Most of us know that increasing our intake of healthy, whole foods will improve our health and make it easier to achieve and maintain a healthy weight. So why is it hard to increase our intake of unprocessed foods and stick to a healthy diet?
Some common barriers that my clients identify in trying to eat healthier meals include:
- I don’t know how to cook.
- Eating healthy is too/more expensive. (This is a common misconception.)
- I don’t have time to cook.
- Healthy food is boring/doesn’t taste good.
- I don’t like vegetables.
I could comment on all of these common misconceptions, but I’m going to focus on the last two.
It’s completely normal to have food preferences. For developmental and evolutionary reasons, humans tend to prefer sweet and salty foods instead of sour and bitter foods. Yet many of the most nutritious foods (leafy, non-starchy vegetables and fermented foods) are sour and/or bitter. Children have a relatively basic, unsophisticated sense of taste. This partly explains why most children tend to have similar foods on their “will not eat” lists.
But as we get older, most of us expand the number of foods we like or will eat as our taste buds mature and we are exposed to more variety. However, even the least picky eater usually has a small list of foods that he or she doesn’t like or won’t eat.
Sometimes, this is because of taste. For certain foods, the way our taste buds interpret the flavor of a food is genetic. For example, a certain portion of the population won’t eat cilantro because it tastes like soap to them. An article in The New York Times explains this in more detail (and shows why it may be possible to overcome a cilantro aversion).
Other reasons for food preferences include dislike of certain textures, negative memories associated with eating a specific food or group of foods, never having eaten a certain food prepared correctly, and/or a lack of exposure to a cuisine or food.
But one of the keys to long-term weight management and reduced disease risk is eating a variety of healthy and colorful (especially plant-based) foods. So how do we increase the number of healthy foods in our diet if we consider ourselves a picky eater or are pretty sure we don’t like the taste of most plant-based foods?
James Clear recently wrote an article on his blog about shoshin, the Zen Buddhism concept of “beginner’s mind” or studying a subject with an attitude of complete openness. You can read that article here.
The concept of shoshin can be helpful for many areas of study, but I think it can be especially useful as a way to change or improve your eating habits by eating more healthy foods.
If you assume that you know exactly which foods and flavors you like and don’t like and that your preferences can’t change over time, it will be close to impossible to widen the variety of healthy foods that you eat. And without variety, healthy eating becomes less interesting and sustainable and can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
Applying a beginner’s mind or shoshin mentality to healthy eating means that you are open to changing your opinion about whether you like a particular food, cuisine, or flavor. Except for foods that you have a known intolerance or allergy to, try foods as though it is for the first time – and be open to changing your opinion of them. Be adventurous and try some new foods, cuisines, and flavors. Give yourself permission to change your preferences!
A few practical ideas for adding new plant-based foods in to your diet:
- Let someone else prepare food for you. I think this is one of the best and easiest ways to challenge your food preferences. Find a restaurant where the chef knows how to correctly cook vegetables, grains, and other plant-based foods. It’s amazing how different many plant foods taste when they’re cooked in a way that maximizes their flavor and texture. Look for a vegetarian restaurant or a “farm to table” style restaurant as the menus usually focus on fresh, seasonal produce. Doing this has added quite a few new foods to my repertoire and has inspired me to make similar dishes at home.
- Ask for samples! The next time you go to the grocery store or farmers’ market, ask if you can try an unfamiliar fruit or vegetable. I’ve had some really great conversations with farmers and produce department employees – and learned a lot - as a result of asking what an unfamiliar fruit or vegetable tastes like or how to cook it (and they’ve always been willing to cut one open and let me try it). If you don’t like the taste or texture, you won’t have wasted any money, and you can still say you’ve tried something new and will feel more adventurous as a result.
- Try a new fruit or vegetable when it’s in season. Produce has the best flavor, texture, and nutrient density (and costs the least) when it’s fresh and grown locally. If you don’t like the taste or texture when it’s at its peak, I think you can safely put it on your list of foods you don’t like. For example, I’ve never liked papayas, not even when I’ve been in parts of the world where they are picked right in front of me and served fresh. So I let myself off the hook on that one and focus on the fruits I do like.
- Be willing to try a new food more than once. You may not like a new fruit, vegetable, or grain the first time you try it (even if it is fresh and/or cooked correctly). So be willing to try it a second, third, even fourth time. Our taste buds do adjust over time, so you may grow to like a food that you didn’t love the first time you tried it. But if you’ve given a food a fair chance and still don’t like it, let it go and move on to a different new food. There are plenty of healthy foods out there!
If you want to improve your eating habits, I’m here to help! I offer Lifestyle OT treatment for weight, disease, and/or pain management. I also offer Health Coaching services and teach Food for Life classes. And I constantly challenge myself to try new plant-based foods to keep eating interesting and nutritious!