October 2, 2016

When “God” is your Diet Coach.

last supper jacopo bassano

“Eddie: Patsy hasn’t eaten anything since 1974.
Patsy: A crisp, darling. A crisp.” ~ Absolutely Fabulous


The diet industry, like the fashion industry for Eddie and Patsy, relies on novelty.

Indeed it’s not hard to imagine the current top diets as having been conjured in the Ab Fab writing room. “Paleo, darling! If I can’t club it to death and drag it back to my Upper East Side cave—I’m not interested!” As for the 5:2 diet, that’s straight from Ab Fab PR maven Edina Monsoon’s playbook: “I’ve finally found a way to legitimise the ‘binge five days a week and starve for two’ diet! I want it Sciencey, Pats, with numbers and a colon!”

But the latest “so old it’s new again” diet angle? Spirituality. Time to break out the mala beads, Pats!

Yoga-lebrity Tiffany Cruikshank came under fire recently for suggesting that people “think themselves thin” in her new book Meditate your weight. Using spiritual techniques to achieve material gains (in this case, fashionable thinness) is a tricky one, and many have criticised Cruikshank for what they see as co-opting yoga in service of diet culture. Whether she’s actively doing that or just using the appeal of losing weight as a tool to get people into meditation (and sell books in the process) who knows?

But as far as diet coaches go—could God, or “relying on a power greater than oneself” (to keep it non-denominational) actually work?

In my own experience, using spiritual techniques with the sole intention of losing weight for cosmetic reasons doesn’t work. Paradoxically, letting go of the external outcome (in this case “thinness”) and focusing on the spiritual practice can and will lead you to a healthy weight. And unlike every other diet conjured to sell books and goji berries, you’ll stay there.

If you haven’t experienced it yourself, let me tell you: weight obsession and eating disorders are deeply boring. But that’s kind of the point. They shrink your world to something that feels manageable and stops you from having to think, see or feel anything else. For years I was stuck in a cycle of over and under eating, and it was impossible—truly impossible—to break that cycle on my own.

Eventually, I came to realise that instead of looking outside for a solution, the only way I would be free was to hand the whole damn food/weight/body thing over to something else. God, a higher self, I didn’t care what name it had, I just knew that my own way hadn’t worked.

At first, I didn’t have any idea of what that “something greater” was. So I asked myself what I needed it to be, then acted as if it really existed. Self-delusion as a way out of suffering, you might say. Yet it worked.

Half the time my “prayer” is just me chatting to this imagined force in my mind while I’m walking. (I can’t help my mouth moving when I do this and yes, people look at me funny). For me, prayer works because handing over all the anxieties, fears and resentments is a way to not eat over them.

The idea that “There is a spiritual solution to every problem” is backed by ex-PR executive turned best-selling author (Eddy would be proud) Gabrielle Bernstein, who, at 25, ran a PR company, and was addicted to cocaine and alcohol.

Although a spiritual experience led to her recovery from drugs and alcohol, “when I became sober I turned to food as another addiction,” she says.

Since a spiritual approach had worked the first time, she applied the same principle to overeating with remarkable success. She went on to create a digital workshop “Finally Full” which uses spiritual techniques to people overcome unhealthy relationships to food and weight. She is careful not to define spirituality for anyone in her workshops—“I could give you this beautiful, elaborate definition of what it means to me, but my work is about helping people define that for themselves”—and avoids promoting the thin ideal as a successful result.

When knowledge isn’t enough.

In the information age, we’re not short on nutritional knowledge. We’re pretty clear on what’s healthy and what’s not, and yet still we struggle. A friend of mine told me a story about going to rehab. At lunchtime, she was put on the special table for people with eating disorders. “Every second person at the table was a nutritionist,” she said. Clearly, knowledge isn’t enough.

“What I call ‘technical’ dieting [focussing on eating ‘clean’] will only work if it’s merged with spiritual healing,” says Bernstein. “You might lose weight but you’ll still be obsessing, or falling back into patterns of bingeing at night after restricting during the day. That’s why I believe in 12-step programs like Overeaters Anonymous, because they can get right to the root cause.”

Unfortunately, a spiritual connection that helps you let go of an unhealthy relationship with food isn’t that marketable. Dressing it up on Instagram (bikini meditation at sunset, anyone?) kind of defeats the purpose. But in my experience, a spiritual approach works because food and weight issues frequently have nothing to do with food and weight.

“All my longing is a longing for God.”

As a devout atheist, when I first heard that quote, it sounded like B.S. Now, I get it. Anytime we try and fill ourselves with something external as a way out—food, sex, drugs, My Little Ponies—we set ourselves up for defeat. Period.

“It’s the concept of being ‘finally full,'” says Bernstein. “The more spiritually full I became, the less I needed to anaesthetize myself with food. When we don’t respect the vessel, when we see it merely through the lens of the ego, we’re not in highest service.”

“So for example, just before the interview a messenger came by with a gift from someone—a five-pound box of brownies. Sugar, for me, isn’t great, and so I just took it back downstairs and gave it to the doorman. ‘Happy Holidays!’ It wasn’t going to serve my highest good.”

Recognising your food triggers.

For a generation brought up on “moderation, not deprivation,” the idea of passing on a box of brownies may seem a little killjoy. But from a spiritual perspective, it’s about “respecting the vessel”: recognising something that’s serving you and cutting out what isn’t, and then abstaining completely from “trigger foods” in the way an alcoholic would abstain from drinking.

Learning to recognise your emotional triggers is just as important. Putting down food and diets as a way to control life unleashed a wave of uncomfortable emotions I’d previously stuffed down. Instead, I had to answer the question: “What are you really hungry for?” Previously I’d been so busy either shoving something in my mouth or obsessing over whatever “cleanse” I was on, the answer had always been “oblivion”—I didn’t even realise I had uncomfortable feelings. “Feeling the feelings” instead of eating over them is painful, not to mention humiliating in its implication that you must be emotionally stunted to need to learn something so basic. But is it worth it?

“Abstinence without faith is just torture,” Bernstein says. “You’re going to feel deprived, and it’s just another form of abuse.”

For me, it’s not enough to just grit my teeth and “feel the feelings.” But when I finally surrender to whatever’s going on and pray, the sense of peace that follows is not something that could ever be found in a short term fix.

Five tips for a spiritual approach to weight management.

>> “You’re more than just your body. Shift your perception from ‘body identification’ to ‘spiritual identification,’” says Bernstein. Ergo, if you abuse your body, you’re abusing your instrument.

>> Feel the damn feelings! Ask yourself what you’re really hungry for.

>> Pick up the phone or the pen. Instead of stuffing uncomfortable feelings down, externalise them.

>> “Pray your way out. If you’re in the middle of a craving, or you’ve started on something and want to stop, pray for guidance and to be able to forgive yourself.”

>> And finally, says Bernstein, remember that eating in a spiritual way is about joy. “There’s no reason for it to be a struggle.”

Now that’s something Eddy and Pats could cheers to.


Author: Alice Williams

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Editor: Catherine Monkman

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