Thoughts on health, happiness and sustainability

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Love the foods you hate

I think it is fair to say that most people have foods that they just can’t stand. Some people go as far to say that they are allergic to foods that they actually just hate.

I know I do. For as long as I can remember I have hated bananas to the point that I would dry heave as soon as anything containing banana got even close to my mouth. I also hate celery, and to an extent I also hate salads in general. Hating certain foods is normal and nothing to be ashamed of.

But what if the foods you hate are actually good for you (like banana, celery and salad for example). It seems that more often than not, the foods that people hate are indeed healthy foods like fruits, vegetables and salads, not sugary, salty, fatty foods.

Something is out of whack!

This got me thinking that something in our brains is seriously out of balance. We are wired to seek out sugar, fat and mineral salts, but that is because these things are extremely rare in nature and are efficient brains tell us to make the most of them when they are on offer.  But we don’t live in nature any more and these foods are now excessively abundant.   The result is that they become addictive and harmful, and our tastes adapt to the point that we want to just eat these foods and very little of the things that would normally be abundant (ie fruit and veg).  To make thing worse, we buy most of our foods from an industry that exploits this quirk of nature to engineer foods that are cheap to produce and addictive, distorting our perspective of what is normal.

It isn’t genetic

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Our feelings about whether or not we like a food are almost entirely psychological, which means that they are within our control.

Watch a child taste alcohol for the first time and most of them find it repulsive. It tastes like poison because… well, it is. But give them a social environment that reinforces a belief that it is good for you, together with repeat tastings and eventually they learn to like it until one day, they can’t comprehend life without it. If you can do it for liquid poison, you can do it for veggies.

In fact, Dr Ellsworth Wareham states that all human tastes are learned apart from a mothers breast milk, so let’s teach ourselves to like more of the good stuff.

My first clue that this might be the case was over 10 years ago I did a charity cycle ride from Leatherhead (near London) to Chantilly (near Paris). I was told that there would be plenty of supplies of energy food and that I needn’t bring any with me. You can imagine my horror when I arrived to find out that the energy food was a van load of bananas. I got through the ride to the cross channel ferry without needing any extra food, but when we left the boat on the other side I was desperately low on energy. I had no choice. I had to eat a banana! I held my breath and chomped it down as fast as I could. And guess what? I did not die of banana poisoning. I lived to tell the (somewhat pathetic) tale and was glad of the energy. That experience planted a seed in my mind that has taken over a decade to germinate. What if we can teach ourselves to like the foods we hate?

Over the last few months I have been learning to eat lots of healthy food that I previously hated, including bananas, raw carrots, celery and salads. It is a gradual process, but having taken bananas from instant vomit to something that is mildly pleasant in just a few months, I can now assure you that it is possible.

5 ways to learn to like healthy foods

Here are some tips to start to tolerating, and maybe even liking the healthy foods that you hate:

1. Try a little bite. Hold your breath and just try a small piece to prove to yourself that it won’t kill you.

2. Hide it. Explore ways to disguise the food so that you can introduce it gently. Put a little bit in a soup, casserole, pie or juice and mix it with flavours that you love. As you learn to incorporate the foods you hate into dishes that you love, gradually increase the proportions of these ingredients as you get used to them.

3. Take it slow. Don’t push too hard or you’ll ruin your favourite dishes and give up on the idea.

4. Think positive. It is important to form positive associations in your mind.  Focus your thoughts on how healthy and fresh these foods will make you feel. Don’t focus on the flavour, focus on the benefits. If you keep telling yourself that it will make you feel good, eventually you will feel good.

5. Distract yourself. Don’t make it into a big event and get yourself all worked up. You’re not jumping out of a plane, you’re just eating healthy food. Keep yourself busy talking to people and doing things you enjoy and just pop some in your mouth while trying to keep your attention on what you are doing. You might just forget what you are eating.

This concept isn’t just limited to foods. You can apply it to any aspect of your life. For example, I’m trying to teach myself to enjoy swimming, which I have always disliked. Progress is slow, but I have already got as far as swimming in the sea in England (something I thought I would never do).

I hope you find these tips helpful. Now I’m going to go and eat a banana.

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