What You Eat Is You

We all must learn to eat. Yet how we are taught, by whom, and with what foods bode for a lifetime of good or ill. From First Bite to last, you won't be able to stop... until it's finished.

First Bite

Publisher: Basic
Author: Bee Wilson
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2015-12

In Consider The Fork, Bee Wilson took an invigorating look at the history of kitchens and the equipment furnishing them. Now, with First Bite the food journalist turns her attention to eating, a skill we must all learn. Yet how we are taught, by whom, and with what foods bode for a lifetime of good or ill. As obesity and obesity-related illness rates soar, are we truly powerless in the face of salt, fat and sugar? Or can we change poor eating habits?

First Bite's extensive research carries Wilson from Ireland to Pennsylvania, through a 26-page bibliography of scientific papers, and her own painful struggles with food as a daughter, sister, and mother. The result is a book readers will be unable to put down until the final page.

"As omnivores, we have no inbuilt knowledge of which foods are good and safe," Wilson writes. Instead, most infants learn which foods are desirable from their parents, who in turn reflect cultural foodways. Although many of us might wish otherwise, the vast majority of our taste preferences and eating behaviors cannot be blamed on genetics or the cries of a primal brain: our tastes, be they for chocolate or carrots, are largely learned, as are our cherished notions of the ideal meal.

If you want to know what somebody eats, Wilson writes, don't scrutinize their genome. Ask where they come from.

In times of scarcity, locale matters not. Starving children are not selective eaters. When food is abundant, neophobia, or fear of new foods, is common in children aged two to six years old. While neophobia generally abates, persistent cases are both socially maladaptive and a threat to good health: Wilson describes an autistic boy who ate only grilled cheese and hot dogs; another nine-year-old's food anxieties led to a diet of "chicken nuggets, potato chips, and plain bread". Each child was successfully treated with "tiny tastes" behavioral therapy, which involves sampling new foods in rice-sized amounts.

Neophobic adults, who comprise a surprisingly large number of the population, are less treatable. Like children, adult neophobes suffer both health-wise and interpersonally; it's difficult to meet friends for dinner when you subsist on reheated frozen Yorkshire puddings, as one woman does. Forty-eight year-old Diane eats "Cheese, processed potato products, sliced bread, and cereal". She understands her eating is dysfunctional but feels too old to change.

Then there's the parent who contacts a feeding clinic about her 18-year-old daughter, who decided where to attend college based on the type of pizza served in the cafeteria. She even traveled there to taste it.

All of these individuals fall under a category of dietary dysfunction called EDNOS: Eating Disorder Otherwise Not Specified. Dr. Keith Williams, of the Penn State Hershey Medical Center, told Wilson he treats children of families whose normal diet involves eating pizza "five or six or seven or ten times a week". Children from such families, lacking opportunities to sample a variety of foods, are more inclined to become picky, anxious eaters.

Continual pizza consumption leads to another increasingly common dietary dysfunction wherein adults never outgrow childlike eating preferences. In a chapter entitled ."Children's Food", Wilson writes:

In theory, we should all reach a level of maturity where we put our childish tastes behind us. We swap our candy habit for a coffee one. Salad becomes a part of our lives and we grow to appreciate bitter flavors: espresso, chicory, Campari and soda.

Instead, many adults are eating alongside their children, modeling a limited diet of fatty, soft, highly processed foods requiring minimal chewing. Wilson disparagingly notes the popularity of "birthday cake" desserts in high-end restaurants, consumed by non-birthday-observing adults. See also the proliferation of recipes for potato chips dipped in chocolate, salted desserts, and the popularity of chocolate/bacon candy bars.

