Nourishing Intuition

When I was 15, I developed an eating disorder. My eating had already been somewhat disordered before that, but it reached a point where it developed into a calorie-counting, food restricted obsession. I know I’m not alone in this — 70 million people (mostly women but not only women) are affected by eating disorders globally, though this number may be an underestimate given that stigma often imparts a certain unwillingness to talk about it.

For a few years, I battled away with it, making minor improvements, then relapsing. It became a part of me, a part of my identity, this ongoing struggle to have a healthy relationship with food. I consulted diet books, naturopaths and doctors, seeking advice that I felt I so badly needed.

After a particularly troublesome period at 19, I decided that it was time to take matters into my own hands; to develop a deeper relationship with food, one that I could actively participate in without thinking. I had seen other people (who were both happy and healthy) just eat for pure enjoyment — no calorie counting or macro breakdowns needed. They seemed to have an intuitive relationship with food.

In his book Nourishment, Fred Provenza argues that all animals — including humans — have an inbuilt, intuitive nutrition system. It’s just that we humans are out of touch with it.

Years of working as an animal behaviouralist researcher led him to this view. Animals don’t need to be told what food they should or shouldn’t eat. Both wild and domestic herbivores learn to eat combinations of food that not only satiate their hunger, but nourish them as well, avoiding those that cause them harm. When lacking in a vitamin or mineral, they eat more of a food that contains it to correct the deficiency. When they have something in excess, they cut it out of their diet. They don’t need a nutritionist or doctor to tell them how to do this — they learn to pay attention to each food and how it interacts with them, until it becomes intuitive.

This kind of intuition comes from implicit knowledge, acquired over a lifetime of paying close attention to their food. Contrary to popular belief, most animals aren’t born “just knowing” what food to eat. They listen closely to their own internal signals from an early age and act (eat) accordingly.

Humans, on the other hand, have a tendency to focus on how particular nutrients work in isolation. We count calories, test, reduce, diagnose — then pop a pill rather than correct our diet, ever looking for the quick fix.

As a result, the flavour-feedback relationships that ought to guide us are overlaid with static. Agricultural “advances” have obliterated the relationships with the land that have nourished and moulded us as a species. And we have become culturally indisposed to nurture a strong and steady relationship with food.

The conclusion that I came to, all those years ago, was that I would have to re-train myself, to think intuitively about food.

It hasn’t been a simple process. It’s been arduous, long and tedious. At times I’ve seemed to be walking close to the edge of a very narrow precipice.

But it has also been incredibly enlightening and enlivening; stabilising. A journey of discovery of the world around me – and also of the self.

Our sense of taste serves two main functions. The first is to evaluate foods for toxicity and nutrients so that we can decide what to ingest; the second is to prepare the body for metabolism of food.

Though the prevailing belief has long been that tastebuds could only detect five basic flavours (salty, sweet, bitter, sour and umami), more recent research shows that fat and calcium are both detectable as flavours in their own right, alluding to a more sophisticated sense of taste than previously thought.

But we do not only only detect flavours through our tastebuds; we also feel them (temperature, texture, pain), smell them(through the interaction of volatile compounds with our olfactory senses) and hear them (snap, crackle and pop). And we can develop expectations of flavour based on the sight of food.

We are born with the ability to taste and prefer certain foods. Foods that are absorbed via amniotic fluid during our time in the womb are tasted. We become accustomed to them and, even as babies, show preferences for them.

Infants and young children tend to have an innate preference (seemingly genetic) for moderately sweet sensations and umami (e.g. mother’s milk), possibly because they are conducive to growth and development. Weak salty tastes are preferred, seemingly because salt helps to maintain homeostatic balance. Bitter flavours—commonly associated with toxins — are avoided.

Children’s likes and dislikes are also mediated by exposure in early life, when they have taste buds in more areas of the oral cavity and more taste buds overall compared to adults. Training sensory perceptions of taste is particularly important during the first six months after birth, after which it becomes increasingly difficult to alter perceptions of taste. However, learned associations can reverse innate responses and re-define perceived palatability of foods through, for example, repeated exposure in supportive environments.

There also seems to a be a sensory capacity to detect and correct deficiencies in the diet from an early age. Protein malnourished children and infants prefer soup with added glutamate (one of the most abundant amino acids) to unfortified soup or soup with added sugar. It’s thought that the umami flavour associated with glutamate acts as a sensory cue to the presence of protein.

