Eat When You Eat

By Geneen Roth


Ever since I first saw pictures and statues of Kuan-Yin, the Buddhist goddess of infinite compassion, I've wanted to be like her. Not only is she gorgeous -- the kind of woman my 13-year-old nephew would call "a babe" -- but she also manages to appear utterly casual while sporting a tiara. And here's the main thing:  She does all this while spreading goodness with her thousand arms. Talk about the goddess of multitasking.

In the olden days (before emails, text messages, and IM's), legend has it, Kuan-Yin could not be flustered or overwhelmed because if she couldn't do something with one hand, she had 999 others as backup. But last week, a friend gave me a drawing entitled Kuan-Yin in the 21st Century. She was sitting behind the wheel of a car, and in one hand she was holding a cell phone; in another she was holding a bag of chips. Another hand was feeding a baby, and still another was putting on lip liner. But when I looked closely, I saw that all was not kosher in Kuan-Yin Land, because with yet another hand she was -- er -- raising her third finger at an unruly driver. It seems that even She-with-a-Thousand-Arms finds it stressful to multitask in the modern world.

Women often tell me how much they have to do, how they are always behind on their errands, their work, their emails, and how they feel there's just not enough time to keep up. As a result, they cram in their eating with reading or watching TV or driving. They eat standing up at the stove while cooking, they eat on their way from the stove to the table, they eat from the table back to the sink. The net result is that they end up cheating themselves of any possibility of pleasure or calm.

One of the eating guidelines I teach is: "Eat without distractions.  Distractions include reading, engaging in anxiety-producing conversations, watching TV, and listening to music that makes you put your hands over your ears." Implied in this is eating while walking, driving, sitting at the computer, or working.

It's all about the pleasure you get from food.  Or, in this case, don't get.

If eating is just one of those tasks you do in multiples, be honest with yourself:  After the first bite, do you really taste the food?

If you read and eat, what happens to your awareness of the crunch or the smoothness or the spiciness of the bite you just took?

What I'm getting at here is that instead of doubling your pleasure by doing two things you love -- reading and eating -- separately, you're halving your pleasure by doing them together.  Why would you want to reduce the amount of pleasure in your life?

A few weeks ago, a woman in a workshop said to me, "You don't get it. You don't understand that watching TV helps me digest the food."

But the truth is, it's more likely that watching TV helps her forget the food, not digest it. Sitting in front of a TV set lets her ignore the fact that she is eating and thereby ignore any conflicts she has about eating, along with any sensations of hunger and fullness, of pleasure and lack of pleasure. In fact, watching TV is a great way to pretend that you're not eating when you really are. Because when your attention is on Dancing With the Stars, it's not on the food in your mouth.

Another way of saying this is that when your attention is out there, it's not in here.  And in here -- in your body, in your mouth, in your belly -- is the only place to experience physical sensations connected with food:  "Oh this is delicious." Or, "Oh, I thought I loved this, but it turns out I don't like it at all." Or, "I don't know how this happened, but I am already full.  I still have half a plate of food, but my body doesn't want any more."

The same woman who told me that watching TV helped her digest her food discovered a mini miracle later on in the workshop. While eating a piece of chocolate, she said, "I never realized this before, but I actually don't like chocolate! It burns my throat. It doesn't actually taste good. I like the smell of it, and I like the first second of tasting it, but I don't like any other part of it. I don't like the texture, the way it feels in my mouth, the aftertaste it leaves. Chocolate has been my rock, my binge food, my comfort. And now it turns out I don't like it!"

"Oh. My. God."

I asked her how she felt about losing her "rock."

"Giddy. Free. Released," she answered. "Because I've been thinking that chocolate brings me comfort when it actually burns my throat!"

I understand that it's hard to hear a guideline like "eat without distractions" and not turn it into an ironclad "diet thing" against which you need to rebel. Just this morning, someone sent me a note referring to my guidelines as "rules to eat by." The first thing most of us want to do when we hear about rules is break them. But before you swing into automatic ("You can't make me eat breakfast without my magazines!"), consider being generous with yourself.

When you love something, you pay attention to it.

When you love something, you take time with it.

When you love something, you want it to last as long as it can.

But when you eat with distractions, you neither pay attention nor take time nor prolong the pleasure of that which you say you love: food.

And you set yourself up for just the kind of mindless eating you're trying to stop. When that food you love is gone and you look down at your empty plate, you feel cheated. You say, "Hey, wait a second!  I didn't taste it!  I want more!"

It's hard to let go of something you never really let yourself have. And since you don't let yourself have what you eat -- because you're too busy distracting yourself from it -- you spend your days having one long peripatetic meal and robbing yourself of taking any pleasure in it.

So today, set aside mealtime for meals, and nothing else. Pay attention to how the food  tastes, how it feels in your mouth, the pleasure it does or doesn't give you. Let yourself have the pleasure of it, and then look down at your plate.  How do you feel now?  Calm?  Giddy? Released?  Satisfied? Notice the difference between letting yourself have food and feeling as if you are doing something you're not supposed to do by eating and enjoying it.

It may not happen the first time, or even the second or third, but one day you'll look down at that plate and instead of wanting more, you'll realize you already have what you most want: your own attention.

5 responses to “Eat When You Eat

  1. I hear what you are saying for I have been trying for 59 years to get it in motion. I started dieting at 10 years old and today at 69 years old I am still struggling with an extra 70 or so pounds. I hope my grand daughters that live with me will learn from my experiences. I always love your articles for they are very informative.

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