S1: All these rules that we have in our brain around all these different birds, you start to realize like, well, there’s really no logic to that. Why couldn’t you have pasta for breakfast, like you have Toast for breakfast? What’s the difference, really? You know?
S2: Welcome to how to. I’m Amanda Ripley. It’s a new year, which means that many of us right now are resolutely vowing to better our lives in some way. The most common New Year’s resolution to lose weight or exercise more. It adds up to a lot of pressure, followed often by a lot of guilt if we don’t succeed. So this week, we thought we would see if we could take some of the pressure off by accompanying one of our listeners on her own New Year’s reckoning.
S3: I was super excited to find out that you all wanted to do this. So my name is Tori. I live in the D.C. metro area and I work for a non-profit and try to ensure that folks have affordable homes available to them.
S2: It’s work that has been all consuming, especially during the pandemic.
S3: There’s been a lot of pressure to make sure that people are not evicted, so we’ve been working insane hours and my anxiety has been terrible throughout the pandemic. I’m not getting sleep like I tend to take, not take care of myself. I tend to take care of everyone else around me.
S2: Do you remember what your New Year’s resolutions were last year?
S3: Yeah, I wrote them down, actually in my notebook, right? Yeah. Twenty twenty one resolutions keep off the 10 to 15 pounds. A lot of it was like around mental health stuff and painting and resorting to other things that aren’t healthy as coping mechanisms like drinking and eating sugar. And you know, who knows what else
S1: are you
S2: tracking, how much sugar you’re consuming each day or not? Really.
S3: So I was, you know, tracking everything I ate, then I just started tracking if I was eating dessert.
S2: Can you read us a little bit from the journal? If it’s in front of you,
S3: it’s a zero desserts. Can I do it? Question mark, question mark, question mark, question mark. Question my
S1: question mark
S3: February 22nd Kit Kats February 23rd Lemonade A cookie so I skipped two weeks, probably because I was eating sugar. I love baking so much and I love love love going to little bakeries and supporting local businesses, but also seeing how creative people get with their their baked goods and their sweets. Yeah, I’m with you.
S2: Anything that comes out of an oven is my jam. And most of us, I mean, let’s be honest, most of us have a sweet tooth. What makes you worried about it?
S3: I mean, I think it’s seeing myself get bigger, which I think is tough because when I was younger, especially, I was so active and I was under what was probably healthy in terms of physical size. My mom has always, you know, mentioned my weight and being careful about it and worrying about, you know, my health as I get older and I do know that, you know, we have diabetes that runs in the family. My sister’s a foot doctor, so I feel really hyper aware because most of the people she sees are folks with diabetes. So she’s constantly talking to me about, Oh my gosh, they lost feeling in their foot and they got their foot cut off and all that stuff.
S2: A lot of us can probably relate to Tory’s pattern here, worrying about our health, wanting to cut back on sugar and then chastising ourselves if we fail. But what if we’re thinking about this all wrong? On today’s episode, we’re going to try to free our minds from the matrix we’re all in. Of dieting and calorie counting and the guilt that comes from indulging our guide down the rabbit hole is journalist Virginia Soul Smith. She’s the author of The Eating Instinct and has been covering diet, culture and weight stigma for years. She has some pretty mind bending advice. You won’t want to miss it. Virginia, I’d love to bring you in here, I mean, nutrition and body image and culture are so intertwined it’s it’s really complicated, right, to even know what the healthiest goal should be. So I’m just curious for your initial reaction.
S1: So Torrey, thank you so much for being so open and you are clearly someone who takes care of other people really, really well. And you’ve been doing that. It sounds like pretty nonstop through your job, and it is really hard to take care of ourselves. And the problem is one of the best ways we have to take care of ourselves is through food. But we live in a culture that tells us that when we do that, we’re doing something wrong and that we should feel bad about seeking comfort from food. I love how you just described going to a bakery is like, This is something that’s bringing you comfort and joy during a really stressful time, and that it’s not something you need to apologize about to anybody. But that is the cultural message. We got you jointly to the pandemic, 15 or the quarantine. And you know, every time I saw one of those headlines, I just thought, Why aren’t we celebrating that we’re here, that we did this, that we’ve gotten through these horrible times? I’m really proud you were taking care of yourself, eating sugar. I think that’s pretty amazing. Wow.
