Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin – Make Peace With Food
Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin
Jonathan: Hey everyone. Jonathan Bailor here with another bonus Smarter Science of Slim podcast and have a podcast which I really think is going to — let’s be — I’m going to say it: have the potential to really change and unlock lives. We have with us Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin who is a psychoanalyst and a psychotherapist and has a doctorate degree, is out there on the front lines helping individuals who have an unhealthy and unhappy relationship with food. She’s got a podcast.
The podcast is fantastic. It’s called Win the Diet War with Dr. Nina. She’s got a wonderful website called winthedietwar.com, but as you can hear my voice, I’m taking a little bit more somber tone to this podcast, because Dr. Nina is helping people, like I said, who have an unhealthy and unhappy relationship with food.
Generally on this show, we often talk a lot about science and having the proper information so that when we do take steps to improve our health, those steps are well spent, but we all know that there is a nonscientific side to this. Dr. Nina, I just salute you for all the work you do on that side, because it is as important, if not more important, and I appreciate you sharing your time with us today.
Nina: Thank you, Jonathan. It’s great to be here.
Jonathan: Well, Dr. Nina, can you tell us a little bit — I love the way you describe your area of specialty, and that’s individuals with an unhealthy and unhappy relationship with food. How did you, for example, that’s a very different description than people with an eating disorder. For example, how did you arrive at that language and that focus?
Nina: Well, because my practice is nearly entirely made up of people with unhealthy, unhappy relationship to food, I know how shaming it is to talk about having an eating disorder, or people go to certain groups and they’ll have to introduce themselves and say, “I am a bulimic, I am a binge eater.” It’s sort of mortifying. I really want to stress the fact that these are people who are struggling with food for a reason, and so whatever’s going on with food does not define you. You’re doing it for a reason, and that reason just needs to be identified, understood, and worked through in a different way.
Jonathan: Dr. Nina, I couldn’t possibly — I actually got a little bit of chills in my arm, because there is so much here. I get so saddened with — in some ways, the relationship with food that we’ve been lead down, this idea that food is bad, and we’re bad for enjoying food, and that if we could just eat less food, we would be better people, and the fact that we enjoy food is bad. How did we get here? How did we get in this place?
Nina: That is a good question. The idea of morality being tied to deprivation is very troubling, and it certainly does affect what happens with food, whether people realize it or not. When someone comes in to my office and says, “I am a binge eater,” I don’t assume that they have some kind of disordered eating like an eating disorder. Often I’ll say, “Tell me, what are you eating? What do you eat for breakfast?” “Nothing.” “What do you eat for lunch?” “Nothing.”
They starve themselves all day, as if that’s somehow good, and then of course, anyone who has deprived themselves all day is going to deprivation, restricting inevitably leads to binging. This idea of moral superiority because you’re not eating or that you can deny yourself is truly troubling. I guess a sociologist might be able to better answer how we got there, but we certainly have gotten there, and you and I see the effect of that every day.
Jonathan: The unfortunate irony, Dr. Nina, is that if we look at people talk about the French paradox. We look at cultures where they do have a healthier relationship with food, and ironically, they’re healthier all up.
Nina: I think that their food is healthier. A lot of times, people say, “I went to Europe” or “I went wherever, and I ate so much, but I lost weight. It must be because I was walking more.”
Jonathan: Yeah. They walk everywhere, Nina, right?
Nina: Yeah. It is, but I’ve had people who live in Manhattan tell me that, and they’re walking, too. If there’s something about the freshness of the food, this is more of course in your area of expertise than mine, but there’s something about the quality and the freshness of the food that I think your body can absorb better, and it leaves you not deprived.
Jonathan: Nina, do you see any distinction between — I’ve spoken with individuals who are in a similar area of work, and they often — I’ve heard them describe food — well, it’s curious. I’ve gotten mixed signals, actually. Is food — we can abuse anything, we can misuse anything. We could over-drink water.
No one really does that, but there are people that over-drink alcohol, and there’s individuals who smoke too much or abuse drugs. Is food just another area that can be abused, or is there something unique about it which should be thought of as different from any other substance that can be abused?
