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'Food, we need to talk': Finding a better way to discuss our bodies and what we eat

(Tero Vesalainen via Pixabay)
(Tero Vesalainen via Pixabay)

The newest food diets. The magic weight loss pill. Changing beauty standards.

Your relationship with food and your body can be difficult to navigate.

In fact, more than half of Americans 16 and older say that they feel pressured to have a certain body type.

“We spend every day of our lives eating food. We spend every day of our lives in our body,” Juna Gjata, co-host of the “Food, We Need to Talk” podcast, says. “And yet, most of the messages you’re getting as you’re growing up are often misinformation from people who might not be as educated in the topic.”

Is there a better way, a more science-based, and humane approach to what we eat?

Today, On Point: A new way to discuss our bodies and what we eat.

Guests

Juna Gjata, co-host of the “Food, We Need to Talk” podcast. Co-author of the new book “Food, We Need to Talk.

Dr. Eddie Phillips, co-host of the “Food, We Need to Talk” podcast. Co-author of the new book “Food, We Need to Talk.” Associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. Founder and director of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine (ILM) at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

Also Featured

Anissa Gray, senior director of news standards and practices at CNN. Author of “Life and Other Love Songs.”

 

Transcript

Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Over our lifetimes, we hear messages — sometimes a few, sometimes a lot — about what we should and shouldn’t eat, what we should and shouldn’t look like. In fact, about half of Americans 16 and older say they feel pressured to have a certain body type. Similar numbers say the media promotes an unattainable in body image for men, while three quarters of Americans say that’s the case for women. And all that’s according to a 2021 study by the market research firm, YouGov. Ask around and you’ll probably hear a similar message.

JENNIFER CONWAY: When I was modeling in New York City in the eighties, I remember vividly a designer putting her hands on my hips and saying “You need to bike and run and swim and dance and lose weight.” I was maybe 122 pounds, five foot eight.

MIA DURAN: We bought every “as seen on TV” ridiculous exercise machine. I remember we had this thing called the bun and thigh roller that I would have in my room and used every night.

GLORIA ZUROFF: I learned about how my body should look from Seventeen Magazine. This was in the early seventies. At the age of 15, I decided I would just eat less and exercise more, and I almost died. I was hospitalized and continue to struggle with that somewhat now that I’m 66 years old.

CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti and those folks were listeners Jennifer Conway in Lincoln, Nebraska; Mia Duran in Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Gloria Zuroff from Sun City, Arizona.

The problem with misinformation around body shapes and food hasn’t improved much. There’s always the next weight loss pill or fad diet. Right now, for me, there’s a strange ad stalking me all over the internet. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s the one that has hand drawings of super fit folks in various age brackets with the promise that even in your seventies, you, too, can look like this imaginary picture of a ripped septuagenarian. All you have to do is just click the ad.

Well, the social pressures and misinformation are some of the contributing factors that lead to serious and dangerous consequences. There are reports that suggest that teenage eating disorders may be at an all time high with hospitalizations for eating disorders doubling among adolescent girls during the pandemic. That’s according to the CDC.

So talking about food and our bodies has always been difficult. Our guests today hope to make it a bit easier. Juna Gjata and Dr. Eddie Phillips are the co-authors of the new book “Food, We Need to Talk: The Science-Based, Humor-Laced Last Word on Eating, Diet, and Making Peace with Your Body.” They also have a podcast — they co-host a podcast — by the same name. Juna, welcome to On Point.

JUNA GJATA: Thank you so much for having me, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: And Dr. Phillips, welcome to you. I want to add —

PHILLIPS: Thank you Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: That you’re also the assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. I wanted to get that in there before it was too late, guys.

GJATA: And actually he’s an associate professor now. I’m allowed to brag about him because I’m not him.

CHAKRABARTI: Did I demote you, Dr.?

(ALL LAUGH)

GJATA: Meghna, how dare you? How dare you.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Oh my gosh. You’d think I’d be able to remember the difference by now. Okay. Change noted.

So actually what I’d love to start off with first, Juna, is from you. Because you heard those voices from listeners talking about the stories that have haunted them for basically their entire lives. You also have a story about your relationship with your body and food, which really got you interested in this whole topic around misinformation and what we eat. So can you tell us that story?

GJATA: Yeah, so I think for me, like with a lot of women, it started kind of around puberty that I started noticing my body was changing in a way that I didn’t see some of the other girls around me changing. And as I got older, I have always had, two younger, very skinny sisters, Meghna. And one of them also happened to be very tall. So it was always like comments were being had of, “Oh, you should be a model. You would be so good as a model, da da da da da.” And I remember my mom saying to me once in a totally kind way, like she wasn’t trying to be insulting, but she said, “Juna, you could be her agent.” And I just remember being like, “Yes, every young girl’s dream! To be her skinny sister’s modeling agent! Perfect!”

