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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Danger in the Gluten-Free Aisle

Hold the celebration

These labels are a lot more common now than 20 years ago

Not long ago, a news article reported on a conference to support those of us who must live without gluten.  In a food world dominated by gluten products, lord knows we need support, as well as information on all the new gluten-free products coming to market.

One aspect of this gathering gave me cause for concern, however:  the celebration of newly created substances that better mimic white bread products.  The news report quoted one of the speakers gushing over new white flour substitutes–things that had a lot of “modified,” “refined,” and “white” in their names.  These modern miracles, she bubbled, could make soft, tender baked goods, just like white flour.

But does this miss the point?

Sure, we’re getting the technical part of the gluten free diet by eliminating the specific protein called gluten.  But are we missing the bigger call to action:  Eating a more healthful, whole, vividly varied diet.

As the conference speaker pointed out so enthusiastically, we can now go gluten free without having to change anything:

  • No need to cultivate a taste for other grains and whole grains.
  • No need to expand our food horizons to include lentils, leeks, Bosc pears, eggplant, cashews, tofu and the myriad other non-gluten vegetables, nuts, fruits, meats and oils in the food kingdom.
  • No need to give pause and question the quality of our meals, the sources of our food and the sanity of our eating lives.

Just substitute white, gluten free pizza, bagels, French bread and cookies for their white gluten cousins.

So what’s the problem?  Why ruin the party?

Because there’s so much to be gained from moments of crisis! And believe it or not, moments of dietary crisis are as valuable as near-death experiences, divorces and job losses for propelling us off dead center and on to the better lives we deserve.

It’s a widely and well-known fact that we are killing ourselves at the dinner table, and this despite the fact that we come in contact with healthy eating information on a daily basis.  It’s an ironic joke among healthy eating professionals that there’s only one sure way a client will make serious dietary change:  by having a heart attack.

What if gluten problems are meant as teachable moments not just a medical diagnosis?  Gluten intolerance could be a life-changing catalyst, rather than just an inconvenience to be worked around as expeditiously as possible.

This idea is not just theoretical musing.  Twenty years ago, we received a wheat-free, diary-free diagnosis, long before “gluten” was a household world and when the number of non-wheat food products could be counted on my right hand.  With two small children and a full-time business, a transition of this magnitude seemed impossible, and I would have given my right hand for a gluten-free Betty Crocker cake mix at birthday time.  Yet in the way that our biggest challenges bring the greatest rewards, being forced from our comfort zone without a life vest brought unimaginable rewards:

Boring Alert I would never have guessed we were so boring—from a culinary standpoint.  Fully 75 percent of our diet involved some combination of white flour and cheese or milk:  Grilled cheese sandwiches, pizza, PB&Js, mac ‘n cheese, pasta & more pasta, pancakes, quesadillas, burritos . . .  need I say more?  While I was astounded at our monotony, my body was astounded at all the nutrients we had missed out on with such a limited food intake.

What’s a Whole Grain? Nor could I believe how ignorant I was.  Despite 21 years of schooling, I didn’t know what a whole grain from a peanut, why whole grains are important, that wheat is just one grain, that wheat is in practically everything we eat, and that there are lots of other grains that millions of people eat in other parts of the world.  When I was growing up, Wonder Bread and Twinkies were the extent of our exposure to grains.  Now I know that dietary knowledge is power—power to shape and direct my health.

Cheers to the Colorful Plate Forced out of my comfortable bread and cheese cocoon, my taste buds were stretched to the breaking point.  But they were a lot tougher than I could have guessed.  Polenta, bok choy, papaya, cannellini, lamb, buckwheat, kale and dozens of other strange-sounding foods became fast friends, adding color, flavor and delight to our meals.

No Picky Eaters Here Not only did my taste buds rise to the gluten free challenge.  My kids’ taste buds did, too.  As they got older, I never had to short-order cook, I could be as creative as I wanted, we could go out to interesting restaurants, and even to this day, our kids treasure family meal times, wholesomely interesting dishes and vegetable-rich meals.

So in a crazy way, it was good we weren’t able to simply swap white for white.  We were forced to take advantage of a big learnable moment, and instead of just simple substitution we got a complete gastronomic transformation!  Meal making is now an adventure.  Eating and wellness are intimately integrated.  New foods and cooking techniques continually beckon and keep life interesting.  And as we learn more about strengthening our diet, we learn how to eat in a way that feels more right environmentally and socially.

Hooray for teachable moments, even if inconvenient.

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