Ugh. We all know those “healthy desserts.” They look so tasteless. Lite foods tend to have a reputation as either less flavorful, or a scam. There are few desserts in the “truly healthy” category. Yet if you were to offer most people even the most decadent “healthy ice cream sundae”, they would probably find it “less satisfying.”
At the end of this blog post, I’m going to offer a recipe for just such an ice cream sundae. If you follow the steps in this post, it might just be the best ice cream you’ve had in a long time. Why? There are certain people who truly enjoy healthy foods foods. It’s not that they’re crazy health people. They’re not lying to themselves about flavor. They’ve actually discovered a secret: the human taste palette can change. It’s not even that hard to do.
I’ve watched people’s taste palettes change. It happened to me and I’ve seen it happen to others. There’s a simple, repeatable process to healthy eating. When you follow it for a couple weeks or more you begin to appreciate food differently. You find that heavy meals become overwhelming. Simple plants, nuts and other basic foods gain a whole new flavor. Sugar becomes unbearably sweet.
The best I can describe it is something like the Japanese flavor of “umami.” It’s an entire flavor profile which Western countries are largely unaware of. When tasting it, everything becomes bolder and more flavorful. Unfortunately, most people never experience this umami deliciousness. The simple diet below increases this sense. Like most good things, though, it comes with an (initial) price. Keep reading, though, and I’ll give you everything you need to enjoy food like you never have before.
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A Bitter Medicine?
Every time I’ve met someone who changed their taste palette, they based their diet upon a cornerstone of simple fibrous vegetables. This includes broccoli, spinach, kale, brussels sprouts, chard, eggplant, peppers, garlic, cucumber, celery, mushrooms, asparagus and limited amounts of tomatoes and squash (click for an exhaustive list). Notice that this does not include starchy vegetables (like potatoes).
If you’ve never cooked with these vegetables before you might be… put off by them. They are, admittedly, mostly bitter. Their flavor palette is far from what most people on the western diet are used to. Which is exactly why they are so necessary.
These foods are what humans are best-adapted to eat. All crops, like rice, are very modern inventions in the history of humanity. Sweet fruit and sugar were almost non-existent. For most of our history we subsisted on simple plants, nuts and the occasional meat. “Natural” doesn’t necessarily always mean “better,” but in this case there’s a lot of evidence that the modern diet is causing a huge amount of health problems. The effects of introducing the worldwide standard modern diet to a native population (such as aboriginal Australians) is well-documented and devastating.
More to the point, the standard modern diet has changed our taste palette so we cannot enjoy food as well. The purpose of this way of eating is to change it back. Notice that I call it a “way of eating” and not a “diet,” as well. This is because it only works if you stick to it consistently. Your palette will not change if you cheat.
With a dash of oil (olive, avocado or coconut) plus some spices, it’s possible to create a very lightweight stir fry with these vegetables. Throw in some eggs and you have an omelette. To start making the dishes more tasty, though, you’ll need some other flavors to balance these out…
“Beefing” it Up
Any lean protein source in combination with the above vegetables is generally good. When it comes to meat, this includes chicken breast, light-colored turkey, light-colored fish and muscles, eggs and a few others. Vegetarians are best off with seitan (though tempeh, tofu and other meat substitutes are all options). If the fibrous vegetables comprise 50% of the dish, then these meats or meat substitutes should generally be around 10-20% (these are all rough numbers).
Finally, the remaining 30% or so is beans and nuts. Curiously, there is some strong evidence to show that beans are correlated with long life. Nuts can add some weight and crunch to the meal, though they shouldn’t be overused. Think of them as a garnish, not a staple.
That’s pretty much it. It’s the basis for most meals. For condiments, anything with less than 25 calories per tablespoon and a no more than a gram or two of sugar is fair-game. Drinks should all water or zero-calorie equivalents (unsweetened coffee, tea, etc.). If none of this made sense to you, don’t worry. There are how-to guides below.
Now let’s look at how and why it works.
Everything I’ve written here is not my invention. It’s mostly cobbled together from a wide variety of nutrition advice. The best and most researched resources I’ve found are as follows (in order from most-approachable to most-researched):
- Michael Pollen (Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.)
- Tim Ferriss (the slow carb diet)
- Dan Buettner (Blue Zones)
- Mark Sisson (Mark’s Daily Apple)
- Lyle McDonald (body recomposition)
These individuals have done plenty of work demonstrating why this basic outline of a diet works, so I’ll defer to them.
