Today I won a staring contest with a pizza.

My wife and son brought home a large, gooey pie from Mama Lucia, my favorite pizza place in town. The pie, still warm, sat on the counter, and, when no one was listening,  it called my name.

“Psst! Hey Phil!” it said. “Come here! Eat me! See how perfectly my cheese and sauce have melded! Look, my crust is floppy yet firm! You must eat me now! You must!”

I have heard this before. Many times. The Newman-O’s call to me from the cupboard, the leftover paella from the fridge. Pancakes and waffles fight over a place on my plate. Vodka aches to mate with tonic for a happy slide down my gullet. Cashews desire me, hot dogs long to wear my ring.

But when the pizza called me, I did not cower in fear. I did not run from the room, as I have so many times before.

I walked up to the pizza and picked it up. I took a deep sniff, my senses reeling from the heady scent of oregano and garlic and tomato and, I think, just a hint of sugar and thyme. I looked deeply into its soft topping, caressed its slightly scratchy crust.

And then I put it down.

It stared at me in disbelief. I stared back. For a long minute, we sat locked in each other’s gaze. I allowed myself to fully appreciate the majesty not only of this slice of pizza but of the idealized concept of Pizza itself, perhaps the perfect food for a boy from the Bronx, raised on pizza and Coke and, well, more pizza. I let the image carry me back to my happy childhood, standing at a metal counter in a small pizza place on Jerome Avenue, feeling again the exquisite sting of that first still-too-hot bite on the roof of my mouth. And then I returned to the present, imagining – just imagining — taking one perfect bite of that one perfect slice before me. I imagined the pizza on my tongue, yielding to my teeth, warming the back of my throat. I took one delighted, sensual, imaginary swallow.

And then, quite satisfied, I walked away.

Recently, “Nutrition Action,” the publication of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, ran a fascinating article on the external cues that make us overeat. It was filled with astounding examples of the ways we are tricked into eating more without realizing it – how the size of the plate or the popcorn bag influences how much we eat, or how many more chicken wings we eat if the bones aren’t allowed to pile up in front of us, or how many more Hersey’s Kisses we’ll consume if the bowl is on our desk instead of six feet away.

The article, focusing on the concept of mindless eating, was written by a professor at Cornell University, based on a series of studies conducted there.  It was brilliant, well-reasoned, fascinating, extremely useful, and – in the end – dead wrong.

Dead wrong, not for its evidence – which was impeccably researched – but for its conclusions. The article concluded that mindless eating cannot be overcome by what we call “mindfulness,” but only by changing those external cues themselves.

The researchers apparently concluded this by telling very smart people that they were eating mindlessly – we know they were very smart, because they attended excellent institutions, almost as excellent, one assumes, as Cornell University – and yet, even though these very smart people had been taught that they were eating mindlessly, they somehow continued to do so.

But those of us who have learned the technique of mindful eating know it has nothing to do with intelligence.  Nor can it be taught in one sesson, no matter how long or boring that session might be. (We cannot blame the Cornell professor for not understanding this. It is a particular weakness of college professors to believe that just because they taught us something, it therefore follows that we learned it. If that were the case, I would know the capital of Uruguay, the name of a triangle with two and not three equal sides, and why you shouldn’t write “irregardless.”)

Irregardless,  there are techniques that can, in fact, change our relationship to food. They do not involve moving the Hersheys six feet away, or buying smaller plates. They are, in fact, quite the opposite. They are techniques I have learned at the weight management clinic I attend in Georgetown. Or, I should say, techniques I re-learned, for I first encountered them as a young man in Ithaca, New York, just down the hill from where the mindless-eating research is being done; and while I did not attend Cornell University, I did first learn those techniques high above Cayuga’s waters. 

And let’s be quite honest. I do, in fact, mean high.


It was about three months ago that my doctor gave me two choices for the coming year. You can lose about forty pounds, he said, or you can have diabetes. Up to you which way you want to go with that.