And so I never grew up overweight. I was always just not as skinny as I wanted to be. And that to me seemed totally normal because all my friends also seemed not to be as skinny as they wanted to be. So I was always growing up around girls who were saying like, “Oh, um, I’m on a diet. Prom is coming up. I’m gonna buy this waist trainer.” When we would go to birthday parties together, they’d be like, “Oh yeah, let’s like only have one piece of pizza because like, we don’t wanna get fat.”

Even the adult women I knew all around me, it was always like, they were getting sparkling water at restaurants. No drinks. They were getting salmon, they were getting no dressing. And if you offer them dessert, they had to say, “Oh, no, no.” Or if they took it, they had to say, “Oh, I really shouldn’t, but–” and so I just thought it was this normal part of being a female that like, you are always unhappy with your body. You are always trying to make it smaller, and that’s just the way life is as a woman in this world.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. But Juna, can I ask you, I mean, having salmon over a steak or sparkling water over a high calorie alcohol drink or low-cal dressing. I mean, I was under the impression that those were actually the right things to do. But you’re saying that like, maybe this was its ubiquity, or…?  What was it about that that made you think being unhappy with your body is sort of just a permanent state of womanhood?

GJATA: I think it was not just that these were choices being made for health, it was always that it was choices you were making because you didn’t like the way you look. So it’s one thing to say like, “Oh, this choice is, you know, better for my long-term disease outcomes” or whatever. But it was always like, “Ugh. Like I just, I’ve gotten so fat recently. Ugh, menopause. I’m not gonna have that today.” So it was always this sense of deprivation because you were unhappy with yourself.

CHAKRABARTI: Ah, I got you. Okay, Dr. Phillips, can you just jump in here for a second? Because I mean, you and Juna have worked on this issue about how we think about food for a long time — and the podcast is terrific also, by the way, just gotta give that an extra plug.

GJATA: Thank you.

CHAKRABARTI: But, you know, she said something right at the very beginning, which I thought, “Man, maybe we actually begin with, you know, our journey with food and misinformation from the very beginning.” Do we think enough about the role genetics plays from the start? Because Juna said she had two very skinny sisters and they were growing up in the same household, and I presume eating the same foods as children.

DR. EDDIE PHILLIPS: Mm-hmm. So genetics are the baseline. You know, we love to complain about our parents and how they raised us and the genetics that they gave us. A lot of what we’re talking about is the expression of those genes. So you take — so obesity is clearly a genetic disease, but it is manifest in a toxic food environment, which I’m sure we’ll get to, which is just sort of the excess calories that are readily available all over the United States and now the world.

I look at my own kids and they manifest in different ways. Again, with the same gene pool. So, it’s the hand that you’re dealt, but how you play the cards and how you express those genes according to — are you doing a little meditation? Are you getting some exercise? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you eating the right foods  for your body? That is the part that we have control over.

CHAKRABARTI: Got it. Okay. So Juna, tell me the next step then. I mean, when did the relationship between you and food turn toxic?

GJATA: So when I got to college, you know, all the cool kids will start to be like, their parents aren’t there, so “Let me go to parties. Let me drink.” I was like, “Oh, cool, my parents aren’t here and now I can diet as much as I want.”

CHAKRABARTI: Oh.

GJATA: Obviously I was very, very cool in college. So I started eating I’d say like, you know, very little calories, a thousand to 1,200 a day, and started going to the gym every day, just running on the treadmill. And one would think this would lead to a very low weight. In fact, all through college, I would consistently gain weight every single year and reach a new high weight because I developed such bad binge eating after the diets.

So it would always be like I could diet four to five days a week, and then two days I was binging. Then I was dieting three days a week. Then I was binging for four days. And so this is the first time I really kind of experienced eating disorder symptoms that were quite severe, and the cycle would repeat itself every year throughout college.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Okay. I bet you, as you’re saying that many listeners are hearing it and like, nodding their heads because it seems like a really familiar pattern, especially in college, right? Because you’re sort of free of whatever strictures you had at home around food and eating. So how did then your relationship with food begin to change?

GJATA: The biggest change for me was going to the gym, ironically, because I saw a girl online lifting weights, and I was like, she looks amazing. She looks so much better than all the people I used to see just running, running, running on the treadmill. So I started lifting weights and the reason that completely changed my relationship with food was because I started to get obsessed with being stronger. It was so empowering to me.

And my body, instead of shrinking all the time, which had been my main focus, I started to see my muscles get bigger. And at first I was really freaked out and I was like, “Oh no, I don’t wanna become bigger.” But it felt so good to actually like feel strong and powerful and confident. And so then I started to think like, “Oh my gosh, I need to be eating enough.” At first it was just protein, like “I need to eat enough protein, period because I’m going to the gym.” But then it was like, “I need to eat enough food, period, to fuel my training.” And so my focus shifted away from just wanting to take up less space in the world as it had always been into wanting to actually perform and be a strong person. And that was totally what shifted that mindset of like, “I want to disappear,” to, “I want to take up space.”

