One of, if not the, key aspect of food for most people is taste. The sensation of a good taste is a prized experience, something which we devote a substantial part of our attention when it comes to food. For some meals, it might be the only consideration. To define my terms here, when I refer to “taste”, I am referring to the physical sensation you experience when holding food in your mouth as well as the larger sensation of wellbeing that you experience when eating what your body wants you to eat at that moment.
My completely unsupported theory is that when it comes to food, there are three fundamental factors in play. In order of survival priority:
1) Calories. You need to have enough energy to survive.
2) Nutrients. You need to attain enough vitamins and minerals to maintain your body.
3) Poison. Don’t eat something that will kill you obviously, but also avoid things that are merely detrimental without being instantly fatal.
Taste is one tool that has evolved in order to assist us in handling these three fundamental food factors. It rewards us for eating something when we are hungry and attain calories. It gives us hints as to what we should eat to attain the necessary nutrients. It warns us when we put something in our mouths that will cause harm.
Ideally, taste would serve only to help us accomplish healthy living, but this is an ultimate goal. Proximately, we are driven only to eat what tastes good, and taste is something that easily loses its calibration. Therein lies the problem.
Taste can be trained by experience, as evidenced by the phrase, “an acquired taste”. We train ourselves to like the way something tastes over time, which overrides taste’s natural function. Rather than serve as a tool to assist our survival, it becomes corrupted by the socialization process and begins to drive us to eat things we have trained ourselves to want to eat. When this happens, we find ourselves with a very powerful physiological and even emotional attachment to the foods we have been trained to eat over time.
This process begins when we are children. We are weaned from milk and begin eating solid food, very likely some sort of baby formula. These formulas are inevitably carbohydrate based, and while they provide adequate nutrition for survival, they do not provide optimal nutrition for health. One can see evidence of this in every child that requires braces, every child that requires glasses, every child that suffers from any chronic illness not caused by some environmental factor. We did not evolve to have poor eyesight, bad teeth, narrow noses and allergies, and when you examine populations eating their traditional, primitive diets, you discover that these ailments occur at vanishingly small frequencies in chidlren. (1)
But railing about childhood nutrition isn’t the point of this post. The purpose of illustrating the failure of early nutrition is to point out that this must inevitably train our sensation of taste to accept a certain class of foods. Our taste is thus trained to fail at its second most important function – indicating nutrient rich foods – almost from birth. It’s important to point out that adequate calories are almost always provided by these diets. Our taste is being successfully trained in its primary goal – to drive us to seek food which provides energy. It simply is not being taught how to recognize the second, and arguably failing to detect the third.
It’s also important to recognize that we likely have an evolutionary urge to eat carbohydrate rich foods such as fruits. Fruits, being mostly seasonal and far less sugary in evolutionary times than at present, would likely never have served as a staple food in our diet. However, they would be available seasonally, and would be a rich source of energy. We would gorge on fruit for a time, which would likely coincide with the end of a time of bounty. We’d fatten up due to the insulin spike and fructose, and thereby be prepared with adequate fat for the lean season that would follow. By feeding that urge early, we train ourselves to give in to it constantly, well beyond the ability of our bodies to handle the carbohydrate intake.
This is reinforced as we grow older through various social conventions. Celebrations inevitably involve food, and the most prized food for any child weaned on sugar-rich formula is almost always sugar-rich. We crave birthday cake, cookies, ice cream, candy – our taste, trained to seek out sugar, drives us blindly towards foods which fail utterly to provide even a semblance of nutrition. As we go through our lives, foods will come and go as the object of our obsession, but our bodies never forget the lesson they learned early on – seek calories and seek sugar.
That taste is addictive should not really be disputed by anyone. If you believe that food is not addictive, I challenge you to quit cold turkey. More seriously, if you believe that sugar is not addicting, I challenge you to quit cold turkey. If you believe that your way of eating is not addicting, I challenge you to change it radically overnight. You will find it both physiologically and emotionally difficult, having been trained over a lifetime to seek a certain spread of foods.
This brings me to the social aspect of taste. It is common to hear loud exclamations of satisfaction when one sits down to a large dinner. This is, after all, polite. You are complimenting the cook and the family on their excellent food, and sharing in the experience of that excellent food with people you are close to.
What remains unexamined is the way this social experience drives us to value foods. We are seeking taste sensations that we perceive as valuable because those around us are indicating that they are valuable. An American would find drinking the arterial blood of cattle revolting, perhaps even physically upsetting, whereas a Masai herdsman and his friends would pat their bellies and exclaim their satisfaction (or whatever the equivalent Masai way of showing contentment is). The blood is actually very nutritious, as it turns out, but we are incapable of appreciating that without proper training. As we sit around the table telling each other we are eating something good, we are participating in a social taste training ritual which tells us that what we are eating is good. What is lost here is that eating is not, fundamentally, about socializing. It’s about acquiring adequate calories and the optimal nutrient balance for health.
The modern American has completely lost that sense of food. We assume that we will get adequate calories and adequate nutrition, and so feel comfortable completely ignoring these aspects of food in favor of the social aspects or simply feeding our poorly calibrated taste buds. The results are not pretty. We get fat. We get sick. We get chronic illnesses. We have no energy so we eat five times a day in order to keep the sugar rush going until we finally overload our body's ability to handle insulin and get diabetes. By the end of our lives our intestines are scarred to the point where we often need supplementation just to get adequate nutrients. But we ignore all this, failing to make the connection, either willfully or because when everyone is doing something, it’s very difficult to think that there’s anything wrong with it, and thus we just don’t think about it.
Oh, sure, we count calories for a few months or read a headline about fat being bad and buy lean chicken breasts, or have a glass of red wine with dinner for the anti-oxidants. The truly dedicated exercise religiously and follow some health guru or another towards their random idea of optimal health. But we rarely give up that early training. We almost never escape the socialization of taste. In the end, we remain slaves to a sensation that is not providing us good guidance.
One of the most common things people ask me is how I don’t get tired of meat. It’s quite simple: meat is able to supply my caloric needs, is nutritionally complete, and is not a poison. Your body will not ever tire of something that is meeting its needs, once your taste sensation is re-calibrated to adequately sense those things. After only a month of eating an all meat diet, I can honestly say that I sit down to each meal with my mouth watering at the thought of what I’m about to eat. I can’t wait to eat another steak.
A further question I receive is something along the lines of, “well, why deprive yourself of things that taste good?” This question has two answers. The first is contained within the introduction post to this blog. The second is better served with a short illustration:
Imagine that you are walking through the park one day with your two-year old, when a man walks up to you. The following conversation takes place:
Man: So, have you given your kid heroin yet?
You: My god, no! Why would I do that?
Man: Because it’s such a great trip! Why would you deprive your kid of that?
Clearly, giving children heroin is a bad idea. It’s addictive and physically destructive, and a habit that you really don’t want to form in your two-year old. This more or less outlines my reasoning on food experiences. I know that chocolate double fudge cake is a good trip. A very good trip. But it’s also an addictive, physically destructive trip that fails utterly to provide me with any substantial nutrition.
I recognize that this is not a view shared by many, and is not the way people want to live their lives. It is, however, the way I’ve come to view food. The social aspect of food is dead to me, and I’m weaning myself away from my trained cravings as time goes by. Taste follows nutrition, rather than obstructing it – I’m training myself to enjoy the taste of that which is healthy. For me, good food is that which provides calories, nutrients and isn’t a poison. A blood rare unseasoned ribeye steak does all of these things – and damn does it taste good!
1 – Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Weston Price, the entire book