In her book When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair (Hyperion, 1998), Geneen Roth describes compulsive eating with humor and candor, and even suggests sharing the experience with someone. "Lead her to the refrigerator," she writes. "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."
One of Roth’s most controversial exercises to overcome overeating is aimed at helping people to experience what they have as "enough." Along 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. In her early 20s she was anorexic, at one point weighing just 82 pounds. Later, after returning to school to study medicine, she gained 80 pounds in two months. "It was at that point," she says, "that I realized I was really, truly ruining my life. . . . "
Roth is the author of several best-selling books on food, self-love, and the relationship between eating and intimacy. She spoke recently with Renee Lertzman in The Sun magazine.
Lertzman: You are described as a pioneer in the anti-dieting movement, but your work is more of a psychological—and perhaps even spiritual—approach to food and eating.
Roth: Food is 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.
Lertzman: Especially if you’re advising people to carry chocolate around in their pockets.
Roth: Some people think I’m saying "Eat whatever you want, whenever you want." That is not what I’m saying at all. I’m saying "Pay attention." Most people have hardly enjoyed a meal in their lives. 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."
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 20 years and had never eaten just one. But when he actually allowed himself to have one, and was present while he was eating it, he didn’t want another one. "It’s when I feel I can’t have one," he said, "that I want 20."
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 40 pounds overweight." Yes, and you’re 40 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. 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."
Excerpted from The Sun (Jan. 2002). Subscriptions: $34/yr. (12 issues) from Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834.