"I don't want to talk about being sick anymore," my friend Marnie said as she shifted in her hospital bed. True, there wasn't much more to say; six months earlier, she'd been diagnosed with a rare form of cancer -- signet cell, named for its ringlike shape -- that's nearly always fatal. "Enough about me," she said, waving a bony hand. "Tell me what's going on with you." What was going on with me? I was terrified of losing my best friend, that's what.
I'd met Marnie when we both worked at YM, a magazine for teenage girls. She was the chic accessories editor with a salty sense of humor; at the end of my first week, she came into my office and said, "I like you; you don't smoke and you're not an asshole." Instant BFF.
Over the next decade, Marnie gave me dating advice ("Now he's an asshole") and made sure there were flowers on my desk whenever I started a new job ("Shows 'em you're important"). Unlike most of my girlfriends, Marnie had an unabashed love affair with food; she introduced me to great restaurants, and I often benefited from her amazing pastry-making skills. (I wasn't surprised when she married a French chef.)
One night we were swooning over soft-shelled crabs at a Thai restaurant when Marnie gripped the table in pain (she'd been complaining of indigestion). She thought she had a bad case of acid reflux -- until her doctors discovered a rapidly growing tumor in her esophageal tube.
After surgery to remove the mass and other treatments that had left her weak, Marnie waited to see if she'd get strong enough to withstand chemo. Without it, there was little hope for survival. During my hospital visits, Marnie wanted to be distracted from all that, to talk like we did before cancer. So I dutifully prattled on about my latest magazine job. "Only one month chained to my desk, and I've gained five pounds," I said. "If I don't lose weight, I'll need a whole new wardrobe." I realized too late how that comment must have sounded to a woman being fed through a tube in her arm. "Please, don't ever diet," she sighed. "Just be glad you can eat."
Years later, I can see how deeply Marnie's illness affected my own relationship with food. At first I acted out of loyalty : She couldn't eat, so I wouldn't eat in front of her. When I sat with her at her hospital bedside at night until her husband arrived from work, I'd skip dinner and satisfy my hunger by scarfing down candy bars in the hallways whenever I asked the nurses to give her more morphine.
As Marnie's condition worsened, more friends and family camped out at the hospital, and one night, someone brought bags of barbecue to share. We took turns eating in the visitors' lounge while others stayed with Marnie. Biting into a pulled-pork sandwich, I felt an unexpected, and in those days uncommon, flicker of relief; I'd forgotten how comforting a real dinner shared with friends could be.
We began dining every night as a makeshift family, and I came to depend on those meals. All I had to look forward to were heaping plates of takeout and that numb, drowsy feeling I'd get after eating until I was way past full. It was the ballast that kept me upright as my best friend slipped away. Nine months after her diagnosis, a week before her 35th birthday, she finally did.
I was raised in a family that truly appreciated food. During the Depression, my grandmother got by on a corn muffin -- half for breakfast, half for lunch -- and a can of soup a day. Surviving such deprivation meant she took extra joy in simple things, and she made simple things more joyful by doing them with me. We'd create a "house" out of chairs and a sheet, then she'd join me inside and serve us both lunch on my doll plates.
I couldn't wait to see Nana every weekend, when my single mother would drop me off at my grandparents' house. We'd sit down to meals of spaghetti with clam sauce and chowder made from clams my grandfather dug himself. Shortly after I turned 7, Grandpa called Mom late one night: Nana had died suddenly of an aneurysm. Losing the anchor of our small family shocked me. I grew anxious, pacing after school as I waited for my mother to come home from work.
Soon I found that I could soothe myself with food -- specifically, sweets. I'd polish off entire Entenmann's fudge cakes, square by square. All that sugar brought on a soft wooziness, buffering me from worry. Food went from being sustenance I shared with family to a mood-altering substance I used alone.
My secretive sugar habit eased up over time, and I spent most of my teens and twenties eating normally. I took for granted the speedy metabolism I was blessed with until it started slowing down in my thirties, and even then I thought my new curves looked kind of nice. As a part-time yoga instructor, I felt confident in my body and what it was capable of. But Marnie's sudden illness and death shook me as nothing had since Nana's passing.
Losing Marnie left a void in my life. I quit teaching yoga, afraid I'd weep in class. So I filled my newfound free time with lots of work, often staying late at my job. On deadline nights the staff would order in, echoing the family meals at the hospital. I found myself having another plate of pasta, a second and third slice of pizza. And there was that familiar narcotic feeling: a lovely drowsiness, a too-full-to-think stupor.
