Are You a Picky Eater? Maybe Blame Your Taste Buds

Assortment of spices on spoons

We all know a picky eater or two, like the friend who turns up his nose at anything green or the coworker who won’t go near anything with eggs. While kids are more likely than adults to refuse even a bite of new foods, they usually outgrow their aversions.

As a kid, maybe you were all about the sweets. Now, you crave spicy dishes. What has changed? Many factors could be the cause of a change of taste.

"It could be a natural progression when you are aging, but sometimes it could mask a bigger health issue, such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease or dementia," explains Richard L. Doty, PhD, director of the Penn Smell and Taste Center.

The Connection Between Taste Buds and Brain

The taste buds on the top and edges of your tongue give you your sense of taste. When you shovel a spoonful of strawberry gelato into your mouth, the taste buds can detect the sweetness with a hint of sour. They tell your brain that you want another pint of it through the nerve fibers linked at the base of the taste buds. (See, it’s not your fault. Blame your tongue.)

After a long course of evolution, our sense of taste is coded in our genes. We love sweets as well as salty steak because our brain associates them with energy and nutrition that can keep us functioning. We tend to hate bitterness because toxins usually have a bitter taste.

Dr. Doty adds, "When taste buds send signals to your brain –– sometimes working together with the nerves that can identify smell –– your brain can connect the information together and create a sense of flavor."

 

taste bud infographic

The Reasons Your Favorite Foods Change

It is true that we constantly discover new food, and it’s hard to stay loyal to one food forever. However, for some people, a change of taste has more indications, especially among the older demographic.

As you age, the number of taste buds decrease and they shrink in size. After you hit 60, you could become less sensitive to tastes. You could become pickier about your food, because some of the food you used to enjoy may no longer be strong enough for your taste buds and give you the same pleasure. Or you could develop some weird eating habits –– like adding ketchup to everything.

For some other people, a change of taste can be a marker of a serious health problem and requires medical attention.

Diseases Linked with Taste Change, Picky Eating

When you become super selective about what you are willing to eat, especially when you are favoring sweets or other heavily flavored foods, in some cases it could indicate an impaired taste and increase your chance for many diseases.

Diabetes

Diabetes means your blood sugar levels remain too high. Blood sugar comes from the food you eat or drink. Candies, orange juice and dried fruits can spike your blood sugar.

Studies show that diabetes patients have dull sweet taste sensitivity. When your taste buds get blunted to sweetness, you may need a cake to be twice as sweet to actually taste normal.

Neurological Conditions

Conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, a movement disorder with symptoms such as trembling hands and stiff arms, and dementia, the loss of ability to reason and memorize, can make daily life a challenge.

A study in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry examined the eating habits of dementia patients and found that changes in food preference and eating habits are very common in dementia patients.

Loss of smell or taste can develop earlier than motion problems and signal that Parkinson's is developing. Research shows that people who have a loss of both smell and taste are more likely to develop Parkinson’s disease than those who lost only one or the other. 

Remember, sometimes it’s not just taste buds that help our brain to create a sense of flavor. Smell can stimulate the brain at the same time. In Parkinson’s, smell dysfunction shows up four to six years earlier than tremors. But many Parkinson’s patients don’t know they have smell or taste disorders until getting tested.  

Autism Spectrum Disorder

This may not stem from a change in taste, but people on the autism spectrum can have sensory challenges with food. They can be overly sensitive or completely unphased by certain tastes. For example, they can feel so overpowered by certain foods’ texture and flavor that it sparks an emotional reaction. Or they can eat unlimited voodoo hot chilies without flinching.  

The Bottom Line on Taste Buds

Taste buds are little sensors that allow you to enjoy eating, but they can also be early warning signs of certain health issues. If you have experienced a clear change in your taste preferences and are not sure what this means, talk to your doctor about how you can keep an eye out for other health issues that tend to follow. 

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