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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Aversions to Food and Why the Smells Make You Ill

I recently received a request to cover this subject. I have to admit that I was a bit curious too. If anyone cooks (my room is off of the kitchen) or makes coffee, I start vomiting. If I sit down and try to eat, I can't I'm being conditioned not to eat by my scumbag brain and here's why:

The psychology of food aversions
Written by: David Solot with CNN

He writes,
Is there a food you just don’t like, and you can’t explain why? Or perhaps a food that made you sick once, and now you can’t come near it? It could be the result of a million-year-old survival mechanism.

When I was about six years old, I started hating cherry Jell-O. There was no apparent reason for it. I liked cherry Kool-Aid and shaved ice, and I was fine with other flavors of Jell-O. But the sight or smell of cherry Jell-O would instantly make me nauseated.

My reaction to it was so bad that my parents used to tell people I was allergic to it, just to avoid my reaction. They even wrote it down under “allergies” on a school form. I just couldn’t touch it without feeling sick.

Perhaps you feel the same way about raw tomatoes, yogurt, or eggs. If there’s a food that makes you feel sick on sight, chances are that your brain is enacting a behavior that’s been passed down for millions of years. It’s called taste aversion, and it’s one of the strongest conditioned reactions in humans.

Here’s how taste aversion works: You and your buddies go out for a few drinks. You’re young and wild and love drinks with the strong coconut flavor of Malibu Rum. Things get a little out of hand, and you spend part of the night praying to the porcelain god. You recover, and next weekend go out for drinks again. The bartender passes you your favorite drink, but this time the smell of coconut immediately makes you want to vomit. You loved Malibu for years, but now, the very thought of it makes you sick.

What you’re experiencing is your brain protecting you from being poisoned. When we were primitive creatures, we weren’t sure what was safe to eat so we tested things out.

If you survived the experience, your brain had to make sure that you never ever ate that same thing again. So, if you ate something that made you feel ill, your brain decided "better safe than sorry," and conditioned you to feel sick anytime you saw, smelled or even thought about that same food.

The next time you went foraging for food and came across a berry that made you feel sick in the past, you would get hit with an overwhelming feeling of nausea and go eat something else. The people who were good at developing taste aversions lived and had children. The ones who were bad at it - well - they largely got poisoned and died. So over the centuries, our ability to form taste aversions got stronger and stronger.

The reason your night of drinking resulted in a hatred of Malibu is due to this same survival mechanism. When you felt nauseated at 3am, your brain sensed that you had been poisoned. Your brain didn’t know for sure what caused it, but it did remember a really strong coconut flavor from earlier that night.

To protect you, your brain decided "better safe than sorry," and assumed that the coconut flavor was to blame. To make sure you don’t poison yourself in the future, it set up a conditioned response so that the smell or taste of coconut will make you feel sick.

That’s how taste aversions work properly - you no longer want to eat the thing that made you sick. But it can get more complicated than that.

You may find that you suddenly hate coconut shavings on ice cream. A year later, you may push away a plate of coconut-battered shrimp at a restaurant, and have no idea why you find it so repulsive. Taste aversions are just that powerful, and they can last for years after only one bad experience.

To make matters more confusing, sometimes aversions form for the wrong food. Imagine that on the way to work one morning you stop off for your traditional cup of coffee. Later that day, your coworkers all go out for Indian food. You’ve never had Indian food before, but you’re up for something new. You have a delicious meal and try lots of new items. But around 3pm, you start feeling queasy. It gets worse and worse, and by the evening you’re sick to your stomach and not able to hold anything down.

Your brain senses that you’ve been poisoned. Once again, it isn’t sure what did it, but it does remember a lot of strong spices and flavors that it never tasted before. To make sure you don’t poison yourself in the future, your brain decides “better safe than sorry,” and conditions you to feel sick any time you smell, taste or even think about Indian food.

The problem is, it turns out that there was nothing wrong with the Indian food - it was the creamer in your morning coffee that had gone bad! “No way,” says your brain, “we’ve had that coffee every day for a year. We know that it’s safe. It had to be that weird new food we ate.”

Suddenly you have a strong aversion to Indian food, even though it tasted good and there was nothing wrong with it. To make matters worse, you’ll probably never know your hatred of Indian food is irrational, because you don’t know that the real cause of your illness was your coffee. You’ll likely think that Indian food makes you sick and avoid it in the future.

This kind of thing is happening to us all the time, and we’re mostly oblivious to it. Have you ever had a really bad cold, and decided to make yourself feel better by eating your favorite food? You might find a few days later that you’ve stopped liking your favorite food. That’s taste aversion in action! Your brain assumes that the illness was caused by the food, and is teaching you to not like that food any more.

