What I Learned About Eating and Living from Abraham Lincoln

A few years ago, my husband gave me Team of Rivals — Doris Kearns Goodwin’ s book about Abraham Lincoln. I’ve never been a history buff, and I wasn’t particularly interested in Lincoln (which I realize is terribly un-American) and so I dismissed the book as one of those spousal-gifts, like the cappuccino maker he gave me on our first Valentines Day together (instead of the peridot earrings about which I’d dropped many graceful hints). But it turns out I was wrong about Lincoln. Very wrong. Although I’ve never been a groupie — and I suppose it’s stretching it to describe myself that way when the idol in question has been dead for 145 years — I am unabashedly smitten with Abraham Lincoln. I dream about him, think about him, ask myself what he would do in difficult situations. I’ve learned a huge amount from him about everything from friendship to happiness to success against all odds. And although at 6’4” and very thin, Lincoln was definitely not a compulsive eater, I’ve gleaned endless pearls from his life about how to handle the desire to eat compulsively — and what really matters. Given his magnanimity, I don’t think he would mind if I shared them with you:

Looks Aren’t Everything: We obsess about our thighs, butts, arms, bellies, as if the shape of our bodies and the lines around our eyes determine our worth as human beings. But consider this: Lincoln was not a traditionally attractive man; he was described as having a hatchet face and rooster hair. Ouch. He was so tall that his pants were perpetually too short, and the sleeves on his jackets didn’t reach his wrists. But he knew that the size of his body did not determine his self-worth. He knew that having a bad hair day did not mean anything about his inherent value. The next time you’re tempted to eat after looking in the mirror or trying on a pair of pants that are a teeny bit too tight, remember the words of our famous president: “The Lord prefers common-looking people. That’s why he made so many of them.”

Take Time Everyday to Do what You Love: Sometimes we get so caught up in the have-to’s of our lives, sometimes we feel so rushed and stressed, that we make the choice to drop out the electives — the rest time, the reading time, the play time. Food looks awfully attractive at those moments because we can stuff it in as we rush from errand to errand. But, as I’ve learned from our 16th president, you can’t do your job well unless you take care of yourself at the same time. In his first years as president, Lincoln went to the theater more than a hundred times. He took daily carriage rides with his family and friends. He read books he loved, recited poetry out loud. He understood the value of nourishing himself daily, of stopping the have-to’s and engaging in the want-to’s. Take note, all ye who eat cupcakes on the way to pick up your kids and take them to soccer: Take time for yourself. If someone who ran the country while managing a civil war could do that, so can you.

Don’t Pay Attention to Criticism: I often get letters from people who tell me that they turn to food when their friends or families or bosses speak to them in words that are less than kind. It’s important, I tell them, to leave the criticism where it belongs: in the mind of the person who makes it. When someone criticizes me, doesn’t like my writing, I remind myself that Lincoln’s critics were merciless: they called him dumb, ignorant, a buffoon. Think about this: If he had let his critics stop him or affect what he was doing, slavery might still be in existence today. He said, “If I were to try to read, much less answer, all the attacks made on me, this shop might as well be closed for any other business.” Ask yourself how you allow the internal or external critics to shut your life down. Then, use Lincoln as a role model and don’t let them.

Be outrageous: your quirks are important: Don’t try to fit yourself into everyone else’s ideals. Love what is different about you. The way you walk, talk, think. Your crooked nose, the birthmark on your right hand, the fact that you are passionate about understanding your relationship with food. “It has been my experience,” Lincoln said, “that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.” What a guy.

Never Miss an Opportunity to Laugh: Most of us are so terribly serious about our issues with food. We suffer, we groan, we feel sorry for ourselves that our metabolisms are slow or that we can’t eat the whole thing. But one moment of laughter, one joke, one streak of levity can remind us that our perspective has shrunk and that goodness abounds. Despite the seriousness of the ongoing war and his many responsibilities, Lincoln was known for cracking jokes during cabinet meetings that were high with tension. He said, “With the fearful strain that is on me day and night, if I did not laugh, I should die.” To that I say, if he could laugh during the middle of a civil war, we can laugh in the middle of any ol’ time in our lives. Laughter breaks the need to eat. It reminds you that goodness abounds.

