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Double Book Review: Battle of the Spiritual-Eating Stars August 17, 2010

Disclosure: This is going to be an EXTREMELY personal and subjective (and loooong!) response to two recently-published books in the “spirituality/food genre.” Bear in mine that this is just my own opinion, which is, as I said, highly personal. Your mileage and experience may (and probably most certainly will!) vary.

I read Geneen Roth’s first book, When Food Is Love, when it was first published in the early 80s. I was pretty much blown away by it. But I have to say that every single book of hers that I’ve read since then has been a reiteration of that first book. And Women, Food and God is no exception. But I was excited to read it because people, including Oprah, seemed to think it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Many people said it made them cry. They felt that the book was written FOR them and about them. I think this is great (for them). However, this was not my experience at all.

I read through it quickly on my first read, and found myself feeling pretty underwhelmed as well as fairly irritated. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on why.

Then I read Savor, the latest book by Thich Nhat Hanh. And I felt the same way that others did when they described WFG. Now, I have been an admirer but not an active practitioner of Buddhism for many years. So the principles are extremely familiar to me. They are thousands of years old. And to have them applied to food and eating just felt very familiar and comforting to me. Many of the same ideas are also mentioned in Tomato Blessings and Radish Teachings by Zen priest Edward Espe Brown, and in the Zen of Eating by Ronna Kabatznik.

This weekend I took a long slow look at both books again. And I came to understand why I was so irritated by Women, Food and God.

1. It’s like a party that I didn’t go to. Eighty percent of this book is an extended description of Geneen Roth’s retreats. She describes the women who attend them and how they are dramatically transformed, some within the space of minutes. It felt like, “Look at me! I am such a guru! All these people love and follow me! And by the way, sign up for my next retreat!!” It was also like watching someone else’s interminable vacation slideshow. You had to be there.

I found myself being strangely unmoved by stories of women weeping and having tantrums and growling over their food bowls and such. It just didn’t do anything for me.

2. Her message has basically unchanged since her first book in the 1980s. And neither has her approach. Why write a new book NOW then?

I had read earlier this year that Geneen Roth had been tragically fleeced by Bernie Madoff. This is really sad and unfortunate, but it also tinges the book with desperation. She NEEDS PEOPLE to sign up for these retreats, and to buy this book as if it is a brand new thing. Which it is not. So the book is basically a 200 page ad for her retreats.

3. She takes several unnecessary and incredibly inaccurate swipes at Weight Watchers. Now it’s no secret that I work for WW. But these little vignettes just PISSED ME OFF.

I received a letter from someone who enclosed a WW ribbon that was embossed: I LOST TEN POUNDS. Underneath the gold writing, the writer added, “And I Still Feel Like Crap.”

Now, everyone knows that it is certainly possible to lose 10 or 100 pounds and still feel like crap inside (or outside). But to LINK this in such a blatant way with Weight Watchers implies, even subliminally, that if you lose weight with Weight Watchers, you will feel like crap. To which I say, bullshit.

When I was on WW in the early 70s, I made dinner out of the remaining allowable foods for the day: two servings of cold tomato sauce (REALLY? They had to be COLD?) and a serving of ricotta cheese. I was scooping my dinner into a bowl when my friend said, “Is that really what you want to eat?” “Yes,” I said. But the truth was that “No” was not an option. Eating what I wanted was not allowed. Wanting what I wanted was not allowed. I needed to sacrifice, atone, make up for being myself. For being fat.

Now this made me want to SCREAM out loud. Again, she is linking ridiculous degrees of deprivation and “not eating what I wanted” with Weight Watchers. She does say this was in the “early 70s.” Does she take the responsible route and say, “Weight Watchers has changed and evolved radically since then.” No. She doesn’t. So again she is linking this conspicuous brand name with sacrifice, atonement, punishment. SO IRRESPONSIBLE.

She receives a letter from a reader who says, “Each time I start trying to follow what you say, I get afraid and then go running back to the security of the Weight Watchers points system. And every time I try points, I inevitably fail a week later and spiral into a new rash of binges and beating myself up.”

Message here? Of course! Weight Watchers causes bingeing and beating oneself up! GREEEEEEATTTTTT!

