In her book ‘The First Bite’, food writer Bee Wilson draws on the latest research of psychologists, neuroscientists and nutritionists to reveal how our food patterns are shaped. She is interested how we come to acquire bad food tastes and how we might help to change them. Nutritional experts lecture us about what we ought to eat, Wilson wants to understand why we eat what we do. In fact, also we -as mindful eating teachers- ask our participants in mindful eating training similar kinds of questions.

Wilson writes: “We are not born knowing what to eat; as omnivores it is something we each have to figure out for ourselves.” Isn’t this the struggle most parents have to deal with?Even for a vast majority of the adults, eating is often a daily mental challenge. The overarching question Wilson asks in her book is how we acquire our tastes and what might be done to change these.

She shows that food habits are shaped by a whole host of factors: family and culture, memory and gender, hunger and love. She reckons that adults already know very well what kind of nutritional foods are best to eat and what a healthy diet is. It is a  matter of common sense that eating too much salty, sugary and fatty processed foods might be not the most compassionate way to treat our precious organs and cells.

In The First Bite,  Wilson explores how tastes are not merely shaped by genetics but mainly through learning. In all cultures, newborn children have a preference for sweet flavors and dislike the bitter. However, every food culture is different. Some children learn to prefer spicy foods, while in Japan natto beans are a delight for little kids. With other words, tastes are experienced at home and after many years of repeating, they are condensed into strong habits. So where does the misperceptions start? Because patterns which are so engrained, we think we are unable to alter our sweet, salt or fatty foods craving. On top, what makes these foods so attractive is that they are entwined in our minds with so many good and soothing memories. We all know from our own eperience that our tasts are partly driven by nostalgia, by where and with whom we were eating certain foods.

I think one of the most interesting points Wilson make, is the fact that our taste habits are not rigidly innate. And thus can be altered. As a mindful eating teacher (working with people with disordered eating), this is great news. With other words, we don’t need to be the slaves of our wild cravings and therefor conscious food decisions may become an attainable reality.

The approach in ‘The First Bite’ is an optimistic one and not at all finger waving. She shows us ways to widen our appreciation of complex, multi-layered and nourishing foods instead of the convenient processed meals and snacks. She acknowledges the importance of health, but even more so, for pleasure and the joy of eating. Wilson offers suggestions and not rules. The mantra of Michael Pollan, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” is easy but hard to follow.  According to Wilson, to adhere to this well-meant advice we need to: ‘Like real food. Not enjoy feeling overstuffed. And appreciate vegetables.’

With her book, Wilson wants to make a point that there is a possibility of changing our food habits in a kind and non-restrictive way. A positive approach where more emphasis is placed on the joy of eating. For every mindful eating teacher this book is a must-read!

Caroline Baerten, Belgium

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