When I went for my introductory session at the Weight Management Program at George Washington University, I pondered whether the diabetes route might be easier. They proposed to put me on a 700-calorie-a-day diet – the equivalent of the Starbucks’ latte and low-fat blueberry muffin I’d consumed on the drive down to the clinic – and to teach me the techniques of mindfulness. It sounded like hokum, quite frankly. And not very tasty hokum at that.

I should say as an aside that, as the producer of a successful TV cooking show, whose chef runs some of the most fabulous restaurants in the country – most of them here in D.C., including the  acclaimed minibar by Jose Andres, as well as Jaleo, Zaytinya, and Oyamel — I have become somewhat obsessed with food in its infinitely fascinating forms.  I delight in taste and texture and aroma; I get my kicks from bon pain. I have also developed a very healthy diet based on whole grains, vegetables, high-fiber cereals, very little meat, and just one or two Cosmopolitans a day. While I was not actually losing weight, I was not gaining it either, not at a very fast rate, anyway, and there was no way I was going to trade my tapas dinners at Jose’s restaurants – the croquettas! The gambas! The Iberico ham! — for packets of artificially flavored protein-powder meal replacements.

But two things that Doctor Bill Picon said at that first session caught my attention.  One was that 95 percent of people who lose weight gain it back within a year.

This did not sound like good advertising for a program that was gonna cost me a thousand bucks to start off.

But the next thing he said, did. He explained that the reason 95 percent of people who lose weight gain it back is that they’ve been told that they key to weight loss is discipline. And that’s simply not true. We’ve been trained in our eating habits since birth, he said; retraining yourself, like in any other venture, takes practice, patience, and time. But it can be done.

That got my attention.

I signed up for the program, and within two weeks — just from listening to Dr. Picon, before I even started the diet – I’d lost six pounds.

What was happening to me, as I began attending group sessions and learning more about this concept of “mindfulness,” was a strange thing. I started having a very different relationship with a sensation I heretofore called “hungry.” And I started learning that the term I used for that sensation was wrong.

Here’s what happened.

 Late one afternoon, I began what is my usual careful foraging process. The day before, that process had started with just a handful of cashews with my Cosmo before dinner; just a few extra bites of the healthy salmon I’d roasted (I had cleaned my plate; my wife hadn’t; I graciously evened the score); a little ice cream with my son before bed; just a few cookies and another half of a Cosmo while we watched The Big Bang Theory; and a last sweep of the kitchen and fridge (the remaining new potatoes in herbs de provence from dinner, a bit of leftover pad thai from last night’s takeout),  just to tidy up.

But on this day,  as I reached for that first handful of cashews, my wife asked a fascinating question:

“Are you hungry?”

It stopped me in my tracks. For the first time, probably in my life, I stopped to examine the sensation.

I really, really wanted those cashews.

But I really, really wasn’t hungry.

I was something else. I wasn’t sure what it was. It wasn’t pain – not like somebody’d hit me in the knee with a baseball bat or something. It wasn’t anxiety, or fear – not like being on a roller coaster, or taking a test, or getting naked in front of strangers. What was it? It was a tingling, I guess. It existed on the sides of my throat, and strangely near my wrists, but not in my belly. It was a taste in my mouth; not overly unpleasant, certainly, but one I realized that spent my days constantly banishing.

And then it hit me.

Whatever this sensation was – it had, to this moment, ruled my life. Every waking, breathing moment.

And it didn’t have to.


Over the next few weeks, as I started on the low-calorie diet and the pounds started coming off, I faced this sensation maybe a dozen, maybe a hundred times a day. I stayed with the plan: a daily diet of two meal replacement bars, one protein shake, one powdered soup, two low-fat yogurts, and a bullion cube for dessert. Oddly, I wasn’t hungry; not for a moment.

But the sensation was relentless.  The desire to eat something I knew was in the house – a cookie, a pancake, cereal, milk, fish, meat, olives, peppers, tuna, a banana; cake, pizza, chicken nuggets, tofu nuggets, mac and cheese, ham and cheese, carrot sticks, watermelon, pie. Each of these crossed my path as my family went about their day and as I moved about the kitchen. And each of them called to me.

For most, I was able to ignore them, propelled by the great fear of my doctor’s proclamation.

