Our Bodies are Basically Good

Non-diet dietician Jenna Hollenstein’s book “Eat to Love” paves a Buddhist path toward transforming our often troubled relationship with food and body.

Lilly Greenblatt
25 October 2021
Jenna Hollenstein.

Jenna Hollenstein, a “non-diet dietician” and nutrition therapist begins her new book Eat to Love with these words: “Eat to Love won’t help you lose weight.” As someone who has struggled with food and body image issues since childhood, I’ve read countless books on the subject — none of which have begun with as bold and relieving a sentence as this one.

As Hollenstein points out in her book, women are the principal target of diet culture. We are continually fed the message that we need to be smaller, to have the “perfect” body, to lose weight, in order to have value. Many of us spend our lives searching for the diet or exercise program that will finally free us from suffering — a pattern Hollenstein refers to as “magical eating.” But from the very first sentence, Eat to Love: A Mindful Guide to Transforming Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Life pulls us away from this twisted dream, letting us know that we’re in for a different kind of journey on its path.

In her practice, Hollenstein uses meditation and mindfulness techniques to help people overcome disordered eating, eating disorders, and chronic dieting. Eat to Love paves a Buddhist path to freedom from food anxiety, dieting, weight preoccupation, and disordered eating that artfully draws on the six paramitas (Buddhism’s “transcendent perfections”), lojong (mind training) slogans, and Buddhist meditation to change our relationship to food and body. The book serves as a guide to cultivating a compassionate view of our bodies and encourages us to trust their innate wisdom and basic goodness. I spoke with Hollenstein about Eat to Love, and the many ways Buddhism has transformed her own journey with disordered eating and practice as a dietician. —Lilly Greenblatt

Lilly Greenblatt: As someone who’s struggled with disordered eating patterns for many years, I’ve looked for Buddhist wisdom for disordered eating for a long time. The “mindful eating” approach is certainly helpful, but even that can be co-opted as a weight loss practice, and it rarely references the pain that can be involved with the seemingly simple practice of eating for many people. Eat to Love really tied it all together for me. What made you start incorporating Buddhist practice into your work as a dietician?

Jenna Hollenstein: I became a registered dietician in 1999, and at that time I was at my most disordered. I was dealing with disordered drinking, disordered eating, and really disordered body image. Everyone else was figuring out what they wanted to do with their careers, but I didn’t feel like I was in any position to be telling people what to do. So, I took a job as an editor of a nutrition science journal because I figured if I was closer to the actual nutrition research, then I’d figure out what was actually true.

The body is not separate from the spiritual path.

But at the same time, I wasn’t really working with my own pain directly. I was very fearful of my own life — my intensity, my feelings, and my pain. I got sober, and I started meditating and really moving toward the discomfort I was experiencing. I started to see the spiritual possibilities within our relationship to food and our bodies. I saw that developing a greater tolerance for discomfort seemed like it was potentially one of the most important things to be learned, especially in terms of the emotional abuses of food, and the ways that we eat in order to anesthetize ourselves.

I heard the lojong slogan “Maintain an awareness of the preciousness of human life,” and to me that was like: “You have a body. You should take care of it.” The body is not separate from the spiritual path, and that’s not always emphasized in our teachings. They can be very intellectual, existing only above the neck. I liked the idea that what’s below the neck was as important for spiritual awakening as what’s above the neck.

I think, for me, I’ve always felt this judgment that it somehow isn’t “spiritual” to think or worry about your body, which just exacerbates the shame when you can’t stop thinking and worrying about it.

Well, I’ve even heard Buddhist teachers spout diet mentality through the lens of Buddhist teachings. Like someone talking about giving up sugar as a form of renunciation, but truly, that’s bullshit. There is nothing toxic about sugar. Your brain runs on sugar. It needs sugar. All that does is manipulate the current fear of food through the lens of spirituality. I think of it as just another form of spiritual materialism. You need to meet your most basic needs, and yet in our culture, we seem to specialize in denying our most basic needs, whether that’s living with as little sleep as possible, or not needing to eat, or not wanting to get up to pee.

You share such intimate details of your own struggles with disordered eating in Eat to Love. Why did you decide to put your practice into a book to share with the world?

It was a compulsion. The idea that disclosing the things that I thought were the most awful about me was a form of empowerment. And I felt it would also welcome other people to give voice to their own issues and not feel trapped anymore.

I never told anybody about this moment I share in the book, where my mom told me that her friend had lost enough weight to the point that she didn’t take up all the room on the toilet seat. I can’t tell you how many hours of my life I’ve spent thinking about that. That was a “before and after” moment. Before I heard that, I never thought about how much room I took up on a toilet seat. After hearing that, I’ll never forget it.

