After years of beating myself up for struggling with weight gain, I ask whether a new approach will help me work out why following an eating plan isn’t always a piece of cake
Eating, and food. Few other words in the English language have such an effect on my thoughts, mood or self-esteem. Thinking about those two things can either send me soaring above the clouds in wonder and delight, or freefalling into a dark hole of misery and self-loathing, where everything I eat and everything I do, healthy or unhealthy, is wrong, misjudged, panicked or painful.
I appreciate that if you’ve never had this problem, this complaint will look like an unfathomable, self-indulgent mass of psychobabble rubbish. It may look like that regardless, but allow me to explain. For some people, i.e. me, the supposedly simple process of eating really can feel this complex. Perhaps, if you have even a flicker of recognition for the above, you might see where I’m coming from.
Because I love food, and I love eating.
I love cooking, I love food shopping, and I love eating out. I love cooking and/or eating with friends, for myself, for others; for Christmas, for birthdays; just because it’s a Friday. Wandering around food markets, whether there are samples or not, represents one of life’s greatest pleasures for me, and I can rhapsodise endlessly about the intense layers of flavour found within a just-fried piece of chorizo; the soul-warming smell of crushed garlic, the differences between Spanish and Italian olive oils; the sharp way in which coriander can cut through a curry; the bite and deep aroma from a proper piece of chocolate; the way crispy prawns nestle in saffron-yellow paella as jewels on a velvet shawl; the sumptuous yield of freshly-warmed pastry as it flakes with every taste; or the way that crème fraîche languorously melts into a carrot, pumpkin and potato soup.
And that’s just for starters.
Also – a disclaimer: I can be a food snob, yes; but am equally undone when presented with a Sainsbury’s freshly-baked cookie, a pack of Doritos or on-offer sausage rolls. Seriously, I’m not fussy.
In my life – and it seems, in very many others’ ‒ every occasion, tradition, celebration or commiseration is improved by the presence of food. Indeed, what problem cannot be eased, at least in part, by an array of various pastry-, sugar-, cheese- and/or fat-laden goodies (with a bit of fruit and salad thrown in, for measure) enjoyed in the presence of good company and much-needed conversation?
Also, though, I hate food.
For someone who loves food so incredibly, and who has grown up in a household, and in countries (France and Spain, especially) where food is good, healthy, made from scratch, varied and full of colour and flavour, I also hate food. I hate it.
More precisely, I hate my relationship with it, and the conflicting messages that I receive from all sides – the media, my friends, my diet group, my parents, my family, my own head – which refuse to align in a nicely-arranged, sensible, making-sense-of order.
Because, for each positive thing I’ve just said about food ‒ it’s traditional, it’s sociable, it’s comforting, it’s pleasurable, it’s cultural, it’s familial, familiar, celebratory – comes a whole host of associated ‘issues’ which make food none of these things.
Despite all the feminist, fighting-back, media-, sexualisation-, gender-stereotyping- and body-acceptance-awareness that I honestly believe in, I am personally hardly ever happy with the weight that looks back at me in the mirror. Despite never having gone over a size 12 in my entire life, and having been brought up in a household where weight isn’t really a big issue, I am always conscious of my extra baggage, which sits about my perilously-tiny, 5ft, naturally-curvy frame with stubborn defiance, constantly threatening to tip my figure from an attractive ‘voluptuous’, to an unhealthy ‘fat’.
Despite knowing that people come in all shapes and sizes, that no one weight works on everyone and that the path to happiness is lined with self-acceptance, I still have bad days, where I look longingly at girls in skinny jeans and wonder why my arse looks more pasty than peaches when I put them on. I look at thin women’s collarbones and slender wrists and wonder why I couldn’t have been ‘blessed’ with them as well. I see uncreased stomachs and thin t-shirts draped over backs without a hint of bra-strap back fat and physically recoil with the ‘injustice’ of it all.
I don’t even bother coveting other people’s height (mainly because I’m not that bothered about being little, and because I will no more grow any more inches than a man can sit on the Sun) and yet – their slimness, I somehow want – often more than I would ever admit in person. It’s not cool or especially empowering to admit it, but it’s true.
However, I put on weight with frightening ease.
Genetically, hormonally (and, I admit it, greedily) I am pre-disposed to putting on weight, and not being able to get it off. Growing up, my diet was varied and healthy, controlled by my mother who cooks well and eats properly, and I was never overweight. But as a teenager, with puberty beckoning amid previously-unheard of access to chocolate and all other manner of gloriously-tasting crap foods, I started putting on weight, and becoming conscious of it.
