Content warnings: sexual abuse, eating disorders, loss during pregnancy
I wanted to create a witty or poignant title for this post, but nothing I came up with seemed adequate. So here we have it: Food.
For many of us, our relationships with food are complicated. From birth what we put in our mouth is mired in controversy; from tit or teat to purées, lumps or finger foods. Later on it’s McDonalds chicken nuggets or handmade goujons; veggie, vegan or carnivore; Tesco’s Finest or Aldi’s basics. There isn’t a single aspect of eating that isn’t debated, discussed and derided by somebody, and this is before we even get close to our personal choices of how much, where, when and why we eat.
I have a complicated history with food. Despite maintaining a healthy weight these days I have:
- restricted, binged and purged
- comfort eaten through multipacks of crisps and biscuits
- been so hungry I’ve eaten dog food
- been so busy/tired/stressed I’ve forgotten to eat and put myself in hospital
& that’s just a start.
I come from a working class family, brought up on a council estate. For a period of time after my parents split, we lived off tinned beans for virtually every meal. If money was “good”, it’d be tinned beans with those little sausages in. If we were really flush, it was tinned macaroni cheese as a treat. Sometimes tinned potatoes, too. I’d steal fruit from the co-op and sweets from the local shop and blag seconds from the dinner ladies at school to fill the gaps.
When I was a little older and family stuff had settled down, food was more readily available (although mostly deep fried) but I’d already learned to binge on what I could lay my hands on. I started to gain weight, but I was told it would make me fat, and if I got fat nobody would like me.
Before the family breakdown, during the period of food poverty and in the years that followed I was sexually abused by a family member. It wasn’t long before I came to the conclusion that if people were right, that if nobody would like me if I “got fat”… if nobody liked me the abuse would stop! I carried on eating.
For a brief period as a teenager I thought maybe I’d fit in better if I was skinny. I weighed up the pros and cons: skinny and abuse at home vs fat and abuse at school. Peer pressure is an incredible thing. Then a bulimic friend told me that if I vomited directly after a meal I’d still feel full but I’d be skinny. I tried that for a while, until I was caught by a science technician with my fingers down my throat over a school sink. I went back to eating.
The sexual abuse stopped at 14 but the damage had already been done. Binge when food was available, eat my fears and my feelings, hide it all.
When I was 13-14 I started drinking and social smoking. My weight continued to balloon. My eldest brother died, I ate my feelings. I stopped smoking for the most part around the age of 17-18, swapping cigarettes for chocolate. My weight went up again. I continued to eat.
When I was in my early twenties, I got pregnant (with twins) for the first time. It wasn’t an intentional pregnancy, and I only realised because I woke vomiting one morning with no other symptoms of illness. I spent over two weeks gagging and vomiting at every smell and the mere thought of food, thanks to Hyperemesis Gravidarum. I lost weight and the pregnancy; I had a missed miscarriage at 8 weeks. I over-ate to recover the weight loss and to soothe my feelings: both from the shock of the loss and the hospital stay, and because of the emotional abuse I endured in the revelation of my pregnancy. My weight went up again.
It wasn’t long before I was pregnant again. At 6 weeks in I predictably started vomiting again. I continued to vomit for the entire duration of my pregnancy, emptying my stomach until I was gagging on fumes from bile. I would pick at plain salty foods like nuts and crisps to try and keep by energy up, but most of it was brought back up again. By the end of the pregnancy I had dropped from a UK size 18 to a UK size 12. I weighed less at 9 months pregnant than I did pre-pregnancy. I put on my normal jeans the day I gave birth and they fell to my ankles. Weight loss aside, I was terrified to eat. Food made me sick, it was bad. It took weeks to re-learn to eat the range of foods and flavours I’d previously been accustomed to. Eventually, I put most of the weight back on, until my next pregnancy brought it all off again.
By this point I was in my late twenties, having experienced weight gain, dramatic weight loss, had a brush with an eating disorder via friends and comfort ate my way through hundreds of thousands of calories. By some miracle extreme diets never appealed to me, otherwise I’m sure I’d have tried a few of those too. My relationship with food was all over the place. I had no idea what I was consuming or what I needed to consume. I constantly craved sweet things, partly out of boredom but mostly out of habit. It would be another few years before I realised that abuse (in its many forms) doesn’t discriminate on the basis of weight. I was inappropriately touched at my fattest just as often as I was inappropriately touched at my smallest.