But the biggest bullshit moment came when I came to the golden Secret, the grand finale, Geneen’s sacred Eating Guidelines, the reason people pay hundreds of dollars to attend her talks and retreats:

1. Eat when you are hungry. (Weight Watchers Book #1)
2. Eating sitting down in a calm environment. This does not include the car.
3. Eat without distractions.
4. Eat what your body wants.
5. Eat until you are satisfied. (WW Book #1)
6. Eat in full view of others. (foodblogging! ☺)
7. Eat with enjoyment, gusto and pleasure.
When I read this I was incredulous. Like, THIS is the big secret? Who hasn’t been saying all of these things, like forever??

The thing that alarms me, too, is that #3 and #4 are where a lot of people, depending on where they are in their process, are going to take that as a major green flag for EAT WHATEVER YOU WANT! NO MATTER WHAT IT IS!

Geneen Roth herself talks about people reading her books and then getting pissed off because they then eat with abandon (“whatever they want”) and gain weight, some as much as 100 lbs. (Yikes)
SO the other problem with this book is that it is extremely new-Agey and Vague and abstract. There is nothing specific in it.

Okay, enough about that one. Now, on to Savor.

I loved this book. I loved loved loved it. Perhaps because it echoes everything that I myself believe and strive to do, and when I do these things, I am more the better for it. Geneen Roth also talks about meditation and how good it is, but Savor is very very specific about HOW to meditate, what to meditate over, what one might say or think while washing dishes or picking a piece of fruit from the market or… eating.

I loved it because it is not afraid to “go there” and say, yeah, part of being mindful is knowing EXACTLY what you are eating, which is why food journaling (tracking or blogging) is an important and useful part of mindfulness. Yay. Which is exactly the feeling I have had since I began foodblogging. It IS a form of meditation for me. It’s that pause before the eating, that momentary mindfulness that can make all the difference in the world.

It is not afraid to say that weighing yourself, too, is a part of being mindful: of knowing what you weigh. It’s just a number. If the number freaks you out, then it’s a thing to meditate on and understand why.
It’s not afraid to say that moving/exercise is important and a VERY important part of taking care of one’s body and being mindful. It describes the many barriers and obstacles to mindfulness in our culture and why this is so very challenging (quotes from The End to Overeating, which I also really liked).

Mostly what I love about this book is the tone of it. It’s gentle, compassionate, yet firm and honest. It’s real. It’s not mushy or New Agey. Often as I was reading I would find my eyes filling up with tears.

The Buddha teaches that … insight cannot begin until we stop and focus our attention on what is happening right in front of us. This stopping, or shamatha, allows us to rest the body and the mind. When we have calmed ourselves, we can then go on to look deeply into our current situation. We need to step off our frantic life treadmills, to stop unconsciously doing the same things over and over again that have allowed our weight to creep up. We need to stop, rest, and reflect on a constructive way forward… We need to be fully aware of what is going on in our daily living. Only then can we begin to change.

Every time I read the word “rest” I would stop and sigh. Because that is so much what I have been needing. To rest. So I feel a deep comfort and a soothing tone to this book that just makes me feel… grateful, and rested. I think that this feeling is what helped me off my comfort-food train the other day.

This book is very, very specific about what to do regarding emotions, food, exercise, meditation. There are lists and there are recommendations. They are nonjudgmental and gentle. And honest. I appreciated that.
The grounding in Buddhism that shapes this book was very familiar, comforting and relaxing to me. It made me feel very receptive. Others may not feel this way and that’s cool.

The bottom line is, that I think BOTH of these books actually have the same exact approach to food and eating. It’s about mindfulness and looking inward. It’s all good.

If people out there really resonate with WFG and feel as if Geneen Roth is the answer, then I say that is wonderful and go for it. Especially if you’ve never read any of her work before, I think it could resonate very powerfully. If you’re a hater of Weight Watchers, it will certainly validate those feelings.

If people like Savor, and it helps you slow down and find some rest among the mindfulness, then hooray.

That was just my two cents. I’m glad that I read both of these and I am glad that people in general are going in this direction. I think it’s good for all of us.

 

18 Responses to “Double Book Review: Battle of the Spiritual-Eating Stars”

  1. I have not yet read Savor and plan to do so ASAP.

    I am glad you took the time to express your thoughts so thoroughly! I appreciate that. As you know, WFG has “blown me away” (in a good way). I have read a couple of Roth’s books in the past, but to be honest, I don’t think I was ready to hear her message, if that makes any sense. And so I don’t remember much about those books. In my more newly aware state, I “got” WFG even if it was a little vague. I didn’t need it to be any more than it was. I am not a WW hater…in fact, I try not to be a hater of anything. I am learning to be more of a both/and thinker versus an either/or thinker (while realizing that either/or has it’s place…see?? ;-)

    And like you say, there’s a lot of room for the growth of this kind of thinking….no matter who is promoting it!

