I’ve been pondering food preferences. I prefer ice in my water. I hate sweetened tea. I love hot coffee, like iced coffee with milk, and cannot stand room temperature coffee.
The origin of some of my preferences is clear. My dislike for sweetened tea began when I was three or four. My grandmother wouldn’t let me have a glass of sweet tea until I’d had one without sugar. At some point, the sweetened tea began to taste overwhelmingly sweet and I no longer preferred it. But I can’t explain my coffee preferences or why I like blanched broccoli better than raw broccoli (even in salad).
While my tastes lean toward specific preparations of a wide variety of foods, others only like a narrow variety of flavors or textures. Some preferences may be learned. Others stem from visceral response. Still others may be attached to memories that aren’t specifically food related.
Then there are preferences related to biology. Some foods can activate the mesolimbic reward system in a manner similar to alcohol and frequently abused drugs. For instance, studies have shown that consuming fat and sugar produces an increase in the synthesis and secretion of opioids and dopamine within the central reward system. No wonder it’s so hard to get kids to stop eating sugary treats.
Obviously, it’s preferable for food to be pleasing to our senses. But if that leads to habitually unhealthy food choices, perhaps pleasure shouldn’t be the primary goal of an eating plan. And while most of us might argue it’s not, we tend to choose each individual meal within our plan based on what we find appetizing that day.
The key is how often what we find appetizing in the moment is at odds with our overarching health plan. For some people, the two will almost always be in sync. For me, the problem area doesn’t fall so much in planned meals. I love fresh vegetables, meat, poultry, and fish fixed millions of different ways. And I love playing with flavors.
My problem area is quick grab meals and snacks. I am more likely to want to reach for chips, crackers, or chocolate than raw carrots as a snack. As long as that’s rare, it’s no big deal. When it’s daily, it’s not healthy.
There are many ways for me to manage my choices. And because I love to sink my teeth into a fresh tomato or juicy peach, it doesn’t take too much planning. But watching my grandchildren, I wonder whether that management will be more difficult for them. Their preferences are being set with a less robust variety of fresh, unprocessed food and many more packaged products.
I think we’ve already answered that question with the increase in childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes. And yet, I’m not sure we’ve spent much time researching the issue from a parenting for healthy eating perspective. Which brings me to the reason I’m pondering food preferences.
There seems to be a huge opportunity for learning and teaching. I love a good opportunity!