Nobody likes a picky eater, but sometimes a person's dislike or aversion goes beyond simply not caring for a food. Experts use a variety of methods to identify and treat taste aversion, including genetic testing and desensitizing people to food via messy play and other multi-sensory techniques.
There’s a fine line between texture, smell, sight, and taste when it comes to food. The brain can perceive these features, hide them, and even replace them. These mechanisms differ from one person to the next, and some do not realize their dislike could be categorized as aversion. Supertasters can naturally sense negligible levels of flavor or odor in food. They tend to be averse to food that tastes bitter to them, while people with average senses do not pick up on this flavor. People with conditions like dementia may reject food because they are unable to taste it. Taste aversion means different things to different people.
Conditioned taste aversion (CTA) is a psychological response to the sight, smell, or taste of food. After eating a food once, a person may be unwilling or unable to eat it again because they associate it with a bad experience such as stomach cramps or vomiting. Chemotherapy patients may have trouble holding food down after treatment and, as such, can develop irrational aversions to food that experts or patients themselves may misconstrue as nausea from the drugs. People with wasting syndromes like cachexia, anorexia, and hyperemesis gravidarum have a generalized taste aversion. They don’t discriminate against food, and virtually any smell, taste, color, sound, texture, or even movement can trigger a negative reaction.
It can be unnerving or frustrating to have a meal with someone who refuses to eat. In the case of children and teens, especially, it can be difficult to determine whether the reason behind the refusal is general pickiness, or something more significant. For some people, taste aversion can have serious health consequences, and they may need assisted feeding. Parents may be prone either to immediately assume their child is a fussy eater, or that they have a more serious issue. In both cases, taking other symptoms into consideration -- if they exist -- can be the best way to determine the next steps and whether or not medical intervention is necessary.
It’s perfectly normal for people of all ages to refuse or dislike food and if a person is active, in good overall health, and does not experience excess weight loss, it is often possible to work around preference and ensure complete nutritional balance. When taste aversion or refusal to eat begins to cause vomiting, dry heaving, hyperventilating, or difficult behavior, it is time to seek medical advice.
Experts classify taste aversion as a psychological condition because it can result in behavioral changes. Sometimes, however, the condition develops due to physical ailments, such as intolerance or allergy. Psychologists may try to differentiate between these causes by disguising foods to which a patient is opposed. A lack of reaction following the consumption of this food points to a psychological cause. Nutritionists and specialists can diagnose food intolerances and allergies. Doctors and therapists employ a variety of approaches to identify and treat taste aversion these days, including multi-sensory methods.
Children are often labeled picky eaters if they refuse to eat. Some are diagnosed with food neophobia or a reluctance to try new foods. One thing to keep in mind is the fluctuation through which our sense of taste goes as we age. Children perceive food taste and smell differently from adults. Some of the most common foods they find repulsive are garlic, onion, spices, herbs, eggs, milk, cheese, asparagus, broccoli, and meat. Babies occasionally find breast milk and formula distasteful if the mother or the bottle came into contact with certain foods. Keeping a food journal can help parents and medical professionals diagnose the root issue.
During puberty, adolescents go through hormonal changes. Nutrition plays a central role in their growth and development, so insufficient food consumption can have serious consequences. Parents often worry when a teenager’s aversion to specific foods is sudden and lasting, especially if behavioral changes go hand in hand, but food aversion is not always a sign of an eating disorder. It is possible that these conditions can overlap, however, and caregivers should keep an eye out for other symptoms of a disorder if they are concerned about their child refusing to eat.
During pregnancy, all the senses heighten due to hormonal changes, including the sense of taste, and this can affect a woman's perception of food. Mushrooms, garlic, onion, herbs, spices, meat, and eggs can be particularly repulsive, causing nausea and vomiting. Some pregnant women suffer from hyperemesis gravidarum, which is mislabelled as severe morning sickness even though the mechanism behind it is akin to wasting syndrome. In many cases, an inability to swallow or place food or drink on the tongue without nausea or vomiting exacerbates basic taste aversion.
We lose taste buds as we get older and as such, older people may find it hard to distinguish flavor. For this reason, they choose food that is saltier, sweeter, more sour, or more bitter than they did earlier in life, but may not recognize the change. Sensor cells in the nose that detect aromas also diminish, and fewer nerve cells carry sensory signals to the brain and olfactory bulb. Hormonal changes, head injuries, thinning of the nose lining, certain medications, and conditions like dementia can damage or eradicate a person’s sense of taste and smell in later years.
Changes to taste preferences can be managed. People with taste aversions can usually craft diets that suit what they enjoy or can tolerate but may want to occasionally reintroduce other foods, in case their tastes have changed. If food tastes bland, a person may choose enhanced flavor profiles such as smoked or mature foods. Plastic utensils can minimize metallic tastes, and regular cleaning of the mouth can help, as well. Finally, some people may choose to blend distasteful ingredients or mix them with more pungent ones they enjoy.
This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.