Increasing vegetables in the diet is one of the easiest healthy changes that we can make. But some people really dislike vegetables. Why is this and what can you do if you are someone who really doesn’t like them?
As a profession, dietitians want to help people to make healthy changes to their diet and lifestyle. Often people imagine that we are the food police, telling you that you can’t eat the things that you enjoy. But trying to cut out foods that we regard as less healthy can be very challenging. We don’t just eat food because we are hungry, we also eat for other reasons such as enjoyment, to pass the time and to deal with difficult emotions.
I have already written about this in part two of my previous blog: why do we eat it’s not just about hunger.
Better health gains can often be achieved by increasing foods rich in nutrients such as vegetables, pulses, wholegrains and foods containing healthy fats such as nuts, seeds and oily fish. These foods contain essential nutrients such as fibre, vitamins and minerals and can also help us feel less hungry by providing bulk and making sure the body gets what it needs from what you eat.
To quote endless clickbait there is “one simple change” that would benefit everyone’s health and that is eating more vegetables. They are rich in fibre for a healthy gut, essential vitamins and minerals and antioxidants and phytonutrients for a healthy heart and reducing the risk of cancer. In fact, one piece of health advice to all would be to remove half the food on your plate and fill the space with vegetables. Although that wouldn’t make me a fortune with a best-selling book, that’s for sure.
They have repeatedly been shown in scientific studies that the more you eat the greater the health benefits. In terms of amounts 7-9 portions (a handful or 80g) of fruit and vegetables a day is ideal, but the benefits increase up to about 13. You might be wondering why this country recommends only five – this is because when the research into our eating habits was done it was found that the average in the UK was only about 2 portions a day. 5 portions provide most of the health benefits of higher amounts and was considered achievable.
However, every now and again I meet someone who genuinely dislikes vegetables and would struggle to eat very many at all, yet alone fill half their plate at meals.
For many years I didn’t quite understand this. There is evidence that there’s a vital age between 6 and 10 months where babies are very open to new tastes. It also can take many tries of a new food before a child likes it. This varies depending upon who you believe but it could be up to 15 times. There will also be some people who have a strong emotional reason, such as an experience in childhood, to dislike a particular food. But there are also people who have tried vegetables early and many times and don’t have an emotional association with them – they just don’t like them.
The reason for this might be genetic. There are a number of different tastes that our tongue can detect including sweet, bitter, sour, salty and umami (savouriness, such as cooked meat). It’s also possible that there’s an extra taste for fat. The taste we are interested here is bitter and there appears to be a gene involved in tasting bitter foods.
Genes come in pairs – and the bitter taste gene (called TAS2R by the scientists but it’s not something you need to know) is the same. Whether you have no copies of this gene, one copy, or two affects how you taste the chemicals that make some vegetables bitter. If you don’t have the gene, you will be a non-taster and may not taste bitter tastes at all, and if you have two genes you are a super-taster and taste them really strongly. If you have only one copy of the gene how well you taste bitter chemicals varies.
Our ability to taste different things was very important to our ancestors who had to forage for food. Poisonous plants, berries and insects often taste bitter to warn animals not to eat them. Sour tastes were often found spoiled food, such as off milk and so was also best avoided.
Other tastes indicated that a food was beneficial. Today sugar and fat are mostly found in processed foods, but back when our ancestors lived the main sweet food was fruit, which is also full of important vitamins and minerals. The umami taste was found in meat which is packed with protein essential for growth and repair. Meat also contained fat an easily stored form of energy for harsh times ahead. Salt is quite rare in the natural environment and is important to manage body fluid levels.
Nowadays our tastes are deceived by food companies, stuffing food full of the things like fat, sugar and salt in forms that might not be quite so good for us. More about this in part one of my blog about why we eat.
But back to bitter things.
