The Six Tastes for Balanced Meals and Digestion

For a long time, it’s felt appropriate to share a food as medicine approach to eating in this space, but I’m not so sure I’ve adequately explained how to do this other than to share meals that are largely based on whole, minimally processed from-nature ingredients. 

I know you want to eat food and meals that taste good, and are also good for you, but it’s important to recognize that everything we eat also has an effect.

That effect can be incredibly subtle or super obvious and I don’t mean just the effects of the caloric, macro or even micronutrient content of your meal, but because each subtle flavor within a food and meal will affect your body and your mind. 

Particularly when you eat in the same pattern of meals and flavors day in and day out. 

The Six Flavors 

There are six primary flavors within foods and ideally, all six flavors are incorporated into main meals, and at least four flavors are enjoyed at breakfast when we tend to eat a smaller amount. The six flavors are: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pungent, and astringent

Now, what foods have which flavor? And what are their effects? 

Sweet 

The SWEET taste comes from foods that contain natural sugars: sweet root vegetables like carrots, squash, beets, all fresh and dried fruit, whole grains, natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup, and molasses, and fresh dairy products such as milk, butter, and ghee. 

The sweet flavor builds tissues within the body, calms the nerves and nervous system, and relieves hunger. It’s the flavor you likely reach for when you’re eating to soothe an emotion or for comfort. This is natural since the flavor of our first food of milk is sweet. That food-memory association between sweet food, love, and being comforted is particularly strong. 

If you are dry, thin, nervous, anxious, scattered, or have nerve disorders, more naturally sweet foods are indicated and may be missing in adequate amounts in your meals – these are the whole grains, root vegetables, sweet fruits, and natural sugars. 

Salt 

The SALTY taste comes from foods that are naturally salty including seaweeds like kombu, arame, wakame, and nori. Some water-based vegetables are also naturally a little salty including celery, tomatoes, zucchini, and cucumbers. And of course, natural salt such as sea salt or pink mineral salt provides this flavor. Adequately cooking our foods in salt, and adding in a teaspoon per serving of dried seaweed when cooking beans or other stewy meals is an excellent way to build the salty flavor into a meal that will help us to retain the water we consume and have tissues that are more deeply hydrated, as well as provide a natural source of iodine – a critical and often missing nutrient for optimal thyroid health. 

If you are dry, drink plenty of water but are still dehydrated, experience constipation or find that the meals you cook taste “flat,” incorporating the salty flavor during the cooking process, rather than at the end, can be especially helpful. 


Sour

The SOUR flavor comes from foods such as lemons, lime, vinegars, unripe fruit, and fermented foods such as yogurt, pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut, sourdough bread, soy sauce and tamari. Many individuals either avoid sour foods or over-do them in meals. Both not enough and too much can cause problems. Adding in just a little squeeze of fresh lime juice or a little spoonful of apple cider or white wine vinegar at the end of cooking meals is frequently just enough of the sour flavor to lubricate tissues and stimulate the digestion process.

If you tend to run extra warm or frequently experience hot, agitated emotions, experience acid indigestion or reflux, have loose or sticky, incomplete stools, rashes, inflammation, or itchy, acne-prone skin, you may be over-doing the sour taste in your meals. 

Pungent

The PUNGENT flavor comes from hot and spicy peppers, black peppercorn, onions, garlic, ginger, mustard, horseradish, wasabi, raw radishes and turnips, asafoetida, cinnamon and cloves. 

This flavor increases heat and stimulates digestion and metabolism. As such, you should incorporate it into your meals in slightly larger amounts if you are routinely cold, experience poor circulation, or have low digestive fire –meaning you don’t digest or tolerate foods well

But for many others, too much pungent flavorings causes extra heat, excessive sweating and inflammation, skin rashes, acne, or eczema, agitated emotions, acid indigestion or reflux, and loose stools and diarrhea. 

If you tend to be a person that’s eternally on the move, both physically or mentally, and find it difficult to slow down your mind or pause for a relax break or day, it’s safe to say you may also benefit from cutting out too much of the pungent flavor — take a couple weeks without onions, garlic, and spicy peppers and then take note of how you feel.