Most frightening is Anorexia Nervosa. Notoriously treatment averse, Anorexia has a terrifyingly high mortality rate. If this weren't bad enough, the disease, once considered the scourge of adolescent girls, is increasingly striking preadolescents of both sexes. Wilson relates the harrowing story of "V.E.", who is seven-years-old, 57 pounds, and hopes to get down to 50. Her mother, who has a history of mental illness, envisions her daughter "dancing on Broadway". Anorexics often seek to control their lives the only way they think themselves able: through starvation. Wilson is no stranger to Anorexia herself. During her teens:

Everywhere I went, food screamed at me. Maybe it was a response to living with my older sister, who was anorexic, though this was never mentioned, because in our family we did not speak of such things. Or it could have been a consequence of growing up in a house where emotional talk was taboo. It definitely got worse when I was fourteen and my parents separated. Overeaters often say they are swallowing their feelings.

What about healthy eaters? Where do they come from? Researchers find willing, avid eaters tend to grow up in households where parenting is "Authoritative", that is, highly involved yet highly demanding. Children are offered a wide variety of foods, which they are firmly expected to try. There's also evidence that breast-fed babies, exposed to a broad flavor palette through mothers' milk, are better eaters than formula-fed infants.

More compelling is the third of the populace disinterested in fatty, sugary, salty foods; these individuals, while in possession of healthy appetites, have no interest in food when not hungry and have no difficulty pushing away their plates when full. Wilson suggests science investigate what makes these people tick. (I am married to such a person. "It's just food," he says, bewildered at my bewilderment.)

How parents best accomplish the physical task of feeding children is another story. Wilson, whose youngest child was born with cleft palate, relates the wrenching experience of trying to ensure her son ate enough. China's children suffer the opposite fate. Over half of Chinese children are cared for by grandparents, many of whom survived famine. These elderly individuals, harboring terrible memories of hunger, cherish their only grandchildren by overfeeding them. Even when their sons and daughters beg them to stop, they are unable or unwilling, viewing fat on a small child as a promise of future health.

The situation is worse in Kuwait, where oil-related wealth is combining with traditional Arab hospitality to create an obese teenage populace, with "some of the highest rates of adolescent obesity anywhere, with nearly half of those aged fourteen to nineteen overweight or obese." When these teens were administered the EAT-26 Test, a measure of disordered eating, the numbers described more than just dietary dysfunction. These teenagers, caught between traditional values and increasing exposure to the Western mores, may be experiencing "cultural adjustment difficulties". Binging on American junk food at American-style shopping malls can't be helping.

For all this dire news, Wilson offers hope for change. When Irish dietician Dympna Pearson stopped hectoring overweight clients with health facts and impossible diets, turning instead to reflective listening tactics, she saw improved results. When researchers questioned individuals who lost much weight and kept it off, they found key commonalities: daily breakfast, avoidance of deprivation, flexibility with the occasional slip. At the societal level, British salt intake dropped over a seven year period when food companies, bowing to lobbying and governmental pressures, used less sodium in their products.

Internationally, the "Sapere" movement seeks to educate children in the art of eating. The method is taught in Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, France, and Switzerland. Children are given a whole experience of food, permitted to handle it, play with it, eat with their fingers -- all experiences that lead to their growing into more willing tasters. Yet one need not be a child; Finnish Sapere experiments with the very aged led to greater enjoyment of cooking and eating. In one Swedish experiment, 12 elderly people were fed bitter chicory salads with a garlic dressing, then introduced to fennel and sweet potatoes. They enjoyed everything. From tiny to aged, changing eat habits is not only possible, but can be painless and even pleasurable.

Wilson concludes with an epilogue of helpful "non-advice": eating is an acquired skill. Like all acquired skills, yours may need a little polishing. Sugar is sweet, but it does not love you. Rethink portion sizes. Use smaller plates. Yes, it's a cheap trick. It works. Remember that eating is about nourishment. Don't push your kids to eat better: model better eating habits yourself.

Every day, the world competes for you appetite. Over here, sugary snacks. There is a book hawking a ridiculous diet. Now your eye alights upon a magazine cover displaying a toned, airbrushed beauty. How'd she get so skinny? How come you're not that skinny? Gotta hit the gym... Ooh! What smells so good? Falafel truck! When did you last eat, anyway?

Now is the moment you need First Bite.

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