Imagine an eating program not based on good foods and bad foods, reward and punishment, pride and shame? Imagine an approach to food that says this: “Our relationship to food is the exact microcosm of our relationship to life itself. Everything we believe about love, fear, transformation and God is revealed in how, when and what we eat.” Would your ears perk up a little? Would you finally feel seen, like your hunger meant something beyond pounds, dress size and thunder thighs?
My ears did. In fact my ears pricked up when a friend of mine who has struggled with binge eating for roughly a decade, called me the other day, excited at the revelations that a book by Geneen Roth, Woman, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to almost Everything, held for her. For years my friend has alternated between periods of strict Overeater’s Anonymous sobriety, followed by periods of relapse and weight gain. This book, she says, has changed everything. “Her eating guidelines, at the back of the book, are the hardest and most freeing practice I have ever undertaken,” she says. (This from a Buddhist who has done tens of thousands of prostrations, mantras and acts of service.)
Kindness as the key to weight loss
At the core of Roth’s guidelines is the belief that kindness, not self-loathing, is the key to healthy eating. Roth’s book even served as an epiphany for Oprah—somewhat of an icon for epic weight loss struggles. After reading a passage in Women, Food and God, Oprah vowed to give up dieting forever. The book resonated with her so much that she read the passage aloud on her show: “You’ve got to be willing to believe that you were put on this earth for more than your endless attempts to lose the same 30lb 300 times for 80 years… Once you begin treating yourself with the kindness that you believe only thin or perfect people deserve, you can’t help but discover that love didn’t abandon you, after all.”
Simple in theory but excruciatingly hard to implement on a daily basis, Roth’s 7 Eating Guidelines are based on mindfulness—another word for kindness. Without further ado, here they are:
The Eating Guidelines
- Eat when you are hungry.
- Eat sitting down in a calm environment. This does not include the car.
- Eat without distractions. Distractions include radio, television, newspapers, books, intense or anxiety-producing conversations or music.
- Eat what your body wants.
- Eat until you are satisfied.
- Eat (with the intention of being) in full view of others.
- Eat with enjoyment, gusto and pleasure.
Roth’s theory boils down to if you don’t notice what you are eating you’ll keep eating more and more. “If you’re missing the eating experience of what’s on your plate, you are more likely to go back for more because you didn’t taste it the first time. People eat a quarter as much when they’re paying attention. We don’t overeat because we take too much pleasure from food, but because we don’t take enough. When pleasure ends, overeating begins,” she says.
Roth posits that people use food to mask profound underlying emotional truths—sadness, loneliness, lack of purpose, boredom, anxiety, inadequacy—that are not being addressed in other, more healthy ways. Instead of ignoring why we eat the way we do, and chastising ourselves, Roth encourages us to be curious about it.
For an example of where this curiosity can lead, here’s an excerpt from an article she wrote called “The Exquisite Language of Emotional Eating.”
“At some point, you have to ask yourself what’s going on when it seems as if you’d give your right arm to lose weight and then find yourself breaking locks at 3 in the morning to get to the coffee cake.
Clue: The answer is not that you are crazy, lacking in willpower or forever doomed to having thunder thighs. Despite all evidence to the contrary, there are always exquisitely good reasons why you turn to food when you’re not hungry.
Take a moment right now. Consider these three questions:
How is my apparently crazy eating benefiting me?
If I were eating for exquisitely good reasons, what would those reasons be?
And finally, if my weight/bingeing could talk, what would it say?”
Roth goes on to envision an inquiry—she calls it “A Fat Dialogue” between herself and her Fat. Through writing it out, she discovers that her fat serves the surprising higher purpose of keeping her from pursuing self-sabotaging relationships and allowing herself to be focused on her career.
Roth’s biggest gift is to point each one of us inside, to discover, act out, play with, and, ultimately, rewrite, our own Fat (or Thin) inner dialogue. Once we learn how our fat (or lack therof) is helping us, we can make use of other means. We can respond to the language of our bodies with a different grammar, a different manual of style as it were. Roth says it best: “Take a chance that you are more brilliant than you’ve ever imagined in designing this thing you call your weight problem. You have nothing to lose except your suffering. Every last ounce of it.” And with that, I bid you bon appétit.