Are Made, Not Born
Charles R. Attwood, M.D., F.A.A.P.
'm so glad I don't like asparagus," said the small girl to a sympathetic friend. "Because, if I do, I should have to eat it, and I can't bear it!" This quote from Lewis Carroll, the nineteenth-century British writer, illustrates how children's food tastes are more dependent upon their expectations (learned from others) than their own interpretations. The fact that one's taste for meat and dairy products is not a part of the human genetic blueprint often comes as a surprise to families coming to my clinic.
Virginia, the mother of two teenage boys, appeared in my office in a state of confusion. Typical of many parents I see, she felt that her family's taste for meat, high-fat dairy products, and pastries is inborn and, therefore, a lifelong burden. "I thought it was natural, " she told me.
"It seems like all the boys' friends stuff themselves on pizza, hamburgers and french fries." Then shaking her head, she added, " Besides, my husband would die without his steak and fried chicken!" Like many other wives and mothers, she assumed that trying to change her family's eating habits would be futile.
Not so. I explained that her family acquired a desire for meat and other animal products at a very early age; they weren't born with it. No matter how closely you examine the human tongue, no fat taste buds can be found; there are only sweet, sour, salty, and bitter sensors. The desire for fat is learned, and it results from a combination of the way these foods smell and their smoothness on the mouth's surface.
Butter and ice cream, for example, are said to "melt" in one's mouth. Often used to sell products, fat is frequently combined with refined sugars in a single product to make it it more "palatable." This combination is found in desserts, pastries, candy, cookies, and almost all packaged snacks -- all high in fat though commonly referred to as "sweets."
In essence, the fat taste is just a habit, created by conditioning. All too often, high-fat foods, or "sweets," are held out as rewards to children for "good" behavior. Dr.Leann Birch, at the University of Illinois Child Development Laboratory, has found that in Western countries young children are conditioned or taught to like animal-based foods. For example, how many times have you heard parents say, "You can have your ice cream, if you eat your spinach?" They quickly assume that if ice cream is the reward, then spinach must be the punishment. By contrast, most children in rural China and Japan, who haven't been offered such a deal, are repulsed by the thought of eating animals or foods made from them.
Still, Virginia wasn't entirely convinced. "If the fat taste is already thoroughly ingrained, " she asked, "what can I possibly do about my teenagers?" Good question. I went on to explain that older children, and even adults, are not destined to live out the rest of their lives with an addiction to meat and dairy products acquired during their youth. During my 35 years of clinical practice, I've seen many parents, and even grandparents, of children in my clinic change to a plant-based diet. Often this has resulted after I've found a high cholesterol level in one of the children and then discovered that this was part of a family pattern.
Clinical studies seem to confirm the experiences in my clinic -- the taste for fat and animal products can readily be changed. Dr. Richard Mattes, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia reported in 1993 that when fatty foods were sharply reduced or eaten only rarely, the desire for them declined, or even disappeared entirely, after 8 to 12 weeks. One warning, however; he also found that if moderate amounts of high-fat foods were continued wither as side-dishes or condiments, the fat taste persisted.
Further clinical evidence comes from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, which surveyed 448 women participants in a program to reduce dietary fat. A majority said that while they were on the program, which lasted for several weeks, they lost their taste for fat. Returning to fatty foods after the program ended resulted in physical discomfort for most, whether or not they had lost their taste for fat.
Virginia and her family were given my "Four Stages to an Ideal Diet," to use as a guide when food shopping and cooking. Once the family reaches Stage Three, consisting of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes, with only occasional consumption of meat and dairy products, they will be well on their way towards taming their fat tastes. And by the time they arrive at Stage Four (with no meat or dairy products) they'll have banished it completely.
Hopefully, Virginia's grandchildren will not need these transitions. I've seen "Stage Four toddlers" who never had to bother with Stages One through Three! Whereas children and healthy adults seem to need these gradual diet changes, adults with heart disease, stroke, or other fat-related disorders, may successfully go directly to Stage Four. Dr. Dean Ornish has found that a totally plant-based diet is less difficult for his patients to attain when it's done suddenly, without first trying moderate reductions in fat. They have the added assurance of the diet's positive health grains -- lower cholesterol levels, weight loss, and a vastly reduced risk of death from heart disease and cancer -- not fully attainable while still eating modest amounts of fat. Following a mild stroke, my good friend, Dr. Spock, made the switch at age 88. Now, approaching 93, he is actively writing, speaking, and traveling -- and he's never felt better.
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