Eating Flowers

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If you are like me, your eating pattern is somewhat repetitive.  Your grocery shopping involves focusing on the usual suspects while consciously or subconsciously dismissing most of the foods in the store due to cost, lack of knowledge about how to prepare them, ethical reasons, bad experiences last time you had them, or a variety of other reasons that can eliminate them from consideration for purchase.

Once upon a time, my shopping trips were so consistent from one to the next that my visits to Whole Foods were showcases of machine-like precision and efficiency.  Within 10 minutes of turning off my car’s ignition in the parking lot, I was buckling my seat belt with a trunk full of groceries in the back.

While routine has its upsides, at some point along the line I realized that I was doing myself a disservice by always eating the same foods.  From a health standpoint, I was missing out on nutrients that were deficient in my regimen.  In terms of enjoyment, I often felt bored with what I was eating.  Food can and should be fun, and as Joanne pointed out, we tend to absorb more nutrients if we enjoy what we are eating.  The grocery store is full of foods that I might have really liked if only I was adventurous enough to give them a chance.

Once I realized that, I decided that each time I went to the store I would purchase one food that was either brand new to me or that I had not had in a very long time.  I tried all sorts of things, some of which probably sound mundane to you, but they were departures from the norm for me: exotic melons, crab cakes, pies, tabouli, strange-looking vegetables I had no idea how to prepare, dairy-free “ice creams,” pumpkin pasta sauce, teff, vegan hot dogs, etc.  Each week I came home with something new.  No, I did not like everything I tried and many of them I never bought again, but there was still value in the experimentation.  I expanded my palette, rediscovered foods I had forgotten, and realized that some foods I used to dislike now hit the spot.

Although I maintained this tradition for years and got a lot out of it, recently I found myself sliding back.  Once again, I gravitated towards particular shelves while ignoring the vast majority of the inventory.  As soon as I caught myself doing this, I reminded myself how much I enjoyed my years of experimentation.  At that moment, I was standing in the produce section in front of a package of edible flowers.  My hesitation reminded me, “I am not someone who eats flowers.”  As I reached for the package and put it in my cart, I thought to myself, “I am now.”


Meal Enjoyment and Nutrient Absorption

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In nutrition school, I was taught that there were certain nutritional facts that always held true. A calorie is a calorie. If you eat 500 calories less per day for a week, you will lose one pound of body weight. Just because a “healthy” food might not be enjoyable to you or taste good, it is still important to eat it for good health.

Well, there is some interesting evidence that when it comes to nutrition, how much we enjoy our meals may be just as important as what our meals are made of.  In October of 2000, Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter discussed a study that measured how one’s enjoyment of a meal affected one’s nutrient absorption. In the study, researchers from Thailand and Sweden teamed up to see if cultural preferences for a food would affect the absorption of iron from a meal.

In the first phase of the study, two groups of women, one from Thailand and the other from Sweden, were fed a typical Thai meal. Needless to say the Thai women preferred the taste of the meal more than the Swedish women did. Interestingly, even though all of the meals contained the exact same amount of iron, the Thai women absorbed twice as much iron from the meal than the Swedish women did. In the second phase of the study, the two groups were served a typical Swedish meal with the exact same iron content. In this case, the Swedish women absorbed significantly more iron from the meal than the Thai women did. 

In the second phase of the study, the Thai group and Swedish group were split up into two subgroups. The two Thai subgroups were given an identical Thai meal, but one of the subgroup’s meals was pureed into a mush. Even though both of the meals had the exact same iron content, the women who ate the mushy meal absorbed 70% less iron than the other group. The study was repeated in the Swedish group and the results were similar.

So what does this tell us? Taste and enjoyment matters to nutrient absorption! If you are one of those “nutrition martyrs” who eat foods that you really don’t enjoy just because they are “good for you,” it’s likely that you aren’t absorbing much of the nutrients from those foods. Conversely, even if you are eating a food deemed “unhealthy” by the food authorities, if you are truly enjoying and savoring it, you will be absorbing more nutrients from it.

Now, this isn’t license to only eat “junk.” But, instead of forcing yourself to eat healthy, but not tasty food, how about finding healthier foods that you enjoy? Instead of eating fat-free cheese, which, ahem, tastes like plastic, how about savoring some real sharp cheddar from a Vermont dairy? Instead of munching on low-quality chocolate, how about enjoying a piece of dark chocolate that is full of antioxidants? I am willing to bet that if you start to incorporate more pleasure into your meals, you’ll be happier and healthier.