Hooray! You’re Not Stuck with the Taste Buds You Got

Transforming Our Taste Buds from Foe to Friend

In the battle against the bulge, the tiny taste bud is a formidable foe.  Just look at the defeats it drives us to:  right past the salad bar and into the fast food lane, straight to the cream-laden pasta dishes in the buffet line, and directly to the vending machine when the afternoon begins to yawn.  Face it, we’d all be skinny as rails if we could just muscle these tiny despots into submission.

So it seems appropriate to give some consideration to the thousands of little organs on an average tongue that seem to wield such outsized control over our eating decisions.  Despite the feeling that we are forever enslaved to their despotic whims, can I suggest a more hopeful view:  We’re not stuck with our taste buds.  It is entirely possible to reform them into allies who support, and even encourage, healthy eating choices.

My Story I came to this hopeful viewpoint after seeing delightful results in my life.  For many years, I was a donut junkie.  In my old law office a huge box of donuts and pastries would be delivered every Friday.  I couldn’t resist having a donut.  And a croissant.  And then another croissant.  Yes, I was a pastry pig, and I was no better than a bear in sight of honey when the donut box came in the door.

My pastry pig days ended abruptly, however, after my two children developed food sensitivities and we had to adopt a wheat-free, dairy-free diet.  So ended a diet comprised of mostly bread and cheese products.  It got replaced with a dazzling array of other tastes and flavors from  vegetables, fruits, nuts, meats, alternative grains and beans.

I don’t know the exact point at which it happened, but I distinctly remember a day, about two years into this new diet, when I drove by a donut shop and wasn’t tempted in the least.  How could that be, I wondered, remembering my helpless donut days at the office.

That’s when it dawned on me:  My tastes had changed!  What a powerfully, freeing realization that was.  Even better was the fact that I hadn’t even tried to change them.  By just focusing on the foods that supported our health, my taste buds changed, becoming an ally that supported my choices.  In the years since, several other developments have confirmed my hopeful hypothesis on the malleability of our taste buds.

Nutritionists Are Noticing Too For instance, over the past few years, I’ve begun seeing articles that document other encouraging stories of taste bud reform.  In fact, a recent article acknowledged that “[i]t really is possible to develop a taste for healthy foods you’ve avoided for years, nutritionists say.”  The article then suggested several ways to tweak your taste buds, from taking things slow and adopting an adventurous attitude to building on familiar flavors and avoiding over- or under-cooking.  (Alison Johnson for The Daily Press, reprinted in the Daily Camera, April 7, 2010.)

Strength Training for Taste Buds Soon after my donut revelation, I read Strong Women Stay Young by Mariam E. Nelson, Ph.D., which documented the importance (and benefits) of strength training.  Dr. Nelson explained facts that are now common knowledge, i.e., “[m]uscle cells atrophy if they aren’t used,” and weight lifting reverses that process by using and stressing muscles instead of leaving them sedentary. (p. 28)

This process seemed like a good way to explain what had happened to my taste buds.  Over the years, as my life became busier, my diet shifted increasingly to bread and cheese products since they were fast, easy and transportable.  Eating such a limited range of foods, however, was comparable to leading a sedentary life.  Because they weren’t challenged, my taste buds sank to the lowest level, appreciating and craving only the most elementary flavors and foods.  Not until I began stressing them with more complex flavors did they regain their robustness and sophistication.  Eventually, I no longer wanted “baby foods,” whose cheap sugar and salt deliver an immediate pleasure jolt but not long lasting satisfaction.  Instead I craved full-bodied foods with deep, rich, rewarding flavor.

Ayurveda and the Six Tastes Ayurveda, a five-thousand-year-old medical healing system from India, contributed yet another perspective that explains how my taste buds became an ally on the healthy eating journey.  I was introduced to this system through Jennifer Workman’s Stop Your Cravings, which explained the Ayurvedic theory of the Six Tastes.  According to this theory, foods are sweet, sour, salty, astringent, pungent or bitter.  When foods are combined so that all six of these tastes are present and balanced in a dish or meal, we will experience complete satisfaction.

My donut days represented the exact opposite of Six Taste balance.  By settling for a diet based on just bread and cheese, I not only stunted my taste buds’ development, I starved them of satisfaction, too!  That’s why I couldn’t stop eating donuts and pastries, because my taste buds were craving full satisfaction, not just a temporary sugar high.

Neuroplasticity Most recently, I’ve been reading and hearing about this fascinating development in brain science.  The idea is that the brain is malleable like plastic, even after childhood.  So it’s possible, even as we age, to “rewire” our brain circuits with targeted training.  The theory offers hope that we can address limitations that are seemingly beyond our control.  For instance, a friend is creating a documentary about a woman, paralyzed in a car accident, who has regained sensation in and movement of, her paralyzed limbs.  Another friend with MS can raise her arm high above her head, a feat that was supposedly medically impossible.

Maybe, in a similar vein, neuroplasticity can serve as a metaphor for taste bud reform, offering hope that seemingly intractable taste buds can be remolded in our favor. There is certainly a lot of neural circuitry involved in tasting, as messages are relayed back and forth between taste buds and brain.  So it’s not unthinkable that deliberately exposing taste buds to an ever-broadening array of tastes could rewire the brain to like and crave an ever-broadening array of foods.

The Bottom Line I’m seeing that there are a number of ways to imagine the process of transforming our taste buds.  Regardless of the imagery you use, however, the end result is a happy one:  We’re not stuck with the taste buds we have.  Have hope:  They can be transformed into friendly allies on the healthy eating journey.

Next Up:  Practical tips for setting taste bud reform into motion.

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3 Responses

  1. […] taste buds are probably at the root of this limited thinking.  As explained in the previous post, they can easily become sedentary creatures of habit.  If they have come to associate white foods […]

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  2. […] Two recent posts have explained how our taste buds are like gatekeepers between our good eating intentions and the hand that holds the fork.  If these gatekeepers can be recruited as allies, they can be a huge help on the healthy eating journey.  While that’s easy enough to understand, you may need a little motivation to begin training your taste buds for helpful service.  In this respect, consider the plight of the poor Chinese. […]

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  3. […] Allison, for instance, has enthusiastically embraced a diet focused on all the best foods:  lively vegetables and fruits, wholesome whole grains, lean proteins, healthful fats and satisfying beans and nuts.  In fact, she’s journeyed long enough that root beer, her former nemesis, is no longer even a credible temptation.  In other words, her taste buds have been transformed into allies, exactly as described in an earlier post. […]

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