S2: I hear not very often. I know you don’t.
S1: And that’s because our culture demonizes sugar in particular, and because our culture equates eating with comfort with things that are truly self-destructive, like numbing out with drugs and alcohol or, you know, more reckless behaviors. But when you think about who we are as humans like, we are hardwired to need to eat right and we are hardwired to seek comfort from food. If you think about how a baby like a newborn baby, the first thing they do is cry out of hunger and then they eat and it feels so good they fall asleep. And like, it’s a design feature, it’s not a bug in our system.
S2: I’m so I’m curious to see how you’re feeling hearing this like I feel personally, this explosion of contradictory feelings like on the one hand, Wow, this is so liberating that I’m allowed to see it comfort and joy from cookies and pie. But also, I feel like, no, no, no, this can’t be right because you know that the average American eats 17 teaspoons of sugar a day, which is like three times with the average woman is supposed to eat and two times with the average man and to worry, how are you feeling?
S3: Yeah, confused, but also, you know, so I I was getting a lot of flashbacks, do you know when when I was younger and we would have a hard day, my mom would take us to Dunkin Donuts, let me get hot chocolate and donuts and like that was really nice. Like it. And honestly, I feel like those were some of the I don’t want to say only good moments, but they were highlights. I will say, like any time she baked and I’m actually getting a little emotional. Sorry. She would make us whatever birthday cake we wanted, and then she would decorate them beautifully. She was very talented when it comes to cake decorating.
S1: I love that you have like good food memories. I think there’s a strange thing our culture does where we do give children this window of being able to experience the joy food. And then as we get older, we kind of lose that permission to have a hard day and then take comfort in hot chocolate like that is that is a beautiful coping strategy and it’s a survival strategy. And, you know, it’s really valuable.
S3: So and it’s also about personal connection, especially. When that was sometimes hard.
S1: Yes, yes.
S2: Here’s our first insight. There are many reasons beyond hunger or lack of willpower that drive people to seek food, and some of those reasons are actually really good reasons like comfort or connection or celebration. Tori, I’m curious your mom’s this amazing baker, and it was a way that she showed her love to you, it sounds like. And I wonder. Does that make it even harder when she’s kind of being critical of your eating habits now?
S3: One hundred percent, it’s extremely hard when she’s like, Oh, here are here are all of these sweets I made for you. I want to see you eat them. Oh, why are you eating that cookie? You don’t need to eat that cookie. Like what? I don’t.
S2: That seems like an impossible situation. Yeah.
S1: And you know, that sort of mixed message you got from her was like, I made you this food. Just show my love. Wait, don’t eat this much food. You’re going to get fat. That is a really common trap. And you know, there’s this way in which moms are told that the most important job they have is to feed their kids and to feed them this quote right way. And that they are somehow responsible for their children’s bodies and their children’s body size. All of those things get very tangled together, particularly with moms and kids and food.
S2: Our next insight is to acknowledge that we get bombarded with mixed messages about food in our culture. It’s especially confusing for parents. Often we want to make our kids happy and show them love by baking cupcakes. And there’s this simultaneous pressure for them to be thin, which proves to the world that we are good parents at the very same time. All of this results in us sometimes baking them a cookie with one hand and taking it away with the other. We’ll talk more about this later, but before we go any further, we need to talk about a common misconception around body weight and health.
S1: We have a lot of studies with strong correlations between higher body weights and poor health outcomes. But we don’t know that it’s the body weight itself causing the problem. But what we do know is that people in larger bodies tend to have other things going on. You know, large body size correlates with being lower socioeconomic status that has a huge impact on your health, as Tori knows really well. If you don’t have safe housing, your health is probably compromised in pretty dramatic with. Yeah, I mean, you need to lose weight. Or does that mean you need support, right? And we never have those conversations because our bias against body size is so significant.
S2: Mm-Hmm. So you’re saying like, slow your roll, don’t assume you know that being overweight leads to all these health consequences. It correlates with them. But we don’t know. We just don’t know is
S1: that we don’t. And we do know that people in larger bodies are experiencing direct harm because of the stigma. Yeah. So so your role is a great way.
