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What is Food Neophobia and Can You Beat It?

Are you reluctant to taste dishes you haven’t encountered before or have an overwhelming fear of new foods? You may suffer from a scientific condition called ‘food neophobia’.

I’ve always enjoyed many different foods from a fairly young age. I guess I’ve always seen it as a positive thing.

But there are foods I’ve strongly disliked and I’ve always hated when I’ve not enjoyed it a certain type of food. Two foods that come to mind that I hated were mushrooms and tomatoes. For some reason, growing up, I just couldn’t stand the taste. They tasted so strong and usual to me.

Overcoming a dislike of tomatoes, by accident

When I went to university, there was a sandwich shop that we used to go often (just outside Finchley Road Underground Station). Mostly because it was convenient and a cheaper way of getting some warm food (toasties, delicious).

This cafe/deli always seemed to put tomatoes in every sandwich or toasty they had. I never wanted to be that annoying person who asked them to take the tomatoes out of their pre-made selection so I’d often just buy them and eat them with a slight disdain.

I can’t quite remember how long it took but I remember they had (for once!) a few sandwiches that didn’t have any tomatoes in. As I was eating the sandwich, it seemed dry, lifeless and not so flavoursome. I was amazed to discover I missed the tomatoes.

After that, I could pick foods with tomatoes in and enjoy them. I wouldn’t say I actively sought them out, but over time I seemed to like tomatoes more and more.

I had a conversation with one of my housemates about it and he told me he’d read an article that said if you keep eating a food you didn’t like long enough, your brain would change the perception of that food. In the end, you’d start to enjoy it.

I found this fascinating. Ever since, I have applied this ‘keep eating’ ethos to my daily life and have overcome many food hates.

Is disliking certain foods bad for us?

I came across a study published this year (June 2019) which found a strong association (therefore not proven) between food neophobia and dietary quality, health-related biomarkers and disease.

The researchers found that ‘food neophobia was associated with adverse alteration of health-related biomarkers and risk factors that have been associated with an increased risk of noncommunicable diseases’.

Noncommunicable diseases are those which you cannot catch from others.  Examples include Parkinson’s disease, autoimmune diseases, strokes, most heart diseases, most cancers, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, cataracts, and others. The researchers also controlled for age, sex and body weight.

This fascinating study got me thinking about how bad avoiding certain foods is for us and what we might be able to do about it. 


Can we do something about this?

Food neophobia is thought to be two thirds genetics. Although this does not mean that you can’t enjoy trying new food, you are likely to find it harder or want to resist more trying new foods.

Food neophobia is particularly common in toddlers and young children. I found an article that indicated a link between psychosocial factors and an increased chance of a child developing food neophobia. The article said, ‘young children carefully watch parental food preferences, and this may produce neophobic tendencies with regard to eating if parents tend to avoid some foods’.

This makes sense to me from an evolutionary point of view. If your parents avoid a certain type of food because it was poisonous, then it would be in your best interests to avoid that food in your diet. Sometimes it pays not to be adventurous.

A solution…

There isn’t a lot of research on how to solve this. A study found that intervening when children are young is the best time to alter this behaviour though. Here are a few pointers:

  • Make eating an enjoyable, shared family experience, one that everyone does together. Try to cook one meal that everyone eats, instead of making multiple different meals.
  • If you have a particular food dislike, try to not show it. Showing children that you dislike a certain food might change your children’s view of that food.
  • Make it an enjoyable experience for children. Pressuring children to eat a disliked food or threatening punishment for not eating it, tends to exacerbate the problem.
  • For us adults, exposing yourself to a new food increases your chances of liking that food. A new food should be eaten as many as 15 times to increase your preference to it.

So I hope you have enjoyed this article. The takeaway (no pun intended) message from this article is to try foods you don’t like or haven’t eaten before and think of it as a good thing.

Sometimes we need to do things, not because we enjoy them, but because we know it’s good for us. I think it comes down to the story we tell ourselves – get excited to try new foods and you will be more likely to enjoy it.

Good luck!

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