When my friend Ed wanted to stop smoking, a Zen master told him that he needed to love smoking first. "Create a ritual each time you smoke," the teacher said. "Take a cigarette and wrap it in a beautiful cloth. Go to a quiet place where you can be alone for a few minutes. Take your time unwrapping the cloth, removing the cigarette, smoking it. Notice how every inhale feels in your mouth and your throat. Notice if you like it. If you love it. If you want more of it. Only when you give it to yourself completely can you completely give it up."
"That's so intelligent," I told Ed, thinking of the parallels between smokers and emotional eaters. Of course, we can't give up eating altogether, but it's true that we can't stop emotional eating until we really love food. And in my experience, emotional eaters — those of us who eat for reasons besides hunger — don't actually like food.
I know you're probably thinking: My problem is not that I don't like food, but that I like it too much. That I think about it every moment. That I am willing to drive 10 miles out of my way for my favorite snack. That I hide the cookies where my kids won't find them. My problem is that I'm over the moon about food. I need to start enjoying it less, not more!
But think about it for a moment.
When you love something, you spend time with it. You pay attention to it. You enjoy it. And although most of us emotional eaters think incessantly about food, we consume meals as if they are stolen pleasures. As if we are not really allowed to have them, let alone have rollicking times eating them.
Last week I watched a 2-year-old eat a cracker. She took one, stared at it, then nibbled a corner of it just to see what happened to corners of crackers that are wet and soggy. After that, she tackled the salt issue. Licked it off. Took a bite, sucked on it for a bit. Her next step was to mush up the rest in her fist because now, she got to see (and taste!) an entirely new creation: a mushed-up, balled-up, saltless, wet, soggy cracker. In the time that it would have taken most of us to eat an entire row of crackers, she had not finished eating one — and she was positively gleeful.
In the days before I realized I started depriving and shaming myself around food, ice cream was of great interest to me. Not only because of how it tasted, but because of what happened to it as it melted. I remember taking my spoon and running it around the edge of the bowl for the softest liquidy parts. I remember my brother and I making ice cream lakes, melting chocolate into vanilla and pretending we were forming rivers in our bowls.
Then I remember being told that I wasn't supposed to eat ice cream because I was too fat. Suddenly, ice cream became forbidden. Suddenly I wanted, needed, to have it. All of it. I was no longer interested in any aspect of ice cream but getting as much into my mouth as I could, as fast as possible. The hiding and sneaking started. The feeling that I was bad every time I ate it.
When the pleasure stops, the overeating begins.
For most of us, food isn't allowed to be itself: a source of pleasure, joy, nourishment. Instead, food is the middleman between feeling something we don't want to feel and numbing or distracting ourselves from feeling it. We don't eat for enjoyment, taste, or particular sensations, we eat for the effect the food will have on us. Food is our drug of choice.
But there is another way to live with food. It's called eating with gusto, joy, and pleasure.
A student of mine named Sunny tells this story: "Once a month I take myself out for a steak-and-mashed-potatoes dinner. I love steak — love, love, love it. But I don't think I am supposed to eat it. This doesn't stop me, of course, but it does stop me from enjoying it. So I eat my dinner in a hurry — as if someone I know is going to walk in the door, and I have to be quick before I am discovered. Then I pay for my meal, hurry home, and spend the rest of the night feeling ashamed of what I ate."
I ask Sunny what she thinks would happen if she allowed herself to eat with gusto. To taste every bite. To pay attention to what she finds pleasurable about it. I tell her the story about Ed and the Zen master. I ask her what she thinks her life would be like if she ate her once-a-month steak the way Ed was to smoke his cigarettes.
"Eating is always a guilty pleasure," she says. "I feel as if I'm not supposed to enjoy food because I need to lose 10 pounds, and people who are supposed to lose 10 pounds should be ashamed of themselves. They should eat dry chicken without skin and salad without dressing — not steak and mashed potatoes."
Now we've gotten to the core belief: Emotional eaters and/or those of us who feel as if we are overweight are not supposed to enjoy food. We are supposed to skulk around, eating food that tastes like leather. Better yet, we should be eating astronaut food: freeze-dried pellets of desiccated vegetables.
After 30 years of working with emotional eaters, I can confidently say that I've never met anyone who has ever lost weight — and kept it off — by deprivation. We are sensory, pleasure-loving beings. It is not just calories that fill us up, but the joy we take from eating them.
We don't overeat because we take too much pleasure from food, but because we don't take enough. When pleasure ends, overeating begins.
Imagine what your life would be like if you let yourself eat with passion. If you felt entitled, no matter what you weighed, to eat with gusto. You may discover that foods you loved — as well as those you didn't — truly do give you pleasure, and there's no price tag attached. And that's how it should be. Why not be astonished by the crisp taste of an apple? Why not revel in the smooth texture of an olive? Since you need to eat to live, why let one moment of joy — even one — pass you by?