going to cut it," says Snyder.

The solution, according to Snyder, is a taste bud rehab — a way to reset your taste buds so that your palate can recognize and be satisfied by the natural sweetness, saltiness and richness of the whole foods we should be eating.

What is a taste bud rehab?

"The goal of taste bud rehab is to pay attention to the types of food you're consuming, ultimately becoming more conscious of how much of it is processed and how much of it is from nature, or minimally processed," explains Snyder.

And Snyder is quick to point out that this isn't to say that you can't have any processed foods.

"The idea is to start really thinking about the amount of added sugars, salt and saturated fats that are in the processed foods you frequently turn to and how these additives aren't providing any real nutritional benefit to you," adds Snyder.

Essential to the rehab is making healthier swaps, which will pay off as your taste buds gradually adjust — eventually appreciating the sweetness of a carrot or a bell pepper, the saltiness of a piece of fish or an egg yolk and the richness of an avocado or a handful of nuts.

"Our taste buds can reset pretty quickly, especially when it comes to retraining our expectations around saltiness," explains Snyder. "It can take as little as a month to reset our taste buds to salt."

Retraining them to expect less added sugar and saturated fat can take little bit longer, but stick with it. Taking the time to make the adjustment will be worth it.

5 steps to resetting your taste buds

No, Snyder doesn't recommend quitting processed foods cold turkey.

"When it comes to resetting your palate, we need a sustainable type of change," says Snyder.

Here are Snyder's five steps to retraining your taste buds:

1. Read nutrition labels

Most importantly, be aware of how much added sugar, salt and saturated fat you're consuming every day.

"This means looking at nutrition labels to see how much added sugar there is, how much sodium there is, how much saturated fat there is," says Snyder. "Ideally, a good rule of thumb is: The less ingredients on the label, the less processed, the better."

The American Heart Association recommends limiting yourself to:

  • 24 grams of added sugar per day for women; 36 grams for men
  • 2,300 milligrams of salt per day; less if you have high blood pressure or a heart condition
  • 11 to 13 grams of saturated fat per day (for someone eating a 2,000 calorie diet)

2. Seriously, read all nutrition labels

This one is worth reiterating since, as mentioned, these additives aren't just found in the obviously sweet and salty foods we like to eat, like chips and desserts.

Other boxed, packaged or premade foods to flip over and check the label of:

  • Breads
  • Condiments
  • Cereals
  • Coffee creamers
  • Energy bars
  • Fruit and flavored drinks
  • Granola
  • Packaged meats, like hot dogs, bacon and deli meats
  • Salad dressings
  • Sports drinks
  • Yogurts

The amount of added sugar or salt in these foods might not seem immediately alarming, but these smaller doses of additives sneak in and can add up.

"About 75% of the salt in our diets comes from processed foods, not from the salt shaker," adds Snyder.

(Related: Here's What the FDA's New Salt Guidance for the Food Industry Means for You)

3. Start swapping processed foods with whole foods, and stick with it

Once you're aware of how much sugar, salt and fat you're getting from processed foods, it's time to start making healthier swaps.

"We really want whole vegetables and fruits to be the mainstay in our diets, and they can be fresh or frozen," says Snyder.

(Related: Are Canned & Frozen Veggies As Healthy As Fresh Ones?)

"When it comes to proteins, the less processed the better," Snyder adds. "Unprocessed options include fresh chicken, turkey, fish or beef."

This also applies to beans and other plant protein sources, so it's best to choose canned beans that say, 'No Salt Added' or, if you have the time, cook your beans from scratch.

And, if you're eating plant-based, know that pre-made meat alternatives tend to be highly processed.

4. Embrace flavors beyond sweet and salty

If your palate is searching for more as you start to make these healthier swaps, don't forget that there are other ways to add flavor to your food than simply adding sugar, salt or butter.

"We want your food to still have flavor, but that flavor should come from seasoning veggies, herbs and spices," says Snyder.

For instance, you might consider trying:

  • Garlic
  • Onion
  • Jalapeño
  • Thyme
  • Oregano
  • Rosemary
  • Cayenne
  • Cumin
  • Paprika
  • Chile powder

And while artificial sweeteners may seem like another way to bring flavor to foods, they too can alter your palate — even though they're not technically sugar.

"With artificial sweeteners, you're still bathing your taste buds in something that's overly sweet," says Snyder. "This brings us back to whether or not you're going to want an apple for dessert if you've had foods containing artificial sweeteners all day."

To get some sweetness without manipulating your taste buds, Snyder recommends reducing the amount of artificial sweetener you use throughout the day.

5. Take time to appreciate your new palate

"With taste bud rehab, you will eventually notice a change in your palate — especially if you eat something very sweet or very salty at a birthday party or at the holidays," says Snyder.

In those moments, Snyder says it's important to appreciate the change.

"You might even find yourself thinking, 'Wow, that's actually too sweet — I can't eat the rest of that.' " Snyder adds. "And it's good to be mindful in those moments, recognizing and appreciating your new palate."

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