6 Ways We Can Use Taste and Smell to Optimize Our Nutrition

Though talks of tongue and smell might not be the trendiest of health news at the moment, they are no doubt the senses that are most intimately linked to our nutrition -- and therefore indispensable to our everyday journey towards better health.
01/29/2015 12:02 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2015

Let's be honest. Rarely a day passes when we are not bombarded with information on how we can improve our health. This usually takes shape in the form of new "fat free" foods, diet fads, and the latest fitness trends. Perhaps that eight-muscled meat snake housed in our pie hole and our discerning schnoz are far less exciting, but these under-appreciated appendages and their respective senses are inextricably linked to our body's nourishment in more ways that we even realize. Here are six tidbits of information we can use to hone our taste and smell to optimize our nutrition:

1. Understand how taste is linked to our evolutionary survival.
Equipped on average with 10,000 taste buds, our tongue's ability to distinguish five tastes -- sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory) -- gives us the opportunity to relish what we eat. However, our tongue -- like many of our behaviors -- has a foundation in evolutionary biology. At a time when we were not relegated to refrigerators and restaurants, our ancestors developed taste to distinguish between that which is toxic and that which is nutritious -- or at the very least, that which is edible. According to a 2013 article in Science, sweetness helps humans identify energy-rich foods, whereas saltiness and umami signal the presences of electrolytes and amino acids, respectively. And if you ever popped a wild berry from a bush in your mouth and quickly spat it out, you'd be right to assume that bitterness is a way to help us discern whether a food is toxic or not.

2. Remove foods with supernormal stimuli from our diets.
Did you ever walk past a fast food restaurant and wonder why the smell of greasy fries makes our salivary glands react like a rabid animal? The taste and smell of most of the processed foods on the market today were specially designed to get us hooked -- quite literally. It is now widely known that increased consumption of ingredients like sugar hijacks biochemical pathways and can lead to food reliance or even an addiction. Food, which was a way for us to obtain energy and stay healthy, has now become a crutch to temporarily elevate mood, cope with stress and anxiety, or reduce fatigue. Additionally, removing supernormal stimulants like excessive sugar from the diet gives our body the opportunity to begin tasting more subtle levels of sugar -- so that perhaps when that first opportunity to take a bite into a fresh juicy peach comes around this summer, we'll really be able to taste the flavor.

3. Don't smoke -- especially if you want to taste your coffee.
Smoking -- a no-no for all sorts of reasons -- has been shown to impair both taste and olfactory senses. In a recent study, smoking was show to compromise an individual's ability to detect the bitter taste. This was largely due to the way toxic chemicals in the cigarette interact with the tongue's taste buds -- making them lose their shape, which is a process known as vascularization.

4. Stay healthy!
Okay, okay, staying healthy is easier said than done -- but short-term as well as long-term illnesses can really wreck our ability to taste. Anyone who has ever been stuffed up and sick -- which is everyone -- will know that food tastes blander compared to when one is in top health. That's because up to 80 percent of a meal's flavor is due to olfactory input from our snout. Experiments in taste depriving rats result in malnourished rats. Similarly, people undergoing radiation therapy or who have poor hygiene, zinc deficiency and even diabetes often report taste loss, which often results in, you guessed it -- decreased nutrient intake! The combination of one's taste buds plus scent is a formidable duo to truly taste what we're eating.

5. Reduce anxiety and depression.
Some of the most interesting, cutting-edge research out today shows how neurotransmitters like serotonin -- which is linked to feelings of happiness and appetite -- can influence our threshold for taste. In one study, data shows that anxious people have higher bitter and salt taste thresholds than the normal healthy population, which may explain why anxious and depressed individuals sometimes exhibit diminished appetite.

6. Understand how taste changes with age.
Though we cannot do much to stop the aging process -- try as we might, we should be aware that taste suffers as we age. Though we don't lose taste buds, as it was previously believed, it has been reported that more than 75 percent of people over the age of 80 years have evidence of major olfactory impairment, and that our ability to smell declines considerably after the seventh decade. This results in less nutrients getting to our bodies.

Though talks of tongue and smell might not be the trendiest of health news at the moment, they are no doubt the senses that are most intimately linked to our nutrition -- and therefore indispensable to our everyday journey towards better health. I hope you can join me on my pursuit of healthfulness! POW!