S2: But the truth is, it’s really hard to definitively pinpoint what causes disease when it comes to obesity. Studies have shown significant links between being overweight and developing certain diseases, such as diabetes, but a lot of other things matter, too. What we can say for sure is that we as a society, often focus on weight gain as the issue while ignoring underlying problems like depression.
S1: Why are we focusing on the weight gain and not the depression?
S3: Right, exactly.
S1: And instead, we start and stop with the weight loss thing.
S3: And that’s a really good point because I think like this body weight is more of like me connecting issue is connecting to like actually my like emotional needs. My mental health has been extremely stressed during this, and that’s time period.
S1: Like, you deserve all the support for that. And if food is helping you survive this really intense time, then that’s a good thing. And if that results in some body changes like. You know, so what kind of I mean, I don’t want to downplay the stress of it, but that is not the worst thing that’s happening. If you lost weight today and all those other problems, remains you going to be any happier? And that’s that’s the myth, obviously, is that if we get thin, all of our other problems will be fixed.
S3: Yeah. And it’s interesting how I’m coupling the weight with my other issues, like it’s like I’m focusing on that. Yeah.
S1: You know, we have all this research showing that weight loss is incredibly difficult to achieve and doesn’t work for most people. You know, there’s always a new diet to try out. There’s all these books. There’s all the, you know, like you can. You can download all this information. And that’s way more straightforward than, you know, fixing your relationship with your mom or dad or, you know, like like like all this much, you know, can feel more overwhelming.
S2: So where does that leave Tori and the rest of us? Tori came to us with a legitimate question, wanting to know how she can reduce the amount of sugar she’s consuming, partly for weight reasons, partly because she has diabetes in her family, and perhaps most importantly, because she just feels out of control.
S1: We tend to think of ourselves as addicted to sugar, right? That’s the kind of language that gets use in our culture. Like, I’m so out of control, I’ll never stop eating it. I can’t have it in the house or I’m going, I’m never like, I’ll eat the whole bag of whatever it is. And what we need to understand about that is sugar is not physically addictive. It is not heroin. It is not alcohol. It is not a physically addicting substance. So if someone is addicted to drugs or alcohol, they can never get enough, right? There is no off switch. They will always want another drink or another. Whatever sugar is a substance. Once you have enough, you will stop watching it. And that’s where I know you’re saying, No, that’s not true for me. I will never stop watching it, but that’s because I’ve never given yourself permission to fully have it, huh? So dieting causes the feeling of sugar addiction, because if you’ve been deprived and restricted by not allowing yourself to eat, you will cramp sugar really intensely. And then when you do get to it, you will eat a lot of it because you haven’t been able to have it.
S2: This is called intuitive eating. It’s when you stop looking at foods as good or bad and start actually listening to your body and eating what feels right. There’s not a ton of good research yet on intuitive eating, and I’m still a little skeptical about it. Personally, I’m not sure I can fully trust my intuition in our culture because we’re constantly surrounded by processed food, added sugar and a huge portion sizes. But I will admit there is something compelling about the reverse psychology behind all of this. When you restrict something and make it forbidden, guess what? You usually want it more. And when you break or cheat, then there’s this screw it all mindset where you just go all in and have way more than you would have if you hadn’t restricted yourself so severely in the first place. None of which is to say you should only eat sugar all day long.
S1: Yeah, you wouldn’t feel great if you ate nothing but sugar all day because we also need protein. We also need fat. We do other forms of carbohydrate. Yes, absolutely. Part of what would make somebody want to eat nothing but sugar all day is the fact that they have been restricted from sugar. That’s the binge response, which is a really understandable response to restriction. It’s again, a feature, not a bug. It’s your body saying like, Hey, you have cut me off from this thing that we need to make our brain function, you know? And so now that we can get it, we better get as much as possible because your body is really good at fighting starvation. And so it and your body doesn’t know that when you’re not feeling that you’re dieting, your body thinks like, well, we’re in a famine situation. So when we get food, we better eat as much as we can.