It is really difficult to disclose these things. When you’re dealing with these issues — whether you’re restricting food, or binge eating, or purging, or not eating at all, there’s such shame behind it. I kept my own issues with disordered eating secret for a long time, and it wasn’t until just a couple of years ago when I finally told someone that I was able to realize how much it had affected my life, and how messed up I really was.

There’s a saying in AA that says “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” It’s basically like, the things that we think are like the most awful about us, the things that we keep hidden, are what keep us sick. They keep us trapped.

I’m still very much on my own path. I had a baby three-and-a-half years ago and my body’s been all over the place since then. Part of the dynamic that I didn’t like about being a dietician 20 years ago was how one-way the communication was. I was supposed to have all the answers. It didn’t take into account what that other person knew to be true about their own body, or the fact that the person giving out the information had their own issues to deal with.

Throughout the book, you use the phrase “magical eating” in reference to the search for the end-all-be-all diet that will lead to peace, happiness, and the end of our suffering. Where did that phrase come from?

Truth be told, [Buddhist teacher] Susan Piver said those words first. We taught a course called “The Dharma of Diet” a couple of years ago, where some of these ideas started to come together. We were talking about our personal paths and the idea that we had sought safety in finding the perfect diet, or attaining the perfect body measurement, and how that was a form of “magical thinking” applied to food and body.

Even if you manage to stay in perfect ketosis for the rest of your life, you’re still going to die.

The search for that diet that finally saves us is this basic denial of what we know to be true from our Buddhist training. There is no safety. There is no certainty. Even if you manage to stay in perfect ketosis on a keto diet for the rest of your life, you’re still going to die. Even if you train your waist to be incredibly tiny, you’re still going to die.

There is no “there” that you get to, where you side-step the first noble truth that suffering exists. Diets have been subtly selling that idea for years — that they will be the thing that finally saves you, and finally fixes you.

And we believe it. 

We do! We discount our own good judgment, and we keep falling for it. Because they hit us in our pain points. Underneath all of it, we just want to be loved, desired, accepted, included, and visible. 

In Eat to Love, you note that because Buddhism tells us all beings possess basic goodness, that logically extends to our physical bodies. And, as you say, if our body is basically good, that means all of our body — scars, stretch marks, cellulite. I’d never thought about the concept of basic goodness being applied to the physical body.

It’s like, why isn’t our nose hair basically good? It serves a really important purpose. And we wax it sometimes — for some reason, we’re self-conscious about it. In Caroline Knapp’s book Appetites she talks about how when she was a young teen, her girlfriends were comparing what they would change about their bodies, and one of her friends commented about the veins on her nose. That was one of those “before and after moments.” After that, she could never look at her nose without seeing the veins. I would say that veins serve a basically good purpose. 

Part of what struck me the first eight million times I heard the words basic goodness was that it undercut all of those physical attributes that I had come to rely on for basic worth. Young women are socialized to value these things. We’re taught to care about how our bodies look from an early age. Taking the body image approach to basic goodness was sort of radical to me. You have a body, and therefore it is basically good. 

When it comes to food values and ethics, I find things get tricky. Many Buddhists ascribe to a vegan or vegetarian diet, and we know that a vegan diet is said to cause less suffering than an omnivorous or even vegetarian diet. But when you have a history of disordered eating, I’ve found labeling yourself as a vegan or vegetarian can really just be another excuse to restrict food, or as you say in the book, to mask your food anxiety and “eat righteously.” Even if I feel naturally inclined to eat that way, I’ve found that when I choose to label my diet, it’s not the healthiest choice for me. It can cause obsession and exacerbate food anxiety that already exists. I really appreciate the approach you take in your book, saying it’s a form of honesty and generosity to really look at whether a vegan or vegetarian diet works for you — that there’s no perfect diet.

“Eat to Love: A Mindful Guide to Transforming Your Relationship with Food, Body, and Life”

In intuitive eating, people talk about putting on a “false food face” ­— in public, you’ll eat normally, but in private you’ll eat in a restricted way. Being a vegan can be a form of “false food face” in that you pretend that your intentions are to not cause harm and protect the environment, but in fact, there’s a really hearty portion of that choice that’s about controlling your body. It takes a really honest assessment of your intentions and an examination of your beliefs. It’s really tricky.

I respect the value of not causing harm. I respect the value of preserving the environment. But I also know the human response and reaction to restriction. There’s a lot of things to take into account, including the complexity of your intentions.

There are, unfortunately many, many different ways to cause harm. I don’t think any way of eating is inherently harmless. Even if you’re not eating animal products, it could be causing harm to some of the humans who are doing the labor in various place to produce the foods you do eat. Look at what happened with quinoa over the last 15 years, and how it was so exalted as an American superfood that the people producing it could no longer afford to eat it.