CHAKRABARTI: I see. But I presume when you said  you needed more protein, you weren’t going to like GNC and buying that barrel size protein powder, right?

GJATA:  Meghna, let me tell you, I was in the beginning!

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Oh no! You were?

GJATA: Meghna. Meghna. (LAUGHS) Meghna, it was so bad, Meghna. My parents were like, “What is going — ?” Guys, I remember like showing my friend my six pack and I said, “One day when this is great, I’m gonna say this is a six pack made 100% of protein powder.” And he was like, “Oh no.” So yes, I was in a very like, just heavy gym rat phase for a good year or two of my life where it was just like gym and protein powder shakes. It was funny, but not anymore. Thank God.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh my. So that really — I did not expect you to be like, “Yes.” (LAUGHS)

GJATA: Oh yeah. Yes. I was totally, I was a gym bro through and through like for a good two years.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh my gosh. Okay. So Dr. Phillips, we have like 20 seconds before we have to take a break. Is pounding protein powder any better than the food relationship Juna had before then?

GJATA: (LAUGHS)

PHILLIPS: For her it was. I think it was part of the beginning of her journey. So I would say it was better than what she was doing before.

CHAKRABARTI: Alright, well Juna Gjata and Dr. Eddie Phillips are co-authors of a new book called Food, We Need to Talk and we have a lot more to talk about when we come back from the break.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we’re speaking with Juna Gjata and Dr. Eddie Phillips. They are co-authors of the new book “Food, We Need to Talk: The Science-Based, Humor-Laced Last Word on Eating, Diet, and Making Peace with Your Body.” And by the way, “Food, We Need to Talk” is also the podcast that Juna and Dr. Phillips co-host.

Now, I wonder if you two would just mind if I share a little story about sort of some of the food messaging that I —

GJATA: Please, please!

PHILLIPS: Please.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Because you know, part of what your book, like just it sings loud and true, is that a lot of the messaging we get is very early and it’s from places that — places that people are supposed to trust, right? Like family — I mean, I don’t know if you’re supposed to trust media, but when you’re young, you do trust media — and even, in my case, one of the most lasting messages that I got was from a teacher in school.

GJATA: Mm-hmm.

CHAKRABARTI: So this is seventh grade. It was the eighties, the late eighties. And my health teacher — I won’t tell you her name because I don’t know if actually she’s still alive — but she actually was a wonderful person. Very fit. And at that time she was in her late fifties. And this was the eighties, right? So like when we’d have to do the mile run test —

GJATA: Oh my God.

CHAKRABARTI:  And I was like, wheezing by the end of it, she’d be like, “Meghna, I can walk a mile faster than you can run.” (LAUGHS)

GJATA: (LAUGHS)

PHILLIPS: There we go. There we go. (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI:  Yeah. Which technically was true, but not very motivating. And I used to play soccer, so if you put a ball in front of me to chase, I was like a dog and I could do that forever. But running around the track was a no-go. Anyway, so she was also the health teacher and one day she had this little shoebox. She cut a hole into it and we could ask any question we wanted, right? Put it on a piece of paper.

GJATA: Ooh!

CHAKRABARTI: And so someone had written a question about, “Why do some people gain a lot of weight?” Okay? And when you’re in seventh grade, like puberty time. And as you said, bodies are changing. So it was really a question which we were kind of all leading into.

GJATA: Mm-hmm.

CHAKRABARTI: And the teacher takes out the question and she reads it out loud and she says, “Oh, yeah. Well, some people gain a lot of weight. They get too fat mostly because they just love food and don’t know when to stop.”

PHILLIPS: (SIGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: Okay? And then she said, “Every time they see something, they’re just gonna, they’re just gonna pick it up and eat it.” And the line that really stuck in my head was, “They love the way food feels in their mouths.”

GJATA: Oh my God.

CHAKRABARTI: Right? So like, I walk out of there and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m gonna get really huge because I love food.” Right? Like my mom’s a fabulous cook. I absolutely love the taste of what she makes. I feel it’s a joyous act. It brings me and my friends and family together. I was really freaked out for a long time and every time I ate something that felt “good in my mouth,” so to speak, it gave me like this moment of panic, which it took, I don’t know, like decades to shake off.

GJATA: Mm-hmm.

CHAKRABARTI: So, that — from your book, it just sounds like that is not an unusual experience, guys.

GJATA: No. And I think, as you’re describing that, Meghna, I feel like so many of us relate to that idea of feeling like, “Are we just out of control? Do we just not have as much willpower as other people?” And what we know is that for obesity, for example, the majority of the genes that have been discovered to be associated with obesity have to do with the brain. So this idea that people that have a higher weight, just like food more or something, it’s like, it is so different. It’s so much more complicated than just, “I like the way food tastes.”

