How To Develop Healthy Food Habits

About a month ago, my ladyfriend noticed something peculiar about my eating habits. At least, peculiar to her. Occasionally, whenever I'd make myself a meat-based entrée for dinner, I'd put alongside of it, as a side dish of sorts, a glop of cottage cheese. She'd never seen anything like that before; eating cottage cheese on its own or mixed with fruit, sure, but never to complement a savory dish. "That's just how I was raised," was my response.

Since then, we've conducted an informal survey with some friends, and the results are somewhat shocking: Everyone we've asked, regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, or wealth agrees with my method of cottage cheese consumption ... as long as they were raised in the Midwest. All of the West Coast-raised folks we encountered, on the other hand, would never do such a ghastly thing. Now this, clearly, is a not-very-scientific-method-ey study, so there's no doubt plenty of folks out there who are exceptions to the we-can't-even-really-call-it-a-rule. But the regional breakdown for this weird food quirk is surprising. Unless, that is, you accept that nurture has a whole lot more to do with a person's diet than nature.

This battle between genetic predispositions and learned food behaviors is the main aspect of this fascinating piece over at io9.com about the psychology of why we love and hate certain foods. Needless to say, as my own informal survey haphazardly confirmed, a person's upbringing is infinitely more important than their DNA.

While there's a predisposition for kids to enjoy certain foods (sweets) and steer clear of others (foods that are sour or bitter), those preferences are simply developmental phases rather than true likes or dislikes. And, amazingly, they are preferences that can be "hacked" out of a child's system.

This piece's author, Joseph Bennington-Castro, cites two studies that provide possible blueprints, one showing that fetuses can learn to be attracted to food odors based on what their mother eats while the baby's matriculating at Womb U, the other showing how infants can be taught to actually enjoy the taste of carrots. Which is great and all for the kids, but how does that help us adults who are sick of having to turn down dinner invites when Indian cuisine's on the menu, seeing as no one in their right mind would put such a thing inside of their body?

Luckily, the piece also explains how grown-ups can teach themselves to enjoy previously undesirable offerings:

Basically, you'll like a new or previously hated flavor if you're repeatedly exposed to it -- studies suggest that it takes 10 to 15 exposures. "So if there's something you don't like, just eat it over and over and over again," [Arizona State University psychologist Elizabeth] Phillips says.

As Bennington-Castro summarizes in the piece, "The point is: We don't eat foods because we like them. We like them because we eat them."

Thusly: if you want to eat healthy, form a habit.

There's a piece of advice that's been passed around the Internet so far and wide at this point without attribution that it seems more in the realm of "Grandma's Home Remedy" than legitimately proven fact, and that's, "run a little every day for four to six weeks, and you'll get addicted to it." While the first month-plus will be tough on your body and mind, afterwards you'll actually need to run in order to feel right. (Kind of the flip-side to smoking, actually -- the first few puffs are full of coughing and the feeling of lungs being on fire; it's only later when the actual habit forms.) Regardless of whether or not this run-yourself-into-a-habit is legit, you can use the same mentality to start enjoying foods you never thought you would.

Tweaking Bennington-Castro's summation a bit, then: Don't eat healthy foods because you like them, like healthy food because you eat them.

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About the Author

Rick Paulas has written plenty of things, some of them serious, many of them not, scattered over the vast expanses of the Internet. He lives in Los Angeles and is a White Sox fan.
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