Feeding the Hungry Heart


Feeding The Hungry Heart

Two of the lowest points in my career as an emotional eater were stealing bologna from Safeway and narrowly missing getting caught, and stuffing my mouth with carob malt balls at Ray's market in Capitola, and actually getting caught. Unfortunately, by the time the loudspeaker in the market blasted "YOU! With the carob malt balls in your mouth. Come to the register immediately..." my cheeks were stuffed with malt balls like a squirrel. I couldn't say anything until I chewed and swallowed, and by that time I was so mortified by the stares of the ten people in the market who were now standing in a row and watching me, that I burst into tears. You would think that deep repentance should have followed these two incidents, but you would be wrong. In my heyday of emotional eating, I snuck and hid food, scavenged the garbage for it, threw it up, starved myself of it, took laxatives to purge myself of it -- and hated myself the entire time. I was as insane as anyone I'd ever met about eating and the size of my body. After a total of seventeen years of gaining and losing a thousand pounds -- the equivalent of six or seven people -- I realized there had to be another way out.

There was.
There is.

It is radically simple, costs nothing, and gives you your life back. It's called by a few different names -- eating with awareness; listening to the basic wisdom of the body; conscious eating; eating when you're hungry, stopping when you've had enough. (My least favorite name, because it describes what it's not instead of what it is, is "the anti-diet movement").

Twenty years ago, when I wrote Feeding The Hungry Heart, losing weight by eating in response to body hunger and treating the obsession as a symptom instead of the problem were unheard of comcepts. Dieting, deprivation, fear, punishment and guilt were the rule, though ninety-five percent of people who lost weight on a diet gained it back. The weight loss industry was a thirty-three billion dollar industry, a figure surpassed only by the defense industry. When, on my book tour, I talked about using consciousness instead of deprivation to lose weight, the hosts of talk shows looked at me askance. It was taken as fact that the body was a wild animal which, left to its own devices, would start eating at one end of the kitchen and chomp its way clear across the United States. One very famous TV host said to me, "What you are saying is preposterous. I don't like you at all." It was not either of our best moments, but was indicative of the kind of resentment and fear evoked by the thought of relaxing dietary imprisonment evoked.

Nevertheless, letters and phonecalls began pouring in. People would hear about the book from a subversive friend and call to ask if I was for real. A letter I received in 1982 gushed: "Oh My God. I never thought anyone would ever understand what I am going through. Thank you thank you thank you; it's like you've been walking around on the inside of my head for my whole life." And: "Today, as I was driving home in my truck, and working away at a granola bar and the last few bites of a pint of ice cream, I realized, 'This isn't doing it for me anymore.' I realized I had a choice, I didn't have to suffer with food for the rest of my life. After reading your book, it was as if a crack of light came flooding into the very darkest corners of my insanity with food, and now, for the first time, I feel a kind of freedom I never thought was possible."

After a few hundred of these letters, I began to feel as if I'd discovered the cure for cancer. I walked around gleeful at the inevitable fall of the diet industry, positive the word would soon be out that no one had to pay a gazillion dollars to diet centers to get weighed and monitored and put on a diet of processed foods that tasted like styrofoam. I envisioned dancing in the street, fireworks, parades, endless celebration. Best of all, there would be freedom for the three out of four women who are constantly on a diet, who define their worth by what they weigh. They -- the women who torture themselves about not being a size four (even though the average American woman weighs one-hundred-and-forty-four pounds and is a size fourteen -- would now have the freedom to pay attention to what's really important: tending to physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being; discovering the cure for breast cancer; being the first woman president; saving the trees; ending world hunger; stopping nuclear arms proliferation; keeping the water supply pure; or simply doing and being whatever brought them joy. Spending their time on what makes them feel as if they belong on the earth instead of what shames them into believing that only the rail-thin to deserve to be alive.

Unfortunately, the last two decades have not witnessed this kind of change. Instead, sixty percent of Americans are now overweight and that number is doubling every seven years; more than five million Americans meet the strict definition of morbid obesity, which, for an average man, means roughly a hundred pounds or more overweight; ten million more Americans weigh just under the obesity mark; three hundred thousand people die of obesity-related illnesses every year; one out of four college women has an eating disorder. (This is a conservative estimate.) If you ask an audience of four hundred college women to raise their hands if they like their bodies, as I have done in three separate universities, less than thirty women raise their hands. I ask them how many would like to lose weight and just thirty women DON'T raise their hands. While the widespread desire to lose weight does not necessarily constitute an eating disorder, it does indicate that the priorities in our culture are distorted. It indicates that young, vibrant, pulsingly alive women are spending their energy trying to disappear themselves. A 1995 study found that three minutes spent looking at models in fashion magazines caused seventy percent of women to feel depressed, guilty, and shameful about their bodies and their lives. Rather than having pro-gressed. Rather than being enlightened, we continue to live in a state of endarkenment about weight, food, the emotional causes of overeating or undereating, and the importance of body size in terms of a meaningful life.

