Why Oprah and Geneen Roth May Be Wrong.

by admin

As a diet coach who addresses dieting from a head and heart perspective, I consistently get asked if I am familiar with the work of Geneen Roth? Well, now that she is Oprah's favorite (non) diet guru, there aren't going to be many people in America who aren't familiar with her philosophy, which basically espouses that one need not diet, if one will instead address their own emotional and spiritual needs. According to her philosophy we'll all stop overeating when we fill that hole inside of us with love instead of food.

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Unfortunately, she is offering a one-dimensional solution to a multi-dimensional problem. Now, don't get me wrong, most of what Roth says is right on target. We DO need to address the emotional reasons for overeating.

But what of the research done by Brian Wansink? In his book Mindless Eating, Wansink tells us that human beings (not dysfunctional human beings, but simply random human beings), eat more based on cues such as container size, placement on the table and what those around us are eating.

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Let's not forget about the amazing work and recent discoveries in the field of neuroplasticity (brain change). This research shows the brain gets wired in certain ways, and the resulting habits, obsessions and limitations can be changed, but it takes repeated intentional behavior modification techniques. Many of these techniques, ummm, often sound a lot like the structure, discipline and accountability associated with dieting. (Read Norman Doidge’s The Brain That Changes Itself.)

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What about the fact that moving our body must now be planned into our day, lest we find our butt turning to lard in the computer chair?

Do not discount the numerous scientists and experts who have documented the addictive qualities of corn syrup and even simple carbohydrates. It's pretty damn challenging to construct a diet that doesn't include some of these. You certainly don't do it by talking to your therapist or your rabbi. You do it by making a plan, reading labels, avoiding certain foods and seeking out others, not by getting right with God and hoping it all works out.

What is this “diet” that Geneen Roth is so afraid will keep us away from spiritual enlightenment and this wonderful, beautiful, juicy life that we are longing to live? Is it calorie counting? Weight Watchers? Dean Ornish's Eat More Weight Less or Joel Furham's Eat To Live?

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All of these, and thousands of others on the shelf, are what I call “directed diets.” That means you follow a set of directions about your diet. What do all such diets have in common? First, let me tell you what they don't have in common. They don't tell you that you have to be deprived or hungry. And, you know what else – even at those times when you DO feel deprived or hungry when dieting, that might just not be the end of the world. It may mean that you need to eat more vegetables, which might be a lesson you need to learn. Just saying.

Oh, and if the diet doesn't really make nutritional sense, then avoid it because of that, not because it is in a book with “diet” in the title.

Five Elements Most Directed Diets Have in Common

1. Structure – If you have some preplanned ideas about what to eat and when to eat it, you are half way home. Brian Wansink, in Mindless Eating says we make over 200 food decisions in the course of a day. That's way too many for the “willpower” brain capacity of any normal human being. Structure helps us narrow things down, eliminating a bunch of those moments-of-choice. You can make up your own plan about what to eat, but it is not cheating to follow someone else's plan occasionally. Sometimes it's nice to let someone else drive.

2. Information – Most diets have some element of education or information built into them. My clients say they are in the “I know what to do, I just don't do it” crowd. Even they (and I) were amazed when we found out that Famous Dave's cornbread muffin was 600 calories. Instead of being afraid of dieting, I think high school health class should force feed (i.e., teach) calorie counting to every teenager who has ever eaten a Big Mac.

3. Accountability – Being on a diet means there are some rules that are supposed to be guiding you. I know accountability can be tricky. What if you fail to do what you committed to doing? Are you then a failure? Roth seems to believe that we would all think so. She may be nearly right, but looking closely at accountability is actually where my philosophy closely ties with Roth's, yet veers away at the same time. I believe accountability can be our best opportunity for the personal and emotional growth she and I both believe we need in order to heal what ails us. If you don't do what you said you were going to do, it gives you an opportunity to examine the reason(s) why. Sometimes it is a spiritual hole that needs filled, but sometimes it's just the need to buy and use a slow cooker or attend to some other mundane task . In my work we explore the answer (to why we didn't do what we said we were going to do) from, what I call a top-down and bottom-up perspective. Top-down is “head and heart” (this is where Roth and I sing out of the same song book), bottom-up is “moving your legs and filling your belly.” Her work seems to indicate the only reason we are eating dysfunctionally is because of top-down reasons.

But honestly, there's just as many times when working out the details of being organized enough to regularly get fresh salad in the refrigerator is just as much of an issue. Accountability gives us an opportunity to solve our problems, no matter what they are: top-down or bottom-up. If we aren't holding ourselves accountable to anything… then we are just out there basking in the problem and not narrowing things down enough to start the search for a solution.

