Building Your “Tasting Muscles”–and Putting Them to Good Use

Fast Food Hamburger Picture

Fascination with fast foods has led to more than flabby abs. Homogenized flavors have left our tasting muscles flabby, too.

The ill consequences of our couch potato culture aren’t limited to flabby abs and saggy triceps.  All the homogenized foods that comprise the bulk of our diet have gradually eroded our “tasting muscles,” too.

Never knew you had tasting muscles?  You’re not alone. I am just now discovering them from several pieces of evidence that have come my way.

  • First, I made a couple recipes that I developed a couple years ago.  I distinctly remember liking them at the time, but was disappointed in their lack of flavor when I revisited them.   Seems my tasting muscles had grown to desire more and fuller flavors.
  • Next came a wardrobe makeover.  Seems totally unrelated but hear me out:  My first exercise was holding up each item in my wardrobe to see if it was complimentary or not.  After the first few tries I was completely frustrated.  “Why can’t I tell the difference between complimentary and awful?” I complained to my personal “closet transformation” expert.  “Be patient,” she told me.  “Over time you build the ‘muscle’ to distinguish between the two.”  Sure enough, over a year or so, I developed the ability to see how her color choices were just right for me, and why my former black and white wardrobe was all wrong (even if it was convenient.)
  • The final piece of the taste puzzle came from our Whole Kitchen Meal Making Classes over the last year.  We do a lot of tasting and evaluating in those classes.  We taste dishes with a little spice and more spice, we taste vegetables cooked al dente and on the softer side, we taste with and without a sprinkling of  lemon, and we taste dishes that could use a little work and decide what to do with them.  While these exercises are very empowering for class members, they also reveal how we often lack the skill–or muscle–to wield this newfound power.

Piecing together these pieces of evidence has led me to a theory:  Could we have been spoon fed processed and prepared foods for so long that we’ve lost the ability to discern tastes, know which ones we like, and play with them to suit us?

One of the “greatest” food innovations in the last few decades has been the ability to homogenize foods across vast regions, so you can experience the same Big Mac flavor whether you are in Paris, Beijing or Denver.  While eliminating all risk from a food outing has some advantages, there are plenty of disadvantages, too,  like being unable to savor the magnificent array of tastes that lie outside the narrow, “processed foods bandwidth.”

But why bother training and building our tasting muscles to savor the flavors of the rainbow if we can just be spoon fed processed and packaged foods?  Because, simply put, those processed and packaged foods are killing us!  And we all know those sugar-laden yogurt cups, energy (a/k/a candy) bars, diet sodas and frozen meals are wreaking havoc on our bodies!

Not only do we know this, most of us would love to replace those havoc-wreaking foods with vegetable-rich meals filled with whole grains, nuts, beans and lean proteins.  That can’t happen, however, as long as we’re slaves to our flabby tasting muscles.    Having been stunted and malformed by a homogenized diet, those muscles won’t allow us to venture forth and relish and be happy with the taste of real, wholesome, healthful foods.

Sure we could go on a “diet,” forcing ourselves to eat just salads, dried out chicken breasts and toast with half a teaspoon of butter.  That route is no fun at all, however, which explains why “diets” routinely fail.  Who wants to live in a way that isn’t deeply pleasurable?

Alternatively, we could develop our tasting muscles to delight in the goodness and taste of real foods.  Trust me, there is a miracle waiting to be experienced here.   Local, seasonal foods  produced with care are magnificent–if your tasting muscles have been let loose to love them.  Learn what flavors make you feel good and how to apply those flavors in ways that make you feel deeply satisfied and happy with a meal.  Very quickly, you’ll no longer want the security of bland, homogenized, processed foods.  Instead you’ll want all the pizzazz and rewards of adventurous–and far more healthful–real foods meals.

Want to begin developing your tasting muscles?  Ready to begin challenging your taste buds with new, pleasurable flavors?  Join any of our cooking classes or demos and open the door to a lifelong tasting adventure and all its delicious rewards.

Take It From the Expert

Heart Box of Strawberries

“[Our] fast-paced, fast-food, fast-exercise lifestyle closes a doorway of perception that decreases our pleasure threshold.  We become acclimated to low-health, low-pleasure, mass-produced food.  Our pleasure vocabulary decreases and we live, unaware, in a world in which our experience of joy never measures up to its true potential.”

Marc David, The Slow Down Diet, Eating for Pleasure, Energy, & Weight Loss

Marc is a nutritionist and eating psychologist who has researched and written extensively on the possibility of pleasure in eating to transform and improve metabolism.  Listen to my interview with Marc on the importance of Vitamin P(pleasure) in our diet.

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Does Chinese Diabetes Epidemic Holds Seeds of Change?

Need some motivation to begin growing and changing your taste buds?

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.

For years, they have toiled to catch up to the West in terms of material wealth.  Now they find themselves plagued by the same chronic diseases that are afflicting Western populations.  A recent report disclosed an alarming increase in diabetes among the Chinese population with 10 percent already afflicted and another 16 percent are on the verge of developing it—figures that are equal to or surpass U.S. and other western nations.  Some kind of “progress!”

The conditions that led to this unfortunate calamity sound ominously familiar:

Greater wealth has led to sweeping diet changes, including eating heavily salted foods, fatty meats and sugary snacks – boosting obesity rates, a major risk factor for Type 2 diabetes. * * * ‘As people eat more high-calorie and processed foods combined with less exercise, we see an increase of diabetes patients,’ said Huang Jun, a cardiovascular professor at the Jiangsu People’s Hospital in Nanjing.*

What does this have to do with those of us an ocean away?  Sometimes, it’s hard to see the quagmire you’re sinking into because it’s grown so big you mistake it for the normal landscape.  What’s happening in China is the same thing that has been happening in our country for years, but so slowly that the enormity of the situation doesn’t fully register.   Maybe, watching the dietary devastation taking place in another country can help us see our own predicament more clearly—and provide us the necessary motivation to do something about it!

Speaking from the winning side of the taste bud battle (pretty much, at least) I can sound a warning that the problem foods at issue are dangerous on several levels.  Not only do these “heavily salted foods, fatty meats and sugary snacks” make our taste buds lazy and sedentary.  They are also positively addictive and warp our taste buds, to the point where we can no longer appreciate the incredible flavors of real foods in their natural states.

So be prepared to get into the trenches as you go to battle in the taste bud war.  Give things time, be persistent, and most importantly, invest the effort to prepare meals that are delightfully delectable.  After just a little time tasting the vibrant flavors of real foods, you may be surprised to see your taste buds give up the fight and voluntarily surrender!

Don’t feel like you’re alone on the taste bud battlefield.  We’re here to help you make vegetable-rich, whole grain, wholesome meals that are irresistible.  Visit Vegetable A Month, the Definitive Guide to a Delicious Vegetable Life.

* “China Faces Diabetes Epidemic,” March 24, 2010, CBS News World

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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