Whether it’s a meal during holidays, a family gathering at any time of year, or even a snack or indulgence, it can be an opportunity for excessive calories, making weight management a challenge for even the most disciplined person.
Why? Because we all like eating stuff that tastes good.
Regardless of the time of year, watching our calories and managing our weight are always challenging when we’re constantly faced with a never-ending array of delicious foods. When we think of “dieting,” we anticipate a culinary boot-camp with foods that provide no taste, no fun, and no enjoyment. And endless piles of iceberg lettuce and carrot sticks. We think accepting the culinary wasteland that awaits us for weeks, months, or for however long we can manage to endure it, to make the pounds “melt away” is just part of the deal. No way!
Behind the Weight Loss Curtain: Fear of “Flavor Deprivation”
Watching your calories can leave you feeling deprived, but what you’re really feeling is a deprivation of flavor. Many foods we like are loaded with added fat, sodium, and/or sugar. These tap into our 4 tastes of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, and in the right combinations, they draw us in.
There’s a fifth taste on our tongues though: umami. If you watch enough cooking shows or TV chefs, eventually they mention umami. Umami is different from the other tastes but defining it is difficult to do with words, although it’s definitely detectable by taste buds. Chefs often define it as “the fifth taste” that brings intensity to any dish, a savory note. It intensifies the flavor of almost any dish and chefs love it.
What’s this secret power of umami? Glutamate. Yes, that glutamate, as in monosodium glutamate (MSG). Cast worries aside because MSG isn’t the chief source of glutamate for anyone. You’re already eating lots of glutamate now because it’s naturally present in foods like mushrooms, tomatoes, and parmesan cheese (now you know why you like Italian food so much!). It also means avoiding it isn’t necessary either, and trying to would be to avoid flavor! Little factoid: glutamate is naturally present in breast milk, too, probably to enhance palatability for the infants. See? It’s fine.
Clearing the safety issue away, the glutamate in MSG is the exact same glutamate as that found naturally in foods and your body treats it the same way: glutamate is glutamate, is glutamate. Period.
What’s Umami Got to Do with Managing Weight?
A lot, because adding a little MSG to low-fat, low-calorie foods, particularly savory ones, delivers so much more flavor than using salt alone. It brings flavor intensity, almost a “meatiness” to food and makes even low-calorie food taste more hearty and satisfying.
Research also suggests that a flavorful but low-calorie, umami-loaded broth can provide satiety, and reduced intake of saturated fat at meals, especially in persons with “high levels of eating disinhibition” (tech-speak for a tendency to overeat). The researchers suggested that the brain is craving flavor, and that umami can supply much of that flavor instead of fat.
I personally think of MSG as one of the best tools to help dieters achieve dietary and weight goals, because it can enhance your compliance with making good dietary changes.
Another win: gram for gram, MSG is 62% lower in sodium! That means you can enhance flavor while reducing the added sodium in your diet. As a registered dietitian-nutritionist (RDN) I’m always on the lookout for that “win-win” and using MSG in cooking is one I like.
Don’t believe me? Hear what these top chefs have to say about “umami”. Know that they’re talking about glutamate – the same one in MSG.
For home cooking, I use a 1:1 mix of salt-to-glutamate, but you may want to start with a little less MSG at first, for a 2:1 mix. Either way, you’ll be cutting sodium and increasing flavor, and maybe making it easier to eat deliciously with fewer calories.