No diet, no detox: how to relearn the art of eating

Our relationship with food has become disordered and obsessive. As the new year brings diet madness, it needn’t be such a struggle to learn good eating habits

o many of our anxieties around diet take the form of a search for the perfect food, the one that will cure all our ills. Eat this! Don’t eat that! We obsess about the properties of various ingredients: the protein, the omega oils, the vitamins. But nutrients only count when a person picks up food and eats it. How we eat – how we approach food – is what really matters. If we are going to change our diets, we first have to relearn the art of eating, which is a question of psychology as much as nutrition. We have to find a way to want to eat what’s good for us.

Our tastes follow us around like a comforting shadow. They seem to tell us who we are. Maybe this is why we act as if our core attitudes to eating are set in stone. We make frequent attempts – more or less half-hearted – to change what we eat, but almost no effort to change how we feel about food: how well we deal with hunger, how strongly attached we are to sugar, our emotions on being served a small portion. We try to eat more vegetables, but we do not try to make ourselves enjoy vegetables more, maybe because there’s a near-universal conviction that it is not possible to learn new tastes and shed old ones. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

All the foods that you regularly eat are ones that you learned to eat. Everyone starts life drinking milk. After that, it’s all up for grabs. From our first year of life, human tastes are astonishingly diverse. But we haven’t paid anything like enough attention to another consequence of being omnivores, which is that eating is not something we are born instinctively knowing how to do. 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 today’s food culture, many people seem to have acquired uncannily homogenous tastes. In 2010, two consumer scientists argued that the taste preferences of childhood provided a new way of thinking about the causes of obesity. They noted a “self-perpetuating cycle”: food companies push foods high in sugar, fat and salt, which means that children learn to like them, and so the companies invent ever more of these foods “that contribute to unhealthy eating habits”. 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 flavour hit, quite unlike the more varied flavours of traditional cuisine. 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.
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Once you recognise the simple fact that food preferences are learned, many of the ways we approach eating start to look a little weird. To take a small example, consider the parents who go to great lengths to “hide” vegetables in children’s meals. 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. Ha! Tricked you into eating root vegetables! 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.

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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. But there’s something else going on here, which usually gets missed. 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. It’s in all our interests to find out how they have done it.

Chicken wings
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‘Cooking skills are no guarantee of health if your inclinations are for twice-fried chicken, Neapolitan rum babas and French aligot.’ Photograph: Alamy
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. Our difficulty is not just that we haven’t learned to cook and grow food, however important that is: it’s that we haven’t learned to eat in ways that support health and happiness. 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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