Reclaiming Pasta with Anna Sweeney

You’re Nicer With Carbs.

  
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Welcome to another audio version of Burnt Toast!

This is a newsletter where we explore questions and some answers around fatphobia, diet culture, parenting and health. I’m Virginia Sole-Smith. I’m a journalist who covers weight stigma and diet culture, and the author of The Eating Instinct and the forthcoming Fat Kid Phobia.

And today, I’m really pleased to be chatting with Anna Sweeney, who is a social-justice oriented disabled dietitian. You probably Anna know from Instagram where she is @dietitiananna. She is also behind the awesome “You’re Nicer With Carbs” t-shirts.

I just ordered a shirt this morning, I’m super excited about it. Anna, welcome.

Anna

Thank you so much.

Virginia

I’m really into the t-shirt. It took me a long time to pick a color. I might need more than one. It’s really good.

Anna

I am just digging on the mug. I use it as a communication vehicle. When I’m talking to people on Zoom, like, read my mug.

Virginia

Alright, now I need the mug, too!

Why don’t we start with you telling us about you and your work?

Anna

I am an eating disorder dietitian, I’m very fortunate to have dedicated the last, I think 13 years of my life to this field, which has become for me increasingly about social justice, in every single way. I’m so fortunate to have the following that I do on social media. I don’t know how that happened. But I am most grateful that it did. I’m just a multi-privileged person who is trying to use that privilege for good and make people a little bit uncomfortable in the process.

Virginia

I love it. It is not an accident that your Instagram has done so well, because you do a great job of communicating around very complex issues in a very thoughtful way. You have so much practical advice on there for people and you’re having really important conversations. So thank you for doing that.

I also want to tell listeners how we first got to know each other. I interviewed you for my first book, which some folks will have read, but for folks who haven’t, Anna appears in chapter two of The Eating Instinct, which is called Chasing Clean. And it’s where I explored how the diet industry became the wellness industry, but is still the diet industry. Anna shares her own story of living with multiple sclerosis and the ways in which the wellness industry preys on folks with chronic conditions and promises miracle cures through food and diet. And she’s rolling her eyes.

So debunking these kinds of myths and scams is still a big part of the work you do on social and it’s so important. But as someone else who also tries to do that, it can really feel like we’re playing whack-a-mole, because there’s always a new trend, a new celery juice or whatever. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on why that core message of “if you control your food, you’ll control your life and your health” is still resonating with people even when we see over and over that there’s nothing there?

Anna

If you are suffering by virtue of living with a chronic illness or just want to extend or enhance your life, or you are told by your doctors and your friends and the world that your body is a problem because of its size, it makes so much sense that the diet industry—which is really no longer the diet industry, it really is about that core value of “wellness”—preys on that. The messaging is really, really pervasive. There are going to be people who say, I did this thing, I cured myself, I healed myself of secondary progressive MS. Which is not a thing that you can do, because that is not how Multiple Sclerosis works.

I am an educated person, and as my disease changed, I wanted to also heal myself of a secondary progressive disease, which I know is impossible but I tried anyway. And, you know, I think the messaging is so pervasive but also so shape-shifting. This is about morality, and if you’re not trying for this thing, well, then you’re not trying and you deserve whatever malady you get.

Virginia

It’s really preying on people’s very real fears, and processing the ways in which our bodies change, and that that can be uncomfortable and scary. And then there’s this industry that’s like, “I will take your fear, and I will attach a product to it.”

Anna

And the really hard part about that—so the diet industry has billions of dollars backing it up. And then there’s the neighbor down the road telling you that her cat feels better because she took out gluten, or whatever. Which is crazy. If celiac disease affects 1 percent of the U.S. population, and in 2019, something like 40 percent of Americans reported eating “gluten free,” it’s not because people are actually gluten intolerant. It’s because gluten has been elevated as this thing that we can’t have. If you want to be a healthy person, you don’t eat wheat, or whatever.

