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Book Review: When Food Is Love by Geneen Roth

By Jancie Livengood, Phd HSP


Geneen Roth is the author of 8 books, including her bestseller, When Food Is Love, in 1992. This fourth book was generated by seminars conducted in her home. She was one of the first authors to link compulsive eating with the way we live. She believes that our relationship with food goes far beyond the usual calculations of weight and our notions of body image. The theme at the center of her book is the question: When is eating a healthy behavior, and when does it become a substitute for love?


You see, according to Roth, healthy eating involves nutrition, health, and socializing. Healthy love involves caring, sharing, enjoying, growing, giving, and receiving. Some believe that we begin eating as a substitute for love because of wounds from our past, and the decisions we made at that time about our self-worth – decisions about our capacity to love and whether, in fact, we deserve to be loved. Eating to numb hurtful feelings is also known as emotional eating, and is a type of compulsive behavior. What do we mean by compulsive behavior? Compulsive behavior is “uncontrollable” behavior. 


This is particularly relevant for bariatric patients. You must determine if your eating behaviors are healthy, or compulsive, ask yourself, WHY am I eating this?  Is it for nourishment or fuel?  Or, am I eating in an effort to protect myself from pain associated with love – or lack of love.”


As Geneen Roth says, “All we ever wanted was love. We didn’t WANT to become compulsive about anything. We did it to survive. We did it to keep from going crazy. Food was our love; eating was our way of being loved. Food was available when our parents weren’t. Food didn’t get up and walk away when our fathers did. Food didn’t hurt us, say “NO,” hit, or get drunk. Food was always there; tasted good; was warm when we were cold, and cold when we were hot; and became the closest thing we knew of love. We stopped expecting our needs/wants to be met. And we began to rely on ourselves to provide sustenance, comfort, and pleasure. We began to eat. AND eat! We began eating compulsively because of the kind and amount of love that is in our lives, or that is missing from our lives. BUT food is only a SUBSTITUTE for love. Food is not, nor was it ever, LOVE!” 


Think back over your life. Do you, or have you in the past, eaten compulsively instead of eating for nourishment? If so, did some person, or event, in your life make you feel that you were not important or not allowed to have needs or wants? Not allowed to cry? Not allowed to feel? Or NOT good enough?


To find out if you are an emotional eater, or compulsive eater, answer the following questions about the last time you ate too much: 

  1.  Did you notice your hunger coming on fast, or did it grow gradually?
  2.  When you got hungry, did you feel an almost desperate need to eat something right away?
  3.  When you ate, did you pay attention to what went in your mouth, or did you just “stuff” it in?
  4.  When you got hungry, would any nutritious food have sufficed, or did you need a certain type of food or treat to satisfy yourself?  
  5. Did you feel guilty after you ate?
  6. Did you eat when you were emotionally upset or experience feelings of “emptiness?”
  7. Did you stuff in food very quickly? 


If you answered “yes” to these questions, you’re beginning to look at the differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger.


As Roth points out, we use food to suppress our emotions. “Breaking free from compulsive eating is a process, but it’s a radical process because it asks that you stop being a victim.” For all of the people who have taken the step forward to lose a great deal of weight, you’ve taken such a step. Now, you must being the life-long task of maintaining your weight loss and health.


Roth puts it best by saying: “We eat the way we live. What we do with food, we do in our lives.”




Roth, G. (1992). When food is love.  Boston: Dutton.