First Bite isn’t a diet book in the sense that it doesn’t offer you tidy little prescriptions about how to get slimmer. Rather, it’s about why you eat what you eat and how you can be persuaded—and persuade yourself—to eat better by changing your habits and removing barriers to change.
Eating Should Be a Pleasurable Activity
At its core, First Bite is an exhaustively researched discourse on how you’re taught to eat since your childhood and the various social and cultural forces that have shaped your individual—and society’s collective—appetites and tastes.
Many children habitually seek out precisely the foods that are least suitable for them. … Over the centuries, the grown-ups who have devised children’s food have seldom paid much attention to the fact that its composition matters not just in the short term but because it forms how the children will eat in adult life. … The kids’ foods in supermarkets, laced with sugar and adorned with happy cartoons, teach children that what they eat must be a form of entertainment, portable packages of fun.
Parents have an incredible power to shape their kids’ appetites for various foods
Many of us now have found ourselves in an adversarial relationship with food, which is tragic.
Wilson asserts that the real root of your eating problems is your very first childhood experiences with food. First Bite will help you look back at your upbringing and reflect upon what—and how—you learned to eat.
The foods parents give to babies provide them with powerful memories that trigger lasting responses to certain flavors.
Wilson summons an abundance of anthropological, psychological, sociological, and biological research in examining how food preferences come into play. She considers food in the context of family and culture, memory and self-identity, scarcity and convenience, and hunger and love.
The main influence on a child’s palate may no longer be a parent but a series of food manufacturers whose products—despite their illusion of infinite choice—deliver a monotonous flavor hit quite unlike the more varied flavors of traditional cuisine. … The danger of growing up surrounded by these endless sweet and salty industrial concoctions is not that we are innately incapable of resisting them, but that the more frequently we eat them, especially in childhood, the more they train us to expect all food to taste this way.
People are not physiologically inclined to dread certain foods
Especially appealing is Wilson’s exposé of modern Western-style food production, marketing, and accessibility:
Modern meals marketed at children send the message that if you are a kid, you cannot be expected to find enjoyment in anything so boring as real, whole food. The kids’ foods in supermarkets, laced with sugar and adorned with happy cartoons, teach children that what they eat must be a form of entertainment, portable packages of fun.
Whereas in the past, manufacturers aimed their messages at the parents who bought the groceries, they now found that there was money in aiming products directly at children. Somehow, a new generation of youngsters were able to manipulate their parents into buying them exactly the foods they desired, which were the ones they saw advertised on TV.
Since the 1950s, children’s food has gone from being something nourishing but pleasureless to something whose primary aim is to pander to childish tastes.
To change your diet, you have to relearn the art of eating and how you approach food
Wilson makes a compelling case on how food preferences can change—for individuals and for entire societies. Some chapters discuss stubborn toddlers, overeaters, undereaters, fussy eaters, the obese, the anorexic, and people with various other eating disorders—and how they’re being taught to relish food and learn new tastes.
In modern Japan, Wilson notes that people mostly eat an ideal diet with adequate protein, modest amounts of fat, and enough fiber. Contrast this to the middle of the 20th century, where there was never enough food in Japan, and what little was available lacked flavor and variety. Then meals consisted mostly of rice and pickles; Miso, sushi, and ramen noodles became prevalent only later.
Learning how to eat better isn’t easy, but it’s possible
Wilson’s central premise is, for all intents and purposes, you have more control than you think over what you like and dislike. You can teach yourself to enjoy food if you do incorporate more of specific types of food.
First Bite is ultimately a very hopeful book. If you’ve learned what and how to eat as children, you can unlearn and relearn, and change your food habits—at any age:
Changing our food habits is one of the hardest things we can do, because the impulses governing our preferences are often hidden, even from ourselves. And yet adjusting what you eat is entirely possible. We do it all the time.
Wilson argues that your taste buds are very adaptable and malleable. You can alter your relationships with foods that you tend to desire unreasonably and those you inherently dislike. In other words, if you can persuade yourself to understand that food is a treat, eating well becomes a delight. Eating for nourishment need not be something you should grudgingly do half of the time.
Recommendation: ‘First Bite’ is a Must Read
Bee Wilson’s First Bite: How We Learn to Eat can be quite dense in some parts, but it’s incredibly engaging and fascinating. It’s filled with lots of food-related facts, e.g. many TV ads for chocolate are targeted at women, depicting them as powerless to refrain from chocolate’s “melting charms.” Moreover, there’s none of the moralizations you’d find in diet books.
This book will transform your perspective on the importance of healthy eating and developing your tastes for more nutritious choices. If, indeed, food habits are learned, they can also be relearned.
Wilson suggests three big changes you’d benefit from assimilating:
- Pivot to real, flavorsome food by trying new foods. Taste them willingly, without pressure or rewards. “We mostly eat what we like (give or take.) Before you can change what you eat, you need to change what you like. The main way we learn to like foods is simply by trying them. If you ask young children which foods they most detest, they tend to be the ones they have never actually tasted, often vegetables. You can’t know if you hate something until you have tasted it.”
- Learn how to identify hunger and satiety cues. “Being able to regulate the amount of food we eat according to our needs is perhaps the single most important skill when it comes to eating—and the one that we least often master. The first stage is learning to recognize whether the stomach is empty or not.”
- Eat mindfully and slowly. Trick your brain so you’ll eat less. “Smaller plates—and smaller lunchboxes and smaller wine glasses—really do work. Eat dinner on side plates or bowls and dessert on saucers. Rethink what counts as a main course. Instead of having a large pizza with a tiny salad garnish, have a huge salad with a small pizza on the side. It’s still a very comforting meal.”
If you’re a parent, First Bite offers great ideas on introducing food and developing a great palate in your children.