Q & A with Holly Van Hare of Eating Peanut Better

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Holly Van Hare is one of my favorite people to follow on instagram and has hugely inspired my overall perception of what it actually means to practice "health and wellness." Holly is a journalist who advocates for Health at Every Size, is anti-dieting, and co-hosts the incredible "Nut Butter Radio," (with the equally amazing Hannah Liistro) a body politics podcast that promotes intuitive eating and shares a super healthy dose of criticism towards the media and its obsession with diet culture and shame. Check out Holly's podcast, instagram, and soon to be website and read more about her below. 

Q: Who is Holly? What are some things people might not know about you looking at your Instagram or from listening to your podcast?

A: I am a writer; I’m a huge writing nerd. I love classical literature and analyzing people and psychology. People also don’t know that I used to want to teach high school English and Math. I really think that both of these are subjects that people think are really hard, but can understand if it's explained to them with enough attention. They actually just come down to understanding people and concepts. I love helping people understand concepts and empowering people to learn what they didn't think they could.

I also love to dance. I’m not great at it to be honest, but I used to be part of my college’s dance crew, which was so fun. We didn't have to be great dancers to join, but we would just learn a song or two throughout the semester and at the end, we'd put on our costumes and perform. Dancing in that was one of the best things I chose to do my senior year.

I talk a lot on the podcast about my job, but I write for the media here in NY. I write health content from a body positive lens, which is a little bit of a struggle right now because the health media is so drenched in diet culture. I get a lot of requests to write about fads and diets and everything that I’m against. It’s often frustrating, but in the end helpful because I get to be the one writing the things that are being put out there instead of someone who thinks it’s a good idea to write about how going low carb could help you lose weight or something like that.

I love NYC. I’m never leaving. I love exploring neighborhoods and trying new restaurants. 

Q: How did @eating_peanut_better start? How about Nut Butter Radio?

 A: @eating_peanut_better actually started when I was in college. I had just started ED recovery after falling pretty far into anorexia-- though it’s kind of iffy to attribute it all to “anorexia.” Long before I was diagnosed, I was on and off dieting. I was in a place where a lot of women are – wanting to lose weight so I would kind of eat less to lose weight, fail, eat a bunch of cookies, and do it all over again. One day I just decided I was going to commit to changing my body (which is a miserable place to be) and I ended up full blown in an eating disorder. I think it happens more easily than people think. I was determined to go back to school during recovery, and I came back and started cooking for myself in a way that was more trying to care for myself and learning how to eat foods that made me feel better. I started taking pictures of my meals because I was proud of what I was learning. People were telling me to start a food Instagram and it just kind of grew from there. Now, it’s this cool documentation of my recovery. If you go all the way back to the beginning, it’s all these carefully portioned bowls, which I spent hours cooking. Over time, it kind of loosened up and I see it as a way that’s fun for me to try new recipes. I also like to show people that there are ways to eat that don’t require much planning. Sometimes I’ll take a picture of my bagel and post it – just to document that you can feel nourished and cared for without obsessing over it.

Q: Tell us more about Nut Butter Radio!

A: I met Hannah, my co-host, in college – we were both part of an organization called “Fit University” which we are no longer a part of, I think in part because we have some ideological differences with them. I was their Editor in Chief, in charge of their website. College students would write blog posts for it, which I would edit and publish. I met her there and she used to write for me. We both quit and I stayed in contact with her at Northeastern. Then we both discovered Christy Harrison’s podcast ‘Food Psych’ and we both loved it and were like “this woman is amazing and she’s introducing me to all these new things.” We both discovered health at every size and intuitive eating. We didn’t know that those things were even available – it was so cool to us. We knew we loved influencing people and we jokingly said we should start a podcast. We both realized we weren't joking-- and so we bought our microphones, skyped to record it, and it’s been a lot of fun. We pretty much just knew that we had an influence and we wanted to affect other people in the same way that Christy’s podcast had affected us. We really wanted to reach the Instagram and blogging world and felt like we could do that with our podcast.

Q: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned since starting your Instagram and podcast? 

