Mindful eating expert and author Geneen Roth won’t tell you what to eat — and hallelujah for that. The difficult thing about so much of modern nutritional information, Roth notes, is that “everybody’s always changing their minds. The food that is taboo now might no longer be tomorrow. For a while pasta was good, then it was bad. Then butter was good, and then it was bad. Then, it was all about calories, but it didn’t matter where they came from — and that was bad advice.”
Roth is not an advocate of easy answers, prescriptions, or fad diets. Her approach to nutrition is a more internal one, which requires a higher level of focus and intuition than any “eat this-not that” diet. Roth came to her ideas about the complexities of the human relationship with food after personally struggling with the binge-restrict cycle so familiar to many young women.
Roth believes that true change occurs when you make the decision that you want to listen to your body. “When you’re not using food for emotional reasons . . . when you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full . . . when you discover and then stick to the foods that give you the most vitality — the weight you get to is your healthiest and most natural weight,” Roth says. Here is her advice on getting to that point:
Don’t Eat to Fill “The Empty Space”
For many people, issues with food are derived from using it for purposes other than satisfying and caring for our bodies. Geneen calls that gray-area eating feeding the “empty space.” What is the empty space? To identify it, Roth recommends asking oneself a series of questions:
Are you eating when you’re not hungry?
Are you stopping when you’ve had enough?
Are you eating because you’re bored (at your desk, before bed when you don’t really want to go to sleep, in the car)?
Empty-space eating occurs in the most mundane of scenarios, and while such habits may seem harmless, they actually account for a lot of compulsive eating. Also, if you're constantly eating to fill the empty space, you're not looking at the emotional reasons you feel so empty in the first place. Figuring out what those are is the focus of a lot of Roth's writing, especially her recent book Women, Food, and God (which is hardly about God at all).
Roth spends a lot of time in her workshops helping attendees understand and move away from empty-space eating. She maintains that transitional moments, however small they may seem, lead to some of our least mindful eating: “You walk in the door to your house after a long day at work. The house is empty. You had a plan but your friend canceled. You called a few friends but no one picked up. Perhaps you feel a little lonely. These are moments of uncertainty.”
Roth also directs us to pay attention to the broader cultural messages that lead to mindless eating. The connection between food and emotion in our society is practically inextricable, she says. “Almost everybody eats emotionally sometimes,” Roth notes, pointing to occasions like a big family dinner where there’s way more food than you’d usually surround yourself with, or a dinner out with friends that gets you in a celebratory mood. To identify if your patterns are becoming problematic it’s important to be incredibly honest with yourself. “Honest, but not judgmental, or critical,” Roth says. “Judging yourself never facilitates change.” If you find that you are “distracted in the midst of social engagements because you can’t wait to get home and eat . . . or you’re thinking just about what you will next eat,” these are the kinds of situations in which desire for, and thoughts about food have too much control over you, rather than you over them. Of course, Roth says, in order to change, you have to be willing to change, which means you have to “commit to listening to your body in a way that is very antithetical to the customs and routines we know about what is and isn’t advisable to eat.”
Follow The Seven Guidelines
Roth didn’t find personal change when she tried to adhere to strict dietary rules and restrictions. She’s observed in herself and other people that when you go on a diet, even if you stick to it rigorously for a while, you end up caught in the aforementioned binge/restrict cycle. Below are her seven guidelines for more mindful eating, and she emphasizes that they are only guidelines; she does not intend them to be rules. They're worth reading over a few times, as they seem simple but actually require taking a radically different approach to eating than the one we're trained to take:
1. Eat when you are hungry.
2. Eat sitting down in a calm environment (this does not include the car).
3. Eat without distractions (distractions include radio, television, newspapers, books, intense or anxiety producing conversations or music).
4. Eat what your body wants.
5. Eat until you are satisfied.
6. Eat (with the intention of being) in full view of others.
7. Eat with enjoyment, gusto, and pleasure.
Listen To Your Body
“The body doesn’t lie,” Roth states matter-of-factly. It’s true. I’m gluten-intolerant, but often can’t resist the allure of something as simple and unglamorous as a sandwich. Roth’s response to this predicament is to remind yourself that 10 minutes of enjoying the taste of something often doesn’t compare to hours of feeling bad — not guilty bad but truly physically bad — afterward. Unfortunately the answers to these questions are highly individualized, so there is no shortcut. Listen to your body, and you will find what makes you “feel alive, versus what makes you feel spaced out, gives you a stomachache, or even makes you depressed.”
Roth recommends a true trial-and-error effort to determine which foods make you feel not only good, “but great, even better than you did before.” The key is to learn what your tummy wants, and prioritize that over emotionally motivated cravings. “Ask yourself: What do I need to thrive?” says Roth. Easier said than done, since we are taught from a young age that experts can provide the answers regarding what to eat and what not to eat. According to Roth, if you feed your body what it needs — no more, no less — you will find yourself at the weight that makes your body healthiest and happiest. Sounds good to us.