So how well we taste bitter foods is linked to our genes. This is not the only thing that affects it. Taste is also linked to other things such as age, sex, ethnicity and some medication and diseases (think loss of taste with COVID-19),
There are bitter tasting chemicals contained in brassica plants such, broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale and cauliflower called glucosinolates. If you are a supertaster you are likely to find these foods bitter and possibility unpleasant, whereas someone who is a non-taster won’t understand what the problem is. Other foods you might dislike include turnips, leafy greens such as kale and spinach, green peppers or olives, tonic water, grapefruit, black coffee and some alcoholic drinks such as hops-heavy beer.
But despair not. If you are a supertaster and dislike these foods, there are a number of things that you can do to increase the vegetables in your diet. These include changing the cooking method and adding other ingredients that stimulate different taste receptors to hide the taste.
The first ingredient that is often suggested to hide bitterness is salt. A little care needs to be taken as too much salt is not good for the heart. One option could be cutting down on salt from other sources in the diet such as processed foods. Salty foods such as bacon and cheese are also often cooked with bitter vegetables. Think bacon in brussel sprouts or creamy cheese sauces. If you want to try this choose lean bacon and use less of a stronger cheese to reduce fat.
Other sauces and dressings can also help hide the taste – try to find ones that you enjoy that are lower in salt or fat.
However, there are other ways to hide a bitter taste that are better for the heart. For example, adding herbs and spices such as basil, coriander, ginger, pepper or chilli. Or try stir frying with onion and garlic – you need very little oil with a good non-stick pan.
You could also try adding an acid – well a mild one at least. This could be lemon (or another citrus juice) or vinegar added during cooking or at the table. You might also find that pickles or fermented vegetables taste better.
In terms of cooking, often it is the smell that is unpleasant, so reduce this by cooking quickly. You could try steaming rather than boiling, which also helps to retain the vitamins and minerals.
Roasting in the oven is also recommended. Spray with a small amount of a healthy oil, such olive oil and add garlic, onion and a small amount of salt. Roasting works well with peppers, asparagus, squash, carrots and other root vegetables, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, courgette and brussel sprouts.
Other suggest blanching (cooking quickly in boiling water) before adding to stews and casseroles or braising; fry lightly and then stew with the lid on. This will remove more of the nutrients although they won’t leach out in the same way as over boiling.
Some people can tolerate vegetables chopped up fine or liquidised in a sauce or soup.
There are also a lot of vegetables that aren’t as bitter, for example beans, beetroot, carrots, corn, eggplant, lettuce, onion, peas, pumpkin, butternut or other squash, cherry tomatoes, red pepper, carrots, beetroot and sweet potato.
Fruit also has many of the health benefits of vegetables, particularly if you eat a wide range of different colours and is rarely bitter. If you have type 2 diabetes or prediabetes be aware that there is natural sugar in fruit so choose lower sugar versions such as berries or keep to one handful of fruit at a time spread through the day.
Try lots of different ones and try repeatedly (most can be bought frozen, so they don’t go to waste if you don’t eat them all immediately). Or maybe start with one or two you are willing to eat (many people like peas and carrots) and build up. Try at times when you won’t feel under pressure to clear your plate. Maybe start eating them hidden with other flavours and then slowly cut down the amount of sauce or dressing.
As ever, what works for one person might not work for someone else so try different methods. You might be surprised to find what you enjoy.
How an appointment with a Diabetes Specialist Dietitian will help.
A dietitian won't simply tell you what you can and can't eat, but will work with you to find a way to improve your diet and health that fits around you and your lifestyle.
When you book a consultation with me, you will have more time to have all your questions about diet answered. I will also ask you about all the things that might affect your food choices such as likes and dislikes, medical history and medication, what your job and hobbies are. This will help me to support you to decide which changes to make that will fit in with your life and work for you.
I am currently offering Video Consultations allowing you to talk to me at a place and times that suits you. Appointments can be booked online from my website by choosing book now or services for more information about what I offer.