‘First we eat, then we do everything else’ – M.F.K. Fisher.
I’m a writer whose main subject is food. But my theory is that food relates to all the other subjects that matter. So when I say that I write about food, that doesn’t really tell you anything. The subject of food encompasses love and home and toast at the kitchen table; but also hunger, e-numbers and diets that don’t work. Food is History and Politics. But it’s also the small things, like how a blood orange tastes in February or the way a handful of pumpkin seeds seem to come alive in a hot pan.
At the moment, the aspect of food that most obsesses me is why we eat the way we do. Our culture is fixated with nutrients (every year brings some new ‘superfood’) but more or less ignores the question of psychology: what makes us want to put these foods and not those in our mouths? Eating well is not something that comes naturally, yet we hardly ever discuss this. It strikes me that there are large numbers of people who are very unhappy about food, for one reason or another. I used to be one of them myself. Somehow, to my great surprise and relief, I found a way to relate to food in healthier, happier ways.
This is the theme of my latest book, First Bite: How We Learn to Eat (published by Basic Books in the U.S. and Fourth Estate in the U.K.). It’s about how both adults and children learn to eat. As omnivores, we are not born knowing what to eat. We each of us have to learn to for ourselves. As children being fed, we do not just learn how to chew and swallow. We discover how big a ‘portion’ is and how sweet is too sweet. We learn to eat green vegetables – or not. Some of the things we learn are helpful, some less so. Often, we remain trapped in childhood eating patterns for the rest of our lives. We still reward ourselves with sugar and clean our plates, just as if our parents were still there watching us, though we probably learn better than to throw unwanted morsels under the table.
When I wrote First Bite, I discovered that our eating habits could be patterned not just by rational information but by such influences as siblings and culture; memory and gender. Across the world, boys tend to be fed differently from girls, in ways that are unhelpful for both sexes (in some cases, life-threateningly so).
But the greatest discovery I made was the the science suggests that food preferences can be changed, at any age. I spoke to some remarkable psychologists working with children with severe feeding difficulties. With the right intervention, it is possible to train these children to enjoy a range of healthy foods. There have also been experiments done with adults showing that it is possible to change our palate for sugary and salty foods. An aversion to broccoli or an addiction to doughnuts does not have to be a life sentence.
Often, our food environment looks like an obesogenic disaster. But it is possible to become someone who responds to the food around you in different ways. Not everyone is tempted by Twinkies. Writing this book filled me with great optimism about the potential for humans – of any age – to adapt the way they eat for the better. Your First Bite does not have to determine what comes next.