How the Instinct to Eat Can Go Wrong: Personal Stories of Food Anxieties

Book review: The Eating Instinct, by Virginia Sole-Smith
Book Depository

Nutrition has become a permanently unsolvable Rubik’s Cube. So we read more books, pin more blog posts, buy more products, and sign up for more classes and consultations. And we don’t realize how many of the so-called experts guiding us through this new and constantly changing landscape are … fighting their own battles with food.

Virginia Sole-Smith took on a massive task in The Eating Instinctconfronting the various complicated issues and “anxieties” that dominate Americans’ relationships with food.

She was motivated by realizing the instinct to eat to survive, one of the basest instincts any living thing has, can be ignored in favor of avoiding pain, discomfort or traumatic associations. This realization stemmed from her baby daughter’s refusal to eat due to a breathing condition creating those associations.

From there, she branches out to exploring other food-related issues, anxieties and restrictions, many related to nutritional/diet fads, means of control, and unhealthy relationships with food beyond the better known eating disorders. Including those who peddle various lucrative health systems and nutritional methodologies and often have negative food relationships in their own pasts.

While listening to Jon Ronson’s fantastic podcast The Butterfly Effect recently, a producer listening to Ronson tape an interview broke in to discuss his personal issue of only being able to eat certain limited foods like fried chicken and french fries, openly connected to an upsetting childhood incident. It reminded me of one case explored here, and underscored how widespread these eating quirks actually are. The stories stick with you and go a long way in helping to understand others’ psychology, and how strongly food can be tied to that.

For a relatively short book, it did feel that a lot was about the author’s experiences with her daughter and the associated guilt and feelings of failure she dealt with herself here, as she desperately tries to retrain her daughter to obey instincts in nursing and the like. It felt somewhat gratuitous, and what I’d wanted to read was a range of stories with more of the “in America” angle the subtitle promises. Between the detailed personal story and a profiled family with kids who have other odd eating habits, this felt a bit more parent-themed instead of a broader examination into food culture. Although our relationships to food are firmly entrenched in childhood, so the connection makes sense.

My main disappointment was feeling the book’s content didn’t quite live up to its subtitle. On the other hand, I could see it being immensely helpful to parents struggling with similar problems.

That gripe aside – some of the stories in the author’s extensive research are quite illuminating. They reveal how deeply the emotional and personal connection to food goes in different people for a variety of reasons. The spectrum of eating disorders or disordered eating behavior is more complex and nuanced than I think most realize. Not to mention the influence of environment, parents, and economic status: “Nothing connected with food happens in a vacuum.”

Something fascinating was how she pointed out that certain guidelines meant to help us make better food choices or structure our lives in more healthful, less stressful ways regarding nutrition could be misinterpreted or end up making things even more complicated. This is especially true for those prone to any sort of disordered eating or problematic food relationships.

She uses Michael Pollan’s famous “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” as an example. What is too much, being just one question about this instruction. I haven’t read Pollan but that does seem unhelpfully vague, particularly for those struggling with control.

Organic farmers and food activists may have originally banded together to take on huge corporations within the agricultural-industrial complex. But infusing their arguments with messages about health has led to the rise of a wellness-industrial complex, in which nutritionists, personal trainers, cookbook authors, and other “alternative-health experts” target us for our individual choices. They aren’t fighting evil corporations like Walmart or Amazon anymore. They’re hoping those evil corporations will stock their products.

She covers nutritional and wellness gurus who struggle with their own disordered eating, a fixation with organic foods as the pinnacle of “healthy” eating, the vague and even potentially dangerous idea of “clean eating” and the “wellness-industrial complex” that becomes all-consuming and is often decidedly unscientific. I especially loved her look at the clean eating/detoxing trends that sometimes seem like socially acceptable ways to practice dangerously restrictive eating habits.

“The inside of your body is not dirty and it does not need cleaning,” Michael Gershon, M.D., a professor of cell biology and pathology at Columbia University, told me when I asked him to explain detoxing for the readers of SELF.