4. Mindfulness – Geneen Roth is all about mindfulness, to the point of discounting everything else. I’m about mindfulness too. However, I just happen to believe when you are specifically following a plan, you are less likely to eat mindlessly and you are going to have more opportunities to really slow down, enjoy and appreciate your food.

5. Motivation – Usually when someone is following a diet, they are doing it with some outside stimulation – whether it be a group, a coach, a buddy, a website or a book. I'm sure Roth would agree with me on not trying to travel the journey alone. Our eating and food habits are deeply ingrained, and it's not easy to change them. Support and external motivational help is always a gift you can give yourself on any journey.

Whether you are going to be following a directed diet or devising your own directions, I believe you probably need some degree of each of those five elements in order to get some traction on your journey. Traction is good. Weight loss might not be the end goal … spiritual maturity might be the end goal, but  good vibrational energy, excitement if you will,  is easier to manifest when you are getting results. And you can’t tell me that Oprah isn’t going to have good vibrational energy when she drops a size or two.

No disrespect to psychotherapists, especially the one I'm married to, but therapy alone rarely solves food issues. Therapy, whether self-help or professional will be more effective, if one is not peeling off to Dairy Queen after every session. Just as most therapists urge abstinence, or at least attempts at abstinence while one is working on issues with an alcoholic…so should one urge diet… or at least attempts at structured healthful eating while working on food issues.

Not that I'm saying everyone who needs to diet has major issues. Some do, but then there are those with poor education about food, no cooking skills, who are overbusy, are a little lazy or a myriad of other factors.  If you do have “issues”  you’ll have a lot more access to what those issues actually are, if you are at least attempting to hold yourself to some healthful eating guidelines. (Which is a sneaky way of saying diet).

Geneen! Oprah! There's nothing about dieting, in and of itself to be afraid of. There is nothing about dieting that has to keep us from being emotionally and spiritually fit if you define dieting as a means consciously trying to eat differently than the rest of society eats; planfully making decisions about what and when to eat and yes … even following guidelines.

Roth says our weight can be a door instead of a wall. I agree. But I also see that diets help you actually walk through that door.

I think Roth and I will agree on this… anything that can get help one get (and stay) checked-in is a good thing.

We've all actually watched as Oprah has used diets in this way in the past. Diets made her vibrational energy soar. Diets got her checked-in to her life, instead of the checking-out, which she was doing with food.

Does the spiritual and personal growth she attained while she was on those diets get discounted, washed down the drain, just because she put the weight back on? No! What she learned about herself – about not eating beef, about getting past her own personal limitations and running the marathon, about how to connect to her highest spiritual self when she was not binging – were all contributing factors to who Oprah is today. The world is a better place because Oprah used those same five elements as she transformed her body and her life.

Of course it's disappointing that she eventually checked-out and gained the weight back. All of us check-out sometimes; Roth admits even she does. I just happen to believe that how long we check-out and how deep we dive would be a lot less extreme if, instead of scorning the idea of dieting, we embraced the idea of dieting and even embraced what I call diet-jumping. When dieting starts to get old, stale, boring…find a new way to mix it up. Don't stay with the same old thing and burn yourself out. Stay checked-in and be willing to adjust and adapt and ask yourself whether you need to explore top-down or bottom-up solutions.

What do I hope for Oprah?
I hope that she uses the good energy she has from working with Roth to fuel some very mindful eating that will lead to weight loss.
I hope from her past experience she has enough ingrained self-knowledge to know she needs the above five elements in some form or fashion. I suspect she does. I suspect she’ll be “dieting” even when she says she is “not dieting.”

I hope she calls soon! I’ve got a wonderful, beautiful, juicy life (and lots of clients who do too) and we’d love to tell her how we achieved it while (and through) dieting!

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

marilyn hunter May 14, 2010 at 9:23 pm

Sandra: At my age, I truly believe a lot of weight is determined by your genes. As I look at families over the last 50 years of living in Ogden and Champaign, some families do tend to be heavier than others. Of course there is the element of cooking like Mom and Grandma did that doesn’t help heavy families. Those people can lose weight, but it is much harder for them. I do also believe in the importance of keeping babies on the small side so they won’t develop an excess of fat cells that scream for more food all of their life. I appreciate your analysis of why we eat to satisfy a variety of needs. Your comments do make me think and I thank you. Sincerely, Marilyn


Tanya May 14, 2010 at 11:31 pm

Hi Sandra,
I agree that there is nothing *inherent* in dieting that makes it toxic, but I also think that it is impossible to truly remove dieting from American culture.

