"We All Know Too Much About Nutrition."

How to Raise an Intuitive Eater with Amee Severson

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“I think in general, we all know too much about nutrition. I say that as a dietitian. Even the most intuitive eating of kids will be a picky eater. And that’s fine. We don’t need to nutrition them out of that. There isn’t of a nutrient in broccoli or kale that they can’t get from something else, I promise.”

Welcome to Burnt Toast! This is the podcast about about diet culture, fatphobia, parenting, and health. I’m Virginia Sole-Smith. I’m the author of The Eating Instinct and the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia.

Today’s guest is Amee Severson. Amee is co-author of How to Raise an Intuitive Eater with Sumner Brooks, RD. Amee is also a registered dietitian who specializes in eating disorder recovery, healing and preserving food/body relationships, and provides gender-inclusive and LGBTQ-affirming care.

Amee joins us today to discuss their new book. We will be talking about feeding kids but also about doing your own work and why we need to forget everything we know about nutrition.

If you enjoy this episode, please subscribe, rate and review us in your podcast player! And make sure you’re subscribed to the Burnt Toast newsletter for episode transcripts, reported essays, and so much more. (Here’s a 20% discount if you’d like to go paid!)

Have a question or a topic you want us to tackle in a future episode? Post it as a comment on this episode of the newsletter or send it to virginiasolesmith@substack.com. 

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Amee Severson

Episode 26 Transcript

Virginia

I am so excited. I’ve interviewed you a few other times for articles and things, but it is always such a pleasure to chat with you.

Today we are talking about your new book, How to Raise an Intuitive Eater. This is the book I’ve been dying to be able to hand to people. This is a resource we desperately need. I think a lot of people are expecting that they’re going to pick up this book and be told, “Step one to feed your child. Step two to feed your child.” Instead you spend the first 150 pages or so—really half the book—talking about parents. Why we as parents need to do our own work and how we can do that work. So, why start there? Especially because it is so hard, Amee. You’re making us do really hard work.

Amee

I know. I wish I could make it easy and just have it be a complete step-by-step guide, but we would have been missing a lot.

It’s not an uncommon question: Why make so much extra work in there?

I remember when I was a kid, every woman in my family had super short hair. Over the age of like 35 or 40, everyone just cut their hair short. I had this assumption that you got old (because that was old to me when I was seven) and you cut your hair short. You didn’t have long hair when you were old. That’s ridiculous, you know? There’s just this assumption that this is what you do.

And it was the same for dieting for my family. You reach teenage-hood and you joined Weight Watchers. You hated your body and you tried to lose weight. I just assumed that’s what you did as an adult. I know that I’m not alone because we see it everywhere. The way parents or caregivers talk about not just their body, but food in general. You don’t ever have to say anything explicitly to your child. You never have to say, “I think your body is wrong,” or “I think you’re eating wrong,” or “This is your fault.” If you are saying it to yourself, if you are living your life like that, your kids are tiny sponges who soak up all that and reflect it back in the world.

Virginia

Something I hear a lot from parents is, “My child is three or my child is thirteen and I’m now realizing I need to do this. And is it too late?” They’re wishing this was something they fixed about themselves before they became parents. Of course, we cannot go back to our pre-child selves and work on this.

Amee

Just like with intuitive eating, it’s never too late to start working on it. I think at a certain point, it is probably more beneficial for your older teenage child to do their own work, as opposed to you having different rules or attitudes around food. It can feel so overwhelming to start, like, oh, I have to fix myself and master the first half of the book before I’m allowed to start trying to introduce these concepts to my kid. Especially when your kid is older, it can feel more urgent, too, like I need to do this now. I already screwed up so much. As a parent, I get that. You, as a parent or as a caregiver, are repairing your own relationship with food while continuing to foster your kids having a good relationship with food—those two things can happen concurrently. It can be very important, especially if your relationship with food isn’t what you want your kid to grow up with or if you get that sinking feeling that this is not what I want to see my kid doing in 20 years. Then doing it concurrently is important.

Virginia

I think that’s reassuring, too, because it lets us know that we don’t have to fix it completely to do better for them. I hope people find that liberating. I know I do! I just think, okay, I don’t have to be getting an A+ on this, you know? I was trying to get dieting perfect for so long and now I have to get this perfect?

Amee

Yeah, there’s a lot of pressure to be the perfect parent all the time. Especially in this way I am so tired of, like “My kid eats kale, so they’re perfect.” My kid knows that kale goes to work with my husband. He puts it in a seafood case at work because it’s pretty, but we don’t eat it. And that’s totally fine! Because perfect parenting is a myth, I think. Sumner Brooks and I really emphasize throughout the book how faking it till you make it is totally okay. Having a lot of compassion for yourself for not having it all figured out and not being perfect is fine.

