Use Your Five Senses to Eat Healthier
The look, smell, taste, texture, and sound of what’s on your plate all influence your appetite
You might think the taste of that steak hot off the grill starts the moment the first bite hits your tongue and makes contact with the taste buds that reside there. It actually begins before you’ve even picked up your fork. The instant you lay eyes on a food, you’ve already begun to “taste” it.
“All five senses work in concert to influence your experience of food, but it’s your eyes that rule,” says Barb Stuckey, president and chief innovation officer of Mattson, a food development company in Foster City, California, and author of Taste: Surprising Stories and Science About Why Food Tastes Good. “By the time you’ve looked at a food, you’ve already made dozens of decisions about it subconsciously. So your body is primed to experience it a certain way.”
Soon, like members of an orchestra just waiting for their cue to join in, the rest of your senses get involved.
Your sense of smell kicks in with the release of aroma molecules that make their way into your nasal passages through two routes: your nostrils, naturally, but also through your mouth. The act of chewing and swallowing forces those molecules up behind the roof of your mouth and into the nasal cavity at the back of your throat. You may be contemplating your next bite, but those aroma compounds haven’t finished their journey yet. Making their way through your olfactory system, they’re breathed out of your nose, “passing by hundreds of odor receptors” along the way, says Stuckey.
Your sense of taste, meanwhile, is busily communicating with the gustatory cortex in your brain. With your first bite, the taste receptors that sit on the surface of your taste cells—which are bundled together in your taste buds—begin sending messages to your brain about whether that steak is sweet, sour, bitter, salty, savory, or some combination of the five. That’s not all: The way steak feels in your mouth (its texture) is affecting your perception of the way it tastes. So, too, is the sound it makes as you chew.
By the time that first bite of meat gets to your gut, all five of your senses have worked together to deliver what scientists and food developers say is a surprisingly complex series of sensory experiences collectively—and commonly—known as “taste.” It’s actually flavor, “a more encompassing trait that includes all the senses,” says Michael Tordoff, PhD, a physiological psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.
The Pleasure Principle
For a long time, scientists thought the tongue and nose were solely responsible for communicating flavor to the brain. But research now shows that the eyes, ears, and sense of touch also play a part. Just glimpsing a Granny Smith apple, for instance, your brain might register “sweet” and “tart” based on past experiences eating green apples. As you pick it up, your brain might add “firm,” and then “crisp” and “fresh” as you bite into it and hear the crunch.
Although scientists are still trying to understand how flavor impacts our eating habits (does it stoke appetite, or satisfy it?), this much is clear: If any of your senses aren’t fully functioning—whether it’s because your meds have affected your sense of taste, a loss of hearing has impacted your ability to hear the sounds of food as you chew, vision loss has compromised your ability to fully see what you’re eating, or age has diminished your sense of smell—then you aren’t getting what food developers call the full “flavor profile” of your food.
“When you eliminate any one of your senses, the overall flavor experience isn’t as great,” says Kathleen Keller, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Food Science at Pennsylvania State University. “You don’t enjoy food as much.” As a result, you may be inclined to eat less, raising your risk of missing out on key nutrients, or you may end up overeating in an effort to feel satisfied.
“Food should be pleasurable,” says Keller. “One of the ways it’s pleasurable is through the senses. Our senses communicate directly with areas of the brain that are involved with emotions and memories. Eliminate any one of those senses, and that connection with those parts of your brain is shut off and your ability to feel satisfied is affected.” Take, for instance, the associations that come to mind with the first whiff of morning coffee. If your sense of smell is diminished, then that emotional connection isn’t there anymore. And you don’t get the same pleasure from coffee.
Feed Your Five Senses
A pinch of this. A dash of that. Sometimes that’s all it takes to “wring more pleasure out of food,” says Stuckey. And that’s the goal. “You always want to amplify the sensory characteristics if you can.” Here’s how:
The brain processes visual cues about 10 times faster than it does those relating to taste and smell. No wonder sight is such a powerful influence on flavor. Take, for instance, pizza. “Before you even take a bite, the visual cues related to it give you an expectation about what you’re going to be eating,” says Keller. “That expectation—through your previous experiences with pizza—helps to prime your appetite. And it can result in a cephalic phase [before food enters the stomach] insulin release as you begin thinking about the last time you ate it.”
Further proof: For a study published in the journal Brain and Language, a group of wine connoisseurs were asked to sample two glasses of wine. Both were filled with white wine, but one had been colored to look like red wine. When asked to describe the flavor of the “red,” the wine experts used “flavor characteristics that weren’t even there because their eyes had taken charge and influenced what was happening in their mouth and nose,” says Stuckey.