  2. Pubsgal Says:

    I love reading your insights on the two books! See, now you’ve got me flip-flopping about which one is the better book. ;-) You’re absolutely right about Savor having much more specific information about how to apply mindfulness to the practice of eating. Which is, while I griped about some of Savor’s advice seeming banal (who hasn’t already told us to cut “sugary sodas” from our diet?), its deeper stuff is sticking with me. Whereas, I’m not sure how much of the Geneene Roth has “stuck”. (Other than her story about that really annoying cat.)

    I think I, too, would have been wondering what the big deal was about WF&G was if I’d already read a previous book that covered the same stuff. For me, there was some new stuff in there. And yes, I can see the danger of point #4. She does caution that if one finds oneself doing point #4 and eating poorly for more than a week or two, that one is using that point as an excuse to binge. But even so, many people (self included) will confuse eating what your body wants vs. eating what your mind wants, and that’s where more specifics on practicing mindfulness would be useful.

    I think, though, I’d continue to recommend both books, with the caveat that one or the other may resonate more with someone. I’m glad there are many voices promoting some really important ideas about eating.

    • Pubsgal Says:

      Er, so that last sentence in the first paragraph wasn’t exactly worthy. (Although I did find the cat annoying.) I’m re-reading my own blog thoughts, and the things that have stuck are more along the general psychology line (the “Voice,” the “urge to bolt,” the dread of painful things, thinking of how even now I “use” food like a drug at times, and how I’m glad I synthesized the idea of not “forbidding” foods).

  3. Mish Says:

    I to am someone who has been totally TURNED AROUND by WFG. I do understand your frustration with the fact that she does call WW out, and to be honest I have called WW out. I can’t track food and/or points anymore because to be totally honest it makes me go mental. I KNOW that this is not the same response for everyone, and I owe WW a HEAP of credit for enabling me to be where I am today 100lbs less than I was before. However, I have to disagree with you and say that I was VERY moved by the stories of the women. Although it may sound simplistic and gooey, I found that having the, perhaps condensed version, of the stories resonated with me. I felt like I could identify with a part of them in their stories.

    I haven’t seen Savour yet, it’s honestly probably not in Australia :( I think it’s good to have people say what they think about books like this. The ‘Intuitive Eating’ book that EVERYONE raved about…grated me. I couldn’t get through the first chapter without wanting to throw it across the room.

    I think the most important part of the journey is to find things that work for you. It sounds like you have and you’re doing an amazing job.

  4. natalee Says:

    I have WFG right next to me and have not opened it. Weird huh? I think I will get Savor as I LOVE that author. My husband meditates and really enjoys that author –I had no idea there was a book. I will get this asap. It sound more like my approach to life in general and how I conduct my WW meetings. I enjoyed your review. Thanks so much and Happy Belated bday Susan!

  5. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Foodie McBody, Mish . Mish said: RT @foodiemcbody: @MisheMarie FINALLY: my dual book review of Women, Food & God and Savor. Watch out, I'm not "balanced." http://bit.ly/a1Ds3L [...]

  6. Shannon Says:

    You have got my attention that is for sure! I am going to check both of these books out next time I go to the store. It is usually very easy for me to pick out books I will connect to just by browsing through them.
    I do love the idea of calming, looking deeply into our situations and going forward from there. So much to be said about addressing the root of it all. Centering is the perfect word I guess. When I feel centered is when things fall into place.
    Thanks for such a wonderful review I loved it!

  7. Mary Catherine Says:

    There is an appealing elegance about Savor which you can glean at a comparative glance between the websites. I listened to WF & G and rather than feeling like I “missed the party”, I felt that I wasn’t the target market. I’d never be able to afford a seminar and so it was with pleasure that I had my nose stuck to the bakery window with the borrowed set of CD’s from the library. I did like her notion of “flee” but it was new to me as I’d not read the previous books.

    Savor provides much practical advice to cultivate mindfulness. In particular, I appreciated the notion of cultivating mindfulness for the benefit of others. I haven’t quite embraced the notion but the book’s suggestion to abstain from alcohol because of the havoc it causes for others is one that is beginning to grow upon me.