Virginia

Let’s talk about your Three Keys concept. This is what you see as the building blocks of the feeding relationship. The first key is providing unconditional love and support for your child’s body. Am I right that this is often one of the hardest parts for folks?

Amee

Yeah, it definitely is. Partly because I think that it can be hard to recognize that we aren’t providing unconditional love and support for our kids. If someone is picking up this book, if someone’s listening to this podcast, if someone is looking up any sort of parenting advice online, they’re probably trying their damnedest to help their kid as much as possible. It’s not malicious, it’s none of that. They’re trying their best and hearing that we can be harming, for lack of a better word, our kids through setting expectations on their bodies or even praising bodies—any of that can be hard to hear. Like, oh crap I’m doing something wrong. We live in a society that has put conditional love and support on bodies and we want to change that, because one of the least important things about a person is what their body looks like or even what their body can do.

Virginia

What is an example of when someone may think they’re providing that support, but they really aren’t? 

Amee

I think praise is a big one. Like, “You’re so pretty,” or “You’re so strong,” or “You’re so handsome.” It also can be subtle things. Something like, “are you sure you really want to wear that? You look really pretty. But are you sure you want to wear that?” It’s a lot of the buts, the “You’re doing really well at this thing, but your body is taking away from it.” And those are those unintentional jabs that build up over time.

Virginia

I was just interviewing someone for my book and we were talking about athletics. Kids get told way, way, way too young that they don’t have “the body” for a particular sport, even if they love a sport. You might love running, but you don’t have a “runner’s body” or “You’re not tall enough to play basketball.” Even if you’re still putting your kid on the team or encouraging them to love that sport, you’re letting them know that they won’t be the best at it, and so that it’s somehow not worthwhile because of their body.

Key number two is to implement a flexible and reliable feeding routine. This is something that you all articulated so well in the book that was really helpful for me. Often, we can either be very structured about meals or have zero structure and both can be really problematic. You said that what kids really need is to know they’re going to get enough food. The point of structure is to let them know that this is a need that will be met. I was like, oh, it’s not about trying to get the kid to eat on a certain schedule. It’s about reassuring that they are going to be fed. How did you come to that realization and why that is so important for parents to realize?

Photo via @AmeeIsTalking

Amee

One of the reasons why it felt so important to talk about enough-ness is because of the central importance of enough-ness in all of nutrition. It’s not about what you’re eating or the timing of it, or anything. It’s just enough-ness, overall. It can feel really uncomfortable to say no, because that’s often how we’re told to do it as an adult for ourselves is if you want something, you eat it, regardless of when you want it, regardless of how you want it. That’s totally fine. Absolutely encourage that. Kids have very one track brains. They’re not quite as prefrontal cortex-developed as we are as adults. It can be harder for them to recognize, like truly recognize, that if I’m hungry and I don’t eat now, I will get enough food later. Especially if there has been a time where they were maybe presented with food, like a dinner for example, that they didn’t want to eat. It’s a lot of food, maybe on a plate, that they don’t enjoy. They’re going to probably leave the table hungry. And the same with snacks, the same with lunches, breakfast, all of it. If they’re not given enough and given the option to have enough, they develop the sense of okay, I need to get it when I can. And we want to make sure that they know that if you don’t eat all your lunch, that’s fine. And you can have more when you get home.

I have an elementary school kid. And elementary school lunches are a whole thing where they only get like 10 minutes to eat food. My kid is a very slow eater. So I know she never finishes her whole meal. So she comes home hungry. We’ve fallen into the routine that she gets  another lunch when she comes home from school. Because otherwise she’s hungry. We want her to know that like, okay, you don’t have to feel sad or upset that you didn’t finish your lunch. You don’t need to feel chaotic when you come home and just go for whatever food is available. You can make yourself some mac and cheese, or we can. She’s figured out the microwave and it’s beautiful. So she can do more.

Virginia

We love that. Yeah, my eight year old has the toaster and the microwave down now.

Amee

Same! It’s beautiful. It’s a lovely day as a parent when that happens.

One other thing that comes up in that space is if we’re about to have dinner and she’s hungry, I will say “No, we’re not gonna have a snack right now because I want you to eat dinner. It will come and it’s food that you like. There will always be one part of it that you will eat. So I want you to be hungry for that.” It’s normal to be hungry leading up to a meal and there will be enough food for you to eat. My seven year old does not understand that whole sentence, but her brain will conceptualize and understand if we do it again and again. And that’s the goal.