Our senses cannot “think” for themselves — they communicate their experiences through a series of complex interactions with the brain. Taste buds, for instance, release neurotransmitters that enable intercellular communication, creating signals that ascend to parts of the brain not only responsible for our conscious taste sensations, but also associated with attention, reward, emotion, multi-modal sensory integration, higher cognitive functions and decision making. An important aspect of how we assess flavours is perception of either pleasure or displeasure, to varying degrees; thus, within each of us is the capacity to not only recognise flavours but to also assign meaning to them.

Taste buds also play a role within our endocrine system by mediating hormonal responses to nutrient stimulation. Our bodies strive to maintain homeostasis of blood nutrients and metabolite levels; taste acts as an internal cue to the body to prepare for the ingestion of nutrients. For example, the activation of carbohydrate taste receptors prior to a large meal can trigger preabsorptive insulin release (PIR). This prevents a rise in insulin-dependent macronutrients — sugar and amino acids — by as much as 50%, increases glucose tolerance and negates the need for an excessive insulin response. Similarly, anticipatory responses to toxins based on intensity of bitter flavour have been shown to minimise poisoning, illness and death.

The complex nature of our evaluatory taste system is useful because it gives us an inherent ability to learn and adapt in challenging environments i.e. where known foods are scarce. This adaptive variability, coupled with nutritional flexibility, may even be the key to our success as a species.

As adults, we each have around 10 000 tastebuds. This is approximately a third less than in early childhood, though they are replaced every 9–15 days to compensate for damage and fortify our sense of taste. Preference for sweet foods recedes, and we become more accepting of bitter foods, in part due to their physiological benefits (bitter vegetables, chocolate) and metabolic effects (coffee, wine, beer). It seems that we come to a point where we rely on our experience and knowledge — our intuitive sense of what we should and should not eat to maintain optimal health — rather than by flavour alone.

However, if we are not exposed to a wide range of foods whose post-consumption consequences, either positive or negative, we come to associate with taste, then our foraging behaviour will be more limited. Indeed, dietary variation interacts with palate fatigue — sensory-specific-satiety — which is invoked to ensure that a range of foods are eaten. If our palates are not appreciative of a range of foods nor exposed to them, then satiety is overridden, resulting in overconsumption of hyper-appealing foods.

A narrow experience of our food has the additional consequence of our food knowledge being necessarily extrinsic, rather than intrinsic. We rely on the wisdom of others (scientists, dieticians, so-called “health gurus”, food companies and their marketing teams) to navigate one of the most personal acts of our lives — even though it’s something we undertake on a daily basis.

In this time when macronutrients are plentiful while micronutrients are scarce, it’s easy to understand how our sense of taste becomes bewildered. That which was once our greatest evolutionary weapon becomes the source of our demise.

Pre-agriculture, humans were hunter-gatherers. But we didn’t just sleep under the stars, roam the land for food and tell stories around a campfire. There were undoubtedly times when food was scarce for hunter-gatherers, but for the most part — until either population or climate pressures forced change — they do not seem to have suffered a lack of food.

Yes, that’s right, I said manage. Research on remaining traditional hunter-gatherer societies shows that they maintain symbiotic relationships with the land.

And in so doing, they create an intuitive intelligence around food.

They know that they will have food the next year — they’ve made sure of it. They know when and where it will come from, how it will grow and how much of it there will be. They know what they need to do to nourish themselves.

Perhaps most importantly, they cultivate and utilise a variety of different foods, each with different properties. They know that this is the way to make the best of the natural resources around them, ensure that their nutritional needs are met and maintain resilience in the ecological systems that feed them.

If we need a lesson in sustainable long-term natural resource management, food security and nutrition, we should be looking to them for inspiration.

Our (I’m assuming that you, like me, live in a Western society) own relationship to food — and the social and economic constructs that shape that relationship — took a very different path with the widespread introduction of agriculture 10 000 years ago. And our health and nutritional status deteriorated as a result.

According to author and ecologist Jared Diamond, agriculture was the worst mistake that we humans ever made. From it came “social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.”

Where before, everyone was involved in food acquisition and preparation, the widespread uptake of agriculture meant that food procurement and preparation have been left in the hands of the very few. Centralised governments were formed, income and gender inequality arose, densely populated settlements allowed for the rapid spread of disease. And gradually, as food has become grossly commodified, our ties with the land have become more distant. Our (intuitive) knowledge of our food has diminished.

