There is perhaps no more recognizable trademark of compulsive eating than “grazing” at the refrigerator. Most of us do it only when we’re by ourselves. In her latest book, When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair (Hyperion), Geneen Roth describes eating straight from the refrigerator with humor and candor, and even suggests sharing the experience with someone:
Imagine you invite a friend over for dinner. Tell her that the two of you are going to eat the way you eat when you are alone. . . . Lead her to the refrigerator. Open the door. Stare. Begin picking from Tupperware containers. Use your fingers. Graze through yesterday’s Chinese food. Last week’s tapioca pudding. Make loud grunting noises of pleasure. Open the freezer. Try to chunk off a piece of frozen cake with your fingers. When that doesn’t work, hack it off with a carving knife. Notice the fine spray of sugar settling on your floor.
I can appreciate her message, because I’ve been there, standing before the freezer in the home of my childhood, eating my mother’s frozen Hanukkah cookies or leftover sweets from a Shabbat reception, hoping not to get caught. Like many women in our culture, I have experienced this painful struggle over food: the desire to conform to cultural standards of thinness, coupled with the unwavering conviction that once I’ve attained my ideal weight, I will be happy. It was Roth’s book Feeding the Hungry Heart (Dutton) that led me to connect my desire for love and emotional nourishment with my endless quest to have enough to eat.
One of Roth’s perhaps most well-known and controversial exercises helps people to experience what they have as “enough”: in conjunction with her advice to “carry a chunk of chocolate everywhere,” Roth teaches how to eat that chocolate slowly and with complete awareness. The exercise, she writes, “reminds us to wake up, pay attention, stop reaching for what we don’t have, and focus on what we do have. It teaches us that we don’t need a truck full of love to satisfy our hungry hearts. When we pay attention, enough is possible.”
Roth knows what it’s like to struggle with food, having gone on her first diet at the age of eleven, when she began skipping dinners to lose five pounds. “My mother always felt fat,” she says, “and didn’t want me to follow in her footsteps.” They fought over food and body size, and Roth fantasized that, if she could be thin enough, she could please her mother and make everything all right.
When she was twenty-two, Roth traveled to India, where she lived alone for four months in an eight-by-ten-foot room with no running water. “It was a turning inward to something much bigger than myself, or the family I grew up in,” she writes. “I started believing again in goodness, in kindness, and in something far vaster than I could see.”
After her return from India, however, Roth went through a personal crisis: “I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no idea what I was good at, or what I could do, and being of service in some capacity felt crucial to me.” Unable to control the direction of her life, she turned to something familiar that she could control: her eating. She became anorexic.
When she got down to eighty-two pounds, Roth realized what was happening and made another change: she went back to school to study medicine. Within two months, she had gained eighty pounds. “It was at that point,” she says, “that I realized I was really, truly ruining my life. . . . The size of my body, how much I weighed, what I put in my mouth, what I didn’t put in my mouth, what my life was going to be like when I lost weight — this was the center around which everything else revolved.”
At this crucial juncture, Roth took a writing workshop with poet Ellen Bass and began to put her experiences down on paper. Her relationship to herself changed once more. She also read Susie Orbach’s Fat Is a Feminist Issue and “realized for the first time that maybe I wasn’t a crazy person; that perhaps what I was doing around food had some meaning, that there was some logic around it. . . . I also understood immediately that dieting would never work.”
Roth went on to write several best-selling books on food, self-love, and the relationship between eating and intimacy, including Breaking Free from Compulsive Eating, Appetites, and When Food Is Love (all Penguin). She has garnered a huge following of readers who feel she speaks directly to the pain of overeating and underlying issues of deprivation. Though her subject matter is serious, she addresses it with humor, kindness, and even unabashed joy. She invites us to celebrate pleasure by eating exactly what we want, with awareness, and also to be willing to “lose the suffering contest.” She has led “Breaking Free” workshops around the country for two decades and recently added intensive retreats.
In person, Roth is warm, engaging, and charismatic. Her home in west Marin County, California, is full of color and light, with a view of the grassy, rolling hills around San Francisco Bay. She lives with her husband, Matt, her beloved and very fat cat, Blanche, and their new puppy, Celeste. As we talked in her sun-filled kitchen, Roth would occasionally cut off a hunk of Gruyère cheese and offer me a taste without missing a beat.
Lertzman: You’ve said that willpower, discipline, and commitment are “irrelevant when it comes to dieting.” But isn’t self-control what dieting is all about?
Roth: I used to believe that if I deprived and punished and frightened myself enough, then somehow I would change. But those strategies involving willpower and discipline — so celebrated in our culture — weren’t leading me anywhere. In fact, I was killing myself. I began to sense that the way out was through love, openness, and trust, but I didn’t feel any of those for myself at the time. Still, once the idea of love and trust occurred to me, I knew that I could never go on a diet again.
