What matters more in shaping who you are as a person: your parents or your environment?
Let’s assume you have the same parents, but instead of growing up in London or Boston, you’d grown up in rural Texas. Would you be a different person than who you are today?
Or what if you grew up in Miami vs. a small podunk town in Missouri? Would you be the same?
I realize this is a lot of questions off the bat. But this is what I’m getting at: are you a product of nature or nurture?
Science has attempted to answer the question by examining everything from genetics to psychology to sociology and more. In fact, nutrition studies in the early 20th Century examined whether the nutritional habits of kids were innate or learned.
In the 1920s, the medical establishment believed children were born with innate likes and dislikes. Kids hated broccoli because, well, they’re born that way. But in 1926, Dr. Clara Davis decided to put this “kids are born liking or disliking certain foods” theory to test.
The medical community refused to acknowledge what she discovered for decades to come. But what she discovered has a huge impact on our lives today.
Dr. Davis and Her Unethical Experiment
Before we go any farther, you need to know something about Doctor Clara Davis’s experiment: it could not be repeated today. Why? Because it was highly unethical.
Davis devised a long term experiment that involved giving kids free rein over what they ate every day. That’s not a bad part, though. You see, Davis “borrowed” infants from orphanages and from teenage mothers and widows for a span of what turned out to be six years.
As I said, wildly unethical. But here’s why her study is interesting: All the children in her experiment were aged 6-months to 11-months, and most importantly, had never consumed solid foods. This allowed her to study childrens’ appetites away from the pressures of parents and doctors.
With no outside pressure from parents, children had the ability to eat as they saw fit. Except for two of the kids who never tried lettuce or spinach, all the infants tasted every food offered.
Here’s the full list of those foods:
What she noticed wasn’t fussy children, but enthusiastic kids trying new foods. Without the preconceived notions bestowed on them by their parents, the children explored all kinds of flavors.
Some days kids gorged on nothing but bananas or liver or milk. Some tried food once and never grabbed it again. Davis noticed when trying new foods, kids were at first surprised by these novel tastes. But she then watched as their faces’ morphed into either pleasure, disgust, or apathy.
Taste preferences were being born right before her eyes. She was discovering that the medical establishment of the time was wrong about the innate taste preferences of children.
After her six-year experiment, she even adopted two of the kids. And though her experiment was unethical as fuck, many of the infants who arrived pale and slightly malnourished had huge improvements in their health (some of these children had rickets when they arrived). So I guess she did some good then?
Anywho, by the end of her experiments, she had chronicled over 36,000 meals. That’s an impressive amount of data on the feeding habits of early 20th-century children. Sadly, she never fully analyzed that data and it was discarded after her death in 1959.
It’s unfortunate that the prevailing scientists of the time misread her experiments. They continued to tell the world that kids’ tastes were a matter of nature. What those fancy-pants scientists missed is that Doctor Davis changed the food environment the children lived in.
The power of food environment is exactly what one of the leading researchers of our era spent his career researching.
A Researcher’s Rise to Fame…
Eighty years after the days of Dr. Lifetime Movie Plot, Dr. Brian Wansink — one of the leading researchers on nutrition in the late 00s — ran Cornell University’s “Food and Brand Lab.” At Cornell, he and his colleagues conducted experiments detailing how food environments impact food choices.
His most famous was the “endless bowl” experiment. For this study, his lab built a gizmo that steadily pumped soup into the bottom of a bowl as a participant ate. Everyone else in the study filled their bowls themselves. Wansink and his team found that those who ate out of the bottomless bowls consumed more soup than those who filled it themselves.
But that’s not the only environmental issue Wansink found in the studies he conducted. He also published studies that showed:
- People ordered more when the waitstaff was “larger”
- People consume more calories when exercise is framed as “work”
- Shopping when you’re hungry increases the calories you end up purchasing
Brian Wansink has been one of the biggest health food crusaders in the last twenty years. His biggest influence in nutrition was on declaring that large containers of foods cause people to want to eat more.
The work he did in his lab at Cornell led to food companies taking up the challenge to offer lighter calorie choices. Like the 100-calorie snack packs you see in stores.
