Tao of Eating
by Linda R. Harper, Ph.D.
The Masking of the Soul
"The world is ruled by letting
things take their course
It cannot be ruled by interfering."
—the Tao Te Ching
Caution: Dieting may be hazardous to
your soul. When your energy is harnessed into a
diet-compelling lifestyle, it interferes with your
ability to fully experience the uniqueness in yourself
and your life. It is not a troubled soul that causes
eating struggles but it is the WAY OF DIETING that
troubles the soul.
Three Challenges to the Soulful Life
The soulful life presents its own
natural challenges that I call the "Three A’s":
Each of these challenges can help us
understand how weight-loss-focused eating inhibits the
expression of our innermost being.
The challenge of authenticity calls
us to recognize both the desirable and undesirable
aspects of our innermost being and integrate both into
our whole person. Lao Tsu tells us,
"It is more important to see the
to realize one’s true nature."
To be authentic, the Tao Te Ching
asks us to acknowledge our true selves—the uniqueness
found in our needs, wants, and vulnerabilities. The Tao
Te Ching asks us to search for a sense of purpose in
the complexities of our existence and to develop a
willingness to find out things about ourselves— even
if they contradict the way we live. For example, a
person may realize she is frustrating her creativity in
a job requiring routine and precision. Being authentic
may lead us to discover that our limitations can be
gifts. For example, an individual whose learning style
required her to work harder to pass a school subject as
a child may find that, as an adult, she has the
perseverance needed to fulfill her career dreams. When
we meet the challenge of authenticity, we embrace our
vulnerabilities and accept our "undesirable"
traits. We immerse ourselves in uncomfortable feelings,
give them room, and see what happens.
When we are dieting, instead of
acknowledging our true selves, we battle against our
soul’s authenticity. We suppress confusing feelings by
believing that changes in our weight will change who we
are. While we wait for our bodies to transform, we hold
on to a false sense of self by blaming our negative side
on body size. When we believe losing weight will remove
our "bad" qualities, we never have to face
them or integrate them into our true selves. When we
deny these realities and miss the chance to understand
our whole self, we sacrifice our authenticity.
The WAY OF DIETING interferes with
our natural ability to listen to our feelings. I think
of a client named Kevin. He was afraid to commit himself
to a relationship with a woman he was dating. He decided
to wait until he lost weight and got himself in top
physical shape before considering a stronger commitment
to the relationship. With this decision, Kevin never
would get in perfect shape and never would have to own
his fear of commitment. Relying on ingrained beliefs
about weight-loss-focused eating stunted his personal
Part of our soul’s work is to find
the purpose in all of our traits and to integrate them
into our complete self. If we do not accept our true
nature, how can we expect any one else to know who we
The second challenge is to accept
both the good and the bad things that comprise our lives.
This includes differentiating things we can control from
what we cannot. The Tao Te Ching asks us to
accept things as they are and recognize the role of fate
"Accept disgrace willingly.
Accept misfortune as the human condition."
We are asked to experience events
that we did not choose, do not want, and sometimes think
we cannot handle. A best friend betrays us; our
corporation closes; we do not get the job; a
relationship does not work out; the basement of our
house floods; our parents never praise our success—there
are accidents, sicknesses, death, and "acts of
God" that occur at any point, shattering our plans
and dreams. In our youth, we may think we have "all
the time in the world" to reach our dreams. As we
get older, we realize we have to let go of some dreams
because of the realities and responsibilities of life’s
situations. We move on in spite of these adversities—and
sometimes, because of them.
The WAY OF DIETING masks our ability
to accept these life events. When we are dieting, we can
hold on to the false promises of weight loss—"things
will be better when I lose five pounds, twenty pounds,
fifty pounds"—and put off facing the
disenchantment of reality. Diet rules are sometimes able
to distract us from the pain of recognizing shattered
ideals. We may choose to believe that things will work
out if we just tighten up our diet and lose weight. For
example, if we find ourselves in a dissatisfying
relationship, we can go on a diet. Rather than looking
at other courses of action, we choose to believe that
our interpersonal problems will resolve themselves when
we lose weight. Until those pounds are lost, we do not
have to feel the let down of a relationship that just
did not work out.
The following true stories show how
people rely on diets to avoid dealing with their broken
Maria went to Hollywood when she was
eighteen, planning to get a break into her ideal job—acting.
When she did not immediately get discovered as an
actress, she decided it was because she needed to lose
weight. She came to believe that when she lost enough
pounds, she would get her big movie break and become
famous. Maria returned to her hometown and seven years
later was still trying to lose that weight. She
continued to talk about her return to Hollywood . . .
after she reached her unrealistic weight-loss goal.
Meanwhile, she ignored more productive things she might
have been doing to become an actress and was not open to
considering other careers she might enjoy.
Martha decided that she needed to
make dieting a priority because she believed her
boyfriend would love her more if she weighed less.
Holding on to the false hope that she had found the
ideal relationship was easier than facing and grieving a
Sandy was fourteen when she began to
diet obsessively. Her parents were contemplating
divorce, and it was too painful for her to accept losing
her ideal family. She thought that the family might stay
together if she could become thin. Her parents’
inevitable divorce was clearly out of her control;
however, excessive dieting allowed her to become
distracted from her feelings about the divorce and to
hold on to the hope that she could prevent it.
