Need to change your diet but keep failing because you don’t like the taste of plant-based foods? You’re not devoid of willpower and you’re not doomed to eat junk forever. There’s science at work here, triggering cravings, dulling your taste buds, and keeping you from enjoying plant-based foods. But there’s good news, too: your dislike for healthy foods is temporary.
The first step to getting over your plant-based aversion is understanding what’s going on.
The Standard American Diet — one that is high in animal products and packaged foods — contains loads of salt, sugar, and fat. In his book Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss exposes how the top food companies “optimize” convenience foods to ensure customers experience the “bliss point,” or the right combination of excess salt, sugar, and fat to spark the greatest amount of crave.
And they’ve gotten this down to a science, literally. These food giants have employed scientists to join them on their “bliss point” quest. Researchers have perfected the “right” combination of salt, sugar, and fat to hook consumers on junk food.
What does that right combination look like? Moss explains: “The biggest hits — be they Coca-Cola or Doritos — owe their success to complex formulas that pique the taste buds enough to be alluring but don’t have a distinct, overriding single flavor that tells the brain to stop eating.”
Sound familiar? It’s why you can’t “just have one” potato chip. Your brain isn’t getting the message that you’ve had enough. Whereas if you eat a whole plant-based food, like a piece of naturally sweet fruit that isn’t laden with salt and fat, your brain will register when you’re satiated and you won’t reach for a second apple, unless you need the calories.
While all that’s going on in your brain, your taste buds are changing, too. Junk food hooks us then dulls our sense of taste. The molecular makeup of our tongues actually alters when we eat certain “unhealthy” foods, like the packaged goods we've grown up eating.
While we think of taste buds developing in childhood, they’re actually continually turning over in adulthood. We have about 50 to 100 “taste bud” cells, renewing every 10 days or so. But studies show when we eat too much fat, we experience acute inflammation (as seen in obesity).
This inflammation prevents taste buds from regenerating as quickly and dulls the sense of taste — creating a vicious cycle as these desensitized taste buds make overweight and obese people more likely to overeat high-fat foods and less likely to lose weight.
And it’s not just fat screwing up our taste buds. Eating too much salt and sugar has a similiar effect.
When our taste buds are messed up like this, we have a hard time enjoying natural plant foods because we’re wired to want high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar.
It’s possible to change your tastes! While your taste buds do become dulled from eating too much salt, sugar, or fat, they also reset when you ditch the Standard American Diet.
And here’s the really cool part: this taste bud “reset” happens fast. Within weeks of a low salt diet, people like salt-free soup more than the highly salted one. When allowed to salt their own soup, they'll also add less salt the longer they eat a low-sodium diet.
So if you’re struggling to transition to a plant-based diet because you don’t like the way the food tastes, try eating exclusively plant-based for two weeks.
It’s ok if you don’t love it at first — you probably won’t if you’re used to a Standard American Diet!
But the research shows the longer you eat whole plant-based foods, the more you’ll like them. As your taste buds regain sensitivity, you’ll be able to truly taste (and enjoy) healthy meals — what a gift! And c’mon…you can do anything for two weeks, right?
Need help getting started on your two week journey? Join our Plant-Based Challenge here.
By Ali Brown
Ali is a nutrition and lifestyle writer and editor, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.