So if we talk about the new drugs that have been discovered, like Ozempic. When people are on those medications, they describe being able to walk past a bowl of candy, for example, and not even seeing it as opposed to before, they would walk past it and like they could just not stop thinking about it, it was like always there And so this idea that they just like the taste of food better — It’s not that. There are so many other influences that are impacting how you’re drawn to food, the types of foods you’re drawn to, and it’s not like it’s your decision or a moral failing on your part.

CHAKRABARTI: So, I was actually gonna go back in time, but since you mentioned Ozempic, this is a chance for us to do some fact checking and eradicating of misinformation. (LAUGHS) Dr. Phillips, can you talk about what Ozempic is and how it works and should it be like the latest fad drug that Hollywood starlets are all trying to get compounded for them?

PHILLIPS: Well, it should be used as this fantastic medication — and it’s associated other kinds of medications with just different names — for the treatment of diabetes and for the treatment of obesity. So it really is groundbreaking in that area. It is a new tool in the armamentarium of treating obesity and diabetes.

The fact that the supply of it has been taken over by Hollywood starlets who can pay a thousand dollars per month and stick this in — they inject it into their belly — just to lose weight, that I think is not the appropriate use of it. And we could talk about why health needs to be much more than just your weight and how if you do choose to lose weight that way, understand that you’re gonna be doing this for the rest of your life. And understand that all of the benefits of other ways of getting healthy, like as Juna said, lifting weights and getting more active and improving your relationships and reducing your stress, all those things are not gonna come through that syringe.

CHAKRABARTI: How does it work?

PHILLIPS: It’s going to reduce your feeling of needing to eat, which is sort of the most famous thing. Like, some people take it and they need to be reminded to eat.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh.

PHILLIPS: It’s working on, on sort of the level of your brain so that you’re feeling satiated much more quickly.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now, so that’s one of the things that’s happening now, but in your book you also talk about just how early in history, even the language about how people discussed eating and the body, how far that goes back. I mean, where should we look for the most illuminating origin story?

GJATA: So if we look back all the way to the 1800s, it was a time when, in the early 1800s, actually being overweight was associated with wealth. So I always think to myself, “Ah, to be a white man in the 1800s would’ve been so great,” (LAUGHS) because you could basically have a bit of a belly and everybody would be like, “Wow, that guy’s rich.”

As time went on in the 1800s, it started to become more fashionable for men to diet. So there was one man who published the first-ever dieting manual. It was called The Banting Book. And he basically said that when he was obese, his life was so terrible. And now that he had lost all this weight, he had turned his life around. And so that was the first dieting manual published. It was very much directed at men only. And for women, throughout the 1800s, it was still like a woman was feminine if she had some curves.  A protruding belly was seen as a sign of fertility and being too thin was seen as being very masculine and a sign that you might not be able to have children and so on.

So dieting actually moved into the female space from women’s rights activists who thought of it as like, “We can have as much control over our bodies as these men can have.” It was seen as like this sign of your discipline.

CHAKRABARTI: Huh.

GJATA: And so in the late 1800s, early 1900s, it started to become more popular for females having more athletic form, to do more physical activity the way men were and that’s kind of when it crossed over into women. And then the 1900s was just this hodgepodge of just thinner and thinner and thinner bodies becoming trendier, and especially with the proliferation of media. This ideal of like a tiny waist has just gotten worse and worse over the course of the 1900s into the 2000s.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. That’s so interesting. I’m just gonna offer a presumption that obviously,  issues of body and appearance have been with us since the dawn — well, maybe not the dawn of man, but since like really truly organized cultures have arisen.

GJATA: Of course.

CHAKRABARTI: But it’s so interesting that you point to the 1800s and the Industrial Revolution, right? Because again, I’m just gonna make the presumption, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that beforehand, there weren’t all that many people who had, you know, giant girths because of an ample food supply —

GJATA: Exactly.

CHAKRABARTI: But maybe with the Industrial Revolution and changes in farming for people who were wealthy, there was more food that they could afford. So it was sort of like you said, that was one of the reasons why it got tied up with status? Do you think there’s any credence to my theory here?

GJATA: Totally. And I think that prior, maybe there’s always been a preoccupation with appearance, right? But it might not have been focused on weight. Maybe it was focused on other things.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah.

GJATA: Like there’s been makeup and there’s been hair and all these things for thousands of years, right? But it wasn’t such a thing that so many people had such different body types because we were fighting to have enough food. But when it started to become clear that some people had more, some people had less and it would change the way your body looked, then I think it really started to become this aesthetic preoccupation.

PHILLIPS: Another thing to look at is that if you were trying to keep up with the trends, so it gets skinnier and skinnier, I’m thinking of like Twiggy in the 1960s, then the, what do we call it? “Heroin chic, ” you know.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm.

