Geneen Roth is a pioneer in the conversion of compulsive eating, perpetual dieting, and the personal emotional connection to food. Through meditation, inquiry, and a set of seven eating guidelines that are the foundation of natural eating, Roth has helped thousands of people transform their relationship with food. The best-selling author is also a faculty member at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, educating our students on emotional eating, food and body image, and our relationship with food. We sat down with Roth to learn more about how we can eat to support our mental health and heal our relationship with food.
1. How do you define Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is eating when you’re not hungry and not stopping when your body has had enough. It is eating for emotional reasons rather than physical reasons. It is eating to distract or comfort or push away what is asking for attention.
2. Food and Body Image: How do these correlate, how can we nurture our relationship to our body through food?
We nurture our relationship with our bodies by being kind to ourselves. Be kind. Be kind. Be kind. Eat what your body actually wants not what your mind wants. And when you are not hungry, give that sweet body of yours some non-food-related attention.
3. Food and Mental Health: How can food support your mood?
I am not an expert in particular foods. My passion is speaking to people about how they are using food to mediate certain conditions, feelings, thoughts, and situations in their lives. What I do know, both from my own eating and listening to other people is that nutrient-dense foods, foods that aren’t processed, and foods that give you energy rather than take it away support that sense of vitality and aliveness we all want and love.
4. Emotional Eating: Why do we reach for certain foods during stressful times, and which foods are best to support our mental health?
Food doesn’t talk back, go away, hit, abuse, or otherwise punish you in any way and so when we are feeling at our limit emotionally, there is a tendency to reach for what is available and what is associated with comfort. This can be an array of childhood foods or even foods that crunch. Unfortunately, after eating these kinds of foods, we feel worse, not better.
5. Food and Intimacy: How can food becomes a substitute for intimacy and possibly cover up our emotional/mental state?
If we turn to food for comfort, nourishment, pleasure, and joy, we are, by definition, not turning to ourselves or anyone else for those things. It can be scary at first to realize that we—and not that tray of brownies—are the ones we have been waiting for. If you are willing to be kind to yourself, to forgive yourself, and to—here’s the catch—tell the truth about what food is actually giving you in those situations, you will find your way out of the pattern and to what your heart longs for most.
6. What are some of your “guidelines” for eating? No distractions? Be present and savor each bite? How can we learn to literally “eat well”?
I don’t have rules for eating. Rules, I’ve learned, cause people to “be good” for a while and then rebel. Rules don’t work unless every fiber in your being does not see them as rules, but does see them as support for what you want. I do have a set of Eating Guidelines that are the foundation of natural eating. They involve paying attention to what you eat instead, eating sitting down, eating what your body wants, and allowing yourself pleasure with food.
Believe it or not, most people - even those who say they love food - don’t pay attention to what they are eating after the first bite. When you love something, you pay attention to it. You allow yourself to receive it, or, as I tell my students, to have what you already have.
Emotional Eating and the Holiday Season
7. How can we manage being triggered around holiday foods, stressful family members, holiday gatherings, etc.?
It’s true that holidays are particularly challenging in the food arena. Cookies abound. Gingerbread houses beckon to be eaten (well, just a corner). So many people celebrate using food as their focus. But what I would say about this is not different than what is always true in stressful situations where food is concerned: Be clear about what you want. Be clear about what truly nourishes you. It’s not a treat if you suffer and have a stomach ache for three days after you’ve eaten it.
- Ask this question: What is a treat? Really. Is it feeling alive, luminous, and peaceful or is it feeling stuffed and spacey?
- Do some writing about this. Use this as a first sentence: The way to be kind to myself this holiday season is… And then complete the sentence ten or twenty times. Listen to yourself. Be tender with yourself.
On the practical level:
- Know what you are walking into before you go to a party or family gathering.
- Wear pockets so that you have something to do with your hands other than eat.
- Eat to take the edge off your hunger before you go so that you can look at the food with a clear and true mind.
- Pick three food items from the buffet or sit-down dinner. Eat them sitting down.
- Alternate between talking and being aware of the food in your mouth. Taste what you have. Allow yourself the pleasure of delicious food. Receive what is there to receive.
- Take in the good, the joy.
- Don’t deprive yourself of what could truly (I mean, truly) satisfy you.
- If you find yourself eating mindlessly, excuse yourself. Go to the restroom. Remember that life exists beyond the table. It’s easy to forget when you are in the middle of it all.
- Walk outside. Look at the stars.
- Remind yourself of the beauty that is not on your plate! And how utterly fortunate you are to be alive to see it.