I don’t think I really thought very deeply about food - apart from the need to eat it - until I was in my very late teens.
The first time I consciously changed the way I ate was when I was travelling, aged 19. I stumbled across a book on the Hay Diet at the house I was staying in. Having never previously considered that I could change the way I felt and looked by eating differently, I devoured that book with a fascination matched only by a sneak preview of the latest Marian Keyes. My focus switched to healthier foods and habits with an enthusiasm I'm not sure I could muster now. I lost a significant amount of weight with barely any awareness at all. In retrospect, this required huge amounts of discipline - I was selling crap toys to businesses door to door in the heat of the Australian sun, often with a hangover, and I wasn't 'allowed' to ingest anything but fruit juice until noon! But I simply got on and did it. Looking back, I don’t know how I didn’t notice the changes in my body because I was actually underweight.
My second ‘food episode’ was the opposite - I gained weight, again while away from home. I was very unhappy and extremely homesick. Living in Dublin at the time, I completely succumbed to batch loaves (I think I was addicted), chocolate Kimberleys and fry ups. It was a gradual process, and the only way I realised that my body had changed was through comments such as "you look well” and “you’re obviously being well looked after…” which were shorthand for “wow, you’re now huge”. I wonder what my family must have thought when I went home every six weeks or so having ballooned by another half a stone. It puzzles me how I didn't feel any different, when on undressing each night, my skin was still wearing the seams of my too tight clothing. But I guess few - if any - people will highlight your weight gain unless you're an athlete, pop star or model.
My weight readjusted itself when I returned home, moved into my own flat and started running every night after work. Again, despite the amount of discipline this required, I didn't overthink it, I just did it. When I exercise now, I deliberate for weeks over what path I should take with a need to define myself by my chosen activity: "Am I a gym member or a runner...? Do work out at home or join a club...?" Who cares?! Surely it doesn't matter as long as I'm not sat on my sofa?!
I kept the exercise up intermittently and my weight more or less stabilised into early married life. But a couple of years later, I started realising that my habits had slipped and I probably wasn't particularly healthy, so I decided to join a very famous slimming club.
My first visit didn't disappoint on the cliche scale; merchandise everywhere, stamps and stars in books and women applauding with wild abandon for half-pound losses probably brought about by pre-weigh in bowel movements. But I took what I saw on the scales seriously, immediately embarking on the plan with vigour. Elated, I reached my goal weight and got lots of lovely stickers.
Having my son left me extremely slim (thank you Mum for the gift of genetics). Carelessly squandering this privilege, I started overeating again, almost consciously aware that I was seeing 'what I could get away with' before gaining weight again. And eventually I did. That’s when I first became consciously aware of my inner saboteur, which is something I still experience now in my mid-forties. For some reason I regularly ‘spoil’ healthy habits for myself, or feel I can’t start ‘being good again’ until I'm unhappy with the way I look, rather than just maintaining to avoid having to summon the monumental effort it takes to diet in the first place. I'd dearly love to crack the code that underpins this behaviour.
Eventually my approach to food became a grotesque caricature of itself.
Still a member of my club, my approach to food gradually became a grotesque caricature of itself. I was officially sucked into the world of 'having a good day' (being ‘on plan’) or ‘having a bad day’ (being 'off plan'), with no in between. I'd binge on a weekly ‘treat’, usually a dustbin lid-sized pizza after weigh in, and I was completely dictated to by the scales. Every pound I lost, then gained, was a pound less in my bank account. I must have spent hundreds of pounds to gain and lose hundreds of pounds in a continuous, pointless cycle! And I was no closer to solving the underlying issues that had caused me to gain it in the first place.
I left and rejoined the club several times before eventually admitting defeat and deciding to ‘just be good.’ The result of that was becoming more overweight than ever.
In the end, I gave up. No more clubs.
