Why do we eat? The answer to this question may seem obvious – we get hungry.
However, there are many reasons that we eat. Sometimes we eat to interact socially, other times to fill a void when we are bored, as comfort when we are upset, or to celebrate an achievement or special event, and sometimes we eat because we are stressed.
Many factors influence our food choices today, but in America, food choice centers largely on taste rather than hunger or the health benefits that the food offers. For example, suppose you hold out an apple in one hand and a chocolate chip cookie in the other to your child, which do you think the child will choose when given that choice? That cookie will win out 9 times out of 10! Why is that? The taste of food is reported to be a major influence on our food behavior.
So, what does it mean to choose to eat for health versus for taste? And, can we change our taste for certain foods, and enjoy those that support our health, let’s take a look.
Eating for Health
Eating for health happens each day as we focus on consuming a variety of clean, nutrient-dense, whole foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fish, and lean meats that provide the body with the nutrients necessary for proper body function and maintenance of a healthy weight.
Today’s food environment is very different from what it once was when people grew and raised what they ate. Today, the Standard American Diet (SAD) centers around convenient, processed food items that are refined and contain many food additives. The refinement process strips the original food item of many of its nutrients, like essential vitamins and minerals that the body requires for proper function. Some synthetic food additives are used to improve the taste and texture of the food item, making it very palatable and something that our brain remembers as a pleasant experience.
A 2015 study published in the journal Childhood Obesity tested whether a short-term (two-weeks) nutrition education program for pre-schoolers would influence their snack choices, as previous studies conducted over many months were found to be effective in encouraging healthy food choices. The study found that the short-term, two-week nutrition education program was able to help the children demonstrate an understanding of what constituted a healthy (grapes) versus unhealthy (cookies) snack, but it did not encourage healthier food choice, as when given the opportunity the children still chose the unhealthy snack.
Further, this study states that food preferences form during the first five years of life, and the likely-hood of a child becoming overweight often occurs early as feeding patterns, dietary habits, and behaviors are established.
Eating for Taste
The taste of food is the sum of all sensory stimulation that the food produces when we consume it, this includes the smell, appearance, texture, and temperature of the food in addition to its flavor. Together, these sensory aspects influence food choices, particularly spontaneous choices.
About 10,000 taste buds on our tongue detect the presence of flavor, such as sweet or bitter, and nerve fibers link these taste buds to our brain, which then makes us aware of that flavor. The brain also stores memory of taste, in an area called the insular cortex.
A 2014 study published in BioMed Central Public Health explored the factors that influenced the eating behaviors of university students. At the individual level, the study found that taste was an important factor influencing the student's food choices.
There are hundreds (at least) of studies that have assessed children’s junk food consumption, the driving factors for why children prefer junk food over healthy options, and how advertising has affected children’s preference for junk food.
In a 2017 article sourced from the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Suanne Kowal-Connelly, a pediatrician, states that food preferences (formed within those first five years of life) directly affect eating behavior and the lifelong health and weight of the individual. Dr. Kowal-Connelly further discussed that marketing and the food and beverage industry play a large role in forming these potentially lifelong, unhealthy food preferences, as they use toys and persuasive ads that can develop food cravings in children.
The sense of taste is altered by many things, such as medication; pesticides sprayed on food; chemical flavors and colors added to food; a dry mouth; a mouth infection (gum disease); as well as alcohol and smoking. For example, if you consume a diet soft drink containing sucralose, an artificial sweetener that is about 600 times sweeter than table sugar, and then eat a strawberry, that berry will taste very bland compared to the soft drink. Studies indicate that the consumption of artificial sweeteners changes the palate and taste preference over time and increases the desire for sweet foods.
Our taste buds have an average life span of about 8-12 days, so changing our taste for certain foods is possible. When we eliminate processed foods that contain taste-altering food additives from our diet and eat healthy foods, like vegetables and fruits, our taste will change and allow us to appreciate the flavor of healthier food.
A 2015 survey published in The Permanente Journal reported on a two-week trial with 20 participants, conducted to determine the impact that added sugar and artificial sweeteners have on taste. The participants cut out all added sugar and artificial sweeteners from their diet for two weeks. After the 2-week challenge, 95% of participants (18 out of 19 respondents) found that sweet foods and drinks tasted sweeter or too sweet, 75% (15 out of 20 respondents) found that other foods tasted sweeter, and 95% (19 out of 20 respondents) said moving forward they would use less or even no sugar. Additionally, 86.6% of participants (13 out of 15 respondents) stopped craving sugar after six days.
Today, eating for health takes more than being informed; it takes planning and commitment, it takes a vision to see the importance of your health today and in the future, and it takes support. Eating for health is something we decide to do each day, not only for our health but for those that are influenced by our choices, such as our children.
The taste of food influences our eating behavior from an early age, and taste preferences for certain foods can develop through our experiences and may be influenced by our attitudes, beliefs, and expectations.
We can change our taste and enjoy eating the foods that support proper growth, development, and overall health. Just remember, the brain stores memory of taste, so although changing food preference is possible, it is more challenging once preferences have been established.
Establishing healthy food preferences in our children at an early age can make their lifelong food choices easier for them.
Proverbs 24:13 “My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste.”
Proverbs 25:16 “If you have found honey, eat only enough for you, lest you have your fill of it and vomit it.”
Philippians 3:19 “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.”
Joseph, L. S., Gorin, A. A., Mobley, S. L., & Mobley, A. R. (2015). Impact of a short-term nutrition education child care pilot intervention on preschool children's intention to choose healthy snacks and actual snack choices. Childhood Obesity, 11(5), 513-520. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/chi.2015.0028
Len, T. W., Nancarrow, C., & Kwok, P. M. H. (2001). Case study: Food taste preferences and cultural influences on consumption. British Food Journal, 103(5), 348-357. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/225129471?accountid=158302
Brug, J., Tak, N. I., te Velde, S.,J., Bere, E., & de Bourdeaudhuij, I. (2008). Taste preferences, liking and other factors related to fruit and vegetable intakes among schoolchildren: Results from observational studies. The British Journal of Nutrition, 99, S7-S14. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0007114508892458
Deliens, T., Clarys, P., De Bourdeaudhuij, I., & Deforche, B. (2014). Determinants of eating behaviour in university students: a qualitative study using focus group discussions. BMC public health, 14, 53. doi:10.1186/1471-2458-14-53
Feng, P., Huang, L., & Wang, H. (2013). Taste bud homeostasis in health, disease, and aging. Chemical senses, 39(1), 3–16. doi:10.1093/chemse/bjt059
Bartolotto C. (2015). Does Consuming Sugar and Artificial Sweeteners Change Taste Preferences?. The Permanente journal, 19(3), 81–84. doi:10.7812/TPP/14-229