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First Bite, a book about how we learn to taste

First Bite, by Bee Wilson

This is a book about how we learn to taste and eat, with a fresh look at the latest research - the balance of nature vs nurture, how psychology and culture play in and more.. 

Fascinating stuff!

Eating well shouldn’t be complicated in our land of plenty, but somehow in our western society, we have made it so.  I can't help but think, 'Problems of the rich!' but no, it turns out that there is nothing straightforward about it. Here the author attacks our eating habits and food issues by delving into how we learn to like what we do in childhood, showing that taste is a skill, a learned behavior, more than we think.

Besides a small genetic component providing us with variable appetite, physiology and sensitivity to certain flavours, our likes and dislikes are mainly acquired. Across the world, we all are born with an innate predisposition towards sweetness and a suspicion of bitterness. We all start with a diet of milk, but after that, it’s all about flavours and what is normal differs depending on culture.  And by the way, the whole idea of ‘kid food’ as separate from adult food is unique to ours.  ‘A kid that only eats cornflakes says more about the parents than his/her personality.’ Nonetheless, the author refrains from taking on a tone of telling us what to do, sharing her exploration of our taste buds, rituals and common hang-ups, causing us to think anew about the multiple facets of our funny relationship with food.  

Interestingly, there is a magic window between four and seven months when a baby is more open to new tastes, after which they typically enter a neophobic stage (fear of new foods), when the whole process of getting children to like what’s good for them becomes more difficult, and which we often bypass with the focus on breastfeeding followed by bland sweet mush.

Another interesting tidbit: A regimen of successive exposure to ‘Tiny Bites’ appears to be a sure tactic to introduce a new food to even the fussiest of children, the key being pea sized morsels outside the pressure of mealtime threats and bribes.  Most kids come to like a ‘despised food’ after 4-5 tries, requiring up to 14 times for a tough case such as an autistic child. It especially helps if the broccoli or whatever it is that is ‘good for you’ isn’t treated like it isn’t supposed to be yummy (worthy of a sweet treat). Pressuring a child to eat greens teaches him/her to dislike them. Force feeding is problematic in this day and age when lean times are not necessarily around the corner; abundance has made obsolete the notions of our grandparents with their 'waste not, want not' philosophy and penchant for generous portions and food treats when possible due to memories of hunger and harsh times. 

Now, an ‘ Authorative but Warm’ parental feeding approach seems to be the most beneficial  for long term health and weight  which means caring and controlling what is on the plate or in the pantry, but allowing children to learn to self-regulate as early as possible. There are many proponents for BLW (Baby Led Weaning)– babies feeding themselves with their hands as of 6months finger foods like steamed vegetables, risotto, soft fruit and bread, even lamb chops.  

Experiments show that children who are only introduced to lumpy solids after 10 monthes are more likely to show feeding difficulties as toddlers such as trouble swallowing or general anxiety about eating anything but familiar comfort foods. 

Another notorious experiment showed that toddlers to ten year olds who were left on their own ultimately chose a sufficient quantity of a variety of foods and healthy diet overall (yes fruit and vegetables and including bone marrow and cod liver oil)-the key was that that what was available was a variety of reasonably wholesome foods (not junk).

We are reminded that likewise; we can unlearn bad eating habits by slowly changing our tastes even as adults. Medical evidence has long established that the healthiest diet is composed of moderate helpings of a variety of real whole foods, mostly plant based and minimally processed, alongside regular exercise. Ritual and culture (rules) often help structure healthy eating behaviour. Unlike the occasionally contradictory nutritional information about fat and carbs, it has never been controversial that we should eat our veg. Yet, we are eating less than ever. So it’s not about information or knowledge but applying it, learning new habits.

There is an increasing consensus among neuroscientists, psychologists and biologists in the nature vs nurture debate about how taste works, however complex and influenced by many factors, it is fluid, changeable, certainly not fixed. Our ‘tastes’ are just reinforced patterns of neurons firing relying on the drug famous dopamine response.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter/hormone released in the brain when you do something rewarding that provides pleasure. The chemical signal (dopamine response) can fire up at even at the sight of (in anticipation of) a food linked to a prior positive taste experience or memory. So it’s not about physical taste more than it is the thought of it and what it means to us including the context (in relationship to the cook/parent or company, the identity or statement it provides, social acceptance etc, ie the story associated with said food.)

Peer pressure, siblings and societal gender roles also have an influence, whether positive or negative (they are part of the story, obviously!). 

It’s interesting to have science back it up, but we all inherently know how true all this is -from our favourite meals being tied to love or celebration or nostalgia, our phobias from traumatising situations, that food tastes better when you can see it and that it looks delicious or if you are led to believe that it will be for whatever reason..