Diet culture and the wellness industry has so much money behind it. And I am trying really hard to actually articulate the difference between the industry and the culture, because I think the industry, that's the $74 billion. The culture is your cousins, your uncle recommending this thing. And the trickle down effect of sharing these practices that have been helpful or effective—and talk to me again, in two or three or four or five years and like, maybe you have a different feeling about a thing—but it’s contagious.

Virginia

That’s such an interesting distinction, the industry versus the culture. The industry is certainly helping to create the culture. But you’re right, there is this more informal way that these ideas get passed around and embedded that is important to identify. I know that’s what a lot of my readers often talk about struggling with, it’s the comment grandma makes at dinner, or the way that your dad talks about his diet. That sort of stuff is so insidious, because it makes it harder to put the blame where it belongs, which is on this industry, that’s under-regulated and running wild, because you end up mad at the person and not at the larger system.

So, speaking of companies we can be mad at that. I’m hearing a lot of folks asking about Noom at the moment, and would love to hear your thoughts. We’ve been hearing for years: “It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle plan,” or “it’s a lifestyle change,” and Noom’s whole thing is, “it’s not a diet, it’s psychology.” So Anna, what is it?

Anna

Well, cognitive behavioral therapy is a really practical tool for changing behaviors. But Noom, suggesting that they are not a diet, it is about changing your brain—and I have to be really honest Virginia, I haven’t done a ton of digging because anytime I look at it, I’m just repulsed and I don’t want to play anymore.

But everyone that has spoken with me about Noom has said yes, they said it was psychology, but I was also eating a very low number of calories in concert. So like, it’s “let’s use cognitive behavioral therapy to teach your body to semi-starve.”

To me, this is the ultimate manipulation, speaking to people’s intellect. We acknowledge that the diet industry, as in conventional dieting, like SlimFast, their market share is in the shitter. That’s not a thing now. And in the 90s, it was a really, really, really big thing. But conventional diets like those are not selling anymore. So: Noom. To me, this is the ultimate gaslighting, where they say: You are so smart, you know diets don’t work; let’s change your brain. And we’re just not talking about the fact that it’s a semi-starvation diet. And there is one conclusion that follows semi-starvation diets.

Virginia

I'm sure that’s resonating with a lot of people who have tried it and are sort of sitting uncomfortably because you feel like you got played, and I think it’s important to articulate that it’s not your fault, this is very powerful marketing. A lot of work went into figuring out how to manipulate you in this way.

Anna

100%. I don’t even know if Kurbo is still a thing, but when Weight Watchers presented Kurbo for young people; they are different, but it was the same sort of manipulation. Like, if you’re a good parent, and you have a fat kid, you get Kurbo because you want them to learn these skills.

I don’t even know if Noom will let young people in, it’s certainly not marketed to young people. It’s marketed to people kind of in our age bracket. But it’s emotional and psychological warfare, because, you know, you’re not good if you’re not using your brain to starve.

Virginia

They’re also literally the same thing, because they both use the stoplight diet as their basis. So they want to both argue that they’re not diets they are, in fact, all about restricting calories and grouping foods into good and bad categories.

[Editor’s Note: Here’s Virginia’s 2019 New York Times piece on Kurbo.]

Alright, now I have some listener questions that have come in that I would love for you to tackle. So first up, and I wanted to give this one to you, because of your whole “you’re nicer with carbs” thing. And it just made me laugh because the whole email is: “What is the deal with pasta? Why is it seen as unhealthy?”

This is from someone who loves pasta, I think, and I do too. So I really want to help reclaim pasta for this person.

Anna

Our bodies have no judgment about where food comes from. If you are eating carbohydrates, by way of pasta, your body assimilates those carbohydrates the same way it assimilates carbohydrates from toast, or crackers, or chips or any other food that might be a little bit more neutral.

What has happened to the pasta industry in the last three or four years is pretty bloody tragic. It has happened in the context of this stupid, sensationalized documentary about plant-based power lifters or something.

[Editor’s Note: Anna is referencing The Game Changers, which we’re not linking to here because it calls itself a documentary but has been criticized for bias, misrepresentation, and cherry-picking.]

And then there was this uptick in this desire for plant-based everything, which is just a prettier way of saying “be vegan without the ethical piece.”