The act of dieting doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Rather it exists for individuals within a culture that ascribes all sorts of toxic values to it. In this, I believe that Oprah and Roth have a point, and it’s why I choose to view your system as being reasonable about *diet* within the definition “foods that are habitually eaten,” rather than think of *diet* as referring to “a regimen of restricted eating with the goal of weight loss.”

I take particular issue with the term and the phenomenon and it is mainly a result of the cultural baggage that is lumped on the term.

I do think that weight loss is a great by-product to a healthy diet, but it is the health that needs to be the goal of the diet (def. 1). This is why I’m most comfortable with the places that you and Oprah/Roth intersect and less comfortable with the emphasis on weight loss. A healthy, happy, fulfilled, active life is my goal, not some number on the tag of my jeans or on the scale.


Amy May 15, 2010 at 4:26 am

Great post, Sandra! I was also sceptical when I read the article with Geneen Roth in Oprah’s magazine (I haven’t gotten the show yet over here in Belgium). Yes, the spiritual part is important, but it is just one piece of the puzzle. Learning to eat better, eat less, move more and take better care of myself in general is the only way to go. There is no magic bullet!


Vickie May 16, 2010 at 10:53 am

I really appreciate this post Sandra. Whenever I have tried the kind of approach Geneen describes, I have actually gained weight. I believe this is the case due to the problem described in many excellent works, such as David Kessler’s “The End of Overeating” or Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food.” We are surrounded by what has been described as a “toxic” food environment, where much of the food available more closely resembles a drug- in that it is addictive, and hard to control. I do believe spirituality is what is truly important and the only thing that gives real happiness and meaning to life. However, I don’t believe that it alone will keep us at a healthy and happy weight in the current environment. We need to use some sort of system to limit what kind of food we are eating and how much, (i.e. a “diet”) or we will naturally, and very easily, gain weight in today’s world.


LoriM May 16, 2010 at 9:17 pm

Wow! Excellent post, Sandra. I’m going to pass it on. I’m curious why our tivo didn’t pick up the Geneen Roth episode on Oprah. (maybe I cancelled oprah? haven’t watched in ages; thought it was in re-runs) I’ll have to see if I can find it elsewhere – or get the magazine article instead. I’m curious what she said even though I agree with everything you’ve written here.


LoriS May 17, 2010 at 5:38 am

Hello Sandra! I was really interested to read your post on this topic. I discovered Geneen Roth years ago, and, with all due respect to her and her journey, this new book is a rehash of all her old ones. That said, I think her philosophy rings true enough. But it’s not an answer. It’s not a solution. As you often say, everyone is “on a diet” when diet is defined as food choices. You made excellent points about the real scientific research on this subject. Great post! Thank you.


Christina May 17, 2010 at 11:53 am

Great post, Sandra! I agree with everything you’ve written and what others are saying on this wall. It isn’t always about just one side (top-down) or the other (bottom-up). I’ve always found the most success when I’m working with both strategies. Yes, one can be successful JUST calorie counting but does it last? Can I feel warm and fuzzy when I’m consistently journaling and analyzing my emotions? Yes, and while I may turn to healthier foods, the tendency to grab what’s closest to us to eat, without planning/preparation/mindfulness, doesn’t go away. It’s great to see attention being given to the emotional side of weight gain/loss but it’s only part of the story.

The combined approach is truly magical! Sandra, you need to be the next Oprah guest!


jennifer July 19, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Does anyone know the long-term success or failure rates for G.Roth?


BettyOnTheVerge April 6, 2011 at 11:56 pm

Women, Food and God is the first G. Roth book I’ve read, and I loved it. For me, it was one of those “life-changing” reads. It made me realize that I’ve just been on this insidious merry-go-round of dieting>failure>self-blame and self-loathing>new resolve>more dieting>failure, and on and on. I do think that many people in our culture diet obsessively without ever stopping to think about mindfulness and underlying emotional causes of certain eating behaviors/habits, and Roth’s book (for me, anyway) was a really accessible and relatable entree into that kind of thinking. It helped me realize that I’m never going to lose weight and successfully keep it off unless I deal with those underlying, core emotional issues first (or at least concurrently).

But I agree with you that one shouldn’t disregard the notion of “dieting” entirely. There are several diet plans out there that can be really helpful to folks who not only need to lose weight but also need to learn how to incorporate healthier eating habits into their lives. For me, personally, I don’t want to perpetually be “on a diet.” But I do want to have a healthier diet. And to me, there is a big difference. I want to eat healthier foods and smaller portions as a matter of course (with the occasional indulgence). Diet plans (like Weight Watchers, for example) can be a great tool (and have been for me) to learn about healthier foods and portion sizes, etc., but those tools and those new “skills” aren’t going to have any lasting effect if I don’t also deal with the other issues that Roth talks about. (As you said, it is a multi-dimensional problem for most people, and yes, Roth’s approach only addresses one of those dimensions, but the same is true for most diet plans (they’re just addressing a *different* dimension).