After a while, I was distracted by a new, comparatively mundane problem: None of my pants fit.
On some level, I knew I was working too hard and eating too much because I was depressed. But the idea of going into therapy to deal with my grief seemed just too overwhelming. Even talking to friends was tough; they either told me to be grateful for my health, which gave me survivor's guilt, or tried to cheer me up, which didn't work. So I focused on a symptom of my larger problem: my weight. When a flyer was posted in the office kitchen announcing group meetings for a popular diet program, I signed up immediately.
At the first meeting the program leaders measured me and announced I was about 15 pounds too heavy for my five-foot seven frame. And with that, I had what I wanted: a concrete problem and a proposed solution.
That solution consisted of an austere daily ration of vegetables (steamed or raw), lean protein (preferably chicken or fish), fruit (not too much), and about half a cup of brown rice. I pictured Marnie rolling her eyes and joking that I was eating at Bland Central Station, but the lack of flavor in my diet was mitigated by a sense of virtue. I was being "good."
Apparently, very good. Within two weeks I'd lost five pounds, which earned me a red ribbon and a round of applause from my diet group. The feedback shook loose a creeping feeling of worthlessness. I'd been powerless to help Marnie, and while I was grateful for my magazine job, the work wasn't fulfilling. But the affirmations I was getting felt even better than the anesthesia of overeating.
My life began to revolve around weight loss. Prediet, I was easygoing about dinner plans, more interested in the company than the food. Now if my friends chose a restaurant that didn't have steamed vegetables on the menu, I'd suggest another place or even cancel. My mindful yoga practice was replaced by high-octane gym workouts. In truth, yoga's contemplative spirit was too dangerous for me: I'd close my eyes and see Marnie's hollow face.
I quickly found a way to turn almost any task into a workout. I did deep knee bends while brushing my teeth. At work, I walked the 19 flights to the cafeteria for lunch (salad, first with nonfat dressing, eventually with no dressing at all) and again for my snack of coffee with nonfat milk and a banana. At the time, my behavior seemed reasonable. I even felt superior: How many times had my friends and I dug into carrot cake while moaning about having to lose those last five pounds? I'd lost more than twice that amount, and losing more was all I could think about.
In truth, it was all I wanted to think about. Anytime something started to become too intense -- work, my deepening relationship with my boyfriend Nathan, or something that reminded me of Marnie -- I pushed it aside in favor of obsessing over my next meal or workout.
A few months later, my pants still weren't fitting -- this time because they were too big. I'd dropped my prescribed 15 pounds and felt lean and light.
At the diet center, compliments and a congratulatory pin awaited me, as well as a less restrictive eating plan that allowed bread, pasta, even dessert -- in moderation, of course. But I hadn't learned moderation: The first chance I got, I attacked a warm baguette like a starving beast -- or, rather, like an emotional eater who'd swapped excess for austerity .
I overdid it a few more times, and predictably, I gained weight -- just a few pounds, but enough to tip me over my goal weight. So I resorted to even more drastic measures: I switched to morning meetings so I could fast for 12 hours before weighing in. After seeing a woman change out of winter clothes into a tank top and gym shorts before stepping on the scale, I followed suit. At my next meeting, in the middle of December, I wore only a slip and took off all my jewelry -- even the engagement ring Nathan had recently given me. I smiled as the diet center leader handed me a star; I was back at my target weight. And I wasn't going to stumble this time.
One day, a coworker pulled me aside. "You've lost so much weight," he said. "Twenty pounds," I announced proudly. He didn't smile. "Are you ill?" he asked. My distorted sense of achievement obscured what should have been a painfully ironic wake-up call: Two years earlier, I'd watched Marnie waste away from cancer, and now my self-inflicted wasting was making people think I had cancer.
During my next visit to the diet center, I didn't miss the direct message from the grandmotherly type who weighed me in. She peered at the digital readout, then at me. "Honey," she said, "you're six pounds under your goal."
I waited for a big congratulations and another star, but Grandma just said, "That's not healthy." I must have stared back at her blankly, because she continued, "Do you understand? You need to eat. Stop losing weight."
But I was eating -- only about 1,500 calories a day. I didn't really have a goal anymore; I just wanted the approval and sense of accomplishment that came with another pound lost. And while I was in some sense fitter than I'd ever been, my daily workouts didn't make my body feel good.