Definitely learning about health at every size! Health at every size changed my whole life. It’s basically a whole body of research started by Linda Bacon. She conducted research with the help of professors and she learned that health can exist at ANY size. An overweight person can be completely healthy whereas a smaller or average bodied size person can be less healthy and that lifestyle factors and things like your position in society/social status/access to health care have a way bigger impact on your health than your size. And actually, people who are of a larger size might be totally healthy. She also did research on repetitive dieting. You go to the doctor, they tell you you need to lose weight, you go on a diet, and diets don’t work. Then, 97% of people gain the weight back and 60% of people gain more weight in the long run than they lost initially. Our bodies aren’t designed for weight loss – it’s not healthy, unless you’re way over your set point, which is pretty rare. The answer to improving health is actually intuitive eating- listening to your body and giving it what it needs.

Linda Bacon has a book called “Health at every size” which really helped me to understand this. It’s all written in very understandable language – she breaks it down so that anyone can understand the science she put behind her research.

Q: What does intuitive eating mean to you? How can someone learn to really LISTEN to their body?

A: Intuitive eating is really hard. People who are against it will just say you’re looking for an easy way out. But it’s actually really hard to do and know if you’re getting right. Essentially, it’s really listening to your cravings and tuning into what your body wants and giving it those things without restrictions. If you really want a piece of cake, it’s letting yourself eat a piece of cake without worrying or thinking that you’re being bad or putting a judgment on the food. Once you introduce those judgments, those are natural forms of restrictions, and your body’s natural response is to binge and to think, “oh my god cake is bad I want it all the time because I might not be able to get it again.” It’s really taking all limits and judgments off of food – eating when you’re hungry, stopping when you’re full sometimes but also eating because it’s fun sometimes. People have fear that if they start eating intuitively and letting themselves eat what they want, they’ll just eat a whole sleeve of oreos everyday. In reality, the reason that they want to eat the sleeve of oreos every day is because they think it’s a bad thing-- they’re shooting themselves in the foot. They get caught up in the restrict binge cycle – they eat oreos because they think they’ll never eat oreos ever again and they’ll stop for a few days and then when given the choice to eat a cookie again, they eat ten. They feel an urge to eat it all the time because they put a restriction on it and have labeled it a bad food. Intuitive eating gets rid of that torturous cycle of fighting against your body, feeling guilt, and basing your self worth off of what you’re eating instead of other things that matter so much more. It’s so hard to get rid of judgments on food, but in the end you get so much more out of life because food becomes this natural part of your life that doesn’t include any struggle.

Diets don’t get rid of your cravings. Even whole 30 – it promises that it gets rid of your cravings for good. But even they say you can only do it for 30 days. So what do you do when the 30 days are over? Those cravings come back, often even stronger than before.

Diets can displace cravings, too. For instance, Hannah went on the whole 30 and shared that during it, she ended up binging on almond butter instead of sweets. The cravings are still there, just for something else.

People are really scared to start thinking this way. We have all these judgments on food because we live in diet culture. We’re told to limit our sweets/that soda is bad/etc. We have all of these mental restrictions in place. We can’t just wake up one day and intuitively eat – it takes time to breakdown the judgments that we have on food.

Christy Harrison talks about something called the "honeymoon phase." Once you start your journey towards intuitive eating, you might have a period of time where all you want is candy and cake and sweets all the time because your brain really thinks, “these foods are going to go away again.” It’s only once you allow the honeymoon phase to happen really honestly without any limits that it ends – it will pass and even out with the rest of the foods in your diet that you want and crave. When people start intuitively eating, they see they’re eating tons of cake all the time, they feel like they’re doing something wrong. But that's just the honeymoon phase-- it'll pass, but not if you start judging yourself for eating the cake. Then, you're not even intuitively eating anymore because you're putting those judgments on food. Just let it happen and trust that it will all even out.

We are born intuitively eating. But as we grow up, we get all these messages that we should be watching what we eat and restricting ourselves. I know that for me, a place where I learned I must have been doing something wrong was at school. I went through an overweight phase as a child – most girls do or are made to feel like they do – and they weighed kids at school and would tell them what BMI category they’re in. I was told at school that I was overweight and needed to diet when I was not even 10 years old. It happens to a lot of kids, and that’s why I really want to go into schools and show kids that there’s another way. They need to learn health at every size and that your body is fine at whatever weight it wants to be.

