Can you train yourself to like healthy food?

  • Amy Fleming, Guardian News Service, London
  • |
  • Updated: Feb 27, 2013 23:03 IST

It has been proven time and again that quick-fix diets are counterproductive in the long run, and it's not just willpower failure making dieters regain the weight (and then some). The holy grail, surely, is to learn to love health food more than junk, thus avoiding the binge-purge cycle.

'Flavour flavour' learning
'Flavour flavour learning' is a form of Pavlovian conditioning. A study into whether flavour flavour learning can help children feel more positively about broccoli produced encouraging results. After being fed sweetened broccoli, the kids liked the taste of plain broccoli more.

Lower your taste thresholds
We all have different thresholds for feeling satisfied by tastes. These are controlled in part physiologically but over time we also get used to certain levels of, say, sweetness and saltiness.

"A number of companies are facing the necessity to reduce salt or sugar or fat," says Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University.

"What happens if you do that suddenly? People don't like the product any more. But execute the same change over a much longer period, then we keep adapting," he says.

The feel-good factor
Another form of preference learning stems from the positive post-ingested nutritional effects of what you consume.

When drinking Coca-Cola, the glucose sends a positive message to the brain because that is its primary energy source. But you can get a similar kick after consuming more nutritious foods.

Decent exposure
Repeated exposure to pretty much any kind of stimulus brings a familiarity that breeds quite the opposite of contempt.

One 2010 study showed that repeated tasting increased a liking for vegetables among nine-and-10-year olds.

"I believe that the same methods would work with adults though I don't know of any studies with adults," says Professor Jane Wardle of the Health Behaviour Research Centre, at UCL in London.

Knowledge is power
Barb Stuckey, food developer and author of Taste What You're Missing: the passionate eater's guide to why good food tastes good, believes the best way to drum up enthusiasm for a type of food is to become an expert on it.

You might notice that spinach is less bitter and has a soft mouth feel. Suddenly you're appreciating nuances you previously only tolerated.


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