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Jean Fain, L.I.C.S.W., M.S.W. Headshot

Oprah's Mindful Eating Coach Talks Diet And Money

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Whether the ultimate episode of "The Oprah Show" was really the end or just the beginning, the daytime talk-show diva has clearly moved on. If you're afraid that Oprah's mindful-eating coach, Geneen Roth, has moved on, too, rest assured. The best-selling anti-diet book writer who inspired Oprah to stop dieting is not abandoning food issues for money problems as some fans fear.

But after losing her life savings to Bernie Madoff (of all people) and living to write about it, Roth has expanded her focus to include food and money. Her new memoir, "Lost and Found," not only chronicles that traumatic loss, but explores food, money and her complicated relationship to both. More specifically, the compulsive-overeater-turned-mindful-memoirist is now writing about how the emotional issues with money mirror those all-too-familiar issues with food.

When I realized that the ultimate episode of "The Oprah Show" aired one year after Oprah had declared she'd found the answer to yo-yo dieting in Roth's bestseller, "Women Food and God," I realized America could use help understanding how anyone could make such a declaration and yet remain visibly unchanged. What's more, I thought veteran dieters could benefit from a fresh perspective on comparative judgments. That's what Roth calls statements like "At least I'm not as fat as ..."

I could have dashed off a blog on the topic myself or quoted long passages from "Lost and Found." Here's a short one: "I hardly have the words to tell you what it was like to see the exact same patterns with money as I'd once had with food. I splurged the way I once binged, and budgeted the way I once dieted. I lied about the money I had in the same way that I once lied about how much I ate. I rationalized buying sweaters on sale in the same way that I once rationalized eating broken cookies."

But what I know for sure: Two compassionate minds are better than one. So I phoned Roth, and we got to talking about all of the above: women, food, money and Oprah. What follows are questions and answers from our recent conversation.

Q: Oprah has moved on to her OWN network, and you've moved on, or so it seems, to money ...

A: I haven't moved on. Food is still my main focus. People get turned off [by the book] because they haven't dealt with the food thing, and they don't want to deal with money. It's overwhelming. I want them to know food and money problems are very similar.

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Photo by Stroud Schelling

Q: What's money got to do with food?

A: After my husband and I lost our life savings, many of the patterns I thought I'd worked through with food were surfacing in my relationship with money. It was losing everything and being confronted with the decisions I'd made about money that catapulted me into questions about what is enough, and the sense that no matter how much I had, it was never enough. It was the very same thing I'd experienced with food on an emotional, psychological and, dare I say, spiritual level.

Q: Why do you say the old adage of "You can never be too thin or too rich" isn't true?

A: Most people are so focused on what they don't have, what they're not allowed to eat, what they shouldn't eat, what they'll be able to eat when they finish the diet, lose the weight ... it's a constant feeling of "If only I had this, then I'd be happy." But they've already lost 10, 20, 30, 40 pounds 30 or 40 times, and it didn't make them happy. It gave them a thinner body, but it didn't give them the sense that "Now I can rest, now I will be seen for who I really am, now I can be happy." The same is true with money. Let's face it, we need money for food and shelter, but after those needs are met, this insane desire for more and more and more ... it doesn't make people happy.

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Q: How do you explain how Oprah could say she found the answer in "Women Food and God," and yet still struggles with her weight?

A: I can't speak for Oprah or about Oprah, but I can say when you find something that speaks to you, when you find something that feels like "Now I'm at home," that's the beginning, not the end. That "a-ha" moment is wonderful, but when it ends, and it always does, it needs to be followed by some kind of commitment to take action on your own behalf, a daily decision to be there for yourself.

Q: How do you decide to be there for yourself?

A: You can't do it alone. Support helps you follow through, and the desire to follow through helps you get support. It can't just be the support of one friend giving you advice. Advice doesn't help so much. The problem with all the advice we've been given is we don't know how to follow it. When people don't feel instant change, they think it's not working. This is a failure. I'm a failure. At that point, they need support in asking the right questions, like: What am I feeling? What happened in that moment when I went to eat when I wasn't hungry? When I went to spend when I was feeling hurt? Unless you become interested in those moments, you'll always turn to food or money to fill them.

Q: Is that how you survived losing all your money?

A: I felt the loss, the grief, but I also had a lot of support. It [the support] helped me see that everything that really mattered was still here, and that helped me see objectively what I needed to do next.

Q: It's easy to be critical of anyone's weight, especially a public figure like Oprah's. What do you know for sure about making comparative judgments?

A: It doesn't help to compare yourself to another or to yourself [at another time] because it's not about you. When you're not interested in yourself, whatever is driving you to diet or binge, restrict or splurge isn't being touched. When you judge and blame and shame yourself, you feel weak, diminished, collapsed and paralyzed. It's hard to think or move or know what to do next.

Q: What do you know about quick fixes?

A: [Real] change is not always visible, especially not at first. While there's a pay-off to being conscious about eating -- losing weight -- with money, there's a different kind of pay-off. I'm not saying if you're conscious about money, you'll get rich. I am saying your relationship with what you have in life will change. Everyone reading your blog in this moment has five things they have enough of, but because they're focused on what they don't have, they're focused on lack. If all you're valuing is what you can see, touch and accomplish in this second, it's going to be hard going. You have to value your inner process.

Q. Both you and Oprah have made private issues a public service. Ever wished you'd kept your issues private?

A. Part of my job description here on earth is to write about things most people wouldn't dare tell their friends. After I was anorexic, I doubled my weight, from 80 to 160 pounds, in two months. I also went on every diet there was, fasted, purged. I was a crazed, mad person around food. I didn't exactly have a sane relationship with money either. There's a value to having a tour guide, someone who's been there. Because I've been there, you don't have to go there. If I can come back from the brink, anyone can.

Q: Anything else you want to say?

A: There's nothing I want to add, but if readers have questions, I'm starting an online retreat June 7. It's six weeks, 90 minutes each week, with me on the phone. I'll be answering questions and talking about my eating guidelines, which are the core of my approach. [For a fee,] they can listen live or they can download it [the recorded phone call] and listen anywhere, anytime.

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Q: Anything I want to add?

A: Not really, but, I will say about Geneen the one thing she would say about Oprah: "She was lovely and gracious with me."

Q: Anything else?

A: As I bring this blog to a close, I'm reminded of Oprah's famous last words: "Until we meet again."

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Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist specializing in eating issues, and the author of "The Self-Compassion Diet." For more information, see www.jeanfain.com. Anything you want to add?? Please post it below.

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