Nina: Well, I think it is in that we need it. You can have any kinds of “addictions” which I’ve really seen often as coping mechanisms that end up hurting more than they help, but you can give up drugs and alcohol. You can give up gambling. You could give up whatever kind of addiction, but you cannot give up food, and that’s why it’s very hard to deal with it.
Jonathan: Well, Dr. Nina, this is a — I hope this doesn’t sound like a semantic argument, but one thing I’ve noticed is in my work we talk about, I define food as things you can find directly in nature. I’m actually curious, have you ever seen anyone, that hasn’t — that overeats or abuses substances found directly in nature? Because in my experience, I’ve actually seen that if we define food as substances found directly in nature, and we do need those, would in fact have these addictive, emotional havoc on our brains? Are these edible products which really aren’t food? What do you think?
Nina: Well, I don’t know, but, I do know this. A lot of people when they come to see me, they say, “I’m addicted to ice cream. I’m addicted to cake. I’m addicted to whatever, I can’t stop eating.” You name it, and then in time, as they process the underlying conflicts and emotional reasons for why they’re turning to that food, the sense of addiction lessens. The other thing I say, because people say, “Why food? Why can’t I be addicted to crack?”, this one woman said. “Then at least I’d be skinny.”
Jonathan: Oh no.
Nina: It’s such a tragic thing to say on so many levels, but what I told her is that our first experience of love and connection and that blissful relationship with another person is being fed. When people say, “Food is love,” I think it’s even deeper than that, that sometimes it’s a profound, really deeply embedded way of trying to re-experience the blissful state of our infancy.
Jonathan: I really like that. I really like that line of thinking. Thinking back to our infancy, maybe think back in history, and I’m curious, Dr. Nina, do you know if — because I know, for example, the rates of depression, at least diagnosed depression, have been climbing steadily. I’m curious if there were people in, let’s say the thirties, when we ate more of an actual food-based diet, are there known cases — or even in cultures where maybe that’s a more data available situation — in cultures where they’re more focused on eating food by my definition rather than edible products, do we see the same incidents of unhealthy and unhappy relationships with food?
Nina: You use a very important word, which is diagnosed. I don’t know about the prevalence, but I do know that there are far more people who have been struggling with this for a longer period of time than we realized, and why do I know this? Part of it is anecdotally, but in my practice, I have a number of — maybe seven or eight people who are in their sixties — men and women who have struggled with this their whole lives and never sought help.
In fact, this gentleman that I saw finally, he was bulimic since he was seven, and he finally, maybe twenty years ago, went to the doctor and said, “I make myself throw up.” The doctor made him go through all these tests, physical tests, to see what could be causing him to make himself throw up physiologically and never once even considered that maybe this was some kind of eating disorder. Because of the mentality, which was only affluent, teenage white girls get this, people weren’t looking for it, and I think it’s been there — there’s a much higher prevalence than people have realized. They’re just now coming to get treatment.
Jonathan: Fascinating. Fascinating. The example you gave there of an individual going to the physician who had bulimia and being treated the way he did actually reminded me; there was a segment of my first book where I call — it was the story of Ann The Anorexic, and it was meant to illustrate what I find and now millions are beginning to find is the absurd treatment we give to individuals who are struggling with an excess amount of fat on their body, in the sense that we just say, “Well, you just need to eat less.”
Like the problem is you just eat less, because that’s like the story in the book was Ann is an anorexic, and she goes in to her physician, or maybe she goes to someone — she wouldn’t go to you, because you wouldn’t tell her this. They go to your competitor across town, and Ann comes in, and she says, “I’m an anorexic.” The physician says, “Okay, you need to eat more.” The treatment is you need to eat more. Well, we’d all say clearly that physician is not worth anything. We get that she’s not eating enough. The question is, “Why?” What is the underlying cause?
Nina: Exactly, and the same with losing weight. It’s like when people say, “Okay. You want to lose weight? Well, you just need to eat less.” “Oh. Okay. Really? I had no idea.” Yes, if it were that simple. Exactly, and you make a very good point, which is that you have to get to the underlying issues. I liken it to a weed and a root. It’s a somewhat trite example, but it’s the best I can come up with, so I use it, which is that a weed is — whatever is going on, whatever behavior with food, if you just lop off a weed, we all know it’s going to grow back. You have to get to the root, and in the case of us as human beings, what’s unconscious, out of awareness, underground, out of awareness but not out of operation, you’ve got to get to the root core issue that’s growing that weed in order to eliminate it. Most people, they treat the symptom as the problem instead of a symptom of the problem.
