Clinicians' Corner / Research Updates

What’s Your Favorite Food? Taste Likes, Dislikes, and Eating Disorders

What’s your favorite food?

We commonly pose this question to kids we meet through our community outreach initiatives, and it’s fun to hear their not-so-wide-ranging responses: pizza, candy, ice cream, French fries… But ask a group of adults the same question, and their answers will be much more variable.  Age, gender, cultural background, body weight, and socioeconomic status all influence food preferences, as do positive and negative associations with foods or tastes, beliefs and attitudes about body weight and “healthy eating,” and contextual variables ranging from current season to current mood.

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Among individuals with eating disorders, food preference seems to be less dependent on taste, texture, and presentation – all factors that strongly influence food choice in healthy adults – and more determined by beliefs about the degree to which particular foods are “nutritious,” “healthy,” or “non-fattening.”  As one early study showed, the caloric content and perceived nutritional value of foods do impact food preference ratings in healthy adults, but the correlation between preferences and perceived calories was much stronger among individuals with anorexia and bulimia.  Similarly, another study found that patients with eating disorders rated their desire to eat high-calorie foods significantly lower than their desire for low-calorie foods, while the ratings of individuals without eating disorders were independent of the caloric content of the foods.  Interestingly, in a third study, restrained eaters (i.e., people who are “watching what they eat” but do not have an eating disorder) reported that they would choose to eat high-calorie foods more often if the foods did not contain calories; individuals with anorexia nervosa, on the other hand, did not endorse a desire to eat high-calorie foods more frequently, even in the absence of calories.

While there is no evidence that people with eating disorders have altered perception of taste for fat or sweet solutions, they predictably rate sweet, high-fat foods as less preferred and tend not to choose energy-dense foods.  Individuals with anorexia nervosa also report eating a narrow range of foods, and both aspects of restrictive eating have been linked to poorer long-term outcome.

What might this mean for those with eating disorders and those who treat and care for them?

  • Recognize that high-calorie foods may actually not taste as good to those with eating disorders as those without an eating disorder.  This can help friends, family members, and treatment providers who share meals with someone struggling with an eating disorder to support the person’s efforts to try new foods and can help replace frustration or confusion with empathy.
  • Recovery might mean eating foods you don’t like.  For someone with an eating disorder, eating a balanced diet at regular intervals is a lot like taking medicine for a physical ailment.  Sometimes medicine doesn’t taste good, but that doesn’t make it any less essential to regaining health and wellness.
  • Taste preferences can change over time.  Little longitudinal research has been done to track changes in food preference before, during, and after having an eating disorder, but research in the general population supports the idea that taste preferences change over the lifespan.  So there’s reason to believe that maintaining a pattern of regular eating that includes a wide range of foods (high- and low-calorie) will lead to the cultivation of food preferences that are unlinked to nutritional content.
  • Try it and see!  Try not to assume you (or your loved one with an eating disorder) won’t like a food just because of how it makes you/him/her feel.  Many patients receiving treatment on our inpatient unit express that during treatment they discover that they like many more foods than they had previously thought.  Approach new foods with an open mind, and be willing to be pleasantly surprised.
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2 thoughts on “What’s Your Favorite Food? Taste Likes, Dislikes, and Eating Disorders

  1. I just found the blog through some research I’m doing on the notion of intuitive eating (I’m a philosophy prof working on food and public health ethics). Interesting work. Question for you: do you find that patients with binge eating disorder also have skewed taste preferences– in this case, for fattier or more calorie-dense foods? It may be hard to tell, as those foods are designed to be highly palatable to everyone. I’m also looking at your masters thesis, taking a look at claims about interoceptive awareness connected to intuitive eating. I’m working on a scholarly article now but have written some popular pieces on the blog Fit is a Feminist Issue. best, catherine

  2. Hi Catherine,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I do have a preliminary answer to your question, mainly based on the work of Adam Drewnowski (some of it completed a few decades ago!), who has done substantial research on taste preferences among patients with eating disorders. Here’s what we know:

    -In one study (A), normal-weight and obese individuals who endorsed binge eating preferred more intensely sweet stimuli than those who did not report binge eating. There also seemed to be a trend towards a preference for high-fat stimuli among the binge eating subjects (compared to those who did not report binge eating), but that difference was less clear.

    -In another study (B), patients with bulimia tended to prefer tastes that are sweeter and lower in fat content compared to healthy controls.

    -In a third study (C), patients with anorexia reported liking sweet tastes and disliking high-fat stimuli, and this preference did not change following weight restoration.

    -Obese individuals reported a preference for higher-fat/lower sugar stimuli; in this study (D), subjects’ optimal sugar:fat ratio was negatively correlated with BMI.

    To sum up, taste preferences for sweet vs. fat seem to be affected both by binge eating and by weight/BMI, in that individuals who binge eat tend to prefer high levels of sweetness and those who are overweight/obese tend to prefer foods high in fat.

    Thanks again for your interest, and good luck with your research!
    Amanda Brown, Ph.D.

    References:
    A.) Drewnowski, A., Krahn, D.D., Demitrack, M.A., Nairn, K., & Gosnell, B.A. (1995). Naloxone, an opiate blocker, reduces the consumption of sweet high-fat foods in obese and lean female binge eaters. Am J Clin Nutr, 61: 1206-12.

    B.) Drewnowski, A., Bellisle, F., Aimez, P., & Remy, B. (1987). Taste and bulimia. Physio Behav, 41: 621-6.

    C.) Drewnowski, A., Halmi, K.A., Pierce, B., Gibbs, J., & Smith, G.P. (1987). Taste and eating disorders. Am J Clin Nutr, 46: 442-450.

    D.) Drewnowski, A., Brunzell, J.D., Sande, K., Iverius, P.H., & Greenwood, M.R. (1985). Sweet tooth reconsidered: taste responsiveness in human obesity. Physiol Behav, 35: 617-22.

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