The psychology of food aversions
November 2nd, 2011
10:00 AM ET
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David Solot is a Ph.D. student in organizational psychology at Walden University, with a Masters in clinical psychology.  His background includes the study of animal sensation and perception, and conditioned responses to sweetness in foods.

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.



soundoff (909 Responses)
  1. adila

    Hi, i dont like butter. It smells yuck and very greasy. I have stopped eating cream,ghee and other fatty things. In my childhood i was very fond of butter but after typhoid at the age of 8 it is like allrgic to me..now i dont touch it.

    September 29, 2014 at 8:33 pm | Reply
  2. Colleen

    When I was little, my favorite dinner was spaghetti. Then one night when we had it, I caught pneumonia and threw up. I wouldn't touch spaghetti after that. A year later, we had a spaghetti day at school and my friends made me eat the spaghetti. Unfortunately that night, I developed a stomach virus and tossed my cookies once again. I still can't go near spaghetti to this day. I love pizza, lasagna and any other pasta with red sauce but just not spaghetti. Not sure why

    September 22, 2014 at 6:25 pm | Reply
  3. Zhenya

    Salmon. I grew up eaitng it. But one summer in BC I had some that wasn't properly smiked and went bad. I got severe food poisoning. To this day i can't stand even the smell of salmon.

    September 8, 2014 at 12:10 am | Reply
  4. SAM

    Now, I can't eat meats, chickens and fishes. It is just that I keep thinking about the pic that I've seen recently. It was the picture of a kitten that was fried like KFC. I felt sick! Every time I see chicken on my plate, I will imagine that it is kitten meat. So I won't touch it. I switch my diet to vegetables, breads, eggs and other food. I love chicken very much but I just can't eat it. I am hungry but I refuse to eat. It has been almost three days that I avoid chickens and meats.

    September 5, 2014 at 3:18 am | Reply
  5. Epic

    I found this article because even mentioning certain foods sends me gagging and I'm in my second trimester. Used to be fine before my pregnancy with tea, coffee, fruit juice, hot chocolate, pizza, hamburgers but it caused almost immediate nausea after eating it in my first trimester. Now just the casual mention of these foods and some others sends me running. The effect is almost instantly.

    August 28, 2014 at 2:36 am | Reply
  6. Michelle Calabro

    I have to be very careful with what I eat. When I eat too much of something, over time (a very short amount of time) it starts to make me nauseous. Once I taste something I like I have to be very careful not to eat it too often because it will eventually make me sick. I have had to cross a lot of my most favorite foods of the menu because I ate them to death. When I'm out at a restaurant I can't even eat my whole dinner and have to take it home for later because I get sick of whatever delicious food I'm eating right then and there. What the heck disorder is this?

    August 25, 2014 at 9:39 pm | Reply
    • Frances

      Hello Michelle,
      You are describing exactly the way I am with food. Have you found any useful answers? If so, please share with me at frannie1616@yahoo.com. I believe I have a food diversion severe enough to be an eating disorder but can't find any info on it.

      September 24, 2014 at 12:01 pm | Reply
  7. Itsme

    Bananas, hamburgers, coconut, and sauce.

    August 24, 2014 at 8:50 am | Reply
  8. TaNika

    Wow, I haven't liked milk in years. I'll eat ice cream, I love cheese, lots of products with milk in them, but milk? I'll throw up... I just can't. Haven't had a bowl of cereal with milk in years. I'm 22 now and my mom tried to make me have a bowl when I was about 4... I tossed it out the window the minute she left the kitchen... Just remembered she said as a baby I got pink spots all over once after drinking cow's milk, so she gave me soy milk ever since. I can't even bring myself to try soy milk these days... Ugh. But that one time... I don't even know if it really was the cow's milk.

    August 12, 2014 at 10:44 am | Reply
  9. Lisa Damiani

    When I was pregnant with my first child I had an aversion to eggs, but after I had him I was fine. Just recently I have an egg aversion again. Not sure if it might be hormonal??? So when I decided to go on a low carb diet I ran into the problem of what to have for breakfast...since I can't even look at an egg!

    July 29, 2014 at 6:17 pm | Reply
  10. Kayla

    This makes perfect sense. But what about waking up in the morning and every single thought of food makes you feel sick? Because that's my problem. I wake up every morning and the thought of any kind of food immediately makes me feel sick to my stomach.

    July 29, 2014 at 8:27 am | Reply
  11. Christina

    I had a cardiac ablation where they ablate (burn) a part of the electrical conduction system so your heart stops taking that route that's causing your arrhythmia. For the next almost 2 years I couldn't figure out why I couldn't eat red meat look at it touch it or see someone else eat it without gagging. Until I went to see a therapist and she figured it out that I pictured my own heart as that red raw piece of meat and the cooking process was the ablating of my heart. Since I became aware of the connection I have been able to eat red meat look at it ect and not be bothered by it. I never ever would have thought those 2 things went together!

