Kindness and Calories

Enjoy this article from the archives:

Imagine this: You are walking in a meadow on a fresh autumn day. The leaves are turning a burnished gold and red. You come upon a long table covered in a white linen cloth with vases of flowers at perfect intervals. Then you notice the food.

The food!

It is as if someone knew you were arriving, because the table is laden with every single food that you have ever loved - even the foods you won't let yourself eat because they're too expensive or too fattening. A platter of sweet lobster meat and a silver dish of drawn butter. Twelve different kinds of dessert, including Chocolate Decadence Cake, coconut pies, cheesecake, and the exact flavor of ice cream you love. Homemade bread and every cheese imaginable. And food from your childhood is here: Hostess Sno Balls, roasted marshmallows, mashed potatoes, butterscotch pudding. It is a feast and it is just for you. Only you.

If all those foods were equal - if you could eat bread with the same recklessness that you could eat broccoli - what would you choose?

Take your time. There is no rush to decide. The food will be here.

Now, ask yourself: Would you take small bites of everything? Would you settle on one thing, eat as much of it as you want, then go on to the next? Or, given free rein, would you feel so overwhelmed that you'd just start with a fork in both hands and wild abandon in your heart? Are you like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day when he realizes that he can eat all the pie he wants and not gain weight?

"I'd eat everything!" you say.

Or "I'd dive into the triple-cream Brie and never come up for air."

"At last," you say, "I get to ignore my diabetes and scrape all the icing from the carrot cake and eat it with a spoon."

And some of you say, "Gimme a break. Cholesterol is real and so is my heart condition. And, by the way, what's the point of this fantasy?"

Before I get to the point, I want to tell you a story.

Years ago, a woman named Oona attended one of my workshops with her 11-year-old daughter, Miranda. At the time we met, Miranda was what my own mother used to call me ? pudgy. Round cheeks, round knees, round hands. A body that looked like it was made of circles. Miranda was not exactly fat, but her mother was very worried. She watched over Miranda's meals, commented on what she ate, took desserts away. Oona had been a fat child, had struggled with weight most of her life, and didn't want to see her daughter suffer the same way.

All in all, it was your basic mother-daughter war. Miranda hid food from Oona; Oona was enraged that, despite her hypervigilance, her child was gaining weight.

My solution floored both of them. I spoke bluntly to Oona: Fill up a pillowcase with M&M's, give it to Miranda, and whenever it gets even a quarter empty, fill it back up again. Stop commenting on her body. End the war now. Come back to me in a month and tell me how it's going.

Miranda thought she had died and gone to candy-coated heaven. Oona just wanted to strangle me.

A month later, Oona was convinced that miracles did happen.

During the first week, Miranda took the pillowcase everywhere; she even slept with it. For the first time, she could eat what she wanted without feeling rejected by her mother.

During the second week, she stopped taking the pillowcase to school. She ate fewer M&M's.

In week three, she hardly touched them. By week four, she never wanted to see another M&M again.

But more important than the M&M's was that the war had stopped. Miranda no longer needed to eat to pay her mother back for her constant disapproval. She no longer needed the comfort of M&M's to make up for the hurt of her mother's rejection.

Although this story actually happened, I'd like you to take it as a metaphor rather than as an example of something you should try with yourself or your daughter.

The point of both stories is not the food itself but your attitude about it. The point is, we can be free from the endless cycle of depriving and restricting ourselves if we cultivate a kind of welcoming and openhearted friendliness toward ourselves. Most of us want to get thin because we believe that then we will be entitled to like ourselves and treat ourselves well. We want to get thin because we believe that then we will be happy. We've got it all backward.

What would happen if, right now, you gave yourself permission to like, respect ? even adore! ? yourself without first having to earn it by losing 10 or 20 pounds?

Consider how your food choices would change if they were based on self-respect and on what made you feel well, alive, and radiant. If you liked yourself immensely, you'd be unlikely to seek comfort in the all?ice-cream, all-the-time diet. You'd know that eating ice cream for dinner would probably make you feel happy for a second and then a little spacey and then tired. Soon you'd be cranky, yelling at your kids, picking on your spouse.

This new self-respecting you wouldn't need to seek comfort in food because you would no longer be rejecting yourself every minute of the day. No one can handle that kind of perpetual criticism without seeking solace somewhere, and the mint chocolate chip does nicely.

