NPR’s Joanna Summers talks with Virginia Sol Smith, author eating instinct On how to encourage Americans to eat healthy food without creating a stigma about body size and weight.
Joanna Summers, host:
As Alison Aubrey reports, the topic of what we eat and what is considered healthy can be incredibly complex. It’s something Virginia Saul Smith has thought about a lot. She is the author of The Eating Instinct: Food, Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America. We asked her to talk to us earlier today.
Virginia Sully Smith: Thanks for having me.
Summer: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is that your book really brings up the fact that it’s so hard to feel good about the food we eat. And when I think about the idea of making more rules or changing the rules around food, it doesn’t really seem to address that. What do you think?
Sully Smith: No, 100%. I think that is true. I think when we put a label like “healthy” on a food, we immediately release this whole larger cultural context around that word. And we condition people to feel shame, to feel, is this something I can eat or not eat, in a way that is really counterproductive to the goal of health. We can have this discussion about what health should mean according to the science of nutrition and what the latest research says. But this completely ignores the context of most Americans’ lives. I mean, the whole idea of ”healthy” food is a huge problem in a country where every year 1 million teens have eating disorders and 9 million kids don’t get enough to eat every day.
Summer: The other thing that comes to mind for me is that when we reduce our discussions about food to just nutrients, we get rid of the fact that food isn’t just about fueling our bodies. It’s also our culture, and it’s a connection. And for me at least, I find food enjoyable. So how – how does one find balance?
Sully Smith: Well, healthy eating should include all of these things. And I’d be really curious to know, when we see the foods with that label, and how that aligns, you know, with our different cultural understandings of foods and foods that are healthy and foods that aren’t. I think it totally intersects with race and class in really important ways. I think, you know, what we do know is that when people have more restricted mindsets and more rules about what they can eat and what they can’t eat, that tends to fuel disordered eating in a variety of ways.
Summer: So, Virginia, given all of that, what’s your advice to people who are trying to do the right thing, who are trying to feed themselves well but are completely overwhelmed by often conflicting advice on how to do it?
Sully Smith: I think the best thing most of us can do is stop reading food labels, stop. I think the primary goal is to feed ourselves and feed us in ways that make us feel good. Most of us are unable to meet that for a variety of reasons. And when we put that first, getting a variety of nutrients tends to work on its own, you know, assuming you can afford the food you need.
Summer: You know, I know a lot of people – and frankly, even for me, this is a conversation and a topic that takes up a lot of space. And frankly, it comes with a lot of heartache. So I would like to ask you, is this a solvable problem? How do we eat and feel good about it when we get up from that table or our office or wherever we eat that meal?
Sully Smith: I think it’s a solvable problem, but it’s a problem that happens on different levels. There are your individual struggles. Then we have to step back and say that this is also happening on a larger societal level. These are the structural and systemic issues that have been decided by our society, and that the Food and Drug Administration has decided to define health through these narrow, nutrition-based criteria, which are also weight-based criteria.
This is a bigger issue that we need to address, as we start to move away from thinking about health as a matter of personal responsibility, that’s the thing I need to get my A-plus and instead start thinking about health as a social issue and as something that is largely determined by genetics . It is also determined by social determinants, things like your economic status, again, your ability to access food and get health care. And I think we’re really damaging that whole conversation about health when we focus on, well, how much fat should be allowed in a cookie for it to count as healthy? Like, these are really subtle issues in a much bigger conversation.
Summer: This is Virginia Sol Smith, author of The Eating Instinct. She writes the Burnt Toast newsletter. There is also a podcast of the same name. Thank you very much for being here for you.
Sully Smith: Thanks for having me.
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