So how can so many people get away with being so absolute in their claims to like/dislike foods, or allowing their kids to be such fussy eaters beyond a short phase?? As a cook, I’ve seen people go from hating fish or coriander or blue cheese or spice to adoring it so many times depending on how it is prepared, by having an open mind or with acclimatization, I find it infuriating to hear someone say they won’t try something.

I just see it as a missed opportunity for pleasure or life experience. Like I said, I believe eating should not be so complicated. Bee Wilson proves that it is and isn’t in the best of ways, which is only empowering, good news for those with food issues and parents of young children.  No need to stress out over nutritional labels if you learn to love your veggies..

But, in case you do want to know more, I can go on with miscellaneous compelling facts and thoughts from Wilson's book..

Hunger, the most basic of physical needs for survival, is not simple either. Way more complex than low blood sugar, running deep and muddled in how we feel it and respond to it. ‘If you’re hungry enough, you’ll eat it’ does not always work.. The sweet peanut based Plumpy Nut miracle food created to beat malnutrition in Africa did not have the same success in Bangladesh or India because it is foreign to what food should taste like to them;  a bean/lentil coconut thing is in the works.  In understanding hunger on a biochemical level, there has been progress. There is leptin concentration (an indicator of much fat is available and a cue to stop eating); while studying binge eaters, it appeared that over-eating can cause resistance to it. Another biomarker for hunger that stimulates us to eat is Ghrelin yet it has been shown that outside factors such as regular mealtimes can trump these biomarkers. There is CCK, a gut hormone that is released when the stomach is full (of fat and protein, or just extended) that suppresses hunger. Yet again, there is an important cognitive effect on hunger and satiety, for example heavily influenced by how much food we are offered (portion size!).  While our body is supposed to stop eating when it registers that we are full (as easily happens with children under the age of 4), it seems that many of us have learnt to ignore these cues. The conventional cereal and juice might be the worst start to the day. Fact: Soup and protein will keep us full longer. Fact: We tend to eat more when distracted. Mindfulness and education can teach children as well as adults to more accurately listen to hunger and self-regulate.

We have a lot to learn from other cultures (before they catch our eating disorder). Japan is a stellar example of diet (and change; what we associate with Japanese is relatively new). The French have also taught us a few things, it being natural to raise kids in a ‘civilized’ way with rules and sensory education, a reverence for food and dining; which surely help develop an overall attitude towards eating that is open to variety, less governed by the simple sugar-salt-fat equation that is the normal pull here.

Eating disorders are revelatory since often they are best understood as extreme versions of regular, common irrational feelings toward foods and feeding disorders such as emotional binging to selective eating.. However recent research suggests that in the case of anorexia, there is a more definite genetic factor, but it remains a predisposition, requiring other environmental stress in childhood and trauma triggers as well as other untreated conditions (depression). Anorexia is correlated to a dysfunction of the insula, a part of the brain that regulates anxiety which appears to be linked to flavour processing, as if an anorexic brain has a hard time recognizing pleasure, which makes recovery tougher than with others. 

Family Meal! is the one universally beneficial lifestyle choice for all.  When it comes to people  with feeding disorders (fussiness, phobias), or with eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia..) alongside medical help and psychotherapy, the most crucial part of any successful treatment is ultimately a structured meal with others where a range of foods are on offer but in a firm and loving way.

And when it comes to losing weight, which is the fight of many Westerners, the key tips from those who maintain a healthy weight is slow change (towards healthier choices, decreasing portion size and sugar etc) alongside exercise evidently, while avoiding any diet that is too restrictive.. You have to enjoy your diet for long-term success. But with a flexible brain, we can adjust our likes by making little modifications and introducing variety while working on the pleasure response, the ‘story’ around the food, in conjuction with attention to the other senses.  

This power has been exploited by the fast food industry to the max for instance with the optimal potato chip that feeds on our love of crispy, crunchy, fatty, salty and sweet with sensory overload. Consider all the stunts and smoke and mirrors that food purveyors and restauranteurs use to alter/enhance the taste experience with lighting, utensils, music, marketing etc.. The new field of Neurogastronomy is increasingly demystifying these non-taste related sensations that impact flavour,  for one to assist people with eating disorders and chemotherapy patients derive pleasure and nourishment for quality of life.

Cooking is another great FREE way to take control and feed ourselves better; implicating kids in the process makes them more inclined to eat it too.. And it's true that just about no one doesn't have time to cook, it's a choice. I'm a little bossier than Bee on this one.

Needless to say, I enjoyed this informative read! 

A review from the Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jan/29/first-bite-how-we-learn-to-eat-bee-wilson-review?CMP=twt_a-lifeandstyle_b-gdnfood


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