You’ve heard of the word ‘moreish’. It’s used to describe foods that make you want to have more of them. What sorts of foods usually earn this label? Let’s face it; it’s not healthy stuff like apples, broccoli, chicken breast or lentils. It’s usually biscuits, ice cream, crisps or sweet things. I used to find those cheesy crackers called ‘Cheddars’ incredibly moreish. I’d find it difficult not to finish the packet.
So what’s going on? Why do we find it difficult to stop once we’ve started? Why don’t we find broccoli moreish? It’s your taste buds: your palate.
In this post we’ll describe what’s going on with your palate and give you some tips on how to educate your taste buds.
It’s your genes
Our annoying genes make it easy for us to put on weight and hard for us to take it off!
Our genes haven’t changed at all since the days when we were hunting, gathering and generally spending most of our time finding our next meal. Food wasn’t plentiful like it is today. Our genes evolved to encourage us to make the most of edible bounty we discovered. That makes sense. If we were never sure where the next meal was coming from, it was clearly advantageous to make the most of opportunities to feast.
Our genes also predisposed us to like sweet, fatty, salty foods: basically, energy dense foods. That also makes sense: if food is scarce, you’ll do better gobbling up more calories.
What’s going on in the brain?
When we eat something sweet, for example, our brains receive a wash of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which makes us feel good. We call this a reward response. It’s a feeling we like and we want to experience it again. How can we reproduce it? Not by eating broccoli, that’s for sure. More sweet or calorie dense food, that’s the answer. Seeking out these gratifying foods becomes an unconscious behaviour.
Over time, as this feeding behaviour continues, the brain becomes less receptive to those feel-good neurotransmitters. Once that happens, the only way to reproduce the reward response is to generate more neurotransmitters by having more of those foods. Before you know it, you only derive pleasure from these types of food. Blander, calorie sparse food starts to taste less pleasant, even unpleasant. It’s easy to develop cravings or become addicted to high calorie foods, because only those foods will produce the same reward response that you crave.
You can also derive comfort and satisfaction from feeling full, so we tend to eat a lot until the stomach stretches enough to switch off the ‘hungry’ hormones. If you get used to that full feeling, then only a stomach that full will produce the same satisfaction. Eat a smaller meal and it doesn’t do the job. If you fill your stomach with calorie dense food, you’re going to take in a lot more calories than if you fill it with veggies.
Social consequences of our primal palates
Of course, we’ve always had this ability to get addicted to sweet stuff. The difference now is that high calorie processed food is readily available and activity levels are lower. It’s easy to see how we have ended up with a large percentage of the population being obese. Most of the food that creates addictions is calorie dense, highly processed, convenient, cheap and aggressively marketed. It wasn’t long ago that our local supermarket in Northampton had an array of sweets and chocolates strung along by the belt at the checkout. It was there to entice shoppers into a last minute impulsive purchase of something they generally crave.
You never saw broccoli at the checkout! A lot of the food that’s calorie sparse and good for you is more expensive, less convenient and not promoted.
Once you are addicted to high calorie and sweet food, it’s difficult to get over it. Even a lot of weight loss approaches, like Weight Watchers, recognise this. You still get to eat ‘your favourite foods’, because it’s difficult to shake off a predilection for the energy dense stuff.
Eating strategies to conquer your genes
Educate your palate
You can educate your palate and change your taste buds to generate the same reward response from healthier, more calorie sparse foods.
Educate your taste buds
First of all, stop eating the foods that have been overstimulating your taste buds. Those foods have caused your brain to down regulate its sensitivity to your neurotransmitters. As with any addiction, you’ll miss it to start with. You’ll yearn for instantly gratifying foods. And you may even feel down. But battle through it and you’ll be better for it once you’re over it.
Next, teach your taste buds to like healthy unprocessed food. You may not like vegetables to start with, but persevere. It will help if you have completed the first step. The general view is that if you try a particular food 10 times, then you will come to enjoy it. If a baby turns its nose up at a particular food, you can persuade her to like that food by getting her to try it up to 10 times.
This has worked for me. I learned to love vegetables this way. Previously I used to smother them in sugary salty ketchup! As another example, I used to turn my nose up at olives and nuts. I didn’t touch them for years until recently. I now love them. In this instance, this liking didn’t come from trying and trying again. It came from having a palate that was not habitually over-stimulated by sweet or salty foods, so that I was able to appreciate the subtleness and variety of flavour in those new foods. My taste buds are attuned to more subtle flavours these days and I derive comfort and satisfaction from, and feel rewarded by, all the healthy foods that I eat.
You will find it difficult to educate your taste buds, or your baby’s palate, if the intensely flavoured processed foods are still part of your diet. Try to ditch them or keep them to very occasional indulgences.
Often your addiction is more to do with the habit then the object of that habit. If you have an ice-cream snacking habit before bedtime, for example, you should find that cope well with foregoing the ice cream, providing you keep the habit. To do this, keep the habit but find a substitute that is healthier and less calorie dense. For example, fresh berries with 0% Greek yoghurt, perhaps sweetened with calorie free sweetener, will do the trick in the case of ice cream.
Buy a stock of healthy foods that you can substitute for the naughty stuff. If you like sweet food, try strawberries, apples or oranges. Swap out the fruit juice and replace with real fruit. If you like salty crisps, try salted edamame or olives instead.
Feel fuller for longer
One of the problems with highly processed food is that it tends to leave you feeling hungry again sooner. Because it’s highly processed, it’s easy and quick to digest. And it will raise your blood sugar quickly, get cleared away quickly and may result in a blood sugar low. This can trigger ravenous hunger.
Foods that will sabotage your efforts include bread, breakfast cereal, easy cook white rice, white pasta, white potato flesh and, of course, the obvious like cakes, biscuits, sweets and pastries.
Instead, you need your meals to digest more slowly and keep you fuller for longer. This will help you educate your palate by preventing hunger and unhelpful eating habits.
Choose slowly digesting foods. Think fibre; vegetables, fruit, beans, lentil, chickpeas, wholegrains. And protein. Protein is filling because it’s harder to digest. You can still feel full and swell your stomach by eating these energy sparse foods. If you choose the right stuff, you can fill your face, feel very full and still not overconsume calories.
The wrap up
Your genes are not helping you to maintain a healthy weight. They want you to gobble up sweet and calorific food. But you can beat those pesky genes! Educate your taste buds to derive the same pleasure from unprocessed, calorie-sparse, healthy food. Eat slowly digesting, unprocessed filling meals to keep hunger and cravings at bay.
This eating approach also happens to be the best for weight loss, health, happiness and athletic performance. That’s important for us as personal trainers, because it allows us to simplify our nutrition advice and apply the same principles to all our clients. So it’s worth going through the discomfort of cold turkey to get over your unhealthy food addictions; it will improve your physical and mental health almost immediately and serve you very well in the long run.