Sole-Smith is an experienced print journalist, having written for Self and a plethora of women’s wellness and nutrition-themed publications. Each chapter reads like a magazine story, with the combo of anecdotal evidence presented alongside interview subject, supporting statistics, and subject quotes. I didn’t always think the most revealing or impacting quotes were used, and the repetitive style is somewhat tedious.

The majority of the people profiled in this book are privileged. One outside this range is Sherita, an African-American who struggled with drug addiction and sex work while trying to feed her daughter, and who is currently a fitness and health food aficionado. Her story carries a very different tone.

Occasionally, her family would go downtown to walk around at Philadelphia’s famous Reading Terminal Market and Sherita would dream about eating all the food she saw there but couldn’t buy. “I think I always had a love affair with food because I could never get what I really wanted.”

The author explains herself and sets up the section well, but there’s unrecognized privilege throughout. You’ll have to look elsewhere for insight into the guilt associated with poverty and the food relationships that figure in such stories for American families. I recommend this National Geographic piece as an excellent starting point.

I’m not generally big on trigger warnings (I agree more with Roxane Gay’s ideas here) but a word about eating disorders. According to the author: “It can be fraught to read about someone else’s weight so if you struggle with an eating disorder yourself, please use your own best judgment in deciding whether to read those chapters.” 

I’ll add: Although I think reading the research and statistics and anecdotal evidence presented here is ultimately more helpful than harmful, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to evoke some difficult, unsettling memories in those who have previously struggled with unhealthy food relationships. I’ve read that recovered sufferers who decide to write about it can find that experience powerful enough to draw them back into an unhealthy place. There’s something so psychologically compelling about these illnesses, so fair warning that some of the stories and conversations may be unsettling.

How did I learn to eat this way? Why is it so hard to feel good about food? And how can I make it better?

A well-researched exploration into a food landscape increasingly littered with too many sweeping proclamations and nutritional extremes, with some illuminating and reassuring moments. This would especially appeal if you can see yourself reflected in it somehow – if you’ve suffered from disordered eating or anxieties around food, helped someone who has, or are a practitioner in a related field. 3/5

The Eating Instinct:
Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America
by Virginia Sole-Smith
published November 13, 2018 by Henry Holt & Co.

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Book Depository

10 thoughts on “How the Instinct to Eat Can Go Wrong: Personal Stories of Food Anxieties

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  1. Fascinating review. There has definitely been a rise in media around the subject of eating. In UK we’re bombarded with cooking shows like Bake Off on the one hand, whilst being told we’re fat and need to ‘eat well’ on the other. Both seem to lean on the same lever – the twin poles of desire and guilt. Not an easy subject to deal with. Sounds like this book attempts to unpick some of that without quite achieving in.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks so much! It’s exactly the same mixed messages in the US and the mixture of desire and guilt is such a complicated one. I liked how this book addressed that in some of the cases here, and especially how difficult it is to determine what’s best for you when we’re presented with so many diets that claim to be the ideal one when really it’s much more complicated. This book does make some excellent points, I guess I just wanted a broader picture overall.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve always been intrigued by this topic, and years ago actually worked in a leading eating disorders (hospital) unit during my residency. For some, eating disorders are relentless and often difficult if impossible to cure (not really the right word – but many don’t get better). This goes back much, much further than we think – there’s an interesting book called Holy Feast, Holy Fast by Caroline Walker Bynum which discusses the religious significance of eating for medieval women – some of the fasting described made me think of modern eating disorders. Thanks for another great review about another engrossing topic! 📚📚💕😊

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I can imagine that would be difficult but rewarding work! I get what you mean – a person can come back from an eating disorder but the obsessive tendencies often get transferred to something else, and there’s always deeper underlying issues causing it in the first place so those keep manifesting in various ways if they’re not addressed, which also isn’t so simple… When I did volunteer work with an eating disorder group there was a big issue about finding other ways to restrict even after recovered. They would advise things like not adhering to any restrictive way of eating, including even vegetarianism or veganism, if you didn’t have specific moral or religious reasons to do so because it still left too much potential for restrictive, obsessive behavior and it’s a slippery slope.