Try this: Create a visual feast at mealtime. Megrette Fletcher, RD, CDE, cofounder of The Center for Mindful Eating and coauthor of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat With Diabetes: A Mindful Eating Program for Thriving With Prediabetes or Diabetes, suggests aiming for three colors and three distinct textures on your plate. “When everything is the same, our senses get dulled,” she says. The Plate Method, an eating plan with a goal of blood glucose management and weight loss, makes it easy to do. Fill half your plate with nonstarchy vegetables (such as carrots, green beans, and broccoli), one-quarter with protein (think turkey), and the remaining space with grains and starches (such as pasta, brown rice, and sweet potatoes). Find out more HERE.
Your sense of smell declines with age and with certain diseases. For about half of all people between ages 65 and 80, the loss is significant. Why that matters: “Your sense of smell makes up 70 percent or more of your overall flavor perception,” says Keller. Without it, “food doesn’t taste as good. You can’t tell what it is.”
Try this: Add aromatic vegetables and herbs such as garlic, onions, or basil to amplify a food’s aroma. Heating it will do the same. “When you heat up food, you activate the aroma molecules and liberate them, thereby increasing the amount of aroma pleasure you get from the food,” says Stuckey.
Each of us has around 10,000 taste buds, on average, and they’re replaced about every two weeks (less often as we age). They allow us to experience the five qualities of taste: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory. But research suggests both type 1 and type 2 diabetes may impact your sense of taste. Drugs such as metformin, glaucoma medications, and some antidepressants and blood pressure meds may also play a role.
Studies have found that sweeteners are also likely culprits. Research published in a 2014 issue of Practical Diabetes suggests that people with newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes are especially prone to having an impaired ability to taste sugar. “Often in the early stage of diagnosis, people with diabetes will report craving or liking sweeter foods,” says Keller. “That might be because they feel they can’t have sweet foods, or it might be related to the signals that are coming from blood glucose levels that are impacting their sense of taste.”
Whether you have diabetes or not, “eating exceedingly sweet foods can damage your taste receptors so it takes more and more sweet to register the sweetness of food,” says James Bailey, MD, MPH, FACP, director of the Center for Health System Improvement and professor of Medicine and Preventive Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. “If you give up sweet drinks, the number of sweet receptors on your tongue increases rapidly so that in three to six weeks you can taste the natural sweetness of fruits again,” he says. Same goes with salt.
Try this: Adding fresh herbs is the most obvious way to amp up taste without adding calories, but it’s not the only solution. Drizzling vinegar or squeezing lemon, lime, or some other citrus onto virtually any food—cooked vegetables, pasta, tomato sauce, even steak—also does the trick. “When sour things like vinegar and lemon hit your tongue, your mouth responds by trying to adjust to the acidity level,” says Stuckey. “In an effort to get the pH balance—which is a measure of acidity—back to normal, saliva floods your mouth.” Since taste compounds are detected only when they’re dissolved into saliva, “more saliva means more taste,” says Stuckey.
You may not be aware of it, but you’re subconsciously making judgments about the flavor of food based on the sound it makes as you chew. “Something that’s mushy or sticky might be giving us one sort of sound versus something that’s crispy or crunchy,” says Stuckey. “Based on past experiences, we associate those sounds with qualities like ‘yummy,’ ‘fatty,’ ‘fresh.’ ” That’s not to say one sound yields more flavor than another. It’s more about expectations. Crunchy, for example, conveys “fresh” for an apple, but “stale” for a slice of bread.
That’s not the only way your sense of hearing affects your appetite. A study in a 2014 issue of the journal Flavour found that eating in a noisy environment can affect the perception of taste, aroma, and texture. Researchers aren’t sure why, but they think it might be because noise suppresses the auditory cues you’d normally hear when you eat, so you’re missing out on the full flavor of a crispy salad or crunchy carrot.
Try this: Unplug. Turn off the TV; put down your phone; step away from the computer. These kinds of distractions not only reduce your enjoyment of eating, “they also set you up to overeat,” says Fletcher. An analysis of studies published in a 2013 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who watched TV during mealtime ate more than those who didn’t.
The texture of a food—also known as “mouth feel”—is so closely related to sound it’s almost impossible for food experts to talk about one’s influence on flavor without mentioning the other. In a study published in the Journal of Sensory Studies, for example, researchers asked participants to wear headphones while they munched on potato chips. When the volume of the crunch was artificially cranked up, the tasters rated the chips as 15 percent fresher than the less-crispy-sounding chips. Freshness plays a role in your perception of flavor.
Try this: Alter the texture of a food you’d like to embrace by changing the way it feels in your mouth. One way is to experiment with cooking techniques. For instance, you may think you don’t like broccoli, but maybe what you really don’t like is the texture of raw broccoli, says Fletcher. Change the texture by sautéing it with olive oil or steaming it—and then top with fresh-squeezed lemon juice.
Spice It Up
Another way to change the texture of your food: Add condiments—such as jalapeños, hot sauce, ginger, cayenne pepper, and horseradish—that irritate the palate. The way they tingle or warm the tongue makes your experience of food last longer. Not a fan of spicy condiments? “It doesn’t have to be over-the-top hot,” says Stuckey. “Just enough to stimulate that sensation.”