But… here I am, age 32, and finally at a healthy weight that I am easily maintaining. Having got “here”, I have been told:
- that it’s easy for me, because I’m naturally skinny
- that it’s all well and good me recommending calorie counting, I have no idea what it’s like to be emotionally invested in food
- that I don’t know what it’s like to be fat
- that I can’t identify with someone who comfort eats
- that I am obsessed with food
- that I’ve sold myself out
& so on.
For the first time in my life I feel in control of my diet and my weight. It’s not because I’m naturally skinny, or because I’m obsessed. I haven’t sold myself out (although if someone’s offering to give me money for being this weight, please get in touch) and I know all to well what it feels like to be emotionally invested in food: losing weight hasn’t changed the pleasure or comfort I get from eating chocolate or crisps and junk food. So how am I doing it?
I taught myself what hunger feels like
I realised a few years ago that I didn’t really know what hunger felt like. As soon as I had a little growl in my belly, I’d eat. But your brain is very good at making a craving feel like a belly growl, so I was eating when I got the slightest bit bored or annoyed or tired or hormonal or whatever excuse my brain came up with for FOOD NOW PLEASE.
True hunger comes on slowly. It can be distracted by a glass of water, or by occupying yourself. It will gradually increase in intensity over time. Cravings are immediate. They come on fast, they aren’t satisfied by boring water, and it’s harder to take your mind off them. To teach myself the difference I deliberately went as long as I could between foods for a few days so that I could experience true hunger. Once I’d experienced hunger, I waited a bit longer before eating so that I could be sure I genuinely required food, and didn’t just want to fulfil a craving.
By teaching myself to recognise true hunger, I was able to decide between a meal to satiate my stomach, or a little bite of something I craved to satiate my brain. This meant I wasn’t binging to fulfil both and consuming more than I needed off the back of a want of a biscuit.
I stopped eating sooner
As well as eating at the slightest hint from my stomach, once I started eating I would continue until I could physically feel fullness in my stomach. A throwback to the binging days, to me feeling fullness was a job well done. But fullness isn’t necessary to satisfy your calorific (or, indeed, emotional) needs. By this point you’ve already overeaten.
I started leaving a mouthful on my plate, and then two, or three. I trained myself out of the childhood habit of clearing my plate (“think of the starving children in Africa!”) and at the same time learned to become satisfied without uncomfortably bulging out of my trousers.
I educated myself about food as fuel
More recently I educated myself about food as a fuel. I read and I read. Why we need carbs, what our body does with protein, what vitamin does this, that and the other. By teaching myself why we need certain things in our diet, I was able to make more sensible, more LOGICAL decisions over what to feed myself. Knowing I need X grams of protein a day to achieve Y goal means I can prioritise protein over snacks and sugar, or carbs to re-fuel my tired muscles.
I also educated myself on food myths like “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” (it isn’t, this is a marketing slogan designed to get people to buy more breakfast cereal) and “carbs after 6pm will make you fat” (it won’t, a calorific surplus will make you fat). I researched each and every fad diet, fat burner and slimming club (they’re all unnecessary).
I never say no
Contrary to what you may think, I never say no to things that I want to consume (with the exception of alcohol these days, but that’s another story for another day). If I want cake, I eat the frickin’ cake. But I eat one small piece of cake (usually). I do not cook and eat an entire cake. I do not binge eat buttercream or bake for “reasons” and then “test” it all.
I eat chocolate if the mood arises and I am not afraid of carbs or fat or whatever the next big food enemy is. Moderation is hugely important for a lot of people where saying no would just lead to feelings of deprivation, which leads to guilty consumption, feelings of failure and a vicious cycle of comfort eating.
I’m not going to put on 10lbs eating a slice of cake, but I also know that I can’t eat a slice of cake every day or I will gain weight, so choice becomes important. When I’m empowered to make a choice between reward now or at a later date, I tend to make decisions which are better for me in both the short and long term. (But also I ate 800 calories worth of chocolate today, because I wanted to.)
I realised that nothing is forever
I’ve been fat, and thinner, and I’ve gone back and forth from one to the other: neither is forever. I am in full control over whether I gain or lose weight.
I am in control.
Lead photo by Gor Davtyan