An exploration, both personal and deeply reported, of how we learn to eat in today’s toxic food culture.
Food is supposed to sustain and nourish us. Eating well, any doctor will tell you, is the best way to take care of yourself. Feeding well, any human will tell you, is the most important job a mother has. But for too many of us, food now feels dangerous. We parse every bite we eat as good or bad, and judge our own worth accordingly. When her newborn daughter stopped eating after a medical crisis, Virginia Sole-Smith spent two years teaching her how to feel safe around food again — and in the process, realized just how many of us are struggling to do the same thing.
The Eating Instinct visits kitchen tables around America to tell Sole-Smith’s own story, as well as the stories of women recovering from weight loss surgery, of people who eat only nine foods, of families with unlimited grocery budgets and those on food stamps. Every struggle is unique. But Sole-Smith shows how they’re also all products of our modern food culture. And they’re all asking the same questions: How did we learn to eat this way? Why is it so hard to feel good about food? And how can we make it better?
In this deeply personal and well-researched indictment of American diet culture, parenting and food writer Sole-Smith explores hunger, satiation, and the myriad other reasons humans eat, or don't. After a medical trauma left her month-old daughter Violet unable to eat and reliant on a feeding tube, the author realized that the primal instinct to self-nourish is "also surprisingly fragile," easily influenced by vegetable-pushing parents or the sugar-fearing wellness industry ("These twin anxieties about obesity and about the eco-health implications of our modern food system have transformed American food and diet culture"). In retraining her child to obey hunger cues, Sole-Smith found that most adults also need "a set of rules to follow, a literal recipe for how to develop this basic life skill." She profiles self-styled health gurus who have secretly suffered from eating disorders (such as Christy Harrison, host of the Food Psych podcast), and tracks how patients who have undergone bariatric surgery learn to love and listen to their bodies even "after having a part cut out of it because a doctor told them it couldn't be trusted." Sole-Smith argues that "nutrition has become a permanently unsolvable Rubik's Cube," but by looking beyond willpower and nutrition fads she helps readers examine their own relationships with food.