The long read: Our relationship with food has become ailment and obsessive. As the new year brings diet madness, it neednt be such a struggle to learn good eating habits
Our savors follow us around like a comforting darknes. They seem to tell us who we are. Perhaps this is why we act as if our core postures to eating are set in stone. We stimulate frequent endeavors more or less half-hearted to change what we eat, but almost no effort to change how we feel about food: how well we deal with starvation, how strongly attached we are to sugar, our emotions on being served a small portion. We try to eat more veggies, but we do not try to stimulate ourselves enjoy veggies more, maybe because theres a near-universal conviction that it is not possible to learn new savors and shed old ones. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
All the foods that you regularly eat are ones that you learned to eat. Everyone starts life drinking milk. After that, its all up for grabs. From our first year of life, human savors are astonishingly diverse. But we havent paid anything like enough attention to another outcome of being omnivores, which is that eating is not something we are born instinctively knowing how to do. It is something we learn. A mother feeding a baby is training them how food should savor. At the most basic level, we have to learn exactly what he food and what is poison. We have to learn how to satisfy our starvation and also when to stop eating. Out of all the choices available to us as omnivores, we have to figure out which foods are likable, which are lovable and which are disgusting. From these predilections, we generate our own pattern of eating, as distinctive as a signature.
In todays food culture, many people seem to have acquired uncannily homogenous savors. In 2010, two customer scientists argued that the savor predilections of children provided a new way of thinking about the causes of obesity. They noted a self-perpetuating cycle: food companies push foods high in sugar, fat and salt, which means that children learn to like them, and so the companies invent ever more of these foods that contribute to unhealthy eating habits. The main influence on small children palate is no longer able be a mother but a series of food manufacturers whose products despite their illusion of infinite selection deliver a monotonous flavor hitting, quite unlike the most varied flavours of traditional cuisine. The danger of growing up surrounded by endless sweet and salty industrial concoctions is not that we are innately incapable of defying them but that the more frequently we eat them, especially in childhood, the more they develop us to expect all food to savor this way.
Once you recognise the simple fact that food predilections are learned, many of the ways we approach eating start to look a little weird. To take a small example, consider the mothers who go to great lengths to hide veggies in childrens dinners. Is broccoli really so terrible that it must be concealed from innocent intellects? Whole cookbooks have been devoted to this arcane pursuit. It starts with the notion that children have an innate resistance to veggies, and will merely swallow them unawares, blitzed into pasta sauce or baked into sweet treats; they could never learn to love courgette for its own sake. We think we are being clever when we smuggled some beetroot into a cake. Ha! Tricked you into eating root veggies! But since the child is not conscious that they are ingesting beetroot, the main upshot is to entrench their liking for cake. A far cleverer thing would be to help children learn to become adults who choose veggies consciously, of their own accord.
By failing to see that eating habits are learned , we misunderstand the nature of our current diet quandary. As we are often reminded, eating has taken a dramatic collective incorrect turn in recent decades. Around two-thirds of the population in rich countries are either overweight or obese; and the rest of the world is fast catching up. The moral usually drawn from these statistics is that we are powerless to defy the sugary, salty, fatty foods that the food industry promotes. But theres something else going on here, which usually gets missed. Not everyone is equally susceptible to the dysfunction of our food supply. Some people manage to eat sugary, salty, fatty foods in modest sums, and then stop. Its in all our interests to find out how they have done it.
Cooking skills are no guarantee of health if your tendencies are for twice-fried chicken, Neapolitan rum babas and French aligot. Photo: Alamy
Many campaigners would say cooking is the answer. If merely infants could be taught how to cook and plant veggie gardens, they would automatically become healthier. It sounds convincing: school gardens are a lovely thing. But by themselves, they are not enough to make a child be attributed to food in healthy styles. Our difficulty “wasnt just” that we havent learned to cook and grow food, however important that is: its that we havent learned to eat in ways that support health and happiness. Traditional cuisines across the world were founded on a strong sense of balance, with norms about which foods go together, and how much one should eat at different times of day. Much cooking now, however, is nothing like this. In my experience as a food journalist, chefs and food novelists tend to be prone to compulsive eating and other ailment food preoccupations. For cooking to become the solution to our diet crisis, we first have to learn how to adjust our responses to food. Cooking skills are no guarantee of health if your tendencies are for twice-fried chicken, Neapolitan rum babas and French aligot: potatoes mashed with a tonne of cheese.