Jonathan: I love that. Treating the symptom as the problem rather treating it as a symptom of the problem.
Nina: That’s like saying to Ann The Anorexic, “Well, you need to — you obviously need to just eat more.” What’s going on? What is not eating do for you? What’s going on inside you? The other problem is people think that if you’re a healthy weight, you’re okay. You can leave a treatment program and be a healthy weight and be not okay, whether you’ve lost weight or gained it.
Jonathan: Well, Dr. Nina, what — and I know this is probably very, very hard to generalize, because we’re all such unique individuals, but I’m wondering if in your many years of practice, you’ve found some underlying causes or just affinities? These are the three big ones I see. What often do you find to be the underlying cause of an unhealthy and an unhappy relationship with food?
Nina: Well, I can generalize, and I have one answer to that that I see across the board in all my patients, and I say that definitively, which is that they have a hard time, to various degrees, identifying and processing their emotions. Part of that is that may or may not be their family, because we live in a culture that says, “Oh, don’t be angry. You have an anger management problem,” or “oh, you’re sad, take a pill,” or even if you’re happy, you get the, “Oh, you’re manic, take a pill.”
We live in a culture and a society that just really disparages feelings. I actually talk about this in my podcast episode called “The F Word” — that’s feelings. I do find that that is the number one cause of this disordered eating, that people develop ways to comfort their feelings, distract themselves from their feelings, enact their feelings. They can’t get mad at someone else, but they’ll get mad at themselves for eating, and so this really complicated relationship to their own internal world and their feelings is something that I find pretty prevalent.
Jonathan: How — is this just more of a once we can accept and appreciate and then act on our feelings, we, in some way, have a stressor that’s eliminated, and now we don’t turn to food for relief? What is the path out of this?
Nina: That is basically — and of course, it’s much deeper than emotions. Eating has to do with so many different things, but feelings is one of them. When you can comfort yourself, for example, with words instead of with food, then you don’t need food. Someone last week said to me that — I was so proud of her, because she caught herself. It was after dinner, and she was wanting something else to eat even though she wasn’t hungry.
She found herself thinking, “I just want something fun to eat,” and then she caught herself and said, “Oh, maybe I just want to have more fun in my life.” Things like that — when everything gets expressed more to food, you lose yourself. When you connect yourself with what you want, need, feel, you don’t need food to express it.
Jonathan: That distinction — I’ve never, ever thought about it that way, even for myself. This is a subject I have underlined here in my notes, to talk about emotional eating with you, because I have some strong, personal thoughts, not based in any science, but personal thoughts. What you just said is, when you say “I want to eat food for joy,” are you actually saying you want to eat food for joy or just you want more joy in your life?
Jonathan: Do you find that there is actually cases where, “No, I actually do just want to have the unique pleasure that comes from eating something that — and not even that’s unhealthy, but we’ve all eaten, for example, a piece of salmon that’s amazing, and we feel wonderful, and it’s delicious. Healthy food can be delicious. In fact, properly prepared healthy food, I would argue, is the most delicious food in the world. Do you see a role for that, for having an emotional connection to food that is healthy?
Nina: Of course, and I believe food should be enjoyed, and there’s nothing– I also think we shouldn’t pathologize food. A lot of people have such restrictive ideas. They have a good list and a bad list, and it’s tied to their sense of self. If they eat what’s on the good list, they feel good about themselves, but it cannot be maintained, because every once in a while, you’ve got to have a little pizza or ice cream or something.
As soon as they have that, then they feel bad about themselves and therefore what they eat is tied to their characters, almost. I do believe that we should enjoy food and enjoy good food and even enjoy some not-so-good food in small quantities every once in a while, but she was talking about having fun. Just to show how complicated it is, in her family, there were these very strong, covert messages that if you have fun, you’re frivolous. Here she wants to have fun, but she doesn’t want to have fun, so if she eats a fun food, it’s both she’s having fun and she’s punishing herself for having fun at the same time. Does that make sense?