Virginia

Yes, that’s helpful. I think you’ve just articulated this thing that parents struggle with. There are times when kids want to eat a lot of food and it’s not, in our brains, a time to eat. We think you had lunch at school but now you’re coming home starving. But you’re compensating for a lack, where she’s not getting enough time to eat her lunch at school. Versus, it’s 20 minutes to dinner and I’m not creating a lack by saying no at this point. Your enough-ness will be achieved very shortly, I’m just helping you understand 20 minutes. When you’re saying no, are you saying no in a way that’s restrictive or supportive?

Amee

That phrase right there—restrictive or supportive—is a conversation Sumner and I had a lot as we wrote this book. How can we phrase this in a way that is supportive and not restrictive?

Virginia

Yes. That’s a helpful phrase for us all to keep in our hearts and come back to in those moments when there’s a request for food that’s catching you off guard.

And then the third key is to develop and use your intuitive eating voice. What is my Intuitive Eating voice, Amee?

Amee

It’s the voice that tells us we are hungry, we want food, that we don’t really want to eat this food tonight, but we want to eat that one. It’s I want to move my body today because I feel like I’ve got energy. It’s I don’t have energy and I think I need to take a nap. We are all born with that voice, all of us are, and sometimes we shut it down. Sometimes we’re just raised and in this culture that is not allowing us to foster that, not allowing us to hold on to that and to trust it. So, by developing and using that intuitive eating voice, we get the chance to pull it out of hiding and keep it from being lost. By doing that as a caregiver, as a parent, we show how safe it is, how okay it is to do that. We get to be the home base forever, for these kids. Like, this is what my my family did and it was fine. This is what I learned is safe and okay. We can really allow that space to be held for ourselves. For our kids, it looks like not letting this thing that is really cool and really important fade away and be locked in a deep dark corner of our brain. Because it’s a really cool space where we get to trust our bodies.

Virginia

I’m almost tearing up as you talk about that because it’s really such an honor to be able to do that for our kids. It’s a privilege that we can be that space for our kids.

So, you take us through these three keys and then we start to talk about nutrition. I love how late in the book nutrition comes because all too often this is where the conversation starts and stops, right? Why do you think it’s so important to shift the focus off nutrition? When is there a place for nutrition in the conversation?

Amee

I think in general, we all know too much about nutrition. I say that as a dietician. 90% of the work that I do is un-teaching nutrition to people because there’s so much that’s contradicting itself or so overblown. How the heck are you supposed to navigate all of that? The last thing Sumner and I want to do is throw on even more rules. The rules are not the point. We didn’t want to make it the main focus of the book because it’s not the main focus of intuitive eating. It’s not the main focus of raising kids.

If you are shoving vegetables on your kid, they’re not gonna eat it. My kid ate a bite of a carrot last night. That was it. Her vegetable for the day was a single bite of a carrot. And that was fine. I was glad she ate a bite of the carrot because they were good. Because when we obsess about nutrition—did you eat enough vegetables, did you eat enough fruit, protein, fat—we take away from that intuitive eating voice. We take away from that instinct that it’s okay to eat food. It’s okay to to not like things. It’s normal to have a picky kid. It’s not a screw up on parents part. it’s not a broken thing within your kid. Even the most intuitive eating of kids will be a picky eater, and that’s fine. We don’t need to nutrition them out of that. There isn’t of a nutrient in broccoli or kale that they can’t get from something else, I promise. We can expose our kids to these things, expose them to us as parents, normally eating food andtaking the pressure off of ourselves and off of them to find the most important thing that we could possibly eat on our plate is the brussel sprout. It’s just a piece of food, same as this chicken, same as this french fry. I don’t need to fight with you about this one. I’m allowed to not like this and I’m allowed to try it. That comes up, too, how many exposures it takes for a kid to be willing to try a food, to be willing to accept a food. It’s a lot, like 18 to 20 exposures, which is just looking at the food existing.

Virginia

Right, without pressure to eat it. I think so often people hear that exposure number and think that means they have to push it on their kid 18 to 20 times. They just need to be in a room with it.

Amee

Yeah, It’s like sparkling water, like if the essence of it exists in a room with you.

Virginia

It’s the Lacroix of vegetables. Just a waft. Check, we got another exposure down.

The hyper focus on nutrition and the anxiety parents have about nutrition so often gets in the way of the meal being relaxed, fun, maybe you have a conversation you enjoy with your child. All of that gets lost, right? We’re not getting that opportunity for food as connection and food as comfort. 