Lertzman: You are described as being a pioneer in the antidieting movement, but your work is more of a psychological — and perhaps even spiritual — approach to food and eating.
Roth: First of all, our culture deals with eating and dieting and food as just a women’s issue — and a banal one, at that. New diets come out every month. Diet books are always on the bestseller list. But people generally don’t think of dieting, weight loss, and food in a particularly deep way.
Sometimes dieting is seen as a feminist issue. That can be incredibly helpful, but it’s not broad enough. Other authors approach the subject from a serious health perspective, but our relationship with food goes so much deeper than that. It’s not just about what you put in your mouth.
Food is both concrete and metaphorical — it’s something we deal with every day, but it can also be a doorway that leads into the hidden rooms of our lives. My relationship with food is a microcosm of my relationship to being alive, to my beliefs about trust, pleasure, deprivation, and nourishment. But looking at these deeper, underlying issues is considered subversive.
At every workshop, I ask, “How many people have lost weight before?” Everybody raises their hand. “How many of you were ecstatically happy after you lost weight?” Two people raise their hands. “How many people believe that, when you lose weight again, you will be ecstatically happy?” Everybody raises their hand again.
Lertzman: Especially if you’re advising people to carry a piece of chocolate around in their pocket.
Roth: Yes, some people actually think I’m saying, “Eat whatever you want, whenever you want.” That is not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying: “Look; pay attention.” Most people have hardly enjoyed a meal in their life. There’s no joy or pleasure in food for them, because there’s so much “I should, I shouldn’t, I can’t, I’m going to feel guilty about it afterward.” I teach them how to slow down. I’m basically saying, “We have a choice: we can taste what is in our mouth and utterly enjoy ourselves, or we can remain unconscious of it and be in pain.” People don’t know there is a choice. It doesn’t occur to them that they can actually enjoy eating.
Giving them a piece of chocolate is a way to introduce them to pleasure and awareness. At my workshops, there’s an exercise in which we practice savoring a single chocolate kiss. Once, a man told me that he’d been bingeing on chocolate kisses for twenty years and had never eaten just one. The one in his mouth was always the precursor to the ten that came after it, and the two bags after that. But when he actually allowed himself to have one, and was present while eating it, he didn’t want another one. “It’s when I feel I can’t have one,” he said, “that I want twenty.”
In a normal dieting mentality, giving that man chocolate would be like handing an ax to an ax murderer. “I’m supposed to eat chocolate?” people say. “But I’m already forty pounds overweight.” Yes, and you’re forty pounds overweight in part because you’re not allowing yourself to have what you’re having anyway, and you’re not paying attention while you’re having it. I am asking people to stop, just for a moment, and think: Have I ever enjoyed chocolate, really? Do I know how to enjoy food? Does it bring me pleasure? I know I’m bingeing all the time, but am I paying attention to even one thing I’m eating? The answer is no.
So I am saying: “Show up, not just for meals, but for your life. Taste the food. Sit down. Focus on what you’re doing.” What’s the point of eating chocolate if you’re not going to have a fabulous time doing it? You’re missing your whole life, because you never let yourself have it.
Lertzman: But if something brings us pleasure, don’t we want to do it more? Don’t most Americans already “treat” themselves with rich food?
Roth: That’s a good question. I also work with people on the experience of what it’s like to have enough. So many emotional eaters have a sense of never getting enough. They approach life from an inner sense of poverty, and no amount of food, sex, clothes, or money will satisfy them. I ask them to question the notion of being forever deprived, to recognize that it is in their minds, though probably based on a real experience of having felt deprived in the past.
As a child, I couldn’t get enough of my mother’s love. But I was not in control of my mother. As an adult, I was in control of how much food I ate, so I ate more to make up for not having had enough of something vital in my past: in this case, love. I felt deprived and poverty-stricken when it came to love, and that became part of my motivation for eating compulsively. For the first twenty-five years of my life, I had a constant feeling that I could not get enough. Realizing that I could get enough food — and still lose weight — was a major turning point.
If you want to lose weight, you can do it by eating only when you’re hungry and stopping when you’ve had enough. But this thought is frightening to most people, because it means taking responsibility and trusting yourself. It goes against the machinery of the culture — particularly the $33 billion-a-year diet industry. Most people like to be told what to do, especially when it comes to food. That’s part of the lure of diets: they make people feel like children again, because they tell us that we cannot be trusted to handle food; that we are not capable of making up our own minds and having control over how we eat.
Lertzman: Why do you think people want to be told what to do?
Roth: It’s easier. Many people say to me, “I am tired of thinking about food. I don’t want to spend one more second thinking about it. Just give me a set of rules, and I will follow them.” But the problem is, people always break the rules. Something in them says, “I don’t want to do this. I’m not going to do this. In fact, I am going to do the opposite of this.”
