In my workshops, we do an exercise on paying real attention to food. Everyone gets a small cup containing two raisins, a corn chip and a small piece of chocolate. Everyone looks at the cup. They look at me. They look back at the cup. "One corn chip? Are you kidding? I ate more than this when I was 2 days old," said a woman at one workshop.
Giggles and snickers.
"Okay," I say, "I know this is a very small amount of food, but let me ask you: Do you remember the last time you actually tasted one raisin?"
One woman says, "I've never eaten just one raisin. Raisins are meant to be eaten in bulk."
Everyone nods their heads. Then we proceed with the exercise.
First they pick up the corn chip. They smell it. They look at it closely. They take a small bite and notice what the chip feels like in their mouths. Then I ask them to comment on their experiences.
Most of them say things like: "Oh my God, I've been eating corn chips for 20 years and I never ever realized I didn't like them." Or "Wow! What I really want is the salt. The rest tastes like cardboard." We move on to the raisins, but we eat only one. People say that they usually eat a hundred of them. A box of them. Several handfuls of them. But if you are eating raisins by the handful, how do you know when you have had enough? How do you even know what a raisin tastes like if you are eating 90 of them at once? At this point, it's the bulk you are enjoying, not the taste of the raisin.
And then, oh then, comes the moment everyone has been waiting for: eating the Hershey's Kiss. They unwrap it. Suspense builds. I ask how many of them are certain they are going to like it. Duh, they say, this is chocolate we're talking about.
So they smell the Hershey's Kiss and then they pop it in their mouths and chew for a minute or two. This is a radical act, taking time with a piece of chocolate. Usually the one in our mouths is just a prelude to the next one and the next.
One woman says: "I can't believe this, but it tastes waxy. I don't like it, even though I've been eating these things for years."
Another woman says, "I've eaten many bags of these over the years, but I've never tasted just one. And when I taste one, I like it, and one is actually enough."
Then we talk about translating this exercise into real life, and all at once everyone stops liking me. No one really wants to abandon her old habits. You probably don't either. Right now I'm sure you're thinking, "There's no way I am going to give up watching Grey's Anatomy with my friend ice cream." But could you be persuaded to try if I told you that there's something better waiting for you if you give up the comfort of distracted eating?
For one thing, you'll rediscover the pleasure of food itself. You'll learn whether you actually like the food you've been eating in quantity for years. You may find that whatever food is in front of you might actually make you happy. (And that's the only reason to pay attention to what's on your plate—that it might help make you happy. That's all.)
When we take time with food, it has a chance to give something back—the flavor, the sensual feeling, a satisfaction we can savor. But if we are busy doing something else, we miss the whole experience. It is like being glued to your laptop while the sexiest story ever told is unfolding right before you on TV.
The truth is, you don't have to choose between watching Pride and Prejudice and eating. You can have both. You can watch and then you can eat. That gives you two chances for pleasure, not just one.
Why not act on your own behalf? Why not live as if you deserve all the pleasure? Because—and of this I am certain—you do.
Geneen Roth's books were among the first to link compulsive eating and perpetual dieting with deeply personal and spiritual issues that go far beyond food, weight and body image. She believes that we eat the way we live and that our relationships to food, money and love are exact reflections of our deeply held beliefs about ourselves and the amount of joy, abundance, pain and scarcity we believe we have (or are allowed) to have in our lives.
Geneen has appeared on many national television shows, including The Oprah Winfrey Show, 20/20, The NBC Nightly News, The View and Good Morning America. Articles about Roth and her work have appeared in numerous publications, including O, The Oprah Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Time, Elle, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She has written a monthly column in Good Housekeeping magazine since 2007. Roth is the author of eight books, including The New York Times best-seller When Food Is Love and a memoir about love and loss, The Craggy Hole in My Heart. Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything is her newest book.
Read More from Geneen Roth:
Get the 15-week companion guide to Women, Food and God
Worrying about your weight doesn't help you lose it
How to make peace with your body
What your cravings really mean