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Food, Emotions, and the Search for True Nourishment

Unraveling our Complex Relationship with Food
An Interview with Geneen Roth

with Janice  & Dennis Hughes, Share Guide Copublishers

After 17 years of gaining and losing over 1,000 pounds, Geneen Roth realized there had to be another way. There was, and she's been teaching others how to break free of emotional eating ever since. Geneen is the author of 7 books, including the bestseller, When Food is Love. Her most recent book, The Craggy Hole in My Heart and The Cat Who Fixed It  is about love, loss, and thriving when we lose what we believe we cannot live without. Geneen has appeared on many television shows including Oprah, 20/20, and Good Morning America.

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The Share Guide: Geneen, you've written that diets don't work for people with emotional issues around food. Can you explain?

Geneen Roth: When people turn to food and they're not physically hungry, it means that they're using food for something else besides satisfying the needs of the body. They're using it for a different kind of hunger--an emotional hunger, a psychological hunger, or a spiritual hunger. So when food is used for reasons other than physical hunger, it's basically used as a drug of choice. It's used to take the edge off, to avoid, numb, distract, comfort, relieve something that we feel we can't tolerate.

The Share Guide: What do you think about using food as a reward, like after a hard day?

Geneen Roth: It's fine if you're not an emotional eater. I think everybody uses food at some point as a treat or a celebration. But my work is not about that. It's very, very different. I'm talking about when food becomes the focus of your life. When your weight, or what you're doing with food, how much you eat, what you're going to eat, when you're going to eat it, what you're allowed to eat, what you're not allowed to eat, what you should eat, what you shouldn't eat, and your entire sense of self-worth, gets tied up with what you eat and how much you weigh. That's a really different issue--a whole different dimension than using food as an occasional treat.

As you get older and as you gain a couple of pounds you might want to say to yourself, "Oh, I think I need to be more mindful of what I'm eating." That's different than the people whose days revolve around what they eat. We're basically talking about people for whom, the size of my body and the size of my life are the same. Who I am is what I weigh.

The Share Guide: We know so much more about nutrition now than we did 20 years ago, yet more people are obese than ever before. What do you think is the main cause of this?

Geneen Roth: I think it's more evidence of what I've been saying for the last 20 years, which is that people eat for emotional, psychological, and spiritual reasons. And unless and until that is recognized, then the obesity statistics will continue to rise.

The Share Guide: How widespread is the problem of compulsive eating? And is it mainly women who suffer from it or do men suffer too?

Geneen Roth: I certainly get letters from men who say that they're suffering from it. But I think women's bodies are more objectified in this culture, so I think it becomes more of a problem for women because the size of our bodies becomes the central focus in our lives. We're often defined (and define ourselves) by the size of our bodies and how we look. When anything has that kind of focus in the culture--in your environment, in your family, and in your life--it becomes the center of your attention.

The Share Guide: Some experts say that if you've struggled with compulsive eating, the only solution is to avoid your trigger foods completely, and practice abstinence. But from your books it doesn't seem like you agree with this.

Geneen Roth: On one level that would be a fine approach, except that you'd walk around frightened of yourself for the rest of your life. It depends on what you want from your life. If you're willing to avoid certain foods for the rest of your life; if you're willing to go to a party or go to a gathering where those foods are served and have fear come up or eat them and then be terribly judgmental and harsh with yourself, then okay. Some people actually choose to do that. But I get letters all the time from people who say they've done that for six months or a year and then they just couldn't stand it any longer.

My basic belief about emotional eating is that it is possible to untangle it, to get to the root of it. It is possible to trust yourself if you begin to treat yourself with curiosity and kindness and a willingness to understand what you're doing with food. Most people assume that they know what they're doing, that they know what the problem is, and what the answer is. They think the problem is I'm out of control with food. The answer is I just have to get myself under control. I have to have more willpower. I have to avoid certain foods. But I don't think that's the problem, and I don't think that's the answer.

I think we need to start from the place of assuming that what you're doing with food makes good sense; it's a kind of hieroglyphic language. But if you don't know how to read the symbols, you can't understand the words, paragraphs, stories. And I think that the whole array of behaviors and feelings around emotional eating is like that, and if you're not interested in learning the language, if you're not interested in actually understanding yourself, knowing why you're doing it, then you can't get to the root of it.

So let's assume that if you're doing it, there must be a good reason. It might be something that worked for you when you first started doing it and you didn't realize you had any other choice. For instance, if you started when you were a kid and your parents were unhappy or depressed, or they were getting divorced, or you were being abused in some way, or you felt abandoned, or one of your parents died, then it might have been that food was your only option. Food was the way you stayed alive.

If that was a decision you made years ago, unless you question that decision, and unless you allow yourself to feel the feelings that are all locked up in that, then you'll believe that the only way to deal with this is to shut off certain parts of yourself and shut off certain foods, but that's not the approach that I use.

The Share Guide: Okay. So what's your approach?

