Science Sunday: A Toddler Can Do It

I'm excited to introduce Science Sundays, where I’ll periodically share with you some of my favorite research about food, eating, intuition, and trust.

Our topic this week: When you let infants choose what to eat, their choices are erratic but healthy. 

The year is 1928.

Pediatrician Clara Davis is doing an experiment with 15 newly-weaned infants (6-11 months).

The question: What happens if we let infants choose what they want to eat?

She offered them a selection of 33 foods, ranging from ground beef to beets to milk to green vegetables to liver to kidney.

The infants were too young to feed themselves. Nurses were instructed to stand by silently, holding spoons but making no motions until the infants requested particular foods. There was no prescribed feeding time, and food was always available.

The results? Mark Schatzer in his WSJ article:

Instead of binging on the sweetest foods, the toddlers were drawn to the foods that best nourished them.

They ate more protein during growth spurts and more carbs and fat during periods of peak activity. After an outbreak of mononucleosis, curiously, they consumed more raw beef, carrots and beets. One child with severe vitamin D deficiency even drank cod liver oil of his own volition until he was cured. By the end of the experiment, one doctor was so impressed with the toddlers’ health that he described them as ‘the finest group of specimens’ he’d ever seen in their age group.

These toddlers knew nothing about carbs, fat, or gluten. They just ate what tasted good for them.

None of them had the same diet, and their diets varied radically from meal to meal. In some meals, they would become obsessed with certain foods or eat a large quantity of food. But over the course of all of their meals, their intake balanced out.

There is one caveat that Stephen Strauss points out: although Davis gave the infants 33 different foods, none of them were processed. The sweetest options available to the babies were milk and fruit – she wasn’t letting kids eat Happy Meals or Pixie Stix.

Davis was interested in what would happen if she included processed foods in the experiment, and was planning to do a follow-up experiment to see, Strauss says, but the Depression led to a cut in funds for research. And it is unlikely an experiment like this would be replicated in the future because experimenting on institutionalized, orphan children is, well, no longer scientifically kosher.

But the study has still been extremely influential in child-rearing theory, and I think it has a lot of lessons for adults, too:

The children could have chosen two or three of the same foods – and they didn’t.

They could have chosen only the sweetest foods – only fruit, perhaps – but they didn’t.

They could have eaten constantly – but they didn’t.

I think this echoes something that so many of us think when we see children. In New York, for instance, I often saw little kids on the subway, holding a giant cookie and looking totally uninterested.

They probably didn’t want that food, or weren’t hungry.

As adults, all the fears we have around food and restriction and feeling of I-can’t-have-this (as well as a lot of other baggage) would lead many of us to consume the same giant cookie in four bites.

But we might have something to learn from those children on the subway.

So my challenge to you this week is to approach a meal like a toddler. If you didn’t have any preconceived notions about how much or what you should eat or when, what would you do? How interested would you feel in your food?

I’d love to hear how it goes.