Written for Bitten Magazine
Having a healthy, grown up relationship with the stuff we consume means separating the facts from the feelings.
I’m a psychotherapist and a lover of food. I’m passionate about eating and want each experience of it to be as close to perfect as it can be. I make the effort. You won’t catch me making do with a grab-bag for lunch-on-the-go or beans on toast for dinner and I never skip breakfast. I’m not particularly skilled or adventurous but I cook everything from scratch as well as I can and never serve hot food on a cold plate. I eat quickly and people like to comment ‘No one’s going to take it away.’ And I think how do you know? My partner says I treat every meal as if it was my first and my last and she’s right. And there’s a reason for it.
“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well if one has not dined well” – Virginia Woolf
I find the relationships people have with food fascinating and revealing. We eat the way we live, and live the way we love. It‘s easier for most clients to open up about their eating habits than their emotions; it feels safer, less exposing but in my experience, one is usually a clear reflection of the other. Food is a fundamental physiological need along with air, warmth, shelter, sex and sleep. If it is compromised in childhood, it can be difficult to take survival for granted no matter how full the larder is. Our relationship with food is forged in the fires of childhood alongside love and close intimacy.
I grew up in a single parent family living in relative poverty. As the eldest (of five), it was my job to feed us while our mother was at work. This was no mean feat. Cue the violins. Let’s just say that the 12 loaves/5 fish miracle looks like a parlour trick next to what I can do with three pieces of stale bread, half a tin of spaghetti hoops and a Weetabix. As a result, I am precious about food and eating. I have a pathological fear of sharing (reach your hand towards my plate and you might find my fork in the back of it), of not having enough and of having to compromise on what I want.
Our back-stories make perfect sense of our attitudes to food and the fear, confusion or tension that sometimes accompanies it. Not understanding why we eat in the way we do can have disastrous consequences on the way we feel about ourselves: our health, weight, fitness and self-esteem. For those of us fortunate enough to be living in the land of plenty, food is not just food; it’s the key to mastering our own lives.
In my mid thirties I began to put on weight. Not in the evenly spread way I had done in the past but specifically around my waist and abdomen. I’d also developed a painful bloating under my ribs often accompanied by constipation and wind trapped so painfully I once called NHS Direct because I thought I was having a heart attack. A friend suggested food intolerance might be to blame – why didn’t I try cutting out wheat, sugar and dairy to see if I felt better? I couldn’t have been more appalled if she’d suggested I sacrifice my first-born. Do – what? I was flabbergasted, horrified, disbelieving. What would be the point of eating at all? My reaction was violent and emotional; I felt unreasonably terrified. It’s not like I was going to starve to death but I was going to be deprived and that was close enough.
If my body hadn’t rejected wheat so abjectly, I might never have changed the way I ate because wanting to be thinner doesn’t motivate anyone to lose weight. So what will motivate us to get control over the way we eat, our weight, body shape and self-esteem? The answer sounds simple but is actually very complex. The only thing that really motivates us to do anything beyond survival is the enduring love for ourselves.
And there’s the rub. How can we love ourselves when we’re overweight, when we’ve failed over and over in our diet and exercise resolutions in a society that only seems to value the skinny? We can’t. Instead, we struggle with our weight as if it was something we could wrestle into submission. We battle our bulge as if we were at war with our bodies. We try to outsmart it by pitting our brainpower against our willpower and sometimes we make a little headway – but it’s usually temporary and the yoyo motion of our losses and gains send our mood and blood sugar spiraling up and down repeatedly.
All the information around us tells us it’s our own fault; you are what you eat. It’s exhausting and unrewarding, can anyone really blame us for cracking open the biscuits and wracking up the hot buttered toast?
We all use food to manage our feelings to some degree. Longing is a deep yearning we have for love,intimacy, belonging and validation. It’s painful to feel and difficult to bear so we use what we can to distract ourselves; eating is the most accessible distraction and sugar is the fastest fix. Some of us may have been meeting our emotional needs with sugar for so long, we can no longer tell the difference between human longing and a sugar craving. MRI scans have been used to test the theory that sugar triggers the release of feel-good neurochemicals in the same area of the brain as cocaine or heroin and like most short term chemical fixes it is addictive. It’s even suggested that we develop a tolerance to it and that long-term sugar use can actually limit our ability to perceive pleasure in anything else.
