Want to cut calories without cutting out all your favorites? Women, Food and God author Geneen Roth says you need to learn to pay attention—real attention—to food.
A few years ago, I was working on my laptop, developing a new workshop program, when one of my favorite series of all time came on TV—Pride and Prejudice (the one starring Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy, although let's be frank: Is there any other?). So I nestled into the couch, preparing to divide the next six hours between my work and Jane Austen's most absorbing hero (the only man for whom I might consider giving up chocolate, if he asked me—but Darcy wouldn't do that).
Unfortunately, writing the outline turned out to be so hard, it grabbed all my attention. Instead of diving into the Regency saga that virtually invented sexual tension, I ended up slogging my way through reams of research. By the time Lizzy Bennet was riding off in her carriage as Mrs. Darcy, my workshop was as well-planned as D-day, but I felt as if I'd been cheated. I'd had the world's most romantic story right in front of me, and I'd missed it.
This is the way most of us eat every day. The food is right there, but because we're busy doing other things, we miss it. We chew, we swallow, but we don't experience the taste of the food, the delight of it. And then, because we missed the best parts, we go back for more. And more.
People tell me all the time that they love food. They love the taste, the smell, the feeling in their mouths. But the truth is, when you love something, you pay attention to it. When you love something, you take time with it. And most of us don't pay attention to our food.
Think about all the ways you miss the pleasures of food because you're multitasking or otherwise distracting yourself: eating while you're cooking, reading, watching TV or standing at the refrigerator door deciding what you want to have; sampling the kids' leftovers, the interesting tidbits on your partner's plate, the broken cookies on the counter at work (no, it is not true that once cookies are broken, all the calories escape).
And then there's eating while pretending to do something else. You walk by a cake. You see that some thoughtless person has taken a crooked slice. Now it's up to you to even things out. You edge one side and eat the thin, leftover shaving. Then you see that the other side is crooked too. Conscious of your responsibility to cake aesthetics, you edge that side and eat the shaving. Before long, half the cake is gone. But you never really decided to cut yourself a slice, so it doesn't count as eating.
This is no way to treat cake. If you dearly love food, why do you rob yourself of all the delight and satisfaction it brings you by not paying attention to how it tastes and feels? Why do you doom yourself to want more, more, more of something when you could have been pleased with less, if only you'd been present for it?
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 Everythingis her newest book.