And because of his work, Wansink became one of the most influential people in the field of nutrition. For two years he served as the executive director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.
He not only worked on improving dietary guidelines for the United States, but he worked to improve the food offered in public schools, within the U.S. Army, and even at Google.
….and His Fast Crash to Shame
To have his studies cited more than 20,000 times is an awesome feat for any researcher. But it’s also a super not awesome feat when the vast majority of his work came into question because of “highly questionable research practices.”
You see, in 2018, Brian Wansink had 15 of his studies retracted, leading to more questions about the rest of his work.
Cornell’s provost concluded that Wansink’s academic misconduct hinged on “misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.” Cornell removed Wansink from all teaching duties and research in September of 2018. And he retired from Cornell at the end of the 2018-2019 academic year.
Does that invalidate everything Brian studied or documented for decades? Are bottomless bowls bogus? Does creating smaller calorie snack options for people prevent them from eating more? Does it mean that the concept of a food environment is as bogus as some of Wansink’s data?
Maybe. Maybe not.
But this is where I believe we need to look deeper. Because here’s what I think Winsink got wrong and that Clara Davis got half-right. It’s not the environment that matters: it’s exposure.
From Womb to Tomb: Unhealthy Diets Start Early in Life
Let’s go back to my original question: Is your personality determined by nature or nurture?
Think about it this way: You’re not born with an accent, you develop your accent by the sounds you’re exposed to as a child — at home and at school. The sounds you hear are the sounds you repeat.
And maybe I’m making a Carl Lewis sized leap of logic here, but aren’t most of the things you enjoy in life a product of exposure?
If you’re raised by hippies who grow their own veggies in a garden vs. having parents who buy canned veggies, veggies would taste different to you, right? Or what if you had parents who brought home fast food for dinner and rarely (if ever) cooked? The way you taste food would be different, right?
Brian Wansink spent years trying to show that the food you surround yourself with influences your eating habits. And that if you could change your environment, you could make getting to a healthier weight easier.
Don’t buy chips; buy apples instead. Because if you have apples sitting around instead of chips, you’ll eat the apples. Seems logical.
But if apples, kale, broccoli, or any other fruits or vegetables aren’t things you’re exposed to as a kid, are you really going to eat those foods even if that’s all you surround yourself with?
Probably not. But those “veggie chips” I see over there, well, they must be healthy because they say “healthy” and “fat-free” on the label. Man, who knew eating healthy involved chips…made of veggies!
Sure, you can clean up your environment. But environment alone isn’t what matters, which is what Wansink gets wrong.
What foods you’re exposed to may be the greatest factor when determining likes and dislikes.
And research has shown this to be true. In fact, your early taste preferences may not even be up to you. Because what you’re exposed to in your mother’s womb may have a massive impact on your lifelong food preferences.
“Because taste and smell are already functional during fetal life, and because the fetus regularly swallows amniotic fluid, the first experiences with flavor occur prior to birth. Exposure to these “transmittable” flavors influences the acceptance of these flavors by the infant postnatally.16
Julie Mennella and colleagues examined the influence of repeated prenatal exposure to carrot juice and found that women who consumed carrot juice for three consecutive weeks during their third trimester of pregnancy had infants who exhibited fewer negative facial expressions when first introduced to carrot-flavored cereal as compared to plain cereal.17
These findings reveal that experience with dietary flavors begins as the fetus is exposed to flavors from the maternal diet in utero, and that this early experience can provide a “flavor bridge” that can begin to familiarize the infant with flavors of the maternal diet.” – Source
Oh thanks, Mom. Guess you screwed me for life with your unhealthy diet of Big Macs and pickles dipped in peanut butter while you carried me around for 9 months.
What tastes you’re exposed to goes beyond your time in the womb too. Once a child’s born, they’re still learning and developing their flavor palates based on their mother’s milk. Breastfed children, compared to formula-fed children, show a greater acceptance of new food tastes when those foods are a part of Mom’s diet.
Exposing infants to a wider array of flavors from nutrient-rich foods in utero and in early infancy via Mom’s titty juice may help prevent unhealthy diets in childhood and as adults. So yea, for a while, what Mom eats is kind of a big deal.
