The Secret to Change

A reporter interviewed me recently about what people can do to end their obsession with food.   "Do you still binge?" she asked.

"No," I answered.

"Does your weight vacillate from season to season?"

"No again," I said. "I've been at my natural weight for a few decades."

"So let me see if I've got this right," she said, with the teeniest bit of suspicion. "You had a major weight problem for 17 years, you gained and lost a thousand pounds, and out of everyone who suffers from this crazy weight problem, you've managed to beat it?"

"Yes," I told her, "I have."

"But how? I mean, every woman I know struggles with her weight. It's just you and me here; tell me the truth: What is your secret?" I was about to launch into my standard answers ("I was so desperate that I was willing to try anything"; "I ate when I was hungry and stopped when my body had had enough", "I can't really explain it") when I realized something I'd sort of forgotten for most of the past 30 years: I'd worked really hard at it — and kept on working hard until my relationship with food and with my body had totally changed.

Usually when I talk about the many ways to end the struggle with food, I give a set of intuitive eating guidelines and describe the importance of treating yourself with compassion and kindness. And although both elements are very important, the truth is that no change will happen without consistent effort over time. A wise mentor of mine says that change isn't an event, it's a process. As you develop new ways of being with food, they eventually replace the old ways. It doesn't happen all at once.
The newest research about the plasticity of the brain tells us that it's capable of learning new ways of behaving — creating new neural pathways — but that doing so requires repetition, focus, and consistency. To change a habit, such as turning to food when you're bored or sad or angry, you've got to change the wiring of your brain by doing things differently. In the same way that it took concentration, focus, and practice to learn to drive a car (after which driving became like ... riding a bike), it takes time to install a new set of food-, weight-, and eating- related behaviors in your head. Alas, there's no shortcut, according to brain scientists. (In a recent study of people trying to make healthy behaviors habitual—eating more fruit or exercising daily, for example—the average time for real change was 66 days, but some subjects needed as long as 254 days.)

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I received a letter recently from a woman who wrote. "Reading your book When Food Is Love, I felt as if I'd discovered the secret to happiness. I realized I could eat when I was hungry, stop when I was full, and let myself feel my feelings without turning to food. I lost 10 pounds almost immediately. Then somehow I got busy - I was promoted and moved to another city - and within a short time, I fell back into my old ways of using food to comfort myself. I am writing to you now because I feel totally hopeless. I can't believe I drove right back into compulsive eating again after feeling so happy (and so thin!). I've gained back the weight I lost (and more), and I eat in the car, at my desk, and at night after the kids go to sleep. Also, if I am to be totally honest, the thought of doing your program again files me with dread because it forces me to pay close attention to my body and food. I just want the whole thing to go away. Please, can you help?"

Do her words feel familiar? Do you, too, want the whole thing to go away, because you're sick of thinking about weight, diets, and what you're going to eat (or not eat) today? Remind yourself that it's human to want the suffering to end as soon as possible, even if that means ignoring it instead of fixing it. But then…

Take the next step: Remember that the more time you spend ignoring the food-and-weight problem, wishing and hoping for it to just go away, the less time you spend developing new attitudes, behaviors and habits that will change it. Decide whether you'd rather keep lamenting your relationship with food or create a new way of eating. And then decide what you're going to do about it. Because wishing and hoping won't change a thing.

For the 17 years I spent ricocheting up and down the scales, my main pastime was agonizing. I'd agonize about my weight; then I'd agonize about being a failure; then I'd agonize about my jeans size, my round face, my thunder thighs. It's not that I didn’t try every diet that came along -- I did -- but when each stopped working (and I started bingeing), I reverted to agonizing about what a failure I was. Since whatever you pay attention to flourishes, I became an expert in agonizing about my behavior rather than changing it.

Finally, I decided to instead invest my time and energy in acting on a positive vision of myself -- the sane, powerful me I sensed was waiting in the wings. Every day I would wake up and feel the pull to go back to what I had been doing before: dieting, bingeing, agonizing. And every day, I would tell myself that change was possible and that I was following a new plan; I was eating when I was hungry, stopping when I'd had enough, and keeping written track of my food intake, hunger levels, and feelings before and after I ate. After a few months of paying attention in this way, my relationship with food permanently changed. Not only did I lose weight, but I began to believe -- because I experienced it directly -- that I was worthy of self respect, and that left to my own devices, I would not chomp my way clear across the United 'States. In brain language, I'd been consistent and focused with my attention and I'd repeated the same new behaviors over and over; I'd given my brain a chance to develop new pathways, new habits. And I've never gone back.

I am not special or unusual or lucky; the only difference between me and you is the time I spent on developing a new relationship with food. You can do this, too. Focus on a positive vision of yourself and decide on specific food-related actions you can take (ones that don't involve punishment, shame, or guilt) to enact that vision. For example, decide to eat only when you're hungry, putting away the book and turning off the television so you can focus on enjoying your food. 'Be consistent - and don't give up. No matter how many times you've tried and failed, no matter how desperate you feel in the moment or in the middle of the night, you can change. It isn't magic; it's neuroscience. It isn't luck; it's time spent. The answer is right here, right now; it's as close as your own heart and your own brain.

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If you loved reading this article, think about joining me for my next workshop, Women, Food, and God: A Transformational Path, together with a community of friends on October 7-9, 2016. Three days of in constant support, endless kindness and ever present awareness. Learn the tools of inquiry, body sensing, meditation, and my Eating Guidelines, which are the basis of the journey.