Like infants, most of us eat what we like and we only like what we know. Never before have whole populations learned( or mislearned) to eat in societies where calorie-dense food was so abundant. Nor is overeating the only problem that plagues modern affluent civilisations. Statistics suggest that around
0. 3% of young women are anorexic and the other 1% are bulimic, with rising numbers of men joining them. What statistics are not especially effective at telling us is how many others whether overweight or underweight are in a perpetual state of anxiety about what they eat, living in anxiety of carbs or fat grams and unable to derive straightforward pleasure from dinners. A 2003 study of 2,200 American college studentssuggested that weight concern is very common: 43% of its sample group were worried about their weight most of the time( across both sexualities) and 29% of the women described themselves as obsessively preoccupied with weight.
The question of how we learn to eat both individually and collectively is the key to how food, for so many people, has gone so badly incorrect. The greatest public health problem of modern times is how to persuade people to make better food options. But we have been looking for answers in the wrong places.
David L Katz of the
Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center is a rare voice of sanity in the clamorous world of nutrition. He disputes the commonly held view that the reason we dont eat better is because there is so much confusion over what the best diet really is. The medical proof suggested that it doesnt matter whether we reach this point via a low-fat road or a low-carb one( or vegan or paleo or just good old-fashioned home cooking ). Our problem , notes Katz, is not want of knowledge about the basic care and feeding of Homo Sapiens. Our problem is a stunning and tragically costly cultural reluctance to swallow it.
Take veggies. The advice to feed more veggies for health could hardly have been clearer. We have been given the message many times, in many forms. Many people, however, have absorbed the lesson from childhood that veggies and pleasure and more generally, healthy food and pleasure can never go together. Consumer scientists have found that when a new product is described as healthy, it is far less likely to be a success than if it is described as new.
When it comes to our dining habits, there is a giant mismatch between thoughts and deed; between knowledge and behaviour. Eat food. Not too much. Largely plants, tells the influential food novelist
Michael Pollan. A wise and simple mantra, much repeated; yet for many it seems anything but simple to follow in daily life. A tone of judgmental impatience often sneaks into discussions of obesity, from some of those lucky ones who have never struggled to change their eating, along with the quip that all that needs to be done to fix the situation is to eat less and move more. The implication is that the individuals who do not eat less and move more are somehow lacking in moral fibre or brains. However, the way we eat is not a question of worthiness but of routine and preference, constructed over a lifespan. As the philosopher Caspar Hare has said: It is not so easy to acquire or drop-off predilections, at will. ***
Once we accept that eating is a learned behaviour , we see that the challenge is not to grasp info but to learn new habits. Governments keep trying to fix the obesity crisis with well-intentioned recommendations. But advice alone never taught small children to feed better( I strongly advise you to finish that cabbage and follow it with a glass of milk !), so its strange that we think it will work on adults. The way you teach small children to eat well is through example, enthusiasm and patient exposure to good food. And when that fails, you lie. In Hungary, infants are taught to enjoy eating carrots by being told that they bestow the ability to whistling. The point is that before you can become a carrot eater, the carrots have to be desirable.
Many of the elation and pitfalls of childrens eating are still there for adults. As grown-ups, we may still reward ourselves with treats, just as our mothers did, and continue to clean our plates, though they are no longer there to watch us. We still avoid what disgusts us, though we likely know better than to hurl it under the table when no one is looking.
In the wild we would have needed a way to distinguish wholesome sweet fruits from bad bitter toxins. Photo: Mark Bolton/ Corbis
There is a common presumption shared, curiously enough, by those who are struggling to eat healthily and many of the nutritionists who are trying to get them to feed better that we are doomed by our biology to be hooked on junk food. The usual story runs something like this: our brains evolved over thousands of years to seek out sweetness, because in the wild we would have needed a way to distinguish wholesome sweet fruits from bad bitter toxins. In todays world, where sugary food is abundant, or so the reasoning runs, our biology makes us powerless to turn down these irresistible foods. Nutritionists use the word palatable to describe foods high in sugar, salt and fat, “as if its” impossible to opt a platter of crunchy greens garmented with tahini sauce to a family-sized bar of chocolate. Yet around a third of the population manages to navigate the modern food world just fine and select a balanced diets for themselves from whats available.
There are those who can eat an ice-cream cone on a hot day without needing to punish themselves for being naughty; who automatically reject a sandwich because it isnt lunchtime yet; who usually eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full; who feel that an evening meal without veggies isnt really a meal. These people have learned the eating skills that can protect them in this environment of plenty.
Viewed through the lens of behavioural psychology, eating is a classic kind of learned behaviour. There is a stimulus an apple tart, lets say, glazed with apricot jam. And there is a response your craving for it. Finally, there is reinforcement the sensory pleasure and impression of fullness that eating the tart gives you. This reinforcement encourages you to seek out more apple tarts whenever you have the chance and depending on just how great “youre feeling” after eating them to choice them over other foods in the future. In lab conditions, rats can be trained to opt a less sweet diet over a sweeter one when it is packed with more energy and therefore leaves them more satisfied: this is called post-ingestive conditioning.
