At the tender age of eight years, I was put on my first diet. A trip to the doctor to investigate my out-turned feet turned into a diagnosis of “my springs being weighed down” i.e. I was overweight. In that moment, my life changed. From then on my food was restricted and my perfectly normally proportioned eight year old body was deemed too big. We had a traditional 60s diet of three home cooked meals a day, no snacks as they might ruin our appetite and we walked to school and back, a two mile trip every weekday. We had very few “treats”. We were excited if we were ever offered a biscuit. One biscuit. I recall a Mars Bar being cut into five slices, with Mum and Dad having the ends and us three children having a slice from the middle. A whole Mars Bar? Never.
Diets became a way of life after this and into my teenage years my sister and I would pour over an ancient typed sheet of calorific values to insure that we did not exceed the 1,000 calories a day. Inevitably we lost weight doing this, but equally inevitably came the strong urge to binge on the foods I had so staunchly denied myself. Secret eating was a way of life.
Thus my life became a roller coaster of restriction; “being good” followed by bingeing “being bad” with the net result that I was permanently unhappy with my body. Jump on the scales: lost weight? Phew, now I can eat! Gained weight? Oh no! Now I’m going to eat to smother my feelings of self loathing.
Relief came in the shape of babies. For some reason (hormones? happiness at being pregnant? being legitimately allowed to eat?) my appetite regulated itself and my food struggles subsided. I gained very little weight as I ate more intuitively and I loved my round shape.
Literally, as soon as the baby was born, and this happened four times so not exactly a coincidence, I felt the old cravings reemerge and the same desperation about weight gain. I tried every diet under the sun from the ultra low calorie Cambridge Diet to a slimming club, to high fibre….the list is endless. I took up running and exercising. My body loathing remained.
In the consciousness raising 80s I began to understand the deep conditioning I had received throughout my life to look a certain way and to not take up too much space. I felt so uncomfortable in my body that what followed was not my finest hour, style wise. I basically spent my non working life in baggy dungarees and hid my body under layers of clothing. I always promised myself I would treat myself to some fitted and colourful clothing when I attained the magic number on the scale. The number did not appear.
Through the 90s I explored the effects of diet and nutrition on health and wellbeing as I trained to be a Natural Health Practitioner. I was full of theoretical knowledge at least! I had my own physical and mental breakthrough when when I read “Overcoming Overeating” and “Fat is a Feminist Issue” and pieces of the jigsaw started to fall into place. Here my problems were addressed. I discovered that other people behaved in the same self sabotaging and destructive ways that I did and the secrecy and shame that tightly wrapped itself around me loosened slightly. Using the methods suggested in these books, I achieved a peace around food that I hadn’t experienced except during pregnancy.
In 2000″ I started working with a fellow Natural Health Practitioner and we formed an organisation called Bodykindness. We put together a programme that tackled food, weight and body image problems, drawing together all we had learned about these issues over the years. We encouraged our group members to take a more compassionate and understanding approach to their struggle rather than the harsh and punitive restriction of the starve/binge cycle. We had both found that this approach worked well but neither of us had an understanding of the progress of the Food Industry and the development of more and more processed foods, their effect on the mind as well as the body and the insidious nature of food addiction, particularly the addictiveness of modern wheat and sugar. Neither of us had the financial acumen to make Bodykindness financially viable and I also made the decision to return to nursing so our collaboration ended.
Fast forward another decade and the old habits, so ingrained, had re-surfaced. I was very overweight, fuelled by working in an healthcare environment literally awash with sugars. Cake, biscuits, sweets; you name it, it was around every corner. I was exhibiting pretty much every menopausal symptom in the book and to say each day was like dragging myself through treacle (pardon the pun) was an understatement. My youngest daughter Bryony, came home for Christmas bringing her juicer and she made me my first green juice. My body recognised what it needed and the rest, as they say, is history. As I listened again to my body telling me what it needed, the weight fell off and my health returned. I could sleep a whole night, awake refreshed and the years of scary heart palpitations that I had misdiagnosed as fatal heart disease magically disappeared. I juiced every morning for that first year and learned again what it was to feed my body what it really needed.
Part of my recovery was also due to eating a high raw diet. Thank you Teresa Harding for showing me the way! My body just seemed to long for the nutrients in plants. After a particularly nasty nightmare where I dreamt of slaughterhouses, I took this as a signal to stick to plants and I let go of meat. Fish followed soon after. For me, plant based eating has given me back my health, both physical and mental. I am five stone lighter and have remained so, give or take a pound or two. I don’t allow scales to dictate my day ahead.
Another piece of the jigsaw emerged in 2013 when my eldest daughter Emily told me that she was struggling with food and body issues to the point where she had joined a 12 step recovery programme for food addiction. Although I knew she had similar food issues to me, because she was no longer overweight, I hadn’t fully appreciated how her life had become dominated by food. Together we made a pledge to avoid wheat and sugar, as suggested by the programme. Her picture on the fridge helped me through the withdrawal. It wasn’t easy going cold turkey but it demonstrated how certain foods, in particular processed foods containing wheat and sugar, are like crack cocaine to susceptible people like Emily and me. You wouldn’t ask an addict to just have a little smoke would you? But a little piece of cake? Go on!
So I understand the daily, hourly, minute by minute struggle when medical advice is just to “eat less, move more”. Sounds simple? It’s January and already the Creme eggs are on the shelf. How do we cope in a society that encourages us to eat more than we need and to eat food that cannot possibly be designed for the human body?
To finish my story I want you to know that there is hope. It is possible to wake up in the morning and think about something other than food. To be alone in the evening and not cruise the cupboards looking for something, just something, to fill the empty space. It is possible to live at ease in your body and to be your beautiful self. It is possible to eat what you need.