Dieting – when it’s all inside your head

With all these toned athletes on display, I’m sure many people are resolving – yet again – to lose a few extra pounds. I began to pile mine on after having two children, followed by a period of ill-health and three operations, and before I knew it I was a size 20 bordering on 22. Not good, particularly in view of my age (53) and family history of diabetes.

Macaroni cheese with leek & bacon
Macaroni cheese with leek & bacon (Photo credit: Great British Chefs)

I tried Diet Chef and it certainly delivered, for two weeks, but I felt uncomfortable about living on a diet of 80% processed food, no matter how impeccable its credentials, and it really is true that within a few days everything tastes the same. I could never face the ritual weekly humiliation of Weight Watchers, though others swear by it. My downfall was always the chocolate-dominated snacking of the late afternoons.

I was mostly pretty good about exercise, but the main purpose it served was making me feel marginally less guilty about having a BMI of 31. Something had to change, but what seemed to be holding me back wasn’t so much greed as fear.

I mention this because my own belief is that there’s no miracle cure for weight issues, but clearly there are an awful lot of miserable overweight people out there who would give anything to eat more healthily and stick to it. Like depression, which it often accompanies or resembles, in many cases of obesity an appeal to willpower is not enough.

For me, the key has been figuring out why I overeat. I think (fingers crossed) I’ve managed to do this without the help of a counsellor, though that might be worthwhile for  some people. The breakthrough came when I realised how anxious I was about food – getting enough, getting it right, eating as perfectly as possible. Every meal had to be Heston Blumenthal as far as quality went, and River Cottage-standard ethical. Now, I’m not saying these ideals aren’t good – perhaps the second rather more than the first. I’ve got very strong views about food, where it should come from, how it should be cooked and served. But that didn’t stop me breaking out into regular fish-and-chip and sticky-toffee-pudding binges.

One weekend we stayed in a very posh guest house in Sussex – the kind of place where people go to stay when they do Glyndebourne, darling. I was in heaven – for me it was the epitome of the South of England good life. I came down to breakfast and was met with a breathtaking array of fruit, yoghurts, artisan breads – you name it, they had it, all exquisitely served.

I doubled up with IBS, left my smoked salmon and scrambled eggs half-finished and spent the next half-hour in the bathroom.

It didn’t stop there. We were going to a family picnic, as we do once a year. On the way, since my daughter had never visited the Royal Pavilion, we decided to stop off in Brighton. I knew this would be a wonderful place to stock up on everything gourmet and organic, so I declined the tourist option and headed for the Lanes. The next thing I knew, I was suffering from a full-blown panic attack, and all I cared about was finding coffee and somewhere with a loo.

Eventually I pulled myself together and we ended up having a lovely time, as usual. But I felt it was time to address what seemed to be a growing problem – that I could never find food perfect enough to satisfy my ludicrous standards. My husband pointed out to me that everywhere we’d stopped that weekend, including IKEA on the way down, I’d loaded up with unnecessary delicacies, terrified of being caught out without an impressive picnic basket.

I simply had to lighten up about food. Why had I got this way? We talked about my childhood, and how at the age of eleven we left a predictable, secure family set-up behind and, having never been allowed anywhere near a kitchen before in case I cut or burned myself, I suddenly had to care for a physically and mentally ill mother in my own. I can vividly remember her collapsing and going up to bed, literally in the middle of cooking the evening meal. It’s a painful memory, and I think it’s filtered through into my adult life and made me anxious about eating ever since.

Like many people in the 1970s, we existed on Vesta ready meals and Birds Eye frozen food – the closest we generally came to home cooking was a huge stodgy bowl of Macaroni Cheese unleavened by any healthy vegetable. And underneath the farmers’ market shopper with her fruit trees and veggie beds, that scared little girl is still much aware of getting it wrong.

Anyway, I’m going on a bit, and it’s early days yet, but once I realised why I was so obsessed about food, and the precise nature of that obsession, it seemed to straighten me out a bit. I realised how much I’d been clinging to chocolate, home made bread and vast mountains of pasta as a security blanket. When I actually took a deep breath and made the changes that were necessary, binning the chocolate biscuits and avoiding the carbs in the evening, I was amazed how quickly I began to feel better, and I’ve already lost two kilos. All without recourse to any official diet plan or low-fat goodies.

I’ve also started running. Only 2k so far, and a good bit of that is fast walking, but at least I’m getting out there.

The diet industry is huge, and it would have you believe that every product they come up with is some kind of magic bullet for what is, in effect, a complex problem reinforced by some extremely dysfunctional social attitudes. But before you shell out for another miracle cure, it might be worth asking yourself whether the answer is inside your head. It can’t do any harm, and it might save you a lot of guilt and money.

I’ll let you know how I get on. It’s early days yet.


2 thoughts on “Dieting – when it’s all inside your head

  1. I’m so happy that you have reached a comfortable relationship with food. It makes me very unhappy when I see so many women living in constant cycles of diet and binge. I hope that lots of people read this and it helps them too.

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