Geneen Roth: There are a couple of levels to what I do that all work together. First, as I said before, there is the assumption that what you are doing, you're doing for good reasons. The orientation that I follow is that we all want to be happy, we all want to live full lives, and we all want to know ourselves as deeply as possible. We want to live fully before we die. And many of us feel like something is keeping us from doing that--something's missing. We keep getting in our own way. For emotional eaters, the decisions, the behaviors, the feelings about food become both the obstacle to living full lives, but also the doorway, the entry. I think what people most want to get rid of in their lives--either their excess weight or their feelings about themselves and their relationship with food-can become the greatest gift. It can become the path itself. So the wound becomes the door if we are willing to understand it-and not by judging, not with that harsh and in some ways violent way of treating ourselves.

Some people say, I don't have what it takes to really understand my relationship with food. I don't believe that. I think that everybody can do this. I myself was just insane with food for many years. I gained and lost over a thousand pounds! I was as crazy as anybody I've ever met. But through realizing that what I most wanted to get rid of was the thing that I most needed to understand and have compassion for, it opened up for me. And if one person can do it, anyone can.

Second, there is the physical aspect. Not dieting is key to my approach. Instead of dieting, get in touch with your own hungers-when you're hungry and what you're hungry for. Be mindful about what you eat. I have a set of eating guidelines that I use such as: eat when you're hungry; eat what your body wants; pay attention to the food; and stop when your body has had enough. I don't feel like you can do something to yourself on a physical level that doesn't affect you on every other level. So when you tell yourself you're out of control around food, you're basically telling yourself: I'm out of control about my hunger, about my needs, about my wants. You can't block off and separate parts of yourself from other parts. We're all one cohesive being.

I also use spoken and written inquiry that fosters curiosity and openness and a willingness to understand what you're doing.

The Share Guide: In the past, the ideal body was not so rail thin. Would you say that this cultural obsession with thinness is a big part of our problem, as most people, especially women, don't like their bodies and think they are fat even when they're not?

Geneen Roth: I think that the culture in which we live, and the environment, and the values of the culture certainly exacerbate the problem. But I think the main problem is that we don't know how to be at peace with what comes up for us in our lives. Out of that unwillingness to be with what arises, we turn to something to help us take the edge off. We are used to rejecting ourselves, and if we weren't using food then it would be something else--alcohol, sex, drugs, overwork.

The Share Guide: It seems like our whole culture is geared toward creating a standard that is not really achievable and natural for most people. No one looks like the movie stars. That's got to affect people's self-esteem--all ages, all genders.

Geneen Roth: Yes, I really think it does.

The Share Guide: You've written that feeling fat has nothing to do with being fat. What do you mean by this?

Geneen Roth: I mean that "fat" is a catchall word for feeling bad about yourself, for not having a good day, for feeling unworthy. Oftentimes, people who are emotional eaters, specifically women, use it to describe their internal atmosphere (how they're feeling about themselves) and it doesn't always translate to how much they weigh.

The Share Guide: How do you think men and women view their weight and bodies differently from one another?

Geneen Roth: I think because of women's bodies being more objectified in the culture, women tend to view themselves through a particular lens. They look at themselves through what a friend of mine calls "bank camera eyes." This means from the outside in, instead of sensing themselves and seeing what feels true and good and right for them.

The Share Guide: It seems like some diet books want us to think of food simply as fuel, and don't recognize that it has emotional connotations--it's part of the social fabric of life. If we go on strict diet regimens, we're not going to get to participate in a lot of life's pleasures like holiday gatherings and romantic dinners. It seems like abstinence is a pretty hard way to go. It would seem like moderation is more natural--and accepting and loving yourself as you are.

Geneen Roth: Yes. That goes back to what I was saying before about being frightened of yourself. The main point here is that you need to decide how you want to live your life and what you value and want to prioritize. Not everybody wants to understand why they're doing what they're doing. Some people just want to fix it and make it go away. And for those people, I think abstinence works fabulously well for a limited time. But I don't see many cases in which it works forever. Just like diets lead to binges, I think abstinence leads to breaking out of the abstinence. It's a cycle. I don't think people can stay in abstinence forever because food is always around. I think drugs and alcohol are very different because you don't need them to stay alive.

Around food it's very difficult to work on a deprivational model because of the prevalence of food and because it's really a part of the way that we gather together, the way we socialize and celebrate. It really is a source of deep pleasure, and it should be! It's a way of feeding our bodies, but it's also a way of finding joy and sensual pleasure. So abstaining from the pleasures of food can lead you to feeling deprived of the basic pleasures of being alive. And again, I think it depends on what you want to do. Sometimes people go through cycles of feeling like they've fixed their relationship with food for a while and then it gets broken again--for example, they go on a binge. Then they fix it by going on a strict diet and then they go on another binge. And so you've got to decide for yourself what you value and how you want to prioritize your time. Do you want to keep going through these cycles or do you want to work at understanding what you're doing? In order to do what I'm talking about, there's got to be something more important in your life than being thin--and that is knowing yourself, understanding yourself, and trusting yourself.

