How to start loving healthy food (For real. Really.)

By Kiley Owen, PA-C

I'm all about healthy eating, but I'm also all about taste and enjoying my food. Is it possible to have it both ways? 


What Worked for Me

When I was younger, I rarely wanted a vegetable, and I consumed a LOT of junk food. 

I'm not going to tell you that I never indulge in junk food anymore. But I can tell you that I don't crave junk food like I used to. And I often seek out healthier options, not just because they're better for me, but because I truly enjoy these foods. 

What changed? Basically, I started doing these 3 simple things:

1. Incorporating more vegetables and fruit into my diet, even when they didn't sound particularly appetizing to me

2. Cutting back on the salt, even though it (initially) made my food taste more bland

3. Cutting back on the sugar, even when I preferred a sweeter version

Change is uncomfortable. Changing your diet is no exception. In the beginning, the focus on health over taste definitely took some enjoyment out of eating. 

At this point you're probably thinking, Wait a second... You said healthy and ENJOYABLE!

That part came a little later. With time, an interesting thing happened...

My palate changed, and I started to ENJOY the healthy stuff!  

1. Vegetables & Fruit

colorful fruits and vegetables, including corn, tomatoes, grapes and moreWe know we should eat our fruits and veggies. These foods: 

  • Give our bodies vital nutrients to function well
  • Reduce the risk of health problems such as infections, heart disease, stroke, and cancer
  • Help us maintain a healthy weight

Despite our knowing this, the majority of us don't do much about it. A 2015 CDC study found that only 9 percent of American adults met vegetable intake recommendations (2-3 cups daily), and only 13 percent met fruit intake recommendations (1.5-2 cups daily). 

For a long time I was no exception, belonging to the majority of Americans (nearly 90 percent!) who don't eat enough vegetables and fruit. 

But I decided to change that. And the more I started eating vegetables and fruit, the more I started to enjoy them. I tried new vegetables and experimented with ways to prepare them. Foods like mushrooms, asparagus, beets, and Brussel sprouts are foods that I wouldn't touch before. But now I choose meals with these nutritious whole foods because I think they're delicious! 

2. Sodium 

Sodium (present in salt) is important when it comes to taste. It's also important because of its effect on blood pressure.  

According to the CDC, nearly 2 out of 3 American adults have either hypertension (high blood pressure) or pre-hypertension.

Only about half of those with hypertension have it controlled. Untreated hypertension leads to problems such as stroke, heart attack, congestive heart failure, and kidney failure.  

father and teenage daughter cooking with healthy ingredientsRestaurant foods and processed foods are known for their high sodium content. Since preparing food at home gives you complete control over ingredients, home cooking is a great way to decrease sodium intake.   

A high-sodium "healthy" food that comes to mind is tomato juice. When I learned that a 12-ounce can of regular V8 has over 600 mg of sodium (over 30 percent of the daily recommended amount!), I decided to switch to the low-sodium version instead. At first, I thought the low-sodium V8 tasted awful in comparison. But with time I started to like it, and I now find that regular V8 or tomato juice tastes too salty. 

These are some other foods that now taste extremely salty to me:

  • Potato chips 
  • Pretzels
  • Most snack crackers

3. Sugar 

I used to drink a Dr. Pepper or Coke every afternoon. The sugar and caffeine would instantly put me in a better mood. I came to rely on this calorie and cavity cocktail to get me through my day.

Switching to water wasn't fun. My body had developed an addiction to the soda's caffeine and sugar. Coming off of it made me feel tired and irritable, and it caused headaches in the beginning.

But I stuck with it, and I can honestly say that I don't crave soda anymore. On rare occasions when I drink it, it now tastes excessively sweet and syrupy.

Some other foods that now taste too sweet include:

  • Flavored yogurt (I prefer plain yogurt with fresh fruit in it.)
  • Sweetened coffee drinks, such as cappuccinos or frappuccinos (I prefer black coffee or a plain latte with a little honey added.)
  • Most cakes and frostings (I don't bake much, but when I do, it's usually baked oatmeal.) 

With highly processed carbs in general (sugar or starch), I now take notice of the effect they have on my blood sugar. They cause a quick surge of blood sugar (a short-lived sugar "high"), which the body addresses by pumping out a hefty dose of insulin (to get the sugar out of the blood stream and into the cells.)

This sharp rise and fall in blood sugar soon leaves me feeling hungry again and (ironically) makes me crave more sweets. It's a vicious cycle of unhealthy cravings and overeating. This is why eating a donut or muffin first thing in the morning will make me want junk food all day. 

Nutritious whole foods do not have this effect.

Blood sugar levels act less like a roller coaster and more like a leisurely ride through gently rolling hills. This provides sustained energy with fewer cravings. 

One important note -- I don't do any artificial sweeteners either. In my opinion, these are worse for you than table sugar, and they won't help you to retrain your palate. 

Don't (currently) like the healthy stuff?

No worries. The good news is that you can learn to! It just takes a willingness to try and some patience, which will be rewarded with genuine enjoyment of foods that not only taste great but make you feel great too!   

Want to learn more about this topic? I found a helpful article (also written by a physician assistant!) called How to Retrain Your Palate to be HealthierCheck it out to learn more tips to get your palate working in your favor!

Kiley Owen is a physician assistant, blogger and preventive health enthusiast. This post — along with helpful links to other resources — originally appeared on her blog, makinghealthapriority.com.