Dietary Self-Selection by Young Children

In the 1920s and 30s, a Chicago pediatrician named Clara Davis did a remarkable experiment/demonstration: Letting young children choose their own food. About eleven children chose from a list of 30 little-processed foods — including sour milk, the only bacteria-rich food on the list — and could eat as much of each one as they wished. The choices included peaches, beef, carrots, beets, barley, bone marrow, pineapple, cabbage, lettuce, potatoes, and sweet breads. Many of the foods were supplied both raw and cooked. The experiment lasted about 6 years.

The main result was that the children were very healthy:

There were no failures of infants to manage their own diets; all had hearty appetites; all thrived. Constipation was unknown among them and laxatives were never used or needed. 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. There were a few case of tonsillitis but no serious illness among the children in the six years.

Some of them were malnourished at the start of the experiment; all recovered. One had rickets and was offered cod liver oil. He drank a little bit of it while sick but after he recovered never drank it again.

Davis’s observations support the idea that we have inborn desires that help us choose what to eat. Davis emphasized that there was great variation from one child to another in what they ate — as Weston Price noted a great variation from one healthy community to the next in what they ate. She didn’t give details, however. The notion that our desires, given Stone-Age surroundings, help us choose a healthy diet is what led me to the umami hypothesis. It started with the idea that in the Stone Age our liking for complex, sour, and umami flavors caused us to eat food with more bacteria than fresh food. High-bacteria food tasted better than low-bacteria food; it was more sour, more umami, and had a more complex flavor. Suggesting that we need to eat bacteria to be healthy.

11 Replies to “Dietary Self-Selection by Young Children”

  1. Seth,

    What do you think are the main institutional reasons why remarkable experiments from so long ago like this one don’t “catch on,” and instead seem to be forgotten by the scientific mainstream, only to be rediscovered decades later by people who care enough to look? “Good Calories, Bad Calories” is a prime example: Gary Taubes simply went back and looked at the studies that had been done before the current consensus on obesity was formed, which led him to challenge that consensus.


  2. Thanks. Great reference.

    One thing I think is that scientists are taught to believe that all work before the careers of their thesis advisers is worthless.

  3. Ralph Miller told his class about this experiment in the class Learning and Conditioning I took with him as a graduate student.

  4. Read this article and see if you still think this was such a great study.

    I know Seth will, because Davis’ methodologies are comparable to his own. But in an absolute sense, the research is garbage.

  5. If “Big Pharma” performed research to the standards of this study, corporate executives would be charged with murder.

  6. Nadav,
    The US has a long history of discarding really good ideas that come back to us as “foreign mystery” and are wildly popular.
    1. Deming and quality movement was invented in the US. Japan adoped his techniques and kicked US manufacturing butt.
    2. The Beatles and Rolling Stones took US Blues and repackaged it for the US.

    There’s two points, I can draw a straight line on my graph.

  7. We have come to think that anything not “controlled” by us is suspect. Therefore we have lost our ability to trust our instincts and intuition and depend on man-ufactured processes to keep us safe and healthy. We’ve changed so much but I think we can still draw on that universal inner voice for much of our well-being. But we need to eliminate a lot of the useless input that bombards us every waking minute. Then we will be able to listen.

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