All the studies I’ve read agree: sugar is a mind and mood-altering chemical that is the most likely culprit for modern obesity. Not having a sweet tooth doesn’t keep you safe either; spuds (including sweet potatoes), bread, pasta and pastry are said to convert into sugar during the digestion process and our brains respond to it similarly.
Loving food so it loves us back means separating the facts from our feelings and then facing up to each of them, one at a time.
Act as if (fake it to make it)
I’ve already said the food/feeling cycle can only be broken by a commitment to enduring self-love but that’s a lifelong goal. If you’re hoping to lose a bit of weight and feel better about yourself in time for that beach holiday, you may need to take a shortcut. Focusing on your relationship with food and feelings will start the ball rolling but you can give it a push by imagining what it would be like to eat, shop and cook from a position of self-love. If it helps, think of yourself as a child with specific dietary needs, how would you help make food fun despite the restrictions? Loving yourself means thinking ahead, preparing and caring – whether you feel like it or not.
Knowledge is power
I finally stopped smoking when I learned about how cigarette advertising used negative reinforcement to keep us addicted – despite knowing it was killing us. I used my outrage to fuel my motivation and ended a thirty year relationship with fags – surprisingly easily. My research into sugar triggered a similar anger and for the most part, I manage to keep the lid on sweetness in all its forms (refined, artificial and fruity). I don’t want to be a victim of a greedy global marketing campaign that cares so little about me that it’s happy for me to decrease the quality of my life to increase its wealth (in my opinion). If modern sugar consumption is contrary to our health, then artificial sweetener is a weapon of mass destruction and I’m not the only one who thinks so. Research it for yourself. Outrage and a sense of injustice are far more effective motivational tools than getting into your skinny jeans. Check out Sugar:The Bitter Truth and make up your own mind.
Keep it real
The diet and ‘healthy eating’ industry may have been able to clone foods in factories to look just like lower calorie versions of the real thing, they may even fool our taste buds but our stomachs aren’t having any of it. A nutritionist explained to me in simple terms that when our bodies don’t recognize something we’ve ingested, it treats it as a (possibly) toxic imposter, wraps it in a globule of fat and stores it somewhere fleshy for safekeeping rather than allow it to pass through our gut. Margarine is a classic example. The adverts said it was better for us and we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Psychotherapist and nutrition guru Marisa Peer put a carton of it uncovered outdoors for a decade. The weather didn’t touch it, nor did any animals, birds or insects. It didn’t even degrade; how are we supposed to dispose of it? Check out her fascinating website:
As I understand it, the wheat of today is not the wheat our ancestors or even our great grandparents ate. In the 1960’s, a scientist named Norman Borlaug developed a strain of wheat that was more durable and economically sustainable than the grains of yesteryear. It’s called dwarf wheat and is now our main source of flour (according to Wikipedia). It grows faster and is much shorter than traditional strains, has more gluten proteins and fewer nutrients. Add this to new developments in bread making (read: The Chorleywood process) and what you get is basically savoury cake – at best, bloating and a badly behaved bowl at worst. Not all grains are equal. Assuming you’re not a celiac, try bread made with spelt flour, which belongs to an ancient family of wheat and doesn’t seem to cause the same problems. Avoid foods marketed as ‘gluten free’; they’re full of sugar and starch, which unless you’re allergic, is no better than regular bread but twice as expensive.
Love your food and it will love you back
Guilty pleasure is an oxymoron. Guilt is an anxious response to having broken a rule and enjoyed something we really wanted to do. The dieter’s response to guilt is punishment. We beat ourselves up silently, labelling ourselves weak-willed. Studies show we behave according to what we believe. If you think of yourself as a loser – your motivation will flounder. Consider yourself a person who has the power to choose how and when to apply ‘the rules’ (they’re your rules anyway) and regret nothing.
Rachel Morris is a psychotherapist, writer and broadcaster based in Manchester. She is a regular behavioural expert on Big Brother spin off show, BB’s Bit on the Side and is the sex therapist and contributing editor for Cosmopolitan magazine. She’s a regular contributor to the national press, television and radio and is the author of ‘The Single Parents’ Handbook’.