Not Oprah’s Book Club: Women, Food, and God

When I was researching my book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, awhile back now, one of the authors that I found most enlightened in her approach to talking about women’s relationship to food, fitness, and success was Geneen Roth. Roth is widely known as the thinker who popularized the idea of “intuitive eating”; just as it sounds, it is the idea that we can be most healthy (body, mind, and spirit) if we reconnect with our organic hungers, investigate when we feel full, what our body really wants to eat versus our emotional subconscious etc.
It freaks people the fuck out, as you might imagine. What, you mean I can eat anything? What will prevent me from eating Oreos for every meal for the rest of my life? Well, your body will silly. As soon as the forbidden charge is taken out of a food it becomes an innocent food again–lard and chocolate and whatever. Not so appetizing anymore (or every once in awhile).
Anyway, Roth’s new book, Women, Food, and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything, is an extension and deepening of her previous work. In this case, her main argument is that our relationship to food is a reflection of our relationship to God, or the divine, or spirit, or whatever you feel comfortable calling it. Roth takes the reader through one her retreat experiences as the narrative vehicle, dipping in to talk about meditation, emotional self-awareness, food, and, yes, God along the way.
Truth be told, the last thing on earth that I want to do these days is read another book about body image. Having written one myself, I’ve read enough for a lifetime. But I thoroughly enjoyed and learned a great deal from Roth’s new book. She’s a beautiful writer, for starters. She’s also funny, and humble, and unafraid of looking at the darkest places in the human psyche. She also has an uncanny ability to take the most complex phenomenon and lay them absolutely bare until you see the shining truth underneath. An example:

There is no way back to the body; the body is the way. You leave and then you return. Leave and return. You forget and then you remember. Forget. Remember. One breath and then another. One step and then another. It’s that simple. And it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been gone; what matters is that you’ve returned. With each return, each sound, each felt sensation, there is relaxation, recognition, and gratitude. Gratitude begets itself, ripens into flowers, snow falls, mountains of more gratitude. Soon you begin wondering where you’ve been all this time. How you wandered so far. And you realize that torture isn’t having these arms or these legs; it’s being so convinced that God is out there, in another place, another realm that you miss the lavender slip of the moon, your own awakened presence.

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  • JHood

    This book was in Oprah’s book club. She did an entire show on it and is doing a second follow up show.

  • JHood

    This book was in Oprah’s book club. She did an entire show on it and is doing a second follow up show later.

  • LivingOutLoud

    Not to rain on the “Not Oprah’s Book Club” parade…but this is part of the book club. Oprah has had her on the show, featured her in the “O” magazine and the book and Geneen Roth is all over the Oprah website. Not that I think this is good or bad, but just pointing it out because this is the one instance I can think of where Oprah is on board with a book you feature.

  • Tapati

    Geneen Roth is brilliant and her intuitive eating approach really does take the emotional charge out of certain foods. What I found was that once I knew, deep down, that I would never be deprived of all the “bad” foods ever again, I was free of the compulsion to binge on them as if someone was going to take them away from me. I began to sometimes crave things like raw vegetables. I could eat a square of chocolate and leave the rest of the bar for later. There was a short period of overindulgence but it wore off quickly. I never feel like eating past the point of fullness to being uncomfortable or in pain.
    Thank you for reviewing this; it’s definitely going on my wish list.