Note: I do realize there are many reasons why women cannot breastfeed (my Mom could not with my sister). And in no way whatsoever do I want you to feel guilty for making the choice to not breastfeed. I am only pointing out the science here. And if you are one of those women who can’t breastfeed, you may have to expose your child more to healthier options as early as you can.
Fast Food, Less Cooking at Home, & The Foods We Expose Ourselves to More
One thing that is pretty clear, though: The foods available to pregnant women have drastically changed in the last six decades. When my Grandmother was pregnant with my Dad, she ate foods prepared at home. Foods that came from the garden or that she prepared herself. A 2016 study looked at the data over the last 50 years and found that Americans in the 1960s ate nearly 90% of their meals at home.
According to a 2016 study from The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, between the years of 2007 and 2010, 11% of the calorie intake in the United States came from fast food. And the CDC found that over a three-year span, on any given day, roughly 37% of Americans consumed fast food.
In fact, that same 2016 study from The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that across all fast food joints over a 30-year span (1986 to 2016), the number of items on their menus increased by 226%.
But here’s what else that study found over that 30-year span:
- Portion sizes in entrées increased by 13 g/decade;
- Dessert sizes increased by 24 g/decade;
- The energy (read: calories) of items also increased, including the size of sodas; and,
- Sodium contents of menu items also increased significantly
There are nearly 250,000 fast food restaurants in the United States today. And there are more openings every year. So it’s safe to say that today people consume fewer home-cooked meals and are more exposed to fast food than ever.
And though we’re cooking fewer meals at home and ordering more fast food, Americans are actually around food more often throughout the day than they were 30 years ago.
A 2010 study from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that children and adults in the United States have more opportunities to eat today than ever before. And those eating opportunities usually come in the form of “snacks” composed of energy-dense, highly-processed foods. Oh, and ya know, delicious sugar-laden beverages.
So yes, our food environment has changed. That’s obvious. But fast food isn’t the only culprit. Grocery stores offer over 40,000 more options to consumers today than they did in the 1990s.
What types of foods we expose ourselves to drives our choices. Environment is nature; what we expose ourselves to is nurture. So what’s to blame, nature or nurture?
The Two Es: Education and Exposure
No one is born hating broccoli or peas, just as no one is born with a dialect. Like the sounds you’re exposed to that teach you how to speak, so too are the foods you build a taste or distaste for. And this is what Dr. Davis’s experiment really shows.
If after you’re weaned off your Mom’s milk-filled boobs, your diet changes and includes more fast food, fewer home-cooked meals, and the only veggies you ever consume are fried potatoes, you’re probably not going to like a lot of “healthy foods.”
Here’s the good news: humans can change. You can alter your behaviors and change your eating habits. You can re-learn, or discover, how to appreciate and eat food you once disliked (or never tried).
This is what a study conducted in the UK from September 2016 to June 2017 attempted to show with a group of 219 children aged 2-5. The children were assigned at random to four groups.
- Group one focused on taste exposure (TE)
- Group two focused on nutrition education only (NE)
- Group three combined education and taste exposure
- Group four (the control group) had no intervention
The vegetable chosen for this experiment was mooli. Which kind of looks like a white carrot but is technically a radish. Researchers chose it because it’s not too hard, isn’t bitter, and can be eaten raw. The mooli, cut up into bite-sized pieces, was then provided to the kids during their snack times. The kids could eat as much as they wanted.
Here’s what the study found:
Taste exposure is a robust and durable strategy to promote intake of an unfamiliar food. In this study, preschool-aged children who were willing to eat an unfamiliar vegetable increased their intake of this vegetable over time following intermittent exposure during snack time in a group setting. In contrast, nutrition education alone was not sufficient to increase intake of a novel vegetable. However, nutrition education was sufficient to increase willingness to taste the unfamiliar vegetable. Therefore, in the future, such programs could incorporate experiential learning (including taste exposure) to encourage first steps toward tasting and eating a new vegetable.
