Food: My most complicated relationship

“I can’t stop eating!”

“I’ll eat as much as I want!”

“Don’t call me fat!”

“Too thin for TV!”

“Nicole, anorexic again!”

“Kim’s 65lb weight gain!”

These are real headlines from recent issues of celebrity and lifestyle magazines. Confusing isn’t it? We’re bombarded with conflicting messages and images about the ‘perfect body’ from all media and it’s made us neurotic about food. Mums are given a particularly rough ride – how quickly can we lose the baby weight?

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Our relationship with food is a complicated one, read my story here.

My weight rarely changed in my teens and early twenties. If I felt a bit chunky around the waist I’d just skip a few meals and I’d be back to ‘normal’.

I travelled around Africa in my gap year before University and, due to a diet consisting almost exclusively of green peppers, onions and dodgy African beer, I was just over 6st (39kg) when I returned home. I remember going to meet a friend shortly after, dressed in jeans and a leotard (well it was the early 90s!) that fit me when I was 12. And I looked like a child.

Very slowly, over the course of 2 decades, the weight has crept up and the inches have increased. This is mostly down to a sedentary lifestyle, spending 20 years sitting in front of a computer and travelling to work by train, followed by a self-employed lifestyle of sitting in front of a computer and travelling to see clients by car. I run occasionally, but only in warm weather.

Earlier this year, I was complaining about my muffin top to a friend who replied: “but you’ve just had kids. That weight will come off, give it time.”

My kids are 6 and 8!

My food regime consisted of a healthy diet during the week, getting my five a day, not overeating or snacking, followed by massive ‘sod it!’ moments at the weekend where I’d eat dessert, even if I was full and constantly graze on unhealthy food. I also had a problem with hoovering up the kids’ leftovers, which would leave me feeling disgusted with myself. Cold baked beans and half mauled fishfingers anyone?

I was brought up to finish everything on my plate – a hangover from my parents’ experience of post war food shortages and rationing perhaps, the requirement to be grateful for what you’re given and not knowing when you’ll get your next decent meal. So I diligently finished every meal whether I was full or not, and whether it was mine or not! At University I shared a flat with a friend who had a policy of always leaving a little food on her plate. I thought that was weird. Sometimes I’d finish off that last bit of food for her.

So I passed this wisdom onto my kids. They knew there was an expectation to eat everything on their plates and if they did they’d be rewarded with a dessert or a treat. They always miraculously had room for dessert, even if they claimed to be too full to eat their main course – must be that second stomach.

It wasn’t until I was describing our mealtime regime to a friend, who has teenage girls going through eating issues of their own, that I realised how crazy that was. I was rewarding my kids for overeating by giving them a portion of unhealthy food.

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I do believe that diets are a huge waste of time and mental energy. They may work for a short time, while the dieter is really in the zone, motivated to try something new and being encouraged by that weekly class, recipe book or audio. But unless we can change our attitude to food, the weight will slowly creep back on.

I have never dieted and this is partly down to stubbornness. Why should I have to conform to the perfect body shape and why does it matter how much I weigh? As long as I’m healthy, right? I want a mentally and physically healthy relationship with food, one where I enjoy every mouthful, feel no guilt and am nourished and energised by it. I want to stop those self-sabotaging ‘sod it!’ moments.

So the discovery of the ‘Change Your Mind’ course, run by Helen Whittaker from Turn That Leaf, was a revelation.

Here was a coach who wasn’t going to tell me what to eat or how much to exercise but was going to help me identify and work through with my issues with food.

Helen supported me through six weekly sessions – all done online and together we tackled my bad eating habits by looking at my emotional state.

During the first couple of weeks I wrote down how I felt before, during and after each meal and snack.

This gave me one of those Eureka! moments. It suddenly occurred to me that those days when I was eating unhealthily or finishing off the kids’ tea, I was snappy, unhappy and shouty. My boys weren’t being unusually annoying. It was me, not them.

So once we’d identified some of my psychological issues and their effects, Helen gave me mental exercises to do over the next couple of weeks. These included being more mindful about when, what and how much I was eating, using daily positive affirmations about food, dealing with my critical inner voice and visualising how great I will feel once I achieve my goals. These are all said and pictured in the present tense to persuade the mind that they’re real.

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Helen was available whenever I needed her and I’d report back at the end of each week. She’d then give me positive and practical steps to take. She stays in touch for six months to keep clients on the right track. This isn’t about dieting, but about changing your mind about food, permanently.

So what’s changed?

Well I’ve lost about 9lb (4kg) and it seems to be staying off. This has taken minimal effort and no sacrifice. I give myself slightly smaller portions, make an effort to leave a little on my plate and I haven’t eaten my kids’ cold baked beans for about four weeks now.

The guilt has gone. I’m healthy during the week and I’m happy eating richer, more calorific food at the weekend if I fancy it – although lately I’ve chosen healthier meals in restaurants as I think my palette has changed too.

If the kids don’t finish their food, I don’t fret about it. They’ve stopped asking if they can have a treat if they eat all of their main course. Occasionally I’ll give them a treat because they’ve deserved it in other ways. I’m determined that they will have a healthy relationship with food, eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re satisfied.

But more importantly, my mood has changed. I’ve learnt a lot about how my eating habits affect my emotional wellbeing. I’m not so snappy, I’m kinder to my children – and believe me it’s not because the kids’ behaviour has improved, they’re still finding more inventive ways to hurt each other.

Don’t diet, change your mind! Life’s too short to worry about cake.

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Click here to visit Helen’s website.