For others, the most enticing ones, I stopped. I felt the feeling of wanting. I imagined how wonderful the consuming would be. I was learning to experience the feeling, not with desperation, but with detatchment.  It was a sensation; nothing more, nothing less. It came, and I experienced it, and I watched it float away.

This is what they teach you when you learn to meditate – to let the distracting thoughts float by, without judgement.

This is also what we did when we took LSD.

I know everyone thinks we did acid back in the day to make the music sound better. And it did. But it also taught us something: it taught us about living in the moment. When you drop acid, you have no choice but to live in the moment: the moment is so overwhelming, what with the walls moving and the colors pulsating and the hallucinations popping up and all, it kind of takes your attention. The concept of “later” is too complicated to fathom.

And this, to be honest, is what I brought to the table, quite literally, as I started the diet. A mixture of meditation-taught and acid-fueled memory of how to, as we used to say, Be Here Now.

It is a powerful technique.

And, despite what the doctor at Cornell insists – it works. Even if you never did acid. It’s actually quite simple.

Here’s how it’s done. Go get the food you want to eat most, right now, in this very moment. No really, go get it. I’ll wait.

OK, is it in front of you? Good.

First, close your eyes and think about the bully on the playground, telling you to give him your money. (Um, don’t forget to open your eyes or you can’t keep reading. You’re back? Good. Hi). Now, you have two choices with the bully– give him the money or run away. If you don’t, he will punch you in the nose.

OK, now stand facing the dream bite in front of you. It’s like that bully, isn’t it? It’s telling you to take a bite, and all your life, you’ve had two choices – eat it, or run away.

Now, do neither. Dare the food to punch you in the nose. Most likely it will not. Now you have the upper hand.

Take a moment to relax. Breathe in, deeply, through your nose, making sure to notice the lovely scent of the food in front of you. Breathe out, slowly, through the mouth.


Think of the feeling of desire you have. Think of where it exists in your body. Give it a name. It’s not “hungry,” is it? I call mine “the wanting.” I call it “this is how you get healthy.” I call it “not getting diabetes.” I call it “living to see my son grow up and have children.”

Or, for this moment, let’s just call the feeling “Fred.”

When you don’t run from it, and don’t give in to it, Fred, it turns out, is really not so bad. Stay with the feeling for a while. Don’t try to ignore it. Stay right in this moment. Think of how lovely it would be to eat that bite. Think of how lovely it would be not to eat that bite.

Think of how each of those sensations – the eating and the not-eating – are really the same. No better, no worse. Just different.

At some point, you’ll get bored, and walk away. Staring at pie is no way for a grownup to spend a lot of time. Even if it’s really good pie.


As odd as this might sound, there’s science to back me up. A recent Carnegie Mellon study showed that when you repeatedly imagine eating a certain food, your craving for that food is reduced.

My own study of my own self bears this out as well. I’m six weeks into the diet, and have lost thirty of the forty pounds my doctor told me to lose. I’ve survived the James Beard awards, where dozens of top chefs lay out bites of their best dishes for free. I’ve survived Passover at my cousin Debbie’s house, with a brisket that stuck out a foot, tripped me, and force-fed itself to me while I was being held down by the matzoh balls.  I’ve survived a dinner party at my own house where I did the cooking but not the tasting.

I’ve survived the return, at my neighborhood bakery, of the organic homemade Twinkie.

I’ve survived the slow re-introduction of real food into my diet. Like a junkie taking day trips away from the rehab clinic, I walk trepidatiously, carefully, and return to rehab, a little shaken, but a little more confident each day. I’ve survived these forays quite well.

And with any luck, I’ll survive my diabetes scare, too.

But I’m trying not to think about that. I’m trying to just be in this moment. In this moment there is some leftover Peruvian chicken warming on the stove for my wife’s lunch. It is calling to me. I think I will go down and visit with it for awhile.

It will be a delightful, filling, imaginary lunch.

I can’t wait. Come join me.

For dessert, there’s pie. Not that we’ll eat it or anything. But trust me.

This will be the best pie you never ate.



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