Anything is Possible: For the first four years that Lincoln was president — during his entire first term — it looked as if the North was going to lose the war. In June of 1864, five months before the election, every paper in the country predicted that Lincoln would not be elected for a second term. And yet, miraculously, and against all odds, General Sherman marched into Atlanta and Ulysses Grant captured Richmond, and soon after that, the war was won. When asked if he ever doubted the outcome of the war, Lincoln said, “Not for a moment.” Think about the times in your life when it seems as if everything is going wrong. When it looks as if you are going to lose what you’ve been working for. Notice your first reaction. Is it to turn to potato chips and pizza? Is it to give up and say that you’ve lost, the other side is stronger? Instead of the dive into food at those times, make your resolution stronger. Stay steady on your course. Let Lincoln be your guide.

Take Your Time: The pain from compulsive eating can be so intense that we become impatient with ourselves. We want to wake up thin tomorrow. We want the whole thing to go away. Then we become willing to undertake quick methods to lose weight, only to fail for the hundredth time and fall into a cycle of despair and hopelessness. The truth is that if we’ve been using food to distract or numb ourselves for years, then it’s going to take some time to unwind the pattern. During his presidency, Lincoln was often criticized for not moving fast enough, for not making speedy decisions but he didn’t let the pressure force him to doing anything before he was ready. He said, “I walk slowly but I never walk backward.” Take your time to do what feels right to you. Remember that the quicker you go, the more time it takes to get to your goal.

Diets Don’t Work: Since Lincoln was 6’4” and rather skinny, and since the fashion for women in the 1860’s was not what it is today— rail-thin — he didn’t exactly speak to this issue of diets. But what he did say was that “The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce is strictly.” And I am almost certain that he would forgive me (he was, besides being brilliant, incredibly forgiving) for using his statement as a reminder that being strict and rigid do not lead to change. Healing and change happen through understanding and acceptance, not through force, deprivation, guilt or punishment. Love heals, shame does not.

Be Your Own Best Friend:  No one knows, not even your closest friend or your spouse, what it’s like to be you. To wake up in your skin, to live with the mixture of feelings, thoughts, impulses, dreams, conflicts, and passions, that are utterly unique to you. Ask for help. Seek counsel. But know that in the end, it is you, your heart, your guidance, your wisdom that you must trust. Notice what knocks at the door of your heart, what enlivens you, what inspires you, what energizes you. Follow that. Trust that. You will never be sorry. Lincoln said, “I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the end... I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside of me.” From his venerable mouth to our vulnerable hearts, may it always be so.


Are you ready to take time for yourself? Join me for our 4-day LIVE online retreat:  May 9-12, 2024. In the company of other women with the same longings, you’ll have the direct experience of freedom with food and learn tools for changing what limits your life and the shape of your body. For more information and to register securly online, click here. Or call our retreat manager Judy at 703-401-0871. She’d love to answer your questions.

2 responses to “What I Learned About Eating and Living from Abraham Lincoln

  1. Wishing a warm, wonderfully comforting story writer and a woman humbly willing to “frolic” in the face of the “formidable,”–the best beginning to 2023!

    Your writings are a treasure, time after time I read…thank you, Geneen. I just love how you tied in Lincoln’s thinking with food…
    Our son writes for MLB.com. All thinking leads him to home plate…for me, all thinking makes its way to my dinner or breakfast or lunch or snack plate…

    With love and gratitude through the decades,

    judy horowitz

  2. What a beautiful story and how wonderful that you made it so relatable.! I’ve always loved the quote by Abraham Lincoln about happiness, it reads, ‘Most folks are about as happy as they make their minds up to be.’ W can and should be striving for inner peace and happiness every single day, no matter the size of our thighs or what others may think about us. Thank you again Geneen for another way of seeing the brighter side of life.

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