One of the most common arguments for industrialisation and agricultural development is that it represents positive progression. Diamond, however, argues that they’re anti-progressive; it has not resulted in a progressive improvement in our quality of life but rather, the opposite.

A quick look at the lifestyle and diet of the Kalahari Bushman is revealing. Far from spending exhausting hours hunting and foraging to eke out a measly existence, the Bushman spends, on average, 12–19 hours per week obtaining food, while a day’s eating (in times of plenty) yields around 2 140 calories, 93 grams of which is protein (that’s around 17%). Their diet is diverse as well — 75 different plants alone are eaten. They have plenty of leisure time, sleep well and don’t work too hard. What’s more, they live happy, healthy lives.

This is not unique to Bushmen — observation of the remnants of other hunter-gatherer societies — for example, Hadza, Australian Aborigines and Tsimane — reveal that they too have a level of health that to many of us seems unattainable. And their excellent health is largely attributable to similar dietary characteristics (aside from just the fact that they’re eating “real” food), particularly those of variance and seasonality.

In comparison, the rest of the world relies on just three cereal crops for around 60% of energetic consumption. A total of 12 plant and five animal species provide 75% of energetic needs. (Knowing what we now know about palate fatigue, is it any wonder that we find it increasingly difficult to feel satiated?)

The majority of us live in cities, far from where our food is produced or obtained. There’s no such thing as “seasonal produce” in supermarket world.

Food is increasingly commoditised; we see it as a vehicle for economic growth. Productivity (quantity) is the gold standard by which we measure our “progress” in agriculture, rather than health and nutrition outcomes (indicative of quality), not to mention social equity and environmental resource management.

India, the home of the Green Revolution — touted as one of the greatest agricultural advancements in modern times — has the highest number of people suffering from hidden hunger (nutrient deficiency) in the world. Specifically, more than 50% of women of child-bearing age and 58.5% of children suffer from anaemia, while still more are at risk of developing it. Deficiencies in Vitamin A and iodine are also of concern.

Meanwhile, income inequality has been exacerbated, and India’s soil health is declining at a rapid rate, raising doubt over the long-term sustainability of producing… well, anything in India.

And if we look at numerous other examples to assess agricultural “progression” at other times throughout history, we can see that the resulting declines in measures of nutrition and human health are just as telling.

In a future holding the promise of lab grown meat and factory farmed crickets, our connection to the natural food systems that have sustained us and our ancestors for millennia is to be reduced further still.

Is it any wonder that we have lost the ability to think intuitively about food?

Cultural practices arise as a means of relaying acquired knowledge from one generation to the next. They act as “rules of thumb” that inherently inform and guide our actions on an ongoing basis.

With pertinence to food, culture plays an important role in determining what is — and is not — acceptable or safe to eat. Food culture is particularly important to humans because our nutritional flexibility allows us to choose what we might eat from a relatively diverse range of options — the “omnivore’s dilemma”.

When omnivores encounter a new, potentially edible food, they are faced with two constraining sentiments; neophobia, the fear of eating an unknown substance and neophilia, the desire to try new flavours.

Thus we can say that our nutritional intuition is deeply connected to our ongoing ability to access or practice our cultural traditions.

This is not to say that food culture is static. Gradual changes in food culture have been instrumental to our evolution from great apes to Homo sapiens. For example, the transition to fire as a form of cooking meat changed not only our cultural practices but is also credited with an increase in brain size. Increased aridity in the Plio-Pleistocene period (around 500 000 years ago) and the associated change in diet and food procurement strategies is correlated with the development of our unique physique and is also associated with an increase in brain size.

Where opportunity has arisen to evolve and differentiate our food culture from that of our ancestral relations, we have seized it. As a result, we have survived and flourished.

However, in the last 10 000 years our patterns of food consumption have undergone rapid transitions due to pervasive changes in social structures, economies and the environment. In the last 150 years, these changes have been even more dramatic. Food is no longer necessarily consumed in the home (or if it is, very likely someone else did most of the work first), whole economies have been built (and then destroyed) around imported food products, and we’ve even allowed multinational companies to own the genetic rights to our (limited) dietary staples.

Where, for 99% of human history, food procurement, preparation and consumption has been one of the most important ongoing aspects of our daily lives — our relationships, our economies, even our religions — it has now been relegated to the outskirts of our growth and development obsessed culture.

