Sunday, January 30, 2011

Vegetarians Who Hate Vegetables, Help Is Here!

I have a guilty pleasure for watching The Rachael Ray Show, but sometimes it pans out. Last week, I learned about classifications based on taste buds. One group of people, called supertasters, naturally hates bitter tasting foods like vegetables. We simply have more taste buds, so we are more sensitive to all kinds of tastes. One young audience member had a diet just like my old, omnivorous one: white pasta with butter and cheese, and chicken nuggets. About a quarter of the population has this issue. That's a lot, and there is no reason to think such people are less likely to be vegan. After all, not hating vegetables is not usually a primary reason for veganism.

This brings us to a unique challenge: While everyone should consume vegetables for a long, healthy life, vegans need them more. Without bitter vegetables and other whole foods, we can fall short of nutritional needs. Besides, what is left, besides whole grains and fruits, are unhealthy processed foods and meat/dairy substitutes. This can also be a disaster socially, since well-meaning omnivores inevitably think of salad and roasted vegetables when they hear "vegan." For a supertaster, you can be faced with the painful dilemma of either turning down a sincere attempt at catering to you, or suffering through a disgustingly bitter plate of food. You want to learn to work around that.

I have not tested myself scientifically, but supposedly all you have to do is dye your tongue with blue food coloring. The more blue you see on your tongue, the fewer taste buds you have. If barely any of your tongue is stained, that means you are a supertaster. But you really don't need any test. If foods that others enjoy have seemed too bitter, sweet, salty, or sour to you for your whole life, then you probably are a supertaster.*

Fortunately, there are ways to ease yourself into healthy eating. They are not painful and they will not break your budget! Ultimately eating more vegetables will make you healthier, save you money, and make your life easier, so it's worth the effort. The key is not to force it, and to make sure that eating is pleasurable.

  • Start with what you already like, and build onto it. Adding kale or spinach to a favorite vegetable soup will hardly be noticeable. But after a few helpings, you might be able to tolerate it on pizza. And someday you might be able to eat it steamed with nothing but garlic and oil to flavor it! The idea is that 10-15 exposures will get you accustomed to a food. Looking up yummy photos of the food can't hurt either.

  • Use a little spice. If you have favorite spices, use them to their full power. Otherwise, look up recipes to get used to common flavor combinations and see which you like most. You can also try healthy condiments like nutritional yeast or natural ketchup and mustard. Apparently, salt is a good way to leech out bitterness. It is also easily available and often iodized, which is great news for low budget vegans. But use salt sparingly because it is far from a health food.

  • Eat with someone who loves vegetables in all forms. I learned in a developmental psychology class that children will typically be begging to try a food if they watch you enjoying it on several occasions without pressuring them. I say, let's apply that to ourselves and watch people enjoy vegetables. In nature, we avoid bitter foods because they might be toxic. But if your friend eats broccoli five times and is still thriving, you're probably okay to try it, right?

  • Set some goals. It might help you if you choose one particularly beneficial vegetable at a time to incorporate into your diet. That way, you can experiment with it in various foods, and you will not feel overwhelmed. If you fail, try, try again. Seeing as these foods prevent cancer, in some ways it really is a life or death situation.

  • If all else fails, deceive yourself. Kale in your soup shouldn't bother you, but if it does, you might have to trick yourself. It's very important to get your vegetables in somehow, even if you hate them. So experiment with deceivingly nutritious desserts, toss a small part vegetable into a fruit smoothie, or throw a vegetable for good measure into pretty much anything you're blending up.

I myself am only in the first steps of this journey. I have been eating progressively more vegetables since becoming vegetarian 6 years ago, but I still gag when I eat most of them not covered in sauce. Now that I know it comes from my taste buds though, I am not beating myself up (or my mother) over it so much anymore. Hopefully I can try some of these experiments myself and report back.

*Notes on tastebuds: The four aforementioned tastes, and supposedly "umami" or MSG, are the only ones affected by taste buds. Any others, more rightfully dubbed "flavors," are purely based on the textures and/or smells of the food. Sensation of smell (and thus flavor) does decline with age, but taste usually does not.

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