After eating all the rich foods that come with holidays, you think you’ve had your fill. But, ironically, doesn’t it seem even harder to turn down sweets and treats in the following weeks? If only we could learn to acquire such an addiction to healthy foods! The truth is that we can, but it will take more than just wishful thinking. Just like your fitness gym workouts, it takes training, gradual changes, repetition, and variety.

The Basis of Flavor Learning

Although there’s some evidence we natural prefer certain flavors, Pavlovian theory strongly suggests we mostly learn to enjoy flavors. The initial reason we eat a certain food may be that we prefer its flavor, but the more often we eat it, the more we enjoy it for other reasons such as texture, smell, and other nuances. For example, studies suggest that if children are first fed sweetened vegetables, they may eventually learn to like plain vegetables. The key is to use this behavior to train ourselves to enjoy not just the flavor but all the traits of healthy foods in their healthiest forms.

Lower Your Flavor Thresholds

Each of us has a different sensitivity to each flavor based on what we’re used to eating (since childhood, in many cases). One person may think a dish is too salty, while another person thinks it’s just right. The amount of a certain flavor we are used to is the measuring stick we use when we try new foods, but this can be adjusted. The key in this case is to gradually lower your threshold for flavors like salty and sweet rather than cutting them from your diet, cold-turkey. Food producers do this all the time without consumers even realizing it, so why not try it on yourself?

Eat and Repeat

Repeated exposure to healthy foods can also train us to enjoy them. Again, studies involving children have shown that those who initially reject vegetables learn to genuinely like them after several tries. Use this theory on yourself by trying to eat more of healthy foods you’re not crazy about, rather than less. Familiarity breeds fondness.

Eat Healthy Feel-Good Carbohydrates

Our relationship with food is often based on how it makes us feel (that’s why they call it comfort food, after all). Many people enjoy sugary drinks and junk food because of the “high” they get from the spike in their blood sugar soon after eating such high carbohydrate foods. Train your body to recognize this energy “high” from healthier carbohydrates like whole grains, rice, sweet potatoes, and fruit, and you’ll be less likely to reach for that candy bar.

Spice it Up

Vegetables and the healthiest versions of other food groups have a reputation for being bland since they’re low in added salt, sugars, and fats. There are many healthy ways to add flavor to these foods so you can enjoy rather than suffer through them. Experiment with spices, coconut and olive oil, citrus and fruit juices, until you find preparation methods and recipes for healthy foods that you enjoy. If you don’t hate it, there’s a good chance you can find a way to prepare it that your taste buds will like. Who knows – the health food you’ve always avoided may end up becoming your favorite dish!

Together, these methods can be used to train yourself to enjoy and crave healthy foods so you can move beyond dieting and into healthy eating habits that last a lifetime. Just as you’ve conditioned your body to respond to your fitness center workouts and even look forward to them, “condition” your taste buds to do the same with healthy food.