Less than a month after she was born, Virginia Sole-Smith’s daughter Violet was diagnosed with rare, life-threatening congenital heart defects. Her reliance on feeding tubes while she received treatment destroyed her instinct to eat. Rather than feeling comforted and secure from feeding, Violet learned to associate food with pain.
As Sole-Smith gradually helped her child develop a positive relationship with food, the U.S. writer recognized many of us also approach food with trepidation. What foods are safe to eat? Which are good for us, and which aren’t? How much should we eat?
In her new book The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America, Sole-Smith takes readers into the kitchens of parents of picky eaters, those with orthorexia and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), families facing food insecurity and individuals who have undergone gastric bypass surgery to explore why our food choices have become so fraught with tension.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, she explains most of us actually know how best to feed ourselves – we just need to cut out the external noise.
Many of the people you interviewed asked not to reveal their full names. Why were they so reluctant to speak openly about how they eat?
It really is an intensely personal matter. You literally are putting substances into your body, which in any other area in our life, we don’t do that in public. Like we don’t have sex in public … it really is quite an intimate act.
It also really speaks to how we’re all facing so much pressure. Once I start talking to someone about their relationship with food, very quickly, we’re not talking about the food. We’re talking about how their mother treated them at the dinner table, or how their husband feels about their weight.
You mention you were ambivalent when Violet developed a taste for chocolate milk. How do you explain to a child it’s better to eat more veggies than sweets, without labelling one as “good” and another as “bad”?
Basically, my rule is “if a food is in my house, I’m comfortable with you eating it.” When I’m grocery shopping, I try to bring in a lot of fruits and vegetables and things that I hope will make the bulk of her diet. We don’t put any pressure around needing to finish anything. Like if we’re having dessert with a meal, you get dessert whether or not you ate your broccoli.
If you keep things neutral, if you don’t put too many rules around how much of this to eat and how much of that, and which is better, kids on their own will gravitate toward a wide range of foods and they’ll self-regulate what they need and what their tastes are.
Why should we avoid labelling foods as “good” or “bad” in the first place?
Food is not an inherently moral substance. It doesn’t reflect on your worth as a person if you think chocolate chip cookies are more delicious than kale, or McDonald’s is tastier than something you can get at the farmer’s market.
But we’ve gotten to the place now with food where it’s all broken down into good or bad. Especially with kids, who are really concrete thinkers, they are going to hear, “Oh, that’s good for me, so I’m good if I eat it.” Once you’ve internalized that message, it’s so difficult to undo it. Taking the nutritional value of food and extrapolating that into how we feel about our bodies and about our worth as people is a really, really dicey game.
You wrote about encountering the “Division of Responsibility” approach to feeding children. Can you explain what it is?
Ellyn Satter, a family therapist and nutritionist, developed this in the 1980s. What it says is feeding is a relationship. So when feeding is a struggle for parents and children, it’s usually because one party or the other is doing a job that shouldn’t be their job.
Satter says when it comes to feeding, parents are in charge of what foods are offered, when we offer them and where meals take place. But after that, we’re really done.
What is the “Health at Every Size” movement?
It questions what the media message is about the obesity epidemic. What we all know is that people are bigger than they ever were before, and we have higher rates of certain diseases. So the conclusion everybody draws is obesity has caused all these health problems, and we can only solve diabetes and heart disease if we make everyone as small as possible.
What the Health at Every Size people say is that’s not what the data shows. The data shows higher weights correlate with certain conditions, but they don’t show they cause them. So the movement argues let’s take the focus off weight loss, which research clearly shows is not a sustainable long-term solution for most people.
It doesn’t say every size is healthy and everybody is healthy at any size. What it says is everybody, no matter what your weight is, has the right to a healthy lifestyle and to pursue health on their own terms, and you don’t have to lose weight to achieve health.
So what is the ideal way of eating?
We’re all searching for some expert, some plan, some set of rules that’s going to make it all snap into place, and eating will feel effortless. But that’s the problem. Most of us, through culture, through family, through different life experiences we’ve had, are struggling to be in touch with our instincts.
We need to stop trying to have other people tell us how to eat. I’m saying you probably know more you think. You just need to figure out what make sense for you in your life.
This interview was condensed and edited.