Monday, July 2, 2012

Teaching Your Old Taste-buds New Tricks

I will say that the human body is surprisingly adaptable. It simply craves the things it's given. This is either curse or a blessing depending on the quality of its daily food flow.

When you eat less salt and sugar, you can appreciate less salt and sugar. When you eat those two additives in abundance, like most of us Americans tend to, your threshold will be much higher and you will need an excess of them in order to feel like you're enjoying your food.

I remember the high school days when I was a die-hard diet coke addict. I could probably drink one with breakfast, lunch, and dinner and still want more in between. After learning about the corrosive effects of soda and undergoing an endoscopy which revealed some gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining), I went off the fizzy stuff cold turkey. Before then, my only beverage of choice was soda. But after switching over to just water, that quickly became my go-to drink. My independently-minded body liked the changed and decided to call the shots from then on.

And now those opinionated taste-buds have been at it again! Shortly after adopting a low-salt, low-sugar diet, my body realized it could live on much less of both. I mentioned the benefits of this weaning process in my results post here.

This capacity for taste adaptability is really a discipline freebie... After your body changes its own preferences, you won't have to pine miserably over potato chips and pickles or those 2-inches of sugary cake icing for the rest of your days. You may very well find that you'll take a bite and your mouth will simply tell youno thanks!

And yet we don't even consider modifying such ingrained food preferences because we think it would be too difficult or unpleasant to do so... and so we never try. But if we simply gave our bodies the chance to test the waters of change, our willpower and our inclinations would probably start singing the same tune.

And I admit we're a little victimized in this area. The reason our bodies crave so much salt and sugar is because our food options are saturated with them. Something I quickly learned while cooking and baking for myself, often from scratch, is that there must be a BOATLOAD of salt and sugar in our processed foods in order for them to taste as salty and sweet as they do. It's been really eye-opening for me to cook or bake something, add what I consider a decent (perhaps even liberal by some standards) amount of salt or sugar into it, only to realize that the final product isn't really that savory or sweet. This cupcake tastes like bread! Where did that all that brown sugar go?!

The conclusion: if the salt and sugar that I put into my own food is hard to perceive, how much salt and sugar (or flavor-enhancing MSG) must there be in our processed foods in order for them to bombard our tastebuds the way they do?! The answer is: A LOT!

I think if more of us cooked whole food meals and desserts for ourselves, we would probably eat better. Ignorance is bliss; at least it always has been for me. It was easy to lap up the butter sauce from that boxed shrimp scampi without too many qualms when I was blissfully unaware of how many heaps of butter went into it. Only 350 calories? Not too bad. Okay, so there are 31 grams of fat... Oh wait, that's only for one third of the box?!... Woops....

But if I were to cook that scampi myself, and see myself adding the amount of butter, salt, and oil it would require to end up with anything comparable to the processed product... I would probably reach for a salad instead.

I'm just amazed that because we don't typically cook whole foods for ourselves, we don't grasp the quanitities of anti-nutrients that have been loaded into the foods we misleading consider "healthy" or "well-balanced." Cooking for yourself, however, rips aside the veil of what must go into our Westernized delicacies to make them as habit-forming and unhealthy as they are. That's probably the most deceptive thing about our food supply... we grow up eating who knows what from who knows where, all the while trusting all will be well. No wonder we're such an unhealthy, overfed, and undernourished nation.

Sugar is great to the taste, but brutal on the body and intensely habit-forming, as this animal study indicates. Some of its lovely side effects include heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, supressed immune activity, and yes, even cancer (the tumors of which need glucose to grow).

The average American consumes anywhere from 22-32 teaspoons of added sugar per day! This USDA source I found stated that in 2000, we consumed 152lbs of caloric sweeteners per capita per year. In this 2012 article, the average was 130lbs a year, or 1/3lb per day.

A visual that I keep in mind when looking at nutrition labels: 4g of sugar = 1 teaspoon of granulated sugar. That will make anyone look at a beverage with 32g of sugar per an 8oz serving differently! Afterall, who looks at the conveniently minimized serving size and only drinks the suggested 1/3 of a bottle anyway? Do the math: that whole bottle could equal almost 100g (25tsp) of sugar!

