Do you have a sweet tooth? What about a fat tooth? I have a salt tooth. I never dust the excessive salt off my pretzels. My family automatically hands me the pickles from their plates when eating sandwiches in restaurants. I love mustard…and popcorn…and a good tangy vinaigrette.
My blood pressure is normal, so I don’t worry much about my salt fetish, but I sometimes think dinner tastes bland when my family thinks it’s fine. That’s a sign the salt receptors on my tongue are ramped up. My taste buds need a little more salt than average to register “yum” in my brain.
For many of us, this is true for salt as well as sugar. Now scientists believe it can happen with fat too. Just like salt and sugar, a special receptor on our tongues registers the taste of fat. We naturally crave all three, yet the levels of these substances that give us pleasure can get dangerously out of whack. The more salt, sugar, and fat we consume, the more we want. It’s the opposite of familiarity breeds contempt. We’re numbing our taste buds through overstimulation. If we are used to enjoying salted caramel ice cream (a trifecta of salt, sugar and fat), then a stalk of celery or a handful of unsalted nuts may no longer excite us.
Unfortunately the processed food industry just keeps packing salt, sugar and fat into our snacks, feeding our addictions and leading us into what psychologist Douglas Lisle calls the Pleasure Trap. If “healthy” foods don’t appeal to you – you’re probably a victim of numbed taste buds. There is hope! You’re not genetically programmed to hate cauliflower, but your taste buds probably have been well-trained to prefer a plate of nachos.
When we do something that feels good, researchers have found that certain areas in our brains light up as the neurotransmitter dopamine floods the system. Naturally, we want to do that thing again and again to recreate that feel good sensation. This can get some of us into trouble when it comes to drugs, alcohol, sex or gambling. But all of us experience a dopamine high when we eat delicious foods. So of course we have a hard time denying ourselves chocolate cake when we know how sensational it feels to take that first bite.
Surprisingly, it takes only a few weeks of healthy eating to begin desensitizing your palette. The first step is to consciously and gradually decrease your intake of your particular vice. Let’s say it’s sugar. As you cut back on sweets, you’ll crave them less, and need smaller amounts of sugar to light up the pleasure centers in your brain. Once your taste buds are recalibrated, you will be better able to appreciate not only the sweetness of a ripe melon, but also the deliciousness of a delicate asparagus (without butter, oil or salt).
By limiting calorie-dense restaurant meals, sugary treats, fatty snacks, and salt-laden processed foods you are NOT sentencing yourself to a future of a bland and unsatisfying diet. Remember that the longer you replace the bad choices with healthy, fresh, and unprocessed foods, the better they will taste.
If you’d like to learn more about how to regulate your body’s hormones, like dopamine and cortisol, be sure to sign up for my workshop — Safeguarding Your Health: Disease Prevention through Sleep, Food, Mood and Exercise. It begins in just FIVE days, on January 14th. It’s a six-week, self-paced online workshop based on the Smarts and Stamina model. (See more about the Smarts and Stamina work book in the sources below).
Lisle, Douglas J. and Goldhammer, Alan. (2006) The Pleasure Trap: Mastering the Hidden Force that Undermines Health & Happiness. Healthy Living Publications, Tennessee.
NutritionFacts.org. Want to be Healthier? Change Your Taste Buds. January 8, 2014. by Michael Greger, MD.
Nutrition Wonderland. Understanding our Bodies: Dopamine and Its Rewards, July 31, 2009. by Christie Wilcox.
Shaar, M.J. & Britton, K. (2011). Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health and Performance. Philadelphia, PA: Positive Psychology Press.