You don’t need chickpeas or beans or whole wheat or any of those things to have and enjoy pasta. You are allowed to just eat normal pasta.

[Virginia Note: Which, by the way, is usually plant-based!]

I am appalled by what has happened to the pasta aisle which used be exciting, because you can choose different shapes. Now it’s like, let me choose a different macronutrient profile to make sure that I’m rounding out my meal. If you are looking for a higher fiber pasta experience, maybe add some vegetables to the pasta. If you’re looking for a higher protein pasta experience, maybe add some cheese or proteins some other way. It’s so silly. Carbohydrates are the mainstay of our existence, right? We need most of our energy to come from carbs. What has happened is the vilification of normal white pasta, which is just pasta. This is an unfortunate trickle down of the diet industry suggesting that you need to healthify all of the things. It’s just not true. You body can handle pasta. It’s delicious. You should eat it.

Virginia

You really should. And for parents, kids love pasta, and then parents have all this guilt about how much their kids love pasta, but pasta is a great food for introducing other foods. If you’re trying to diversify your kid’s palette, pasta is the base of everything. In my house, at least, they have that sort of safety there, and then they can get more curious about other foods.

Anna

And there are so many fun things that go with pasta! All of the things go with pasta. It’s sad to hear that parents feel badly about feeding their kids carbs like pasta, because again, our prefrontal cortex—you are making a decision about what you’re feeding yourself with your prefrontal cortex, but the rest of your brain and all of your cells have no awareness of where carbohydrate energy comes from. The last thing I wish for parents, is to be putting that much energy into a bowl of pasta. It’s just pasta, it’s the same as a bowl of cereal.

Virginia

I love that. All right, so we have redeemed pasta for anyone who is feeling anxious about pasta, I hope you eat it after you listen to this podcast.

Next question: This person writes, my biggest issue is stopping when I’m full. How would you recommend dealing with the impulse to eat past fullness?

Anna

I think hunger and fullness and eating in accordance to those sensory-specific experiences is something that takes skill and practice. That being said, I think my first question to this person would be: Are you having enough food all day long? Like, when you get up in the morning, are you having breakfast? Are you having snacks? Are you having regular meals? Are you feeding yourself with food when you feel tired instead of having a cup of coffee? And are you actually feeling satisfied by the foods that you’ve eaten?

If you are not, I am going to encourage you to eat more food and to eat more food that leaves you feeling satisfied at the end. For some of my clients that actually means taking a break from high fiber things if fullness is part of the equation or something that makes them uncomfortable. The most important thing is, are you actually eating enough food during the day? And I promise you, you need a lot more food than you believe that you do. You just you need more food.

Virginia

Also, feeling the need to eat “past fullness” can be either not quite understanding what fullness is. You may be sort of feel like you should be full but you’re not actually full, you just think you’ve eaten “too much.” And so you think you’re eating past this but you’re not actually eating past your own fullness. That comes up quite a lot too, I would imagine.

Anna

I also want to say really, really clearly: Your fullness is different from my fullness, and your fullness on Monday in the morning is different from your fullness on Tuesday in the afternoon. We have to really regard our relationships with our stomachs similarly to the way that we regard our relationships with our bladder. They’re both stretchy muscles, sometimes you really have to pee, sometimes you’re like, I need to pee, because I’m gonna be in the car for a little while. And your stomach can be the same way.

In regard to this question, I would totally experiment with a bunch of different foods and feeling through what feels more filling and what feels more satisfying. And I’m still coming back to you’re probably not eating enough during the day.

Virginia

I think that’s dead on for sure. Okay, last one, which sort of ties us back to where we started this conversation.

This person writes: “Even though I stopped dieting and believe in intuitive eating, the dieting thoughts are in my head, so often. Any advice for coping with relentless diet thoughts?”

And I think this sort of comes back to that sort of onslaught of messaging we were talking about in some parts, but I’m curious to hear what else you think of in response to this.