S2: Oh, so here’s the idea. If you give yourself permission to have sugar when you really want it, you’ll eventually get sick of having unhealthy amounts. You will have essentially lessened that foods hold over you, and your body will be back in harmony craving the fuel you really need. I’ve been trying this on my own, and I’m curious to see if it’s true for me. It reminds me of watching my son when he was little at a birthday party or something having a piece of cake. And after a few bites, he would often just stop. He was done, which sort of confused me at the time. You know, I’m thinking, why wouldn’t you eat the whole thing? But maybe that’s the natural response.
S1: It is going to look different for every person. But for most people, at some point, maybe a few days, maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months. It really depends how much restriction you’re working through and how long it takes you to give yourself full permission. At a certain point, you will. Habituate to it,
S2: it almost sounds like sugar is like casual sex, right? Like if you just have a bunch of one night stand, you’re going to be like, OK, you know what? I don’t need to do that every night like that. That loses its luster, right? Eventually.
S3: I mean, as someone who’s had a lot of one night stands, I will say, yes, that is exactly true.
S1: There you go. You habituated to remain silent. And you can habituate to brownies in the same way. A great analogy. And believe me, like when I was in my dieting days, brownies were my like, really obsessive food, which is why I brought them up, especially because you’re also a big fan. And I can remember sitting at a family party and looking at the tray of brownies on the table and just thinking constantly about, Can I take another one? Will I look crazy if I take another one? How many have I had as everyone counting? How many I’ve had? And thinking everyone else is just having a conversation and all I’m thinking about is this brownies? Mm hmm.
S2: OK, so if the first step here might be to give yourself permission to to have the brownie, what’s the second step?
S1: Mm hmm. To give yourself permission to have another brownie is another granny.
S2: OK, what’s the third step?
S1: It’s, you know, to be honest, it’s tricky to put into stuff like that, and that’s what diet culture does, and it’s not going to be that way. But I think the next step is then to be curious about how things change for you. Are there sort of subtle ways you notice your interactions with food and with movement changing because you’re getting more rest and you’re getting more nourishment than you really deserve those things?
S3: And Virginia, it’s so interesting too, because like I’ve been preventing myself from baking even though I love doing that and it gives me a lot of pleasure and I love like trying to create recipes and, you know, new things because I’m like, paranoid about eating sugar and gaining weight.
S1: Yes, I think step three for you is to start baking down, you know? Yeah, I agree with that. This is something that gives you so much joy.
S2: So let’s say you want to give yourself permission, but you’re not sure you fully trust your intuition yet. There’s a couple of things you can try. You can keep a journal of how you feel after eating certain foods, which is different from tracking calories. Instead, you’re trying to just tap into a more intuitive cause and effect. It might also be worth meeting with a dietitian to make sure you’re properly fueling yourself. When we come back, Tory tells us about an intervention gone wrong and how sometimes your well-intentioned friends can make things worse. Don’t go anywhere. If you rely on how to the best way to support this show is by joining Slate Plus Slate’s membership program, signing up for Slate Plus helps us help all the people you hear about on our podcast every week. It’s only $1 for the first month, and members will never hear another ad on our podcast or any other Slate podcast. You’ll also get free and total access to Slate’s website. To sign up now, go to Slate dot com slash how to. Plus again at Slate.com. Slash How to. Plus thanks. We’re back with our listener, Tori and Virginia Soul Smith, author of The Eating Instinct. For most people, openly commenting on weight gain is an obvious social taboo. Kind of like asking a woman if she’s pregnant. But on a recent weekend getaway, Tori’s friends went for it anyway.
S3: So we had just come from a trip to Virginia and we were at a vineyard on our way back the whole weekend like it was a lot of talking about. All of us had anxiety, actually. So I think like I was talking about trying to lose weight and my unhealthy quote unquote waves. And then people being like, Yeah, I got like, Yeah, Tori, we’re really concerned about you. Like, Oh, did you like think about the fact that you could get diabetes diabetes right now in your family? Oh, it does. OK, well, like, you should really think about sugar. All you know why sugar alcohol is sugar in it. It’s like, OK, why
S2: it at a vineyard? It was.
S3: It was intense. How did you
S2: feel at that moment?
S3: I did not like it. I was definitely like, OK, well, this is ridiculous. It felt like it was like this intervention, like, Oh my god, you’re going down this really bad track.