    July 24, 2014 at 1:21 pm | Reply
  12. LIz

    I have a strong dislike to mayo. Hate the smell of it and the taste of it. Its so bad that Im starting to have an aversion to any food that is white and creamy ie sour cream, ranch, whip cream etc. I still do enjoy eating these few things but when I see someone eating it makes me sick. Maybe a home pregnancy test is needed...

    July 20, 2014 at 7:15 pm | Reply
  13. Rebecca

    I've had strong food aversions off and on since being pregnant. The entire time I was pregnant with both my children I had morning, noon and night sickness. My children are 8 and 5 and there are days where I have absolutely no appetite, I feel like I have morning sickness, but I know I don't. It has to be in my head.

    June 20, 2014 at 1:55 pm | Reply
  14. Aaron

    Um, I'm not sure if this is along these lines or as severe as this, but I'm kind of like this about...well, food in general. I have an extremely limited palette of foods that I tolerate and I'm even picky about that sometimes. The only edible substances I really have no qualms at all with are confectionery and soft drinks. I do eat some "normal food", but only a select few items.
    When I see "normal food" or "healthy food" I am attracted to the colours and occasionally the smells, but when I see it up close, or am offered a chance to taste it, I feel repulsed, just as I am by the thought of it. I don't even want to try any of it, I find it that repulsive.
    What kind of "bracket" does this come under? It doesn't really bother me personally to be honest but I hate going out with my friends because I'm always afraid that we will end up eating somewhere where there is nothing I would deem as edible, because I think they will make fun of me like the did last time (we went to Nando's but I only ordered chips because the "type" of chicken – and the sauce, eww – repulses me)

    It only really dawned on me these last few months that something this severe must be psychological and I just want to label it.

    April 10, 2014 at 4:59 pm | Reply
    • Gigi

      Aaron,
      After reading your message I remembered this site I ran across a while back. : )
      http://www.pickyeatingadults.com

      September 2, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  15. Sonali

    I hate fish... any type fish makes me gag except sardine & tuna... hmmm... weird! awhh.... the God-awful odour of fish apparently only I can smell, haunts me like hell. when I was kid, my mum used to force feed me, fish mixed with rice which I still hold grudge on mum for it... even to avoid people urging me to eat 'it' for my own good, I'll tell them (still do), I'm allergic to fish... But my mum said that my aversion to 'it' started when I was 7, & before that fish was my favourite dish... I guess something might have happened to triggered my extreme dislike on that fish thing...

    February 18, 2014 at 2:40 pm | Reply
    • Cindy

      Tuna, I used to love it, but have not been able to eat tuna without gagging since I was young and my mom served us tuna sandwiches in the camper on a very wet soggy day... with a wet dog at my feet. :p It's the wet dog smess I gagged on, but 30 years later, I still can't get past it.

      My newest aversion: any meat products on bread. I love them separately, but not together.

      September 13, 2014 at 11:05 am | Reply
  16. Mariel Giedlin

    This is absolutely brilliant! Congratulations on trying to revitalize the written word no texting, no email, no whatever's next! I don't own a computer proud of being "computer free". Maybe old fashioned, but receiving a hand written letter is likely to be so refreshing! Thank you for focusing on a rapidly declining art the hand written letter and/or note.Can't wait to receive my first letter! Judy Robertson

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    February 8, 2014 at 6:59 pm | Reply
  17. Trish

    Why is it I think a certain food is blah and tasteless and someone else thinks the same food is wonderful?

    February 8, 2014 at 4:32 pm | Reply
    • Realty Czech

      Same reason your gyn tells you that your cycles are different from your friends' cycles: everybody is different. Period.

      February 8, 2014 at 6:54 pm | Reply
  18. Tobbie

    I noticed one thing you forgot about this article, allergies! I'm allergic to eggs, so the first time I ate them it made me sick (threw them up and then started hyperventilating). My dad was always putting mayo on my sandwiches and I'd always complain that I didn't like it. Truth was it's made of eggs and my body was trying to protect me. I can't even eat the fake mayo that doesn't have eggs, the taste is the same so the brain just says yuck!