Our food cultures are too slow to keep up, too ancient; therefore food culture has been cast aside.

Becoming more intuitive with food is not as simple as just deciding to be — though that is certainly the first step. Implicit intuition requires a strong, secure knowledge base to inform its effect. Therefore, we need to first lay strong foundations upon which our intuition can be built.

Our capacity to taste and make meaning from flavour is genetically innate.

I couldn’t tell you how many times people have told me they couldn’t possibly pick out the flavours in a wine or distinguish between them and yet, when given a few prompts, they find that, in fact, they can. Of course they can — and so can you — because it’s coded into our DNA. But you need to consistently pay close attention to develop your tasting skill.

I first learnt to taste properly working with coffee. The flavours and aromas in coffee are very finely nuanced (more so than beer or wine), so it’s an excellent medium to refine and hone your palate.

There are coffee, wine or beer appreciation courses that you can enrol in, which makes it fun as well. Seven Seeds in Melbourne hosts regular free coffee cuppings — I’m sure that there are numerous other coffee roasters doing this across the globe. There are opportunities to try different foods at festivals, when you travel and sometimes even when you shop. When I lived in Melbourne, the affineur that I visited regularly often had something new for me to try.

Or, if none of this is accessible to you, do some DIY training at home. Sample as many different fruits, vegetables, cuts of meat, cheeses as possible. Describe the flavours, textures, smells. Write them down if it helps you commit the sensations to memory.

Each time you try something new, notice all the little details about it. What are the differences in flavour between a clingstone peach and a yellow peach or a white peach? Describe them, perhaps write them down.

Observe how the flavour is different at the top (stalk end) of most fruits compared to the bottom (blossom end).

What is the textural difference between flat iron steak and fillet? When drinking wine or other alcoholic beverages, expand your range. Again, describe the flavours, textures, aromas. Can you liken them to anything?

Above all, let your natural sense of curiosity (neophilia) guide you. You may or may not like some things

When we eat, we create through our contribution to a system that encompasses not only our body and mind, but all that is around us. Though the food systems that we inhabit are entities bigger than ourselves, our every choice helps to shape them. And so we create our reality, from the very smallest to the very largest detail.

If we want to be more intuitive with food — have greater knowledge, then we must become more connected and engaged with it on every level, including how it’s grown, harvested (or slaughtered), processed and made. In doing this, we lay foundations for a deeper connection with ourself.

Please don’t mistake this as a suggestion that everyone adopt a hunter-gatherer lifestyle — though high fives to you if you do — since it would no longer be sustainable with our current global population.

Rather, I would argue for a more intimate connection, a deeper and more direct relationship with food production systems. Small farms, homegrown vegetables, keeping your own chickens, community gardens, farmers markets, community-supported agriculture — the opportunities for strengthening this relationship (if you’re willing) are endless.

If there’s one thing that 16 years working in or owning cafe’s and restaurants taught me, it’s that the people who appreciate food the most, who behave the most intuitively with it, are good cooks themselves.

I’m not just talking about chefs or even floor staff. The customers who really get food, appreciate diverse and complex flavours, are home cooks. They understand all of the steps that have been taken in preparation, all the nuances and details added to the dish. They’re the ones who eat slowly, appreciating each mouthful, who are ready to undertake the adventure of a new dish.

So learn to cook.

And by that, I don’t mean boil an egg or empty a packet of flavoured noodles into a pot on the stove. I mean construct whole entire meals from scratch, just like someone might have 100 years ago. Just like a chef in a (decent) restaurant might. Don’t buy stock to make risotto; make your own. Don’t buy hummus to go with your middle eastern lamb dish. Make your own. Yoghurt? Sourdough bread? Sauerkraut and kimchi? Fermentation is easy once you get the basic principles right. Perfecting them takes time, yes, but you have time. The rest of your life, in fact.

Before I go, I want to imprint on you one final thing about becoming intuitive with food. The best relationships that I’ve had, the most fulfilling, have often been built, in some way, through food. It seems like I’m not alone in this observation.

Food is something that we all have in common. When we share a table with someone, we become not only physically close but also emotionally and spiritually connected; get to know them intuitively, if you like. Food becomes a shared experience, an act of love. It binds us, not only to ourselves, but to those around us. And in this, food is far more nourishing than mere calories and dust.

Nourishing Intuition

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