Mindfully Training Your Taste Buds

It is amazing to me how trainable our taste buds must be.  I say this because many people at the beginning of my mindful eating class say they prefer to eat fast food, junk food, and processed food instead of fresh fruits and vegetables.  They prefer the taste of food laden with chemicals and pesticides and artificial colors instead of real food. I find this incredible—being the fresh fruit and vegetable lover that I am.  But, after getting over my shock at these exclamations, I decided to spend some time (and this blog piece) trying to address the problem of helping people change how they eat for the better yet encouraging them to “eat what they want” –a primary principle in my class.

Fruits and vegetables hold many (if not most) of the nutrients that our body needs.  The body naturally seeks the nutrients in needs in order to stay alive.  Animals in the wild forage for food that fulfills their nutrient needs and instinctively know when they have gotten enough.  Processed foods and other high salt, fat, and sugar snacks don’t provide nutrients that the body needs and wants, yet this is what many people reach for on a daily basis.  It’s apparent that in our modern world we have developed a disconnect between the natural urges from the body for healthy sustenance and the way we have been conditioned to eat.

If you happen to prefer the brownie, French fry, or chips over the vegetable on a regular basis, my guess is that at least a couple of things are going on.  First, if you have been accustomed to eating highly-refined foods with artificial flavors or foods with high amounts of sugar, refined salts, and bad fats, 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—even if there are not so good for you.

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 the 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 really 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 pasta, brownies, Hershey Bars, and Dairy Queen over an organic, 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 consequence.  I had the good fortune of moving to San Francisco in my twenties and was quite naturally and unassumingly exposed to a wide variety of international, healthy, 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 was always guiding me to healthier choices.

Eating healthier and training your taste buds happens over time.  I would suggest that you use the BASICS of mindful eating (explained on a tab above).  Using the BASICS will help you pay more attention to what you’re really hungry for, what you’re putting into your body, how it tastes, and how it makes you feel.  Start introducing foods(healthier, unprocessed food) you don’t normally have and prepared in a variety of different ways.  One suggestion I’ve heard is to try a different food item on 5 different occasions each week and have 5 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, healthier food.  You still may have foods you don’t like, but you will begin to expand your horizons and quite likely discover new favorite foods.

None of this is to say that you can’t have your sugary sweets once in a while. But let them be treats saved for occasional consumption—not your regular fare.  And if you’re going to indulge, make it something really delicious  and high quality.  I love to eat really well when I travel and look for the best food in an area that I’m visiting. 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 you’re the preference of your taste buds.  Try eliminating one food that you know is terrible for you or try adding something that you know would be good for you or both for that length of time.  Consider it an experiment.  Your body will love you for it and you’ll feel a lot better too.  Try it and let me know what you discover.  Food can be adventure every day!