You may have noticed that a fair number of my posts are about food. This is partially because what we eat plays a large part in our overall health. And it is mostly because I really love food. I am passionate about food, and when I am passionate about something, I find that it’s generally easy to write about. So you are unlikely to read many posts from me about, say, accounting. But you’ll see plenty about health and medical topics, about my family, about music, about the great outdoors, and about food.
I come from a long line of folks with not-super-fast metabolisms. I can’t just eat however much I want of whatever I want while maintaining a healthy weight. And because of my medical training, as well as my special interest in nutrition, even if I did have one of those enviable metabolisms, I would still tailor my choices in a reasonably healthy direction.
Did I mention how much I love food? My taste has become significantly more refined (read: “picky,” “snobby,” or “obnoxious” as you deem fit) as I’ve aged. We are programmed to enjoy and crave butter, sugar and salt, but I’ve found that by practicing a few techniques, people can outsmart some of those drives and start to enjoy and crave foods that will have better long-term effects on their bodies.
One of these tricks I mentioned in my post about chili last month: go big with flavors. Splurge on a wide variety of high-quality spices and dried herbs. Smell them frequently. Open jars or bags of different spices, herbs and blends, hold them next to one another, and smell the combinations. So much of what we describe as taste is actually smell. Our taste buds can distinguish sweet, salty, sour and bitter, but anything you would describe as fruity, floral, nutty, smokey, or a myriad of other flavors is really related to its fragrance. Try closing off your nose for the duration of a couple of bites while you’re eating something you really enjoy, and you’ll realize how much of that taste is really due to its smell.
Practice combining herbs and spices. Have contests with your family to see who can guess the smells of the spices without looking. Describe the fragrances. Describe the flavors when you taste them. Try to discern the flavors when you eat what someone else has prepared, and see if your friends and family can discern which flavors you’ve added to the dishes you prepare. As the richness and complexity of flavor increases in what you cook, it’s amazing how quickly you discover that you don’t miss things like added salt or sugar.
As you’re really concentrating on the flavors and aromas of what you’re eating, focus also on the texture. What does the food feel like in your mouth? Is it crispy? Crunchy? Silky? Spongy? Smooth? Gritty? Chewy? Flaky? Tender? Tough? I’ve noticed that a lot of processed baked goods (boxed cookies and cakes from the grocery store, for example) actually have a very waxy, pastey texture when you really contemplate how they feel as you chew them. The hydrogenated oils and saturated fats give them this feel, and when you center your thoughts on it, it really doesn’t feel great. Contrast that with the feel of a bite of a fresh honeycrisp apple.
“That’s not fair,” you may say. “That’s comparing apples to oranges. Well, to cookies, actually. Not a reasonable comparison.” Perhaps. So try this: take a small spoonful of Jiff or Skippy or another similar standard peanut butter, and take a small spoon of a “natural” peanut butter made with only peanuts (and maybe a very small amount of salt – like 60 mg per two-tablespoon serving). Try the one just made with peanuts first. Hold it in your mouth, move it around with your tongue, breathe a few times while it is still in your mouth so that you get the full aroma and flavor. Notice how it feels in your mouth, and how your mouth feels after you swallow.
Now try doing the same thing with the Jif/Skippy or other standard peanut butter made with a long list of ingredients including hydrogenated oil. There’s an initial sweet taste (added sugar), and it doesn’t melt quite as easily in your mouth. There’s a bit of a waxiness or pastiness to the feel. And after swallowing, there’s a “coated” mouth feeling. And a bit of a plastic-y aftertaste.
If you’re not consuming frequent or large amounts of peanut butter, switching from one type to another is unlikely to have enormous health effects. But It helps to really focus on the details of flavor and texture of food in general. By focusing on these details, I have found that I like and crave far fewer types of foods than I once did. My pickiness serves me well. If I’m going to eat a cookie, it’s going to be a really good cookie. And really good cookies are encountered much less frequently in everyday life than mediocre or bad ones, so instances of temptation are drastically reduced.