  • Sleepy

    One approach to healthy eating is simply to have a sense of gratitude for the food you have (assuming you have food, and access to healthy food).
    I tried a “diet” once that was more spiritual exercise than diet, really. I started out just eating lentils and brown rice for a day (as much as I cared to eat, but with no salt or spices). Though it was easy to feel deprived, I re-focused my thoughts on how lucky I was to have that food, compared to many people in the world. It was clean, warm, nutritionally sound, and I had clean, fresh water to drink besides. The next day, I added a new food group (citrus), and the next day green vegetables. Each day brought another type of food until about a month passed and I was back to a very full diet (except no sugar, caffeine or alcohol). Then I quit, because I was done.
    The reason I didn’t feel deprived was because each day meant something new to be grateful for. (You get a sense of just how delicious an orange can be even after just one day of only rice & lentils.) I happened to lose 10 pounds, even though that was not my goal (my goal was simply to reframe my unhealthy attitudes about food). I also had a great deal more energy and (temporarily at least) broke my extreme sugar addiction.
    And it really did re-frame my attitude, and months later I have not re-gained the weight. I’m not saying that now I am perfect (I’m back to being somewhat sugar-addicted.) But I’m much more likely to think twice while eating something about how very delicious it is. This includes desserts and treats, since I have nothing against them in principle. I am very honest about the food that I enjoy and savor. No need to hide it – simply feel blessed to have it.
    I would say even without changing one’s eating habits at all, it would be a mental health improvement to think of everything one eats in the context of gratitude rather than guilt (or obligation).

  • Sydney Bell

    I think this is a great post, thanks. I wrote about this book just this morning and I agree with what you say. Geneen Roth has written an engaging and insightful book that offers much to women struggling with emotional overeating.
    My only issue with the book was the promise that Ms. Roth offers to women, that if they follow her guidelines they *will* loose weight. Now, how can she promise that? Often, even if we are living a very healthy lifestyle, being active and eating well we often end up with larger bodies. And with all we know now about how body size not being a great indicator of health (activity is a much better indicator), I would be hopeful that we can move away from body size expectations. To be fair this promise is couched in a lot of good advice on not waiting to be a certain size before you start doing all the things you want to do and treating yourself with respect….but the promise is still there.
    Sydney Bell
    p.s. It is also ironic that this post is under “Not Oprahs’ Book Club’ because I first heard about this book when I spotted “I will never diet again” on the cover of O magazine. It was enough to motivate me to purchase the magazine (which I am usually loathe to do). Oprah is apparently quite taken with this book at has at least (for now) pledged to ditch the diets.

  • SaltyLilKipper

    Not bashing the book or eating plan by any means, but I’m not buying the idea that I only crave chocolate and fatty foods because they’re OMG, ~forbidden~!
    I crave them because it just makes more sense for my survival that I crave them rather than, say, iceberg lettuce. Our bodies need fat and calories to survive and keep going. Before supermarkets and easy access to food, you needed to take in as many calories as you could when you could because you might not know when the next time you’d see food is.
    Hashbrowns are pretty much always going appetizing to me. It’s not because they’re forbidden, it’s because they’re fucking yummy. I restrict myelf to only have them on occassion because it’s just not healthy to eat them all the time.

  • Comrade Kevin

    Time and time
    again I’m shown
    That I never been
    alone at all.

  • Comrade Kevin

    Let’s try that again. :)
    Time and time
    again I’m shown
    That I HAVE never been
    alone at all.

  • LN80

    I like so much of what Geneen Roth has to say (I own this book, and “When Food is Love” – also so, so good).
    At the same time, I really hope that anyone who compulsively overeats or has a binge eating disorder will not interpret or be misled into thinking we can really eat “whatever we want” since I know that my eating disorder has simply destroyed my barometer of when I am truly hungry versus when I am bingeing or overeating.
    These books are great, but if you overeat compulsively or have a binge eating disorder, you need help beyond a self-help book and should see a doctor, therapist, nutritionist, or join a support group, like Overeaters Anonymous.

  • lileyo

    This approach to diet really does work. It won’t necessarily make you thin, as others have stated, but it’ll definitely do a lot to bring you to the weight your body needs to be. It’s worked for both my spouse and I. We actually followed the advice of another book, though: Mindful Eating by Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician and Zen Buddhist priest. The ideas in it are definitely rooted in Zen, but it’s not preachy or esoteric. It sounds like she takes things a little farther than Roth, too, by acknowledging that it’s perfectly legitimate to eat for emotional or nostalgic reasons (what she calls mind and heart hunger, respectively), as long as you do so carefully and while taking your body’s other needs, like not getting too full, in mind. Highly recommended for further reading on the subject.