We don’t usually overeat on salmon and broccoli, but many of us find it hard to say no to another slice of pizza or cake. That’s normal. Sugary, salty, and fatty foods “light up the pleasure centers in our brains,” says Ariana Cucuzza, a registered dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine. The more we have those foods, the more we want.
The good news is, you can retrain your taste buds to enjoy a diet with less sugar, salt, and unhealthy fat, says Cucuzza. It’s like resetting your taste bud baseline — you’ll not only crave less sugar, salt, and fat, Cucuzza said, but when you do eat those foods you may find them overly sweet or salty. Studies have shown that when you reduce how much salt and fat you’re eating now, you’ll eat less of those in the future. And one study found that participants on a low-sugar diet perceived foods as noticeably sweeter after four weeks.
“It is a process to change your taste buds, and it might not feel good those first few days,” Cucuzza says. “But over a week or so, your taste buds will adapt.” After eating a diet with less sodium, identifying food as tasting too salty can happen pretty quickly, in a week or less, Cucuzza says.
The goal isn’t to eat zero sugar, salt, or fat (your body needs all of those!), but rather to reset your taste buds so you crave a healthy amount. Here’s how:
Need to Know: New FDA regulations will soon require food manufacturers to call out added sugar on the label separately from the total amount of sugar. (You might have noticed the change on some labels already.) Added sugar doesn’t naturally occur in a food, but is added during processing. “Don’t confuse added sugars with total sugars, which includes both naturally occurring and added sugars,” says Jill Weisenberger, a Virginia-based Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and author of Prediabetes: A Complete Guide.
For example, fruit, which should be a diet staple, has naturally occurring sugar, and also contains dietary fiber, which helps control blood sugar levels and prevents rapid rises in blood sugar. Try to get no more than 10 percent of your daily calories from added sugar, or about 200 calories on an average 2,000 calorie daily diet. When looking for sugar in the ingredient list, watch for words ending in “ose” (like dextrose and fructose) as well as cane sugar, syrup, molasses, and evaporated juice, says Cucuzza. Honey and agave are all sugar, too, and although they’re less processed, they still affect our bodies in similar ways.
Tips: If you feel like you want to amp up the sweetness of your plate, Cucuzza suggests sautéing or roasting vegetables to bring out their natural sweetness. Certain “warm spices,” like nutmeg, ginger, vanilla, cinnamon, and clove also do a great job of bringing out the natural sugary flavor of foods. And if you’ve sworn off the store-bought (sugar-bomb) pasta sauce, salad dressing or barbecue sauce that you usually love, try finding a low-sugar alternative or making your own. “It’s surprisingly easy,” says Weisenberger, and trying a substitute will make you feel less deprived than simply skipping the sauce. That goes ditto for dessert: Weisenberger recommends frozen grapes or Medjool dates as a natural swap for sugary desserts.
And if you’re planning to double down on artificial sweeteners, know that your plan may backfire. Over time, high use of artificial sweeteners may actually cause you to want to eat more sugar because your body is detecting sweetness, but isn’t getting the gratification of real sugar, Cucuzza said. “Your body thinks it’s getting sugar, but if there are no calories, it’s like, ‘What’s going on?’”
Artificial sweeteners have their place. They can be helpful for people with diabetes or people who would otherwise drink scads of high-calorie sugary beverages. But they are also linked to increased appetite and calorie consumption. To retrain your taste buds, try using less and less of the real thing, rather than swapping every teaspoon of sugar for an artificial sweetener.
Need to Know: When it comes to sodium, at an average of 3,400 mg a day, Americans eat way more sodium than the recommended daily allowance of 2,300 mg. (As a jarring visual, that comes out to only one teaspoon a day!) The American Heart Association goes even further and recommends 1,500 mg a day as an ideal limit.
A lot of that extra salt comes from packaged foods — and ones you might not even suspect, like cottage cheese or sliced bread. As you retrain your tastebuds, make it a habit to look at the label each and every time. You want to glance at the total amount of sodium, not just hunt for the word “salt” in the ingredient list. “They usually hide sodium as natural flavors, or MSG. MSG is technically natural, so they can call it natural flavors,” Cacuzza says.
Tips: It’s easier to control the sodium in your diet when you’re calling the shots in the kitchen, says Weisenberger. Try swapping your usual high-sodium broth for a combo of half water and half broth when cooking rice or grains, and make sure to use no-salt added canned vegetables in recipes. At the table, ditch the salt shaker for wedges of lemon, lime, or orange. “That can really boost the flavor of greens, fish, whole grains and lots of other foods,” Weisenberger says.
Need to Know: “Fats are actually what help us stay full,” Cucuzza says. Healthy fats “can control inflammation and make us more satisfied.” Aim to get between 20 to 35 percent (400 to 700 calories from an average 2,000 calorie daily diet) of your daily calories from fat. But not all fat is created equal. You’ll want to limit both trans fats and saturated fat. Try to get no more than 5 or 6 percent, or 100-120 calories, of a 2,000 calorie diet from saturated fats, and limit trans fat as much as possible. (Saturated fats are typically found in animal products, while trans fats are common in margarine, baked goods, crackers, and coffee creamers.)
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are the good-for-you fats that can be found in foods like avocados, salmon, nuts, and nut butters.
Tips: Try and replace solid fats (like butter) with liquid oils (olive, sunflower, etc.), says Weisenberger. You can replace 4 tablespoons of solid fat with 3 tablespoons of olive or canola oil, she says, and replace butter with mashed avocado, tablespoon for tablespoon. The idea isn’t to make every meal fat-free but to make sure you’re cooking and baking with lower amounts of saturated fat.
Now may be a smart time to expand your usual recipe repertoire as well. Weisenberger encourages people to experiment in the kitchen with different herb combinations and cooking methods, rather than simply lamenting the less cheese they’re putting on their go-to meals. “I think it’s smart to ask friends for some of their favorite healthy recipes,” she says. “You might be surprised by what you get to taste next.”
And just as important as being open about trying new foods is not forcing yourself to eat foods you don’t like, Weisenberger says, because you need to enjoy what you’re eating to feel satisfied. That goes for food you like, too. Practicing mindful eating, which means eating slowly and thinking about the taste and texture of what you’re eating, can make you enjoy your food more and help prevent overeating. Eating too fast, or while distracted, can cause you to eat when you’re not hungry.
Adjusting your taste buds to less salt, sugar and fat may not be fun at first — but it does get easier. And once your taste buds are retrained, you may find yourself craving less of those not-great foods as well. That’s a win for your health and your waistline.
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