Healthy Eating Tips

This Is the Secret to Training Your Taste Buds To Relish Foods That Are Lower in Salt and Sodium

Photo: Stocksy/ Nadine Greeff
Whenever I get my hands on a bag of pretzels, it always feels like I can’t put it down until the whole thing is gone. After consuming far too much sodium in one sitting, my mouth starts to feel like the desert in a heat wave, I get a sudden urge to chug all five of the Great Lakes, and I immediately wish I hadn’t eaten all of it at once. Though it was so good... #noregrets. However, that’s to say, like most things in life, even the best of salty snacks are about moderation.

Of course, we know that sodium is important for biological functioning, and you can, in fact, fall into a sodium deficiency if you don’t have enough of it. Plus, it’s one of a chef’s favorite not-so-secret ingredients for creating super flavorful dishes. However, according to the CDC, consuming too much of it can potentially lead to high blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.

So, does that mean we’re fated to only eating bland, flavorless food forever if we want to keep our health in tip-top shape? Definitely not. In fact, a recent study by the European Society of Cardiology that analyzed the effects of taste adaptation intervention (aka the results of eating less sodium) showed that your taste buds can actually acclimate—and even learn to very much enjoy—a diet lower in salt. To understand how to train your taste buds to enjoy foods lower in salt, we spoke with a registered dietitian and the study's lead researcher to learn how.

What does taste adaptation intervention mean?

According to Misook Lee Chung PhD, RN, FAHA, FAAN, a professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Kentucky and the author of this study, a taste adaptation intervention can help lower salt intake and increase the enjoyment of a sodium-restricted diet in patients with hypertension. “We have conducted randomized controlled trials (RCT) in patients with heart failure and demonstrated that the gradual adaptation approach is beneficial in reducing dietary sodium intake,” Dr. Chung explains. "One of the major barriers to sticking to a low salt diet is that people do not like the taste, but few studies have addressed this issue."

Dr. Chung's study, unlike others, focuses on reducing dietary sodium intake very slowly to allow taste perception to change and ultimately learn to like food made with less salt. She says that although the benefits of reduced sodium intake on blood pressure are clear, most people have a hard time sticking to it over time. (We can relate.) According to Dr. Chung, the key to getting over the hump and actually making your lower-sodium diet stick is slow, progressive adaptation.

To study the effects of taste adaptation intervention, participants received 16 weeks of education and follow-up with a study nurse, who tailored the program to each patient’s needs and weekly goals. During this time, the individuals recorded the amount of sodium from salt added at the table, salt used during cooking, groceries consumed, and eating restaurant foods using an electronic device that helped detect the sodium content.

"One of the first steps was for patients to realize how much salt they were eating. Using the electronic device, they could test the salt content of restaurant meals and ask the chef to reduce or eliminate salt on their next visit. They also used it at home to lower the salt content in their own cooking. Some people automatically added salt at the table before tasting the food, so we asked participants to count the number of 'shakes' and set goals for reducing it. Most participants removed the salt shaker from the table within three weeks," Dr. Chung says.

At baseline and 16 weeks, the participants provided a 24-hour urine sample to assess sodium intake and recorded their blood pressure. By increasing awareness of the sodium content consumed over the span of the study and making adjustments to their diets, participants were able to see the direct correlation between salt intake and its effects on the body. "In the intervention group, sodium intake dropped by 1,158 mg per day, which was a 30 percent reduction from baseline,” Dr. Chung notes.

All in all, the enjoyment of a low salt diet increased in the intervention group, from 4.8 to 6.5 on a 10-point scale, according to Dr. Chung. “The gradual adaptation approach to a low sodium diet has a significant effect on reducing dietary sodium intake in hypertensive patients, and it has the potential to decrease systolic blood pressure,” she says. This demonstrates that training your taste buds slowly to enjoy foods lower in salt is absolutely possible—and likely yields better outcomes if done gradually, as opposed to cutting it out cold turkey.

How does a registered dietitian recommend adjusting to less salty food?

According to Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian, and the founder of Real Nutrition, training your taste buds to enjoy foods with less salt comes down to a few key steps. “To train your tastebuds to reduce sodium, it is important, just like any lifestyle change, to do this slowly if you want it to stick,” Shapiro says, which mirrors the findings described in the study to a tee.

1. Always read the fine print. A good first step in lowering sodium intake is making sure to read food labels. “There is hidden sodium in many ‘healthy’ food items including bread (even whole wheat), pizza, soup, tacos, deli meats, sandwiches, bagels, and packaged snacks,” Shapiro says.

2. Avoid over-salting food. “Often food is prepared with salt, and many people add more salt at the table even before tasting it! Taste your food first, see if it needs more salt, and don't just act on habit,” she suggests.

3. Stop adding salt to every meal. Shapiro also recommends choosing a few meals a day (like breakfast and dinner) where you don’t consume any salt and then pick one meal where you do (say, lunch). She explains that this helps form healthier habits and reduces the amount of salt you use consistently throughout the day.

4. Use "salty" substitutes. Another great tip Shapiro offers is swapping salt for foods that taste “salty” or have tons of flavor like citrus, herbs, and spices to help brighten your palate minus the sodium.

5. Have patience. Finally, and most importantly, Shapiro says you need to give yourself time. “This process takes time. Consistency takes retraining; it won't happen overnight. Be patient with yourself and know that in time this will help to retrain your taste buds,” Shapiro emphasizes. “I had to learn to reduce sodium in my diet, and now don't miss it.”

Consider this your entry ticket to sodium 101:

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