We know that a lot of this food-seeking learn is driven by dopamine, a neurotransmitter was linked to motivating. This is a hormone that is stimulated in the brain when your body does something rewarding, such as eating, kissing or sipping brandy. Dopamine is one of the chemical signals that passes info between neurons to tell your brain that you are having fun. Dopamine release is one of the mechanisms that stamps in our flavor predilections and turns them into habits.
In our lives, the stimulus-response behaviour around food is as infinitely complex as the social world in which we learn to feed. It has been calculated that by the time we reach our 18 th birthday, we will have had 33,000 learning experiences with food( based on five dinners or snacks a day ). Human behaviour is not just a clear-cut matter of cue and outcome, because human being are not passive objects, but deep social beings. We do not just learn from the foods we put in our own mouths, but from what we insure others eat, whether in our “families “, at school or on TV.
As infants watch and learn, they pick up many things about food besides how it will savor. A rodent can press a lever to get a sweet reward, but it takes an animal as strange and twisted as a human being to inject such emotions as remorse and shame into the business of eating. Before we take our first bite of a certain food, we may have rehearsed eating it in our intellects many times. Our cues about when to feed and what to eat and how much to feed extend beyond such drives as starvation and hormones into the territory of ritual( eggs for breakfast ), culture( pies at a football match) and religion( turkey at Christmas, lamb at Eid ).
Our modern food environment is fraught with contradictions. The onu of religious remorse that has been progressively lifted from our private lives has become ever more intense in the realm of eating. Like hypocritical temperance evangelists, we demonise many of the things we eat most avidly, leaving us at odds with our own cravings. Numerous foods that were once reserved for festivities from meat to sweets have become everyday commodities, entailing not only that we overconsume them but that they have lost much of their former sense of festive joy. The notion that you dont eat between meals now seems as outdated as thinking you must wear a hat when you step out of the house.
In many styles, infants are powerless at the table . They cannot control what is put in front of them, where they sit, or whether they are spoken to kindly or harshly as they eat. Their one great power is the ability to repudiate or accept. One of the biggest things many children learn at that table is that their choice to feed or not eat unleashes deep emotions in the grownups close to them. They find that they can please their parents or drive them to rage, just by refusing dessert.( And then the adults complain that they are difficult at mealtimes .)
After a certain point in our lives, we discover the glorious liberation of being able to choose whatever we want to eat budget permitting. But our savors and our food options are still formed by those early childhood experiences. Rather alarmingly, it seems that our food habits “when hes” two whether we played with our food, how picky “were in”, the amount of fruit we eat are a pretty accurate gauge of how we will eat whenever it is 20.
The acquisition of eating habits is a far more mysterious skill than other things we learn in childhood, such as tying our shoelaces, counting or riding a motorcycle. We learn how to eat largely without noticing that this is what we are doing. Equally, we dont always notice when we have learned ways of eating the hell is dysfunctional, since they are become such a familiar part of ourselves. Having particular savors is one of the ways that we signal to other people that we are unusual and special. We become known as the person in the family who adores munching on bitter lemon rind or the one who feed apples right down to the pips.
In the 1970 s it was a common rite of passage to reject the conventional bland watery foods of a 1950 s childhood and embrace mung beans and spice. Photo: B Borrell Casals/ Frank Lane Picture Agency/ Corbis
You might say that food disfavours do not matter much: each to their own. I wont give you a hard time for disliking the fuzzy scalp of peaches if you will excuse my squeamishness about the gooey whites of soft-boiled eggs. The threat is when you grow up disliking entire food groups, leaving you unable to get the nutrition this is necessary from your diet. Doctors working at the front line of child obesity say it has become common in the past couple of decades for many toddlers to feed no fruit and vegetables at all. This is one of the reasons constipation is now such a huge though little mentioned problem in western countries, giving had given rise to 2.5 m doctor visits a year in the US.
Some hold the view that it doesnt really matter if infants have unhealthy savors, because once they grow up they will effortlessly acquire a penchant for salad, along with a deeper voice and mature political opinions. Sometimes it does work out this way. In the 1970 s it was a common rite of passage to reject the conventional bland watery foods of a 1950 s childhood and embrace mung beans and spice. Many savors for green tea, say, or vodka are acquired, if at all, in adulthood. When we learn to love these bitter substances, we undergo what psychologists call a hedonic shift from ache to pleasure. You may overcome your childish revulsion at the bitterness of espresso when you discover the wonderful after-effects, how it wakes up your whole body and infuses you with a desire for run. The big question is what it takes for us to undergo a similar hedonic shift to enjoying a moderate diet of healthy food. The process will be different for each of us, because all of us have learned our own particular way of eating, but wherever you start, the first step to eating better is to recognise that our savors and habits are not fixed but changeable.