Last year I finally lost a stone, after filling out rapidly in the eventful and distressing year between finishing my finals at Uni, breaking up with my boyfriend, and struggling to get a job in recession-hit Britain. After years of just being a bit chubby, I was suddenly almost two stone overweight, and increasingly unhappy about it, so I changed my eating habits, and slowly but surely, the weight came off.
But despite trying to watch what I eat, being on a well-known and widely-successful diet plan (no, not Weight Watchers, but you’re on the right track) for over a year, planning my food as much as I can, limiting my carbs, increasing my protein, watching my fat and sugar intake, and trying to go to the gym three or more times a week to do cardio and yoga, I am still struggling with an extra half-stone to a stone that I cannot seem to shift for love nor money (and as I pay £5 a week to the slimming club I go to, I mean that very literally). As I say, I’ve never been huge – but I’ve never been thin either, and I could definitely, health-wise, aesthetically and mental-health-wise, do with losing a little bit more than I already have. Seems shallow, but it’s true.
I know I’m supposed to love my curvy frame and shout about how happy I am with what I’ve got. But in this world where being slim is the thing, and skinny jeans line the walls of any and all high-street shops (I steer clear in favour of highly ‘unfashionable’ bootcuts, sigh), I don’t see why wanting some of that glossy, healthy slimness should be such taboo to admit. I realise it’s not the be all and end all. But somehow, it’s still important to me.
Desiring slimness: let me clarify
Let me clarify. I’m not coveting skinniness or model-like proportions, because they’re clearly not right for my body shape. I’m not trying to change my natural form, or become a boring obsessive who only eats things like seaweed, quinoa and gingko. I’m not advocating unhealthy levels of food and eating-control. I’m not condemning other people’s food or body-size choices if that’s what makes them happy: for example, Bethany, size 16-18 author of the celebrated archedeyebrow.com, is a brilliant example of a confident and stylish woman, who from her blog, sounds happy, carefree and ambitious, all with expressive clothes choices, fabulous nails and a witty and very popular writing-style to boot. The only reason her size in an issue is because she focuses on it as a means of promoting ‘body-positive engagement’ ‒ and all power to her, I reckon.
Indeed, as a feminist, intrigued by the political and social issues surrounding body image, and someone who aspires to a fairly non-capitalist, non-materialism-based happiness, I strongly condemn the Daily Mail-esque celebrity magazine culture that lampoons every woman for not being as skinny, taut or groomed as a Barbie doll. I’m not even especially after looking like any specific person in particular, famous or not. In fact, whenever I see a super-skinny celebrity or person, I just wonder why no kind soul has thought to give them a pie and a hug. That is not what this is about.
But underneath it all, I still care.
Because, basically, underneath all of the above, I personally feel happiest at a size 8-10, and I just don’t see why keeping my body weight within this bracket; within the healthy realms of BMI-‘normal’ (18-25, at the moment I am just outside this, even after all my recent food changes and reading up on hormones, nutrition and diet plans until I feel my brain oozing out my ears) is such a fecking struggle.
And it is a struggle. In the past few months, it’s become apparent that the same stuff doesn’t seem to be working. I’m following the same plan, with little success and resultantly slackening motivation, even though I still have some weight to lose.
Admittedly, part of the problem is that following a food plan isn’t exactly the easiest thing in the world when everyone else around you seems to be able to get away with that cheeky Krispy Kreme doughnut from that box a colleague brought into work. Or when it’s someone’s birthday and there’s a pile of mini-brownies two desks away from you in the middle of a long day in the office.
Or when WH Smith or Sainsbury’s puts £1 chocolates and cookies by the checkout, or your family refuses to acknowledge some of the plan’s rules (such as not always cooking without lashings of olive-oil), or when a friend, or yourself, has a birthday out at a gorgeous restaurant or bar, or when your boss regularly arranges impromptu meals or drinks for the team, or when you come home exhausted and eat the chocolate you’d been saving for tomorrow, or when you run out of time to prepare what you were going to eat, or the shop sells out of it – basically, as I’ve mentioned – when food is not just fuel, but variously sociable, traditional, comforting, friendly, familiar, boredom-curing, pleasurable or simply convenient – or, as is often, all of those things combined.
Yes, you can try following a meal plan during all those times. But it’s bloody difficult, and even eating perfectly the rest of the time isn’t exactly a piece of cake (or not one, as the case will be).
