Why do healthy foods taste worse than unhealthy foods?

I love this question! I have heard variations of this question many times during my career. Some of my patients ask, “Why doesn’t broccoli taste as good as potato chips?” and others lament, “Please don’t tell me to snack on carrot sticks when I am craving something crunchy. It’s never going to happen.” These are very valid statements. I want to provide realistic and usable tips on how to consume a healthy diet. To effectively accomplish this task, I try to provide a basic summary to patients on why various “healthy” foods may not taste as good or be as satisfying as some not-so-healthy foods.

Let’s start by analyzing your question on “taste”. The typical American diet tends to be very high in processed foods: foods high in added sugar, fat, and salt. Because of this, our taste buds (and waistlines) have suffered the consequences. Foods commonly found in the snack food aisle, and even other foods that are advertised as “all natural” and “wholesome”, can also alter your taste buds over time. The more sugar, salt, and processed food you eat, the less sensitive your taste buds become to anything but salty and sweet. It almost seems to increase a threshold for what we taste. Many of my patients tell me that they can’t eat food without adding salt to it “because it doesn’t taste good.” What I try to get them to do is slowly but surely reduce intake of foods with added salt and sugar, to help re-set their taste buds and allow them to enjoy the natural flavors of various foods. This process does not happen overnight but with time and diligence, one can begin to prefer more naturally tasting foods. They actually begin to find that foods they used to love, like Doritos or regular soda, doesn’t taste good to them any longer.

Marcia Levin Pelchat, PhD, an associate member of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, says that at birth, we all have somewhat unique tastes. “There are only a limited number of basic tastes, yet we can experience untold thousands of different flavors”, she says. I completely agree. The food experience is based on not only taste, but also smell, texture, and experience. The first lobster roll that I ever consumed was on a first date. It is now my favorite food. Coincidentally, that lobster roll was also freshly caught and prepared hours before I ate it and I had it on a first date…with my now spouse! So, the entire food/taste experience can be affected by many things.

Another aspect of craving unhealthy food is related to addiction. I have many patients that claim to be “addicted to chocolate” or “I can’t just have one potato chip. I eat the whole bag.” I feel there is some validity to these statements. But there is some debate on what qualifies as a food addiction. Addiction is defined as a chronic brain disorder characterized by compulsive and relapsing behavior. Predisposing factors for an addiction include psychological vulnerability, biochemical abnormalities, genetics, and environmental conditioning. Several studies using laboratory animals have found that rats will run away from regular rat chow when they hear a sound signaling an impending electrical shock, but rats with access to chocolate, cheesecake and sausage will keep eating those foods, even when they know a painful shock is coming. Some experts feel that this behavior may be similar in humans. An overweight individual may continue to choose large amounts of foods high in sugar and salt even though he knows they are harmful to his health. Potentially addictive foods activate the same pleasure/reward centers in the brain as addictive drugs like cocaine. Both food and drugs can stimulate the caudate nucleus, hippocampus, and insula and trigger the release of dopamine, a key player in our brain’s reward system.

There are many factors that play a role in why we eat the way we do. In researching this article I came across an article by a dietitian, Kerri Hawkins. I really liked her comprehensive thoughts on the topic. She summarizes that both “chemical and biological” cues may lead us to making the food choices that we do. Many of the patients that tell me they are addicted to various foods are also chronic dieters. They often feel deprived and hungry. Kerri says “deprivation can increase the reward value of food unless you can find a substitute you will desire more.” That is why I try not to tell patients that they have to “avoid” various foods. The deprivation may lead to overeating. However, some people may have an actual food addiction. In any case, I recommend working with your doctor and a registered dietitian to help you to modify eating behaviors to help you find a healthy relationship with food!

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