Taste Bud Metamorphosis: Training Your Palate to Love Healthy Food
By Christina Pasternak More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the FOOD-A-MINS Blog Series
Last weekend, I had a moving sale. It was hot. I was hungry. When I’m running around in the heat, I don’t crave complicated, cooked food. So, no surprise to most people who know me, I made a healthy smoothie. I simply blended a couple hearts of organic romaine lettuce with four oranges and added some ice. I had plenty of both to use up, so I figured I’d blend and sip those beautiful babies! While I was enjoying my deliciously simple cold drink, a friend of mine stopped by to see how my sale was going. When she asked me why my smoothie was such a pale green color, I revealed the ingredients - to which she responded, “gross.”
When we consume artificial sweeteners, the carbohydrate and calorie content of our diet decreases, but our preference for sweetness doesn’t change.
I didn’t really think about how my smoothie might have seemed gross to others, mostly because I personally love both romaine lettuce and oranges. While I had never blended just those two ingredients, it didn’t even cross my mind that the combination may sound off-putting to the uninitiated. But what sets plant-based eating apart from other food philosophies can be succinctly summed up in my instantaneous reply to my lovely, inquisitive friend: “My palate is trained.”
So, is it true? Can our palate be retrained to shift from craving sugary, salty, high-fat foods to truly enjoying a simple breakfast of romaine lettuce and oranges? Yes! It's true!
Eating the SAD way takes a toll on, and, ultimately, alters our taste buds. Salt, sugar, chemicals, alcohol, dairy, food additives, and processed foods wreak havoc on and confuse our palate, which, in a sense, drives our cravings. A palate that is accustomed to a diet high in these health-sabotaging culprits eliminates our body's natural propensity to crave nourishing foods rich in water, vitamins, minerals, fiber, healthy fats, phytonutrients, amino acids, etc.
Do We Really Taste Our Food?
People who have been living on highly processed foods often lose their ability to truly taste the natural flavors in whole foods. Human beings are evolutionarily designed to favor sweet tastes and reject bitter flavors, mostly because naturally sweet food, such as fruits, are healthful and nourishing, while bitter flavors are a sign of toxicity. The modern food industry, however, is causing people to lose their ability to truly enjoy the subtle sweetness that fruit offers because they are looking for the hyper-sweet flavors of artificial sweeteners, high fructose corn syrup, and other added sugars. This is part of the reason we’ve seen such a significant rise in obesity, despite the increase in low-calorie sweeteners. When we consume artificial sweeteners, the carbohydrate and calorie content of our diet decreases, but our preference for sweetness doesn’t change. In fact, we crave more sugar because our palate has been altered, which leads to binges on other calorie-rich foods to compensate.
Re-training Our Palate
One of the most effective ways to re-train our palate is to start an elimination diet where we remove highly processed foods and replace them with natural whole foods, including plenty of fresh, ripe, in-season fruits and vegetables. Keep it simple with small changes. For example, when I was a sugar-addicted young adult, I often enjoyed grapefruit with a sprinkling of white table sugar on top. That was just how I learned to eat it. It wasn’t until I started incorporating more whole foods into my diet that I realized that grapefruit is delicious on its own. I love digging into a fresh grapefruit and truly savoring its naturally sweet, juicy flavor.
To begin, creative, yet gradual introductions to whole foods is key. Here are some tips and tricks that I found helpful when re-training my palate:
- Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables by making them easily accessible in your kitchen, at work, or any other locale at which you frequently eat. When purchasing produce, wash and prep fruits and veggies before putting them away so they’re easy to grab and eat.
When I talk to people about re-training their palate, the first question they always ask is, “how long will it take?”
- Practice patience and persistence with yourself by repeating exposure to whole foods daily - remember this will be a gradual shift that will take some time. (I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I had to try arugula before I started to appreciate its peppery, earthy notes.)
- Pair whole foods that you dislike with another food you love in an effort to explore other ways to incorporate the less preferable foods into your diet. Don’t like cilantro? Try adding it to some homemade salsa, guacamole, or even a green smoothie. Over time, you might start to enjoy its unique flavor.
- Look for as much locally-grown, in-season produce as you can for peak freshness and rich flavor. Support your local farmer’s market! When we first begin our initiation to certain fruits and veggies we’ve never tried, or have always thought we hated, it’s important to eat the shining stars. I used to despise tomatoes until I tried a freshly-picked summer tomato that was bursting with flavor. I can now eat a plate of sliced tomatoes with some avocado, fresh basil, and a bit of cracked pepper on top. It’s one of my favorite summer salads.
- Replace sugary, high-fat sauces and dressings with herbs, spices, fresh lemon juice, and pureed fruits and veggies. Instead of a sugar-laden elixir of artificial ingredients (aka bottled salad dressing), try making your own at home. My favorite savory salad dressing is fresh lemon juice, chopped green onion, nutritional yeast, cracked black pepper, and a dash of cayenne. I shake it up in a small jar, and that’s it! No special tools required.
- Purge your kitchen of sabotaging foods, including heavily processed, high-fat, and sugary items. If they’re in your kitchen - staring you in the face, begging to be eaten - you will likely cave! If you have a strong craving for something sweet and naughty, your incidences of indulging will likely decrease if you have to leave the house for it.
- Find some websites that offer a variety of whole food, plant-based recipes. (I love yumuniverse.com.) Aim to try a new recipe each week. Plan ahead, write a grocery list, and make a meal plan. Most importantly, experiment and have fun!
- Give it time, be gentle and kind with yourself, and enjoy the process of re-training your palate. This is about making progress, not being perfect.
Finding the Right Approach
When I talk to people about re-training their palate, the first question they always ask is, “how long will it take?” Well, it really depends on your approach to replacing garbage food with whole food. Some people refer to this as eating a clean or whole foods diet, which means cutting out processed foods and reducing sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats in favor of whole foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. For me, my transition to a plant-based diet was gradual. It started with at least one big salad a day for lunch, even if I had pizza for dinner. I didn’t look at that as failure; I looked at my choices as progress. I figured a meal of a large salad followed by an unhealthy dinner choice was better than my previous habits of multiple trips to the drive-thru each day. In my book, I was doing better than I was before and really focusing on the positive direction in which I was headed.
On the other hand, some people like a good challenge and can take the all-or-nothing approach. This means cutting out all the bad stuff and only eating all good stuff - all the time. While some are successful going this route, I've found that it can make people feel too restricted and deprived, which leads to rebellion! Those devious cravings take over, sabotage any progress, which leads to feelings of failure, and we throw in the towel and accept the conclusion that eating clean, “just isn’t for me.” I’ve been in those yo-yo phases, which are not good for us physically, mentally, or emotionally. A love-hate relationship with all food – the healthy and unhealthy – is a recipe for dietary disaster.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to re-training our palate and learning to love healthy food, always remember this: The more you eat something, the more you want it. Right now, if you’re eating lots of processed, unhealthy food, you’re going to want more – and more. However, if you begin to eat more fruits and vegetables, you will soon be craving salads, smoothies, and an abundance of healthy, nourishing foods. If you really make a commitment to eating more whole foods, your palate will eventually be trained too! Your preferences will change with time, and though some of those old cravings may never completely go away, you’ll eventually be more in control of your food and your health.