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When picky kids become picky adults

November 7, 2017

 

I had a patient once (in his 40's) who did not eat fruit or vegetables. Like at all. Not even the tomato and lettuce on his McDonalds burgers. He was so hilariously defiant: "Don't bother, you're never going to convert me" he said, and of course I really, really wanted to convert him.  I mean, he wasn't crazy, there was exceptions: white potatoes pretty consistently, and corn on the cob a few times each summer. Oh, and 2 apples per year, in the form of pie. Everything else was a firm no. Oh boy.  

 

I wasn't even surprised, unfortunately it's not as uncommon as you'd think - maybe, you can even identify with him on some level. More than anything I wanted to understand this.  How does hatred for fruit and veg progress to this level? Was it always this bad? Most of all, I wanted to know if it could be turned around.

 

As human beings we are driven to eat. It's hard wired into us. It is kinda important, after all. We crave foods that are not only delicious, but also that are safe and won't make us sick. I often wonder how many poor schmucks died or lost their minds hundreds of years ago, before we figured out which friggen mushrooms were okay to eat. Many things that deter us from foods have some evolutionary purpose. Bitterness is often quite intense in foods that are poisonous, and some people have adapted to have more sensitivity to bitter tastes, they are known as "super-tasters" (yes, that's a real thing!). And disgust is an important and protective reaction that keeps us from eating rotten meats and other strange things.

 

But, let's pause for a second to think about that. Because what is 'strange' to you, might not be strange to me, or people from another culture. Globally, people eat some pretty weird things, even the fanciest and most prized cheeses are really just curdled, mouldy milk - yikes! Overseas, you might see people eating rats on skewers or the eyes of fish. This happens because we are accustomed to certain flavours and tastes from a young age. 

 

Taste buds will absolutely change if we encourage them to. But disgust, even in its most mild form, is much more powerful. It is an emotion that we all share as humans, but, it is absolutely a learned behaviour, especially when it comes to food. And anything that is learned, can always be unlearned, relearned and tweaked. 

 

This becomes especially important when we are talking about vegetables. They are essential to a healthy life where you feel good most of the time. Eating fruits and vegetables is basically the only thing all nutrition and health professionals can agree on (though some will fight you on fruit). So what do you do if you don't like many of them? Or maybe other types of "healthy food" you just can't get on board with? What then? Are you bound to either be either unhealthy or unhappy eating "rabbit food"?

 

The short answer is no. We are never stuck. I am a very firm believer that if you put something in your mouth with an open mind and you dislike it, you should not have to eat it. Even for kids.

 

I will take it one step further and say you should always enjoy your food. Don't settle for 'edible' or 'mediocre'. It should taste good, and if you're lucky, damn good. Not settling for sub-par taste is one of the most underrated ways to keep our healthy lifestyle thriving for a long time.

 

The trick is to allow yourself the opportunity to find healthy foods that actually taste good to you, and always keep an open mind about the foods you think taste awful.  

 

Did you know that our taste buds regenerate every 10-14 days? That doesn't mean that all of them shed all at once, but it means that they are constantly dynamic, and if we keep trying new foods or steadily reduce sugar intake, or salt intake or increase spice levels, eventually we will adapt. And therefore, most of our dislikes are related to one bad experience, which created a psychological aversion to that food and we've been sheltering our taste buds from it ever since, so we never go the chance to start enjoying it.

 

Some of our resistance to vegetables specifically, stems from an intense dislike of how our parents prepared vegetables. Over boiled, under seasoned and soggy, thrown on the plate, and sometimes canned or frozen to start. If we treated all of our foods with the same disrespect we showed vegetables (dramatic, I know), we would feel the same way about other things too. Imagine for a moment that every piece of chicken and/or steak you ever had was boiled, over cooked and under seasoned and every vegetable was treated as the centerpiece, char grilled and roasted with spices and herbs, with a rich sauce on the side for good measure. You might see things quite differently.  

 

For others, it's a texture thing: People often tell me they struggle with the texture of fruits, vegetables, fish, eggs, peanut butter, avocado or yogurt. If certain textures bother you, I find that the best strategy is a slow adjustment and to start by trying things in a different way or as part of a meal so they are not so noticeable. For example, if you don't like avocado, try mashing it up and spreading it thinly in a sandwich instead of mayo, or try chocolate avocado pudding.   

 

If you find yourself particularly stubborn, treat yourself as you might a child. Try a one-bite policy that encourages you to taste just one bite, and whether you follow through is completely your decision.  I can't think of many kids who like the taste of wine, coffee or dark chocolate, unless they have been accustomed from a young age and yet we tend to embrace these flavours later in life.  I remember a variety of instances in my past where I didn't like mustard, cauliflower, ginger, cilantro, red wine, coffee without sugar, dark chocolate or dark beers. Every now and then I would try something new, preparing them in a different way (hello roasted cauliflower!) and now I weirdly love each of those things, prepared in many different ways, even in ways I previously disliked.  

 

All it takes is one amazing gateway recipe, something that spikes your interest enough to allow the taste buds to adjust, and for the flavour to be appealing enough to get over the aversion to textures. So keep trying these foods in many different ways to find what is right for you. If you are still struggling or have a more complex situation, try finding a dietitian near you who can help. 

 

As for my patient, we started with turning the apple pie into one real, whole apple per week. Sometimes baby steps are the best step, and by simply starting somewhere, with something you are comfortable and confident in doing, is the best way to progress to living your best life. 

 

 

Quick tips and tricks:

 

  • Have an open mind, try new things one bite at a time. Remember that these things can be changed

  • Prepare the foods you're trying to embrace in different ways, find the ways that taste the best. Try googling "best ______ recipe ever". Or go to a restaurant that specializes in a dish with that food. If you are going to try it, try the best version of it!

  • Keep trying new things, even if you tried it and hated it 6 months ago. The consistent "beginners mind" is key. Approach everything with openness and curiosity 

  • Remember that it is okay to have preferences and dislikes, it's the avoidance and aversion to many foods or entire food groups that are really important to address 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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