Amee

Yeah, when it turns into a food fight at the table, like just eat this food, it takes takes the focus away from a time where we can hang out or just be together. 

My daughter, she’s almost eight and she goes in and out of more picky periods, but she’s also a kid and her tastes do not line up with that of mine and my husband’s. I like really spicy curry. She does not, to my great disappointment, like really spicy curry. So if I’m going to make curry, I don’t expect her to eat it. I don’t even really expect to present it to her because she knows what it is. She isn’t gonna touch it. But I know she’ll eat some of the dino nuggets I keep in the freezer. So she can have that and some white rice and she’ll eat one of those things.

The other night we had fish tacos, again spicy and fish, two big no-no’s. So, we made her a quesadilla because we figured she would eat a quesadilla. It did not land that night. I don’t know why, could not figure it out. But it was not the ticket. And she was visibly really sad. She ate a couple bites and was like, “I’m full.” And we were like, “No, you’re not, like, we know you’re not full. What’s wrong?” Just very quietly, she was like, “I just don’t like this tonight.” And we’re like, “Oh, just go get something else then. You can make yourself a sandwich or have some mac and cheese.” Like, “Eat food, please.” She got up and made herself an easy mac. It was beautiful.

Virginia

Yes, that’s awesome. It does get easier when they can use the microwave themselves so you’re not the one having to get up and make the whole second meal. That’s the tension, right? Is all the labor that goes into that.

Amee

The food she can make herself, she can switch out a dinner for. That’s the rule.

Virginia

That’s a great rule. That’s a great way to put it.

Amee

And we always, always have some foods that–well, there’s a really weird Uncrustables shortage right now. It’s very sad, actually, because it makes lunches a lot harder to pack. But, even before she could use a microwave, we would have Uncrustables in the freezer, and she would just pull those out and eat those. Or a bowl of cereal, which is totally fine, too.

Virginia

I think folks are gonna find this deeply reassuring.

I want to talk a little more about the nutrition piece. I liked how you said that you do a lot of un-teaching in your work because I think a big problem is we’ve absorbed so much of this nutrition knowledge and accumulated it so intensively over the years. Is there a way to incorporate nutrition in a more useful way into your life? Or is it a matter of just letting a lot of that information go? 

Amee

Yeah. I think there is a little bit of case-by-case for that because there is some nutrition information out there that is really valuable for some people, given their circumstances in life or what’s happening for them. And some of that same information is really not useful for anyone else. For example, my partner is diabetic. He needs to count carbs because he needs to dose insulin. If he doesn’t, It could be bad. I however, don’t need to count carbs. Neither does my kid. The only reason my kid is learning any carb ratios at all is for “Daddy has low blood sugar. Can you please go get him a soda?” She did absolutely bring him a Diet Coke one time.

Virginia

Love the effort but…

Amee

So, we’re learning this one has carbs so we need you to bring this one to Daddy. But so many of those little specific nutrition like tidbits can be really important for one person but really unimportant for another. We are in such like a black and white society that if this thing is important for one, we assume it’s important for all. If this thing is unhealthy for one person, we assume it’s unhealthy for all, but that’s not true. We can pick and choose what is important and for the most part, we also get to pick and choose that forever. For example, I like to use my husband’s example. He doesn’t drink sugar sodas, for example, because he didn’t drink them growing up and he doesn’t think it’s worth his insulin. But Fritos and queso, like Fritos scoops and the crappy Fritos queso, is his jam. He will eat an entire bag in 30 minutes. That’s one of his Christmas presents every year. That’s worth his insulin.

There are a few exceptions to that, like allergies is one. But for the most part, we get to pick and choose when it’s important and when it’s not. We don’t have to cut anything out ever. If it will kill you, then maybe. But for the most part, we don’t have to. If we are interested in or willing to do the work to unpack our own internal diet culture beliefs, internal fatphobia, and the way we externalize that as well, then we really get to pick it apart, which is a lot of work and sometimes not the most fun work. But that’s what leads to having a better relationship with all of this. I find most of the work we do around nutrition is unpacking what’s not important.

Virginia

That’s a really empowering way to frame it. I think people think they don’t get to choose. Nutrition is given to them as the set of cardinal rules they have to follow instead of something you can filter through your own life and your own context.

I really love that you call the last chapter of the book “what to do when this feels harder than you thought.” I do not want to give away the ending of the book. There’s so much more in this book than Amee and I have talked about—you need to read the whole thing. But I do think when people are working on divesting from diet culture and fatphobia it just feels so hard some days. You hit these brick walls and you don’t know where to go. Then you end up worrying that what you did caused more harm because you’re trying to reduce harm. So what do we do when we hit those brick walls? 

