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March 29, 2016

Food As Medicine
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Starting With A Blank Palate

I have had the great privilege of being around art my whole life. My mother is one of the greatest artists I know, and as such, I’ve been exposed to her works for as long as I can remember. From a very young age she would ask me to critique her artwork, taking my feedback into serious consideration.

One of the things that always amazed me, was the notion of a blank canvas. The infinite possibility that stood before her as she contemplated how she was going to fill her empty palette, that would eventually transfer to her blank canvas in miraculous combinations, shapes, and textures.

Today, I look back at her moments in front of that blank canvas as a tremendous opportunity. An opportunity to shape the world that will live on that canvas. To be the director of what this world will look like.

Art Mirrors Life

Just like the blank palette of the artist, so does a baby emerge from the womb as a being of infinite possibility. Specifically, the actual palate of this baby is naive to flavours of our world, both in a metaphorical and a literal sense.

On a literal level, an infant has not been exposed to the complexity of food flavours. They are naive to the tastes and texture of all that we eat for sustenance. Sure, they have an innate affinity for sweet and fat, the two irresistible qualities of milk. But once they are ready for food, this is all they know.

This occurs, to me, as a tremendous opportunity. An opportunity that one researcher made the focus of her research.

A Groundbreaking Study

A fascinating study was published in 1939 by doctor Clara Davis. Fifteen infants ranging in ages six to eleven months, were selected to take part in this six-year study.

A specific diet was selected that consisted of 33 foods (see below). The selections were made based on essential nutrients, freshness (nothing processed or canned), and wholeness (only whole grains). Meals were given four times per day when they were younger, and then three times per day as they grew up. Food was never offered to the infant. They had to choose which foods they wanted from a selection of dishes containing only one food each. Meals times were 20-25 minutes.

List of foods

Notice that some of the foods including bone marrow, sweetbreads (thymus), brains, liver, kidneys, are rarely consumed nowadays in “western cultures”. It is well known that organ meats are the most nutrient dense parts of the animal.

The Amazing Results

(Spoiler alert) Even though the children were in complete control of their diet for six years, they all lived! Not only that, they thrived!

All infants chose the right foods to nourish them optimally. Although, it’s important to note that at the beginning, some tried to eat spoons, dishes, trays, and paper, displaying a variety of emotions from dislike to pleasure from these experiences.

None of them got constipated or failed to thrive. In fact, they were so good at choosing what they needed, that when an epidemic of sickness hit the nursery, they chose specific foods to help them heal, including raw beef and carrots – both loaded with immune boosting vitamin A.

Some of the children weren’t even healthy to begin with. The infants were adopted from mother’s who were not able to feed their children. Many of them already incurred states of frank malnutrition. Four infants were underweight, and five had rickets. The ones with rickets were given cod liver oil as one of their meal options, ate small amounts until they healed themselves of rickets, and then voluntarily stopped. Labs were completed that confirmed optimal bone health and no sign of rickets.

Each child chose a completely different diet, yet all ended up completely healthy. Some combinations were by our views, quite distasteful; like orange juice and liver, or eggs with banana and milk.

Dr. Davis wanted to complete a follow-up study where she gave infants a choice of both whole foods (like the ones in this study) and processed foods. This study was never completed due to the depression.

What Can We Learn From This?

This study is an amazing display of the child’s innate ability to properly nourish themselves. We need not worry that a child will starve themselves. Processed foods, or what Michael Pollan calls “food-like substances”, have no place at the dining table. For thousands of years, children didn’t eat cereal and milk, kraft dinner, and the like. Why would they have to now?

It is our job to choose the best most nutrient dense foods, offer it up to them, and watch as they eat, grow, and thrive. This is how we build resilience in our future generations.