What can you do when you have serious health and fitness goals…but you just don’t like vegetables?
First, know that you’re not alone.
Next, try this 3-step formula to go from spitting out to seeking out the vegetables you used to hate.
I've also included a visual guide which you can print out and stick to your fridge for reference.
3 steps for training your palate (and why it’s important)Whether Paleo or vegan, fasting or “feed-often”,
Mediterranean or New Nordic, almost all “health-conscious diets” agree on one thing:
You should eat your vegetables.
“Eat your vegetables” is a childhood mantra, a government slogan, and a lesson that almost any health or fitness
coach will eventually teach their clients.
Even newbies know they should be “eating the rainbow” (though they don’t always know how).
But many of us don’t like vegetables.
Personally I HATED most of them, because many vegetables are bitter.
You see, many vegetables have chemical compounds that make them taste bitter to some people.
And, quite reasonably:
Many people avoid bitter things.
Here is the dilemma:
Vegetables are good, healthy, and important.
Everyone’s taste preferences are different.
Some people may be genetically more likely to dislike vegetables.
How do we get the benefits of vegetables if we don’t want to eat them?
Yes, vegetables are good.
Vegetables are bursting with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fibre, and phytonutrients.
These nutrients help keep you healthy and avoid deficiencies (which make you feel really bad).
So, they fill up your stomach without adding a lot of extra calories.
This can help you control energy balance (calories in vs calories out), and help you maintain a healthy body weight, or lose body fat without feeling too hungry.
Fibre not only helps us feel full, it feeds our intestinal bacteria, helps push things through our digestive tract, and helps to excrete unwanted waste products.
Staying hydrated is good. The extra water also helps the fibre do its job.
With so many different kinds of vegetables to try, learning to enjoy them can help you stick to healthy eating.
Of course, in theory, you could eat “too many vegetables”… but for most people, that would mean eating several
pounds a day. (And lots of bathroom unpleasantness).
Most people, of course, have the opposite problem: barely eating any vegetables at all.
Despite the benefits of vegetables, veggie-phobia is coded into our DNA.
Undoubtedly, you’ve heard of the “four flavours”: salt, sweet, sour, and bitter.
In recent years, four more flavours have been identified:
For most people, especially veggie-phobes, bitterness is plants’ dominant flavour.
Yet vegetables can also verge on sweet (think carrots, peas, sweetcorn, roasted beetroot, winter squash, or obviously sweet potatoes) or astringent (legumes, celery, Brussels sprouts, parsnips).
Bitterness comes from alkaloids.
These are nitrogen-based chemical compounds that plants, fungi, and bacteria make to defend themselves against
attacks from things like parasites, pathogens, and animals that might eat them.
Alkaloids are a big group of chemicals, and have all kinds of different effects.
They can be:
So alkaloids, as a group, have many uses.
But since they can be so dangerous, we’ve evolved to quickly and easily detect (and spit out) their trademark
And modern humans aren’t the only ones fighting their parents over broccoli.
Rats will reject bitter foods even if you cut the link between their brainstem and cortex, indicating that other species
reject bitterness too.
Not liking bitterness might be more like an innate reflex (in other words, something you can’t really control) than a
So when your children tell you they can’t stand the taste of kale, your response can start with, “That makes perfect
Why are some people okay with bitterness while others aren’t?We’ve known for almost 100 years that people vary
quite a lot in how much they can detect and tolerate different bitter tastes.
Flavour is complicated.
Our palate, which is our appreciation for complex combinations of tastes, is determined by three factors.
Factor 1 - What flavours are we exposed to in the womb?
Have you ever seen a someone eat food that was too hot for you?
Now, this isn’t just a matter of practice.
Flavour preferences are actually passed on before birth.
Amniotic fluid contains a remarkable array of biological scent molecules, and children get exposed to flavours before they can even eat.
This is why typically children from countries like India or Thailand for example can tolerate much spicier foods than the average adult Brit can.
Factor 2 - What’s our genetic makeup?
Much of the modern work in the genetic basis of taste starts with a substance called PROP (6-n-propylthiouracil).
Some people, it seems, find this substance overwhelmingly bitter.
Others literally can’t taste it. At all.
Being a non-taster isn’t a problem, in fact that's the norm.
It's the, “PROP tasters”, who make up about a quarter of people, are the ones with the problem, because a lot of food
tastes bad to them.
They’re really, really sensitive to most strong flavours.
This includes sweet, hot… and, you guessed it, bitter.
It’s easy enough to tell if you’re a supertaster.
Do you like, grapefruit juice, kale, tonic water, espresso, and/or Sicilian olives?
If so, you are not a supertaster.
If you find these flavours overwhelmingly strong, then it’s likely you’ve got sensitive buds.
Factor 3 - What have we learned and practised?
Of the three factors, conditioning, familiarity, and practice are probably most important.
Our palates can get used to flavours when we taste them over and over again.
Few people like the way coffee tastes the first time, for example.
Beer usually really splits the room the first time as well.
