Food Ritual: A Book Review of “The Eating Instinct” by Virginia Sole Smith

photo by author
Author: Virginia Sole-Smith
Publication Date: November 2018
Genre: Non-Fiction, Science, Food Culture

Health food. Junk food. Comfort food. Fast food. Whole food. 

America today is steeped in food culture, and eating has become a national obsession. Each of us possesses a particular set of eating habits that stem from a combination of nature and nurture. But for many folks, eating is a difficult and emotionally fraught necessity. You may be vegan, paleo, fast-food addicted, or a conflicted clean-eater. Yet, regardless of the factors that inform your food choices, have you ever stopped to ask yourself, “How did I learn to eat?” Virginia Sole-Smith’s book “The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America” takes a fascinating deep dive into how Americans eat and the myriad of ways that modern life and culture impact our ability to simply nourish our bodies with food.

When her daughter is born with a medical condition that impacts her ability to eat like an “average” infant Sole-Smith is plunged into a nightmare world of hospitals, feeding tubes, and guilt that she cannot nourish her daughter in any traditional way. Forced to question the very concept of how to feed her child, and pummeled from every side by confusing and baffling information, Sole-Smith must consider the basic act of learning to eat in a completely new light. Teaching her daughter to eat opens up a journey to understand why our food culture has deviated so far from the seemingly simple model of eating when we are hungry, and stopping when we are full. 

Sole-Smith dedicates each chapter to a different eating behavior including extremely “picky” eaters, folks who have chosen weight loss surgery or those who are obsessed with eating only healthy, clean foods. Sole-Smith treats her interview subjects with compassion and respect. She is careful to not favor one way of eating over another and instead presents her interview findings in relation to a review of the current scientific literature. Most importantly, Sole-Smith asks important and revealing questions about where we are, how we got here and where we might go from here. What if we could approach eating differently?

“Without judgement. Without guilt. Without ranking picky eaters as somehow less that adventurous eaters, corner stores as less than farmers markets, meat eaters as less than vegetarians, fat as less than thin?” p.238

In her research, Sole-Smith begins to unravel some of the onion skin layers contained in the existing scientific landscape in regards to how we eat, and she does not shy away from the complexity or contradiction of the research. Her conclusions reveal a dense network of competing studies and recommendations. I particularly liked the discussion of “experts” in the area of wellness and nutrition. In dealing with a chapter about clean eating, Sole-Smith interviews a nutritionist, Christy, who discusses her own history of restrictive eating even while she was a practicing nutritionist. As Sole-Smith points out,

“Nutrition has become a permanently unsolvable Rubik’s Cube. And 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 exactly where Christy once was– fighting their own battles with food.” p.43

This is an endlessly fascinating topic for me, as I have struggled with diet and body image issues from a young age. I was overweight, I lost a lot of weight. Some weight has come back. But regardless of any of my eating habits at any given time, there has always been the underlying question: why is eating so hard? Why must I spend so much emotional any intellectual energy thinking about what I’m going to consume to fuel my body?

But how do we learn honor our hunger? To eat to nourish our bodies instead of for a myriad of other reasons? Sole-Smith makes it clear that the answer is highly individual, and is tied to a complex array of issues that we must examine and consider for ourselves.

“Recognizing ourselves as capable eaters means identifying the factors that caused us to lose that identity in the first place– the particular mix of biology, psychology, socioeconomic positioning, and life experience that is different for everyone.” p. 239

I recommend this read for anyone who has ever had a challenging relationship with food, not as another set of recommendations for how to behave but as a tool for deeper understanding of why we struggle so much with food in the first place. I enjoyed how Sole-Smith synthesized the many ideas I have collected in my own research about eating and nutrition. After reading this book, I am one step closer to being able to throw away any diet, toss my scale, and accept and love my body (and myself) for what I can do and how I feel, instead of how I appear physically to the outside world. Overall, it seems that the key to a better relationship with food may be a kinder, more gentle relationship to ourselves.