Dieting perpetuates that cycle of making rules and breaking them, which leads into deeper issues of the heart, such as craving nourishment and gratification, and yet not really allowing yourself to have it. It perpetuates the belief that if I am good enough, I’ll be safe.
“I’m supposed to eat chocolate?” people say. “But I’m already forty pounds overweight.” Yes, and you’re forty pounds overweight in part because you’re not allowing yourself to have what you’re having anyway, and you’re not paying attention while you’re having it. I am asking people to stop, just for a moment, and think: Have I ever enjoyed chocolate, really? Do I know how to enjoy food?
Lertzman: You’ve said that food can lead us into our heart and soul. How?
Roth: You can take any avenue into your heart and soul. Just start with the physical. The physical is a reflection of the deepest part of yourself. You need to inquire into why you do what you do and slow down enough to pay attention and ask questions. For people who have a problem with overeating, food is a fabulous way in. That’s what I’m doing: I am taking this thread, and if I follow it all the way, it will lead me to the bottom of my heart. It will lead me to everything.
Lertzman: When people come to your workshops, are they looking for a way into their “heart and soul,” or are they just wanting to take off some weight?
Roth: Usually, by the time people come to me, they have tried many other ways to lose weight, and they are in a lot of pain. It’s hard to know which is stronger: the desire to lose weight, or the desire to end the pain. If people simply want to lose weight, I tell them that I am probably not the best person for them to be working with: there are a lot easier and faster ways to lose weight. Other people might have serious health issues to which losing weight is critical. Again, my books and workshops are not for them.
Many people, however, want to lose weight simply because they believe it will make them happy and stop their pain. So it’s not so much the weight they want to lose, but the pain. They are the main audience for my work. At every workshop, I ask, “How many people have lost weight before?” Everybody raises their hand. “How many of you were ecstatically happy after you lost weight?” Two people raise their hands. “How many people believe that, when you lose weight again, you will be ecstatically happy?” Everybody raises their hand again.
In order to lose weight through the approach I teach, you have to be mindful of a few guidelines. These guidelines include not eating when you’re distracted, such as in the car, or while doing something else; paying careful attention to the bodily sensations that you recognize as hunger; and stopping when you’ve had enough.
But the first step is truly slowing down and noticing what you’re doing. Most emotional eaters not only eat to distract themselves; they distract themselves while they eat. They feel they are not really supposed to sit down at a table and eat off a plate with silverware, because they’re already overweight. Every time they eat, there’s a sense of guilt: I shouldn’t be doing this; therefore, I have to do it standing up, or in the car, or behind somebody’s back. I have to sneak food, hiding it not just from others, but from myself.
Because, at bottom, people feel they are not allowed to eat; they are not permitted to take up space. They are ashamed to actually sit down and give themselves what they want. Simply to eat with silverware, from a plate, changes the experience completely.
Lertzman: I imagine that allowing oneself to eat might sound terrifying to someone with a serious bingeing habit.
Roth: Yes, immediately people fear they will never stop eating. “What’s to stop me from having an entire gallon of ice cream?” they ask. Well, what’s to stop you is that, if you’re present while you eat it, you’re going to feel sick.
But people don’t think about that. They hear “Don’t diet” as endless binges — because all they know, after trying for so long to lose weight, is dieting or binges.
Lertzman: How does slowing down and becoming more mindful translate into not overeating?
Roth: It’s much harder to overeat when you are paying attention to what you are doing. Most compulsive behaviors are an attempt to go numb. The opposite of that is to be mindful and conscious.
Zen Buddhist teacher and writer Ed Brown once told me a story about quitting smoking. When he asked Suzuki Roshi how to stop smoking, Roshi told him the way to stop was to honor his habit: every time he wanted a cigarette, he was to wrap it in a beautiful cloth, bow to the cigarette, and make a ceremony out of smoking it. The point was to focus his awareness on what he was doing when he smoked.
Ed said that, after a while, he stopped wanting cigarettes. Smoking became less enjoyable, because it was a total production. When he gave the act more time and attention, he noticed what it felt like to smoke and realized he didn’t want to do it.
Emotional eaters eat to push down their feelings, to forget where they are. When you become aware of how full you are, it’s hard to keep shoving food down your throat. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard, because most people binge in a daze or stupor. They eat to deaden themselves. To be aware is to revive yourself, to awaken to the experience and enjoy the tastes, the sensations.
But for people who believe they are inherently out of control, the thought of pleasure and abundance is threatening. At the beginning, I encourage them to be aware of foods that can trigger bingeing and going numb. They may try allowing themselves foods that they like but that are less apt to trigger binges.
Lertzman: What, ultimately, differentiates your work from more conventional weight-loss plans and diets?
Roth: The Atkins Diet and Jenny Craig basically tell you what to do, what is good and bad for you. I remind people of their inborn, relaxed intelligence and wisdom: a body-mind-heart wisdom.
