Monday 21 October 2019

Psychologist Allison Keating: You can have a healthy relationship with food

For many of us, the relationship with food is fraught and complex, often filled with shame and self-hatred. Our resident psychologist Allison Keating on how to identify and overcome your limiting beliefs, plus, how to beat a binge

Binge-eating after a hard day is a very common problem, often leaving the binger full of self-loathing
Binge-eating after a hard day is a very common problem, often leaving the binger full of self-loathing

Allison Keating

Food is an issue that comes up a lot in my practice. For many, the relationship they have with food is one that is filled with shame, fear, angst and self-hatred. If we take another step back from this and ask the pivotal, underpinning question in relation to the psychology of eating, I ask 'what relationship do you have with yourself and how do you see yourself? When you look in the mirror, are you cruel to yourself? When you reflect upon yourself, do you poison yourself with a barrage of criticism and flaw finding?'

Food isn't just essential to thrive - you need it to survive. It is an area I am very passionate about as it is such an important aspect of self-nourishment on many levels. You feel better when you eat well, your moods are more stabilised - many may be familiar with being 'hangry', a feeling I can certainly relate to. I would advise anxious clients to consider the importance of maintaining blood sugar levels and not skipping meals as a drop in blood sugar can make the body feel similar to the effects of a panic attack, when in fact they are hungry. A packet of crackers or a banana are a good handbag or briefcase staple.

Creating a healthy relationship with food is fraught with psychodynamic beliefs and learned behaviours from the past. How did you mother or father speak about themselves and food? What did they say about food with you? A child or adolescent chastised by a parent may have been told not to be 'greedy' or questioned 'do you really need that?' These words can really stick, especially whilst in a heightened self-conscious state as their body was changing. I do believe children need their parents' guidance with eating. Caregivers should be particularly mindful of personalised, shame-inducing language that can be so incredibly difficult to un-hear.

Ask yourself what beliefs, behaviours and norms did you see at home around eating and food? What sayings were chimed off - 'a moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips'? Were you rewarded with food? Was there any guilt or shame if you over-ate? Write down anything that sticks out; how did you feel at the time? Have you held on to any shameful beliefs around eating - such as internalising what was said to you and then in turn becoming your own harshest inner critic; 'you are so greedy'.

Question how you speak to yourself about eating and write down what you say. How are these beliefs helping you now? What can you do to challenge and change them? The only way to make real changes with this is to identify what those limiting beliefs are and to create new healthy versions. For example, if you believe that you 'put on weight by looking at' a cake or the bar of chocolate, how does this make you feel?

Limiting beliefs can be health deterrents as an apathetic feeling can prevail when you feel like there's no point in being moderate, so you eat as much as you want. Or does it make you feel bad about yourself and like it can never change and is outside of your control? Challenging eating behaviours and beliefs requires you to dig deep and look to the origin of those thought patterns. Answering the questions above will provide you with a good understanding of belief systems that may be holding you back.

Eating is such an important joy, and yet it is filled with so much dread for many. The psychology of eating and food is so important in understanding how the perception of the plate in front of you is so different for everyone. From the athlete trying to carb-load to the pregnant woman nauseated by the smell of food, to the person trying to lose weight and the dark end of disordered eating where destructive feelings of disgust and despair fight in a vicious binge cycle.

If you find yourself starting down the slippery slope of disordered eating from bingeing, purging, restricting and/or over-exercising, seek professional help. Start with your GP and they may add in the help of a psychiatrist and mental health therapist. Issues with eating are pernicious and insidious as they envelop the person in a mire of distorted thinking and body dysmorphia.

Here is a plan to help stop a binge (but I advise you to get your own professional help as well).

Top tip on how to stop or stall a binge

1 Put all the food you are going to eat on a plate or in a bowl. If this means scooping out the ice-cream, pouring the crisps into a bowl, or putting all the biscuits you are going to eat onto a plate, please do it. If that is eight to 10 biscuits or the whole packet, then do it, with no judgment.

2 Next, time yourself for 30 seconds before you eat anything. You can eat it afterwards, so there's no rush. Watch each second. If you want to eat them after 30 seconds do, if you can wait another 30 seconds, then do so. What would it be like to postpone the binge for five or 20 minutes? How about an hour?

3 Could you do one of your comfort activities now instead?

4 If you can't, eat mindfully. Eat each biscuit, one a time, slow down, taste it. What is it like? Is it crunchy or chocolatey? Does it taste good, or is it a bit stale? Breathe, slow down and taste the biscuit. Enjoy it.

I feel dieting is like a gateway drug, so if you want to lose weight, be careful. Choose consistency over yo-yoing. If a diet promises too much, too fast, don't believe it. Eat three meals and three snacks per day. It is worth becoming interested in cooking for your taste buds and your pocket, but most importantly for your health. I know you have heard it before, but try to have a rainbow of colour on your plate. I try this but the kids laugh when I seem to have made what they call an 'Irish flag dinner' again.

The psychology of food is integral to good mental and physical well-being. The psychology of eating is about the relationship you have with yourself.

If you want to thrive this year, the good food component is an essential ingredient. Like all the main health pillars such as sleep and exercise, routine, planning, preparation and follow-through on your commitment to improve this area is the only way.

Eat well, live well, be well.

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