Towards emotionally healthy eating

Its that time of year [New Year] when we’re all considering changes we need to make - whether it is dry january or resolving to train for that marathon after all.  And perhaps inevitably it has brought to the forefront again some of the myriad of advice articles there are on eating ‘healthily’.  The last week as seen me reading articles about whether we should drastically reduce the amount of sugar we eat (eg here), or whether we should fast two days a week (here) - or should that be three days a week? (here).  There is an awful lot around to read about healthy eating.  But to me there is one massive omission - no one seems to mention emotionally healthy eating.

Lets think about what we’d ideally aim at for a moment.  A healthy eating pattern would be one where we naturally ate enough of the food that our body needs and not too much of the things we sometimes eat in excess.  It would be one which had a positive preventative impact on some of the many diseases that have been linked with diet, like cancer and heart disease.  And it would give us what we needed to fuel our enjoyment of life to the full - energy, vitamins etc.  

But healthy eating involves a lot more than what we eat.  Lets explore that ‘life to the full’ verse for a moment - its from John 10:10 and my favourite translation comes from the message, where Jesus is quoted as saying he has come so ‘they can have more and better life than they ever dreamed of.’ The truth is that in this country far too many people live a life constantly weighed down by having to think about food or feel guilty about what they have eaten or what they weigh.  In fact a poll conducted ten years ago revealed that about 1/4 of adults are trying to lose weight almost all of the time, putting them on a permanent diet..  Statistically most diets fail either because people don’t lose weight or because they then put on more than they ever lost as soon as they stop the diet.  And life permanently on a diet, or wracked with guilt over the pounds you gained last week is not more and better life than you ever dreamed of.  

Lets consider for a moment the latest trend has emerged - the ‘intermittent fasting’ craze.  Rather than dieting, you simply follow this apparently easy ‘lifestyle’.  Its a tempting idea - as one of my friends locally explained to me whilst tucking into her second doughnut with coffee, she can eat whatever she likes for 5 days and then restricts herself very firmly to less than 500 calories the remaining 2.  This pattern of eating seems to produce health benefits and has been a resounding success in the media.  The trouble is for me it reminds me all too firmly of the kinds of patterns of eating I have seen in many people I have worked with over the years who have been fighting eating disorders.  So it seems to me the risk is very significant, and is not being talked about enough (bar brief sentences in some articles saying you shouldn’t embark on this diet if you have a history of an eating disorder) - this diet could severely damage your emotional health!  

Any kind of fasting is risky, no matter how emotionally stable you are before you start.  A famous series of studies conducted in the 1950s took a group of psychologically healthy men and restricted their food intake.  It wasn’t restricted that much but when they were allowed to return to normal eating there were some alarming patterns of behaviour.  Some found they were obsessing about food, some began to excessively exercise, others developed some serious bingeing habits.  The message was clear - fasting, or reducing your food intake artificially too low can have a pretty significant impact on your brain. 

Restricting your eating also plays havoc with your thinking patterns.  As many people who have tried to diet will attest - in normal life you can get through a few hours without thinking about biscuits but the minute you tell yourself you are on a diet, you cannot think of anything you would like more. 

What does this mean for the 5:2 diet?  The risk is that through intermittently fasting, you may start to crave certain foods more.  You may find that you eat more of them on your ‘allowed’ days than you normally would, so that overall there isn’t much impact on your weight and health anyway.  But there is a greater risk for some people that this lifestyle choice may pay into an already unhealthy emotional relationship you have with food.  This pattern of eating then fasting, eating then fasting mimics nicely what can develop in some people with bulimia or binge eating disorder, where those periods of time where food is ‘allowed’ can gradually become times when they feel out of control and eat much more than they intended, or would be normal in those circumstances.  Feeling that you can ‘counteract’ what you eat by the days when you fast may lead to control on the ‘allowed’ days breaking down even further. Or there is another risk - that you might find you are actually quite good at fasting.  That you actually quite enjoy the way you feel when you have not eaten, and  the sense of fulfilment you get from it.  Plenty of people have started on the slippery slope into anorexia just the same way.  

I’m not saying that anyone who tries out the 5:2 diet will end up with an eating disorder.  Clearly for people who are at risk this would be a very bad ‘lifestyle’ to try out.  But even for those who do not, is it an emotionally healthy way to live?  And do we pay anything like enough attention to emotional health when thinking about how best to try to improve our diet?  

I know that some of us could do with losing a few pounds.  I know that some of us could do with losing a lot more.  But I also know for just how many people the reason they fail at trying to ‘do something’ about their weight is the massive emotional load that is associated with it.  You are not valued because of your weight, or rubbished for the same reason.  Your value comes from somewhere totally different.  So don’t catch yourself feeling guilty that you haven’t managed to lose the weight yet, or planning things you’d love to do or say ‘when I have lost some weight’, or think you have less credibility or significance because you are a bit rounder than the slim and toned-to-perfection person on your TV screen.  The most important lifestyle chance you need to make may be nothing to do with what you eat but everything to do with what you think about yourself.  

If you are aiming to ‘do something’ about your unhealthy eating this January I’d advise a new approach.  Its called the positive approach.  Instead of taking things out of your diet and introducing a lot of guilt, try adding things.  Fantastic, healthy, nutritious things.  So, instead of that bacon sarnie for breakfast, try introducing a healthy cereal or something delicious involving fruit.  Instead of one of your snacks each day (we all get the munchies sometimes!) try reaching for the fruit bowl rather than the crisp packet; instead of that large caramel latte try grabbing a small skinny one. Not every time, but perhaps 4 times out of 5.  

Whilst you are doing this, think about what your relationship with food is like.  When do you eat and why?  What emotions make you want to eat?  Do you eat most when you are bored or tired?  Look for the emotional links to your eating.  Why not give mindful eating a go - instead of shoving food in whilst watching tv or reading, stop and really savour what you are eating - really enjoy it. 

At the end of the day simple choices like these, in a background of happy healthy normal eating are the key to emotionally healthy AND physically healthy eating.   And instead of feeling guilty you feel good. 

Happy January.  I’m off to eat an apple!  
Kate Middleton, 14/01/2014