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Yet nothing could be further from the truth.


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All the foods that you regularly eat are ones that you learned to eat. Everyone starts life drinking milk. From our first year of life, human tastes are astonishingly diverse. It is something we learn. A parent feeding a baby is training them how food should taste. At the most basic level, we have to learn what is food and what is poison.

We have to learn how to satisfy our hunger 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 preferences, we create our own pattern of eating, as distinctive as a signature. In , two consumer scientists argued that the taste preferences of childhood provided a new way of thinking about the causes of obesity.

The Art and Politics of Eating

The danger of growing up surrounded by 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. Once you recognise the simple fact that food preferences are learned, many of the ways we approach eating start to look a little weird. Is broccoli really so terrible that it must be concealed from innocent minds? Whole cookbooks have been devoted to this arcane pursuit. It starts with the notion that children have an innate resistance to vegetables, and will only 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 smuggle some beetroot into a cake. Tricked you into eating root vegetables!

The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher

But since the child is not conscious that they are consuming 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 vegetables consciously, of their own accord. By failing to see that eating habits are learned, we misunderstand the nature of our current diet predicament. As we are often reminded, eating has taken a dramatic collective wrong 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 resist the sugary, salty, fatty foods that the food industry promotes.

Not everyone is equally susceptible to the dysfunction of our food supply. Some people manage to eat sugary, salty, fatty foods in modest quantities, and then stop. Many campaigners would say cooking is the answer. If only children could be taught how to cook and plant vegetable 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 relate to food in healthy ways. 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 writers tend to be prone to compulsive eating and other disordered food obsessions. 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 inclinations are for twice-fried chicken, Neapolitan rum babas and French aligot: potatoes mashed with a tonne of cheese.


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Like children, 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.

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Nor is overeating the only problem that plagues modern affluent civilisations. Statistics suggest that around 0. What statistics are not particularly effective at telling us is how many others — whether overweight or underweight — are in a perpetual state of anxiety about what they consume, living in fear of carbs or fat grams and unable to derive straightforward enjoyment from meals.

The greatest public health problem of modern times is how to persuade people to make better food choices. But we have been looking for answers in the wrong places. Our problem is a stunning and tragically costly cultural reluctance — to swallow it. Take vegetables. The advice to eat more vegetables 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 vegetables and pleasure — and more generally, healthy food and pleasure — can never go together. When it comes to our dining habits, there is a giant mismatch between thought and deed; between knowledge and behaviour. Not too much. A wise and simple mantra, much repeated; yet for many it seems anything but simple to follow in daily life. The implication is that those 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, built over a lifespan. It also examines the relationship between painting, photography, video and food as media, as culture and as art forms. Your email address will not be published.

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The Art and Politics of Eating

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