And we know salt is always getting a bad rap, but that's because the experts are pretty unanimous on its ill effects when consumed in excess. Salt lends itself to high blood pressure, heart disease, stomach cancer, and other sundry delights. And in the area of salt consumption, we take in about 3 times as much as the national recommendation on a daily basis (plus, as far as many pro-plant experts are concerned, the USDA allows us to have too many harmful additives with its liberal recommendations anyway).

Most of our sodium content doesn't even result from the sprinkle or two we add at the table. Rather it stems from our processed, restaurant, and prepackaged foods which contain exorbitant amounts of this stealthy flavor-enhancer in order to encourage consumption. And while a lot of us young folks with swell blood pressure think, what's the big deal for me? This article here links salt intake with weight loss difficulties... It's hard to distinguish our actual size when all this excess sodium is making us retain water! Plus, we sow the seeds for our future health now. It's only a matter of time until our doctors are tisking at our cholesterol and blood pressure readings along with every other American's.

Researching our yearly levels of salt and sugar intake makes me realize why we find "healthy," or unprocessed, foods bland and unsatisifying! Our taste-buds have been indoctrainted to prefer unnaturally intense flavors from a lifelong barrage of added salts and sugars. And that's not even from the things we know are salty or sweet. Ever realize there's sugar in barbecue sauce (4.5tsp per 1/4 cup) or bread (1tsp per slice)? How about the sodium in soda?

And so don't take it from me: I encourage anyone who cares about his or her health to consider a taste-bud-overhaul salt or sugar "fast" (a timed trial of reducing those two additives in your diet in an effort to modify your taste preferences). Some sources say it takes about 3 months for your tastebuds to fully adapt to new flavors, but I've found that even avoiding added sugar and excess salt for 1 month can do wonders.

Zach, my omnivorous husband, has been graciously eating all the meals I make although he has not adopted anything like my radical new way of eating. And yet even he's noticed the way his typical threshold for sugar, salt, and oil has lowered since I began cooking differently. There's been a time when he has left a restaurant, feeling soggy, wishing he had gotten salad on the side instead of fries.

So while it may seem cruel, unsual, or impossible to start skirting around the typical additive-laden American food supply, your body will want to in no time! It's kind of like the Lord equipping us to do those things He's asked of us. Your taste buds can adapt; you may find that you're finally sensing and appreciating the real tastes of real foods that haven't been masked over with excess salts and sugars. If you avoid these foods and replace them with craving-blunting power foods like leafy greens, whole grains, legumes and good fats, in a relatively short amount of time, your body really won't want anything to do with those flashy old flavors!

In short: a little discipline = lasting, empowering results!

This neat website, 
Healthy Families for God, has great step-by-step guidance on conducting a 1 month refined sugar fast. Try it out! If you don't find cupcakes and sweet teas kind of gross when you come back to it, I'll be jaw-droppingly surprised.

And  maybe you will undertake a fast, lower your threshold a bit, and still find a part of yourself longing for those salt-and-sugar days. If you do find yourself still craving those granulated goodies, then that's okay. Perhaps we need to simply exercise some mind over matter when it comes to food preferences. It's been a powerful lesson for me to accept that every meal, snack, or dessert I eat does not need to be mouth-meltingly delicious. It's okay if some of the foods I choose are simply better for my body than they are tantalizing to my taste-buds. When food pleasure becomes a constant expectation rather than a periodic treat - an ultimate good instead of a prioritized one - then we're taking our bodies and souls into dangerous territory.

It also helps to keep things in perspective: how long does the eating experience last, anyway?! Food is little more than a 10-20 minute sensory event... and yet the effects it has on our bodies last a lifetime! Rejoice in the knowledge that good food choices won't let you down in the long run and use that to keep pressing on! :)  


  1. Dan and I rarely eat out for that very reason. Aside from special occasions we always prefer to eat at home or mom+dad's, which is better than a restaurant :)

    1. Seriously! Even when I get a salad or some other veg dish at a restaurant, I find I have to make some kind of compromise when it comes to oil or salt. Perhaps I like control too much, but I definitely find comfort in deciding what goes into my food!