in Food & Drink, Psychology

The See-Food Diet

After reading Penelope Trunk’s recent post about eating disorders, I ordered the book Breaking Free from Emotional Eating by Geneen Roth. I figured it was cheaper than paying Lauren for another batch of wellness coaching sessions. I’m willing to give it a shot.

The first chapter of the book is fairly straight-forward: “only eat when you’re hungry”. I’ve heard that advice before. It’s good advice. I’m just not good at following it.

But the second chapter was startling. In “Deciding What You Want to Eat”, Roth offers advice similar to that which GRS-reader Sally gave me last spring: Tell yourself that you can eat what you want, and you’ll eventually find that you don’t want to eat junk food. This is Roth’s story:

For two weeks I ate chocolate chip cookies in varies shapes and consistencies for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and in-between. On the fourth day of the second week, I ate an egg for lunch. For dinner on the fourteenth day, I ate some lasagna that [a friend] had made. And a ball of dough for variety. On the fifteenth day, I never wanted to see a chocolate chip cookie again.

I tell this story at the beginning of every workshop because it’s absurd and because it’s true. I tell it because almost everyone there has fantasized about eating as much as she wants of whatever she wants without feeling guilty, and few people will allow themselves this freedom (or this madness).


One of the reasons it’s terrifying for compulsive eaters to believe we can eat what we want and not become obese is that we think we want so much…We feel bottomless, as if we could never get enough. We try to make up for years of dieting in two weeks of chocolate chip cookies or a month-long binge. Until we realize we are grown-ups. When I looked at the package of Hostess Sno-Balls and told myself that I really could have them if I wanted them, I realized I did want them…when I was ten years old.

For the past week, I’ve been heeding this advice. Whatever I want to eat, I eat. The very first night, I wanted chocolate chip cookies. Kris baked them, and I ate them. The next day I wanted an ice cream cone. I’ve eaten three pickled sausages. I’ve had plent of Sno-balls. I’ve eaten a lot of candy and drank a lot of Mexican Coke. Tonight I will probably have Gino’s clams.

But you know what? Eating like this has made me even more miserable. My stomach is a mass of percolating gas. My bowels are like a giant nuclear furnace. I find that I’m actually craving salad — spinach salad.

The truth is that the chocolate chip cookies and the ice cream and the pickled sausages don’t hold as much appeal when they’re not “off-limits”. I don’t feel guilty about eating them, it’s true, but I also find that I don’t really want to eat them. Right now, at this very moment, I want nothing more in this world than a tuna fish sandwich. (I’m going to lunch with Mac this afternoon — maybe we can find a place where I can get one…)

My friend Sally told me that when she craves cake, for example, she tells herself that she could have the best cake in Atlanta if she wanted. And sometimes she goes and gets it. But most of the time, the thought that she could have a very fine piece of cake is enough. She’s learned to trust herself, to trust that she can indulge herself in the future, and that she can make smart choices now. In her book, Roth writes that trust is the key:

Trust develops and builds when I am given a choice (and not, as in dieting, denied it). Trust develops when I choose to make myself comfortable, not miserable, to take care of myself rather than hurt myself. Trust develops when you learn from actual experience that you can decide which desires to act upon and which you will leave to fantasy.

I haven’t reached the end of the tunnel yet, but I believe I see a pin-prick of light…

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  1. So true! As you know, I don’t give a rip about the weight party, but I did so WANT to have healthier eating habits. For what seems like decades, I tried to follow the rules for this diet, for that diet, from the food pyramid, from the ADA, the AMA, the weird lady next door, and the rules I made up myself.

    When I finally read something about what I eat being about CHOICES, not rules, I said, “I’m not dumb…why didn’t I figure this out ages ago? It’s just common sense.” I answered myself, Forrest-Gump-like, “Momma always says common sense ain’t very common.” Since then, I eat what I want when I want it. And I eat a lot more good stuff and a lot less crap.

    The official term for eating more crap when we’re told we can’t is “Psychological Reactance” (an emotional reaction in direct contradiction to rules and/or regulations that threaten or eliminate specific behavioral freedoms). I’m highly prone to psychological reactance in *every* area of my life!

  2. I try to balance my wants with something healthy. So, if I want cookies for dinner, I will have a few, with salad. If I am craving cake from the bakery in Sellwood, I will get a slice but never following a high fat meal (such as a burger and onion rings). If I want chips and salsa for dinner, I have them with baked chips. This way I never feel like there is something I cannot eat, but I don’t feel sick at the same time.

  3. Wow – can’t believe I joked about spinach salad cravings before I read this! So, did you find a good tuna fish sandwich at Great Wall??