I read Geneen Roth’s best-selling When Food Is Love 20 years and 30 pounds ago. For the first time in my life since I was six, I stopped dieting and started listening to what my body really needed. In Roth’s revelations of her tormented cycles of bingeing and dieting, I saw my own reflection. Her guidelines for eating took the place of calorie counting and deprivation diets. Slowly, my capacity to hear what, when, and how much my body needed to eat was reawakened.
Geneen Roth was one of the first to link overeating with the deep emotional and spiritual issues fueling it. She is the author of nine books, including the best-selling Women Food and God and her newest book, Lost and Found. Her retreats, books, DVDs, and online courses support thousands who are breaking free from emotional eating.
Thirty-two years ago, you were one of the first to recognize that there was a connection between our emotional life and our eating life. How did you make that connection?
I had spent so many years gaining and losing weight and loathing myself in the process that I reached an endpoint. I had been through anorexia and being addicted to amphetamines, ex-lax and fasting. When I was thin and anorexic, I wasn’t any happier than when I was twice as fat.
At the point when I wanted to kill myself, I found the book Fat Is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach. I read the whole thing sitting on the floor of the bookstore. I finally understood that a woman could be using her weight to say things that she couldn’t say directly.
I’d never had any curiosity about what I was doing with food or why I was doing it. I just thought: I’m crazy, I’m eating too much, I have to stop. When I lose weight, I’ll be happy. I realized, right there on the bookstore floor, that food was a language, like Spanish or English, and I hadn’t learned the code; that if I became interested in what I was saying through my relationship with food, that was the cracking of the code.
What did you find at the root of your own emotional eating?
I found different things at different times. I still do. Food will always be a portal for me.
I’ll give you two examples. Back in 1978 when I was 27 and working in a health food store in Santa Cruz (California), I was in a series of agonizing relationships with unavailable people. At the time, I had just discovered my love of writing. It became clear that if I was going to give myself to writing, I couldn’t work five hours a day making avocado and cheese sandwiches and also be in these dramatic and agonizing relationships.
When I was thin, I didn’t trust myself not to get entangled. When I was fat, I didn’t think anybody was interested in me and I wasn’t interested in anybody else. So being fat was a way for me to devote myself to what I most loved: writing. I realized I could follow the longing and the commitment I had to writing without needing to overeat. At that point, I started losing weight.
These days I no longer binge. But recently I noticed I was eating more than I really wanted and then I realized I felt an unfamiliar feeling of being so light and so content that I might just float away. I was trying to weigh myself down! I saw that I have an old belief that I have to push myself to justify being alive—and that it’s dangerous to stop. But then I became curious about who I am when I’m just sitting on the swing in my backyard. Who am I if I’m not pushing, driving, slamming myself against the deadline wall?
So it sounds like the whole journey with food is a journey of shedding identities.
Yes! It’s ever fascinating and compelling to me because it’s a portal to who you are taking yourself to be at that moment. Who is the one who fills your plate with more mashed potatoes than you could possibly ever want or eat in this sitting? It’s not your adult self. I call it a default self: a way of behaving and relating which expresses itself through your relationship with food. Look at the food on your plate and there it is: who you believe you are.
I’ve heard you say that everything’s reflected in our relationship to food.
Anything is a doorway to everything. The way I relate to food is a microcosm of how I relate to sex, money, God, you. For example, take food and money. One of the core beliefs with both of those is: I don’t have enough. I can’t get enough, I will never have enough, I need more. There’s that old cliché, “You can never be too thin or too rich.”
When I was writing Lost and Found, my book on the relationship between food and money, I interviewed a lot of financial advisers. Every one of them told me that their clients would arrive with an idea of a certain amount of money they felt would be enough and that every single one of those who were lucky enough to reach their goal would then raise the bar. Always. Whatever they had wasn’t enough.
How have these reflections affected you personally?
I’m interested in being. What does a meditation practice look like when it’s not confined to sitting on my cushion? What is being present moment to moment? Making breakfast, sitting outside, being with my husband, walking to my writing studio? Instead of adding more to a sense of self, can I live here, now, in the sheer experience of enough?
Geneen Roth’s 7 Guidelines for Eating
- 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.