Rocking the boat: key to healthy weight lies within
Melanie Morris meets Dr Bernadette Rock, the diet doctor who believes the solution to maintaining a healthy weight lies within
There was a book out a few years ago that seemed to capture women's attention as it whizzed up the best-sellers list. It was a motivational book called Run Fat B!tch Run and it suggested that women should harness the self-loathing we felt from what we saw in the mirror, and use it to encourage us out on to the road, pounding the pavements in a bid to lose weight.
At the time I read it, I was horrified, but it seemed I was the only one. Everyone else thought it was funny, true and motivational. Thankfully, I now know one other female was in my corner: Dr Bernadette Rock, a Dublin-based sociologist who specialises in how our behaviour is sabotaging our weight loss endeavours.
"Run Fat B!tch Run is easy to read and useful and motivating for someone who wants to begin running. It probably works for some people who prefer a more bootcamp approach, but for those who struggle long-term with weight or eating challenges, negative affirmations should definitely be a no-no. Name-calling to motivate oneself definitely does not work for any woman or man that I've ever met who struggles with emotional eating. There are much kinder and more constructive ways to motivate yourself. Even now, it definitely would not motivate me. I'd think I'd sooner crawl under my duvet cover."
Dr Rock would have originally included herself as one of those with long-term weight challenges.
"From the age of about 13, I thought I was fat. Looking back at pictures now, of course, I wasn't, but I binged and dieted continuously until my late-twenties. I was so preoccupied by it all and I was totally miserable."
It wasn't any sort of named 'condition' but Dr Rock refers to it as an "unbalanced relationship with weight and food", and it's everywhere in our society, particularly amongst women: the high-achieving career woman; she who rates her ability on her appearance; the stressed mother who puts herself last; the countless women who reward/punish/calm themselves with food; the female who is desperate to slim down for an event and sets herself up for failure with unachievable goals. All these women talk to themselves in the worst sort of language. "I always ask my clients, 'Would you talk to your best friend like that?'"
With one-on-one consultations, and online coaching, Dr Rock has cornered a new space in the weight-loss market. Her method of getting healthy and happy involves mindfulness, self-work and has nothing to do with diets, although she will refer patients to a nutritionist if appropriate.
"Most of my clients know what they should be eating," she says. "They know every calorie of every bite they put in their mouth. They could write the book."
Instead, Dr Rock encourages her clients to be conscious about the food they eat, why they eat it and how they talk to themselves.
It's the technique she applied to herself when, aged 28 and newly separated with a six-week-old child, she decided something had to give.
"A lot happened in a short space of time, while I was studying for my PhD in sociology at UCD," she remembers. "I was caring for my daughter, who was very colicky, so neither of us were getting any sleep, and I noticed I was so hard on myself. I was constantly giving out. I got to the point where I thought, 'I can't do this to myself any more', so I stopped. And I started to look after myself with the same attention I gave to my baby. I noticed I could pull myself together through adopting some of the techniques I was learning in college and so I basically stopped giving out to myself and became a little more aware of what was really going on."
And it was from this self-learning that Dr Rock decided to develop a programme to help individuals form a balanced relationship with food through their habits and emotions.
She approached Dr Donal O'Shea at the Weight Management Clinic at St Colmcille's Hospital in Loughlinstown, Dublin. He came on board with her ideas and immediately started referring patients. Now Dr Rock has her own practice at Medfit in Blackrock and on-line at heydayworld.com. She also blogs for The Huffington Post, through which she gained huge notoriety last May when she wrote a feature that caught fire.
"I didn't think anything of that post," she says. "I didn't think there was anything very new in it."
Dr Rock wrote that one possible reason many people don't lose weight is because they are scared of the attention and changes in life that their weight loss can bring; how it pulls them out of the metaphorical shadows and thrusts them under the spotlight with new power and a shift of social goalposts; and many are frightened of this.
The post was picked up by producers on the US TV show The Doctors, who have booked Dr Rock to appear in the autumn.
It also triggered huge demand for Dr Rock's online programme, with people from America, Australia and the UK signing up for four months of videos, course material and phone calls/emails from Dr Rock who monitors each patient's progress. "There can be a lot of shame around uncontrolled and emotional eating," she says, "so some may be reluctant about one-on-one consultations. The online course can help people try and make sense of it all and overcome habits.
"I was there, I don't ever forget it. I remember the shame and the embarrassment. There's always a good reason for turning to food. But we need to try coping, instead of being such harsh self-critics. We need to give ourselves an opportunity to figure out exactly what is going on. There's another way around our emotions besides food."
While the answer doesn't come in a pill or overnight, Dr Rock hopes she can help clients see the solution comes from within. And now, aged 35, slim and active, she seems to have it licked. "I still have days when I go home and want to eat," she says.
But instead, Dr Rock seems to spend the time hula-hooping with her 7-year-old daughter Keela, blogging, or enjoying time with her boyfriend. This new, zen person believes in exercise for headspace rather than to run off a slice of cake, and that it's not as much about weight, but being and feeling healthy.
Dr Rock will host a six-week course with nutritionist Paula Mee at Medfit in October. www.heydayworld.com
THREE QUICK TIPS TO BREAK THE CYCLE
Dr Rock works with patients from all walks of life, but she helps each reach their weight or healthy eating goals. Here are some of her key practical tips.
PAUSE: Take a moment in that time between deciding you are going to eat and actually reaching for the food. Draw that time out and give yourself another choice - to stay with yourself and decide on making a mindful choice. Then, if you choose yes, enjoy whatever it is you eat. Alternatively, choose to defer. Say no, maybe later. Practise this, and each time it becomes a little easier.
BE A FRIEND: When reaching for food, instead of unleashing your inner critic, and saying things to yourself like "look at you!", "big pig", "you're a disgrace", try to listen to what's really going on. Every time we eat there's a reason, so find out why you want to eat and learn about your emotions. Test and challenge yourself.
BE AWARE OF any CHILDHOOD HABITS: A lot of Irish people have 'famine mentality' - the idea that all food must be eaten, not wasted or thrown out. As Dr Rock explains: "Whether you eat the food, or throw it in the bin, it goes to waste. One route is direct, the other route means it goes through you first."
Mindful eating means slowing down. "We can be quite disconnected from our bodies", says Dr Rock.
"Even on a daily basis, we look at our faces in the mirror but not our bodies. We need to be more connected, to check in with ourselves. When it comes to eating, so much is done without focus - eating whilst watching TV, or on the laptop. You don't taste the food when eating that way, or notice how much you consume."