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.


Summer Refreshment: Cure for the Mid-Afternoon Doldrums

Make Iced Green Tea

It’s 3:00.  The vending machine is calling, or maybe the doughnuts left over in the break room.  You know it’s suicidal to indulge those cravings, but work is so boring and you’re so tired and . . .

Here’s an alternative.  Maybe more than sugar and calories, you need refreshment—as in something cool, revitalizing and calming, like Iced Green Tea.

Pomegranate ice cubes in the foreground; Lemon balm sprigs to the side; my lovely rosebush in the background

Pomegranate ice cubes in the foreground; Lemon balm sprigs to the side; my lovely rosebush in the background

Years ago, a good friend told me about the surprisingly satisfying taste of green iced tea, but I just couldn’t get excited about it.  Green tea seemed bland enough when hot; I could only imagine what a cold cup might taste like.

Things changed a couple weeks ago when I ran across a new decaf green:  Whole Foods’ Green Tea with Lemon Myrtle.  Admittedly, it was the price tag that drew me in.  While most teas now run $3.00 to $4.00 for a 20-count box, this one had 40 bags for $4.00—and it was organic to boot.  Remembering the crush of heat that waited outside the air conditioned grocery store, I decided it was finally time to try iced green tea.  Now I’m hooked.

Ayurvedic Balance There may be a good reason iced green tea is just the ticket for me on a hot day.  According to the Ayurvedic thought system, I’m primarily a “Pitta” gal.  As Jennifer Workman, Ayurvedic practitioner and author of Stop Your Cravings explains, we pitas get hot and bothered easily.  Happily, with something bitter, astringent and sweet our irritability evaporates and we get realigned into balance.  Conveniently, my new tea is both astringent (green tea) and bitter (lemon myrtle), in one easy-to-make, no-calorie beverage.  See the ice cube suggestion below to incorporate a little low-calorie sweetness.

Vatas and Kaphas Will this tea be as beneficial if you’re not a Pitta?  Yes!  Although Pittas are predisposed to irritability, anyone can get hot and bothered when the circumstances warrant, and summer’s heat certainly qualifies as just cause.

Good as a Tummy Tuck? Not really, but among the dozens of health facts to hit the airwaves recently there was a study about green tea’s ability to reduce tummy flab.  Sure can’t hurt to try!

A Special Touch Toss in a couple pomegranate juice ice cubes for a little sweetness.  Make a batch from pomegranate juice, then store in a plastic zippered bag or storage container in the freezer.  Not only will they be quite handy, they won’t acquire a nasty freezer burn taste.

Brewing in the Post-Hippie Era Remember the sun tea craze?  It was a great idea:  Why waste energy brewing on the stovetop when the sun could do the work?  Now it’s possible to go one step further and just brew in the frig.  Put a pitcher in the frig at night and it can go to work in the morning.  Three good reasons to go this route:

  1. Your refrigerator doesn’t have to cool hot or warmed tea, saving energy.
  2. You get better taste.  As explained by tea connoisseur Beth Johnston of Teas, etc., cold water draws out or pulls the flavor from the tea , “a much slower and gentler method [than hot water brewing] that results in a smoother, more subtle, naturally sweet tasting tea.”  
  3. As or more importantly, you’re spared from potentially dangerous bacterial growth.

How’s that?  Both water and tea leaves can harbor bacteria.  Sun tea water reaches only 130 (F), never the 195 (F) required to kill all this bacteria.  So left in the nice, warm sunshine, it can quickly grow and multiply to dangerous levels, enough to make you sick. 

Getting It to Work Of course you can drink iced green tea any time, but it does me the most good at my 3:00 p.m. low point.  So fill a water bottle at home and stash it in the office frig.  Alternatively, consider brewing a bottle at work.

No Whole Foods? No problem.  Any green tea will do.  Add a slice or two of lemon to your glass.  Or, when throwing the tea bags in your brewing water, include a few sprigs of lemon balm, one of those great herbs that comes up year after year without your doing a thing.  Or check out some of the greens that Johhston offers, especially Premium Lemon Citrus Organic.

To a refreshing and uplifting afternoon!

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