Diet programs believe that if you let people relax their guard, they will devour everything in sight. In such a view, the urge to devour must be counterbalanced by a deprivational force. It’s either one or the other all the time: devouring or deprivation; starving or stuffing.
But if you do neither, then the inner intelligence that has always been there is allowed to reveal itself, and it’s what ends up guiding you. In most people, that intelligence is undeveloped because it’s not given room to grow. Like anything, the more attention you pay to it, the more it will speak to you. But if you spend your life paying attention to other things, being directed and bullied and told what to do, then that natural intelligence will never reveal itself. You have to invite it, give it space.
Lertzman: In your most recent book, you recommend that readers “let go of friends who don’t want the best” for them. This was striking to me; it’s a subject not often mentioned in the context of food and eating.
Roth: Yes, I encourage people not to form friendships based on their wounds and suffering, where all they talk about is how unhappy they are, how much they were abused. The suffering about food, body, and weight is a major issue for many, many women, but we are not what we weigh; we cannot be limited to that. Because so many of us have defined ourselves that way, however, we tend to relate with others in those terms.
In a friendship based on wounds, it’s difficult when one person starts breaking free of that cycle. When she realizes she cannot be limited or defined by her size, her tolerance for the other’s obsessive complaining about weight is greatly lessened. The more she understands that there is a way out of the cycle, the less time she wants to spend on it. If the friendship has been based on those patterns, then she needs to be willing to let go of it. Otherwise, it’s painful for both parties. It’s hard to end relationships; there is a lot of sorrow in it. But there’s also sorrow in keeping yourself confined to a relationship that doesn’t let you grow.
Lertzman: It seems that you are moving increasingly into a more spiritual, contemplative method of working. Why?
Roth: I have been engaged in spiritual practice since I was twenty-five. It’s an acknowledgment that there’s something else happening inside me, away from the flurry of daily activities. But I don’t want to encourage people to do any particular religious practice. A close friend of mine is a devout Christian, and that’s fabulous for her. I wouldn’t dream of talking her into trying another spiritual path. She’s already got something that allows her to feel close to herself and to God.
The people who come to my workshops are on many different paths, but there are also people who don’t know how to begin looking inside. A daily practice of spending time with oneself is the simplest place to start.
Meditation can also be helpful. The value of meditation in the context of emotional eating is that it helps us learn not to take each thought so seriously. Learning how to be still and watch the mind also supports the sense that we are not just our bodies or how much we weigh. It encourages a broader perspective.
We need to notice the “instructions” — the behavior patterns and beliefs — we have been following from our past. Often, the people who gave us these instructions are the sort we wouldn’t ask street directions from today. Yet we blindly follow their rules as if they held the truth.
The retreats also focus on the body itself. We incorporate movement, being present in the body, and sensing one’s arms and legs a hundred times a day.
Our bodies . . . are the locus of so much self-hatred. . . . For many who suffer as a result of weight, this practice of inhabiting the body is the first time they experience their own physical presence in a positive way. Mindfulness can cultivate gratitude for the body, which, after all, has schlepped us around in spite of all the abuse we’ve heaped on it.
Lertzman: Why the arms and legs?
Roth: It’s a simple teaching tool that helps people begin to inhabit their bodies. We live so much of the time as if we were outside of our physical selves. Sensing the arms and legs is an easy way to return to our bodies, which are the locus of so much self-hatred, and see that there is nothing there to hate.
For many who suffer as a result of weight, this practice of inhabiting the body is the first time they experience their own physical presence in a positive way. Mindfulness can cultivate gratitude for the body, which, after all, has schlepped us around in spite of all the abuse we’ve heaped on it.
Another thing meditation does is teach people that their thoughts are sometimes lunatic, imaginative, or fictitious. If you sit and watch your thoughts for twenty minutes, observing how one leads into the next, you realize that the thought I want to eat a gallon of ice cream doesn’t have to be taken seriously. This is key, because we believe we are our thoughts.
Lertzman: What do you struggle with now? What are your edges, your limits?
Roth: I don’t struggle with food anymore, which is itself quite miraculous, considering that for many years I believed I would always be tortured by food and eating, and that my life would change only if I could lose weight.
Now my struggles revolve around how I define myself. At times, I am convinced that I am my past, my conditioning, what happened to me as a child; that I am those thoughts, beliefs, self-images, and identities I still carry around from childhood. And then there are moments — glimpses, really — of pure, clear being. The struggle arises when I find myself back in the confines of my beliefs and conditioning; it’s very painful.
So my central work now is to allow myself to be myself, in a relaxed way. As I discovered with food, a diet of suffering or pain is neither loving nor helpful. The way out is not through deprivation, judgment, and self-loathing, but through relaxation and trusting a kind of inner intelligence.