For more information: https://kripalu.org/presenters-programs/women-food-and-god-transformational-path

11 responses to “The Secret to Change

  1. These words ring so true for me. I read your book “Breaking free from Compulsive Eating” many years ago. But I returned to the dieting/bingeing cycle. I lost 48lbs last year on Weight Watchers but then I started slipping into my old binge behavior. I’ve gained over 1/2 of it back and I’m struggling. I’m exhausted at the thought of another diet. But what if I keep eating and don’t stop? The fear is holding me back and keeping me in this endless circle. I want to believe that change is possible for me. I’m just tired of the whole thing. Maybe someday I can come to one of your retreats. For now, I’ll re-read your books and try again. Thank you Geneen. You give me hope.

  2. This is wonderful Geneen. So many women become disheartened when they feel like they should have ‘got it’ without giving themselves the time to practice their new behaviours, thoughts and habits. Fear is really natural too, I use lots of mindset tools with my clients to help them with this. I love your work, your books were what helped me and now in turn I help others. Best wishes from your biggest fan in the UK! Xx

  3. I became a vegan because I care about animals and the environment. I also believe it is the healthiest way to eat. I lost alot of weight and was thrilled with how I looked. Then some emotional things happened (my dad passed away, I was told I had to move from my beloved home and my work life
    became unbearable because of a toxic work environment, and I started my own business) all in one year!!! I gained back almost all of the weight. The food was not enough, I wanted all of the things I told myself I could not eat. Reading your letter Geneen, I realized that the most peaceful I have been was when I followed your guidelines. I really don’t know what to do now, because I still want to eat a vegan diet, but many of the things I crave include dairy. I’m not really sure where to go from here, other than to follow my cravings, follow your plan and hope that some day I can go back to eating the way I feel is healthiest for my body. Thank you for allowing me to reply, that feels really nice.

  4. Loving every word of this article. I love how life happens in ways that present you with just what you need when you need it! These words were exactly that for me. Thank you!

  5. This article is so welcomed at the moment. The happiest and most peaceful I’ve ever felt was when I got in the groove with your ideas for nearly 6months and lost about 30kg without any distress. When life happened and I hadn’t found that support you say is needed I fumbled straight back to where I was and remain stuck 5 years later. One day I will travel from Australia for one of your retreats God willing until then I just keep trying my best x

  6. Thank you for this insight into your process of healing. These are words I really need to hear. So often an author or creator of a method describes what to do to fix, resolve or heal an issue. In all likelihood they are codifying with a backward glance and not sharing their process. In all likelihood they experimented, stumbled, succeeded, backtracked, etc. and did not follow the neat steps that they have come to codify to share. It’s heartening to know that in freeing yourself from old patterns, the path was neither smooth nor easy. Your words and sharing have always resonated with me and yet I’ve never had much success following the steps you outline. This article, sharing the process, is encouraging. I feel now that I’ve given up on myself way too soon and not sought out my own steps and method. Thank you as always for your wonderful honesty.

  7. Thank you Geneen for speaking to the practice involved in self-transformation. A long-time fan, I read all your books in my 20’s, but the transformation had always seemed sort of mystical and unrepeatable to me, like some cookie dough and some fairy godmother dust and voila, obsession lifted. The work involved sort of eluded me and then I would judge myself thinking that it was so much more difficult for me so I must be much more damaged and harder to rehabilitate. This makes clear that it requires discipline like any practice…. Like maintaining a meditation practice, a yoga practice, whatever.

    I found you again last year after many years (of dieting and bingeing) and my lifetime friend and I attended your March workshop in the Bay Area. We’re both practicing the Guidelines – sometimes with ease, sometimes I temporarily slip back into a crazy diet/binge when stress comes up then I have to return to self over and over… And what a gift. I love watching my beloved friend transform, and change her relationship- with body, self, food…. And I know that the same is happening for me, even if that transformation looks/feels different than I think it should.

  8. Ge even, your words, insights and lessons learned totally resonate with me. I’m someone who has suffered and lived with addictions my entire adult life…anorexia and bulimia as a teen and then 12 years of relative peace while raising my 3 wonderful children. Then divorce and descent back into the food abuse cycle. Only, since my mid-40s, I’ve added alcohol to the mix. Now, between weight fluctuations of 20 pounds or more AND alcoholism (yes, I am a functioning one who manages to have a successful career, a grandparent and in a second marriage with a loving but needy and controlling husband)…I don’t know where to turn. I know I’m slowly killing myself but don’t have the will to change. I feel like I’m stuck, I’ve tried to “start over” SO MANY TIMES, and I need to reprogram my behaviour patterns before something bad happens. What do I do??

  9. As a body image, eating disorder expert psychotherapist and wellness life coach, my signature workshop: Mindful Self Care:YOU are your MOST significant other” would speak to your soul Geneen dear
    Resuming my “Mindful Intuitive Eating 9 Session Support Group for Bingers Sept 24th Saturday 25th in Manhattan 930-11am.
    I took one of your workshops many years ago. You were and still are ahead of the times:) Keep it up❤️

  10. I too, look back with longing to my first encounter with Geneen’s writings. What a Godsend she was! It did truly feel magical, like finding a fairy path in the woods when I first started breaking free from emotional eating. Then, just the same as some of you, I went through something painful ( a break up of sorts ) and found myself hiding in food again. I tried to surface, but floundered, then stopped trying. I returned to the diet/binge cycle. Told myself only low carb will bring weight loss…. always knowing that my weight dropped off effortlessly when I was only eating when truly hungry, and stopping when I’d had “enough,” instead of stuffing myself until I felt sick. I was so full of peace, and so trusting in myself during the time I first started trying on Geneen’s eating guidelines. I felt so open to life. So full of possibility. So strong! I felt secure in myself for the first time in years. I started speaking up for myself. I took risks that I have felt before, I was not confident enough to take. I was soooo happy! I want that back…I am going to try again, and this time I won’t give up on myself. I’m worth it!

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