Jonathan: Oh, it absolutely does, and actually, this inspired a quick spark in my brain, which is the distinction we’re making here, which is you have enjoyment from eating food versus having food with primary motivation of that being your source of enjoyment. Something that may resonate is there’s a distinction between drinking alcohol while you’re having fun at a social event as a complement to that experience, then there’s drinking to have fun — the act of drinking, like “We’re just going to drink now.” Most people would say that’s unhealthy. You shouldn’t be drinking to have fun. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t drink nor does it mean you can never have fun while drinking. It’s what’s your intention.
Nina: A lot of people who say, binge eat, they don’t even enjoy it. It’s sort of a miserable experience. It’s not like they’re having this great old time with all these foods. They can’t stop, and they’re miserable. There’s that part, too, but I think that’s a very good analogy. There’s getting drunk like “Let’s get wasted,” or there’s enjoying a nice glass of Cabernet over dinner. It’s a big difference.
Jonathan: Well, another analogy I use which I’m curious to see if you will like is actually — because again, we’re talking about more visceral, more bodily pleasures of which I often find that there is a safe, smart way to have sex, and then there’s an unsafe, not very smart way to have sex, and a full and healthy life can certainly be a life that enjoys sex, but let’s do it in a safe, smart way rather than in a unsafe, not-so-smart way. I think we can do the same thing with food, right?
Nina: Yes, absolutely. Then, using your SANE approach, when people can work through the underlying issues that are leading them to choose those Doritos or whatever, that there was that scary New York Times article about how — oh! That was scary — how these are being engineered to make people be unable to stop, but when you figure out why you’re going for those chips in the first place, and you work through it, then you can be more of an intuitive eater, and then you can be more of a SANE eater.
Jonathan: I love it. I love it. Even talking, Dr. Nina, about there is so much emotion here, and there’s so much intimacy here, and in some ways, that’s actually why I like to use the analogy of intercourse, because when we talk about food, we’re actually talking about putting something inside of us, so especially for one of the genders, that definitely hits home from an intercourse perspective.
Jonathan: One thing, Dr. Nina, that I’m curious to get your thoughts on is sometimes, myself included, I’m selective about what I put inside myself. I’m talking about from an eating perspective right now, and sometimes I get criticized for that as if like, “Well, Jonathan, don’t you like food? You must not have a healthy relationship with food because you don’t do X, Y, Z,” and I seem to think the opposite of that.
I think an individual who is selective about what they enjoy or selective about what they put in their body is in no way a prude or is in no way not enjoying things. In fact, you could argue that that person values — whether it’s food or sex — on an entirely different level, because they’re very selective and intentional about what they do. Is this — I may have just gone off in the weeds, I don’t know.
Nina: No, no. I think you’re talking about self-care and knowing yourself. What’s right for you, and it may not be right for other people, but it’s right for you, and that’s what’s important. You’re talking about having a sense of what’s right for you that comes from within, not from without. Many people who struggle with food are overly reliant on what people tell them about themselves to know who they are.
Jonathan: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, and I — it is — what you said early on I think is such a — food is such an easy place for us to go off the rails, because it is something where you can not smoke, and we get that, and you can not drink alcohol, and we get that, but you’ve just got to eat. If you can’t have that healthy relationship with food, man, that is — I just feel so blessed that I personally haven’t had to struggle through that, because I’m sure you know this, Dr. Nina, from your experience with clients — that’s just day in and day out. It’s just never — it’s always there!
Nina: It is always there, and I also know it from a personal perspective. This is why I chose to do this work, because I struggled with eating disorders when I was young and actually recovered, and I don’t love that word, but I did recover fully from it. I went to a therapist for three years, and they never once, not once, told her what was going on with me. She just thought I was naturally very thin, and at the end of the three years, that eating disorder was gone, and that made me realize “Oh, I repaired my relationship to myself.” That changed everything. I think I lost your question.
Jonathan: Oh no, I think that is just the — I feel for individuals in this position, because for example, if you’re an alcoholic, and someone offers you a drink, and you say “I can’t have that,” they’ll generally be respectful of that. If someone offers you a cigarette, and you say, “You know, I’m fine. I don’t smoke.” That’s good, but if you’re in the office, and it’s someone’s birthday, and they’re handing out cupcakes, and you’re like, “You know, I don’t want one,” they’re going to say, “Oh well, Sally thinks she’s too good for everyone else.”