    • Mary Catherine Says:

      I also wanted to mention that I googled “Geneen Roth -vs- WW” after listening to WF & G as I was sure there was going to be a big battle out there. Has she always been so anti-WW?

  8. I’m currently reading Breaking Free from Emotional Eating by Geneen Roth, and I am wondering if it’d be worth it to pick up any other books by her. I think I’ll finish this one first before I delve into any others by her. Especially as it sounds like they’re all kind of similar.
    I do WW as well (though I’m not employed by them), and so far I actually think the two are quite compatible (at least nowadays and with German WW). I mean one of the big selling points of WW is that it’s not a diet but a life style/dietary change, and that you can eat what you want (or what your body wants) as long as it fits into your daily budget (and of course you’re also supposed to eat all of the veggies/fruit, calcium and good fat portions). Late last year WW introduced a new plan here which works with daily points and an extra budget which makes it even more flexible (until then, you were allowed to ‘save up’ points to use on other days). So assuming one day your body wants a burger, it’s no problem. (Just as long as it doesn’t want one three times a day every day.)

  9. Pubsgal Says:

    I had to chime in on the WW topic. I think Geneene Roth must have tried WW in the very early days, when it was highly restrictive. Back when I first tried it (1989 – before points), it was fairly flexible, and it was similar to how nutritionists set up meal plans, based on portions of different types of food groups (breads, dairy, meat, fruits, vegetables, fats). In other words, I think it helped people learn a more healthy way of eating. I do recall that week 1 was difficult, although I can appreciate the approach: give them the toughest week when they are full of enthusiasm! ;-) Then on the following weeks, additional portions were added to the “flexible” category of exchanges.

  10. annie Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of WFG. I mean, please. It’s all common sense and things everyone knows, but her attitude (and Oprah’s) is that it is completely revolutionary. I felt the same way that you did (as you know from our tweet-versation). :)

    And because of our similar feelings about WFG, I’m eager to read Savor.

    I enjoyed these reviews. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  11. I read Savor, but not WFG. I really enjoyed Savor, although I am not about to meditate when I turn the light switch on and off LOL!

    I found it to be a bit preachy, particularly towards being vegetarian. No mention whatsoever about eating locally produced meat or anything like that.

    I do love being mindful of what I eat. It makes so much more sense than intuitive eating.

  12. debby Says:

    Good review. I’m not going to read either of them, and that’s for sure. But I had to comment that I agree with you–I find it EXTREMELY irritating when ‘knowledgeable’ people (i.e. people who should know better) take pot shots at W.W. They truly do not know everything there is to know about w.w. How w.w. constantly updates their approach with the latest scientific information, and how they address the mental as well as the physical aspects of weight loss. Oh well.

  13. Cindy Says:

    I wanted to know what the hype was all about with WFG, so I “looked inside” at Amazon.com. I was immediately irritated by the book for exactly the same reasons you were–and I have not read earlier books by the author. I especially disliked the “You are now my food guru” stuff…if I remember, the line went something like, “the same women who hated me a day ago now can’t get enough of me” !!!

  14. Dianne Says:

    Awesome review! I agree with you 100% on WFG. I loved Roth’s early books, back when I had no freak’in idea why I would rip into a package of Twinkies faster than Kanye can steal a spotlight. This latest book of hers seemed to want to pigeon hole women into this fragile, overly emotional bowl crying whiner persona…and I wasn’t buying it. My mother had enthusiastically recommended it when she saw it on Oprah. Perhaps I just don’t get it.

    Today I’m more likely to cry if I can’t walk on the trail and get my workout in…and I still have to lose 194 pounds. There will be ups and downs for me, I’m sure, but I’m making my own way just fine. Ms. Roth and her bowl will not be invited.

    You can follow my progress here if you’re interested: Battle of the Butt

    I need all the support I can get!

  15. Michelle Says:

    As a WW lifetime member, I also took great offense to her Geneen’s bashing of an archaic WW. Because this book seemed to just be repeated material, I think she probably wrote that bit about “cold tomato sauce” in the 80′s and never revisited the notion.

    Thanks for the reviews! I will definitely be checking the library for Savor.

  16. […] I was involved with Weight Watchers. I have also READ about mindful eating a LOT (love the book Savor) but I had not really practiced it in a formal way. So this was, like perfect timing: to have this […]


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