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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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December 22, 2016

Can You Retrain Your Taste?

By Mark Sisson
17 Comments

Inline_TastebudsFollowing the switch to Primal eating, people often share curious observations about their shift in taste. After a lifetime of eating sugar, grains, artificial flavors and hydrogenated oils, they’re often taken by surprise at the way their tastebuds react to a low-sugar, whole foods-based diet.

Granted, it doesn’t happen overnight, but it happens. Many say the effect sneaks up on them over the course of several weeks until one day they realize their sense of taste has gone into hyperdrive.

Then they look across the cubicle aisle and watch their coworkers inhaling bags of chips or uninterestingly sucking away on sugary beverages. And it occurs to them: all those wasted years as their tastebuds languished in processed monotony.

It’s one of the unexpected upsides of the Primal Blueprint diet: learning/relearning the nuance of real food flavor. The experience doesn’t just reflect a psychological shift either. Taste acclimatization is a real, measurable thing.

What do we know about the process? Quite a bit actually. Some of it rather surprising….

Sugar consumption and your tastebuds

A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined the effect of reduced simple sugar intake on a group of “healthy” men and women. The study broke the participants up into two groups, with one group assigned a low-sugar diet and the other group continuing to eat their usual high-sugar diet. After 3 months of this, both groups were left to eat however they pleased for yet another month. Each month during the study, participants were asked to rate the sweetness and “pleasantness” of vanilla puddings and raspberry beverages that varied in sugar concentration.

After the third month of dieting, the low-sugar group rated the pudding to be around 40 percent sweeter than the control group, regardless of how much sugar the pudding contained. The conclusion was simple: “changes in consumption of simple sugars influence perceived sweet taste intensity.” Meaning that the less sugar you eat over the long term, the more things taste sweeter and, therefore, tastier.

The overall findings are important in that they indicate the inevitability of taste acclimatization, but they also demonstrate just how long this adjustment can take. Researchers found that the low-sugar group took on average two months for their tastebuds to recognize any difference in sweetness and pleasantness—and yet another month for that sweetness to intensify.

The takeaway here? A little patience will yield long-term dividends.

But what about salt addiction?

If you’re a bit of a salt junkie, you might be keen on learning how to break the habit. It’s a perfectly reasonable goal to have, particularly if you’ve been diagnosed with hypertension. (You might want to find out if you’re among the “salt-sensitive” in the population—about 50% of those with hypertension by some estimates— before chalking up your high blood pressure to salt intake.)

Similar to sugar, lowering intake of sodium-rich foods has been shown to decrease your reliance on salt. An impressively long 1-year study found that “reduction in sodium intake and excretion accompanied a shift in preference toward less salt.” Researchers surmised that the mechanisms behind this reduction in salt addiction were varied, and included physiological, behavioral, and context effects. Not the ultra-conclusive reasoning you were hoping for, but it looks as if particularly overzealous salt cravings should drop significantly when you switch to a naturally salt-moderated, low processed-food diet.

Still, let’s not neglect some stubborn truths.

While the health and scientific community continues to hate on salt, very few studies have examined the importance of salt for maintaining a healthy body. While these studies may be relatively few, evidence suggests that salt may play an essential role in excreting cortisol (the “stress hormone”) from the body, thereby improving recovery time from stressful events and situations. Possibly an important one to remember, when the in-laws descend for holiday dinner.

Salt has also been shown to decrease strain during exercise by increasing hydration. Studies indicate that knocking back a sodium-rich beverage prior to exercising increases plasma volume, which in turn reduces the strain on your body during exercise and helps you reach higher levels of performance.

And all those other clever uses

And then there’s the point that salt just makes food taste better…. Just make a point of sticking with the good stuff—high quality sources like Himalayan pink salt, Real Salt, and Celtic sea salt. These natural, unrefined versions provide all of the taste of salt and, unlike table salt, still include all the essential minerals your body needs to rehydrate those cells and help to evenly distribute all that sodium.

The factors behind taste

There’s a lot more to taste than just your tastebuds themselves, which were designed to elicit appropriate feeding responses in an evolutionary environment—not the snack aisles of Costco.

If your body has been inundated with sugar-intensive processed foods for the last few years/decades, it may be a little confused as to what it actually wants to taste. Rewiring your tastebuds, then, is no small task for both your brain and your digestive system.

Luckily, all that’s required of you is to stay the course of good eating. That said, it’s helpful as always to understand the bigger picture.

