The Modern Palate
In today’s culture we are all about umami, or the savory taste found mostly in meats and cheese. Picture a typical fast food advertisement. It sounds something like “Blast your taste buds!” “Cheesy cheese cheese!” “Fried, spicy chicken meat topped with meat, and drizzled with a salty, greasy sauce!”. The connections between our taste buds, gut and mind are so substantial that they drive our choices on a primal level. Science has yet to discover all the complex ways that these chemical reactions happen. The food industry knows that salt, fat and sugar sell and keep you coming back for more. Many of us feel a strong calling to go back to a simpler way of enjoying foods. You may have joined this project as a way to regain mindfulness when it comes to making food decisions.
What Was and What Is
In my grandmother’s generation, sugar and fat were still rare. I remember listening to the story of her wedding cake. She was a World War II bride who married my grandfather, an American soldier in Bath, England. During that time, they were on rations. Butter and sugar were scarce. In fact, they were so difficult to find that the neighbors had to combine their personal rations together to make a humble un-iced wedding cake. They all shared a modest piece and were thankful to have it. It was the same for birthdays. Cake and other rich foods used to be luxuries that were shared in a community once in a while. Times are very different now. You can get salt, fat and sugar anytime you’d like and it’s very cheap. So much has changed in such a relatively short amount of time. Is it a cruel trick by God that salt, fat and sugar provide such a pleasurable effect on our brains!? No. These play an important part in survival. Humans used to need that extra fat to survive a cold winter or other hardships. Finding a natural source of sugar meant a big energy boost that could allow you to travel further for resources or work longer that day. Our brain is wired to light up for these tastes for survival. Now that they are available anytime, it is easier than ever to become unbalanced. Our brains simply haven’t caught up! This is only a glimpse of the picture, but being aware can help ease the pressure of trying to control these strong cravings. It isn’t actually a problem of will power.
Changing Our Habits
How do we break this cycle? Palate training is a start. If you are used to consuming refined oils and animal fat, your palate has adapted to that flavor and your digestive tract has compensated by making physical changes as well and possibly even developed a layer of fat on your digestive tract. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, too much fat and sugar causes one to develop conditions of excess. The process of digestion starts in your mouth. Your mouth and taste buds provide feedback for your entire body. It contains enzymes that break down foods and start digestion. This is why chewing your food well is so important. But, here’s my favorite part! Your tastes can change! As you eat more whole foods, your tastes adapt. Your body listens to the information provided by the new foods. The layer of fat coating your digestive tract will begin to dissolve and foods will taste differently. You will begin producing more enzymes that break down beans and grains better. The first time you eat kale you might think, “Woah woah woah! That’s a really strong taste. I'm not sure if I like that.” Kale has a bitter flavor which is not a flavor American’s are keen on. Bitter foods are very healing and your body loves them! Remember, the body craves as a way to communicate and drive behavior. When we feed it good foods it starts to crave more good foods as it signals for more nutrition to heal. In macrobiotics, it falls under the theory of “like attracts like”. Trust me. You’ll start to crave greens! I promise.
Another way we break the cycle is by respecting our natural desire for sweet and creamy flavors in new food choices. We can get sweetness and fat in their whole form. When craving sugar, remember fruits and dates are sweet! Try eating a couple dates, or one of the date bites I made for you to see if that helps. Eating avocados, nuts, seeds and olives can satisfy the need for fat. Enjoy a whole orange rather than drinking orange juice. This is what eating a whole foods, plant based diet will look like. For your training, I want you to settle into your mealtime with a relaxed and excited attitude. Look at your beautiful meal that was prepared just for you by someone who cares. Take in the colors. Let your eyes wonder at the rainbow on your plate. If you have kids try leading by saying, “Wow! I get to eat this rainbow! I’m gonna start with purple!” Deeply smell the food. Allow your nose to register the different and perhaps new scents. Taste the food. Chew well. You are now asking your body to adapt to highly nutritious whole foods. Luckily, that’s something it does well!. Observe any feelings of discomfort. If this meal is very different from what you’re use to your mind might be throwing a fit! Where’s the gravy!!!!??? Do you feel this battle? Or maybe you feel relaxed and happy about these flavors. Observe the experiences and sensations as you digest without judgement. Chew. Chew your food well. Do you notice a change in the taste? Especially with grains. The digestion of grains starts in the mouth with enzymes. See if you can detect the change in the taste of the grains over time. Do they become sweeter as you chew? Try chewing vegetables 20 times and the grains 30. Now that you have been introduced to this concept, I want you to ponder on the ideas for a little while. Try observing the marketing strategies of food companies. Observe your cravings. Do not try to judge and control them. Chew well and take notes. As always, be gentle with yourself.
Questions for Discussion
Do you agree that the representation of food in the media appeals to our primal desires for salt, fat and sugar? What types of food advertisements do you find appealing or unappealing? Why do you think that you have feelings toward those foods? What emotional connections do you have with food in general or specific flavors in food? Who benefits and who is hurt when we listen to messages about unhealthy foods in the media? Do you think that Americans typically have excess or deficient conditions? Note how you feel after each meal. How has that changed over time? How does it feel to chew your food thoroughly? What is difficult and/or enjoyable about chewing 20-30 times?