Virginia Sole-Smith joined us for an interview on her book, The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt in America. What follows are our questions in italics, and her thoughtful responses.
As we are encouraged by the messages of our diet-obsessed culture, you speak to the flaws in elimination diets in your book, The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt in America. Please share some thoughts.
Elimination diets are particularly dangerous because they often dress themselves up as “necessary for health.” In fact, very little research supports the efficacy of such programs and plenty shows how they can be a stepping stone for restrictive thinking about food, weight loss fixations, and disordered eating. One aspect that struck me as particularly problematic was how they are often marketed as being beneficial for digestive issues — but restricting food can also cause digestive issues! So falling down this rabbit hole can make such problems worse, not better – while also increasing your risk for many other issues.
What are some of the factors that have led to prenatal and postnatal nutrition becoming a “big business”?
Our culture has always been highly prescriptive about what women need to do to have a healthy pregnancy and baby. For many centuries, this was important because the rate of maternal and fetal mortality was so high. But today, prenatal and postnatal nutrition is usually less of a life-and-death situation and more about marketing an ideal of perfect motherhood. And every new mom wants to be a perfect mom, because we love our babies so much — so we’re very vulnerable to these aggressive marketing messages. We think we’re to blame if anything goes wrong with our baby, and then this entire industry is standing by to reinforce that fear and sell us on their plans and programs.
Please offer some guidance to parents who may or may not be aware of the impact of the diet culture on their thoughts about food.
Parents often get very fixated on goals like getting their children to eat a certain number of vegetables per meal, or getting them to eat less “kid food” (mac and cheese, chicken nuggets, chocolate milk). These goals feel important because we think they’re about raising healthy eaters — but they’re actually diet culture showing up in how we feed our kids. We demonize the foods kids love because diet culture has taught us that carbs are evil; in fact, carbs are an important part of every child (and human’s!) diet. Vegetables are too — but nobody ever grows up to love the veggies they were pressured to eat as kids. Kids learn to love vegetables — and all kinds of food — when family meals are comforting experiences and when we focus on connection, comfort and exploration instead of how this food will or won’t impact your health or change your body size.
What is the impact of food insecurity on eating instincts?
When kids grow up in homes where there isn’t enough to eat, they learn early on to start disconnecting from their hunger — because there’s no way to fix their hunger. And they can tell their parents (or the other grownups in their life) are worried about it and they learn to stop talking about it. They also learn to gravitate towards foods that are immediately filling because calories matter more than nutrients when you’re hungry. These are understandable coping strategies for a terrible situation. But it makes it very difficult to find a better relationship with food, even if the family ultimately reaches a food secure place. It can take years to restore those hunger and fullness cues, and learn to eat for pleasure and comfort, not from a place of fear and survival.
Can we trust our eating instinct or must we learn to eat?
Babies need to learn the mechanics of eating — how to move solid food around their mouths, how to chew and swallow safely, how to hold a spoon — and they also need to learn their family’s rhythm of when we eat (at set meal times vs grazing all day the way a newborn does). But they don’t need to learn hunger, fullness or comfort. We can trust our eating instincts to tell us how much to eat, and also to guide us in terms of choosing foods that will nourish and comfort us. But it is a battle to keep in touch with those eating instincts, when a lot of the world seems determined to override us.
Given the many hours of research you devoted in writing this book, what is your “take-away” for your readers?
If you don’t feel safe around food, you’re not alone. If you don’t trust your body or your appetite, or you feel ashamed of these things, you’re not alone. So many of us are struggling to feel safe in our bodies and around food because our culture (and, unfortunately too often, people in our lives) tell us we’re doing it wrong, we can’t trust ourselves, we have to listen to someone else in order to “eat well.” But this is the lie diet culture sells us, and you don’t have to buy it. Your body matters, your hunger matters, and you deserve to eat the food you love.
About the author:
Virginia Sole-Smith is the author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt in America. She writes about food, body image, and feminism. She’s also a contributing editor with Parents Magazine, a frequent contributor to NYT Parenting, and co-host of the Comfort Food Podcast.