‘You have to decide to open your mind to it even before you open your mouth to it.’ Charlotte doctor on re-training your taste buds.

Re-training your taste buds for a healthier diet

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - If you’re trying to eat healthier - but you just can’t stand brussel sprouts or spinach, you can change that. It just takes training your taste buds. That’s right, you can actually re-train taste buds. Not only that – they regenerate, too.

Dr. Genevieve Brauning, a Family Medicine doctor with Novant Health said, “They're just cells that live in our mouth so just like all the cells that live in our body they regenerate.”

Now, while that doesn’t mean the connection to your brain regenerates, you’re not doomed forever if you’ve saturated our taste buds with salt and sugar.

“Your taste buds turn over about every 10 to 15 days. So they regenerate - they have a life span,” she said. “You're getting new ones here in a couple of weeks so just a limited amount of time of changing what you eat will change - your overall taste buds will be more attuned to those new foods.”

In fact, you may not realize it but, but our tastes have already changed over our lifetimes. Especially when it comes two things you likely first tried as a young adult.

“We are pretty averse to bitter flavors as humans so the first time you drink coffee or beer which is probably as an adult -- you probably did not like that taste,” explained Dr. Brauning. “But, because of all the other positive social reinforcement, you keep going after it and then you acquire a taste So if you can do that with a bitter substance, you really have a high chance of succeeding with eating fruits and vegetables which tend to be much sweeter and more palatable overall.”

So, how do you re-train your taste buds? With a little commitment and discipline, says Dr. Brauning.

“If we expose ourselves enough times - it's not an unlimited amount of times - just a finite amount of times to new foods and new taste, we can learn to really enjoy them and crave them,” she said. ‘

That finite amount of time – which can differ depending on the person – is most likely about 10 times.

“Ten times is really manageable,” she insisted. “Yet, also highly unlikely if you don't like to eat something, you probably aren't thinking let me just have this nine more times. But if you think, ‘if I have this nine more times, I could like it’ -- it seems like ‘Ok, I can get there…I can swallow this nine more times and learn to really appreciate the taste.”

She used celery as an example during our interview. “Let's say you're motivated to learn to eat celery but you don't like celery,” she said. “If you expose yourself to that food in a variety of ways about 10 times you're highly likely to become accustomed to it if not actually learn to like it. That might mean eating it, that might mean smelling it, that might mean tasting it. That might mean eating it in a different texture.”

The next step is using positive reinforcement and getting your brain on board.

“Then getting yourself to the point where it becomes a positive association,” said. Dr. Brauning. “You say celery, 'I think, hmmm I love celery! It's crisp, it's fresh and I feel like I've done something healthy after I eat it' and you've now turned that into a positive food and it's unlikely to go back to the negative -- but it takes commitment. So even though our world is full of all these super high salt, high sugar foods -- there's definitely a subset of our population that isn't only eating that and only does think positively of the healthy things.

And, so once you can change that in your brain you know, ‘I ate this and I feel good because I know I gave myself fuel’ as opposed to just satiated the taste buds, then you’ve succeeded. So yeah, maybe now celery isn’t your favorite food -- but you know you can have it and you feel good about having eaten it so it changes the whole experience.”

Having that commitment isn’t impossible, she says. Particularly when you think of other habits or changes people make in the name of their health. “People quit smoking,” she pointed out. “It's not easy in the short-term but they want the long-term gain. It's the same with healthy foods. There's nothing you're going to do that's going to affect your long-term health more than eating a lot of plants, fruits and vegetables so it is worth a committed investment of, 'I’m going to expose myself to these things 10-ish times in hopes that - that's really going to stick because it's going to change the long-term trajectory of my health.”

It’s also why Dr. Brauning says exposing your children to wide variety of health foods is so important. “I believe everything starts at home,” she said. “The earlier we give children a wide variety of tastes and I'm talking six months old infancy, the more they accustom to those tastes and find them palatable and so it's worth providing a variety of foods. And again, it doesn't mean they have to eat a whole plate of it; we're gonna serve it, you're gonna become accustomed over time to the sight, the smell, the environment. We're enjoying a meal together, it's a positive association and so we can gradually build those things for your children. They may be picky, too and they don't have to eat everything but repeated exposures is really what's going to make them more likely to have a broad palate when they get older.”

Ultimately, like anything in life that you’re trying to change -- it depends on your commitment to it. And, Dr. Brauning said nothing is more important to your health than having a balanced diet. “You have to decide really to open your mind to it even before you open your mouth to it,” she said. “Otherwise, you won’t get there because it will take a little bit of work. You’re gonna have to decide in your head, I want this. I’m not being forced to do it; I want to do this. I want to enjoy these healthier foods because I want to be healthier long-term and I promise you if you make that commitment in your head, you can succeed.”

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