First Bite: How We Learn to Eat

An exploration of the extraordinary and surprising origins of our tastes and eating habits.

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Karsen: From The Parent’s Club, I’m Karsen Kolnicki. This is your briefing.


Karsen: Today, we’re discussing First Bite: How We Learn to Eat. Written by Bee Wilson.

In this title, award-winning food writer Bee Wilson draws on the latest research from food psychologists, neuroscientists, and nutritionists to reveal that our food habits are shaped by many different factors including family and culture, memory and gender, hunger and love.

Karsen: Vincent, what does the author say about how we come to love specific types of food?

Vincent: There are so many different types of food out there, and everyone has different tastes, whether they like pizza, chicken, sushi, or soups. Wilson says that the foods that we love are often the ones we grew up with or dishes that appeared on our childhood tables.

They connect us to the past by providing us with nostalgic memories of other meals we ate when we were younger.

Karsen: Oftentimes, there seem to be certain foods that children are destined to hate. It could be broccoli or brussel sprouts. Yet other children will eat a whole plate of them. How does this happen?

Vincent: Researchers pretty much agree that our palate isn’t something that we have when we’re born, so our taste buds are developed over time.

Karsen: It’s a common belief that humans love sweet foods because they generally weren’t poisonous, which led to an evolutionary preference for sweets. But Wilson says that isn’t necessarily the case, right?

Vincent: That’s right. There was a 2012 study that showed that different people have varying perceptions of sweet foods. What might be sweet to one person could be bland to another person, so some people don’t get their sweet fix from sweet foods.

The study showed that some people even prefer a ball of mozzarella cheese or corn on the cob over sweet foods.

Karsen: In the United States, we often eat sweet cereals or pastries for breakfast, yet in a third of Western countries, they don’t eat sweetened cereals for breakfast. So what leads to this difference?

Vincent: The degree of sweetness really depends on how much we ate processed salted snacks or sweet treats when we were younger. So if we didn’t eat a lot of sugar as a child, fresh corn on the cob could taste really sweet to us. But if you ate more sugary foods as a child, then that corn may not satisfy your sweet cravings.

Karsen: It sounds like our taste is not something we’re born with, but rather we learn through eating. So what is the best way to influence what your child eats?

Vincent: Unfortunately, the advice is counterintuitive. Many of us hated when our parents demanded that we eat everything on our plate, even if we’re full. Your behaviors as a child often follow you into adulthood.

If you ate snacks as a child, then you probably crave snacks as an adult.

If your parents ate a sweet dessert after a heavy meal, then you likely will do so yourself as well.

Karsen: Parents often put pressure on their children to eat or like certain foods, but does that work?

Vincent: The research has shown that isn’t very helpful. In fact, it’s been long disproven.

In a 1929 study looking at children’s eating habits, babies as young as 6 to 11 months were allowed to eat a self-selected diet. So they could choose anything they wanted from a list of 34 foods that ranged from kidneys to sweet milk.

The nurse never put pressure on the child to choose certain foods. Whatever plate they picked, they could eat. The study lasted 6 years, and pretty much every child ended up trying all 34 foods on the list.

Even more interesting is that the children showed an ability to self-medicate. They ate nutritional foods like beef and even ate more vegetables like beets and carrots if they had a cold.

Karsen: That’s fascinating that the children knew they would get nutrients by eating a wide range of foods.

Vincent: The other big takeaway from the study is that pressuring the children to eat wouldn’t encourage them to try new foods, it would merely stress them out.

Karsen: It seems like all foods on the shelves are marketed as healthy, even sweet cookies and cereals. How did that happen?

Vincent: It’s definitely true that many foods that are marketed to children are not healthy once you look at the nutrition label or ingredients. While many parents stop their kids from eating too much candy, they still end up feeding their children breakfast cereals or processed dinners with a lot of sugar.

There was a 2013 study that found that almost 75 percent of food marketed to children had shockingly low nutritional value.

Although there have been efforts to improve this, none have been really effective.

Karsen: Hmm, and why does Wilson say this is the case?

Vincent: She says this is because children never learned to see food as a source of nutrition in the first place. So kids will keep throwing away healthy school lunches in the trash until this changes.

Karsen: How has overfeeding children led to an increase in childhood obesity?

Vincent: It’s not uncommon for grandparents to encourage children to eat one more bite, even when they’re full. Many grandparents may have had a different experience with food or hungry during their childhood.

In China, for instance, childhood obesity has increased fivefold for children living in cities. With urban parents at work all day, their children are often cared for by grandparents who believe that chubby children will be better off if food supply dwindles or a famine hits.

While famine was a very real possibility for their generation, it isn’t as much of a concern for modern parents. So their good intentions end up harming their grandchildren’s eating habits.

Karsen: That makes sense how that could happen.

Vincent: It can even start at a very young age when infants are crying. Some parents think that a crying infant is always hungry, so they will readily feed the baby to stay quiet. This ends up creating a connection in the child’s brain between eating and calming themselves.