Amee

I think accepting, believing, expecting that we will hit a wall at some point. There’s always a wall, whether it’s exhaustion or just confusion or frustration because we all have limits. We don’t have to be ready for every circumstance that’s gonna come our way. And we can have a lot of compassion for ourself in that space. I expect it to be hard. I haven’t met a single person that’s like, “Oh, my God, that was the easiest thing I’ve ever done.”

Most people come to me, as a clinician, and are like, this is so much harder than I thought it would be. It is challenging. And it is for our kids, too. The longer we’ve been stuck in our own diet culture mindset, the harder it can be to encourage our kids to re-trust this space. It can feel really frustrating and hard and that’s okay. I think self compassion is probably the most important thing we can hold.

In our house we have a lot of conversations about how we’re not going to have any more candy right now. We’re gonna save this candy for later and you can have more tomorrow. Or no, you don’t get to eat more Halloween candy before bed because you just brushed your teeth and I’m tired. You’re going to bed and you can have more tomorrow.

Virginia

I had a cool moment with my four year old recently. We had popcorn and we hadn’t had popcorn in the house for a while because my kids are really messy with popcorn so I stopped buying it for a few months. Then I was like, Oh, they love popcorn, I should get popcorn again. And the first day we had it, my four year old wanted only popcorn. At dinner she was having a plate of popcorn. And then she wanted another plate of popcorn and another plate of popcorn and I could see Dan, my husband, getting a little tense. Like, are we gonna watch her eat a whole bag of popcorn? Is that okay? I knew that it was just because it was new and we hadn’t had popcorn for a while and she loves it and she was really happy to have it. I said to her, “Just so you know, I want you to have as much as you want with dinner. We can also, if you’re getting full, save your plate and have this popcorn with breakfast tomorrow.” Immediately her posture changed and she was like, “Oh, oh yeah, I’m full.” and gave me the plate and we put it aside for breakfast and she ate it for breakfast the next morning. And it was clearly that she was just like, “I better eat all the popcorn right now because I don’t know when I’ll have it again.” As soon as I explained that it’s here in the house now and we’ll have it again, she was like, “Oh, Okay, got it.” That was very cool to watch happen  in real time with her.

Amee

Yeah, once you see your kids start to do it, it’s really cool. We had a similar experience with a chocolate orange, those ones you whack on the table and they break apart. That fun, interactive food is really exciting for my kid right now. We found one at Trader Joe’s and she was so excited about it, and we bought it. She ate that first one within a few days. Then we went back to Trader Joe’s a couple days later and there was another one. So we got it. It’s been like a week and a half and it’s still sitting in the cupboard and she keeps forgetting it exists because it’s just not exciting anymore.


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Amee

We are currently watching—we’re late to the game—Succession. That is what we spend our nights doing. I’m very invested in all these people that I really hate so if you want to hate watch something…

Virginia

If you have not read it yet, the New Yorker profile of Jeremy Strong is a fascinating and hilarious read. Definitely check it out.

It turns out he is just as horrible as Kendall Roy is. He’s not actually acting at all. At times I even found it a little triggering because I find all the men on Succession a little triggering. I was like, “Oh, God, he’s like so many like, boys I had crushes on in high school who turned out to be these theater jerks.”

Amee

That’s the whole reason we stopped watching House of Cards after one season. We’re like, this is too close to home. We have to stop.

Virginia

Exactly. Okay, my recommendation is also something to watch. It is a movie I watched recently. As folks know, I do a monthly movie club with my siblings. My siblings are significantly younger and cooler than me, so we each take turns picking movies and my movie is always a terrible pick and then they all pick these amazing things. This was my brother-in-law’s pick, actually, it’s called The Sound of Metal. It is a really moving film about a musician. He’s a drummer in a heavy metal band and he loses his hearing overnight. He goes completely deaf and you never really find out why he loses it. But you watch him coming to terms with being deaf. It’s also a powerful story about addiction. He’s in recovery and you see his quest to get his hearing back almost as like a form of relapsing. It’s just a beautiful movie, it takes you into the deaf community. It’s very thought-provoking about addiction, mental health, and disability and it’s beautifully shot and acted.

So Amy, thank you so much for joining us. This was such a great conversation. The book is How to Raise an Intuitive Eater. Tell folks where they can find more of your work.

Amee

My website for my professional work is Prosper Nutrition Wellness. I’m based in Washington State. You can find me on Instagram or Twitter at Amee Severson.


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