Eventually, I joined a rival slimming club, which basically works on the principle of calories equating to points. When your points run out, you can’t eat anything else. And that's seven days a week. I found the format more enjoyable and got stuck in, ending up helping to run my local meeting because I loved and respected the club leader and enjoyed seeing my fellow members. As well as the social element, one of the good things about these clubs is that they encourage you to cook and be creative. I got really disciplined about planning ahead, enjoyed trying new recipes and being more organised. This led to me eventually - and disbelievingly - reaching a size 12. But I was always going to fall off the wagon. When you define yourself by your problems with food and flick the ‘off’ switch, you can’t flick it back on again without a complex battle between the angel/devil caricatures now firmly established in your psyche. These plans are not sustainable for that reason: the constant battle to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ plays havoc with your physical and mental metabolism.
In the end, I gave up. No more clubs. I told myself that if I made an extra effort with my appearance I could hide the weight gain. After all, I was tall so I could hide it (eye roll). Maybe I just wasn't meant to be one of those people who was lucky enough to like the way I looked. I just felt that nothing should be that hard - life was hard enough as it was.
From that point on, my weight continued to increase.
Some people are slim and they feel fat. I can be overweight and genuinely think I’m slim. So it can sometimes take a while for what I see in the mirror to catch up with the reality. But back then, it wasn't just about my weight - it was about my spirit. My light had gone out. And when I truly saw myself in the mirror, I just didn’t have the energy to face up to it.
You can read more about my personal struggles in my blog Consuming my truth, but the key to finally feeling strong enough to think about my health in a calmer, more rational way did not lie in a church hall on a Thursday night - it involved creating a mindset which enabled me to feel worthy of a healthy body in the first place. Once I did that, I was able to tackle the physical stuff. After a tumultuous period of huge change, I felt brave enough to join a gym, and it switched something in me. Giving my identify and self-worth a much-needed positive jolt opened many more doors. The next development was adopting a new way of eating - the *5:2 diet. Although there's a depressingly familiar marketing creep around intermittent fasting now, it's actually very simple, free and doesn't involve being weighed like a cow at a country fair. You limit yourself to 500 calories two days a week, or 600 for men. That's it. I never thought that someone so wrapped up in food would cope with this way of eating, but it's the only thing that works for me. I've heard many well-meaning objections to the principal of intermittent fasting, but once I've shown people a photo of how I used to look, they tend to nod in understanding and tiptoe away backwards. Carefully studying the book reassured me that it's actually underpinned by sound scientific evidence.
I continued working hard at the gym and sticking religiously to the 5:2. I didn’t really feel any lighter and I didn’t get weighed, but the comments were telling me otherwise. I slowly began to enjoy the fruits of my labour, feeling attractive for the first time in so long. It was ok to be confident in myself and ok to really like myself and how I looked. It finally clicked.
After that initial change, it’s all a bit of a blur, but I remember having to buy new clothes because I finally realised - after weeks and weeks - that my old ones were literally falling off.
It's been five years since I very tentatively started this way of life and it's ended up being pretty simple really:
- I stick to 500 calories two days a week
- If I'm mindful of what I eat on three of the five remaining days, I'll probably lose weight
- I exercise twice a week (three times if I'm feeling particularly committed)
- I try to avoid bread and cereal through the week as for me, they're the food equivalent of crack
Weekends rarely count. I eat out and enjoy a glass (bottle) of pinot grigio or malbec if I fancy one. And I still overeat (I have a terrible weakness for biscuits), but I find this way of eating so easy to compartmentalise that I get back on track both physically and psychologically over the two 500 calorie days.
I still have hang ups. I always will, but overall, I’ve found a formula that works and is something I know I’ll stick with and prioritise. I'm not a sleek size 12 and I doubt I ever will be, but I feel and look infinitely more healthy than I did for years and the difference is that a little fluctuation in my weight doesn't send me spiralling. As long as I stay calm and continue with my routine, I’ll be just fine.
Anything to avoid going back to that circle.
Getting to the bottom of why we sabotage ourselves with our physical health is so complex and can be really frustrating. If you have any insights on your own struggles, or want to share your successes, please comment below!
*There are some situations where embarking on a fasting-oriented diet is ill-advised. Please do your research (links to website above) and speak to your doctor if you have any concerns.