Bitter

The BITTER taste is one many of us avoid. That’s unfortunate because the actions of bitter are to stimulate the digestion process by telling the body to begin releasing essential digestive acids and enzymes. The bitter flavor also helps the liver performs its routine detoxification process (necessary to get rid of waste products, excess hormones, and toxins), and it lightens tissues that are puffy and retaining water. 

Bitter foods include aloe vera, dandelion leaves and root, dark leafy greens, all vegetables in the brassica family, burdock root, eggplants, Jerusalem artichokes, sesame seeds and oil, dark chocolate, coffee, and fenugreek seeds.

Like the pungent flavor, we want just a small amount of bitter flavors in our meals — not an excess. Where many people tend to consume too much bitter is in the form of coffee. Coffee is a stimulant, and caffeine can be particularly troublesome for the liver, especially if you have hormonal imbalances. Try to reduce your coffee intake to no more than one to two 8-oz. cups in the morning if you enjoy coffee regularly. 

Astringent

The ASTRINGENT taste comes in beans and legumes, cruciferous / brassica vegetables such as kale, cabbage, broccoli, and brussels sprouts, unripe bananas, pomegranates, cranberries, and most herbs and spices including basil, bay leaves, caraway seeds, coriander, dill, fennel seeds, marjoram, nutmeg, oregano, parsley, rosemary, saffron, turmeric, vanilla, coffee, tea, wine, and alcohol. 

The astringent flavor helps us to absorb water, and dry and tighten tissues. I’ve used an alcohol-based (astringent) toner on my face a couple times a day for years, and to no surprise, I’ve also tended to experience frequent dry skin. The astringent nature of my facial toner is a wonderful example of what happens internally when we consume astringent foods. This can be excellent and necessary, in small amounts! 

If you experience chronic diarrhea or varicose veins, two examples of the tissues not being able to hold onto their fluids, astringent foods or herbs may be beneficial in slightly larger amounts. On the other hand, if you have routinely dry skin, or a dry internal condition like constipation, eating and drinking less astringent foods will be helpful. 

Six Flavors in Balance

Above all, a great way to begin to understand the effect of the different flavors and particular foods is to really pay attention to the flavor of the foods you are eating. Can you taste the sweetness when thoroughly chewing a whole grain or a steamed carrot? Can you pick out the drying, astringent effect as you take a sip of black tea, coffee, or wine? Do you notice how you internally heat up after a sandwich with spicy mustard or a bowl of particularly spicy soup? And then what do you notice in the minutes or hours afterwards?

When you begin to eat more meals that have a balance of the flavors, you’ll also notice that ongoing digestive symptoms and food intolerances might begin to reduce and eventually may even go away. And because meals simply taste better without being elaborate or extra complicated, cravings or over-eating begins to be less of an issue.

Much of my nutrition practice is focused on individuals and athletes with digestive health issues such as leaky gut, food allergies and intolerances, chronic GI distress, malabsorption of foods and nutrients, and inflammation. If you’re tired, stressed, and not really sure what to eat to help or hurt anymore, I invite you to reach out to me for more personalized support.

Three Winter Meals to Fuel Your Day with Territory Run Co.

Apples & Spice Oatmeal wi a touch of Chamomile flowers

While so much of the next few weeks and months is uncertain, one thing that is not is that we’ll all feel (and emerge on the other side) better when we feed ourselves well.

Ultimate Lunchtime Comfort Mushrooms and Garlicky Beans on Toast

Over on the Run Journal at Territory Run Co., I’ve shared a recipe series for a day of eating. My idea was to keep ingredients seasonal and simple, relatively quick (less than 30 minutes from start to finish), with balanced flavors, and of course nutritionally sound for a solid day of fueling busy (and likely active) bodies.

Everyday Miso Noodle Soup

These also happen to be a short list of my winter meal go-tos. Get the full article and recipes here.