So for me, personally, I’m taking a two-pronged approach: on the one hand, I’m diving into Roth’s approach (and other similar ideas, like Marianne Williamson’s “A Course in Weight Loss”) to address the core emotional issues and the practice of mindfulness; and on the other hand, I’m doing Nutrisystem, which gives me the “structure” that you mentioned and helps me get into the habit of eating way more fruits and veggies; way less fat, carbs and sugar; and much smaller portions. (And gives me the weight-loss jumpstart I need while I’m dealing with these issues and learning new skills.) As someone else commented, there is no magic bullet, and I have good days and bad days (and sometimes good weeks and bad weeks), but overall it is working for me. I am learning a great deal, and I lost 15 pounds in the first 3 weeks that I have kept off for an additional 2 weeks. And for the first time in a long time, I am feeling optimistic about my diet, weight and health.

Anyway, thanks for the thought-provoking post. I really enjoyed it!


admin April 8, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Wow. Such interesting comments. Thanks every for posting. Thanks for your recent reply Betty on the Verge!
Love you that you feeling optimistic. That feeling of hopefulness instead of helplessness is what it is all about.


Pat Barone, MCC August 14, 2011 at 3:04 pm

It’s great to see others’ reactions to this post. I’ve struggled with and conquered excess with and food addiction in my life, and taught thousands to do it too. I can see intersections between my beliefs and Geneen Roth’s and with yours, but differences too.

Some intersections: personal responsibility and accountability are hugely important, but are rarely just about food. I’ve admired Geneen Roth’s work for 20 years and I think it’s important to realize it’s taken her that long to reach the spiritual aspect of her own journey. That’s what she shares in Women Food and God. I tried her conscious eating route many times and, as noted by Vickie, gained weight. But it wasn’t that the approach wasn’t working – I wasn’t working. Now, I do it without thinking and it’s easy. Most people fail at conscious eating and living because they are tied to instant success, or they just don’t want to put forth the effort. Unless you are willing to truly change yourself, and continue the effort no matter what the results look like, you are not committed to really changing. That’s what I hear in Tanya’s post when she talks about not defining herself by the tag in her jeans. That’s awesome!

The definition of a diet that is toxic is the eating “plan” prescribed from outside your body, usually by another person or “expert”, with no knowledge of your own needs. Your body might need a very high level of protein one day because it’s replacing old cells, and it might need a lot of carbohydrate another day because it’s glycogen is depleted. This is cellular stuff folks, no one can tell you what is good for your body at any given time.

That’s not a license to eat cupcakes all day (as I once interpreted “eating mindfully” or “eating what your body says it needs”!!) – that would be the result of a mental decision. But we can’t choose conscious or mindful eating without learning to get the communications from the body itself, instead of an “expert” or “diet.” That’s the step that diets miss and the ones that are most important – we need to learn to live in our bodies, not in our heads.

It is not a one-size-fits-all world, in any sense.

I also disagree that Oprah was better off dieting. She was miserable and she did terrible damage to her body. After admitting it was a liquid protein diet, and that her after pictures were airbrushed, she lost a great deal of credibility in the world of health. No one would blame her for trying, of course, but her body rebelled (as all bodies do) after severe restriction like that. There are many physical reasons why diets lead to a 108% average weight REGAIN and why UCLA recently found that the biggest indicator of weight GAIN is a recent diet. I know that’s too much to go into on a comment, but anyone who wants a healthier life should start learning more about the physical aspect of weight loss. It’s not about calories; it’s not about calories in v. calories out; and a calorie is not a calorie. As I said, I’ve helped many people lose weight permanently, and not one of them ate in the same manner. Your body might make fat of an extra 100 calories consumed right now and mine might store it as glycogen for my next workout.

I do agree that diets (externally driven) have gotten a toxic rep, and rightfully so. Less than 1% of those who lose 30 lbs or more keep that weight loss. and it’s not the person’s fault, it’s the diet’s fault.

The real shame, in my opinion, is when women engage a diet, experience a regain, then blame themselves. That’s real toxicity. Before long, they are feeling wrong and bad about themselves and focusing more and more time on diets/failure/fixing it – instead of giving their fabulous energy to the world. That goes beyond toxic to tragedy.


Rhonda Neely April 3, 2012 at 9:12 pm

Starting is easy for me…staying is the difficult part.


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