Anna

First thing, please have so much compassion for yourself. Even as you are working to step away from valuing these numbers or rules, it doesn’t mean they disappear from your brain. Some of this is about neural plasticity. So if there was a time when following diet plan rules felt like it was advantageous for you, you made a neural connection that said, I feel uncomfortable in my body—and I’m not sure that I’m actually speaking to this person, specifically, but I’m just using an example—I feel uncomfortable in my body. So I’m going to make this dietary intervention. And every time, they feel uncomfortable, they make that one specific, or doesn’t have to be one, it can be all of the dietary interventions that they have followed over a period of time. And so that thought pattern becomes instantaneous, it becomes a thing that you don’t think about.

With regard to thinking about the fact that our brains are plastic, we are here and ready to learn new things all the time. And I’m going to ask your listeners, do you remember learning how to drive? I remember learning how to drive, you know, like hands at 10 and 2, get your mirrors, make sure your seatbelt is buckled, and turn off all the music, like no sound, focus, focus, focus, focus, focus. And I don’t think it was until I actually had my license, and my mother and father were out of the car that I was like, “Oh, I got this, this is fine.” But in this one practice, driving a car my proprioceptive sense, I go from being this like five foot something person to now being this two ton vehicle, and it’s really challenging. (Psychologically, it’s actually crazy that we let kids drive.)

It’s so, so hard. Until you get to a point where you can drive and have something to eat and change the radio, and be looking at your phone. And I will tell you, I have done ridiculous things while driving a car. But it’s because my brain, from a neural plasticity perspective, I desired so much to have a license that and to be independent driving a car that I practiced, practiced, practiced. And now I can do a million things. Well, it’s not actually a million, but I can do several things while also driving a car and not think twice.

[Virginia’s Note: This is not an endorsement of texting and driving! Please do not look at your phone while you drive.]

It makes so much sense, if you have been embedded in the wellness industry, diet industry, and those beliefs and doctrines for so long, it makes sense that those automatic thoughts are going to show up. My ask for you and my ask for everyone is — and this is actually using a little bit of CBT, thank you, Noom — what would it feel like to stop the thought or even to recognize it and say, wow, this is a diet culture thought, and try and replace it with something else. You think, so there’s a diet culture thought, this is my healthy thought, or this is my self-care thought. It will not be instantaneous, right? Because one that has been built in there is based on wellness culture mumbo jumbo, but with practice, and dedication to, you know, finding the other side, I feel really certain when I say it is possible to turn down that that noise. Does it mean it’s going to go away entirely? No, not necessarily. But you can shift some of it. And be gentle with yourself, this will take time. And, you know, if you devalue those messages, preferentially replace them with something else. This is a practice thing, but your brain was trained to do the dieting things, you can also train it to do something else.

Virginia

It really does feel like learning a new language or driving a car in the beginning. I was terrified of learning to drive as a kid. I remember how hard and scary it felt. And then after I lived in Manhattan for 10 years, and then we moved up to the country, and I had to basically relearn that skill, it was also terrifying, and didn’t go that well that first six months, and there was a garbage can in my driveway that I backed into. So I think that's a great way to think about it, like you are learning a whole new skill here. It’s a really complicated skill, and it’s gonna take some time before it becomes even remotely automatic.

Anna

And the wellness culture punch in the gut part is, you’re not likely to have your healthy self-care oriented practices mirrored back at you. There has to be some acknowledgment of the fact that doing something different is automatically going to put you in a special category. And so you’re going to have to come back to self-care first, acknowledging that everyone in your life is also prey to the industry in the same way that you have been.

Virginia

It’s like you’re learning to speak a language no one around you speaks, and then they’re going to keep speaking to you in their regular language and wondering why you’re doing something different. And that is really hard.

Well, Anna, thank you so much. This was wonderful. I feel like we covered so many different topics. Let us know where we can find more of you and your work.

Anna

I would love for you to come hang out on Instagram! I had no idea that I would love it so much there but it is like a creative outlet. I am @dietitiananna. I actually do respond to most messages. So pop in a question.

I started Virtual Connection at the beginning of the pandemic, and I haven’t stopped it yet. So there’s a free hour of me answering questions on Mondays at three o'clock EST. I would love to see you there.