Intersectionality in all of this is so important. Coming at health from an intuitive eating standpoint is actually much more feasible and helpful in the long run for people of all financial backgrounds. There are so many programs that go into schools and teach kids about portioning your plate, veggies, and nutrition. That’s all important but it's far from the MOST important, and it's not necessarily applicable to a lot of kids’ lives. Parents might not have time or resources to buy the vegetables or portion the plate, or allow kids to do all of the things they’re being taught. This leads kids too often feeling like health is not for them because it doesn’t match their lives and experiences. So when you talk about things like intuitive eating with kids, you can tell them that “if one day you go home and you’re really hungry at 5 PM and your mom isn’t making dinner until 8 PM, maybe get a snack that will hold you over.” Just teaching kids to react to their bodies’ cues instead of focusing on different foods that are better than others is a really good start. While it’s obviously not ideal for kids to grow up without access to all kinds of foods, teaching kids about veggies is not going to make them have access to them. We need to really work on kids having access to different kinds of foods while not shaming them for wanting the foods they do have access to. This shame makes kids think that health is not for them and is inaccessible.

Q: Why isn’t there more information on intuitive eating out there?

A: I think it’s just a really entrenched weight bias in our culture. There’s a really strong belief in the government and scientific communities that we have this obesity crisis and that the problem is weight instead of the problem being a lack of access to a variety of foods and shame around food in general. I think that the real crisis that we have is a crisis where we emphasize weight way too much. People who are in larger bodies can’t lose weight in the long run so they fail, increase their chance of getting diabetes/metabolic disorders/cancer (all obesity related diseases).

Another huge part is weight stigma. Women especially who are in larger bodies have a harder time getting jobs. They aren’t represented in clothing stores. Even I – in a smaller body – feel concerned that I might be too large. Those are things that we’re trained to think from the time we’re young because of this discrimination. Thinking about weight stigma as a form of bias and discrimination in society is helpful in shifting your focus. What makes someone in a larger body deserving of you looking down on them or thinking they’re gross? It’s really problematic.

Even the words ‘obesity’ and ‘overweight’ are super stigmatizing – obesity is a clinical diagnosis. The idea that your weight is a disease. Overweight is kind of ridiculous term – over WHAT weight? What if your body is just meant to be in that larger size? This is why health at every size research is so important. One study shows that people of slightly higher weights are expected to have a longer lifespan than people who are ‘average’ weights. Average isn’t even really average – 67% of women are considered overweight or obese!

Q: What advice do you have for someone who wants to feel healthier but feels overwhelmed or doesn’t know where to start?

A: I would really focus on self-care habits as things that enrich your life. The food is part of it, but focusing on holistic health – you as a whole person. Whether that is resting frequently, sleeping more, or eating a variety of foods, take time to find those things that are enriching for you.

Also, focus on health as not WHAT you’re eating, but HOW you’re doing it. Holistic health isn't "I'm going to cut out gluten because it's good for my brain-gut connection." First of all, that isn't even true, and second of all, there's nothing holistic about it. The reality of cutting out gluten is stressful, emotionally damaging, and risky to your overall health-- not holistic or helpful. (Unless you have an allergy, obviously.) 

Q: What are your favorite filling on the go snacks?

 A: When I give people examples of the food I eat, I make sure I diversify the foods I recommend. A part of self-care is eating things you’re craving – even if it’s a doughnut! I’m definitely not anti-health food as I eat it all the time, but I also know that it’s important to listen to cravings.

Now I work in an office, so I kind of have more time to assemble things, but when I was in school I really relied a lot on snack bars or I would bring fruit and on the go peanut butter packs. My snack advice is to choose two food groups – a lot of times people expect just an apple to keep them satisfied. Instead, pair it with peanut butter or potato chips. I always tell people to focus on two different food groups in order to get the most satisfaction from your food. If food is nourishment, you want different types of nourishment to keep you satisfied.