But since we all enjoy the buzz, the flavours of beer and coffee become more accessible. Eventually, people just end
up loving the bitter flavour.
Here are some ways we may learn our taste preferences
How were we raised?
Some people grew up on TV dinners, and were simply not exposed to vegetables growing up.
Some people were exposed… but badly! Have you ever had boiled cabbage or microwaved Brussels sprouts? If you
have, that's unfortunate!
What’s our culture?Where did you grow up? What did your family do? What’s your heritage?
Tastes, texture, and odours change wildly between geographic, cultural and ethnic groups.
This part isn’t genetic. It’s simply what you grow up believing is normal, what you’re taught to appreciate and, for
large chunks of human history, what stood between you and starvation.
If you’ve been to the markets in Hong Kong, you might be familiar with the assault on your senses that is stinky tofu.
It’s amazingly unpleasant… unless you grew up with it, of course. In that case, it’s probably amazing.
Naturally, this goes for bitter flavours as well.
If you grow up eating bitter melon, as people do in South and East Asia, I’m willing to bet you find other bitter flavours
If you grow up with the scent of cabbage, turnips, and onions in an Eastern European, Scottish or Irish home, you
might find these tastes comforting.
Do you eat whole or processed foods?In the modern iceberg-and-watery-tomato-in-a-salad world, bitter foods aren’t
If your intake is more packaged food, less fresh food, then your palate will be that much more conditioned to prefer
and seek out the fatty, sweet flavours that processed food has to offer.
Modern agriculture has significantly affected our tastes.Most modern plants and animals have been carefully
selected not for flavour, nor texture, but for yield and attractiveness.
This means big chickens that grow fast. Wheat that grows short and fat and speedy. Tomatoes that stay firm and
bright red (even if they happen to taste like Styrofoam).
Unfortunately, modern agriculture has little interest in making things taste good.
Many foods have had their natural, complex, intrinsic flavours stripped away, simply because preserving the
richness of flavour wasn’t the main goal.
Food companies are in the business of selling the most food to the most people.
This means they’re looking for flavours that are:
Very satisfying; and
That rules out sharp flavours, fresh flavours, organic flavours, astringent flavours, “kind of grows on you” flavours,
and so on.
How you perceive the taste of vegetables affects your fitness and health.If we know what flavours you like and prefer,
we might actually be able to predict your body composition or your health.
Yes, people vary by age, country, and culture (for instance, German kids like fat the most, Spanish kids like umami
But overall, if you like sweet and fatty flavours a lot, there’s also a chance that you might have a higher body weight;
the reverse is true as well.
We don’t know for sure if taste preference changes body weight or whether body weight changes taste preference.
But what we do know is:
We can change our flavour preferences.
While you might think you’re an adult, and your palate is “set”, research suggests that taste preferences/drives can
change a lot over time.
In other words, if you hate bitter flavours, you can change that… if you want.
3 steps to really love your vegetablesRegardless of where you’re starting — never eaten a green thing ever, or just want
some new ways to eat plants, there is a simple formula you can use to make bitterness less intense, more palatable,
and much more enjoyable:
Find a bitter food, something that requires a special effort, and something that you won’t normally just eat.
Psych yourself up.
You’re going to TASTE that kale!
See what happens.
You may hate it… you may love it… you may just think “meh”.
Either way… you have now been brave, and at least tried it.
Research suggests that we may need to try new foods many times before we’ll tolerate or like them. So, challenge
yourself regularly. You might be surprised about what happens.
Building on the complexity of flavour perception, almost all well-developed recipes use a kind of
In this case, it means pairing a food or aromatic with your vegetable to push several taste/flavour buttons at the same time.
We can actually predict some of this harmony in advance now, using complicated measurements like gas
chromatography. But generally, we rely on chefs — who often have amazing intuition about “what goes with what” —
to do it for us.
Pairing bitterness with certain flavours can magically turn its volume down.
On your tongue, you have a variety of receptors that bind to the chemicals in food.
When these receptors get a chemical signal, they send information to the brain about what you are “tasting”.
(Variations in the number and type of these receptors help give us our innate flavour preferences.)
Chemical signals are like cars on a roadway. Sometimes the road to the brain is clear, sometimes the road can get
Sweet and fatty flavours, in particular, can jam up the road and interfere with our brain’s perception of bitterness.
Even the specific types of sugar and fat can matter (for instance, butter versus olive oil; glucose versus fructose, etc.)
So, after we have chosen our Challenge food and a Complement, we find a Cushion.
Excellent Cushions for bitterness include honey, maple syrup, oil, almonds, and butter.
Don’t worry if those sound calorie-dense. You just need balance, not a cup of oil or a kilo of bacon.
Now, check out the matrix below.
Pick one challenge.
Pick one complement.
Pick one cushion.
Pay attention to the simple cooking methods, which help you preserve the vegetables’ texture.
As you become more comfortable, experiment with combining more flavours — up to one item per category.
The different combinations are endless.