    January 26, 2014 at 5:12 pm | Reply
  19. ally

    i'm 23 and have gagged on the smell and taste of berries and a lot of other fruits especially artifical flavors. for instance i wont' touch any berries or any berry flavored anything. however i'll eat grapes and watermellon and very occasionally fresh blueberries but any other version of them (besides wine) like juice, candies etc i find absolutely repulsive. I have to hold my breath when people eat fruity candies around me or in a car with me. I can handle but really don't like the smell of strawberries. i really wish I could eat all this stuff :(

    December 29, 2013 at 3:34 am | Reply
  20. Travis

    I don't know how to explain what iv got, but basically I want to eat bananas but the taste I don't mind at all, can eat anything banana flavored, but as soon as I have a piece of banana in my mouth, at first I'm okay then as I chew on it, the texture just makes me gag and I always end up throwing up really bad, does anyone know how to sort this out? Would love to be able to eat them :(

    November 28, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Reply
  21. Anita

    I have a taste aversion to pills. It's the most annoying thing in the world. It all started because I was taking hormone pills to regulate my cycles and they made me throw up later every single time I took it, without fail. So now I get so nauseated even seeing pills in a commercial. When I walk past the medicine cabinet I can literally smell them. It's so gross and it's making life really hard for me right now.

    November 20, 2013 at 8:04 am | Reply
  22. Tatikayk

    Watermelon candy flavor urrggh the smell makes me so nauseous

    November 16, 2013 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  23. Mychel Wetter

    My issues is weirder. I can eat a meal and it can taste really good. But there are times, if I don't brush my teeth within 15 to 30 minutes after eating or eat a strong mint, the taste in my mouth that still lingers after the meal is what makes me sick. Why is that? Then whatever I ate goes right thru me. It really gets annoying. But once I brush my teeth and remove the lingering taste, my stomach settles and I am fine.

    October 11, 2013 at 11:38 am | Reply
  24. Edwin

    Cheese. I got sick once when I was about 6. I haven't had any form of cheese in over 20 years. Even the smell of it is enough to make me want to vomit. Worst part is that Americans love cheese; it's really hard to avoid!

    October 7, 2013 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  25. Thinking things through

    It took me at least twenty years to even attempt to down ministrone soup after getting violently ill shortly after the consumption. Even though I was aware then that my illness was due to a virulent bug, not the soup.

    On another food aversion - as a small child, I insisted mother make me peanut butter sandwiches every day for school, five days a week 9 months out of the year, for three years. Yes, she'd vary it up with and without jelly, with and without pats of butter (I don't think we ever heard of Fluffernutter then). Suddenly, one day I could no longer do it at all. For years after, the stench of peanut butter drove me to distraction. Even today I won't eat peanut butter in any form other than in Thai cuisine - which while peanut-ty, is a whole different avenue of food.

    October 7, 2013 at 5:09 pm | Reply
  26. Talia

    I've developed an aversion to raw vegetables after trying to eat too many salads while recovering from a severe stomach bug. It's probably the most inconvenient food aversion possible.

    October 7, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  27. Gina

    When I was pregnant with my first child, I was in nursing school. We were studying the development of the fetus and one morning I was cooking eggs. It occurred to me that the egg was an ovum. I became nauseated and 22 years later, the thought of eating eggs turns my stomach. I don't remember if I had morning sickness at that time, but it is a distinct possibility.

    September 20, 2013 at 10:13 pm | Reply
  28. Shivangi

    Green apple vodka ! Can't have anything green apple flavoured any more....even green apple flavoured ice tea makes me gag !

    September 17, 2013 at 4:36 am | Reply
  29. RC

    Liver. Can't stand the sight, smell or taste. Mom would serve it and make me sit there till I ate it. Must be my brain telling me I've been poisoned!

    August 29, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Reply
  30. Kelly

    Pho. I had it twice from two different places, both times got violently ill.
    I also have an aversion to milk from when my brother was born when I was 4. I just can't shake it- I can eat milk products, drink milkshakes, but the smell, taste, and consistency of normal milk (whole, skim, percentage doesn't matter) makes me gag.

    August 21, 2013 at 7:16 pm | Reply
    • arun

      same here but a little late, i started a a milk lover and promote,r my diet had milk, yoghurt n cheese in it but then something happened when i was 31, i cant stand the sight of it anymore.

      September 10, 2013 at 10:11 pm | Reply
  31. Deborah

    My daughter have been avoiding strawberry flavoured snacks but is totally fine with eating strawberries by itself. She is really sensitive to strawberry flavoured scents and I'm not sure if it is because she was forced to consume a strawberry flavoured medicine when she was younger.

    – deb

    August 17, 2013 at 3:06 am | Reply
    • Thinking things through

      This might be something else. In my experience strawberry flavored snacks don't really taste like real honest to goodness strawberries. I also don't like strawberry flavored snacks for that reason - not an aversion; they just don't taste real to me. She may not have the vocabulary to put that into words. I also feel the same way about cheese flavored snacks, and I love cheese. They're cheezoid, not really cheese.

      October 7, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Reply
  32. Debbie Fox

    My 8 year old daughter has food aversions to fruit and veggies. She will not even come into a room with strawberries in it. I do not know how she got this, not sure of her bad experience with eating. My husband and his mother both have specific food aversions and not I am prediabetic so i won't eat sugar. I need to figure this out. Initially i just thought that it was a phase and would go away but now i am a little worried.

