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.

Lunchtime Basics: Quick Egg Flatbreads with Greens + Gold Spice Dressing


Dropping in to share a realtime lunch idea for you all lately. This is a meal concept that’s super seasonal, which makes it all the more delicious. 

Food Confusion and Eating Seasonally

I know some of you who read this regularly may not eat eggs. But some of you do. I’ve personally waxed and waned about eggs and many other foods over the years but ultimately have come right back to my initial conclusion: Eating is personal. And over time you change, go through phases, or learn more of what is needed to sustain you.

One thing that is very personal to me about eating is seasonality and locality. It’s what helped me through a time when I was as perplexed about what to eat as some of you – when I was following too many food trends and afraid of what to put in my body or of eating “too much.” I compared myself to everyone around me but I didn’t know how to gauge my own hunger, symptoms of imbalance, or simply get out of my head and into my body. 

William began keeping hens about three years ago, and prior to that I had largely avoided eggs for several years. That phase where eggs didn’t sound good, I didn’t like spending $7+ per dozen for local eggs, and didn’t like the conditions involved in the traditional egg production industry. But also that phase where I was following trends and wasn’t entirely eating for me.

And so, slowly, two new chicks each spring that began laying a few months later and brought such big personalities. I grew up on a farm with lots of various animals but in the years in between that time and the introduction of our first two hens, Marge and Pepper, I had somewhat forgotten how every animal comes with her own personality and desire to please. 

It’s normal for hens to stop producing eggs over the winter due to less daylength and it being cold outside. Though this winter has actually been the first for ours to take a break. Not being a daily or often even a weekly egg-eater, the winter egg break was just fine at first. But as it went on for weeks and then became a few solid months, I started to realize how I was dropping even more into the quiet of the winter season – and eating even more that way too.

Eating seasonally traditionally means less variety and abundance in the winter. It also traditionally means a change in gut microbes that can help us break down the foods that are in season.  

As the first eggs began to arrive back in the laying box and our hens began strutting around, proud of their golden tokens, it made me more aware of the gifts of each season.

Which is all to say, whether you choose to eat eggs or not, I encourage you to look for signs of the changing season as you’re out and about in your neighborhood or community, and especially next time you’re shopping. I encourage you to choose at least one new seasonal food each week–and if you struggle with confusion about what to eat, really pay attention to how you feel physically and mentally in the hours after you eat your chosen new food.

Just notice what comes up.

Quick Egg Flatbreads with Bitter Greens + Gold Spice Dressing, Serves 1
I use two things that make this super quick. A ready-made dressing and some leftover veg to add in and round out the meal. Otherwise, you can steam what vegetables you have on hand while you’re cooking the rest. Or skip the extra vegetables, but it will be a fairly light meal and may not be enough – this of course depends on the person.
One other note about the method: this late winter/early spring time of year is marked by a season of cold and wet in most regions (in the northern hemisphere). To counter that and retain balance in the body, it’s best to eat meals that are warm and cooked, and to start to add in more astringent greens like kale, chard, and spinach, while avoiding excess foods that cause mucus and damp in the body such as dairy and rich, heavy meals or sauces.

1-2 Tbs. Gold Spice Dressing
1 handful of seasonal bitter-ish greens, chopped or torn
splash of water
2 small (6-inch) corn tortillas
2 eggs, scrambled one at a time
salt and pepper

toppings/add-ins to accompany:
leftover roasted or steamed vegetables OR roasted/steamed sweet potato, daikon radish, etc.
cilantro, parsley or dill

  1. Make dressing or prep it ahead.
  2. In a medium sauté pan over medium-high heat, add a splash of the Gold Spice Dressing and a pinch of salt, and wait until the spices are just beginning to smell. Then add in the greens and a splash of water. Stir and then cover to steam-sauté for just a minute or two. Remove from the pan and set aside for a minute.
  3. Wipe the sauté pan clean and then add another small splash of the dressing. Pour in the first scrambled egg and a little sprinkle of salt. Don’t stir. Let it cook for 30 seconds to a minute and then set the first tortilla over the top of the egg. Cook another minute or more, just until the bottom is set. Then flip and cook 1-2 minutes more until the egg is cooked all the way through and the tortilla is warm.
  4. Repeat with the remaining egg and tortilla.
  5. Finish by layering your plate with the egg / tortilla flatbreads, the sautéed greens, and the steamed or roasted vegetable add-ins and herbs. Drizzle a little extra dressing on top as desired.

