The Psychology of Adventurous Eating

The Psychology ofA while back I wrote about a program that uses choice to help picky eaters broaden their palates.  I just finished reading First Bite: How We Learn to Eat by Bee Wilson, where she describes a more intensive version of the choice paradigm to help what is know as “restricted eaters” gain comfort with more foods. The basic premise of Wilson’s work is that taste is learned; anyone can expand their food repertoire with practice.

The method Wilson describes to help restricted eaters (people who are beyond picky; some of the individuals Wilson describes limit their diets to just two or three “safe” foods) works as follows:

  • Offer very small tastes of new foods consistently
  • Allow the restricted eater to decide which foods to taste
  • Include preferred foods in the meal as well
  • Gradually increase the size of the tastes of the new food as disgust lessens
  • Mealtimes are shared and all diners eat from the same selection of dishes

There is of course more detail in the method, but this is the basic outline. Similarly to the program designed for picky eaters, this method leverages the tenets of self-determination theory to prompt behavior change.

Autonomy: Eaters are given constrained choice. The person who sets up the intervention selects an array of new foods, but the eater can choose which subset to try and in what order. There may be some rules established about the cadence and number of tastes; for example, some versions of the paradigm call for the eater to alternate tastes of new and safe foods. However, in all versions of the taste expansion procedure, the eater maintains ultimate control of what is eaten.

Competence: As the eater progresses through the paradigm, there is clear feedback on growth. The sizes of the tastes increases as do the number of foods deemed “safe.” Very restricted eaters may even have a tally of the number of foods they eat, and can see this total grow as they progress.

Relatedness: A key component of this intervention is that eating becomes mindful and deliberate. Part of that means that mealtimes are more organized and shared by the family. Restricted eaters will choose from the same foods as the other people sharing the meal. Over time, restricted eaters will also become increasingly able to fully share the same foods, helping them feel more part of the group.

There are other psychological mechanisms at play in the paradigm as well–sensory feedback loops, mindfulness, and so forth. It’s nonetheless interesting to see how motivational science can be leveraged to improve the most basic of human functions: Eating.