If you allowed a group of toddlers to pick their own food, how do you think they’d cope? Most of us would probably expect them to get ill very quickly – having chosen to eat nothing but bananas, or cheese, or toast for weeks on end. Astonishingly, when scientists tested this out, they found that all of the children were able to select a healthy diet and to stay well for as long as the experiment lasted. (This worked so long as junk food wasn’t included in the choices – so no crisps, sweets, chocolate or biscuits – as these foods are scientifically designed to be addictive.)
So, how come that doesn’t seem to work for us adults? How come we no longer seem to be in touch with what our bodies need to eat? How come we gain weight, get high cholesterol, and succumb to diabetes? Why do our healthy eating instincts disappear as we age?The simple answer is that they don’t. They are still in there. But most of us need to make a couple of changes to get back in touch with them.
The first change is to wean ourselves off the addictive foods that tend to over-ride our instincts. Food scientists know that we’re hard-wired to seek out fat, salt, and sugar. Combine them in one food – whether that’s a salted caramel pudding or a burger with tomato sauce – and they have almost guaranteed commercial success.
The second change is to keep our bodies aware of what the choices are.
In Ayurvedic medicine, 6 tastes are distinguished:
Salty tastes – including sea-food, salty vegetables such as celery, seaweeds, and foods with added salt.
Sweet foods – which include not just sugary foods but bland, starchy foods like rice, and sweet fruits.
Sour foods – obviously many fruits, wine, and pickled foods but also most dairy produce.
Spicy, pungent flavours – not just hot curries, but mild spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, plus many herbs.
Astringent foods – these are foods that dry out your mouth or pucker it up – strong black tea, broad beans, lentils, soya – all have astringent properties.
Bitter foods – green vegetables like kale, cabbage and spinach, coffee, black chocolate, and olives, for example.
Ayurveda teaches that we each need to at least taste all 6 tastes every day to keep reminding out bodies of the options. Otherwise, we tend to pick the same two or three favourite tastes over and over, from habit. Our bodies then “lose the plot.” Have you ever known you wanted to eat something – but you didn’t know quite what? So you eat some biscuits – but that doesn’t work. You try an apple or a banana – but that doesn’t hit the spot, either. This is a clear indicator that your body has lost sight of the 6 tastes. So, it knows it wants something else – but can’t identify what. Once you make a habit of including all 6 tastes every day, you body can tune into what it needs with much more accuracy.
And the third step is to listen to what our bodies are telling us. When we feel hungry, it can be easy to just grab something on the go – a sandwich, a sausage roll, a cake, a packet of crisps. How often do we take a moment to ask our bodies what they want to eat? Something hot? Or cold food? Something crunchy? Creamy? Starchy? Something with a lot of protein? Or something light and juicy, like fruit or a salad? At the deepest level, we’re all wired for health. And rediscovering that can be as simple as eating the 6 tastes each day and then asking your body which ones it wants. Try it! You may be astonished to realise how clear your body’s awareness can get to be of exactly what it wants.