“Food-ology”: the psychology of food, taste and changing eating habits
Why is it that some foods have more appeal to us and our children, than others? Why are some foods harder to say ‘no’ to? And why is it so hard to change our eating habits? If you have a fussy eater or if you have been on a crusade to change your eating habits, or have ever wondered why it’s so hard to change the trend of increasing waistlines, then this fact sheet is going to be right up your alley. Let us take a look at the science and the psychology behind our eating habits, to help make sense of why some habits die hard, and just how they came about in the first place.
Getting to know your food preferences
The foods you like and want are influenced by a number of factors, including internal ones such as genetics and your physiology (for example your taste receptors), and external factors such as your cultural background and family life.
The life stage where you’re at will also influence your food choices; at any time, your current health, lifestyle, personal life and beliefs will naturally affect what you choose to eat and what you choose not to eat (and drink).
The reason an adult chooses a certain food is generally different from that of a child. For example, adults may be influenced by health concerns, convenience and cost, whereas children are more likely to be influenced by taste experiences, visual appearance and access. The importance of these factors becomes very evident when trying to amend an eating habit, and being aware of them can affect the likelihood of success.
By understanding your food preferences you can better understand how your and your children’s eating habits are formed, as well as how to work with them.
Before going on, let’s just consider a few terms.
Food preference itself refers to our choice of one food over another, for example steak over chicken.
Taste preference refers to one taste over another for example savoury foods over sweet foods.
We should also keep in mind that liking and wanting are two different things. I can like sugar but after my eighth sweet I may not want any more. It also seems that liking is easier to amend and wanting seems more deeply ‘ingrained’ within us.
How does taste work?
Your palate seems able to detect many subtle flavours in your food and drink, however, there are really only a few distinct taste sensations. Taste buds can pick up sweet, bitter, sour, salty and umami – sounds like an exotic island doesn’t it? But it is, in fact, savoury. Fat on the other hand is believed to be distinguished by its texture. Interestingly, the taste buds for different tastes are located in different places on your tongue.
It also appears that our taste sensitivity affects how we accept new foods. For example, it is likely that picky children, who have a high taste sensitivity, will be less likely to adjust to new foods, whereas children who have a lowered taste sensitivity respond more favourably to new foods and tastes.
So you can see that, to some degree, we are fighting nature when we try to change some eating habits. It is suggested that those of us with heightened taste sensitivity are less likely to respond to attempts to increase our food acceptance by actions such as food-taste exposure.
Taste preferences start earlier than you may think
You will have heard or read that our early years are an important time for setting up healthy eating habits; but you might be surprised to learn just how early our food preferences can begin.
Taste preferences may develop as early as during the foetal stage. If a mother consumes a certain food (e.g. carrot juice) then infants are more accepting of the food when they begin solids. The same effect occurs via breastmilk. In addition, this early exposure for baby leads to a wider range of tastes and may increase acceptance of foods down the road. So there’s even more reason to eat well during pregnancy and while lactating.
How do our main taste preferences come about?
The preference for sweet is innate
It appears our only innate taste preference is for sweet, and that we are designed to reject bitter tastes. Some suggest that this is a survival mechanism to avoid ingesting poison. Potentially this helps to explain why many children appear to be predisposed to reject vegetables, particularly those that verge on the bitter side. Do I hear a few sighs of relief out there?
Has the penny dropped? We bet it has - that’s why those lovely fruit purées you offered baby went down so well and why, somehow, baby knew when you were offering a vegetable and clamped that little mouth tightly shut. Variety of healthy foods throughout the solids stage is very important, so keep the balance tilted towards veggies.
Don’t stop offering if they are rejected; it may just be a matter of time before baby’s taste buds adapt to the more bitter foods. While sweet taste preference is one given by nature, parents still control the environment: remember ‘parents offer, children choose’. If you give in to the sweet tastes, it gets harder to amend this; keep home for the good stuff and leave the sweet stuff for outings.
