What Children Can Teach Us About Eating Healthy

There is an estimated 5000+ species of mammals, almost 10,000 species of birds and 30,000 species of fish on earth.

Of all these animals why does it seem only we humans seem to struggle with the question of what to eat?

We have become so far removed from our animal instincts we’ve lost touch with the primal systems that drive our eating behaviors - the ones that tell us what to eat, when to eat it, and how much of it we should eat.

We all know that eating well is beneficial to our well-being but what we don’t know is what exactly eating well is.  In our distress we look to authority figures such as doctors or celebrities for answers but the group that may have the most to offer on this subject haven't even celebrated their first birthday.  I’m speaking of infants.


In the 1930’s Dr. Clara Davis wanted to investigate the role that appetite plays in how we select diets. For her test subjects, she chose infants of weaning age between 6 - 11 months who had never tasted food other than breast milk, and who were too young to have had their experiences of food influenced by older adults. They were physically and culturally a blank slate.

For the experiment, the infants would self-select their diets. They would choose what foods they would like to eat and how much of it they would like to eat; without the influence or suggestion from their feeders.

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Among the group of 15 infants chosen, most entered the study in poor condition- four were poorly nourished and underweight, while 5 others had rickets - which is a softening and weakening of the bones due to a lack of vitamin D and If left untreated it can lead to deformity.  


So what happened when they put these infants in charge of their own diets?

Their appetite and taste preferences changed

“Taste changed unpredictably from time to time, refusing as we say “to stay put”, while meals were often combinations of foods that were strange to us - for example, a breakfast of a pint of orange juice and liver; several eggs, bananas, and milk.”

Their taste may have seemed to change erratically, and their food combinations odd, but likely the children were just responding to the needs of their body. The body conveys its nutritional needs through appetite and cravings. When the body lacks a nutrient, it can create a craving for a certain food and if we listen to that craving we can fulfill its need.

It makes sense that the foods the infants desired would change as the nutritional needs of their bodies changed.

During one point in the study, a virus struck the nursery in which Dr. Davis remarked: “all the children came down like ninepins on the same day”.

Following the illness, they reported that the infants ate unusually large amounts of raw beef, carrots, and beets. With beets, the researcher wonders whether they may offer certain health benefits as she observes that “beets were eaten by all in much larger quantities in the first six months or year after weaning than ever again save after colds and acute glandular fever.”

This peculiar eating habit suggests that there is something deeper happening in the infant's selection of foods and that the beets may have satisfied a nutritional need in those early months and in recovering from sickness.

The children adjusted for quantity

The quantity of food we eat affects our weight. If we consume more energy than we burn we gain weight, if we eat less we lose weight, and if we eat just right we maintain weight.

Many of us have likely struggled with controlling our portion size and have seen the consequences but how did the children fair when they were permitted to eat as much or as little as they’d like? Did they balloon up with freedom?

Not at all. In fact, the children within the study were in every instance over the 6-year period found to be within the limits of the nutritional standards for the individual's age. The researcher remarked that there was no noticeable fat of thin children- each was a similar healthy build.

When the children were left to listen to the hunger cues of their body they maintained a healthy weight. I often wonder what are the consequences of parents telling their kids they must finish their plates, applauding their appetites, or other comments that encourage ignoring the body's hunger signals.

They adjusted their macronutrients  

Macronutrients are nutrients that provide energy and resources to the body. The big three are Carbohydrates, Fat, and Proteins.

There is no shortage of opinions and percentages on what the best macronutrient breakdown is as seen by the waves of fad diets on the market - South Beach, Atkins, Paleo, etc.

But on a subject of such controversy, how did our babies do?

Quite well it seems. The children all seemed to adjust their intakes to match the needs of their growing body and the energy expenditure of their activities. The researcher remarked that

All diets showed a decline in protein per kilogram of body weight in accordance with the change in the relation of body-building requirements to energy requirements”  In other words, as the needs of the children changed as they grew, so did their macros.

What were final results?

“Like the lives of the happy, the annals of the healthy and vigorous make little exciting news. There were no failures of infants to manage their own diets: All had hearty appetites; all throve.”

“Constipation was unknown among the infants and except in the presence of parenteral infection, there was no vomiting or diarrhea. Colds were usually of the mild three-day type without complications of any kind"

“However, as I may be thought to have been unduly biased in my estimate of this rollicking, rosy-cheeked group, Dr. Joseph Brennemann’s appraisal of them may be of interest. In his article 'Psychologic aspects of nutrition,' published in an early number of the Journal of Pediatrics, he says “I saw them on a number of occasions and they were the finest group of specimens from the physical and behavioral standpoint that I have ever seen in children of that age.”

What are the Takeaways?

In terms of food choice and food quantity, the researchers commented that there was no common diet.

15 babies left to listen to the internal cues of their body’s needs chose 15 different diets.

“They achieved the goal, but in widely various means, as Heaven may presumably be reached by different roads”

This point echoes that individuals are different. With each having different nutritional needs that will change over one's life.

There is no magic universal diet. Instead, the best diet is one that is individualized to your bodies' ever-changing needs.

To find this perfect changing diet you should understand two things.

1st understand that while we are all different, we are all human.  We are more alike than we are different and with that, there are certain principles that apply to us all.

Any successful diet will adjust these principles to your goals.  These principles include energy balance, food quality, and ratio management. You can find the 5 principles of any healthy diet below.

The 5 Principles of Healthy Eating

The second factor is regarding how you apply to those 5 principles. How you individualize to your body's needs, and that answer lies within.

As the researcher's comment of our little nutritional experts  “Such successful juggling and balancing of the more than thirty nutritional essentials that exist in mixed and different proportions in food suggest at once the existence of some innate, automatic mechanism for its accomplishment, of which appetite is a part"

More recent works in the scientific literature such as from Dr. Fred Provenza coin this innate mechanism as “Nutritional Wisdom”. Nutritional wisdom refers to our ability to respond to our bodies cues and provide it with the resources it needs.

This ability is inherent across the animal kingdom, and like our animal counterparts, we too come equipped with the tools needed to develop it as demonstrated by the children in the study.

What differs between humans and animals is that we humans have created an environment far removed from the one our physiology evolved from.  We are surrounded by social and cultural eating norms and by modified lab created foods. The combination of these factors interferes with the cues and feedback our body is trying to give us.

We end up lost and confused asking questions such as - how much should I eat? Or  When should I eat? - Questions I’m sure our animal counterparts would laugh at.

Learning to listen to our bodies and developing nutritional wisdom is the key to answering those questions and learning how to tailor your diet optimally to your needs.

If you’d like to learn how nutritional wisdom works, how to cultivate it, and the answer to those questions continue reading the article

Listen to Your Gut - A Guide to Nutritional Wisdom


To read the review of the study view the link below