Gut Health

There isn’t much it seems the gut isn’t involved in, and taste is no exception apparently. A team at the Department of Neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine discovered that the taste receptor T1R3 and the G protein gustducin are located in the gut, as well as the mouth. These taste receptors are essential to tasting sweetness in the foods we eat, and we now know that they play an important role in sensing glucose within our gastrointestinal tract.

This role goes far beyond simply “tasting” carbohydrates and other sugary or sweet foods within your gut. When you eat these foods, the sweet-sensing taste receptors in your large intestine activate the release of hormones that promote insulin secretion and regulate appetite. This means that if your gut health is lacking, its ability to sense carbs and produce insulin may be impaired.

Obesity

A 2012 study published in the British Medical Journal found that obese kids develop an insensitivity to taste. Researchers examined close to 200 children between the ages of 6 and 18, half of whom were a normal weight and half classified as obese. Each of the participants was asked to place 22 taste strips on their tongue, simulating each of the five levels of taste at varying intensities.

Obese children found it significantly more difficult to differentiate between the different taste sensations, and were particularly insensitive to salty, umami and bitter tastes. Children who were obese also gave lower intensity ratings to sweet foods, meaning they needed more sugar in foods to achieve the same sensation of sweetness.

The take-away is simple: the more weight we put on, the less likely we are to enjoy the food we eat or to recognize the mounting sugar or salt levels we likely take in for the same taste experience. There may be more of a lag time in rejuvenating full taste sensitivity if we’re reversing obesity as well as shifting our diets, but the end point is the same.

Eating environment and attention

In an interesting wrinkle, researchers at the University of Cornell found that noise generated by airplanes appeared to enhance umami taste while inhibiting sweet taste. Noise, which can reach upwards of 85 decibels inside your average passenger jet, has led many airlines to notice that people tend to gravitate towards savory foods like tomatoes, while straying away from sugary foods. Bloody Mary, anyone?

Beyond the physical adaptations that come over time, we can appreciate the power of attention (as well as quiet) in sensory experience. Do we blunt or confuse our senses by multitasking or watching the nightly news while we eat? Or do we bring our full consciousness to the meal?

Research into eating awareness shows that mindful practices might be powerful enough to help resolve even chronic disordered eating. Knowing that, what can it promise us as we make the transition to taste sensitization and a healthier relationship with food?

Thanks for reading, everybody. What has been your experience in shifting your personal taste as you’ve adopted a Primal diet? What helped you or challenged you? And when (if you’re already there) did you know you’d gotten over the hump?

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17 Comments on "Can You Retrain Your Taste?"

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Andrea
Andrea
7 months 25 days ago

I absolutely have noticed that the typical sweet dessert is often WAY too sweet for my taste buds now. I still enjoy a home made treat, but I usually cut way back on the sugar and find that it is even more satisfying. And I LOVE the amazing variety of flavors in vegetables! In fact many vegetables are quite sweet, especially when roasted. Delicious! Thanks for another great article worth reflection.

Shary
Shary
7 months 25 days ago
I agree. I used to enjoy making cookies, which I rarely do these days. I have noticed, however, that most of the modern cookie recipes call for almost twice as much sugar as the recipes from 20 or 30 years ago. The same is true of various other dessert recipes. Regarding veggies, we prefer to taste the flavor of the vegetables and therefore don’t find it necessary to disguise them with a lot of seasonings and spices. Usually all I use is a sprinkle of salt and maybe some butter. As you say, roasting does bring out the natural sweetness… Read more »
Tom White
7 months 25 days ago

Amen to that. My first few years being primal I used a fair amount of spices in my dishes. I now usually have my vegetables with nothing other than being started with bacon fat. It is amazing to be able to taste flavour in plain vegetables. I especially like roasting them but they are also awesome when slowly cooked at 45 – 50 celsius in my Nutristahl 13″ skillet.

Jack
Jack
7 months 25 days ago

Totally agree. Fruit used to be bland, but now tastes very sweet. Now sugar tastes overwhelming.

Linda
Linda
7 months 25 days ago

Absolutely agree! And some fruit is so sweet that I started considering it candy or dessert. Some of my co-workers have three-four pieces of fruit as a mid-afternoon snack, thinking they are being healthy… I have half an apple with my breakfast yogurt and it feels like an indulgence.

Starmice
Starmice
7 months 24 days ago

Me too – I can hardly go out and have a cocktail anymore as they’re so insanely sweet. Same with almost all desserts.