Our great love of salt
A liking for salty (and/ or fatty) foods is something that we learn. It appears that newborns are not able to differentiate salty tastes, though they quickly learn this by about 4 months of age. Yes, just in time for solids! In fact it seems our love of salt is one of the quickest learnt preferences, so it won’t take long for them to become ‘hooked’ on salt. Avoid using salt in children’s meals and remember that most of our salt comes from processed foods. Children, who are exposed to salt early on and repeatedly ingest it, are very likely going to be adults that love their salt also.
So it’s important to keep in mind that our environment exerts considerable control over our love of salty (and fatty) foods. As we will see, food habits formed during early childhood appear to be the hardest to change.
The good news is that everyone can adjust to less salt and less salty tasting foods. Simply by slowly reducing the salt, opting for low-salt foods and avoiding heavily salted products, a readjustment of taste buds will result quickly. Before you know it, you can detect all sorts of fabulous tastes and you will gag at an overly salted meal. A word of warning though: while reducing your salt can reduce your want for salt, you may still find that you like the stuff, making it easy to revert to old habits if you let up.
Is fatty food comfort food?
Fat, as we will see, really is in a league of its own! Our preference for fatty foods appears to be learnt in a similar fashion to salt; however, our ability to detect and react to fat levels in food is quite different. And, while we are able to adjust to a diet lower in fatty tastes, we appear to find it difficult to sustain these diets. It seems that, while our taste perceptions can adjust, our want and love for fatty foods lag behind.
It may take some time before our love of fat is extinguished sufficiently for us to make a permanent change in our eating habits, and for it to be one that we truly enjoy. This might explain why, after a sustained high-fat diet, we find healthy food a little on the ‘dim’ side taste-wise.
You might have heard some people saying ‘fat tastes good’ and arguing that this is why we love fatty foods so much. Well, strictly speaking, this is not true. After all, there wouldn’t be many of us that would say a lump of butter tastes good. It is a little more complex than that: fat gives food improved palatability, which we associate with a positive experience.
Changes to fatty food preferences need to involve a shift of enjoyment to tasty, healthful foods. Making such shifts, and the decisions that go along with them, is far easier said than done, as it is likely that we are fighting very ingrained thinking patterns.
Interestingly, it appears that our love of fatty foods is heightened when we are hungry. How many of us haven’t felt that urge for a greasy takeaway after a long day without food? Hunger is not our friend when we are trying to make good food choices!
The influence of ‘good tasting food’
‘Palatability’ sounds like a simple term; logically, one would assume it refers to how appealing a food or meal is. In fact, it is far more complex than that. Palatability of a food relates more to the hedonic or pleasurable experience that a food or a nutrient such as fat creates within us.
The level of pleasure we gain from a food will depend on many things, including your brain chemistry (specifically opioid levels), who you are eating with, the atmosphere, the reason you are eating and so on. Palatability can also be learnt and it seems that it can override our natural cues of hunger and satiety (fullness). This might explain why we can easily overeat indulgent foods.
Interestingly, palatability of foods is greatest when we are deprived of the food and is lowest after we have eaten it. Doesn’t that just make perfect sense? Remember all those times you gave in to a dessert you were craving, but afterwards you suddenly feel that the anticipation was better than the experience?
Still we do this time and time again, which brings us back to liking and wanting being quite different. While you can reduce your liking of something, the wanting still remains a prominent factor. Research seems to suggest that wanting is not easily down-regulated, because it may be governed by processes beyond our mere physiology. Just how this works is not as yet understood, though it is likely that our higher order processes, such as our emotions, are involved.
Factors affecting a child’s food choices
So we know now that repeated exposure is likely to increase the acceptance of new tastes and foods; but let’s look at the effect of associations with food and the influence of role models on eating habits.
Repeated exposure to new foods is important to early eating habits, it’s also the environment in which the exposure occurs that has an impact. A child’s initial association with a food may well affect their reaction to it next time. For example, where a food has been linked to a positive feeling, such as feeling full, it may increase one’s preference for this food a little. As apposed to where a food was eaten in a negative environment or had negative consequences, for example where it was given forcefully or if it resulted in gagging; this may lead to future rejection of that food.