Instead, let’s look at what happens to your taste palette when you follow it…
Does It Really Work?
The only time I’ve seen this approach fail is when someone broke the diet too frequently for their palette to adapt.
For some people, the habituation period can take a month. For others, it’s quicker. I’ve switched back and forth from this style of eating a few times (based on surrounding circumstances). It takes me about 2-3 weeks before my palette adapts.
Once it does, it becomes very easy to stay on this way of eating. I have found that I feel more satiated and energetic throughout the day. Simple blood-glucose tests confirm a more “even” blood sugar level. Combined with completely quitting caffeine, the “smoothness” of the energy throughout the day can be very pleasant.
Your New Taste Palette: An Owner’s Guide
It might take one week, two, or even a month. But eventually if you stick to the diets as explained in the books above, your taste palette will change. I’ve seen it happen to many people, and described by many more.
One of the first things most people notice is that sugary and fatty treats start to look less and less appealing. Donuts, for example, might suddenly seem overly decadent. If you do manage to take a bite, you might find it to be overpowering. The sugar is just too much.
The diet largely cuts out sugar. Even fruit is kept to a minimum. White bread/grains are out. What this means is that the simplest carbohydrates are all gone. Your body has to do real work to transform the vegetables, meat and oils into blood sugar (the fuel that runs our body). There’s no readily-available sugar to pump into the bloodstream (creating a high followed by a crash). Instead, the energy is released from the food little-by-little as it’s tirelessly digested.
This work done digesting also means you feel satiated longer. The food simply takes longer to process. It’s why Tim Ferriss doesn’t recommend any calorie-counting on the slow carb diet. As long as you stick to the allowed foods, it’s difficult to overeat.
The result of all this is that processed sugar tastes very intense. Candy bars and even sweet sauces really jump out.
It’s Not Just the Sweet
It’s not just about sweetness. You’ll find that the umami-like taste enhances your entire flavor palette. Many fast eaters naturally begin to eat slower in order to savor the experience more.
The bitter vegetables you started with become a pleasant counterbalance to buttery and oily flavors of beans, meats and nuts. If you add some spices, there’s no end to the tastes you can explore. I make a point of creating a slightly different omelette almost every morning.
This can be hard to do if you don’t have some experience cooking, I admit. There are local healthy food delivery options for the so-inclined, but they’re not a practical solution for many. If you like following recipes, you can google “slow carb recipes” or simply flip through cookbooks and remove/substitute where you see fit. If you have less cooking experience, I’ll again refer you to the above books for help getting started planning your meals.
The “Healthy Ice Cream Sundae”
Some nutritionists suggest a “cheat day.” I do not like this approach, for psychological reasons. Whenever I cheat, it resets my taste palette. Suddenly sweets might seem appealing again.
Instead, I prefer limited amounts of well-considered “healthy dessert foods.” These, admittedly, generally require a lot more work. The “healthy ice cream sundae” requires a relatively obscure brand of ice cream. There are ways you can make it from scratch, but I won’t get too far into it here. The basic fact is that ice cream can be made with protein powder, coconuts instead of milk, etc. Compared to “regular” ice cream, it’s got somewhere between 1/4 and 1/10 the amount of calories. Better yet, it has an even smaller percentage of sugar. It may taste a bit light or airy, but it certainly tastes like ice cream to a sweet-deprived palette. Here’s one such ice cream from my local market:
To make this ice cream sundae complete, you can also find very high percentage chocolate. Look for something sweetened naturally (like with palm sugar as opposed to processed sugar) and a very small amount of total sugar on the nutrition facts (less than 8 grams or so). Again, this can be hard to find, and you may need to shop at a specialty grocery store:
Finally, you can heat some coconut oil, melt the chocolate in the oil, and pour it over the ice cream. The result is, and I’m not exaggerating, delicious. It tastes as good to me as a chocolate ice cream sundae ever has (and I should know — they’re my weakness).
It all comes from the changed taste palette. The “healthy sundae” doesn’t reset the palette, so if I have one in the evening it only added a few grams of sugar to my overall diet. A couple times a week, this is negligible (especially when compared to huge cheat days).
It works well for me, and I hope it will for you, too. The science and practice here is nothing new, but it’s taken me a long time to realize these simple rules about my diet.