What is neuro-adaptation?

Starting 12/27

I was instructed to eat only fruits and vegetables for two days prior to my arrival at TrueNorth.  No sugar, oil, or salt, no animal products, and no caffeine or alcohol.  Also, no beans or grains; that part is harder for me!  Although I’m used to eating a whole-food, plant-based diet without oil, and this is probably much more automatic for me than it would be for many people, it still requires some mental focus.

I had hoped to make an especially “clean” few weeks of it, prior to the fast, to maximize the benefit I could experience.  For a full month, I’ve had no caffeinated coffee, but have had a couple of chai teas and some decaf coffee (which still contains caffeine).  I mostly stopped drinking alcohol, but did have cocktails at one holiday party.  And, despite driving long distances and spending many days on the road, I’ve kept to my mostly whole-food, totally plant-based eating pattern, except that I’ve had more dried fruit, a couple processed grain products, and less water on the days I spent in the car.

Worst of all, once I got to my family’s house and our holiday week took a bad turn (my grandmother was hospitalized for an injury, experienced over-medication and is still in a treatment-induced delerium which has been extended several times by medications that were not given appropriately), I started having some of the more highly processed products they keep in the fridge.  Last night I got back from 18 hours at the hospital, and along with my oil-free, whole-grain crackers, and no-added-sugar, one-ingredient apple butter, I ate some highly processed vegan cheeses, cookies, and chocolate!  Not even close to SOS-free.

I hadn’t made any special assessment of the groceries in preparation for this, but this is what I ended up eating:

  • Steamed beet greens and two oranges for breakfast.
  • Four prunes, 1/3 of a banana, and two Medjool dates as snacks.  (Yes, I am a sweet tooth person; also we have more fruit than vegetables in the house.)
  • Chef Del’s tomato and red pepper soup* for lunch (without salt), topped with broccoli sprouts.  And then an apple, because I was still being tempted by other things not on the plan, and just needed to make myself feel full.  It worked.
  • For dinner, more of the tomato soup, and boiled carrots topped with cinnamon.

So far the only difficult part is seeing the unhealthy food that is available.  Because it is holiday time (and is not my house), there are cookies and some dark chocolate around, pretzels, tons of dried fruit, and some chocolate-avocado-sweet potato pudding I made 2 days ago.  And of course, the healthy foods which I would normally include: some nice sprouted whole grain breads, brown rice, barley, oats, lots of beans, chili, and my parsley hummus.

Kale with mushrooms, carrots, garlic and lemon.

Sneak peek of a main meal on Day 2: kale with mushrooms, garlic and carrots, drizzled with lemon juice. I also ate a ton of fruit again.

Tomorrow and beyond

I’m fortunate to be in pretty good overall health, better than I was in my early to mid 20’s, due to the changes I’ve made in my food and lifestyle.  One of the benefits I’m expecting to experience from the fast, and, just as importantly, from the whole month of eating SOS-free, unprocessed plant foods from the TrueNorth kitchen, is the tastebud re-set that I always talk about when I teach.  More scientifically, it is called neuro-adaptation.  It means that our tastes change in response to what we eat, because there are changes to how many receptor sites are available for what is coming down the pipe — and those receptor sites go on to communicate with our enteric nervous system, brain, and beyond, creating all kinds of effects throughout the body.

Food addiction is real, and achieving the tastebud re-set is the only real way to address it.  There were periods in my life when I couldn’t go four hours without having something like cookies or ice cream — when I ate compulsively and didn’t even realize that I was eating until half the bag of whatever was gone.  But there have also been moments in time when, because I was eating so cleanly, even a muffin sweetened only with date paste and applesauce might have tasted far too sweet to me.  Most of the time now, restaurant food tastes too salty — and if food is prepared with more than the tiniest amount of oil, it not only fails to be appetizing, it would almost make me feel sick if I ate it.

That’s not a bad thing.  It means that a simple bowl of brown rice and steamed vegetables tastes rich, fantastic, and delicious.  Steamed greens for breakfast are perfectly appealing and satisfying.  And when the after-dinner urge strikes to have something sweet, grapes or a pear really do do the trick.  Imagine honestly not having any interest, when freshly baked cookies are being passed around, or cheese fondue and oily crackers are offered. Imagine never having a struggle, because you’re truly not feeling tempted, and really do prefer the salad and bean soup above anything else.  Getting our tastebuds (really, our nervous systems) into this state takes a deliberate effort, because it means avoiding all the ubiquitous processed, prepared and refined products that our society is trying to feed us.  The payoff for doing so is that you don’t ever feel deprived by eating an optimal diet, you actually prefer it.  I think many people are like me, and go through different levels of adaptation to different levels of sugar/salt/fat intake over time.  To optimize our chances for excellent lifelong health, we need to maximize the time we spend being neuro-adapted to prefer health-promoting foods.  It is very difficult to do this in shared living spaces, and easiest to do so in an environment where those are the only foods available.


*Available on the Forks Over Knives recipe app.