Wisdom of the Body

Experiments carried out by Clara Davis in the 1930s indicated that allowing infants to choose their own diets led to well-nourished, healthy children. With today’s epidemic of obesity in children, what can we learn from Davis’ findings? Which other innate skills do we fail to nurture?

Choice Theory explains how both every human being is born with innate mechanisms to drive our behaviours so that both our physical and psychological needs can be satisfied. It is interesting for students of Choice Theory to understand more about the innate inclinations of the human race, and in particular babies, infants and children.

About 30 years ago I read about an experiment that I still quote to  illustrate the natural inclinations of children. The experiment gave a group of weaned infants the opportunity to select their own diet from a selection of healthy foods, without interference from adults. The infants’ health and growth was measured and a record kept of the food they ate. The findings were interesting: no 2 meals were the same

Davis devised the experiment to let children do for themselves because she suspected that children’s bodies instinctively “knew best” what the individual child should eat. Her intellectual model, a view that would later be called “the wisdom of the body,” likened a child’s instinctive appetite to the way various autonomic body systems effortlessly adjust themselves to compensate for external challenges — think of sweating on a hot day, and breathing faster when you start to run.

Initially, it seemed that this conceit didn’t apply to Davis’s test children and their food preferences. None of the eat-what-and-how-much-of-what-you-want infants had the same diet on any given day, week or month. “Every diet differed from every other diet, 15 different patterns of taste being presented, and not one diet was the predominantly cereal-and-milk diet, with smaller supplements of fruit, eggs and meat, that is commonly thought proper for this age,” she told her Montréal audience.

Yet, she and others later saw that the infants’ fanatical heterodoxy turned into what appeared to be 15 uniformly well-nourished, healthy children.

How could eating drastically different diets achieve uniform health and nutritional balance? Body wisdom was the only likely explanation Davis concluded. “Such successful juggling and balancing of the more than 30 nutritional essentials that exist in mixed and different proportions in the foods from which they must be derived suggests at once the existence of some innate, automatic mechanism for its accomplishment.”                                                                    Strauss (2006)

Davis observed that the infants’ food selection was highly esoteric, with some infants appearing to binge on on food or totally ignoring another for a period. However, a balanced diet was selected by the infants over the 4+ years of the study.

This research had an immediate effect on the advice of Paediatricians throughout North America. Indeed, the world’s most famous baby doctor, Dr. Benjamin Spock, was influenced by Davis’ study and used it to back up his message to mothers that liberalism in infant feeding wasn’t just easier on the nerves, it was Nature’s way.  (Spock, 1946 )

This research appeals to me because it raises two main questions:

  • How can we rear children to retain their natural inclinations towards healthy eating and avoid obesity?
  • What other natural inclinations do we fail to nurture in our children?

Encouraging Natural Inclinations to Eating

It would seem that offering children a choice of healthy ( non-processed) foods that are not mixed together would be a start. Also, offering food in a relaxed and non-hurried setting so that the infants take as long as they need to complete a meal, within reason. A habit I have developed for myself is that of deciding which foods I should like to eat before seeing the menu when I am on the occasional morning walk with friends. I call it “listening to my body”.  I find that I find the meal more satisfying if I have chosen according to inclination rather than the wording of a menu. My friends are amused when I say that it has reached the point of the walk where I need to decide what I shall have for lunch. If I wish for a homemade tomato and red pepper soup with granary bread, I may end up with a tomato ragout or another soup and bread, whichever feels nearest to my “instinct food”. Perhaps children could be ancouraged to do likewise.

Parents might be more confident to allow children to self-select if they themselves became more selective and adventurous in the foods they had in the home. If there are crisps, fruit(sugar!) yogurts and chocolate biscuits in the house, then infants will be aware that these are available and will choose these in preference to the “healthy ” options.

Regarding the issue of childhood obesity, families could be trained to enjoy thinking more, not less about food. As many families do not have experience of a wide range of foods and tastes, the start would be to offer them a similar experience as a family to the Davis experiment: free food offered for self-selection to broaden the range of food experiences. This could be followed by some training in listening to the body’s messages and planned eating behaviour to respond to these messages, as in my planned walking lunch above. Personally, I find that the hungrier I am, the easier it is to fantasise about the specific meal I would like to eat. I have also found that this exercise takes time and can be very enjoyable. If I find an obesity programme that shares aspects of my approach I will let you know in an update.

Other Natural Inclinations

During my daughter’s A Level Geography course, I became interested in the developments around Coastal Erosion. The traditional approach to Coastal Erosion was to put up barriers to prevent the sea from wearing away the land. More modern, scientific methods are based on an understanding of the natural behaviour of the sea or ocean, and consist of allowing the tides to “do their thing” but in a more controlled fashion. This philosophy attracted me because it was so close to Applied Psychology: identify the individuals’s natural inclinations and work with, not against, these.

Alongside eating, there has been much recent interest in circadian rhythms; the instinctive drive to sleep or wake. Good mental health, it appears, relies upon us paying attention to these natural instincts also.

There is now a mass of findings from both psychology and neuroscience to show that babies are born already emotionally aware and ready to connect with other people. A new DVD, The Connected Baby, is due out this Autumn and there re some free copies available for members of the public (register interest on the link below).

Infants also have a natural inclination to stay away from dangerous drops, and to stay near their mothers. (More about how we train these instincts out of children in a future article on Keeping Children Safe).


The more I learn and think about the innate abilities of babies and infants, the more I realise how we in the Western world fail to reap the benefits of our animal nature.

It is through the study of anthropology and also the history of childhood, that we can gain a useful insight into the level of trust we can place in our infants’ and also in our children’s natural instincts, and hold back from feeling we have to control everything in their lives.

Zoologist Desmond Morris has written some very readable and popular books on the subject of the natural inclinations of humans that I would recommend to whet your interest.


Davis CM. Results of the self-selection of diets by young children. Can Med Assoc J 1939;41:257-61.

Spock B. (1946) The common sense book of baby and child care. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce; p. 527

Strauss, S. (2006) Clara Davis and the wisdom of letting children choose their own diets. CMAJ November 7, 2006 vol. 175 no. 10

Morris, D. (1967) The Naked Ape London: Jonathan Cape

Morris, D. (1995) Babywatching London: Jonathan Cape


Image Credits: thepinkpeppercorn

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