This effect is so strong that people undergoing chemotherapy (which can cause severe nausea) are cautioned to avoid their favorite foods. You might think you’re comforting yourself, but what you’re really doing is teaching your brain that "favorite food = feeling sick."

Luckily, our conscious minds are mostly able to overcome this effect. The key is to recognize what is happening and to think about the reason for the reaction.

Consciously reminding yourself that what you’re about to eat is not poisonous can help you to interrupt the automatic survival mechanism. With practice, you may find that you are able to stomach the foods that used to hate. You may even start to like them again.

The key is to go slowly, and expose yourself to the food in positive surroundings. Teach your brain that there’s no connection between the food and feeling bad.

As for my cherry Jell-O aversion, I remembered that back in kindergarten I was served room temperature cherry Jell-O and whipped cream, all swirled together. I got sick to my stomach, and that’s when I started hating it. By thinking about the cause of my reaction, I was able to teach myself to enjoy cherry Jell-O again. But if I put whipped cream on it, I still get a little queasy. A million years of evolution is hard to overcome!

Is there a food that you just can't eat because you got sick from it? Please share below.

There is another website where the scientists are conducting research on food aversion. You can read more about it

With my personal experience, I keep vomit bags in my purse in case my husband has to meet with people, and that usually involves a restaurant. I would actually sneak off and vomit because I didn't want to embarrass myself. But, the food smell at the restaurant really bothered me. I haven't been to a restaurant in a while because of that. As a matter of fact, it's been but three days since I've eaten because my stomach is still spasming from botox.

I hope this helps somewhat! But there is a scientific reason behind it - your brain is trying to protect you.


Ninebhearts said...

Had the same problem with the Jello and whipped cream. When I was approximately 8yrs., I had eye surgery. When I had gotten home, my sister had made Jello and whipped cream and blended it together in the blender as a treat/present. Unfortunately, I had ill affects from the anesthesia and from then on associated it to the jello and whipped cream. :) Yeah...52yrs. old and I still won't eat it.

Unknown said...

I find cooking meat (especially need or lamb) makes me feel sick. I'm a vegetarian but even before I was veggie I had this aversion to the smell of cooking meat. Never had meat make me I'll but I think it's because I always knew it was something dead that made me feel ill. The smell is so vile I can't stand it.

Unknown said...

I have been struggling with smells bothering me. Food cooking soap cold meds and basically anything giving off an odor . Unfortunately my wife does not understand why this occurred so I am fighting a Battle of the smells. There does not appear to be anything medically that can reverse this.

HMG66 said...

Since I was a child, even the smell of coconut launches my brain into a vertigo-like state, taking hours to recover . . . this evolutionary mechanism is some serious sh*t! LOL **** I'm down for the count today after mistakenly trying some coconut creamer. Funny though, I can have soups or curry made with coconut milk without issue.

Unknown said...

Lately I've been unable to eat chicken and I have no idea why! At first I thought that I might have been pregnant, that was not the case. Smelling and trying to eat anything with chicken in it has been ruining my appetite.

wingless_angel_07 said...

Eggs are my worst enemy. I cook with them when I bake, and I can drink eggnog. But if I wanted an omlette or scrambled eggs, I can't keep them down. The smell alone makes me want to bring everything up. Oddly enough, it's the same with mushrooms. I found I was pregnant after eating a shroom burger. My stomach only emptied out the mushroom. It's hard because I love cooking and baking but I have to be careful about what I make.

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Unknown said...

I used to like yorgut but know when I smell I start gagging

Unknown said...

But what is the solution

Aililis said...


Sean_sky said...

I have what is called pernicious enemia. My small intestine cannot absorb enough of the essential vitamin B-12. I have to take supplements or sometimes get B-12 shots.

If my B-12 levels drop my sense of taste, smell and appetite tend to go haywire. I'll develop a strong aversion to the smell of meat and eggs. Grease smells will often make me want to vomit. If I stop taking in protien my strength levels will drop and I'll begin to weaken. My stomach will just about develop an aversion to all foods and it will kill me.

Perhaps you need to check your blood levels and see if you need to take more vitamins, especially B-12.

Sean_sky said...

Every so often being so reliant on the pills tend to get to me and I'll go lax on my dosages. It's a bad state to be in because it affects my thinking and reasoning. Going back on the B-12 puts me right within an hour and I have to have a long talk with myself.

Unknown said...

