Updated January 29, 2019.
You know you should eat more leafy greens and less refined sugar. And swap your daily triple mocha for plain water. But if you’re like many Americans accustomed to a highly processed, sweet, salty, and fatty diet, your taste buds keep sabotaging your good intentions.
Your failure to quickly adapt to a wholesome diet isn’t entirely your fault. Research indicates that sugar and fat can be addictive, and one brain imaging study using PET scans showed that foods high in these substances work like heroin, opium, or morphine in the brain. In fact, according to David Kesller, MD, former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and author of The End of Overeating, hyper-palatable foods can lead to neuro-chemical addiction. In other words, your dietary failures aren’t due to a lack of willpower; you may be chemically dependent on the foods you’re trying to quit.
Happily, you can retrain your palate to prefer healthier foods and there are plenty of ways to do so. According to nutritionist Karyn Duggan, CNC, the retraining process could take as little as three days—but longer for some. These tips will help you get started:
To Start Retraining Your Palate
Start by eliminating sweet and salty foods. One Medical health coach Shawn Casey recommends eliminating sweet and salty foods completely for a month or more to reset the palate and help you develop a new baseline for those flavors. “By eliminating the food you’re accustomed to eating all the time, your taste buds will adjust and reverse their tolerance,” she says. Casey also recommends practicing stress-reducing activities, as stress often leads to cravings for sweet or salty foods.
Try new, healthy foods several times and season them with flavors you like. Research shows pairing foods with familiar flavors repeatedly can increase your preference for those foods.
Practice mindful eating. Not only is mindful eating a stress-reducing practice, but it can also intensify the flavors and ultimately feel more satisfying eating a wholesome food than eating the unhealthy food you crave. Eventually, when your palate has lost its tolerance for really sweet or salty foods, a few mindful bites of a cupcake or potato chips will be more than enough if you decide to indulge.
To Overcome Your Salt Cravings
Eliminate processed foods, including deli meats and frozen meals. According to Duggan, the most important part of overcoming a salt addiction is to shift to a diet that’s entirely made up of whole foods.
Cook your own meals. Restaurant and take-out food is packed with sodium. Even if you salt your food at home, you’ll be eating less salt.
Substitute spices or salt alternatives for salt. Duggan recommends herb-based salt alternative Herbamare, while One Medical health coach Kareen Patterson likes Mrs. Dash. Casey recommends Trader Joe’s 21 Seasoning Salute, a combination of spices and herbs.
Gradually taper the amount of added salt you use, and eat real food. There is some evidence that supports that a move toward a whole-foods based diet and away from highly processed foods helps acclimate the palate to less salty fare.
To Overcome Your Fat Cravings
Replace unhealthy vegetable oils with healthy fats. Certain vegetable oils like corn and safflower contain an abundance of omega-6 fatty acids and not enough heart-healthy omega-3s, and this imbalance can be detrimental to cardiovascular health. But healthy fats are actually good for you, so opt for fats like coconut oil or avocado to stay satiated and avoid hunger-induced junk food binges. Also avoid processed foods, which are often laden with unhealthy varieties of vegetable oil.
Substitute applesauce for butter when baking. Baked apples or applesauce have the same rich consistency as butter once baked, and can easily be swapped in dessert recipes.
Substitute Greek yogurt for sour cream. Plain Greek yogurt is another great swap that can be used on baked potatoes, tacos, or any other dish requiring a dollop of cream.
To Overcome Your Sugar Cravings
Flavor your water. Add cucumber, lemon, or mint to plain water to make it more palatable if you have a sweet tooth.
Don’t skip the chocolate. Rather than completely eliminating all desserts, allow yourself one or two squares of dark chocolate to help satisfy sweet cravings.
Mix your own yogurt. Rather than buying sugary yogurt at the grocery store, opt for plain and add fresh fruit instead.
Cut your sugary coffee intake in half (or more). If sweetened coffee drinks are your thing, ask the barista to reduce the pumps of syrup by half. Then do it again once your palate adjusts.
Spice it up. Spices like cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg can be great sugar alternatives in oatmeal, coffee, and tea by tricking your palate into “thinking” you’re eating something sweet.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
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