There’s these constant cues. There’s no place you can go where there isn’t this pressure. There’s people that eat junk food, and they’re fine, and they’re healthy, and they’re going to live forever. It doesn’t mean it’s good for us. There’s also people that smoke and never get lung cancer, so it doesn’t mean it’s good for us. If we’re one of these individuals that have an unhealthy, an unhappy relationship with food, I think food, more than literally any other substance that can be abused, that just seems like such a challenge because of those constant cues.
Nina: And judgment if you’re overweight.
Nina: I’ve had people who are significantly overweight tell me of their experience in the world, and it’s humiliating to ask for that extra seatbelt on a plane or just the looks that they get. So yes, I don’t think anybody is looked at with as much scorn and disdain as people who struggle with their weight. I’m getting back to your question, because now I remember it. It does take up a lot of your mind to always be thinking about it, always wake up in the morning, “What are you going to eat?
How many calories are you going to use exercising?” It distracts you from you. It’s a form of doing that takes you away from being yourself, because when you ‘be,’ when you’re in a state of being, you might feel something or think something that’s uncomfortable.
Jonathan: I love it. I love it. Well, it gets back to the very — it’s very kind of you to share that, the story of your personal struggles with this, because I know it’s probably not a pleasant memory, but you mentioned that after three years, you left, and you no longer had this eating disorder, but it wasn’t as if you went in for an eating disorder. It wasn’t like an eating disorder was cured but rather this underlying state was addressed, and that then a consequence of that state being addressed was you no longer had an unhealthy and an unhappy relationship with food. What can we start to do as individuals, today, to start healing that deeper part of ourselves?
Nina: Well, to first identify, think about what’s going on in your head versus what’s going on in your heart. People need to look at how do things affect them, because I get a lot of, “Whatever,” and “that doesn’t matter to me. It didn’t mean anything. It’s no big deal,” constantly dismissing pain and then, of course, turning to food. If something bothers you, it needs your attention.
If something bothers you, it doesn’t matter that a worse thing happened to your best friend. Whatever it is that’s upsetting you, it happened to you, and it needs your attention, and you need to work through it, and when you do that, you’re going to feel better. You need to work through it with self-soothing. That’s the thing that a lot of people are missing, the ability to self-soothe. When they should be kind to themselves, they’re mean.
So recognize what is your relationship to yourself? Are you supportive of yourself? Do you listen to yourself? Do you speak kindly to yourself? How are you feeling? To really acknowledge that and sit with it, and sometimes it’s unpleasant, but it’s a lot more pleasant than beating yourself up from the number on a scale.
Jonathan: Absolutely. And once — that’s even something that I think we can all empathize with that about this idea that our self-talk — we will talk to ourselves in ways where if one of your friends or family members talk to you in that way, you’d be like, “Listen, bucko, you do not talk to me that way.” We do it to ourselves all day long.
Jonathan: Well, Dr. Nina, certainly asking you to distil all of this wisdom down into a sound bite is not something that’s possible, so I would encourage everyone — Dr. Nina’s work is fabulous, and I would very much encourage you that when you’re up on iTunes checking out the Smarter Science of Slim podcasts, please check her Win the Diet War podcast. Again, that’s with Dr. Nina, and of course, check her out at winthedietwar.com, because, Dr. Nina, probably one of the most common questions I get asked is people say, “Okay, it’s good. I’m confident.
I feel like I have the right information now, I’ve got the science, but I need the support. I need the emotional support.” I tell these people, “Please go see Dr. Nina. Go see people like you,” because this is just not my — as deep as the science is, the emotional and psychological aspects to it are that deep, so please, seek out a qualified expert.
Seek out a Dr. Nina and get that help, because you got to have both. You got to have both. You got to know how to handle food emotionally, and then you have to know which foods are actually good for you, which ironically are not at all the foods that we’ve been taught are good for us, but you need both. I really appreciate what you do, Dr. Nina. Thank you so much.
Nina: Thank you.
Jonathan: Everyone, thank you so much for joining us this week. Really a touching and insightful podcast from a touching and insightful woman, Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin. Remember, this week, everyone, eat more, but don’t binge eat. Exercise less, but do that smarter. Talk to you soon.