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Can I rely on my taste buds to tell me what my body needs?

QUESTION: Can I rely on my taste buds to tell me what my body needs?

ANSWER: Yes, if you work at it, you can rely on your taste buds to tell you what your body does and doesn't need. For most of us, however, trusting our taste buds is something that we will have to learn how to do, not something we can do right away. Here's why:

Our Taste Buds Detect Four Basic Flavors

First, when it comes to our body chemistry, we don't have taste buds for avocado flavor, or olive oil flavor, or strawberry flavor. Our taste buds are designed to detect only four basic flavors: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Because we don't have taste buds for specific food flavors, our taste buds can't tell us directly which foods we need and which ones we don't. Sometimes we might crave something sweet, and find out that our bodies were telling us that our blood sugar was low, and that we needed to eat some sugar-containing food to raise up our blood sugar quickly. This kind of situation, however, would be the exception and not the rule. Most of the time when we crave something sweet, our blood sugar level is normal, and we're just in the mood for a treat.

All Our Senses Enjoy Food

Second, the taste of a food is not determined exclusively from the reaction of our taste buds. The smell of a food, the visual appearance of a food, how we expect the food to taste, and how often we've eaten it previously all affect what we actually taste. (So do the medications we take.) When we sit down to enjoy a meal, it's not simply a question of our taste buds detecting four basic flavors. It's all our senses that enable us to enjoy our food, not just our taste buds.

Children Know Best

Some very interesting research studies of young, pre-school age children have tried to determine just how much our taste buds can be trusted. Children in these studies were selected because of their known, pre-existing vitamin deficiencies. For example, one study looked at children who were known to be low in vitamin D. These children were given a choice of several foods, but only one of the foods was high in vitamin D. For example, given a choice of orange juice (no vitamin D), soda pop (no vitamin D), and cod liver oil (high vitamin D), most of the kids actually chose cod liver oil! In other words, they seemed to be able to trust their taste buds. Many other studies, however, have repeatedly shown that even at a very early age, children tend to prefer the foods that their parents or brothers and sisters eat, and that the opinions of their family influence the way food tastes to them.

In addition, by the time we get to be adults, we've seen thousands of food commercials on television; we've accepted responsibilities that can make our week highly stressful; and we've had years and years of eating without trying to foster an awareness of our body's reactions to food and and what it needs.

What Adults Should Do

How can we learn, as adults, to trust our taste buds? This task requires us to get back in touch with food. How can we get back in touch with food? First, we have to give our taste buds a rest from all of the artificial flavors and artificial textures that are characteristic of processed food. We can't get back in touch with food unless we know what real food actually tastes like! The recipes on this website focus exclusively on real food. They are not only free from artificial flavors or textures of any kind, but they are also created exclusively from whole, organically-grown foods. Whole, organically-grown foods will get you back in touch with real food and its taste. On the World's Healthiest Foods, we also emphasize careful handling and preparation of all foods. The taste of real foods can be destroyed if the foods are not handled and prepared well. Getting back in touch with food means visiting the produce section of the grocery store and our own kitchens a little more often.

Practical Tips

If you've had a hectic, stressful day where you didn't even get to sit down to lunch, and you stop at the gas station on the way home to get gas and see a bar of chocolate on the way out, you're in a very poor situation to trust your taste buds. In this kind of situation, your taste buds are going to tell you that a bar of chocolate is exactly what you need. But it isn't! What we all need is to respect ourselves and take the half hour lunch needed during our day to nourish our bodies with real food. But our taste buds can't tell us that.

At the other end of the spectrum, if we've made most of our day's food selections form the World's Healthiest Foods, and we have taken time during the day to nourish ourselves with these foods, the opinion of our taste buds becomes much more reliable. Which sounds better? The Oriental Chicken Salad or the Seared Tuna Salad? Under this different set of circumstances, if it's the tuna that tempts our taste buds, perhaps our cells are more in need of omega 3 fatty acids found in fresh tuna. If the Oriental Chicken Salad sounds better, perhaps our taste buds are calling out for the sulfur compounds in the cabbage and scallions. The World's Healthiest Foods give us a starting point for trusting our taste buds. We have to do the rest, by getting back in touch with these foods on a day-to-day basis.


Clark, J. E. Taste and flavour: their importance in food choice and acceptance. Proc Nutr Soc. 1998 Nov; 57(4):639-43.

Drewnowski, A. Taste preferences and food intake. Annu Rev Nutr. 1997; 17:237-53.

Guthrie, C. A.; Rapoport, L., and Wardle, J. Young children's food preferences: a comparison of three modalities of food stimuli. Appetite. 2000 Aug; 35(1):73-

Olivares, S.; Albala, C.; Garcia, F., and Jofre, I. . Rev Med Chil. 1999 Jul; 127(7):791-9.

Schiffman, S. Changes in taste and smell: drug interactions and food preferences. Nutr Rev. 1994 Aug; 2(8 Pt 2):S11-4.

Skinner, J. D.; Carruth, B. R.; Wendy, B., and Ziegler, P. J. Children's food preferences: a longitudinal analysis. J Am Diet Assoc. 2002 Nov; 102(11):1638-47.

Wardle, J.; Guthrie, C.; Sanderson, S.; Birch, L., and Plomin, R. Food and activity preferences in children of lean and obese parents. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2001 Jul; 25(7):971-7.

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