Radish + Hazelnut Grain Salad

This is the type of meal situation that’s my bread and butter. It’s the sort of thing I’ll bring to a potluck or picnic-style situation, and it makes a routine visit in our regular meals much the same way tacos do – i.e. same concept, different ingredients depending on what’s on hand and seasonal. Over the years, I’ve also found that William usually takes some of the leftovers for his work lunch the next day – which only happens if it meets his slightly different than mine taste-bud standards. It also helps when I add raisins, which in our house grace many a main dish. We are both lifelong raisin affectionados. :)

While everything is fairly interchangeable here, you’ll note I only list gluten-free grains as options. I don’t tend to be outright against gluten-containing grains for those that can tolerate them, but many individuals tend to be at least slightly sensitive – especially those with pre-existing autoimmune conditions (since inflammation in the gut significantly contributes and/or is part of the cause, and gluten is inflammatory to everyone to a certain degree). I also find that many individuals running long miles, particularly in the summer heat, suffer from more achy tummy – not hungry – can’t tolerate lots of foods symptoms. That’s because these kind of long or hard workouts in stressful physical conditions contribute to damage of the endothelial tissue in the gut, which by design is very thin (one cell thick!) to allow for absorption. If you eat gluten and wheat products regularly, purchase a few non-gluten grains next time you’re out shopping. And if you do avoid wheat and gluten, try to find one or two new to you or haven’t tried in a while gf grains next time. Dietary diversity is also imperative for good long-term gut health.

One last note I’ll make here is that I left out a protein-rich ingredient to this. If you tend to follow a vegan or vegetarian way of eating, and especially if you’re active, please add one to your meal. You can read more here about the importance of protein, particularly for plant-based, active folks. Often I’ll add cooked beans such as garbanzos to make this type of salad a one-dish situation, but a side of seasoned/baked/grilled tempeh or tofu, grilled salmon or similar, a couple fried eggs, or whatever else is your protein of choice will round this out nicely into a true meal. Enjoy!

Radish + Hazelnut Grain Salad, serves 4
1 cup mixed grains (like millet, quinoa, buckwheat or any combination of these)
1 onion, thinly sliced
a large handful of baby spinach or kale leaves
1 cup radishes, thinly sliced
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup dried apricots, sliced into small pieces
1 cup parsley leaves, minced
1 cup mint and / or basil, minced
2 Tbs. olive oil
2 Tbs. white wine or raw apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup hazelnuts, toasted
salt and pepper to taste

  1. Place the grains in a medium saucepan and add 2 cups water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and then cover. Cook for 20-25 minutes until the water is absorbed, and then set aside to cool slightly.
  2. While the grains are cooking, saute the thinly sliced onions in a skillet with a little of the olive oil. Cook them until they are soft and translucent, bordering on being caramelized. Pull off the heat and transfer them to a large serving bowl.
  3. Tear or slice the spinach or kale leaves into small pieces and then pile them on top of the the onions.
  4. Add the slightly still warm cooked grains to the mixing bowl on top of the greens. Stir through to wilt them slightly. Then mix in the radishes, dried fruit, and herbs.
  5. Add in the olive oil and vinegar, 1 Tablespoon of each at a time, and stir through. Add additional as needed to make it the right consistency for you, i.e. add more oil and vinegar if you like a wetter mixture. Also taste as you go, since you might need more vinegar to bring a little more acid flavor for balance. Salt and pepper to taste at this time as well. You might need up to 3/4-1 tsp of salt and 1/8-1/4 tsp. black pepper.
  6. Serve slightly warm or at room temperature.