The prison of my own mind
But while you may not be able to tell given the array of neuroses listed above, in the past few days, I’ve been trying to relax a little more around food. The food plan I’ve been following with varying degrees of success in the past few months – and which, I hasten to add, has worked for millions of people around the world, and places great value on healthy living and ‘normal eating’ as opposed to restrictive, crash dieting ‒ was starting to feel like a prison I’d built with my own hands, a torture chamber of the mind where everything I ate was either ‘on plan’ or ‘wasn’t’.
Despite having lost weight on the plan, amid incontrovertible evidence that it definitely works without much more than a few diet changes and forward planning, my life still manages to get in the way, and more often than not, I still feel like more of a failure than a success.
Clearly, I’m not doing it right, but nevertheless, the feelings of shame and failure remain. This isn’t how it’s supposed to happen.
For me, losing weight and being ‘at peace’ with what I eat is much, much more than just ‘eat less, move more’ – if only it were that simple. It’s not ‒ it’s mental (in more ways than one).
Why I eat what I eat
Because, while I’ve been trying to come to terms with the fact that what you eat is directly related to how you much weight you put on or lose (which means trying to accept that that third brownie, despite tasting amazing and being eaten when you were celebrating your friend’s birthday is actually, sob, the source of your misery), it’s seemingly more difficult coming to terms with why you eat.
Because while I’ve always felt that food can make you feel better in times of sadness, loneliness or stress, it’s more than a bit uncomfortable realising that all those reasons why I cheat on my diet, or feel helpless when it comes to food, are also things you can work at.
For me, understanding why I eat is much harder to come to terms with than swapping full-fat yoghurt for the fat-free stuff.
Thankfully, though it looks like there may be hope, and I don’t have to be condemned to circle haplessly around this self-defeating, unhelpful train of thought for much longer.
In recent weeks, I’ve been reading magazine articles and book reviews all focused on a new phrase from the popular psychology and mindfulness world: mindful eating.
Mindful eating, most famously (in this country) and most recently propagated as a philosophy from the already well-known, former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, of ‘Get Some Headspace’ meditation fame, is basically a philosophy which asks people to consider why and how they eat, rather than just concentrating on what goes into their mouths.
It takes, as far as I can see, the principles behind meditation and mindfulness – like self-awareness, self-questioning, self-belief, quietness, non-judgemental contemplation and compassion ‒ and applies them to eating habits. Which means, with a little bit of honesty and self-awareness, I might just be able to stop beating myself up about why I eat what I eat, and start to actually understand it.
From Red Magazine’s recent article ‘How to Eat Calmly’ and the most recent issue of Psychologies Magazine also looking at this new solution to the nation’s over-eating problem, this has truly come at an uncannily relevant time for me: teetering as I was on the edge of diet-failure and entirely unnecessary (probably) self-loathing because of it.
It doesn’t matter what weight I am and how much I learn than fruit and vegetables are good for you, and inhaling the contents of a box of chocolates isn’t: unless I address the reasons why I eat the stuff I shouldn’t, I don’t think I can really say that I’ll be getting anywhere.
The Headspace approach
Having just downloaded Andy Puddicombe’s book, The Headspace Diet, on to my Kindle, I intend, slowly and not without a little of trepidation, to really start thinking about why I eat what I do.
Hopefully, with my diet plan having given me a map of what to eat, and mindful eating giving me a real understanding of how to navigate that map to where I want to be (and why I sometimes don’t go where I want to or should), I will free myself from this endless cycle of “On-plan-yay-off-plan-oh-no-self-loathing (and repeat)”. I might actually start to get somewhere, taking responsibility for my eating but not berating myself quite so much.
I’ve also bought a little pocket advice-book called ‘But I deserve this chocolate: The 50 most common diet-derailing excuses and how to outwit them’ – which, despite that very snappy title, looks basically like a short version of the same ‘mindful eating’ thing, complete with chapters addressing thoughts such as ‘But I Don’t Want To Try Right Now’, ‘I’m Too Tired’, ‘It Won’t Work Anyway’, ‘But I Have A Party To Go To’ and, of course, ‘But I Deserve This Chocolate’: basically, cultivating the way you look at food so that you can embrace it, and make good choices around it, rather than hate it, and hate yourself as a result.
Because, as we all know, food is fuel, and also, I think, to be enjoyed. At the base of it, eating is one of the simplest things we can do ‒ and while I love music, frankly, Shakespeare, as far as I’m concerned, food is the bloody food of love.
At the very least I should be able to eat it without coming crashing to a self-hating halt, right? Right.
Wish me luck.