S2: Tori’s mostly over this experience by now, but other things have been harder to get past
S3: the things that really stick around more like the comments from my mom and also hearing people like themselves obsessing about their weight. I think those two things are like the things that really honestly are more, I think, impactful when people tell you the same messages over and over and over and over like. That gets ingrained in you.
S1: I’ve been in so many conversations like that. It’s really common for women in particular to bond through the project of weight loss and the goal of weight loss. Yes. And that may be a difficult process to sort of pull yourself out of that. You need to say to people, you know, I really feel like thinking about dieting all the time, thinking about not letting myself have sugar that was causing me more stress than was helpful. And so I’m trying something different. I’d love it if we could talk about something other than weight.
S3: I’m just thinking a lot of my friends are really like, focused on losing weight, working out.
S1: I guess my question is, how does it feel for you when they talk about it?
S3: Yeah, I don’t like it. I don’t like.
S2: That’s our next suggestion. Notice if your friends bond over their fixation on weight loss or exercise, if it leaves you feeling worse instead of better. Change the subject and explain why. Sometimes the more we obsess over something, the worse it gets. So I’m curious, do you have a scale at your house story?
S3: I do,
S2: yeah. Virginia, do you have a policy on this
S3: that recommends
S1: throwing it in the garbage? I mean, you can also like it some other way to go so that however, whatever feels cathartic to you?
S2: Oh, baseball bat. If you do that well, you record it for us because that would be exciting to you for us.
S3: I honestly might donate it. But then I’m like, If I donate a
S2: gun to somebody and say, I
S1: did not say, donate it, there’s really nothing helpful about having a scale in your home. I mean, it’s OK. Triggers so much obsessing, you know, and the small weight fluctuations that are a normal part of having a human body. It’s so easy to get hung up on it. Yeah, there’s just no need,
S2: and I’m going to be the devil’s advocate for a second. Like New Year’s resolutions. Are they all bad? Like, it is good to set goals right to sort of take stock and reflect and look ahead and think longer term, right?
S1: Oh, I am upset because I’m a big girl, so I just do firmly that we should not be setting goals around our bodies because body size is not really in our control. You know, if your body size is determined at least about 60 percent by genetics, the other. The next biggest piece of the puzzle is social determinants of health and environmental influences you can’t control. We think of it as all diet and exercise, but that’s like a very small percentage of it. And so setting expectations around body science is setting yourself up for disappointment and obsessive thinking.
S3: That’s I think the hardest thing is like feeling my physical body, getting bigger and like and then getting to the point where I need to get more bigger clothes and like, I mean, how do you? I don’t know if it’s how do you counter that, that inner dialogue, I guess. I mean, I don’t know.
S1: It’s hard. That is a really hard part of it, and it’s a really hard part of it because you are getting so many messages all the time telling you that your body getting bigger is a failure and an approach to sex. But it’s not. It’s not a failure. It’s not a problem to fix. And you know, one thing I did and that a lot of folks did, it’s helpful is really curating your social media feeds. So you’re seeing like Instagram can be this absolute cesspool of body negativity, but you can also really curate your Instagram so you’re regularly seeing bigger bodies and seeing people in bigger bodies living their lives and being happy and and so doing some counterprogramming to start to be able to embrace that. There are possibilities for you and your life at this body size can be a really important tool.
S3: That’s a really good point. I just I was thinking like. I. I don’t know, I’m going to I’m going to I feel like that. The negative thoughts about like fat and fat shaming has even sunk into my subconscious that I don’t realize, I don’t know what I’m trying to say.
S2: It’s like so deeply embedded, like in our yeah, in the way we talk to ourselves and the way we talk to other people. It feels like a big leap to go from where we’re at to what Virginia is describing.
S1: We demonize fatness because we associate it with a whole host of bad characteristics that we don’t want to be. It’s also very intersected with racism and classism, and every other is so, you know, it’s a difficult thing to stop expecting. It’s a must for yourself when our culture has told you that your mother has told you that and everybody has told you that since you were a little kid. But that’s the goal. But I do think starting to recognize the larger social justice issue of weight stigma can be a helpful first step in reframing that. Hmm.