I felt so alone for years, as a child I could never go to fish markets nor be in the house with eggs being cooked. The smell of oil and milk to name a few also makes me gag and even puke if I can't get away from the smell quick enough. I never understood why it would happen to me while everyone else seemed to be able to cope with various smells. It has bothered me for years and years and I've felt pretty embarrassed and anxious. I'm happy in a sense that I'm not alone and not crazy...

Anu said...

I have this too but a bit differently. I don't need to eat something to get a aversion. I have a food aversion for almost every food. There is a smaal group of foods that I can keep down most of the time but not always.
Maybe it started when I was a baby but even my mother doesn't really know. She did say that I didn't want to drink breast milk so she had to buy a special kind of powdered milk and bottle feed me. Up until I was 2 years old I lived with my mother while my grandmother babysat me every time it was needed at her house.
My father died in a plane crash, 3 months before I turned 2. After a few months my grandparents convinced my mother to move back home because it was the better option since she had to work more now to provide for me and her. My grandmother would babysit and she would work. That is one of the reasons why my mother didn't know I had problems with eating food. My grandmother has a big family, as in lots of kids. Most of them are men so they eat a lot. 2 of my uncles still lived at home and then me and my mother came and you have my grandparents. My other uncles also come eat at my grandparents house because they work in the neighborhood. So my grandmother cooked 2 times a day. Every meal had meat but not always greens. I didn't eat much as a child because I didn't like eating. I always had to force myself to eat. I still don't know why. My grandmother never told anyone that I eat monotonously. But when my uncle came to us for a vacation with his wife from Europe, I got a cold. Just a simple cold but I was really sick. He then said a good soup with only vegetable would definitely cure me in a jiffy the problems started. I told him I don't eat that kind of soup, I only eat soup with noodles and potato's. A big discussion started between my grandparents, uncles and everyone that were there. My mother wasn't, she was working. My uncle one. So they forced me to eat a (i think Maggi vegetable soup) vegetable soup. And Of course the moment I tried to swallow my stomach would throw it back to me and out. It was really bad, I cried, but they keep feeding me and even make me scared that I would be beaten if I didn't. (Side note: they have never beaten me). They stopped when they saw that they couldn't go anywhere with me. So they waited for my mother, they stormed her after work and even convinced her to forced feed me vegetable with rice. And this vegetable had a bad smell. For them it didn't smell badly but for me it did. I did throw up again and again. That month that they stayed with us was a bad one. I was scared to come out of my room thinking they would force feed me vegetable again. My grandparents and my mother stopped the whole thing after the last fiasco. After that the shame started, I felt bad and guilty because I couldn't eat vegetables. My uncle always made snide comments about it every time he came for a vacation. I was to young to know what was causing me to choose food that smelled good instead of vegetables that always smells bad. Now I know that it is always my nose. Of course it got really worse after that. I'm usually in a room where can't smell the food that is being cooked otherwise I can get nauseous and start vomiting. I try not to smell the food when I eat. There is a lot of things I can't eat like onions, garlic, eggs, chicken, fish, almost no vegetables, almost no fruits. I can eat eggs and chicken sometimes but it really differs when my body wants it or not. Eggs always makes me nauseated so if I try to eat it I have to try it with something else and afterward I need a mint in my mouth. But that only works for eggs. So this is my story, I don't know what to call it or when it started but I always had it. I did think for years that I was a freak...well still think like that but know it's just different.

Unknown said...

A couple of years ago I was really sick, I got hit with a bad flu-bug and every time I get sick I have horrible throat aches. I was staying home for school and payed on the couch all day, I had a pretty bad stomach ache on top of feeling really ill. My parents got this rice thing thats in half a slice of pepper, from Costco and I didn’t want to eat at all but I knew I needed the fuel and well one, its really gross and second I can’t ever eat it again without thinking of me being sick. Ugh it makes me sick even to think about it.

Unknown said...

So I recently had the problem where I started an elimination diet and things like kale and spinach were making me sick to my stomach. The foods on the elimination diet shouldn't cause a reaction. That's the whole point of eating the foods on the list is to cut out the foods that can be causing problems. They weren't part of my diet previously which consisted of a lot of easy to fix processed foods. My doctor said that because I hadn't been eating those foods, my body wasn't producing the enzymes necessary to break them down and didn't have a gut biome suited for it. Suggested that I start taking digestive enzymes before meals and introduce things slowly by doing small portions. Also, cooking things in a way that make them easier to digest than eating raw. Then hopefully my gut will heal, start producing the enzymes, develop the gut bacteria needed, start digesting food and absorbing nutrients like it's supposed to. That might be a possible solution for you as well.