    Deb

    July 22, 2013 at 6:53 am | Reply
  33. Sherman Hirons

    I've the worst memory! I've had a notebook/planner for a long time...I actually will not know what I'd personally do without the need of it!

    July 14, 2013 at 1:44 am | Reply
  34. Karen Griffee

    47 years ago I was hospitalized for high blood pressure and put on a very restrictive low calorie-no salt diet for 10 days. I became so weak I could barely stand, and when I got home I couldn't climb the stairs to my apartment. I stopped at a friend's apartment on the ground floor, and while her children were eating sandwiches, I decided that mustard would make me feel better. I ate a couple tablespoons of yellow mustard and it actually DID make me strong enough to climb the stairs. However, I have NEVER been able to eat mustard again.

    April 22, 2013 at 12:49 pm | Reply
  35. Andrea

    I have an intense loathing of eggs especially where the whites and yolks are separate, i.e fried, poached and boiled. Even just looking at a fried egg makes me feel sick. However, I can tolerate scrambled and omelets. According to my late parents this aversion started when I was 3 years old and came home from hospital after having my tonsils removed and they thought that feeding me fried eggs would be best with a sore throat. In more recent years while eating mediterranean diet I have developed a bad reaction to aubergines, having been violently sick on both occasions after consuming them. Going back to eggs strangely enough, I also love mayonnaise, pancakes and egg nog drinks especially Advocaat!!

    April 21, 2013 at 6:37 am | Reply
    • ieatwhatilikeonly

      i also have to say it's eggs,and mayo and all foods with it,the smell,the taste,the sight,the thought of it,i cant stand to be in same room or see anyone eat either,tried years ago and instantly vomited,i know i cant eat either again and fine with that,i only eat things i actually enjoy to eat.

      May 8, 2013 at 10:26 pm | Reply
  36. Deb

    A few years ago, I ate pizza, specifically Domino's while during a night of drinking. The next morning's hangover was terrible and it was easy for me to associate the nausea with pizza. For a year or so, the thought of Domino's pizza (and its unique, tangy sauce) made me sick. I could eat other pizza (with some trepidation at first) but the sight of a Domino's box brought back the horrible hangover. I knew the feeling was illogical, however it took a year or so for me to be able to try Domino's pizza again. Today, I have no problem with it at all, in fact its my favorite.

    March 1, 2013 at 8:41 am | Reply
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  38. Tina

    Well for me it was always like I tried to eat it but always resulted in making me feel sick, without having a previous experience of having to much of a dish. Which includes:
    -red meat (especially the parts that are fatty), I mean imagine not being able to eat bacon, people look at me funny
    -some types of white meat(can do with a very dry chicken breast)
    -fish(any type)+fish oil
    -sea food
    -can't drink plain milk
    -plain yoghurt
    -cooked spinach
    -brussel sprouts
    And I'm sure there is more, if I have to think of it
    I can tell you this much, it is most unpleasant to be unable to eat all the things that are common and enjoyable and always ending up looking like a pretentious person. Especially when you visit someone and they cook you a nice dinner and you say "oh sorry I cannot eat this , it will make me puke"-not necessarily like that but you get the gist.

    January 28, 2013 at 10:15 am | Reply
  39. gross

    I can't eat barbecue sauce now. When i was younger, i know this is disgusting, the only sandwich I would eat was bread and barbecue. I got sick of it and would feel sick to my stomach. Eventually it went away. A couple nights ago for dinner I had barbecue sauce on chicken and bread but there was too much barbecue. I gag every time i think of it.

    January 25, 2013 at 5:35 pm | Reply
  40. MelancholyMadness

    I can no longer eat Fun Dip, Barbeque sause, scrammbled eggs, or whipped cream. All of them exept the whipped cream are because at some piont i became sick after eating the food. the Fun Dip and Barbeque were in the same day. Not Fun. The whipped cream, however, i am not sure why i cant eat it, but i have never liked it. The texture is too airy and makes me ill thinking about it.

    January 21, 2013 at 10:26 pm | Reply
  41. minilover3

    so what if i purposely got sick from eating chocolate? Would my craving go away?

    January 8, 2013 at 1:40 pm | Reply
    • suj

      Try it and report back.

      July 24, 2014 at 2:19 pm | Reply
    • Kels

      Nope... I ate 400g of Toblerone in one setting... got a massive migraine headache and was vomiting copious amounts and still can eat it!

      September 25, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Reply
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  43. Jake

    Andrew Zimmern of the 'Exotic Foods' TV show can eat food contaminated with (a small amount of) feces, but he cannot eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

    I'm now more interested in learning more about flavor and food aversion.

    December 20, 2012 at 1:08 pm | Reply
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    • Jake

      What does this have to do with food?

      December 20, 2012 at 1:09 pm | Reply
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