I first encountered Geneen Roth’s writing around 2005, when my psychotherapist at the time recommended her first book to me, called Breaking Free From Compulsive Eating. Among other things, Roth’s approach is grounded in seven eating guidelines which are designed to help people normalize their personal relationship with food. The guidelines are simple to understand, but they can be very difficult to follow:
- Eat when you’re hungry. Or more specifically, eat when your body is hungry.
- Eat what your body (as opposed to your mind) wants.
- Stop eating when your body has had enough. (My addition: if you’re bingeing, stop eating when your mind has had enough, a.k.a. when you become consciously aware that you’re bingeing.)
- Eat sitting down, in a calm environment. This most emphatically does not include the car.
- Eat without distractions. Distractions include reading material of any kind, radio, TV, anxiety-producing conversations, or loud music.
- Eat with the intention of being in full view of other people. To illustrate this guideline, if you’re eating and someone walks into the room while you’re eating, you don’t hide the food.
- Eat with enjoyment, gusto, and pleasure.
I suspect that I’ve gained probably 60 pounds since I first read this. So I can’t honestly say that the guidelines or her practices have actually helped me lose weight.
Like all yo-yo dieters, I’ve “dieted my way up to” my current weight. I’ve been able to lose dozens of pounds at a time on various plans and approaches, but I’ve never successfully kept the weight off for more than a year or two, and for 15 years I’ve been unable to return to what I once considered my normal, healthy weight. I attribute this to my obviously dysfunctional relationship with food: I don’t eat for nutritive reasons alone.
Geneen Roth’s approach to this issue is strongly weighted in kindness towards yourself and in unmitigated self-acceptance. It’s also about eating with complete awareness and mindfulness, which if done properly should avoid mindless binges. There’s also a lot of meditation in her approach, with practices geared towards developing a clearer awareness of your own body and mind. This is important, since so many obese people are so adept at shielding themselves from their emotions—positive or negative—with food.
Whenever I’ve worked diligently with any of these guidelines in the past several years, I’ve often tended to say things like, “I’m starting to see my own mindset change for the positive in this regard,” or “I feel like I’m really starting to understand this.” And while this may be true for me at an intellectual level, I’ve clearly not yet had success in developing a more normal relationship with food and my emotions. But I recognize that this is a process, and a practice. It’s not something that can be flipped on like a switch.
One of Roth’s most recent books is called Women Food and God (google | amazon.ca | amazon.com | oprah.com), and despite being obviously directed mostly towards women, I’ve found her advice and insight to be nearly equally applicable towards men like myself. Here is a notable excerpt from the first 90 pages of the book:
Our work is not to change what you do, but to witness what you do with enough awareness, enough curiosity, enough tenderness that the lies and old decisions upon which the compulsion is based become apparent and fall away. When you no longer believe that eating will save your life, when you feel exhausted or overwhelmed or lonely, you will stop. When you believe in yourself more than you believe in food, you will stop using food as if it were your only chance at not falling apart. When the shape of your body no longer matches the shape of your beliefs, the weight disappears. And yes, it really is that simple.
You will stop turning to food when you start understanding in your body, not just your mind, that there is something better than turning to food. And this time, when you lose weight, you will keep it off.
Truth, not force, does the work of ending compulsive eating.
Awareness, not deprivation, informs what you eat.
Presence, not shame, changes how you see yourself and what you rely on.
When you stop struggling, stop suffering, stop pushing and pulling yourself around food and your body, when you stop manipulating and controlling, when you actually relax and listen to the truth of what is there, something bigger than your fear will catch you. With repeated experiences of opening and ease, you learn to trust something infinitely more powerful than a set of rules that someone else made up: your own being.
It is now clear to me that as obese people, we have needed to overeat in order to cope with whatever we perceive to be our personal weaknesses or traumatic life situations. Throughout our lives, these have been entirely necessary and valid reasons for overeating. However, in most cases they are no longer necessary for us to survive in this moment. Furthermore, we must stop identifying ourselves as psychologically, emotionally, or psychically damaged individuals who require something massive to be fixed before we can take off this weight.
In fact, we are totally perfect just as we are. Once we recognize that and learn how to trust our own instincts about how to eat for the sake of our body’s health and nutrition (as opposed to how to eat mindlessly in order to numb ourselves from the pain or frustration we might feel each day), then the weight will come off naturally, and even relatively easily.
What’s most difficult about this kind of approach is that most of us are completely self-identified as deeply flawed individuals who must be on a restricted diet in order to become healthy. If we have been dieting for a significant number of years (or have felt that we must go on a diet in order to lose weight), then this self-identification has likely become deeply entrenched and will be difficult to overcome. But it is absolutely possible to do it if we can learn how to invest unwavering trust in ourselves and in our own sound judgment. Admittedly this is not easy to do; especially if we have spent our lives telling ourselves that we have no self-control over our eating and that we will never be able to change.