"How can someone change from a fraught relationship with food to a less fraught one, which is where we all want to get?" says Bee Wilson, author of First Bite.

[More from Wilson: The spoon: Used by every human culture in the world]

Joe Yonan: Why do you think so many of us seem to have such a difficult relationship with food?

Bee Wilson Bee Wilson

Bee Wilson: I think it's partly because we have this mistaken idea that eating is something really simple, that it's just innate like breathing, that we're born knowing how to do it. Actually, it's a series of immensely complicated skills that some of us master better than others.

There are just so many ways in which eating can go wrong. Before the book, I hadn't even fully appreciated the extent to which the spectrum of unhappy and disordered eating, ranging from anorexia and yo-yo dieters to binge eaters and adult picky eaters, is tied up with so much of the rest of life.

Part of my starting point for the book was I used to be really unhappy and out of control in the way that I ate as a teenager and a young adult. Now I feel I've jumped over to a really happy place with food. I don't associate it with guilt. I don't beat myself up over things that I eat. The book was really my attempt to explain how this was possible. How can someone change from a fraught relationship with food to a less fraught one, which is where we all want to get?

JY: How did that work for you? How did you change your relationship with food?

BW: It's really strange looking back to try and work out how it happened. It definitely didn't happen in the way that all of the diets I used to impose on myself did. As a teenager, when I was unhappy about eating, I was endlessly forcing myself on these punitive diets. I'd feel really hungry. I'd be hopeful at first, and then I'd give up and cave in after about three or four days. Then I'd feel even worse.

Whereas when I changed to this new way of eating, it took time. I think it was bound up with lots of other things going on in my life. The big thing was that I fell in love with the person who was my future husband, who had a completely different relationship with food. It wasn't that he was a health nut -- far from it -- but it was just that he was eating three structured meals a day. He didn't seem to have food in different moral categories in the way that I had done. A slice of cake was just a slice of cake, but equally he ate salad because he loved it. That really changed my perspective on food.

JY: What's so fascinating is this idea that you learned that eating is something that we learn to do in a very specific way. That it's not something that we're just born with. Can you talk a little bit more about how you came to that and what that means?

BW: This was a big revelation I had while I was doing the research. I didn't really realize that was the theme of the book. I thought I was writing a book, when I started, about children and food. But the more I looked at it, the more I saw that the ways in which children were learning to eat were still there for adults. That many of us as adults haven't successfully learned the eating skills that we need in order to feed ourselves in a way that's nutritionally pretty balanced and also a pleasure.

I don't think it's how we think of eating. We think of our likes and dislikes as something which are so intimate and personal that they must be nature rather than nurture. They must be something genetic because they seem to follow us around like a comforting shadow. Our love of cauliflower and our hatred of grapes, or whatever it might be, seem to tell us who we are.

But the more I looked into the science of it, the more it became clear that almost all of our likes and dislikes are, in fact, a function of memory in the brain. We're imprinted with certain flavor memories from the very first taste that we take, but also environment, the cues that we're picking up from our culture, from our parents and the rest of our family about what's good to eat.

JY: One of my favorite parts of your book was about the Clara Davis experiments.

First Bite First Bite

BW: This was an extraordinary thing. She would never have got away with it now because it would be seen, rightly, as completely unethical. Clara Davis was a pediatrician from Chicago. She took a group of children who'd never had a bite of solid food -- some of them were orphans, some of them had single mothers -- and put them in an experimental orphanage in a hospital.

Her idea was: What would children's tastes look like if they were freed from all of the usual influences and expectations? She offered the children each day a smorgasbord of different foods. There were beets, peaches, lettuce, beef, chicken, bone broth, liver and salt. There was no expectation they should eat this or that. They weren't pushed to any food.

At the end of the experiment, what she found was that each of the children had a different pattern of tastes, but each of them was able to select for themselves a diet which served them very well nutritionally. There were children who, at the time they entered the hospital, had rickets. They cured themselves. The ones who were malnourished were no longer malnourished.

The way that people have often taken this experiment is to say, "Great, we can just leave children alone to their own devices." There's this phrase that doctors used a lot in the middle of the 20th century: "wisdom of the body." We just naturally know what to eat.

Actually, Dr. Davis drew the opposite conclusion. She was aware that the biggest thing she'd done with her experiment was to radically restructure the children's environment. If we were all choosing from a diet of nothing but pure, whole, unprocessed foods, our likes and dislikes wouldn't matter so much. But in a society where a child has a choice -- between "Do you want this sugary cereal, or do you want this sugary sports bar?" -- being left to his or her own devices isn't such a great idea. Dr. Davis concluded that children's nutrition should be left in the hands of their elders, where it's always belonged.

JY: That led you to come up with some interesting conclusions about what might work best for parents of so-called selective eaters or picky eaters.

BW: I was so pleased by this research because it's so hopeful. There is lots that parents of picky eaters can do.

I'm not saying it's equally easy for everyone. I think sometimes there is an element of judgment that comes in. If you have children that are relatively easy to feed, you might look at another family and think: "Why won't their children just eat? They must be doing something wrong."

It's really hard for a lot of parents. But there is a lot of recent research that's been done, just over the past 10 years both by academic researchers and by clinicians, which shows that you can really change a child's whole relationship with food.

I spoke to the director of the Feeding Evaluation Clinic, Keith Williams, in Pennsylvania. He works with children on the autistic spectrum, some of whom are down to eating just three foods. There was a boy he worked with who ate nothing but hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches and milk. You can't get the nutrition you need from that. It's miserable for the whole family. Some of the kids he works with get so bad, they're being fed by a tube.

He found that if you could just expose the children to a range of foods that were the size of a grain of rice, they would consent to put that food in their mouth. What we know is that because our likes are largely a function of exposure, if you can try that grain-of-rice-sized food often enough, the odds are you're going to like it. He did this amazing experiment where he succeeded in converting these two very, very resistant toddlers who had been on three foods up to as many as 65 new foods in their repertoire over just two weeks. It really works.

Joe Yonan
Joe Yonan is the Food and Dining editor of The Washington Post and author of Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook (Ten Speed Press, 2013).