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