Fix your relationship with food

Good Health
Monday, February 1, 2010
Image: Getty

A psychological approach to weight loss may be just the key to helping you keep the kilos at bay for good.

How healthy is your psychological relationship with food?

Answer yes to any of the following statements that apply to you:

  • I eat before I get hungry — because it's a mealtime.
  • I eat to reward myself if I've had a difficult day.
  • I eat to cheer myself up.
  • I carry on eating even when I'm full.
  • I find myself munching on snacks without really thinking.
  • I snack while I'm doing other things — watching the television or working, for example.
  • I often feel guilty about my eating.
  • I sometimes make promises about my eating that I can't keep — for example, swearing that I won't eat anything sugary or have any more bread.
  • I always tell myself my latest diet is going to be 'the one'.
  • When I'm watching my diet, I secretly know I underestimate what I eat.

If you've answered yes to two or more, you may have a distorted relationship with food, and may be using it to avoid difficult feelings, or as a result of overpowering childhood messages. Look at the statements you've ticked as they can provide vital clues about when you're likely to eat too much.

Why we overeat
"Overeating is defined as eating, or continuing to eat, when you're not hungry," says Boss. "I'd say most women eat for emotional reasons. Yes, that can mean a heartbreak or a major life event — but often it's more mundane, everyday emotions such as work stress or boredom.

"Women spend so much time looking after others, and sometimes you just need a break. Food is an easy way to give yourself that. Eating something that feels like a treat is a bit like giving yourself a cuddle. It's cheap, readily available and, unlike drinking or smoking, it's socially acceptable." Over the years, overeating can become an easy way to avoid thinking or feeling certain things.

Mixed in with all of that are ingrained childhood beliefs about food.

"Perhaps as a child, you didn't have enough food, you had to clear your plate whether you wanted to or not, you sensed your mother's disapproval if you said you weren't hungry, or eating was the shared family activity," says Orbach. Or possibly you were given food as a treat, or when you were upset. These messages could have created a distorted idea of food, turning certain foods into rewards, punishments, or even a duty.

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Change the weight-loss rules
Now you know what might be behind your eating habits, it's time to change way you think and watch those kilos start to drop off!

Let go of your beliefs
Over time, you'll have developed certain beliefs about food, and used them to create rules.

"Work out the rules that exist in your head about food," says Orbach. Take some time to sit down and write out some of your beliefs — don't censor yourself, write down everything, whether it seems sensible and healthy or not. Doing this will start to help you understand your attitude to food.

Some of your beliefs might include such things as "anything low-fat is harmless" or "snacking between meals is bad".

Once you've finished, look at the rules you've set yourself — you'll probably find a lot of them actually compete with each other and don't really make sense. "Let them go, and instead, eat what you're hungry for," says Orbach. The new eating rules are about reconnecting with your intuitive sense of when to eat and what to have. Understanding the rules you've given yourself is the first step to freeing your eating intuition.

Recognise real hunger
So now you accept you probably eat when you aren't really hungry — but it's possible you've been doing it for so long, you've become distanced from your true hunger signals. Rediscovering them takes practice, says Orbach, but you need to let them emerge. Don't eat unless you're sure you're hungry — and if you don't know whether you're hungry, you probably aren't. Don't worry if it takes time to rediscover your hunger signals — it will happen.

Dr Judith Beck, cognitive therapist and author of The Beck Diet Solution, suggests skipping a meal once just so you can learn how you feel when you're really hungry. She also recommends rating your hunger to help you recognise it. Before each meal or snack, notice how your stomach feels — write a description of the sensation, then rate the strength of the hunger from zero to 10. Finally, rate the physical discomfort you feel from zero to 10.

Being able to pinpoint your real feelings of hunger will help you become more conscious of why you're eating, and you'll start being able to identify the times you're digging into the biscuit tin for other reasons.

Try taking your time
Here are two simple things that will make a big difference. The first is to sit down for meals.

"It's one of the most important rules," says Beck. When you sit down to eat, you're eating consciously. Even if you're just snacking, sit down. Secondly, chew properly. If you wolf down your food, you'll end up eating more because you don't give your stomach a chance to register that it's full.

For the complete story see the March 10 issue of Good Health

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