The Share Guide: There's a story in one of your books about a young girl whose mother was worried about her weight and you advised her to let the girl carry around a pillowcase full of M&Ms because that was her favorite thing.

Geneen Roth: The idea is that people need to let themselves have what they want without guilt. Then food loses some of its power over them, and that's a way to actually lose weight naturally.

The Share Guide: That reminds me of a very old joke: If you're on too strict of a diet, you might not live longer but it will sure feel like you have! One of the things I got from interviewing Dr. Andrew Weil long ago was that food is a celebration and a social part of life, so we should not deny that. When we come together with people now, we try and have things that are tasty and colorful as well as wholesome.
Geneen Roth: I agree. That sounds great.

The Share Guide: Do some people in your workshops have specific medical issues that cause them to be overweight, such as hormonal or metabolic problems, or are they all dealing with behavioral issues?

Geneen Roth: The medical issues are not the areas of expertise that I work with. People come to me to work on the psychological and spiritual issues of emotional eating. That's not to say that they don't have those problems in addition, but that's not what I focus on.

The Share Guide: Would you say that being overweight is sometimes an excuse for people as to why they're not happy with their lives?

Geneen Roth: No, I don't actually believe that. I think that people are not suffering because they're fat, they're fat because they're suffering. So I think the suffering needs to be addressed. Obviously, if they're having a difficult time moving around or if it's affecting their health, that needs to be addressed as well.

The Share Guide: You've said that the fantasy of being thin is more powerful than actually being thin. Is this because you'd have to acknowledge that it doesn't solve all your problems?

Geneen Roth: Yes, that's right.

The Share Guide: Do you think it's bad to think about food as a reward? I had a hard day, so I'll have some chocolate.

Geneen Roth: I think categories of good and bad and right and wrong and should and shouldn't don't help. But you have to ask yourself if that piece of chocolate cake really does give you what you need and want. Probably it does for those moments you're eating it, but then what happens afterwards? Does chocolate cake really make you happy?

The Share Guide: I guess you have to weigh the pros and cons of that.

Geneen Roth: Yes, and see how you feel afterwards. The changes around food that I'm talking about take support and guidance and some kind of commitment to understanding yourself. And that might or might not include eating chocolate cake at the end of the day. If you are not hungry and you turn to chocolate cake, there's usually something that could satisfy that particular hunger better.

The Share Guide: As we discuss all this, it would seem that meditating on who you are and what you want to be could be very helpful in this whole process. Do you work with meditation at all?

Geneen Roth: Yes I do. The core of my work now is the retreats that I do--there are two 5-day retreats that I teach every year. Meditation is part of what we do in the retreats, and I think what people understand through meditating is that just because their minds are telling them they need to go eat this or do that, that doesn't necessarily mean it's true. So in this process you get to witness yourself and see that thoughts will just keep flying by without you having to act on all of them.

The other practice that I use with people is actually learning how to inhabit and live inside your body. Most of us hover a little bit outside of our bodies most of the time. It's hard to tell when you're hungry and when you've had enough to eat if you're not actually living inside your body. There's also the spoken and written inquiry that I teach, which is a process of unraveling thoughts and beliefs and feelings you've had, and questioning them. These things are used in conjunction with those eating guidelines that I mentioned earlier.

The Share Guide: What do you think of programs like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig?

Geneen Roth: I think it depends on the person. Again, I don't put value judgments on thoughts, feelings, or programs and I think it depends on what your objective is. If your goal is to lose ten pounds as quickly as you possibly can, then Jenny Craig might be the very best thing for you. I think you have to know yourself well enough to know what path and what practice is best for you. I think everybody's metabolism is different. Some people don't do well with high glycemic carbohydrates and some people do fine. Some people don't do well being vegetarian and some people do.

The Share Guide: You've said that for people who have a problem with overeating, food is a fabulous way in. What do you mean?

Geneen Roth: For people who are emotional eaters, there is such a cluster of feelings and beliefs and thoughts about food, that if you want to understand yourself, if you really want to travel to the core of what you think and feel and believe, then why not use what's right here, every day, many times a day, as the path to do it? I believe that people eat the way that they live and live the way they eat. So all our beliefs about being alive-about hunger, and deprivation, and abundance, and nourishment, and joy, and pleasure-are all reflected in our relationship with food. They're actually reflected, of course, in our relationship to everything (in our relationship to the people we love, in our relationship to work, etc.) but if food is your main issue, then it's a fabulous doorway into what you believe. It's a microcosm. The path that I'm teaching in the retreats seems to be incredibly effective. We use food as the doorway for what we believe about being alive, in combination with a nondeprivational, nonviolent attitude towards ourselves with food.

For more information from Geneen Roth visit www.geneenroth.com

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