Using Sleep to Change Our Tastes

One of the most difficult parts of going whole food, plant-based is that most of us come to it after a lifetime of eating animal-based foods; lots of fat, sugar and salt; and plenty of processed foods. We have built up a taste for these foods over the course of a lifetime, and it can seem extremely difficult if not downright impossible to give up those tastes. I know when I started, I had regular cravings for premium ice creams; nice thick, juicy steaks; beer-can chicken cooked on my Big Green Egg; 18-hour slow-roasted pork butt; and of course everyone's favorite, bacon.

I didn't think I could give those things up, and the only things that saved me were the book VB6 by Mark Bittman and a couple of decisions I made to challenge myself. The book by Mark Bittman suggested being vegan all day except for one meal, and then at that one meal, I could eat whatever I wanted to eat. That sounded doable to me. I could eat like a vegan during the day because I knew later on for dinner I was going to eat the foods I really enjoyed.

And fortunately back then, we didn't have all the processed vegan foods that we do today. By that I mean the ones today that do such a great job of replicating the taste of meat and cheese and ice cream. If we had, I never would have lost my taste for those animal foods. Sure there were vegan foods back then, but they were bland to awful tasting and it took some real dedication to liking them. As a consequence, I was forced to really eat plant-based when I wasn't having my one animal-based meal during the day. I ate lots of beans and greens, and over time, that caused me to develop a taste for beans and greens.

In fact, it was in developing that taste for beans and greens that I began to not want animal-based foods or processed foods anymore. I actually started to prefer real plant-based foods that came from a plant as opposed to being made in a plant. And so some of those meals where I was allowed to eat whatever I wanted, I found myself wanting the beans and greens more often until finally I stopped eating animal-based foods altogether.

The other thing I did is I challenged myself. The first time I went out to dinner was with family to a steakhouse. And I've told this story before. I wanted to see if I could actually go into a steakhouse and not order a steak without it seeming weird. I did that successfully and that taught me I could really do this. The next challenge was Thanksgiving. We had Thanksgiving for the family at my house and I cooked a turkey on the Egg for my family, but for me, I made a stuffed squash. That worked out too. So, by then I knew I could really do this.

I think we all need to challenge ourselves to overcome a lifetime of bad habits. Continuing the status quo doesn't work. And that's one reason, I've never bought into the idea of transition foods. Transition foods cause us to continue having our taste for animals and for processed foods. And today's products coming on the market, where manufacturers have discovered unhealthy saturated fat in coconut oil and started using that to give fake meats and cheeses the same texture and taste as animal-based products, are very good. But the problem is, they continue to perpetuate our desire for animal products.

For those of us who are whole food, plant-based, we want to get away from unhealthy options and eat healthy foods, which are the beans and greens, veggies, fruits, whole gains and nuts and seeds as they grow in nature. But even as one who loves animals and supports the vegan movement, I can't eat foods that taste like the animals I love and want to protect. To me, that would just be weird.

So, for me, I need to be fully weaned off of the desire to eat animal-based products, and transition foods don't do it. But in a new book, titled Why We Sleep, I discovered that we might be able to program ourselves during sleep to forget the taste of animals. Researchers it turns out have found out that we can train the brain to forget things as well as to learn things. A recent study took a group of participants and gave them a number of words, telling them to remember certain words but also consciously telling their brain to forget the other words. Then half the subjects were given a nap and the other half were required to stay awake. At the end of the project, they tested the subjects and found that those who stayed awake remembered both the words to remember and the ones to forget. But the group that slept after telling their brain to forget certain words, was found to remember the words they were told to remember but they had forgotten the words they told their brain to forget.

The book points out that this has real-time implications for people wanting to get rid of bad addictive behaviors. We can consciously tell our brain to forget the behavior and then sleep on it. Of course, I'm not so naive as to think a lifetime of eating rich foods will be forgotten over one night's worth of sleep. But I am intrigued by the idea that we can possibly over time lose our desires for certain foods by telling our brain to forget what they taste like.

One reason I believe this can work, besides the fact of the published study, is that as a child my dad told me if I want to avoid a nightmare over a scary or disturbing event that I witnessed during the day, all I had to do was to tell my brain not to dream about it. I've been doing that for nearly 70 years now and not once have I had a dream or nightmare about something I told my brain I didn't want to dream about.

So, give it a try if you're struggling with cravings for the SAD diet. It might just work. But what I do know is that the quicker we give up foods that taste like animals and other processed foods, the quicker we will develop a taste for whole plant-based foods.

J Lanning Smith
October 3, 2018


This blog is intended to divulge my experiences and what I have learned in following a mostly plant-based nutrient-rich diet. What has worked for me may not work for others. And what I have learned may or may not be correct. Statements expressed on this blog are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical or nutritional advice. While I have read a lot about nutrition, I am not a trained or degreed nutritionist. Readers should seek their own professional counsel for any medical condition or before starting or altering any exercise or dietary plan.