Eating Lessons from Eat, Pray, Love


eat, pray, love posterLast week, friend,  colleague and writer Carolyn O’Neil, RD, contacted several “mindful eating expert RDs” (her words) to comment on food lessons that could be learned from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, a story of Gilbert’s search for self that started with an Italian food journey.  What grabbed Carolyn’s attention (and she likely bet grabbed the attention of many, hence her decision to talk about it in her column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution), is that as Liz happily ate her way through Italy, she gained weight but didn’t worry about it.  She’d “get back on track” later.

While getting back on track isn’t a foreign concept to weight strugglers, truly enjoying the time before getting back often is. Or actually, what’s really foreign is understanding that enjoying times that aren’t all about eating in terms of calories, fat, weight, etc., etc., don’t have to be followed by “getting back on track,” at least in the way that phrase is generally interpreted.  A lot of us don’t understand that eating like this can be healthy and doesn’t necessarily mean anything negative to our weight.  Indeed, it’s part of a continuum of normal eating that addresses different aspects of why we eat.

The outcome of this failure to understand, of course, is that so many of us can’t let ourselves enjoy eating when the eating truly calls for it, such as in Italy.  Unfortunately, no one wins in that scenario.  We not only miss the moment, we often end up creating more problems because of the guilt and self-loathing that can come from something seemingly as simple as enjoying food.

Not surprisingly, this isn’t a foreign concept to us here at Green Mountain.  Women come to us every week in the hopes of ending this cycle of negative thinking and behaving around food.

Carolyn only took a few of my comments for her column so I thought I’d share more here to give some deeper insight into what we think we can learn from the eating — and weight — attitudes depicted in Eat, Pray, Love.

Q: Are Americans especially ‘guilty’ of feeling guilty about eating what they consider to be indulgent foods?

A:  Many of the women who come to Green Mountain at Fox Run are for the most part overwhelmed by feelings of guilt.  They believe they can’t eat indulgent foods without gaining weight, and then in an attempt to lose weight, they forbid those foods.  Then they end up overeating them out of feelings of deprivation.  Then, when they overeat them, they feel bad about themselves and continue eating the foods to cope with those feelings, or to beat themselves up.  They’re caught in a deny-binge cycle that ends up creating more problems.

I see a similar scenario acted out in women (usually young) who may not struggle so obviously with weight, too. They may not binge on these foods, but they certainly eat them in larger quantities than would be considered healthy.  I suspect the attraction is due to an extent to, or at least began as a result of, feeling like they shouldn’t eat them.  There’s something in human nature that makes forbidden things more appealing.  But because it doesn’t show up as extra weight, women continue to eat such foods in excess, generally not realizing the impact on how they feel.  But eventually these eating behaviors show up in the health of their skin, their energy levels, their mood, their zest for life.

Q:  What do you counsel your clients about the proper way to enjoy foods, especially foods like pizza, pasta, ice cream, etc.?

A:  We encourage our participants to eat regular, well-balanced meals that include richer components if they feel like they want them.  But we also talk to them about the definition of “want.” If “want” only applies to how something tastes, we encourage them to expand the definition to include how they feel after eating.  If we are in touch with how we feel, we can see that eating richer foods in excess doesn’t make us feel well.  That’s a much more immediate gauge of whether we’re eating in a supportive manner, rather than what the scale tells us.

The trick here is being in touch with our bodies.  Many of us are so removed from that due to stressful, sedentary lifestyles and  poor eating habits, that we don’t realize what feeling good feels like any more.

Q:  If you did read the book, see the movie….any thoughts of your own on these scenes and concepts shared? She was enjoying her meals in India and another guy nicknamed her “groceries”  for digging into her food. Thoughts?

A:  Food is one of the greatest pleasures in life, and the current attitudes about eating in this country seriously interfere with that enjoyment.  We can dig into our food, enjoy it thoroughly, and still walk away healthy.  In fact, enjoyment and happiness even promote good digestion and utilization of the nutrients in food.

Q:  If someone does feel as if they’re gaining weight and are uncomfortable about that….what advice or counsel do you have?

A:  I encourage them to look at the big picture of their life.  Often weight gain isn’t about what we eat. It’s about how we are living our lives.  Just focusing on what we eat leads us down a very narrow path that doesn’t address what’s really going on.  In the end, it distracts us from solving the real problem. We are addressing a symptom instead of the cause of a problem.

Q:   Have you been to Rome? Did you gain weight?

A:  I’ve never gained weight on the many trips I’ve taken to Italy.  In fact, for several years we ran Food Lovers’ Adventures in Mindful Eating tours of Italy for our participants, to show them how you can eat such wonderful food and not gain weight.  If you are in touch with your cues for hunger and satisfaction, and are not using food to cope with emotions, you can be satisfied with much less food when it is so healthy and tasty at the same time.

Living in another country like Italy with such wonderful food, however, often does mean weight gain.  Exchange students often gain 10-20 pounds, and the sponsoring organizations warn the kids and their parents that it’s likely to happen.  My daughter gained probably about 15 pounds when she was an exchange student for a year in Belgium because she had such a wonderful time enjoying all the different foods and the culture around those foods.  Yet when she returned home, she didn’t diet.  She returned to her normal way of eating, and the extra pounds disappeared on their own.

Q:  What do you think is the point of the movie?

A:  I didn’t see the movie yet so not sure what the point of it is.  But I think the point of the book is that we do much better in life if we stay in touch with ourselves and live life fully, enjoying what is there to be enjoyed, examining the challenges life presents, and making choices and decisions about how to live the lives we want.

Q:  As an RD….what would you say are the positive messages for  healthy attitude about eating in Eat, Pray Love?

A:  To realize that food is a wonderful part of life but it is only one part. Enjoy it as part of a full life that includes other things.

What do you think about the eating attitudes portrayed in Eat, Pray, Love?

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About the Author

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD

If you’re looking for an embodiment of dedication disguised as obsession, look no further. Marsha is a registered dietitian who has spent the last four decades working to help women give up dieting rules and understand how to truly take care of themselves. Her mission in life is to help women learn to enjoy eating and living well, without worries about their weight. She encourages women to embrace their love of food, which you might call being a foodie. If so, it’s appropriate because being a foodie means you pay attention when you eat. That’s a recipe made in heaven for eating well. Marsha is the President and Co-Owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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