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How to encourage Americans to eat healthier without body-shaming

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

As Allison Aubrey mentioned, the topic of what we eat and what's considered healthy can be incredibly complicated. It's something Virginia Sole-Smith has thought a lot about. She's the author of "The Eating Instinct: Food, Culture, Body Image, And Guilt In America." We asked her to speak with us earlier today.

VIRGINIA SOLE-SMITH: Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: One of the reasons that I wanted to talk to you is because your book really teases out the fact that it just feels so hard to feel good about the food that we eat. And when I think about the idea of putting more rules in place or changing rules around food, it doesn't really seem to address that. What's your take?

SOLE-SMITH: No, 100%. I think that's right. I think when we put a label like healthy on a food, we're immediately triggering this whole larger cultural context around that word. And we're setting people up to feel shame, to feel like, 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 debate about what healthy should mean according to nutritional science and according to what the latest research says. But that's completely ignoring the context of most Americans' lives. I mean, the whole idea of a, quote, "healthy" food is deeply problematic in a country where a million teenagers every year develop eating disorders and 9 million kids aren't getting enough food to eat on a daily basis.

SUMMERS: And, you know, the other thing that comes to mind for me is that when we boil down our discussions around food to just the nutrients, we are erasing the fact that food is not just about fueling our bodies. It is also our culture, and it's connection. And for me at least, I find eating pleasurable. So how is - how does one find a balance?

SOLE-SMITH: Well, healthy eating should include all of those things. And I'll be really curious to see, when we see what foods get this label, how that aligns with, you know, our different cultural understandings of foods and whose foods are deemed healthy and whose foods are not deemed healthy. I think it absolutely intersects with race and class in really important ways. I think, you know, what we know is that when people have more restrictive mindsets and more rules about what they can and can't eat, that tends to fuel disordered eating in a whole variety of ways.

SUMMERS: So, Virginia, given all of that, what is your advice to people who are trying to do the right thing, who are trying to feed themselves well but who are absolutely overwhelmed by what is often conflicting advice on just how to do that?

SOLE-SMITH: I think the best thing most of us can do is just stop reading food labels, full stop. I think getting ourselves fed and fed in ways that feel good is the most fundamental goal. Most of us are not able to meet that for a whole variety of reasons. And when we make that our top priority, getting a variety of nutrients tends to work itself out, you know, assuming that you can afford the food you need.

SUMMERS: You know, I know so many people - and frankly, even for myself, this is a conversation and a topic that takes up so much head space. And frankly, it comes with a whole lot of heartache. So I want 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 from our desk or wherever we're having that meal?

SOLE-SMITH: I think it is a solvable problem, but it's a problem that's happening on a lot of different levels. There's your individual struggles. Then we have to step back and say this is also happening on a larger societal level. These are structural, systemic issues that our society, that the FDA has decided to define health by these narrow, nutrition-based standards, which are also weight-based standards.

That's a larger issue we need to address, where we start to shift away from thinking of health as this matter of personal responsibility, this thing I need to get an A-plus on and instead start thinking of health as a social issue and as something that's largely determined by genetics. It's also determined by social determinants, things like your economic status, again, your ability to access food, access health care. And I think we're really doing a disservice to that entire conversation about health when we get fixated on, well, how much fat should be allowed in a cookie in order for it to be counting as healthy? Like, these are really minute issues in what's a much a larger conversation.

SUMMERS: That is Virginia Sole-Smith, author of "The Eating Instinct." And she writes the newsletter Burnt Toast. There is also a podcast by the same name. Thank you so much for being here.

SOLE-SMITH: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.