Poverty makes eating a healthy diet harder in numerous styles. Its not just because it is far more expensive, gram for gram, to buy fresh veggies than it is to buy heavily processed carbohydrates. Perhaps you live in a food desert where nutritious ingredients are hard to come by; or in housing without an appropriate kitchen. Growing up poor can spawn a lifetime of unhealthy food habits, even if your income subsequently rises. When the flavor of white bread and processed meat are linked in your memory with the warmth and authority of a mother and the camaraderie of siblings, it can feel like a betrayal to stop eating them.
Yet its striking that some children from low-income households eat much better than others, and sometimes better than children from more affluent families. The problems with how we eat now cut across boundaries of class and incomes. It is feasible to create decent, wholesome dinners bean goulash, spaghetti puttanesca on a shoestring budget. Equally, one can have the funds to buy chanterelle mushrooms and turbot but no inclination to do so. According to feeding therapists with whom I have spoken, there are successful businesspeople who will literally pass out from starvation at their desks rather than permit an unfamiliar meal to pass their lips when their favor junk food is not available. Presuming that you are not living in a state of famine, the greatest determinant of how well you eat is the way you have learned to behave around food.
This behaviour is often immensely complex. In 1998 the social psychologist
Roy Baumeister did a famous experiment. Baumeister, who is known for his work on self-defeating behaviour, found that the fight of will required when a group of people were asked to eat virtuous foods such as radishes instead of the foods that they really wanted, such as chocolate and cookies, led to diminishing returns. They were so depleted by the effort of the task that when faced with another difficult task solving a tricky puzzle they would give up more quickly. The emotional endeavor of not eating the cookies had a clairvoyant cost. ***
Changing food habits is one of the hardest things anyone can do, because the impulses governing our predilections are often conceal, even from ourselves. And yet adjusting what you eat is entirely possible. We do it all the time. Were this not the case, the food companies who launch new products each year would be wasting their fund. After the autumn of the Berlin Wall, housewives from East and West Germany tried each others food products for the first time in decades. It didnt take long for those from the east to realise that they favor western yoghurt to their own. Equally, those from the west detected a liking for the honey and vanilla wafer biscuits of the east. You insure the greasy burger and you no longer think it has much to say to you. Photograph: Cadalpe/ Getty Images/ Image Source
Even though most of us have savors acquired very young, we can still change. EP Koster, a behavioural psychologist who has spent decades examining why we stimulate the food options we do, says that food habits can almost exclusively be changed by relearning through experience. That is, if we want to relearn how to eat, we need to become like infants again. Bad food habits can only change by making healthy food something that is pleasure-giving. If we experience healthy food as a coercion as something necessitating willpower it can never savor delicious.
Its seldom easy to change habits, particularly those so bound up with memories of family and childhood, but, whatever our age, it looks as if eating well is a amazingly teachable skill. This is not to say that everyone should end up with the same savors. But there are certain broad aspects of eating that can be learned and then tailored to your own specific passions and requires. There are three big things we would all is beneficial for learning to do: to follow structured mealtimes; to respond to our own internal cues for starvation and fullness, rather than relying on external cues such as portion size; and to stimulate ourselves open to trying a variety of foods. All these three can be taught to children, which suggests that adults could learn them too.
For our diets to change, as well as training ourselves about nutrition and yes, teaching ourselves to cook we need to relearn the food experiences that first shaped us. The change doesnt happen through rational debate. It is a kind of reconditioning, meal by meal. You get to the point where not eating when you are not hungry most of the time is so instinctive and habitual it would feel odd to behave differently. Governments could do a great deal more to help us modify our eating habits. In place of all that advice, they could reshape the food environment in ways that would help us to learn better habits of our own accord. A few decades from now, the present laissez-faire postures to sugar now present in 80% of supermarket foods may seem as reckless and strange as permitting cars without seatbelts or smoking on aeroplanes. Given that our food options are strongly determined by whats readily available, regulating the sale of unhealthy food would automatically stimulate many people eat differently. Banishing fast-food outlets from hospitals and the street surrounding schools would be a start. One study shows that you can reduce chocolate intake virtually to zero in a student cafeteria by necessitating people to line up for it separately from their main course.
But at an individual level, we wont achieve much by waiting for a world where chocolate is scarce. Having a healthy relationship with food can act like a lifejacket, protecting you from the worst excesses of the obesogenic world we now inhabit. You insure the greasy burger and you no longer think it has much to say to you. This is not about being thin. Its about reaching a state where food is something that nourishes and makes us happy rather than sickening or tormenting us. Its about feeding ourselves as a good mother would: with love, with variety, but also with limits. Changing the way you eat is far from simple, but nor, crucially, is it impossible. After all, as omnivores, we were not born knowing what to eat. We all had to learn it, every one of us, as children sitting expectantly, waiting to be fed.
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