Can Our Taste Buds Have Orgasms?

This question begins with two stories: one about cauliflower and the other about an omelette.

First story: Being the harvest season, the cauliflowers are fresh and abundant. I microwave a head and serve it without adornment for dinner. The flavour is the essence of “cauliflowerness”: light, slightly sweet, delicious. I rhapsodize about it to the spouse.

He says, “It tastes like cauliflower.”

“But,” I remonstrate with him, “the taste is delicate and lovely.”

And he replies, “It still just tastes like cauliflower.”

Second story: We’re in a restaurant and both the spouse and I order omelettes. His is a cheese omelette; mine, plain. But the waiter, by mistake, gives me the the wrong omelette. Not realizing what has happened and not really looking to check, I take a large forkful, bite down, and…

POW! An intense and incredibly pleasur-able, salty, cheese-y taste explodes in my mouth. The thrill of it suffuses through my body. I swear I can feel it in my toes.

And not only am I hit hard, I want more of it of that creamy, salty, and rich flavour. Boy, do I want more. It takes all I have to push the dish over to the spouse and say, “This is yours.”

Cauliflower vs. Melted Cheese

So…two different eating experiences with two very different physical responses. The cauliflower provided mild pleasure; the melted, processed cheese…well, I believe I reacted so powerfully for two reasons: 1) I wasn’t used to food that is high in fat and salt; and 2) I wasn’t prepared for it.

But what really bothered me about these two events was that, while I enjoyed the cauliflower, I craved that omelette even though it was chockful of things that were not good for me and my diet.

Unfortunately, nature wants us to crave fat, sugar, and salt.

This was a state of affairs that worked well for our primitive ancestors, the hunter-gatherers, who had to run after prey to survive. In those days, any food was good because people needed all the calories they could get. Briefly, fat put calories “in the bank,” sugar provided instant energy, and salt regulated many body functions.

Fast forward to now when our prey is in the nearest grocery store. We don’t need all the fat, sugar, and salt that we intake. But, because of the primitive, hard-wired circuitry of our brains, the cravings remain, big-time.

So…can our taste buds have orgasms?

That mouthful of melted cheese sure felt like an orgasm of my taste buds or, at the very least, an incredibly intense pleasure. Clearly, there is a direct path from mouth to brain to nerve endings. No wonder those of us who diet can have our oh-so-sturdy will-power collapse before an onslaught.

Even worse: eating one fatty, salty, and sugary bite will never suffice. Dr. David Kessler, in The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable North American Appetite, says that scientists talk about food in terms of its “palatability,” which is measured by how “food engages the full range of senses…[and] involves the motivation to pursue that taste. It is the reason we want more.”

In other words, our cravings for foods with fat, salt, and sugar get more intense the more we eat them. And “hyper-palatable” food such as melted cheese, potato chips, cookies, and so on results in “conditioned hypereating”—a situation in which we can’t stop eating because these foods give us such pleasure, calm us down, and make us feel good.

And here’s the worst and most ironic news: “…a diet with unlimited junk food desensitizes the pleasure centers of the brain..and researchers think this might be the underlying cause of obesity and binge eating.”(2010 study reported by Natural News)

Or to put it another way, the more we eat foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt, the less pleasure we feel. Thus we keep seeking out and eating more and more hyper-palatable foods trying to get that original thrill.

So…are we fighting an uphill battle when we want to eat a healthy diet that allows us to achieve a good weight? Yes. Will we ever reach the top of this hill? My experiences tell me that it’s not likely.

However, we can make the battle less frequent and intense by taking control away from the enemy—those hyper-palatable foods and the food manufacturers and retailers who are so eager to sell them to us.

Four Strategies

Dr. Kessler says there are ways to minimize that “clash of titans”, i.e., the conflict between your cravings and your will-power. Briefly,

  1. Awareness: Know the enemy, know its tactics, and know when you’re in a dangerous situation. For example, I avoid those aisles in the grocery store that carry foods that entice me, and I never go into bakeries, even ones that carry gluten-free products.
  2. Competing Behaviours: Develop different responses than your habitual ones. Walk away from the fridge instead of toward it. Create “a road map to guide you through high-risk settings” such as parties, restaurants, and so on. My strategy is to consider desserts as art forms for appreciative viewing rather than consumption.
  3. Competing Thoughts: Try to focus on your long-term health and weight goals. For example, I have an overwhelming craving for carob chips. When I go to the store, I can’t allow myself to think: “I’ll just buy some to bake x, y, or z” because I’ll buy more than I need and…well, you know the rest. Instead I force myself to think: “I can’t buy those; they’re too dangerous.”
  4. Find Helpful Support: WWers know how important this is. Hearing stories about how others have taken control of their cravings shows you that you’re not alone, helps reinforce your own desire to be in control, and provides you with strategies against hypereating.

Do you have any great strategies for that uphill battle? Please share!


6 thoughts on “Can Our Taste Buds Have Orgasms?

  1. After reposting this on my Twitter, Facebook, and Blog, I decided I should comment. I love this entry: you did your research, the writing was good, and of course the title was compelling. It gives me a lot to think about as I venture into Weight Watchers land.

    But not all Orgasms are created equal, I would think. Give me chips and guac and cheese over cheesecake any day! 🙂

    • Thanks for enjoying and commenting. And thanks for reposting! You are absolutely right. Pleasures are not equal and orgasms are different. But it seemed important to me that people realize how hard-wired we are to eat foods that are not good for us, that undermine our will-power, and that make dieting so damn difficult. 🙂

  2. One of my favorite things to do with a cauliflower is to steam it whole. I just cut out the core from the bottom and place it in a large cast-iron pot with about 1/2 inch of boiling water and a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar, then reduce the heat to a simmer. But, before I cover the pot, I sprinkle a generous sprinkle of really good paprika over the whole head. I’ve experimented with smoked paprika, and it tastes like I did it in a pot on a grill. The paprika adds a layer of flavor, and using smoked paprika adds yet another layer. I’ve also done it with curry, cinnamon (not so good), garam masala (excellent), and allspice with a tablespoon of coconut milk in the water instead of the vinegar. There are a whole bunch of ways to re-imagine a head of cauliflower, including, the always popular mashed potatoes…er…cauliflower, making it just like mashed potatoes with some caramelized onions and paprika. If you love this vegetable as much as I do, you might try some of these variations. They will always taste a bit like cauliflower (your spouse will always know), but you (he) might grow to like it on its own merits.

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