A recent headline in Newsweek stated: "Everybody's Dieting -- and Getting Fatter!" The two page glossy spread presented disturbing statistics about the rising rate of obesity, especially in children. Childhood obesity has doubled in the past thirty years, and even ten-year-olds are now being diagnosed with type two weight-related diabetes; obese people with this kind of diabetes have close to a 100% chance of developing cardiovascular disease. Diets still don't work. They never will. More and more people are turning to food for emotional and spiritual sustenance which it can't possibly provide. Add to this the self-hatred associated with being overweight in our culture, and the results are tens of millions of self-loathing, overweight, despairing human beings using donuts and cheeseburgers retreating further into themselves while their bodies get larger and larger.

But it doesn't have to stay this way.

Change is possible when the truth of what you want to change is fully understood. Emotional eating is not about lack of willpower and will not be solved by dieting. While overeating (as well as undereating) can become a life-threatening health concern, the roots of the problem are rarely physical. We eat when we are lonely. We eat when we are sad. We eat when we are bored. We eat when we are angry, grieving, frustrated, frightened, even happy. We eat because we don't know what to do with our feelings and food is here, there, everywhere. It's cheap, tastes good, and doesn't talk back. If we are ever going to solve the serious problems that result from emotional eating, including anorexia, bulimia and obesity, we need to understand that the main reason people eat is to feed their hungry hearts.

Until the hunger of the heart itself is named and touched -- no amount of advice, no matter how medically correct -- will enable someone to stop their destructive eating. If someone is using food to slowly kill herself, giving her an exercise and food plan will not turn her around. We need to recognize that she wants to die; we need to see her eating as a way of expressing what she doesn't know how to say any other way. We need to touch the ground of the pain, dissolve its roots. If you simply cut off a branch here and there, bringing about a quick fix -- for six months or a year the problem will only come back with renewed vengeance. In the last two decades, hundreds of people have come to my workshops, heard what I to say, and continue to insist they just needed to go on one more diet, lose ten or twenty or fifty pounds quickly, and then come back and follow my guidelines. These same people have often returned to me, years later, with twenty, fifty, a hundred more pounds, begging me for help.

It's not that I don't applaud scientific research, sensible food plans, exercise, or gastric by-pass operations to save someone's life. I do. But each of these has been around for decades, in one form or another, and people are still getting crazier and more desperate about food and eating. We keep looking in the wrong places to solve the problem. If you want to find your keys, you need to look where you left them. If we want to solve our obsession with food and body size, we need to look at the longings, the desperation, the beliefs, the images from which they grow.

When, for any number of reasons, we feel separated from ourselves and the life we know is possible, we feel hollow and empty. We feel lonely. We feel worthless. Those of us who are emotional eaters turn to food to anchor us and fill in the empty spaces. After developing an eating problem, we then focus on dieting, food plans, elaborate schemes for losing weight and gaining the perfect body, a sense of meaning and feeling of accomplishment. But no system built on deprivation, punishment, shame, guilt and fear will ever work -- and this includes diets -- because it does not recognize the fundamental reasons behind emotional eating.

I get letters every day pleading with me for help, detailing thirty-thousand-calorie-binges, starving stories, spitting stories, each letter attempting to prove that they are the worst, the craziest, the ugliest, the fattest person in the world, unworthy of redemption. But there is nothing anyone can ever say to me about the depths of their hopelessness, about the seemingly insane things they do with food, that convinces me they are the one person in the world for whom transformation is not possible.

It is possible.

I know because I was a lunatic with food and now I am not. I know because I have witnessed tens of thousands of people in the past twenty years move from being utterly out of control of their eating to feeling as if they can leave a box of cookies untouched for weeks at a time. Yesterday, I received these two letters: "Your book brought me back from a dark and desperate place. When I saw you on Oprah, I was throwing up about five or six times a day. My aches were constant: throat, stomach, head. I felt sick and terrified. Your gentleness stirred something in me. I am now a successful, recently engaged fifth grade teacher. My life is utterly fulfilling and completely unobsessed." And this: "Your books are to my eating like the freedom Corrie Ten Boom must have felt after being released from the camps during the Holocaust. They gave me my life back." Because I get letters like these every day, ten thousand a year, I know that change is possible.

Feeding the Hungry Heart is a collection of fiction and non-fiction from twenty-one women writers and myself, describing the internal landscape of emotional eating. Two years before I began the book, I'd gained eighty pounds, and was desperate to lose it for the umpteenth time. As I made my way out of the lifelong obsession by doing the opposite of what I'd always done -- trusting myself to eat what my body wanted -- I lost weight, and began small groups in the back of a neighborhood deli for women like myself who'd been gaining and losing weight forever. I charged a dollar a night to cover my mileage and copying expenses. Together, we explored the stages of emotional eating, and what it took to lose weight. Many of their stories, along with writers, are in this book, whose twentieth anniversary has arrived this year.

Living the life you were given, feeling an internal freedom of movement, expressing your capacities without always keeping part of them bound in obsession -- these are birthrights. These are what you deserve. No matter how it appears, underweight or overweight, sneaking food or bingeing on it, these are the deepest longings, what all the hoopla with food is about. These are what feed that hungry heart.