The third challenge is to appreciate
the complexities of the human experience as we allow
life to unfold. The Tao Te Ching offers the
"The universe is sacred.
You cannot improve it.
If you try to change it, you will ruin it.
If you try to hold it, you will lose it."
We are asked to recognize that our
needs and desires may conflict within ourselves and with
the conditions of life. We are asked to consider trying
situations that cause inner turmoil or require sacrifice
as opportunities to cultivate empathy and inner
strength. Painful choices are a chance to uncover
possibilities never before considered. When we discover
our ability to compromise and improvise, and learn to
appreciate situations that have no "good"
options, no easy answers, and no quick fixes, we can
come to the point where we realize that obstacles have a
way of becoming the stepping stones to a dream. For
example, an individual may reluctantly accept a job
transfer to a city but later find her future partner in
that location and fulfill her vision for a family.
The WAY OF DIETING obscures our
recognition of a situation’s complexities and prevents
us from exploring the unfolding of life’s mysteries.
Ingrained diet beliefs simplify the complexities of
eating—and living—and narrow the range of our
experience. Turning to eating rules rather than
soul-searching may help us avoid sacrifice and painful
decisions in the short-term, but it delays our personal
growth in the long-term.
When we are under the influence of
false diet beliefs, we restrict our range of emotional
reactions—to ourselves, others, and life’s
happenings. We avoid the wide range of emotions that
include intense joy and the depth of despair. For
example, living soulfully might require us to grieve the
fact that others are not as we wish they were, but by
dieting we distract ourselves from this disappointment
by focusing on our current body size rather than life’s
With the WAY OF DIETING, we choose to
limit our feelings. We like the feeling of pride when we
step on the scale and see a weight loss, and we are
familiar with the feeling of disappointment when we see
the numbers on the scale rise. Determination to start
over on a diet is not new to us, and there are few, if
any, surprises left. Dieting allows us to forego the
intensity of our natural responses and avoid unknown
emotional reactions. This limited range of experience
may give us a false sense of control over our emotions,
but we have merely lost touch with the depths of our
One of my clients, a ten-year-old
girl, was dealing with some difficult issues regarding
her relationships with her mother, stepmother, father,
siblings, and stepsiblings. One day she came into the
session proudly announcing that she was on a diet
because she wanted to lose weight. Since to me she was
obviously a slender girl, I questioned her about her
decision. She replied, "It’s not that I’m fat.
It is a healthy thing to do and will help me deal with
my problems better." At age ten, she already was
using dieting to provide a false sense of control over
Pam was also a client of mine who
tried to use dieting to resolve a situation that
required the appreciation of the complexities of soulful
living. Pam was a college student who valued her good
relationship with her parents and enjoyed pleasing them.
From the time she first showed interest in medicine as a
small child, Pam’s parents had encouraged her to
become a doctor. Pam had never allowed herself to
explore other career possibilities, and now she was
afraid that if she let herself explore her true
interests, she might discover that she did not want to
be a doctor. She would then have to decide between
disappointing her parents and pursuing a career she did
Pam’s soul tried to send her
messages, asking her to look deeply inside herself. She
found herself putting off her homework. She overslept on
the mornings of her pre-med classes. Nevertheless, she
still got A’s in her subjects. She began getting
headaches and tried to treat them with aspirin and
physiological explanations, again ignoring her soul’s
attempts to express itself. Then she found herself
eating, overeating, and gaining weight. By concentrating
on diet rules telling her to focus on weight loss, she
could ignore her soul’s signals. Within a few hours of
her predetermined food restrictions, however, she found
herself engaging in impulsive and uncontrollable eating
binges, characteristic of unnatural eating. She then
decided she had a serious eating problem and became
further preoccupied with weight loss.
Through dieting, Pam could please her
parents, gain more control, and focus her energy on
losing weight. Her extra time and energy were spent
preparing special meals and snacks, grocery shopping,
calorie counting, and exercising. There was no time for
questioning her career interests. Pam did not allow her
soul to appreciate the struggle of self-exploration.
From the soulful approach, anxiety reflects our inner
struggles. When we start to question aspects of our
lives that might call for a major change in plans, we
experience natural anxiety. Personal growth occurs when
we can embrace the anxiety and are willing to see where
it may lead us.
The Tao of Eating: Feeding Your Soul Through Everyday
Experiences with Food by Linda R. Harper, Ph.D. Copyright ©
1998 by Linda R. Harper. Reprinted by permission of Innisfree Press,
Linda R. Harper, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and workshop leader who has been in private practice in the Chicago area for over eighteen
years. In addition to The Tao of Eating: Feeding Your Soul through Everyday Experiences with Food her newest book,
Give to Your Heart's Content... Without Giving Yourself Away has just been released by Innisfree Press.
Dr. Harper has lead workshops at the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals (IAEDP) national symposium, the
National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) conference, and the Annual Women's Wellness
Workshop in Chicago. She has also lectured at academic and medical institutions and public libraries throughout the Chicago area,
as well as the American University in Paris. Dr. Harper has conducted numerous radio and television interviews, and feature stories
about her first book, The Tao of Eating, have appeared in Fitness, Women's Sports & Fitness, and Natural Health magazines,
and in newspapers across the country. Dr. Harper earned her Ph.D. and M.A. degrees from Kent State University.