At home, I stared at Nathan's pasta, then at my steamed cauliflower with exactly a half cup of marinara sauce. I felt sick -- not ill from the food, just generally unwell. I realized that I no longer knew how to eat, move, relax with friends, or just be without trying to lose weight.
So I forced myself off the treadmill and back onto the mat. Yoga was a physically gentler way to exercise, but I also knew its holistic approach would help me deal with what had caused my food issues. I went to New York's Integral Yoga Institute, the ashram where I'd been trained to teach. The guru there taught that the purpose of yoga asanas (poses) was to keep the body in shape in a way that would quiet unsettled emotions. That was exactly what I needed.
The instructors also referred to "the body," as in, "Allow the body to relax into the pose." With the shift of one simple word -- the body instead of my body -- I realized how a mind in turmoil could affect its physical housing. The body didn't crave entire cakes; I wanted to be soothed. The body didn't need to be tamed by a diet; I needed to deal with the emotions that were causing me to overeat, then undereat, and generally abuse the body I inhabited. And if that were true, then I could learn how to care for this body again.
In the serene yoga classes, I began to see how I coped with my deep-seated fear of abandonment, initially started by Nana's sudden death, which I then relived through Marnie's terminal illness: by overeating. And I began to understand how anxiety over what had happened to Marnie's body, despite anything she or the best doctors could do, led to my need for assurance that I had control over mine.
I also recognized that the pangs of worthlessness I'd felt for not being able to help Marnie had deepened to self-loathing and guilt over what I might have done better or differently. Again, thinking of the body became therapeutic and allowed me to begin down the path to forgiveness. It was much easier to be kind toward something or someone I perceived as being outside of me, the way I would treat a child or a friend, than it was to be kind toward my self.
At the end of a yoga class, we were lying in deep relaxation pose on our backs, palms facing the ceiling, eyes closed. I silently apologized to my body for mistreating it -- for ignoring hunger because it wasn't "time to eat," for measuring its worth by numbers on a scale instead of how it felt, and for punishing it like a willful toddler instead of respecting it as a miraculous organism. I made a promise to my body -- the body I was fortunate enough to live in -- to honor it again.
As my wedding date approached, I found myself dieting again -- dress-fitting anxiety. I boomeranged too; on the day Nathan and I were married, I ate more than a few slices of cake. I've learned that I'm an emotional eater, and that I can turn even the healthiest diet into a borderline eating disorder.
Now, though, when I feel like bingeing on cookies or even plain lettuce, the meditative, spiritual, physically compassionate aspects of yoga restore my balance. My notions of what this body "should" weigh or look like are replaced with appreciation for the way it is. I can think of Marnie and smile when I remember how she savored life. And by doing the same, I keep something of her alive in me.
Suzan Colon is the author of "Cherries in Winter: My Family's Recipe for Hope in Hard Times," published in paperback by Anchor. She has written for O, the Oprah Magazine; Marie Claire; Jane; and other magazines.
This Is What Healthy Eating Looks Like
Jana Klauer, M.D., a New York City-based metabolism and nutrition expert and author of "The Park Avenue Nutritionist's Plan," teaches clients how to have a healthier relationship with food. We listen in:
1. Consider a Food's Purpose
Before you eat something, ask, What is this doing for me? For example, spinach has vitamin A to help your vision. If you eat salmon, those good fats are going to be incorporated into your membranes and cells. Food really does become part of your body.
2. Don't Deny Your Desires
Write down a list of your favorite foods, and come up with an eating plan that includes them. I'm not expecting anyone to stick to a plan that eliminates all enjoyment. One of my clients recently wrote on her list that she really loved caviar, and I said, "It's full of omega-3s! Have the caviar!" That's an example of healthy indulging. If you restrict yourself too much, it's not going to work.
3. Eat When You're Hungry
So many women skip meals to save calories, but starving yourself is not healthy. Plus, it never works -- your body is wired to seek energy when it's starving. I recommend eating four times a day: three meals and one snack. And plan for hunger. Peak office vending machine use is typically from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. Instead of succumbing to that habit, pack a little cheese or fruit as a snack. And if you slip every once in a while, no big deal. Beating yourself up will only derail your plan and your outlook. Everyone has occasional lapses. Rebounding is a skill most people have to learn. Don't lose sight of the fact that if you're failing, it means you're trying.
