I may be the last woman on the planet to read Eat, Pray, Love, but after seeing the author interviewed on the PBS special “This Emotional Life”, I finally broke down and took it out of the library. I’m not sure I qualify as having read the book, having only digested Eat and skimmed Love, but I thought I’d share my reactions from the perspective of someone who wants to help women smokers manage their weight and stave off depression when they quit.
Of course, I knew from the buzz I’d heard that the first third of the book was about an orgy of eating in Italy. What I didn’t realize till I actually started reading was that what it’s really about is eating as self-medication for depression. Over the course of her four-month stay in Rome, Elizabeth Gilbert gained 23 pounds. Fifteen of those pounds, she adds, “I actually needed to gain because I had become so skeletal during the last hard years of divorce and depression.”
Even though Gilbert’s own eating-depression mix doesn’t happen to include smoking, her experiences will hit home for women trying to quit. For example, for many women, pasta and gelato can elevate mood and take the edge of craving, at least temporarily. If you’re a smoker trying to quit, however, the tendency to gain a little weight due to increased fluid volume and metabolic changes can be magnified by excessive eating. And though many women eat to comfort themselves when they feel depressed, a few actually lose their appetite. For those women, not gaining any weight after quitting smoking can be a mixed blessing since it may reflect a depression-induced loss of interest in eating.
That said, the goal is not to be a sad, hungry ex-smoker but a joyous nonsmoker who relishes food and manages her weight. For some, this may mean repairing your relationship with food. It may mean forgiving yourself for the occasional lapse and getting back on track rather than using it as an excuse to say “the heck with it” and giving up altogether. For all, it means finding a balance you can and will sustain not for just a day or a week but over the long haul. It means finding your own best path to life after cigarettes.
Elizabeth Gilbert writes well. Like all gifted writers, she seduces you into her mind set. So by all means enjoy EPL as a fantasy, or as a metaphorical journey of self-discovery. But unless you can find a publisher who will give you a six-figure advance so that you can take a year off to document your travels, and unless you can spend the next four months in an ashram shedding the pounds you gained after tying on the feedbag for the last four months, please don’t take her itinerary as a literal roadmap.
Cynthia S. Pomerleau, Ph.D., is currently research professor emerita in the University of Michigan Department of Psychiatry. From 1985 to 2009 she served as director of the Nicotine Research Laboratory, where much of her research focused on the impact of smoking on women. She is the author of more than a hundred articles and book chapters on smoking and a contributor to the 2001 Surgeon General’s Report on Women and Smoking.