Most people say they gain weight when they eat what they want. But the truth is that people gain weight when they eat what they don't want - and then eat copious amounts of what they do want because they're afraid they'll be deprived again. They gain weight because they argue with themselves constantly and then, bruised from the argument, eat ice cream to be kind to themselves.

True kindness has no calories. True kindness is deciding right now that you deserve to feel fabulous - even if you never lose another pound. When you make your food choices with that sort of kindness, your life becomes a feast.


We invite you to leave a comment below.

5 responses to “Kindness and Calories

  1. Kelly, my heart goes out to you. I’ve been where you are. Know that there is hope. I don’t know any specifics about your situation, but I do know that in order to truly heal from this, we need God’s strength. There are the practical, physical/bio-chemical things to consider (after all, God created our physical beings, and He created food), and there are the emotional, habitual, and spiritual aspects of our eating…WHY we eat, HOW, we eat, and WHAT we choose to eat. It’s a journey and a process, and I pray you will grow closer to God through this struggle.

  2. I soooooo needed to read this today. I have been in a really unkind place towards myself lately and thought to myself this morning, “I just want to feel okay in my own skin. But I don’t know how.” Your message definitely helped with one single word – Kindness. I pride myself on being a kind person to others (as often as I can), but I am so unkind to myself. And as we all know it’s very hard to be happy when someone is putting you down all the time! So I am making a vow right now to talk to myself as I would talk to a friend. Thank you for the message. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I could read this piece every day for the rest of my life. I took one of your workshops probably 15(?) years ago and your self-loving approach has stayed with me over the years. I remember thinking that you were the calmest, most gentle person I had ever met. Today for lunch I was reheating a bowl of delicious cauliflower-leek soup that I made from scratch yesterday. Yesterday I served it, for me and my husband, garnished with crispy prosciutto, freshly grated parmigiano reggiano, and chopped parsley. I toasted a spicy Mediterranean bread to accompany it. Today, I hesitated briefly when considering whether I wanted to take the time to cook the prosciutto, grate the cheese, toast the bread, etc. I remembered your teaching, even though it’s no longer a conscious thought, to make it the most delicious meal possible. So, I took the time to prepare all of the toppings and to have it the way I really wanted it. It is so satisfying to live this way around food and has helped me to be healthier and happier. Thank you, Geneen – you have had a lasting impact on my life.

  4. Interesting. I tried for a while to eat what I really wanted, huge white chocolate chip cookies for breakfast, or pains aux chocolat aux amandes (I live in France), or financier and visitandine pasteries (butter and almonds, delicious). I never grew tired of them. I ate them every day for months. After gaining weight, I reached a breaking point and went back to structured (restrictive) eating. Which hasn’t worked perfectly, but I lost the weight. I’m trying to realize that all I invest food with, all the love (kindness?) I connect to it, is not intrinsically there. I need to find other sources. Food just seems too complex for me to turn to for pleasure, even in measured quantities – especially in measured quantities. I find moderation very difficult. It’s either those cookies or pastries or both and then some, or the same foods every day in tiny quantities. That said, I really appreciate Geneen’s message, which brings me back to kindness as I struggle mightily with the calories, the scale. Maybe the war can indeed end. Even though I hesitate to trust myself with the foods I “love” I do still hold out hope for peace. Oh, and if I happened on that beautiful spread in the gorgeous autumn field, maybe I would just behold: the colors, the variety, the shapes, the textures, and of course, the glisten only butter can give.

  5. This is my favorite story of yours. I think of this little girl often. I think of her when I’m at the grocery store and I stock up on the ice cream, cookies and candy that I like. Thanks to you – your books and your retreat – I’ve been able to change my mind about food. (Well, for the most part, anyway… we all have days…) There are no more forbidden foods in my life. Somehow, for me, just knowing that the chocolate or cake or whatever is in the freezer and I can have anything I want whenever I want calms me. Like the little girl with the pillowcase of M&Ms, I know these treats will be there. Knowing that is soothing. As a result, if I REALLY want something, I have it. And I enjoy every bit of it. But what I find is that the cupcakes and cookies in the freezer stay there for months… there if I want them, silent if I don’t. Thanks for all your work, Geneen. You’ve changed my life.

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