S3: I’ve never thought about it like that, but I honestly like I could see it connecting to mental health staff and being like. Like, because everyone in my life knows I have anxiety and depression. I’m very open about it.
S2: Speaking of mental health, one thing to keep in mind is that if you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, some of this advice changes.
S1: Yes. Someone with a restrictive eating disorder can’t jump straight into into it because the eating disorder is so loud that you’re not sharing your hunger cues and an eating disorder recovery. There’s a very important stage of meeting someone else to manage your food and make sure your weight restoring it. Make sure you’re eating enough
S2: for most people who want to break out of the cycle of dieting and then guilt, Virginia’s advice is pretty simple. Give yourself permission permission to have that extra brownie if you wanted permission to exercise because you feel better afterwards. Not just to lose weight. Permission to be in the body you’re in right now. I wonder, you know, around the holidays, this can be a very hard time because not only are we surrounded, inundated with lots of temptations and treats and delicious things to eat. And that’s like a way that people bond and connect and. But we’re also around our family a lot more often.
S3: Oh my God. Like even looking at me when I get in the door, I’m being like, Oh, you gained weight? Or, Oh, you look better. Did you lose like 10 pounds? Or did you lose some weight soon
S2: as you walk in the door? There’s a. There’s a once over assessment.
S3: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
S2: So that’s something to prepare for, I guess, because, you know, it’s going to happen.
S3: Yeah, yeah, exactly right. Right. And I feel like a lot of people do that, though they love the first thing you say, Oh my God, you look great. Yeah.
S2: So here’s our last insight. None of this is easy. It’s going to take a lot of internal and external support. And honestly, in some cases, a lot of work on any underlying issues like depression and anxiety. But this kind of reframing can help break us out of the matrix a cycle of dieting and failure that in most cases, goes nowhere good. I’m curious, Tori, like, I know you came to us with what seemed like a pretty simple question How do I eat less sugar? I’m not sure. I’m not sure that we’ve given you the answer because we didn’t say, OK, there’s five rules that you need to follow in order to reduce your sugar intake.
S3: Yeah, but also like I feel like, you know, Virginia did do a really great job of like outlining like, OK, here’s how you start going down that path. And I think also, you know, working maybe with my therapist to connect this to like the other underlying issues I think would help as well. I think I I also have felt just like an intense. I don’t want to say like sadness, like just intense, like there are a lot of periods that I wanted to cry like. Throughout this conversation,
S1: I think there’s often a little bit of a grief process and letting go of this goal of achieving the story, you were told that was going to solve everything. And yeah, that is scary and also maybe sad.
S3: Virginia Oh my gosh. Thank you. This has connected to so many other aspects of my life, and I really appreciate you. I really appreciate your time.
S1: Now this was I loved doing this with y’all, and I am really excited for you. And I think I just really appreciate you being so open to some of this reframing. And you know, I wish you a lot of luck with this, and I also really want to hear how things go for you. So please keep in touch.
S2: We actually already heard back from Tory. She sent us this amazing picture of her scale in pieces. And here’s what she said
S4: to me Amanda just as Tori, I just wanted to provide a quick update, so I actually took apart my scale yesterday. I felt bad throwing it out, but I decided I could recycle the metal and ask whether there’s currently a part. I talked to my sister about the podcast, and I was really nervous about it because I thought she would be critical. But she was really supportive and happy to hear that I was trying to accept myself. And again, thank you so much for taking all that time. I’m excited to keep moving forward on this journey to a better me.
S2: Thanks to Tory for being so open and to Virginia Soul Smith for all of her useful advice. Make sure to look for her book The Eating Instinct and her newsletter and podcast Burnt Toast Are you trying to be a better you this year? Send us a note at how to at Slate.com or leave us a voicemail at six four six four nine five four zero zero one. We’d love to have you on the show, and if you like what you heard today, please give us a rating and tell a friend. Leave us a review that helps us get better at what we do or how TOS executive producer is Derek John Rosemary Belson produces the show. Our theme music is by Hannah Brown, remixed by married Jacob, our technical director. Special thanks to Shannon Paulus, Amber Smith and Kevin Bendis. Charles Duhigg created the show. I’m Amanda Ripley. Thanks for listening.