Taste buds, those little bumps on your tongue that signal taste, actually have a profound role in your health and healing.
For our ancestors, taste buds were a very important tool for survival. Tasting food helped them detect the safety and nutritional value of foods. Bitter or sour tastes tended to signal poisonous or rotting foods, while salty and sweet tastes signaled foods that were nutrient-rich.
Today, our ability to taste is not as advanced as it was in ancient times. Without a drive for survival, the role of taste buds can get “dumbed down.” Instead of recognizing their power as a tool to detect balance and nutrition, we rely on them only as a source of pleasure or displeasure.
I think pleasure is very important when it comes to a healthy diet! But there are a lot of good reasons that focusing only on pleasure — and ignoring the mind-body signals taste buds can provide — can wreak havoc on your nutrition, your moods and your health.
Balancing Tastes To Reduce Cravings
In Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine, which are thousands-of-years-old systems of healing, taste buds are essential. Chinese medicine talks about the importance of five tastes (spicy, salty, sour, bitter, and sweet), while Ayurveda talks about six tastes (astringent, salty, sour, pungent, bitter, and sweet).
In both honored systems, the idea is that balancing these tastes is the key to feeling satisfied during and after eating. In other words, balancing the tastes can ward off cravings by bringing your body and mind into balance!
We experience these tastes first with our taste buds and then we get signals in our body and brain. Our taste buds play a role in emotions and kick off the digestive process. It’s a complex and highly sensory body-mind experience.
We may have forgotten this, but scientists and processed food manufacturers know it very well.
Real Food Makes You Feel Full ... Processed Food Doesn't
In the book Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World, author Greg Critser outlines how processed food manufacturers implemented a plan to get Americans to eat at least 200 more calories each day. Their plan included tricking people’s taste buds with just the right chemical mix of sweet and salty tastes to get them to crave and eat more and therefore, boost profits.
I found myself caught in this vicious cycle of cravings 15 years ago, when I suffered from bulimia, an eating disorder that involves episodes uncontrollable binging. One day, as I struggled between relapse and recovery, I ate some processed mashed potatoes.
At the time, I had just started a new practice of listening to my body and was still a bit wobbly on how to do it. Even though the processed mashed potatoes were made of “real potatoes,” I noticed that I did not feel satisfied.
Every cell in my body was screaming "more." That's when I began to sense the bottomless pit that comes from foods lacking in nutritional value and laced with chemicals.
Later that day, I ate a home-cooked meal of vegetables and quinoa. I listened into my body again. This time I felt deep satisfaction. My taste buds were satisfied because the meal was delicious, but beyond that, my body and mind felt grounded, balanced and centered.
That was the day I realized that food is a kind of affirmation. We can choose to eat foods that affirm a dissatisfied cry for more or foods that affirm a grounded, balanced, satisfied feeling. When we take food in, it sends strong signals to our mind and body, which science calls the gut-brain connection.
Today, my mission is to tell a new story about food. One that doesn’t talk about good and bad, but instead, reconnects you to your taste buds as the gateway to fulfilling your body’s unique needs. This is the first step to learning to trust your body; and recognizing that you do, in fact, have all the answers you need for your ideal diet and your best health.
Here are two important tips to get you started on your own "taste bud diet:"
1. Eat mindfully.
This is where you can benefit from the habits of our tribal ancestors. As you eat, make it a sensory experience: Look at the food, smell it, and taste it. Chew it well and feel it in your mouth. Give yourself a chance to sink into every bite without multitasking.
Really taste the food you’re eating and tune into your body to see if the food is working for you. Is it truly satisfying you? Go beyond your taste buds and notice if you’re experiencing a deep, grounding feeling. Does your body feel nourished and satisfied?
This is one of the greatest ways to reduce binge eating and cravings because with practice, you build a rapport with your body and are more drawn to what truly satisfies you.
2. Listen to your inner guidance.
Your body will give you signs and even put you in situations that allow you to learn how it works best, if only you’ll trust it! One of the easiest ways to listen to your body around food is to keep a food diary.
A food diary allows you to write down the foods you’re eating, along with any symptoms, emotions, and signals you have that day. Over the course of the next two weeks, you can see a relationship between the food you eat and your energy, moods, and physical symptoms.
You can learn more tips for eating mindfully, keeping a food diary, affirmations to support your health, and recipes that satisfy the six tastes in Loving Yourself to Great Health: Thoughts & Food – The Ultimate Diet.