    I think I remember something about one of the saints who would have been considered anorexic, I think it was Catherine? Very interesting. Glad you liked the review!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve always held fascination about disordered eating and finally got the psychological imprints that went well beyond easy fixes. As smart as I was about nutrition and body wellness, I developed an emotional eating fixation as an adult. Food had never been a solution for me for any stress but I learned it later in life so I think those imprints driven in our childhood aren’t the only factors. I grew up healthy with a mother who fed us healthy, balanced diets that still work! I found a solution to untangle the mess I created when I went out on my own. So much of our eating is psychological, whether developed as a child or beyond. I fixed myself but I’ve had intensive and extensive training on how to connect with my truths.

    I also am mystified by these cleansing diets. All they seem to do is created abnormal cravings for real food. The explosion of other exclusion diets is also puzzling. My body wants what it needs and I just listen to it…and apply some common sense. Clean eating? I agree with Gershon wholeheartedly.

    I’m not making light of emotional eating, just being pragmatic. Our histories drive so many of our decisions, food being just one of them, and external factors targeting personal perspectives of body image can be an even larger influence. I’m not sure this book makes all those connections efficiently.

    Great review, as always! You always seem to explore all angles, including what’s missing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re so right, I simplified it a bit maybe, I guess I had in mind that so many of the stories here revolved around childhood, and I’d just heard one of the disorders highlighted in the book described by someone else on a podcast with the childhood connection…but my own connections with disordered eating began as an adult too, without any strong links to childhood, and I had the same as you growing up – healthy meals and consciousness about balanced eating. The link between food and emotion is just such a complicated, sometimes unpredictable one.

      I’m glad to hear you found the resolution that works for you, and it sounds like the same one I found. Once I started listening to what my body was clearly saying and tempering with common sense where necessary, everything just fell into place. Learning to cook and enjoying it was also a huge and helpful step, a turning point for me at least. I couldn’t believe it was that easy and how much time I lost (not to be melodramatic, but it really was just so exhausting for so long) not understanding or being able to do that. I don’t talk about it often because I never want to be like some of the wellness types described here, or even people I know, who insist on this or that as the magical solution when it’s just what worked for me, but it’s so good to hear the same thing from someone else who’s been there too! Thanks for sharing that.

      I was curious about how the guilt connection would be explored here and there were some illuminating insights but I didn’t entirely get what I was hoping to learn from it. The focus felt a bit narrow. I loved her clear, no BS take on the clean eating/cleanses/trendy diets though. It was excellent. That’s something else that seems so common sense to me and makes me a little sad when I see how much it affects others..maybe because I remember what the obsession was like, I don’t know.

      It’s a topic I’m always curious about too, you’ll have to let me know if you come across anything worth reading in this area. Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment and compliment!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t talk about mine much either! I still hate cooking (not always, just what I don’t understand) but really like eating what my body likes. I was an athlete growing up and you kind of develop a strong connection with your body.

        Glad to know that the author reacted strongly to the trendy diets nonsense. Too many of these “experts” are being peddled by popular figures on TV. Ugh!

        If I come across something interesting, I’ll most definitely share it with you.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’m still such a simple cook and when I get lost or make mistakes I’m frustrated, but anything was a big step up from my previous capabilities of coffee and toast 😂 that’s important to have a strong mind-body connection too, I’m glad it could help you. So much comes down to just listening to what your body’s trying to tell you. It’s not the mystery that we tend to make it.

        The constant barrage of health and diet stuff not based on science or medicine makes me insane! I don’t know if some of them realize how dangerous it actually is, people are so easily influenced by what they see on tv or popular figures they recognize.

        Liked by 1 person

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