Children also tend to eat as we do; whether this is a consequence of social learning (also referred to as modelling) where our children copy us, or whether it is as a result of pure exposure, i.e. they eat what you eat because that’s what you have in our house, is not clear. Regardless, you can take it that eating well yourself and keeping the home for healthy foods are going to be good habits.
Changing habits and patterns
If you feel that the current stock of advertising and media messages have been ineffective at reducing our waistlines, you are probably right. Research tends to suggest that reconditioning to connect healthy food with enjoyment appears more effective in creating change than mere education alone. For example, luring individuals by means of very appealing and, also, healthy food, may be more effective at getting us to change and make behavioural shifts, than if they were to only focus on warnings of the health-related dangers of saturated fat.
Studies suggest that, in the case of where we have learnt an eating behaviour from watching others, or cognitive learning (education), ‘unlearning’ may be best done in the same way as the initial learning. For example, habits gained by imitation (copying) or cognitive learning (for example education) may be best changed by reasoning and cognitive information, or by the example of significant role models.
Habits hardest to change
We know that how we learn a behaviour or a food preference in the first place affects how these are then amended. However, some habits die harder than others. The hardest of all behaviours to alter are those that we learn unconsciously, as in the case of innate preferences for sweet, followed by those learnt via early learning experiences. However, these can be over-ridden more easily during ‘sensitive periods’ in life, such as early childhood, late adolescence coinciding with independent living, major changes such as divorce or spousal death, plus pregnancy. So, never say never.
Change is easiest for things we have been taught or that we have copied from others.
Now theory is all very grand, however, applying theory to real life can be a totally different ball game! So let’s have a look at some examples and how we can apply this new knowledge.
Example 1: Solids when baby is ready
Sofie is 4 and a half months old*, her mom has been trying to get her to take solids for 2 weeks now. However, Sofie simply closes her mouth and wiggles about and the food that does go in generally comes back out after Sofie gags on it.
Sofie may still have a strong tongue-thrust reflex, which is not only preventing her from swallowing, but also causing her to gag. Unfortunately, the gagging may now be an unpleasant association to solids. Don’t be tempted to start solids too early (not before 4 months). Start when your baby shows the relevant signals. Starting out right is more likely to result in a positive experience for you both and increase the acceptance of a variety of foods.
Example 2: Salt
Jimmy is 2 and a half years old and loves his salty foods. He’s been exposed to salty foods from the beginning and his mom adds salt to all meals both during preparation and at the table.
So… we know Jimmy has learnt this taste preference and salt taste buds adapt quickly to levels of salt in the diet. Jimmy’s parents could simply cut out all added salt in the home and, once comfortable with this, move onto the salted products, by reducing the number of times these are offered during the week and the quantity at any one time.
Example 3: Sweet taste preference
Maya is 5 and loves all things sweet; in fact she has now learnt to avoid anything that has even the vaguest bitter taste in preference for starchy, fatty salty foods.
So… we know that Maya’s love of sweet things is probably not going to be something we can change easily, as it is an unconsciously learnt preference. However, we can use sweet foods to encourage an increase in other tastes. It is far better to offer new foods with familiar foods (even if it is tomato sauce, salt reduced, of course) and focus on what is eaten as opposed to what isn’t, creating a positive experience around food.
Example 4: Fatty fervour?
Charlie is 12 and loves fatty foods. He has been recommended to be more active and watch his intake of unhealthy junk foods, swapping them for fruit and vegetables.
Now, we know that the word ‘love’ is going to play a huge role in making the switch to a healthier diet and, while we can talk to Charlie until we are blue in the face about the health issues of saturated fat and even reduce his liking for fatty foods, his wanting for such foods is probably going to be working against us. Likely, the process to move Charlie from a love of fatty foods, will require a slow but consistent readjustment to healthier options. This may involve hands-on experience with food to increase the pleasure around food.
NOTE: You should never put a child on a diet; even healthcare professionals that work with overweight children do not do this. Instead, to avoid affecting their growth from limiting their intake, the focus is on activity and creating a varied diet of healthy foods. Over time, such children will ‘grow into their bodies’ slowly, and consequently their rate of growth will not be affected.
Enjoy your food, favour the fresh stuff and flavour naturally.
The WHO recommendation: “Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended up to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.”