Butternut Buckwheat Porridge from Living Ayurveda

About a year ago near the solstice, I wrote the words grounded/focused on a bookmark. The back was painted with a small cross-section of watercolor tulips from a local artist; her cast-offs she’d cut into cards for an intention setting gathering. Grounded and focused were my intentions for how I wanted to feel by the end of this year. Little did we know then what 2020 would entail, but what I did know was that I struggle with being mentally cluttered and scattered, sometimes switching topics mid-sentence in conversation, and often letting my thoughts and ideas run away from me and having nothing to show for it minutes (and sometimes hours) later. I also knew that the internal atmosphere of being grounded and focused wasn’t so much an end goal for months away, but a daily, and sometimes minute by minute practice.

It’s safe to say I have succeeded and failed in my intention, multiple times a day.

But I’ve also been able to add a lot of tools and practices for how to gain a less scattered mind and actions over the years. One of which is continually learning from Ayurveda.

Ayurveda is the indigenous health system of India, and arguably the oldest health system (or one of the oldest) in the world. While I didn’t learn Ayurveda outright in nutrition graduate school, mine was a program that married traditional systems of health with the latest nutritional and medical sciences, and thus incorporating components of Ayurveda in my nutrition classes and clinic was widely accepted – and especially in my herbal classes. In the meantime, as if I didn’t need to study more, I was studying it on the side and incorporating increasingly more aspects of Ayurveda in my own life, helping to get closer to healing many of my GI and autoimmune struggles.

The cluttered and scattered mind is a common feature of imbalanced vata in the body, and like many people in our modern lifestyles, I struggle with this imbalance, a lot. As well as many other high-vata tendencies. Vata is one of the three energies or forces which can be observed in all things, and which are ideally in balance. Pitta and Kapha are the other two energies. Eating foods that support high vata or perhaps foods that support one of the other two doshas that make up our body and mind, is a primary way we can return our ailments to balance, but it’s certainly not the only practice.

So many years ago that I don’t remember, but around the time I first learned of Ayurveda, I discovered Claire’s blog with simple delicious Ayurvedic recipes. Claire has recently released her gorgeous book, Living Ayurveda, which is full of the kind of guidance that helps us achieve a little more balance in our lives. It encourages us to make the connection between time of year and patterns that afflict us (but don’t have to), incorporating building and lightening ingredients in the right ratios in our meals, and recipes that can be adapted depending on the season and our individual doshas or imbalances. Likewise, there are yoga sequences for each season too.

Some of the recipes that I’ve already tried and truly will make again and again include:
Pumpkin Empanadas with Cashew Crema
Shakti Chai
Simple Stewed Apples
and this Butternut Buckwheat Porridge

So many more are on my list – actually all of them really:
Warm Cinnamon Date Shake
Creamy Miso Tahini Dal
Delicata, Wild Rice & Pomegranate Salad
Kitchari Burgers
Fall Harvest Muffins
and most definitely the Yogi Bowl, a variation on something I could eat daily.

Butternut Buckwheat Porridge from Living Ayurveda, serves 2-4
To be completely transparent in portion sizes, I make this recipe as a half batch for one meal. That is a perfect amount for me, as a very active person, to go several hours between breakfast and the midday meal with excellent energy and ‘fuel’. Claire’s suggestions include adding an extra spoonful of ghee for vata support on very dry and cold days, reducing the cinnamon slightly for high pitta (cinnamon in large amounts is quite heating so good for some with high vata and kapha, but less so for others), and taking out the oats and doubling the buckwheat for high kapha. For a completely vegan and/or dairy-free version, I suggest using untoasted sesame oil, especially for vata/kapha, or coconut oil instead.

3 cups water
1/2 cup (untoasted) buckwheat groats or short-grain brown rice
1/2 cup steel-cut oats
1 cup peeled butternut squash, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/4 cup raisins
1 tsp. ghee
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
milk of choice and maple syrup, for serving (optional)

  • In a medium pot, combine all ingredients and bring to a boil on high heat. Cover with a lid, reduce heat to medium, and simmer for 30 minutes, until butternut squash is tender and the grains are fully cooked. You might need to stir once or twice during that time. Toward the end, add a splash of water if needed.
  • If using a pressure cooker, reduce the water to 2 1/2 cups and follow instructions for pressure-cooking porridge. Once done, remove from heat and serve hot with a splash of milk of choice and a drizzle of maple syrup on top. I found the milk and syrup is a preference, and I enjoy this without either.