PHILLIPS: But then more recently, “slim thick” has made its appearance. So if you were chasing that, what are you gonna do? Like, change your entire body? And now maybe the skinny ballet look is coming back. Like, it would drive you nuts. It’s like changing, trying to change your wardrobe every time fashions changed, but it’s a little tougher to change your body.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. Well, if you’ll allow me, Juna and Dr. Phillips, let’s listen to another voice for just a moment.

ANISSA GRAY: I was raised in a home where, you know, my mom was a stay-at-home mom and there was a really, a pretty healthy attitude toward food and eating. And I think also in the Black community there is, um, an acceptance of different body images. Uh, so to be larger is not necessarily a terrible thing.

CHAKRABARTI: So this is Anissa Gray. She’s a journalist at CNN and the author most recently of “Life and Other Love Songs.”

GRAY: But I also grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. So while my family was Black, most of my friends were white. So I also internalized some, um, some different, uh, body image views.

CHAKRABARTI: Gray says that through her teen years, she didn’t think about dieting as much as some of her friends did, based on how much they talked about it. But then came college.

GRAY: After my first year,  I, I did put on the freshman 15. So (LAUGHS) it, um, weight became an issue for me at that point, and it was, “I wanna get back to a weight that feels more comfortable to me.” So that was my initial thought.

CHAKRABARTI: But that thought quickly spiraled. Gray started talking to her friends about weight loss and patterned what they were doing: using laxatives, over-exercising, things she says she never thought anything of at the time. But, over time, those behaviors turned into severe binging and purging.

GRAY: But by then I was so overwhelmed with my behaviors and things were in my mind, quote-unquote working, and I was not able to say, you know, “I, I really need treatment. Uh, my thinking was so disordered and sort of beyond my control that this was just my life and this was just for me, how I maintained my weight. And it wasn’t until my early forties that, uh, my wife heard me purging. And in some ways, you know, I can remember that moment. It was, um, it was a — it felt like a gift that moment because it sort of broke me. I, I was sort of forced to talk about what was happening and in that moment, agree to seek treatment.

CHAKRABARTI: Gray soon joined group therapy and there she learned to recognize her triggers and redirect herself to engage in healthier activities. The goal was no longer about just losing weight, but rather about achieving a balanced lifestyle.

She says she was 20 years into her eating disorder before she sought treatment, and today she wonders why it took her so long to realize she needed help.

GRAY: I do wonder sometimes if I was slower to recognize my issue because I just did not see myself as someone who had an eating disorder. Um, that’s not something that’s talked about broadly, you know, within the Black community. It, it just isn’t. And then within the sort of larger community, there’s, you know, it has a particular stereotypical face. So I think that for a lot of Black people who may have an eating disorder, it may go unrecognized.

CHAKRABARTI: And she says one of the most important steps in her recovery was establishing a different relationship with food.

GRAY: I eat quite broadly. And really try to focus on whatever it is I’m eating and enjoy it. And that is a real gift. And it’s something that I wish, you know, because I hear people around me, you know, “Well, I don’t eat X” or “I don’t eat Y,” and not necessarily for health reasons, but just restrictive reasons. And, you know, that can get really unhealthy. Certainly for me, it is. So I think the more you can learn about food and engage with it in a non restrictive way, the better.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Anissa Gray. She’s a journalist at CNN and the author most recently of “Life and Other Love Songs.” So, Dr. Phillips, let me ask you first, what do you hear in Anissa’s story?

PHILLIPS: So part of it is that there is a stereotypical vision of someone with an eating disorder. And I think doctors and the whole society looks for, we call it “SWAG,” which would be a skinny, white, affluent girl. And from listening to Anissa Gray and reading some of her work, she was not necessarily skinny, certainly not white. I don’t know about her affluence. And she discovered this when she was no longer a girl. So she didn’t sort of fit. And, as she said, within the Black culture, it’s not as talked about and yet the numbers are high. But the treatment that we have for eating disorders is often focused on the, the ones that we can see.

We think about the anorexic, and yet that’s a smaller group than the folks like her who were, who had the bulimia and the binging and the purging.

CHAKRABARTI: Juna, go ahead.

GJATA: So I was a psychology major in college, Meghna. And I took a class on abnormal psychology. So this was diagnosing mental disorders. And I remember we had a slide on eating disorders. And I remember the professor specifically writing on the slide that most people with eating disorders are not underweight. They are either normal weight or overweight. And even though I took that class, I had seen that slide. I remember seeing it. To this day, it took me like five or six years to ever seek treatment for my eating disorder because I was just like, “No, I don’t qualify because I’m not skinny.

So that’s not the type of person that has an eating disorder. I think we all have an idea in our heads of what an eating disorder looks like, and it looks to us like an anorexic woman. And anorexia is actually the least prevalent of the eating disorders. It affects about 1% of women and 0.3% of men in their lifetime.