4. Stay Attuned to Satiety Signals
There is a traditional Japanese concept called "hare hachi bu," where you always leave a little food on your plate and push away from the table when you're 80 percent full. This way, you leave the table satisfied, not stuffed. The theory is to show that you control the food -- it does not control you. Assess yourself throughout the meal. Are you satisfied? Do you feel compelled to consume every morsel on your plate? Ask those questions to gauge your hunger -- and trust your body's signals to tell you when you've had enough.
5. Value the Magnificence of Your Body
Remember, it's an amazing gift. I don't know about you, but I always appreciate it when someone enjoys or cares for a gift I give them. They don't leave it lying around waiting to be stepped on. It should be the same with your health.
Text by Jenny Rosenstrach
Why Diets Never Work -- And What Does
In her new book, "The Self-Compassion Diet," psychotherapist Jean Fain introduces a radical plan to end emotional eating for good.
By Lori Leibovich
The key to success for most weight-loss plans is learning how to tell yourself "no": No dessert, nothing from the bread basket, forget the fizzy cocktails, just "no." But the true path to sustained weight loss has zero to do with deprivation, willpower, or self-control and everything to do with being kinder to yourself and listening to your own needs.
Sounds woo-woo, and veteran dieters may be skeptical, but that's exactly the argument psychotherapist Jean Fain makes in "The Self-Compassion Diet." To build her case, Fain, of the Cambridge Health Alliance (an affiliate of Harvard Medical School), cites a growing body of research to explain how cultivating a nurturing attitude toward yourself can so effectively solve any weight or eating issue that you'll never count calories (or polish off a whole bag of chips) again.
Q. What exactly does self-compassion mean?
A. It's treating yourself as you would a friend or loved one, with care and concern. According to Kristin Neff, a University of Texas associate professor who created the self-compassion scale used in psychological research, it has three essential components: mindful awareness, which translates to giving your full attention to the present moment with as much acceptance as you can muster; self-kindness, or treating yourself with care rather than beating yourself up; and common humanity, the understanding that suffering is part of the human experience and that you are not alone.
Q. What's the link between self-compassion and weight?
A. Psychological studies have shown that people who entertained self-compassionate thoughts were happier and more resilient, generally less depressed and anxious, and less likely to exhibit the kind of self-critical thoughts and emotional distress that can fuel overeating.
In a landmark study at Wake Forest University, rigid dieters who didn't know they were part of a self-compassion study were required to eat one doughnut. Afterward, some were prompted to think kind things about themselves: "Everyone overeats sometimes" and "You can get back on track." Others were left to ruminate on their own self-criticisms. Each person was assigned their own room and left alone with large bowls of candy. Those who had thought kindly of themselves tasted the candy but did not overindulge. Those who had been left alone to berate themselves ate a lot of candy. The conclusion: Self-compassion actually counters self-criticism and reduces the likelihood of emotional eating.
Q. How can it be learned?
A. My favorite way is through Lovingkindness meditation, a specific practice dating back to Buddha that involves repeating compassionate phrases to yourself, such as May I be safe. May I be healthy. May I be happy. May I live with ease. You can practice it formally by sitting in silence, or informally by taking a walk. (I recommend 10 to 15 minutes a day, but you can start with as little as five. Remember that this is about finding space for yourself.) Over time, as you absorb these messages, you will feel calmer and less reactive -- and you'll be less likely to engage in emotional overeating.
A study by Jean Kristeller, Ph.D., funded by the National Institutes of Health, found that overweight subjects who were taught meditation along with how to recognize hunger and fullness cues lost an average of a pound per week -- and they kept it off. In another study of hers, subjects binged significantly less, if at all, after taking an eating-mindfulness training program.
Q. How can an emotional eater retrain her brain to stop associating food with comfort?
A. Food has many purposes, and comfort is one of them. But eating for comfort should be a choice, not a compulsion. Instead of reflexively grabbing a glass of wine and some cheese and crackers when you're angry or sad, pause and notice how you feel. What do you really need at this moment? To talk to a friend, go for a walk, take a nap? Sometimes a glass of pinot and some Brie may be just the thing you need. Other times -- say, if you're pissed at your husband because he never spends time with you -- well, the wine and cheese are momentary comforts, but they're not going to solve your marital problems.
Q. What's another self-compassionate practice that doesn't include food?
A. Write yourself a note. First get your distress down on paper, then follow it with words from an imaginary pen pal who offers care, concern, and advice. Do that for 15 or 20 minutes, and by the time you get to the end of the letter you'll feel more compassionate. If this kind of self-help is too much of a stretch for you, then a therapist can also be a wonderful support.