Feed the Right Gut Bacteria: how your taste changes after going vegan
A Barbecue on a Cold Spring Day
It was the first warm(ish) day of spring in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada. Early April 2021. For those who know our climate, they know wintery weather sticks around until late May, so a day with sunshine in April, despite the wind, was enough to get me and my partner in some grilling mood. We prepared our line-up for that afternoon: brussel sprouts, snow peas, mushrooms, onions, bell peppers - and yes, a few Beyond burgers and sausages. To be very honest, I was excited the most about the brussel sprouts and snow peas. In mentioning that to my partner, they remarked: “I still can’t believe you are excited about those things”.
Yep. That was a very significant change for me. Because, not 18 months ago, I could not withstand putting any of those things - save for the Beyond stuff, of course - in my mouth. A year and a half ago, when I went vegan, trying to eat any of those treats I was excited for would have made me retch. So it got me thinking.
You may wonder whether I visited a dietitian and went through a very effective eating reeducation program, no?
I didn’t. All I did after I went vegan was to eat vegan junk food.
The Pickiest of Picky Eaters
Seriously. The first time I tried to go vegan was in 2006. Back then, my partner and I had just moved in together. We were 19, and still highly dependent on our parents. But somehow, before YouTube was a real thing, my partner got their hands on a copy of Earthlings. They asked me to watch it with them and I did. You may expect the outcome: vegan on the spot. I just could not, like most after sitting through the whole documentary, take part in what I just saw. So the next few days we were faced with a problem: my taste was worse than a picky toddler’s.
I would eat rice, potatoes, dairy and meat. That’s it. I didn’t like fruits. I liked no vegetable other than white rice. I didn’t even like most cheeses. I wouldn’t eat beans, chickpeas, quinoa, not a single leaf, not a single root, nothing. Potatoes and rice - those were the only things in the vegetable kingdom I could eat. So after a few weeks of trying, I gave up. There was literally nothing out there save for rice and potatoes that I could stand to eat.
Fast forward to 2019. All those years I carried the guilt in my head. I knew the right thing was to be vegan, but I thought I just couldn’t do it. My taste was still that of a child. One fine evening, we walked into a local grocery store, and we saw Beyond Meat. Immediately it caught our attention, and after we tried it, I said: “That’s it. This is the thing. Even if this is the only meat I’ll ever have, now I can go vegan. I have no more excuses!” My partner, of course, was thrilled about it, and not two months later, we were attending vigils and Cubes of Truth!
So plant-based substitutes became the staple of what I ate. Nothing changed, but instead of flesh and secretions, the centre of my plates were plant-based alternatives. Six months later, my partner made some spinach soup for themselves. I would usually hate the smell of cooked spinach. But that day, something felt different. It smelled the same but… I was not repulsed? Much, on the contrary, the smell attracted me. I reluctantly asked to try it… and I loved it. Not only it had spinach in it, but it also had peas, barley, corn and green beans.
Each time I brought the spoon to my mouth I prepared to retch, my brain made me pre-frown away from it. But when I actually tasted the contents… I not only liked it - I had true pleasure from the taste! We could not believe that - I ended up sharing the whole batch with my partner, and we were legitimately awe-struck with what had just happened.
The following weeks, as the excellent cook and partner they are, they helped me through lots of things I could not tolerate before - which at that time was pretty much the entirety of the whole food - plant-based options. Some things, like bell peppers and tomatoes, I still hadn’t grown into, but they didn’t bother me like before. It was a preference not to have them, instead of full-blown repulsion.
You’ll note we had bell peppers in our barbecue this spring. Because that shift didn’t stop there, 6 months after going junk food vegan. As time passed, my taste expanded to include more and more items. Nowadays, I can think of only two things I don’t like: pickles and okra.
But the real question is: How did this happen?!
Feed the Right Little Guys
I had no intentional program of reeducation to participate in. All I did was eat my junk food the same way I always had, except it was now plant-based. So I tried to look into the science of it. Was it something known to nutritionists and doctors, and dietitians, but, because of the carnist paradigms of those sciences, they just ignored it completely?
It seems to me that the prevailing answer is: yes, they know it, but they didn’t lock the details around it yet.
We have some hitchhikers in our guts that actually are more like the floor workers of our digestive tract factory floor - the microbiome. These are microorganisms that do the leg work that allows us to digest our food. Without them, our intestines would not be able to function properly. And turns out, they do way more than help with digestion. They compete with each other for resources, and one of the ways that they do it is to affect our cravings and our perception of taste, so we give them more of what they want.
That’s right: the little invisible minions inside your belly affect your cravings and taste.
Now, I cannot hope to actually describe the interactions that happened in my body to make such a drastic change happen. A quick search on the topic will tell you the details, but the gist of it is - somehow, through some process, scientists still cannot understand,the foods your microbiome crave have a higher chance to be craved by you. Those little folks know what they want, and they want you to want it too!
So, I believe that what happened to me is that, over my early years, I fed only the bad ones. But after going vegan, even while eating stuff that tastes like flesh and secretions, I effectively starved the microorganisms that fed on that. Over the course of my first 6 months being vegan, slowly they faded away, and with them, the dark desire for things unholy! At the same time, my gut microbiome was now filled with guys who love some good plant-based foods. And no need for the junk, anymore - the whole food things satisfied them as well. And apparently, they now satisfy me too.
The mechanisms of how this happens are still to be fully understood by science. But anecdotal evidence among vegans is everywhere. Other vegans may not have started as bad as I did, but most if not all of us experienced a vast broadening of our taste senses. And with that, our ability to, yes, enjoy roasted brussel sprouts. But not only that - it enables us to eat healthy foods that otherwise we would not be able to enjoy.
Picky Eaters Can Go Vegan
So if this is something that holds you back - if you don’t like eating your greens - don’t let this prevent you from doing the right things and go vegan. There are enough substitutes out there to carry you through the first months, and when you least expect, your microbiome will have done the work for you. The bad guys will have starved out, and you will most likely be free to know and enjoy food pleasure you didn’t know before. At the same time, you will no longer crave flesh and secretions. Because the microbiome in you that craves them will be gone.
As a result, you will be able to pair the ethical ease of mind of doing the right thing with the capacity to enjoy all the many pleasures that plant-based eating can bring! Win, win, win. You, your health, your consciousness. And, of course, the animals who will no longer be bred and die in your name.