It’s no big secret that people have different taste preferences. Some of us gleefully devour arugula salads for lunch, while others won’t touch greens unless they’re baked and smothered in cheese (and sometimes not even then). Some people gulp down pumpkin spice lattes; others go into sugar shock after just one sip.
“When it comes to taste, each one of us is hardwired differently,” says Valerie Duffy, RD, professor of nutritional science at the University of Connecticut. And emerging research is showing that our flavor preferences may affect our waistlines and health in surprising ways. Check out the fascinating scoop on exactly what’s going on inside your mouth and how to tap your taste buds to dump unwanted pounds.
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Did you know that there are three types of tasters: supertasters, nontasters and people who fall somewhere in between? Finicky types, with their hypersensitive taste buds, tend to belong to the first group. If you’re a supertaster, you find the flavors in foods really intense. Desserts taste too sweet, bitter foods are too bitter and spicy foods—well, you get the picture. That’s why you’re less likely to inhale a plate of brownies, and you probably don’t make the best drinking buddy (the ethanol in alcohol—yech).
Yet vegetables may pose a challenge for supertasters, who can be particularly sensitive to the bitter compounds in dark, leafy greens. One study co-authored by Duffy showed that they ate almost one fewer serving a day than their peers. As Duffy notes, “Supertasters will probably need to minimize the bitterness in Brussels sprouts, say, to develop a taste for them.” The one thing these picky eaters typically can’t get enough of: salty foods, which may trigger overeating.
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Research finds that roughly 25 percent of Americans are supertasters. About 25 percent are nontasters, and the rest of us fall in the middle. Why are you turned off by curry takeout while your dinner companion can’t get enough of it? Unclear, but it may be in your genes (for example, a specific variant of the gene TAS2R38 can make bitter compounds overwhelming to supertasters), says Linda Bartoshuk, PhD, Bushnell Professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Florida. What many supertasters seem to have in common is a high number of taste papillae, the tiny bumps on the tongue where taste buds live.
Nontasters, on the other hand, simply perceive flavors and textures less intensely. On the plus side, they find leafy greens sweet rather than bitter, so they’re more apt to polish them off. But they tend to be relatively insensitive to fat and creamy textures, which may make them overindulge. Not surprisingly, some research suggests that nontasters are at greater risk of excessive weight gain and cardiovascular disease than the rest of the population. Since they have duller taste sensations, they may need to eat more food to feel satisfied.
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How extra weight messes with food satisfaction
While taste clearly affects your waistline, the opposite also seems to be true: Extra weight may dim sensitivity to flavors. One possible reason is that those additional pounds influence hormone levels throughout the body, which changes the way taste receptors relay information to the brain. A Stanford University study found that a group of obese preoperative bariatric surgery patients had less taste sensitivity than a control group of normal-weight individuals.
Although shedding weight can help restore some lost taste sensation, it might not bring it back completely. “Taste is like any other system and may become dulled with overuse,” explains John Morton, MD, lead author of the Stanford study. “What we really need is to appreciate our food more.”
Trick your appetite!
As anyone who has ever stuffed herself at dinner but still had room for dessert knows, the stomach works in mysterious ways. This tendency to feel too full for one thing on your plate but not another impacts all kinds of tasters, says Barbara Rolls, PhD, professor of nutritional sciences at Pennsylvania State University and author of The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet. “It’s called sensory-specific satiety,” she explains, “and it happens when you eat one type of food to the point where you don’t want any more, yet you can still be hungry for foods with other flavors, textures and smells.”
Sensory-specific satiety can actually be a valuable weight-management tool. In fact, it’s the basis behind one-note eating plans (like the grapefruit diet), which take the idea to the extreme. “People who limit their diets while trying to lose weight are more successful,” says Kristen Kizer, RD, a dietitian at Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas. “Our human tendency is to sample as much as possible, so if you have a whole buffet of options, you’re more likely to overeat.”
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Of course, restricting yourself to a single food is unhealthy, not to mention boring. So try these ways to rejigger your taste buds.
Cut back on processed foods. They often contain hidden additives, like salt in breakfast cereal or sugar in some tomato sauces and salad dressings, says David Katz, MD, founding director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. You may not consciously notice these flavors, but your individual taste receptors do—and they keep you craving more and more, Dr. Katz explains. Read labels on prepared foods, and cook from scratch when you can.
Have one cheat food. Instead of keeping five types of treats in your house, choose one you really enjoy and stock up on just that. You’ll be less tempted to go overboard.
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Eat the same shade. At least when it comes to splurge foods. Research shows that people may chow down more when offered candies in a combo of colors instead of ones that are all one hue. (At last—a reason to munch only on green M&M’s.)
Cook with a dominant flavor. Rather than making a dinner that has a variety of notes, Dr. Katz advises, stick to a one-pot meal with one herb, spice or prevailing taste (like a Greek lamb shank and polenta dish accented with oregano). “You’ll want to stop eating earlier than if you were jumping back and forth among three or four side dishes that taste very different.” Bottom line: When you eat too much of one flavor profile, you grow tired of it.
Be present. “It’s more difficult to feel full when you’re not focused on your food,” Rolls says. Tap your senses to savor your meals. That could mean lingering in the kitchen while dinner simmers on the stove or giving your lemon rosemary chicken a big whiff before you dig in. And during mealtime, Rolls adds, “eliminate television and email so that you can concentrate on smelling, tasting and chewing. Enjoy the experience!” Take pleasure in your food and you’ll just know when to stop.