Shary
Shary
7 months 25 days ago
You absolutely CAN retrain your taste buds. I am fortunate in that I didn’t have to work very hard at it. I’ve always liked foods that are good for me and passed on most things that aren’t–possibly thanks to being fed a healthy diet from a very young age. I’ve never cared much for pasta, pizza, breads, cereals, etc. because we didn’t eat a lot of that kind of thing when I was growing up. The only thing I’ve ever had problems with is sweets, and even then, not all sweets. I’ve never been a soda drinker, don’t care much… Read more »
laurie
laurie
7 months 25 days ago

My husband discovered that even some roasted veg is TOO sweet for his taste, now….and this from a man who used to enjoy family sized bags of mini-eggs.
It’s a true change that occurs, and a valuable one.
The experience of the world of food and taste is so exciting and important, it’s a shame to miss it for a cheap store bought sugar bomb.

Alessandra Abdala
Alessandra Abdala
7 months 25 days ago

I was never a sweet tooth to begin with, but lately a microscopic piece of cake seems sweeter to me than all the sweet I would taste in a normal week. I also used to love baked pineapple with cinnamon, now it seems way to sweet and I stick to the raw version, sweet enough in my opinion

Elizabeth Resnick
7 months 25 days ago

Yes, my tastes have definitely changed. I’ve always appreciated a variety of flavors, and even as a kid gravitated towards foods with some pretty strong tastes, like olives and sauerkraut. But everything tastes sweeter to me now. Even some fruits seem overly sweet. In my vegetarian/vegan days, I lived for dried fruit. Now I never think to eat it, except maybe as an ingredient. And while I will always love chocolate, a little bit goes a long way. And even my taste in wines has changed…I keep going dryer.

Ross
Ross
7 months 25 days ago
The great revelation when giving up sugar is that foods you had never thought of as sweet, such as broccoli and cabbage, suddenly are. And you notice other flavor compounds. For me, regular green cabbage now tastes almost like pea pods, a sweet grassy flavor. And vegetables with natural sugars such as onion or carrot taste very sweet. Years ago, when I went low carb, I gave up beer for many months. When I next had a taste it was as if several teaspoons of sugar had been added to my favorite, normally bitter, beer. Since sugar flattens and deadens… Read more »
Investigator
Investigator
7 months 25 days ago

Potentially useful application of the ‘low-sugar group finding things 40% sweeter’ study: when making kid birthday cookies, brownies, etc., it’s pretty trivial to substitute coconut milk 1:1 for milk, gluten-free flour 1:1 for wheat flour, but what about sugar? Looks like the default assumption should be that the Joy of Cooking recipe should be 40% sweeter. Thanks Mark!

David
David
7 months 24 days ago

90% dark chocolate is my new baseline. 85% tastes way too sweet. I’ve totally detoxed. Dried fruit, like coconut date rolls, are dessert. But they’re addictive little sugar bombs so only eat one.

maxjohnson
maxjohnson
7 months 24 days ago

Steaming vegetables enhances their flavor for me. It’s my preferred way of eating aside from raw. I grow my own greens and when it gets colder the green have more sweetness in them.

Laurence
Laurence
7 months 24 days ago

Yes, I also cut back half the sugar when I happen to bake some conventional stuff again, but above finding that sugar tastes stronger, I also notice that some dishes (even sugar-free) just don’t taste anymore. At the last family diner, while the other guests were enthusiastically saying that the couscous was delicious, I was desperatly searching for some taste in those poor overcooked vegetables. I guessed that since going Primal (and giving up convenience food as well as grains), I just got used to fresh food and more varied spices.

Paula
Paula
7 months 23 days ago
I’ve noticed this too. I used to find apples so bland and unsweet years ago (it was almost like eating a potato to my messed up taste buds) but now they taste very sweet to me. Dessert recipes have been way too sweet for me even before I began to try to eat more paleo. Years ago I lived for awhile in Europe and got used to the desserts being very rich with real butter and cream but much lower amounts of sugar. Everybody wants a treat once in awhile but most American cookies, cakes, and desserts taste sickening sweet… Read more »
Emily
Emily
2 months 18 days ago

I had to learn how to eat sugar when I left home, as I grew up in a household where sugar was not added to anything, and home-canned fruit was a standard dessert. When I moved into a dorm, which prided itself on having “home cooked” meals, the cookies and desserts were so sweet I could only eat a bite or two, and often would eat them with a green apple or something to cut the sweetness. Sadly, I have acquired a sweet tooth since those days, would love to go back to my sugarless childhood ways!

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