Binge eating disorder is the most common. It has a higher prevalence of bulimia and anorexia combined, and yet it’s probably the least talked about, and I think it’s the least glamorized. Like anorexia, you think of like ballerina. Bulimia, you even think of, dancers like purging after shows and stuff like that. And with binge eating disorder, it’s just completely ignored in the media a lot of the time.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. When we talk about — come back, excuse me. When we come back, we’re gonna talk more about some of the myths about food and how we talk about it that both of you would like to bust. And then of course we’ll try to get to what should we do? How should we think about our relationship with food to achieve a healthy relationship with it? So that’s what we’ll get to when we come back.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Today we’re speaking with Juna Gjata and Dr. Eddie Phillips. They’re co-authors of a new book called “Food, We Need To Talk,” and they’re also co-hosts of a podcast by the same name. Now, Juna and Dr. Phillips, honestly, I wanted to have a little list in front of me of the food myths that we should try to bust. Except there were, there were so many I couldn’t pick, right?

GJATA: (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: Like, one second, eggs are bad for you, then they’re good for you. One second, coffee is bad for you, then it’s good for you. Then, you know, “Have a glass of wine with dinner. You’ll be fine. It’ll be heart healthy.” But then, “No amount of alcohol is really good for you at all.” So I was like, I don’t even know how to understand what’s a myth and what’s not about food.

GJATA AND PHILLIPS: (LAUGH)

CHAKRABARTI: Do you wanna do, like, you guys pick the myths that you wanna bust and do a lightning round between each other? How should we even just begin to navigate the information?

PHILLIPS: I’ll start and maybe you and I can go back and forth. I would start with the idea that we’re very tribalistic and we’re hyper-social beings. We’re very tribalistic and we apply that to our food. So people love to, unsolicited, tell you what they’re not eating this week (LAUGHS) because they’re on a new diet or they watch something or they read something in a magazine — Do people still read magazines?

GJATA: What’s a magazine?

PHILLIPS: (LAUGHS) On the internet. I would start with: We really agree on about 90-95% of what we know is good. And it’s gonna sound a little boring because you’ve heard this. Like, having an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables, fresh, if possible, is good for you. And make sure that there’s some legumes in there, that’s really good for you. Improving your fiber content, that’s really positive for you.

We can get into what kind of protein. Lots of people don’t want to have any animal protein. Well, you can have a healthy diet without animal protein, but there are good choices to be made, and we’re gonna end up understanding that you want to hydrate with water. You want to have this mixture and you’re gonna be improving your health all the while. You don’t have to be absolute about it.

So I have  a colleague who, when he talks to his patients about what to eat, what not to eat, he starts off in a very interesting way. He says, “What are the non-negotiables?” Like, you know, for me it’s the coffee ice cream. No matter what they say, I’m gonna keep on having it. (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Thank God.

PHILLIPS: Right? And I will stipulate that I always put walnuts on it because walnuts are good for you. That’s the way my brain works. (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) That’s what I’m gonna say from now on, Dr. Phillips.

GJATA: Oh no! (LAUGHS) He’s spreading it!

PHILLIPS: So it’s not all or nothing. Juna, what’s your favorite myth to bust here?

JUNA: Meghna, I need to bust the myth of spot reduction because as someone who has always struggled with my stomach, I have spent years of my life doing crunches. And it boggles the mind that we have known for decades that working out a certain body part does not reduce the fat in that certain area of your body.

It does increase the muscle in that area of your body if you’re doing it right, but it does not reduce the fat. Fat loss is always going to be systematic over your whole body. And so the fact that I spent years just doing ab exercises makes me so upset because it’s, to this day, it’s how people sell exercise programs.

PHILLIPS: I mean, the muscles can be improved.

GJATA: Yes.

PHILLIPS: Your abs are stronger but —

GJATA: My abs are stronger. The fat is still there though, unfortunately.

CHAKRABARTI: But I was gonna ask like my dear friend Juna, where did you get that six pack from? (LAUGHS)

GJATA:  (LAUGHS) The protein powder, Meghna. No, I’m just kidding. No, no. I mean, truly, I don’t even do abs anymore, guys. I just lift so heavy that you have to have a very strong core to make everything stable. So I think that’s where my six pack is coming from, honestly.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so a little birdie told me that I need to ask you, Juna: How much can you actually deadlift?

PHILLIPS: (LAUGHS)

GJATA: (LAUGHS) Meghna, you are my new favorite person on the radio. I am up to 355, guys. 355 pounds.

CHAKRABARTI: What?!

GJATA:  For one. Yeah, that was my PR [personal record] last year.