What food(s) or tastes you’re exposed to begin in utero, then extend to your mother’s milk, and from there, your tastes are greatly influenced by what your family exposes you to at home. We could argue this extends to school as well.
Early exposure to healthy foods like fruits and vegetables matters. In fact, more than 75% of children in the United States don’t eat the recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables.
90 years ago, Dr. Clara Davis proved in her experiment that kids’ tastes aren’t genetic. Children learn to like foods they’re exposed to over time. So it makes sense that kids who aren’t exposed to a wide array of fruits and vegetables as children morph into adults who don’t eat many fruits and vegetables.
And when you look at the data, that’s the case in the US. According to a 2018 report by the CDC, 12.2% of American adults met the recommended daily requirement for fruit, and 9.3% of American adults met the requirement of vegetables. (Those low intake numbers applied across all socioeconomic groups.)
Basically: adults eat worse than children in this country.
As a society, we’ve nurtured ourselves to consume highly-palatable, calorically-dense, not-so-nutritious foods. We’ve succumbed to a culture of convenience. Our environment has become a product of what we’ve nurtured ourselves to consume more of — greatly changing our eating habits. And we’re passing those habits and tastes on to the next generation — a generation that may live shorter lives than their parents.
This is where it would be very easy to pass blame for our food woes onto a myriad of scapegoats — corporations, politicians, society, food manufacturers, parents. But the truth is, there isn’t one smoking gun. We created a cacophony of choices packaged in the trappings of “convenience” with no clear indication about where or how our choices might reverberate through our lives.
Note: A little over 7% of the US population lives in what’s termed a “food desert.” These occur in both rural and urban areas and greatly affect lower-income families/individuals. Writing about a food desert is a whole other article in-and-of-itself. But I want to acknowledge that there are more than 23 million Americans who do not have easy access to quality and nutritious foods. And that improving what they eat is a bit harder. But again, that is an article for another day.
Better Health Starts with Nurturing Better Habits
Most diets fail. Especially unhealthy diets that aren’t sustainable, those are bigger failures than a Creed cover band. Sadly, most people regain the weight they lose. One analysis that looked at nearly 30 different studies found that “more than half of the lost weight was regained within two years, and by five years more than 80% of lost weight was regained.”
Of course, there are numerous factors for why diets fail and why people regain weight. Biology is one. There are some with a genetic predisposition to have increased levels of body fat.
But for the vast majority of people, the two things that likely influence weight gain or diet failure are the things that Brian Wansink and Dr. Clara Davis spent years researching: environment and exposure.
- We live in a food environment that sells cheap, highly-processed, and low-quality nutritional foods.
- We cook fewer meals at home than our grandparents.
- And millions more lack the exposure to the daily necessary servings of fruits and vegetables. Exposure that starts as early as the time they’re in their mother’s womb.
The role of nature vs. nurture creates a circle where one influences the other, going around and around again and again. Exposure influences and creates environment; and your environment exposes you to the same foods over and over. It’s a crazy circle. And where the hell does a circle begin anyways?
Again, the good news: even if you weren’t exposed to lots of fruits and vegetables as a kid, you can change your tastes as an adult (much the same way you can help a child develop new tastes). You can shift from an unhealthy diet to something healthy and sustainable by doing similar things that Dr. Clara Davis did in her 1929 experiment.
How to Expose Yourself to New Foods
Telling people to eat more food they hate is the first step to driving them farther away from making any change at all. As with most things in life, start small and build slow.
Eating is a skill, one we learn as children, but that carries through our entire lives. However, as a child, there’s one skill you’re not learning that involves food: cooking. And if there’s one skill that pays back tenfold over the span of your life, it’s the skill of cooking.
Cooking is one of the greatest acts of self-sufficiency. As Epicurus wrote, “The greatest fruit of self-sufficiency is freedom.” Cooking frees you to explore and try new things. It provides a playground for you to discover your tastes.
You can find a gazillion recipes online for every meal imaginable (if you want minimal ingredients, check this out). Or you can do something as simple as signing up for boxed meal services like Plated, Blue Apron, or Hello Fresh. If you’re a cooking noob, these subscription services send you 3-4 meals a week with easy-to-follow recipes that take less than 45 minutes to cook.
