These Books Will Help Heal Your Relationship With Food

January 4, 2024
Dining & Wine
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How is your relationship with food these days? For many of us, the honest answer is “it’s complicated.” Perhaps you stress-eat more than you’d care to admit or are always on the latest diet. Maybe you just spend too much mental energy on food and have a nagging sense that it’s supposed to be, well, easier.

If you’re looking for a reset, you might start with some reading — we’re in something of a heyday for books about food and bodies. We asked nine experts in psychology, nutrition and body image for their recommendations. These picks will help you understand why many of us relate to food the way we do, and how to shift into a healthier way of thinking about food.

Most of the practitioners we consulted mentioned this bible of intuitive eating. “It’s a classic for a reason,” said Christy Harrison, a registered dietitian and author who hosts the podcast “Rethinking Wellness.”

The authors are dietitians with a bold claim: We were all born knowing how to nourish ourselves, and we get into trouble when we start trusting the voices around us instead of our bodies. They walk readers through the process of unlearning “diet mentality” and reconnecting with their internal cues about hunger and satisfaction.

While intuitive eating is somewhat well known today, the book was truly “groundbreaking” when first published in 1995, said Shelly Russell-Mayhew, a psychology professor and director of the Body Image Research Lab at the University of Calgary.

Part intuitive eating guide, part cookbook, “Gentle Nutrition” teaches readers to take care of their bodies through nutrition without strict rules or diet dogma. “This is one of the few nutrition books that I can confidently recommend,” said Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor.

“It’s full of really approachable information about health and nutrition science,” Ms. Rumsey added, along with 50 nutrient-packed recipes — without calorie counts or punishingly restrictive ingredients lists.

In this practical follow-up to “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” the journalist Michael Pollan expands on his dietary mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” He also makes an elegant critique of “nutritionism,” or the modern, widely accepted notion that the value of food can be reduced to its constituent nutrients.

It’s that mechanistic view of food that keeps so many of us confused about what to eat, said Christopher Gardner, a nutrition researcher and professor of medicine at Stanford University. Pollan’s book points to flaws in this approach and puts forward a way of eating where we’re “not at the mercy” of complex diets and contradictory headlines, Dr. Gardner said.

Four of our experts endorsed this accessible academic title by the sociologist Sabrina Strings; the book “masterfully traces the history of fatphobia and its intersections with anti-Black racism,” said Alexis Conason, a clinical psychologist and certified specialist in eating disorders.

Dr. Strings makes a heavily cited case that modern society’s idolization of thinness is less rooted in medical science than in racist ideas born during the Enlightenment. “Spoiler alert: It’s not all about health,” Dr. Conason said.

This best-selling exposé from a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist (and former Times investigative reporter) reveals how the processed-food industry manipulates our taste buds and exploits our biology to keep us eating foods that make us feel lousy. Translation: Polishing off a sleeve of cookies when you’re barely hungry isn’t a personal moral failing — it’s a carefully engineered result.

Understanding this can help us offload some of the guilt we have around food, Dr. Gardner said. “It’s not just that I don’t have any willpower,” he said, explaining that the “food industry is doing this on purpose.”

The writer and podcaster Aubrey Gordon takes a social justice lens to our treatment of people living in bigger bodies. And she illuminates how much of the way we may relate to food is not about our health so much as our culturally indoctrinated fear of being fat.

Questioning the default aversion to fatness is a critical step if we hope to find a less fraught perspective on food, said Virginia Ramseyer Winter, director of the Center for Body Image Research and Policy at the University of Missouri. “When we can come to terms with our own internal anti-fatness, then we can approach food differently,” Dr. Winter said. Plus, she added, Gordon is a “really brilliant writer.”

Jenna Hollenstein is a nutrition therapist and meditation teacher. (She also shared suggestions for this list.) Here, she leans on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, a classical Buddhist teaching, as a framework for eating with satisfaction, ease and joy.

The awareness and curiosity cultivated through mindfulness can support us on our food healing journey, Ms. Rumsey said. It’s a fruitful path — and we don’t have to walk it alone.

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