PHILLIPS: Can I also just share some backstory that as we edited the book, you have multiple times to edit and there’s finally, “It’s going to press! Anything else?” And Juna had just improved her deadlift weight. So that was the last edit put into —

GJATA:  I was like, “Guys, we have to change this! It was such a big improvement! I have to change this number!”

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Oh my God. Okay, so after this, Juna, down the line, I’m gonna call you up and see if you can set me up with a lifting program here.

GJATA: Please! Please!

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So, you know, it suddenly occurred to me, or maybe not suddenly, maybe it’s just so we’re so awash in it that it’s hard to notice. But I do wanna point out, you know, since you’re talking about myth busting, the myths are very, very often propagated by media. Now, of course, even faster by social media.

You know how earlier I had talked about like, “Well, every five seconds there’s a new study turning over the last one?”

GJATA: Right.

CHAKRABARTI: Are we being irresponsible in the media by breathlessly reporting every scientific study which is part of an incremental process of us expanding our knowledge about nutrition, but we report it as if on that day, it’s a definitive finding?

GJATA: I think it’s such a huge problem because when we look at a study, it’s one study, right? Who is actually going to look at the study and look at the methodology of how this study was run? The reason we find different things in different studies all the time is because our methods are improving, the person running the study decides to use a different method, so they come to a different conclusion. The idea that one study is ever going to be definitive about anything is always going to be flawed. So we always need to be looking at the research overall.

And then on top of that, nutrition research is so difficult to conduct because how are you going to force people to eat a certain diet for a long enough time? How are you going to make sure they’re actually eating what they’re saying they’re eating? If they’re taking something out, what are they replacing it with? It’s so complicated that I think, in general, it’s hard to trust just one thing you’re reading.

I think the good news is that eating a primarily whole foods diet has been the recommendation for decades. It has never changed, and it is never probably going to change. And so focusing on the things that we all agree on, which is eat primarily whole foods, limit ultra-processed foods is a great place to start and is not really controversial, I think in any way.

CHAKRABARTI: Dr. Phillips, did you have anything you wanted to add to that?

PHILLIPS: It would be lovely if that were the message that media put out. (LAUGHS) I understand that people want to hear what’s the latest thing. But it’s really an incremental process and it’s not all or nothing. And I mean another — just to pick up on another point that Juna made, whenever you’re talking about, “Wow, I shouldn’t have that.” Or, is coffee really good for you? Or the, the ones that you raised about alcohol, the question always has to be applied: “Instead of what?”

So I have patients that say, “So I just read. Should I have eggs for breakfast?” Instead of what? If it’s instead of a glazed donut, like, enjoy the egg. If you’re giving up your avocado toast, which you like and you’re going towards eggs, you know, probably better to stick with the avocado toast.

And it’s where you’re coming from. You know, we talk about not eating the hyper-palatable, ultra-processed foods, otherwise known as junk foods, which constitute over half the calories consumed in the United States. But it’s not a forever and ever. You know, if someone makes you a birthday cake or, you know, buys it at the store, enjoy it. That’s the better advice.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, so having a food system, awash in ultra-processed food was something I also wanted to talk with you about. Because I was like, maybe your next book should be called “Food System, We Need to Talk,” right?

GJATA: (LAUGHS)

PHILLIPS: Mm-hmm.

CHAKRABARTI: I mean, because you’re focused, understandably, on individuals right now because we are individuals within that system. But it’s hard to, I mean, we can do what we can for ourselves, but it’s hard to really make lasting change with a food system that’s really geared towards having people eat the highest calorie, lowest nutrition, cheapest to produce products possible.

PHILLIPS: Yes. And they’re designed to be addictive. And I think we’re lapsing into a conversation about how do you make societal change.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm.

PHILLIPS: And it begins with the individuals. We’re seeing that with the climate emergency. There’s only so much recycling you could do. The next level of changes need to come from a government level.

You could look at places where — when I can’t sleep at night, I think about places we’ve been successful. I grew up where smoking was just everywhere, even in the hospitals when I was training. And now it’s not cool. We changed our view of smoking. It’s not in the culture as much and we’ve been successful at it.

We managed to get trans fats, which is a particular kind of lipids, out of the U.S. food system because we knew definitively that it was not good for you, but it was legislation that finally got there. So the systems do need to change, but for right now, we’re talking, I think, as you pointed out, to the individual.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. Juna, go ahead.

GJATA:  I think, on top of that, there’s so much money behind ultra processed food. There’s billions of dollars spent on the marketing, the taste, the mouth feel. How much sugar? How much fat? How much salt? What claim can we put on the packaging? “This is a high protein brownie.” “Oh, okay. Then it must be a healthy brownie.” “This is gluten-free water.” There’s never been gluten in water!

PHILLIPS: (LAUGHS)

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS) Oh my God. Is that for real? Have you seen gluten-free water?!

GJATA: Yes! I’ve seen —

CHAKRABARTI: Oh my God.

