Develop a New Relationship with your Taste Buds

It is amazing to me how easily we can ignore our taste buds.  I say this because many people who come to my mindful eating class think they like to eat certain highly processed foods but come to discover through mindful attention that this is not often true. I find this incredible–that we can completely ignore the messages from our taste buds and block out the chemical and other processed tastes for years. But, time and time again I hear the same response from people who are simply asked to pay attention without judgment to the act of eating.

During the class I help people “eat what they want” –a primary principle in my class–while getting them to mindfully taste their food and make decisions based on what they might discover. While the taste buds have been trained a certain way by how you have eaten over time, the inner wisdom of the body naturally seeks the nutrients it needs to stay alive.

For instance, animals in the wild forage for food that fulfills their nutrient needs and instinctively know when they have gotten enough. For humans, fruits and vegetables hold many (if not most) of the nutrients that our body needs.  But many people still reach for quick, fast, and easy processed foods with high salt, fat, and sugar content.  It’s apparent that in our modern world we have developed a disconnect between the natural urges from the body for sustenance and the way we have been conditioned to eat.

If you happen to prefer the brownie, French fry, or chips over vegetables, at least a couple of things are going on.  First, if you have been accustomed to eating highly-refined foods, your taste buds have been dampened and habituated to prefer this way of eating.  Studies have demonstrated taste is truly acquired.  If you are exposed to certain kinds of food over and over again, you will begin to prefer them.

On the flip side, preference for a particular kind of food can be extinguished.  For example, studies of people who have been put on low salt diets have shown that people begin to prefer lower salt food in a short amount of time. People who begin to mindfully taste their food (instead of shoveling it in or eating while doing something else) often quickly discover they don’t actually like the chemical aftertaste of processed food or the subsequent body fatigue. I had one participant in my class come in the second week and proclaim, “I don’t like anything I eat, but I just hadn’t noticed.”  This is a fairly profound statement.

I have been a self-proclaimed “foodie” for so long that it is hard to remember the days when I would pick the brownies, Hershey Bars, and Dairy Queen over a locally-grown seasonal fruit or vegetable.  I didn’t even consciously make the switch to a different way of eating but was introduced to it by a change in location.  I had the good fortune of moving to San Francisco in my twenties and was exposed to a wide variety of international and savory foods.  Tasting the wonderful foods that were available to me at every turn was what began to change my taste buds. Later, mindfulness practice revealed more to me about what my body liked and didn’t like and it guided me to make choices that helped me feel good.

To let mindfulness guide you, I would suggest you use the BASICS of mindful eating.  Using the BASICS will help you pay more attention to what you’re hungry for, what you’re putting into your body, how it tastes, and how it makes you feel.  Start introducing seasonal, unprocessed foods you don’t normally have.  One suggestion I’ve heard is to try a different food item on five different occasions and have five small little bites each time you have it. Since taste is a lot about familiarity, this method can help you develop a taste for a new food. To have a better relationship with your taste buds, you need to spend some quality time with them.

None of this is to say that you can’t have your sugary sweets and salty chips. But let treats be saved for occasional consumption—not your regular fare.  And if you’re going to have dessert, make it something really delicious.  I love to look for great places to eat when I travel. Recently I had the most fantastic panna cotta with blueberry sauce I’ve ever had.  The memory of it will bring me joy for years to come.  That’s a treat!

On average, I’ve heard it takes about 6-8 weeks to change the preference of your taste buds.  Take the time to taste your food with nonjudgmental, kind attention and see what you discover. Like the participants in my class, you might notice you don’t even like some of the food that you’re eating. Introduce new fruits and vegetables into your diet and see which ones you’d like to continue to eat. Eating a variety of foods is healthy for our bodies and it is also more exciting than eating the same thing every day. Let eating become a pleasant activity that you engage with wholeheartedly with love for your taste buds and your body.   Food can be an adventure every day!

If you’d like to know more about mindful eating, oin me for my next Eat for Life class. Sign up SOON! We start the second week of September but there is still time to join. Go here for more information.