If I’d read Bee Wilson’s new book First Bite: How We Learn to Eat (Basic) during the joyously fat-and-sugar-filled holiday season, when everything smells like butter and vanilla and you can’t go anywhere without being offered a cookie, I probably wouldn’t have been very receptive to Wilson’s central argument. “Eating well is a skill,” she writes. “We learn it. Or not. It’s something we can work on at any age.” But now it’s January, season of self-improvement, and we’re no longer supposed to enjoy anything we put in our mouths. The nicest thing about First Bite, though, is that Wilson truly believes that foods that taste good and foods that are good for you are not mutually exclusive. If, during this most shit-tastic, anhedonic time of the year, there’s a glimmer of hope that I might actually find pleasure in anything that’s good for me—even kale—I will cling to it.
Wilson is a food scholar and not a dietitian (her previous book, the highly entertaining Consider the Fork, was about the ways cooking and eating evolved in response to the development of various tools and utensils), and her approach is more reasoned and prescriptive than authoritarian. She believes that we can train our palates to prefer healthy whole foods to junk food full of empty calories, and she cites dozens of studies to prove it.
Of all the thousands of people who are starting a diet now, only one in five will be able to maintain the weight loss for longer than a year. What’s the secret? Wilson discovers it’s because, unlike the 80 percent of dieters who eventually gain all the weight back, “maintainers” don’t associate healthy eating with complete deprivation. Instead, they continue to eat their favorite foods, but in much smaller portions. They also reduce the amount of sugar and fried foods in their diets and increase the proportion of fruits and vegetables. “But the real change was on the inside,” Wilson writes, “because this was how they now wanted to eat.”
Such dramatic shifts in eating don’t happen all at once: researchers who work with picky children and anorexics have learned that patients learn to overcome food aversions through repeated exposure to tiny portions, sometimes as small as a grain of rice. Offering options is also important: no one, as Wilson realizes during an unfortunate period of her younger son’s toddlerhood, responds well to force-feeding. But it’s comforting to learn that it is possible to develop a genuine preference for healthy food.
Some of Wilson’s recommendations are commonplace in magazines and the health columns of newspapers: use smaller plates and serving bowls, make meals social experiences (because screens are distracting and make you overeat), learn to stop eating when you feel full instead of when you’ve finished everything in front of you. Like just about every food writer during the month of January, Wilson heaps praise upon soup (invariably described as “nourishing”).
Some food preferences come naturally, from your genes and from what your mother ate when she was pregnant with you; see supertasters (people with higher sensitivity to taste, by some estimates a quarter of the population) and those for whom cilantro tastes like soap. But Wilson believes that “appetite is a profoundly social impulse. To a large extent, our likes and dislikes are a response to the environment we eat in.” Wilson is most interesting when she examines social environments, particularly how families and peers influence eating habits. “There is vivid proof,” she writes, “that anything can start to taste good if you have positive memories of being fed it by a parent.” Sometimes that behavior is formed in reaction to a sibling: as a teenager, Wilson responded to her sister’s anorexia by becoming a compulsive eater.
Gender stereotypes govern adolescent eating: boys are encouraged to gorge on “manly” foods like enormous fast-food hamburgers without supplementing them with greens; if they’re a little overweight, well, they’re just big-boned. (“‘Man up!’ urged KFC’s slogan for its Double Decker Burger, as if there might be something wimpish in a boy who didn’t think he could manage a bun containing two full chicken burgers, bacon strips, cheese, lettuce, and a splodge of mayonnaise.”) Meanwhile, girls, who are prone to anemia, could do with a lot more iron-rich red meat instead of “cheating” on their diets by sneaking chocolate.
Wilson frequently returns to one extraordinary experiment from the 1920s in which a Cleveland pediatrician named Clara Davis put 15 infants from a nearby orphanage, aged between six and 11 months, on a special “self-selection” diet. For every meal, ten bowls, each filled with one item from a master list of 34 natural whole foods, were laid out in front of the infants; they were allowed to select what they wanted to eat and feed themselves without any guidance from an adult. Davis found that, though they developed preferences, the infants instinctively knew how to assemble balanced diets, choosing the foods that would compensate for vitamin deficiencies or help them recover from an illness. They even ate organ meats, like sweetbreads and kidneys, because no one told them they weren’t supposed to like them. Since they were separated from their parents, no one tried to buy their love with sweets; they never learned to associate candy with a reward for good behavior. (This is an old experiment, it’s true, but Wilson is not the only one who finds it still relevant, not the least because, for obvious reasons, it can never be duplicated.)
For Wilson, this experiment is a good guide to eating: surround yourself with good food, try everything, and see what happens. She does neglect variables like bad, out-of-season vegetables or lousy cooking, but the principle is sound. I’m looking forward to trying it out. v