By Deborah Kesten, VIP Contributor at Thrive Global
I experienced the power of nourishing the senses, especially taste, long before our research on Whole Person Integrative Eating (WPIE) identified Sensory Disregard—not paying attention to flavors, aromas, colors, etc., in food—as one of the seven overeating styles that leads to overeating, overweight, and obesity.1It was while my husband—and co-researcher—Larry Scherwitz and I were having dinner in a beautiful Thai restaurant, where we had ordered a salad with which we weren’t familiar. Called miang kham, the dish that arrived at our table wasn’t the familiar American salad of lettuce and some vegetables. Instead, we were presented with a platter that held six small bowls filled with finely chopped and colorful ingredients: lime, peanuts, red onion, red pepper, ginger, and toasted coconut. In the center was a bunch of fresh spinach leaves and a bowl filled with a very thick and sticky sweet-and-sour paste.
The presentation was enchanting, but because it was also unfamiliar, we asked our waitress how to proceed. Patiently she showed us how to take a spinach leaf, spread a little sweet-and-sour paste on it, and sprinkle a tiny portion from each bowl over the paste. Then she created a small food-filled tube by rolling up the leaf. When we tasted the handmade tubular salad, our taste buds burst with flavor. With each bite, an implosion of flavors was released, so much so that we kept our attention and our anticipation focused on the fantastic flavors and tantalizing tastes that each new miang kham released.2
Sensory Disregard, Spiritual Disconnection
Our dining experience with miang khamis an exceptional example of how fresh food, prepared with care and savored by the diner, can fill the senses—the key ingredient lackingin the Sensory Disregard overeating style we have identified. I am especially excited to tell you about this overeating style because our research on Whole Person Integrative Eating (WPIE) is the first to reveal the sensory elements of overeating and increased odds of weight gain.1
What does this overeating style look like? Have you ever eaten quickly and mindlessly without experiencing the color, aroma, flavor, texture, presentation, and portion size of your food. This is Sensory Disregard. In our research on Whole Person Integrative Eating, we found that Sensory Disregard is a powerful predictor of overeating and weight gain, because if you’re not enjoying your food—indeed, savoring it—you’re likely to keep eating until you finally do feel a sense of satisfaction.Of the seven overeating styles we’ve identified, Sensory Disregard has the largest number of food-related behaviors linked with overeating. But turn your attention to “savoring and flavoring food with loving regard” when you eat—the WPIE antidote to Sensory Disregard—and you can turn around the sensory-disregard-equals-overeating-and-weight-gain equation.3Here, a study that explains how overcoming this overeating style could work for you.
A Flavor Experiment
Might “eating with your senses” lead to weight loss? wondered psychologist Seth Roberts, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley. Might it be possible that the amount of body fat a person has is linked to—even controlled by—the flavor in the food you eat? Somehow, might the brain depend on the flavor in food to gauge how much fat your body stores (which would lead to weight gain)…or releases (leading to weight loss)?4
To find out, Roberts looked closely at whether flavorful, tasty, tempting food (such as ice cream, donuts, or potato chips) triggers an increase in hunger and fat storage. Then he compared this diet to not-so-mouthwatering fare of flavorless food (such as cooking oil, iceberg lettuce, steamed rice, or air-popped popcorn). Would the high-flavor food trick the brain into thinking it is a time of abundance, and therefore, trigger overeating to ensure storage of body fat in case of future scarcity? As a contrast, would consuming simple, bland, flavorless food tell your brain that you’re not too hungry and therefore you eat less, making it easy for stored fat to be released?4
The findings from Roberts’ unique study? He discovered that just by focusing on the flavors in your food when you eat, you’re likely to eat less and weigh less. And that bland food—especially vegetable oil—decreases appetite. It seems that when you take the time to savor flavors and truly taste all elements of your meal, an invisible “ingredient” somehow tells your brain that you’re being nourished, and that your appetite is being appeased.
Meet the 6 Tastes with a Flavor-Filled Recipe
For thousands of years, ancient healing systems–from traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to India’s Ayurveda–have espoused savoring the six tastes in food each time you eat: bitter, sweet, salty, sour, astringent, pungent.To put antidote to the Sensory Disregard overeating style into action, try focusing on the six flavors of food in the taste-abundant Thai appetizer, miang kham. It is the implosion-of-flavor salad I told you about earlier in the article (please see the above photo for a visual of miang kham). Here’s how to make it—and then savor it.
1 lime, ½ small red onion, 1 small red bell pepper
1” piece peeled ginger
¼ cup peanuts
2 tablespoons shredded and toasted coconut
2-4 tablespoons honey
about 10 large spinach leaves
- Chop the lime, onion, pepper, ginger, and peanuts into tiny, small, minced pieces. Place each ingredient in separate, small bowls.
- Next, spread a thin layer of honey (perhaps a teaspoon) on one spinach leaf, then sprinkle a pinch of each ingredient over the sticky honey.
- Roll up the spinach leaf, creating a small food-filled tube.
Savor flavors. With your eyes closed, take a bite and begin to chew. Focus solely on the food in your mouth. Can you taste fantastic flavors? Are you able to identify one or more of the six tastes? Simply appreciate every single flavor and the experience of eating.
Engage senses. Making a meaningful connection with food calls for engaging all your senses—not only taste, but also sight, touch, smell, and hearing.
- Look at the “tube” of miang kham and become aware of its texture and color. Is it smooth, rough, light, dark?
- When you take the “spinach tube” in your hands, what does it feel like? Is it soft, tough, grainy?
- Next identify the smell of the food. Is it sweet? Sour? In between?
- When you take a bite, do you taste one or more flavors? (Hint: the taste of food often changes as you chew.)
- Finally, what kind of sound does eating the miang kham create? Loud? Or subtle?
The antidote to the Sensory Disregard overeating style is to eat with your senses by taking time to savor food and “flavor” it with loving regard. In other words, you can nurture true nourishment and a healthier weight if you take the time to taste your food and connect to the multidimensional ways it nourishes you.
Nourish Your Senses, Lose Weight
The takeaway: To overcome the Sensory Disregard overeating style and to lower odds of overeating and weight gain, take the time to experience your food through all your senses: taste (flavor), smell (aroma), sight (presentation), sound (of the surroundings), and touch (kinesthetics)—and to infuse food with gratitude and loving regard. When you do this, you’re more likely to be truly nourished and less likely to overeat.
- Larry Scherwitz and Deborah Kesten, “Seven Eating Styles Linked to Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity,” Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing 1, no. 5 (2005): 342–59.
- Deborah Kesten, The Healing Secrets of Food: A Practical Guide for Nourishing Body, Mind, and Soul(Novato, CA: New World Library, 2001).
- Deborah Kesten and Larry Scherwitz, “Whole Person Integrative Eating: A Program for Treating Overeating, Overweight, and Obesity,” Integrative Medicine: A Clinician’s Journal 14, no. 5 (October/November 2015): 42–50.
- Seth Roberts, “What Makes Food Fattening? A Pavlovian Theory of Weight Control” (theory article, University of California, Berkeley, February 2005), 1–77.