Our Changing Sense of Taste

What we like to eat has a lot to do with regional preferences, ethnic background and personal experiences. But as we age, our ability to taste and smell diminishes. This can affect how much and how healthfully we eat. We start out in life with about 10,000 taste buds scattered on the tongue, primarily on the back, side and tip. Each area of the tongue can distinguish certain fundamental qualities of food: sweet on the tip, sour on the sides, bitter on the back and salty around the front. But it may surprise you to know that it is our sense of smell that helps us to know the difference between foods. It is believed that about 90 percent of our ability to taste flavor can be attributed to smell. Our sense of smell is at its peak when we are in our 30s, 40s and 50s. After age 60, taste and smell begin to gradually decline in most people as a result of the normal aging process. Other factors may play a role in diminishing our sense of smell, such as smoking, infections (colds, flu or sinus infections), illness (Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease) and radiation therapy and drugs. Taking several drugs at the same time can affect our ability to taste. Research has shown that someone taking several medications at the same time can need almost 12 times as much salt and three times as much sugar to get the same taste sensation as someone who is not taking several medications. The sense of smell diminishes gradually and you may not even notice a change. But your diet may change, and not for the better. You may lose interest in food and eat less, but you may choose foods high in fat and sugars. Or, you may eat more than you should, thinking you will get more flavor out of one more bite.

How can you enjoy your food more?

  • Use herbs and spices to add more flavor
  • Use cheese sauces, bacon bits or small amounts of butter on vegetables
  • Add sharp cheese, olive oil or toasted nuts
  • Avoid combination dishes that can hide individual flavors and dilute taste
  • Prepare foods with a variety of colors, shapes and textures to add interest

You can still enjoy the taste of food as you age. Understanding why our senses of smell and taste diminish and learning ways to perk up our meals can help us continue to eat in a healthy manner.

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