GJATA: Gluten-free ridiculous things where I’m like, “There was never gluten in this in the first place!” Like, why is this written here? And what research has done into like, how can we make this the best-tasting kale? How can we grow this kale better? Nobody puts it on, right? What claims can we write on this broccoli? Like this broccoli is so high in vitamin — like there’s no writing on any of the vegetables.

So I think you’re constantly battling with this marketing machine and all this money and research that is going to these foods that I don’t blame the average person for like, being confused on what to eat because all the health claims are on the unhealthiest foods.

CHAKRABARTI: Mmm. Right, right. That’s so true. You know, I know you’re familiar with this, like Michael Pollan always says just shop the perimeter of the supermarket.

PHILLIPS: Mm-hmm.

GJATA: Yes. Totally.

CHAKRABARTI: Don’t go in those middle aisles. Or don’t buy anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Or blindfold your children when you walk down those middle aisles if you have to. That was one I just added. (LAUGHS)

I want to get some voices of our listeners because we did get a lot of response when we said we were gonna talk to you about misinformation around food. And so here’s what a few more On Point listeners had to say:

CHARLENE HAM: My relationship with body image really started when I was really young, maybe six or seven years old, and I remember my dad kind of giving me a warning that all of the women in his family were kind of bigger.

CATHY KASKA: Growing up, my dad used to tell me all the time how fat I was in my belly. And I am 66 years old currently. And when I look back at pictures of myself during the time that my dad was telling me how fat I was, I wasn’t.

JEN WALSH: From as early as I can remember, I was told to be careful about my weight. To eat this, don’t eat that. And as an adult, I’ve learned to challenge a lot of those beliefs by researching health of every size. And challenging the — even sometimes the medical community when their measurements of health are based on fatphobic and biased data.

CHAKRABARTI: Those were On Point listeners Charlene Ham in Los Angeles, California; Cathy Kaska in Fairfield, Iowa; and Jen Walsh from Westfield, Massachusetts.

You know, we’re rounding towards the end of the conversation here, so there’s a couple of things I want to get to with both of you, but given what we just heard from those listeners, Dr. Phillips, I just wanted to get your take on what was said, that some measurements of health are based on fat phobic and biased data. What’s your response to that?

PHILLIPS: Well, it’s unfortunately true. And the people that are exposed to fatphobia, to weight bias, actually end up more unhealthy. And I’m ashamed to share that the medical establishment is sometimes the worst at this, where we — people report coming in for something clearly unrelated to their weight — you know, their arm hurts or they have a headache — and they get told to lose weight and they get stigmatized and then don’t come back for the normal care. So it is pervasive in the society.

Just one other comment picking up on the speakers is that weight is used as a proxy for health. It is probably one of the worst measures, worst single measures. And the “tough love” that the dad tried backfires and people will get more stressed and actually their eating behaviors will get worse when someone just points out that, you know, as these people said, “Oh, you’re fat. Do something about it.”

CHAKRABARTI: Mm. Well, we’ve just got about a minute and a half to go here, and you’ve already mentioned sort of what are the kinds of diets we should — diets being the not just a big D diet, but small D diet — that we should be aiming for, like plant-based, whole fruits and grains, stuff like that, which I think people have heard for a long time. But there’s also exercise, managing rest. Sleep. And perhaps most importantly, I mean, given that most of this conversation has been inflected with the messages that we all get while we’re young, I mean, maybe that’s the place to start. Like, how do we change our relationship with those messages that are messages that are so deeply embedded in us?

GJATA: I think doing things out of self-love as opposed to out of self-loathing has been one of the biggest things that’s changed my relationship with my body. So before all the dietary changes I made and the exercise was a form of punishment and trying to change the way I looked, whereas now like exercise is the funnest part of my day and I love the way I eat and I enjoy what I eat.

And so I think if you’re making health choices out of that place, it’s always going to be kinder choices, and it’s going to be more sustainable choices because it’s not going to be so miserable that you can’t tolerate what you’re doing.

PHILLIPS: And I would say that when I talk to patients, pull the camera back a little bit. Let’s look at more than just what you’re eating, more than just your weight. Understand the importance of relationships, of your sleep, of your stress, of what you’re on the planet for, your purpose and how all of these healthier behaviors are gonna get you there and make you happier. And even if the number on the scale never moves, and that’s where I think we need to send the conversation.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, well, Juna Gjata and Dr. Eddie Phillips are the co-hosts of a podcast called “Food, We Need to Talk” and co-authors of a new book called “Food, We Need to Talk: The Science-Based, Humor-Laced Last Word on Eating, Diet and Making Peace with Your Body.” And if you enjoyed what you heard today, trust me, the book contains so much more.

So Yuna and Dr. Phillips, thank you for joining me today.

PHILLIPS: Thank you, Meghna.

GJATA: Thank you, Meghna!

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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