Sunday 20 August 2017

Making friends with your food

almost always occur in secret. Photo: Thinkstock Images
Binges almost always occur in secret. Photo: Thinkstock Images

Binge eating nearly ruined Sunita Pattani's life, but after tackling its emotional roots she's finally found peace with food. She shares her recipe for combating compulsive eating in her new book, 'My Secret Affair With Chocolate Cake'

Losing control and stuffing your face with cakes and biscuits to the point of feeling sick is something many people will have done occasionally.

But for Sunita Pattani, such binge eating wasn't just occasional -- it was every day for years. From a healthy size 12, the former teacher ballooned to a size 20 as she was "possessed by a food demon" that made her devour around 4,000 calories-worth of cream cakes, crisps, chocolate and ice-cream a day.

It was only when her despairing husband left her that she got the shock she needed to tackle her eating problem. She started workshops helping other people with unhealthy food relationships, and wrote the book 'My Secret Affair With Chocolate Cake'.

There's little information about the prevalence of binge eating, probably because so many people do it in secret. But according to international studies, 4pc of the population has binge eating disorder, three times more than the number of people with anorexia. Of those defined as medically obese, up to 30.1% have been found to be affected by binge eating disorder

In her book, Pattani (31), who is now a size 14 and still losing weight, explains that diets only reduce the food that goes in your mouth without tackling the underlying cause of overeating. What's needed, she says, is an approach where overeaters learn to understand what's making them eat when they're not hungry, and listen to their body's cues rather than their minds.

"When people go on diets, all they're addressing is the issue of the food, not the feelings that make them overeat.

"You need to look at the feelings that trigger the eating. I learned to focus not on losing weight, but on correcting my relationship with food.

"There was a difference between what my body was hungry for and what my mind was hungry for."

In her early teens, Pattani had embarked on a diet-binge cycle, and when a stressful period led to her being unable to face any more dieting when she was 25, she began to binge more and more, without any strict dieting to offset the weight gain.

"It was like there was no stop button," she recalls. "I'd go into a kind of eating trance and wouldn't notice what was going in. It got so bad that when I got into bed at night I had to lie flat on my back and couldn't move because I was so full."

As her weight increased, she stopped going out because she was so ashamed of her size, her ankles swelled and she suffered lower back problems. She was so embarrassed about her eating that she hid her problem from her husband Hinal by buying and eating food in secret and hiding it in cupboards or under the bed.

But it was only when Hinal left her because of what she was doing to herself and her refusal to tackle it, that Pattani was shocked into action.

"When my husband left, it was as if someone had shaken the ground beneath me, and I thought 'I don't know how to do it, but this has got to stop'."

According to Bodywhys: The Eating Disorder Association of Ireland: "Binges almost always occur in secret, and an appearance of 'normal' eating is often maintained in front of others. The food that is eaten is usually filling and high in calories. It tends to be food that people regard as fattening, and which they are attempting to exclude from their diet. The food is usually consumed very quickly, and is seldom tasted or enjoyed."

"While in binge eating disorder there is no purging, there may be sporadic fasts or repetitive diets, and often feelings of shame or self-hatred surface after a binge.

"A person affected by binge eating disorder may find themselves trapped in a cycle of dieting, binging, self-recrimination and self-loathing. They can feel particularly isolated which can contribute to the prolonging of their experience."

Knowing that dieting would simply tip her into the starve-binge cycle again, Pattani did some research and discovered what she describes as "a massive anti-diet movement" known as intuitive eating.

The idea is based around eating when you're hungry and stopping when you're satisfied by getting in touch with your bodily cues.

Losing weight without dieting worked so well for Pattani that in addition to sharing the secrets of her success in her book, she also runs The Feel Free Project, which helps other people normalise their unhealthy eating patterns through a website and workshops.

She says: "I want to help other people who have an unhealthy relationship with food understand how to improve their eating, like I was able to do.

"It was two steps forward and one step back for me, but my eating started to normalise and the weight started to come off. My overall body health is so much better."

* 'My Secret Affair With Chocolate Cake' is published by J Publishing Company.

* 'Breaking The Cycle' is a self-help booklet produced by Bodywhys. The booklet is available free of charge from the Bodywhys head office. To receive your copy, simply email with 'Binge Eating Booklet' in the subject line, and include your name and postal address.

Get on top of bingeing


You may eat to numb emotions, to show yourself some love, because you're frightened of the difference being slim might make, or because you're bored. It's also important to differentiate between body hunger, which is when you need nourishment and may experience gradual physical cues like a rumbling tummy, headache or irritability, and emotional hunger, which may be more urgent, may occur after emotional discomfort, or when you see a food you love.


Be aware of what you're eating, including all the times you nibble something from the fridge or taste what you're cooking. Pattani suggests keeping a food diary, and explains that the diary shouldn't just focus on what you eat, but also on how you feel before and after you've eaten – are you hungry before you eat, and are you satisfied afterwards? Eat food slowly, notice how it feels and tastes, and chew it properly. Slowing down the eating process gives the brain more time to register how much you've eaten.


Pattani points out that bingeing often occurs because people have deprived themselves of certain 'bad' foods, and it’s less likely to occur if people allow themselves to either eat a sensible amount of whatever they want, or even to eat it until they're satisfied.

Editors Choice

Also in Life