Is your tongue to blame for dirty dietary habits? Auditing your palate is the first step towards finding a clean eating rhythm.

Change your palate to suit your diet - PICTURE - WomensHealthandfitness

Knowledge may be power, but when it comes to making healthy food choices, intellectual understanding of which food is better for you is a smaller part of the picture than regulatory authorities like to think. No star rating can cancel certain biological facts. Call them hard-wired cravings.

"Our genes powerfully dictate differences in taste sensitivity and they are the main drivers of what foods we prefer,” says Eugeni Roura, a taste expert at University of Queensland’s Centre for Nutrition and Food Sciences.

In fact, children of women who eat lots of fast food tend to be born with a preference for sugary, fatty foods according to University of Adelaide research. On the flip side, babies born to clean-eating mothers are more likely to eat their vegies.

The good news is that you can rearrange your taste buds with the acuity of a Museum of Modern Art curator. First, however, you need to know quite what you’re dealing with.

Hypertasters Vs hypotasters

Tasters can be loosely lumped into two categories: hypertasters and hypotasters.

“Hypertasters have more sensitive taste buds and tend to be fussy eaters and dislike intense flavours,” explains Kellee Waters, a psychologist specialising in food addiction and obesity. They also tend to avoid overly sweet and spicy flavours, strong cheeses and viscous textures – think oysters, olives and runny eggs. Hypertasters tend to be thinner than hypotasters and have lower cardiovascular disease risk due to aversions to creamy sauces, strong cheeses, particularly sweet tastes and complex flavours.

“Hypertasters have such a strong response to food that they get a robust signalling that switches off their appetite whereas non-tasters may have to work harder to stop eating because they might not get that big signal to the brain telling them they are full,” says Roura. Hypertasters comprise around 35 per cent of women and 15 per cent of men.

Hypotasters, on the other hand, have a sort of taste numbness and may inadvertently choose foods with stronger flavours, or eat larger portions in a bid to realise satisfaction. That’s not to say hypotasters are the only ones who overdo it in pursuit of pleasure. “The more positive the emotional attachment a food has, the more we enjoy the taste of it,” says Waters. “Binge eaters, food addicts, yo-yo dieters and people who are obese are often trying to eat to stimulate certain brain responses such as feeling calmer or feeling pleasure.” Conversely, a negative experience with a certain food – think throwing up due to a tummy bug around the time you ate the food – can drive us away from a food.

Beware of biochemicals

Recent research indicates that there’s a biochemical component to favouring high fat foods, which create something like addiction. Repeated hits of saturated fats cause brain cells to become resistant to appetite-controlling hormones such as leptin, so you no longer get the signal that your stomach is full according to a study at UT Southwestern Medical Center. The effect lasts about three days, which is why you can wake up after a deep fried feast feeling famished.

Temporary conditions including hay fever and colds, and air travel, can also skew taste preferences.

“Our perception of how a food tastes is based on the combination of taste and smell,” says Roura. For olfaction’s part, airborne molecules called ‘odourants’ are sensed by special cells in the mucous membranes of the inside roof of each nostril before the electrical signals are passed to the brain, which is why your favourite mac 'n’ cheese tastes like socks when you’re sneezy.

What else affects your taste buds?

Interestingly, taste is also different at altitude; airlines add extra salt, fat and sugar to make up for lost taste. Research reveals that plane passengers tend to prefer spicier meals than on the ground, with the theory suggesting that dry air inside the cabin dries the mouth and makes it difficult to detect some tastes, especially salty and sweet.

“You don’t taste as well when you’re flying, and in order to make the food more palatable, airlines may make the food more sugary and salty,” says accredited practising dietitian Kara Landau.

Now for the curating bit. “Though we tend to maintain a base of preference, such as eating meat or more vegetables or salty, spicy or sweet foods, we can manipulate our own taste buds to prefer healthier options,” says Waters.

Don’t expect it to be easy; the first nine times you eat an unfamiliar food that jars with your taste typology, you’re likely to find it aversive. “It may take up to 10 exposures to a new food or taste you don’t like before you accept or actually start to enjoy it.”

Overwriting old preferences can take three to six months, she says.

NEXT: How to retrain your taste buds>>