The other day, I tried a sip of my husband’s mocha coffee drink — and nearly spit it back out. The wafting chocolate smell had sucked me in, but the syrupy sweetness of the stuff practically made me gag. “Blech! How can you drink that?” I asked.
“What do you mean? It’s good!” he replied. And to him, it is.
Zack doesn’t seem to mind sweet drinks, because he’s accustomed to them. My taste buds, on the other hand, sensitized by years of low-sugar experience, find that a little sweetness goes a very long way.
One contributing factor may be that I grew up on my mom’s cooking, a key tenet of which involved routinely halving the suggested quantity of sugar in any given recipe. We never had soda or store-bought sweets in the house. Dessert was an occasional treat, or the result of a long bike ride to the store to spend a hard-earned quarter, not an everyday expectation.
Back then, I liked sweets as much as the next kid, but I grew up thinking they were something special. And as I got older and started learning more about the negative health effects of sugar, I decided to make them an increasingly rare indulgence.
I still enjoy a little dark chocolate now and then. Ice cream? Once in a while. And there is this crazy ginger-crunch thing my mom makes that I apparently have no natural capacity to resist. But aside from that, sweet things have largely lost their appeal for me.
And I’m fine with that. Because it turns out that sugar in virtually any form tends to fuel inflammation, and thus disease. Yes, sugar is a source of energy. But whether eaten as cane sugar, beet sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, lactose — or even as flour that is quickly broken down by the body into sugar (glucose) — all sugars tend to spike insulin, raise cholesterol, and provoke both diabetes and heart disease. Eaten in excess, they breed yeast and fungal overgrowth, and negatively affect brain health and immunity. And most frighteningly, we’re now learning that sugar feeds cancer.
For all these reasons and more, I’ve continued to cut back my sugar intake. And my taste buds have adjusted accordingly. Today, even certain unadulterated fruits — like a ripe mango or pineapple — can easily cross my taste buds’ too-sweet threshold.
Similarly, as I’ve adjusted my eating habits over the years, many other flavors I used to deem crave-worthy have become somewhat repellent to me. Aromas emanating from drive-thrus I once found irresistible now seem nauseating and creepy. I find the chemical flavor of most packaged snacks off-putting. And most pastry platters and candy bowls hold all the appeal of paperweights.
By contrast, the smell of braising kale, simmering lentils, sliced cucumbers, fresh herbs and juiced lemons all make my mouth water.
I’m guessing these shifts in sensory perception mark my body’s return to an innate instinct about what does and does not serve it well. And I’ve heard the same story from countless friends — even the ones who grew up on a steady supply of junk food: The healthier they start eating, the more subtle their palates become, and the more delectable healthy foods taste to them as a result.
Of course, there’s more to our appetites and cravings than our taste buds (a point raised in both our feature on intuitive eating, and in Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl’s essay, “Crocodiles and Cinnabons”). But I think it’s not often enough acknowledged that embracing healthy foods — and avoiding less healthy ones — isn’t necessarily a matter of white-knuckled willpower.
Given half a chance, and given a break from the confusing torrent of processed foods to which we are exposed daily, I think our bodies are naturally inclined to adjust their tastes in healthier directions.
To each their own mocha, of course. But I’ll happily take my coffee like I take pretty much everything else — unsweetened.
Here’s to a beautiful winter season!