How Your Genes Influence Your Favorite Foods

person holding cheeseburger

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Key Takeaways

  • A new study suggests that our taste preferences might be more linked to our genes than previously thought.
  • Brain-related factors might also play a role, especially for people who prefer high-calorie foods.
  • Understanding that our taste preferences are not completely under our control can help us make healthy choices that foster a satisfying, positive relationship with food.

If you turn up your nose at bananas and love a glass of bold red wine, it might have more to do with your genes than you think. And it might not be easy to change.

We already know that our food preferences are rooted in our culture. For example, one study found that cultural differences influenced how much people enjoy the appearance, aroma, taste, and texture of different foods.

Now, new data published in Nature Communications suggests that our genetics may have a very big influence on the foods we like and dislike. 

Genetics and Food Preferences

The findings from the new study could help explain why some people will put hot sauce on anything but others can’t tolerate anything more than “mild” heat.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh looked at how more than 150,000 participants in the UK Biobank cohort rated their preferences for 139 different foods and beverages using a nine-point scale.

Next, the researchers looked at participants’ genetic information and the results from their food preference questionnaires to see if they could spot any connections.

The researchers found 1,401 genetic variations, many of which were related to certain food preference traits. For example, a preference for one individual food (like salmon) or for more general food groups (like oily fish).

Using this information, the researchers put foods into three categories:

  • Highly palatable (e.g., meat and sweets)
  • Low caloric (e.g., vegetables)
  • Acquired (e.g., strong tastes like alcohol and pungent vegetables)

What Food Preferences Mean For Your Health

When the researchers looked at how genetic variations were linked to health, they found a relationship between preference categories and certain health traits. For example:

  • People who were more likely to choose highly palatable foods also carried gene variants linked to a higher risk for obesity and lower activity levels.
  • People who enjoyed more strong-tasting foods had lower cholesterol than people who did not prefer these tastes. This group was also more likely to have a higher alcohol intake.
  • Low-calorie food preference was linked to increased physical activity. 

When it came to looking at specific foods and food groups, the researchers found that not everyone carried a gene for liking all foods in one category. For example, people who liked cooked vegetables did not necessarily like salad.

Taste on the Brain

MRI scans showed that preference for higher-calorie foods might be linked to a part of the brain that is involved in pleasure processing, which suggests that food-liking is more influenced by biology than behavior. 

Nicola Pirastu, PhD, one of the study’s authors and the senior manager of the Biostatistics Unit at Human Technopole, told Verywell that a key takeaway from the research is that while taste receptors do play an important role in which foods you like, “it is, in fact, what happens in your brain” that is driving what the researchers observed in the study.

“The main division of preferences is not between savory and sweet foods, as might have been expected, but between highly pleasurable and high-calorie foods and those for which taste needs to be learned,” Pirastu said. “This difference is reflected in the regions of the brain involved in their liking and it strongly points to an underlying biological mechanism.”

Accepting Your Tastes

While it is true that modifiable factors also influence what we choose to eat—for example, what our culture consumes and what we have been exposed throughout our lives—in some cases, outside factors may not have as big of an impact as we have been led to believe.

For many people, food preferences go back to their childhoods. If you’re a caregiver of a child with particular tastes, you may want to find ways to support them in expanding their palate.

Studies have shown that there are specific interventions that can encourage children to try different foods. For example, kids are more likely to accept a particular food the more often they’re exposed to it. Looking at food (visual exposure) and experiential learning have also been shown to help kids try new tastes.

That said, if your child says no to a certain food even after you’ve used all these strategies and ruled out a sensory reason like texture aversion or a medical or mental health condition that would explain their refusal, there could be genetic work at play that you just won’t be able to change.

Work With, Not Against, Your Nature

Melissa Mitri, a Connecticut-based registered dietitian who was not involved in the study, told Verywell that the findings can help explain why we may be drawn to a particular way of eating.

“Depending on the type of food you naturally prefer, you can use that to your advantage,” Mitri said.

Instead of fighting your genes, leaning into your tastes can be a more realistic way to navigate your dietary choices. For example, if you love candy, reach for sweeter fruits like berries for a more healthful way to satisfy your natural craving.

If you prefer more caloric foods, accepting that as a fact about yourself is key. From there, it’s a matter of including more nutrient-dense foods along with your preferred calorie-dense options.

For instance, cheeseburgers don’t have to be off-limits. Just try having a smaller portion and adding more vegetables to the meal to make it more nutritious.

What This Means For You

Genetics may play a bigger role in your food preferences than you think. While you can’t change your genes or your tastebuds, accepting your food likes and dislikes and working with rather than against them can help you create a nutritious eating plan that you enjoy.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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