By As Told To Camille Chatterjee
In her new book, Women, Food, and God, writer and teacher Geneen Roth reveals how to end our painful obsession with our weight, our food, and our bodies — once and for all.
I've been helping women with their food issues for many years through my books, my retreats, and my workshops around the country. I started doing it because I was utterly tortured by my relationship with food and believed that if I got thin, my life would be much better and I would be happy. I had been dieting since I was 11, and always lost weight on any diet, but in six months or a year the weight would come back and I'd start the cycle again. By age 28, I had been watching myself very carefully for a couple of years, and I just couldn't stand it anymore: I went on a knock-your-socks-off binge and gained 80 pounds in a couple of months. And then I became suicidal — I had been dieting and bingeing for 17 years, and I knew that I didn't want to keep living like that. My self-loathing was so intense, and I didn't see a way out besides going on another diet — and I knew I couldn't do that, because the weight would only come back. So I stopped dieting, started eating what my body wanted, and reached my natural weight — and a new lightness of being. These are the five key steps I followed along the way.
1. Realize that the size of your body isn't just about food
We make weight into the big bad problem. We think that it, and our obsession with food, are what's "wrong" with us. I went through years believing that. At least in my own case, nothing changed until I stopped warring with myself and I became interested in what my relationship with food was really about. I do think the big picture here, the first step, is to realize that what you do with food is an expression of all the self-defeating beliefs you have about yourself and your life. It isn't just about food. Most people don't understand that the way they eat is inseparable from the way they live.
Here's an everyday example. Say I'm not taking my time with food, that I'm eating on the run, standing at the refrigerator, or in the car. That's just an expression of the belief that I can't take time for myself — that that kind of time is not allowed, that other things are more important than I am. Instead, ask yourself: What do you want to be doing with your time? Does that even enter your mind? Do you disregard yourself? Is there a way you could include more of what you truly want in your life? Everything is connected: If you feel guilty for eating one cookie, for instance, what does that say about the pleasure you deprive yourself of in daily life? Nothing is going to change if you're not curious about why you're using food and what you really need instead.
2. Understand that weight loss isn't everything — but it is something
Being thin does not lead to happiness. It does not. All you have to do is read the magazines and watch television to learn about all the thin, rich, beautiful celebrities who are in and out of rehab, crashing their cars, getting in and out of marriages. A lot of the people I work with have lost weight five or 10 or 30 times in their lives. Losing weight did not make them forever happy. If it did, they wouldn't be coming to see me, sitting at my retreat. So, as I say in my book, it's not about the weight.
But it's not about weight if you're uncomfortable in your body. There's a way of being in your body, a lightness, that can be a pleasure. Do your back or joints hurt? Are bending or walking or just sitting in a chair difficult for you? When you're physically uncomfortable, when going to the movies is challenging and flying is torturous, the weight is a problem. You become so burdened that life becomes about your limitations.
3. Go ahead and feel bad
Too many people eat to avoid the pain or discomfort they're feeling. But this only creates more discomfort. When you eat past what your body says is enough, you end up burping, farting, just being terribly uncomfortable. Now you've doubled the pain, because you're still in pain about what you ate to avoid.
Let's say that I'm very angry or I have a broken heart. I don't really know what to do about it. I'm so uncomfortable feeling those feelings, and my belief is that if I allow myself to really feel them, then I will destroy myself — I'll be overwhelmed, I'll become completely enraged, or I'll cry so much that I'll never get off the bed, and I won't be able to function. These are the things we tell ourselves. I'll often say to somebody, "Okay, let's just sit here and be with that sadness for a couple of minutes and see if it destroys you." And of course it never does. If you can allow what you're feeling to simply be there, after a while you start being more interested in finding your way to happiness rather than suffering. You start understanding what you do to cause your own suffering. And then you sort of say, Choice A or Choice B. I can keep doing this and be totally miserable, or I can stop. I can open another bag of chips and feel even worse than before I ate it, or I can become interested in what's happening that makes me feel that I need to eat.
4. Believe that you deserve happiness
I want people to see that overcoming their problem with food isn't just about willpower or thin thighs or a flat belly. It's not a banal problem that can be fixed like that. When people turn to food when they're not hungry, they're using food as a drug. And the question is: Why? It could be an expression of boredom or loneliness or sadness or anger. But to me, people who use food when they're not hungry, and don't stop when they've had enough, are indicating that they've given up on themselves. They're basically saying that the only pleasure or the biggest pleasure I have in my life — all that's left for me — is to eat. And that's a spiritual issue, as well as a psychological and emotional one. All of us are longing for something that we can't even name. You can call it the meaning of life, or wonder, or mystery, or you can call it God. But there's a longing for something many of us can't quite put into words. I want people to see how they are filling that longing with food — and that if they stop, they can rediscover themselves and realize that there are other, healthier ways to feel good and to really, truly live.
5. Eat when you are hungry
We're conditioned into the diet mentality of what we're supposed to be eating. So when I first tell people at my retreats that they should eat what they want, there can be an initial "Oh, wow, she's telling me I can eat everything in sight!" That's not what I'm saying. There's no way of skipping through that stage of feeling like you've suddenly been let out of prison and now you're going to eat brownies. But I know that when I first stopped dieting, I ate a couple weeks' worth of chocolate chip cookie dough, and I felt sick. That's what happens. You'll find very quickly that a diet of brownies and ice cream doesn't give you energy. It makes you sick and spaced out and depressed. Your body will gravitate away from sugar and fat, and you will reach your natural, healthy weight.
Once you're ready to try this, start slowly. Begin by saying, Okay, I'm going to eat when I'm hungry once a day, and I'm going to be very kind to myself. I often say to myself, What's the kindest thing you could do for yourself right now? It's not kind to stuff your body, to walk around with that discomfort. But it's important that people understand that what they really need to do is develop a way to treat themselves with utmost kindness. And food is, in many ways, the most obvious and the easiest place to start, because we all have to eat a couple times a day. So yes, start with food. Because if you say to yourself, I'm going to eat when I'm hungry today, once today, that means you'll have to ask yourself if you're hungry. And if you're not hungry and you want to eat, then you have to ask yourself, What's really going on? It's as if your relationship with food has a story to tell you. You need the information in the story, not just to stop being compulsive about food but also to live the life you want to live. And that's possible no matter how many times you've tried, no matter how many times you believe you've failed. As long as you're above ground, it's possible.
Geneen Roth is the author of seven books on compulsive eating. Her California retreats and workshops around the country help women explore their relationship with food.
Originally published on April 13, 2010
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