For one person, veganism could be a way of eating that satisfies their body and also respects their food values, and for another, it could actually be a way to pretend to have control over their life. You have to look at the ways that eating a certain way affects you physically and emotionally. I don’t claim to know the right answer, because I only have one body. My preferences tend to be to eat less meat, and when I do eat meat or animal products, to try to consume those that are responsibly produced. I know the damage that it does when I feel the need to label myself vegetarian and then feel restricted, or deprived. Some cultures rely on animal products. In our western land of plenty, it might not be necessary to consume animal products to meet our nutrient needs, but it’s also limited to think of that as the “right” way to eat, when globally that’s not the case.

How did you come to shape the six paramitas and the lojong slogans as the framework for the Eat to Love practice?

The paramitas are like this perfect little container for everything. I think it started when I was reading a Pema Chödrön book, and just starting to observe the ways in which the paramitas interact, and build upon and balance one another. And the lojong slogans pair perfectly with them as these little pithy reminders. The paramitas give us an intellectual understanding, and then the lojong slogans give us new thoughts and behaviors that we can practice.

When it comes to working with the body, it’s so personal, and yet it’s so intangible. The lojong slogans cut through all the distractions and distortions and reconnect us with our emotional intelligence. They remind us what we already know. Having these little reminders and ways of framing our experience makes it more workable.

Is there a particular slogan that feels most important on this path?

“Three objects, three poisons, three seeds of virtue.” If someone asked me what the one takeaway would be from this book, it would be how to work with both misusing food and misusing thoughts about body image in reference to the three objects, poisons, and seeds of virtue.

The three objects are things we like, things we don’t like, and things we don’t care about or are afraid to look at. The three poisons are: grasping what we like, which is passion; resisting or trying to change what we don’t like, which is aggression; and turning a blind eye to what we’re afraid to look at, which is ignorance. The three seeds of virtue are freedom from that passion, aggression, and ignorance.

It shows us our natural preference for pleasure over pain, and how we use food and habitual body thoughts to feed those preferences. Just being able to see ourselves grasping for pleasure, or pushing away discomfort, or numbing out with food and habitual thinking opens up a whole new world for working with ourselves. It softens the whole thing, and it encourages us to just become more familiar with ourselves. To pay attention to ourselves in that way is a form of discipline, but also generosity.

What role does meditation play on the Eat to Love path?

Meditation connects us with our physical body, slows things down, and creates more stability, which allows us to really see ourselves as we move throughout our lives. I’ll often meditate with my clients at the beginning or end of the session, or send them a recording to listen to a couple times a week.

We live in this world that is unreal and unrealistic, and so practicing with open eyes allows us to be in the world, and still choose to do something different.

I think the open-eye technique of shamatha meditation is particularly useful in complimenting this different way of relating to food and body. We live in a world that is not on this path, and we’re surrounded by things that go against it all the time, like the 20-foot Victoria’s Secret poster around the corner from my office. We live in this world that is unreal and unrealistic, and so practicing with open eyes allows us to be in the world, and still choose to do something different. I know this to be true from working with my own mind, and wanting to check out sometimes, and knowing what it’s like to stay with my experience even when it’s painful.

There’s a lot of uncertainty to your approach. It’s hard to let go of that end-result idea that diet and exercise programs promise. It’s even harder to trust that your body has a natural wisdom about what to eat when we’ve been told that our bodies are out of control and in need of fixing for so long — that we can let go of the habits of disordered eating, or habitual negative thoughts about our bodies. How do we learn to trust ourselves?

I think the lojong slogan “Practice the five strengths, the condensed heart instruction,” is really useful for building that trust, because it keeps your intention, determination, and aspiration front of mind. If you set an intention and then review it at the end of the day, you can just ask yourself “What allowed me to live according to that intention, or what made it difficult?” You start to collect data. You acknowledge when you feel successful, and you acknowledge when you don’t feel successful.

You become familiar with what habitual cycles you tend to follow in relation to food and body, and even acknowledge their usefulness, or lack thereof. Just acknowledging that the things that you do come from a basic desire to feel OK is helpful. Eventually, when you do see yourself doing those things again, you don’t freak out. You see that you’re anxious, or triggered, or whatever.

The more you have these experiences where you trust your body to make decisions that feel good, you build the case for paying more attention. Diet culture exists. It’s the mainstream. We have to be able to relate to it in an ongoing way.

How can you continue to reject the diet culture and do what you know to be right for yourself? We can dedicate the merit of our success in doing that. When you have success on this path, give it away. Give it to other people who are struggling. When you’re struggling with food and body, give your wish for relief to others who are struggling. This a lifelong path for all of us.

Lilly Greenblatt

Lilly Greenblatt

Lilly Greenblatt is the digital editor of LionsRoar.com. You can find more about her at lillygreenblatt.com