Later, this habit can follow people into adulthood when they resort to comfort eating to cope with anger or sadness.

When you push children to eat everything that’s on their plate, they may pick up the habit of not stopping when they’re full, but rather only stopping when their plate is empty.

Karsen: So poor eating habits can begin very early in childhood. Society has gender norms for how boys and girls eat differently, how does this impact eating habits?

Vincent: Gender norms do influence how parents feed children, which can create health problems in the future. There’s a stereotype that boys eat more meats and girls eat more vegetables.

However, many adult women cope with an iron deficiency because when blood is lost during menstruation, it results in lower levels of iron. Meanwhile, boys are often deficient in vitamins and nutrients that are found in vegetables.

Karsen: I assume that it can also be damaging that many boys are told to eat as much food as they’d like, while girls are often warned to watch their weight.

Vincent: Right. Many boys would be better off if they ate less. The problem stems from their parents not knowing that their children have a weight issue. A survey in Scotland revealed that parents only recognize if a child is overweight if they are severely obese. If they weigh slightly more than they should for their age, they’re often seen as normal and healthy.

Another survey in the United States found that 43 percent of overweight men didn’t think they needed to lose weight. So this problem can follow you into adulthood.

Karsen: The author identifies another problem in the book, where children often ask for food because they’re bored.

Vincent: In past generations, famine was often a very real challenge. However, most of the Western world has never experienced true hunger. As a result, Wilson says that many children learn to say that they’re hungry, even if they are just bored.

Karsen: So what should parents do about that?

Vincent: Susan Johnson, a pediatrician, explored many studies to help children better understand hunger or fullness. She found that children from four to five years old spent six weeks learning how to regulate their food intake. It turns out that exercise was critical to determining true hunger.

The results showed that children who ate too much learned to eat less when they exercised. And children who ate too little learned how to fill themselves up when they were truly hungry.

Karsen: So exercise can have a big impact on regulating food intake. When adults are miscalibrated on hunger, can this be fixed?

Vincent: Yes, it can be. In the Netherlands, it was shown that in a seven-day workshop, participants could practice a body scan technique to determine the difference between physical hunger and emotional dissatisfaction.

Karsen: On that note, are there different countries or cultures that have the best practices for forming healthy eating habits?

Vincent: Anyone who has visited Japan has likely noticed that there are few obese Japanese people. That’s a result of the Japanese diet being one of the healthiest in the world. And they enjoy longer life expectancy as a result.

Karsen: So what is the Japanese diet?

Vincent: Historically, it has been a lot of rice, a few vegetables, and miso soups. However, in the nineteenth century, Japan opened its borders and began to compare their diets to other countries. They found that the national diet was lacking in a few areas, so there were change made to introduce more protein into what was a mostly vegetarian diet.

The cooking techniques evolved to include more stir-frys and barbecues. However, they were served in smaller portion sizes than in many other countries.

Karsen: That’s really interesting.

Vincent: Yea, so an omelet in Japan wouldn’t include a side of fried potatoes. Instead, a Japanese cook may include the Japanese staples of miso soup, rice, and vegetables instead.

Karsen: So if people realize they have a desire for change, then it’s possible to develop improved eating habits.

Vincent: This was a good example of an entire country doing just that.

Karsen: It sounds like the key takeaway from this book is that we aren’t born with our eating habits and preferences. Instead, this is something that is learned through our eating experiences, starting at a very young age. When we pick up negative habits as children, they can stick with us into adulthood. However, if we pick up an interest in improving our eating habits, then we can make a change to eat a healthier, more balanced diet.


Karsen: That’s it for your briefing. I’m Karsen Kolnicki.

Vincent: And I’m Vincent Phamvan.

Karsen: We’ll see you next time.


We are not born knowing what to eat; as omnivores it is something we each have to figure out. From childhood onward, we learn how much to eat and how sweet is too sweet. We learn to enjoy green vegetables — or not. But how does this education happen?

In First Bite, award-winning food writer Bee Wilson draws on the latest research from food psychologists, neuroscientists, and nutritionists to reveal that our food habits are shaped by a whole host of factors: family and culture, memory and gender, hunger and love. Taking the reader on a journey across the globe, Wilson introduces us to people who can only eat foods of a certain color; prisoners of war whose deepest yearning is for Mom’s apple pie; a nine year old anosmia sufferer who has no memory of the flavor of her mother’s cooking; toddlers who will eat nothing but hotdogs and grilled cheese sandwiches; and researchers and doctors who have pioneered new and effective ways to persuade children to try new vegetables. Wilson examines why the Japanese eat so healthily, whereas the vast majority of teenage boys in Kuwait have a weight problem — and what these facts can tell Americans about how to eat better.

The way we learn to eat holds the key to why food has gone so disastrously wrong for so many people. But Wilson also shows that both adults and children have immense potential for learning new, healthy eating habits. An exploration of the extraordinary and surprising origins of our tastes and eating habits, First Bite also shows us how we can change our palates to lead healthier, happier lives.

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