If you have access to them or can afford it — and I’d like to add this is not an “expense” but an investment in your future — take a cooking class. A cooking class can teach you about food, and not only how to prepare it, but what tastes and flavors work best with certain foods.
Start Slow & Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment
Another way to slowly expose yourself to new foods is to cut up a single sliver of a veggie you’ve never (or rarely) consumed. But before you try it, smell it. Feel its texture. Then take a small bite of it. Discover how it tastes to you. It may still be bitter or bland or outright gross. That’s fine. But that doesn’t have to mean it’s an item you avoid at all costs.
Back to cooking, try experimenting with every way possible to cook a new or once hated veggie. Roast it, grill it, saute it, put it in a soup. Try cooking it in butter, ghee, bacon grease (best way to eat brussel sprouts), olive oil, vinegar, or even whiskey.
Veggies like onions and mushrooms absorb the flavors you cook them in. How you cook a veggie and what you cook it with/in can drastically change its taste. And it can even bring out flavors you’ve never known before.
Add It to Things You Already Love
The first few options are things you can do if you want to be a bit more adventurous. But if you’re a bit more conservative with your tastes, that’s cool too. If that’s you, why not add whatever new food it is you want to try into a meal you already enjoy?
Exposing yourself to a new food by combining it with something you already like helps you build a more positive experience around what you’re consuming. How you first experience food can set the stage for whether you ultimately like it or not.
But here’s the most important thing about exposing yourself to new foods: if you have a positive experience with said food, you’re more likely to continue consuming that food. If you have a poor experience, learning to like that food will be much harder. It doesn’t matter if a food gives you everlasting life or not, if you hate eating it, are you gonna want to consume it?
Making healthy meals that are enjoyable to you doesn’t mean you have to eat kale and bland, boiled chicken. You can have a burger. You can have tacos. Healthy doesn’t have to be boring.
“We are stuck in habits and attitudes that seem impossible to break. We are stuck thinking food is love. We are stuck with guilt about food because we are female, or stuck not liking vegetables because we are male. We are stuck feeding hungers that often exist more in our brain than in our stomach. We are stuck in our happy childhood memories of unhealthy foods. But the biggest way that we are stuck in our belief that our eating habits are something we can do very little about. In fact, we can do plenty. The first step is seeing that eating is a skill each of us learns, and that we retain the capacity for learning it, no matter how old we are.” – First Bite
The Human Capacity for Change
Let’s go back to where this all started. I began this by asking if who you are as a person is defined by your genetics or the environment you’re raised in. We can look at millions of people as examples and see that where they were born or what families they were born into did not determine their ultimate outcomes as human beings.
Humans have the amazing ability to adapt and change. Change is what humans do.
Change is what my clients or the readers of my emails and website are after. And yes, change is hard. It can feel insurmountable at times. But it is possible.
There are numerous factors that get in your way when it comes to making lasting and meaningful change(s). When it comes to changing your unhealthy diet or the foods you eat, many of those hurdles are obstacles you aren’t aware of.
Some of it goes back to your childhood and how your parents presented food to you. What you Mom consumed in your Mother’s womb affects your tastes as well. And we know that our food environment has changed significantly in the last five decades. We eat not only more fast food but more food in general than our parents and grandparents generation.
All these factors make changing your eating habits challenging. But, again, the good news: you can change your habits. And thus, change your behaviors. Changing those habits, though, doesn’t come from doing some “30-day diet reset” or drinking overpriced tea hyped by an attractive Instagram influencer.
Change comes from exposure. Exposing yourself to new foods, tastes, and experiences is what leads to new habits. And new habits lead to a new you.
You can learn to love a food you once hated or foods that you never (or rarely) experienced growing up. Your past doesn’t define you. What defines you are the consistent choices you make in the present. So to change the future, you have to change the now.
Environment is important. It can define a lot of who you are or what foods you choose to eat. But more than anything else, the foods you expose yourself to more often will be the foods you surround yourself with in the future. Or better said: what food you nurture yourself to consume will become your nature.