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Scared of food... making you fat

“I looked at him nonplussed. I realized that I have spent so many years being on a diet that the idea that you might actually need calories to survive has been completely wiped out of my consciousness. I have reached point where believe nutritional ideal is to eat nothing at all, and that the only reason people eat is because they are so greedy they cannot stop themselves from breaking out and ruining their diets.” ― Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones's Diary

Whenever I work with someone that wants to lose weight - I notice that they have become afraid of food (and many different food groups) - they have become scared that eating a substantial breakfast will cause them to put on weight, or will trigger them to over-eat all day, that feeling full will mean that they will become even more unhappy with their appearance... food has become a scary thing. Perhaps they are afraid that carbs will make them fat, or that eating avocados/olive oil is going to make them suddenly put on lots of pounds or even that eating 3 square meals a day will detrimentally affect their health. Now it is not their fault that they feel this way - this is something that diet culture has created! Diets force us to categorise foods as “good and “bad”, create a fear around certain “banned” foods and even tell us that losing weight is simple - all you have to do it “eat less and exercise more” - so these people feel it is important for them to starve themselves in order to lose weight.

However this is an incredibly dangerous way of thinking. I see many of my clients starve themselves for a day or two or even a morning - (thinking that all they need to do is eat less and exercise more) - only to feel physically very hungry and then binge-eat on lots of “unhealthy” or “off-limit” foods ...because “what’s the point this stuff doesn’t work anyway”. - And yes - starvation does not work! In order to actually lose weight and develop a healthier relationship with food (long-term) it is actually key to eat enough of lots of healthy foods - so your body does not feel deprived. (And by healthy foods, I mean a broad range of foods from lots of different food groups - because in order to be healthy diversity is important too).

As Robin Fox nicely explains "Studies have shown that diets more often than not lead to weight gain! Because the body does not know the difference between dieting and starving, once a severe dietary regime is concluded it will voraciously store food as fat as a protection against further unreasonable onslaughts. But it is with diets that fashion and fads play their largest part. Diets have replaced the weather as the basic item of polite conversation.

Any anyway, the model of “eating less and exercising more” or just counting calories really over-simplifies things. Evidence shows that our calculation of calories over-estimates calories obtained from a high fibre diet i.e. when our diet is high in fibre, we actually take in less calories from our food than with a lower-fibre diet. Also by eating a healthy and varied diet, we can improve the state of our microbiome (i.e. all of the micro-organisms in our gut) which can in turn affect how we process and digest our foods e.g. how well we are able to deal with carbohydrates etc. So looking just at calories and reducing food intake are not really a good way to achieve long-term improvements in health or weight.

Secondly, it is also very important that we are allowing ourselves to derive some pleasure from food. Many of the individuals that I work with that are scared of food making them fat - see food as falling into two categories “good” food and “bad’” food or “clean” food and “unclean” food. The “good” or “clean” food is not scary but very often it is extremely un-appetising and they don’t look forward to it at all - it will also often be limited just to a few different “ultra-healthy” foods or dishes such as salads and veggies. The “bad” or “unclean” food is delicious but very unhealthy. Now when food suddenly falls into these two categories - of course an individual is going to feel miserable and deprived when they think that they can only eat these unappetising “clean” or “good” foods...and it is also often when they will revert to over-eating “bad” or “unclean” foods ... "because what’s the point, this “clean” food is awful, I deserve something tasty”. In order to heal this relationship with food, it is key to find pleasurable and tasty foods that are also healthy. There is actually a great variety of foods that are good for your health - and often the issue comes from people ruling out many different types of foods and food groups as being “unhealthy”. It is important to see healthy food as encompassing a range of different foods, ingredients and food groups - diversity is key!

As Robin Fox comments - "We have to eat; we like to eat; eating makes us feel good; it is more important than sex. To ensure genetic survival the sex urge need only be satisfied a few times in a lifetime; the hunger urge must be satisfied every day...The body needs fuel. But this need could be served by a rough diet of small game, roots, and berries, as it was for several million years...But our “tastes” have never been governed solely by nutrition."

So you shouldn’t be afraid food will make you fat - we need food, to live to function at our best and to thrive. You also shouldn’t narrow the range of foods you allow into your diet too much - because such restriction will only cause you to feel deprived and crave extremely unhealthy foods. It is also important to derive pleasure from foods. If you see eating “healthily” as involving just eating salads and vegetable juices - of course you are not going to sustain this because you won’t derive any pleasure from it. In order to eat “healthily” VARIETY is actually really important - our body needs this dietary diversity - so you can prepare lots of delicious dishes and still be eating healthy food ...allowing you to also derive pleasure from what you are eating!

The key is not to associate eating “healthily” just with eating salads and a few “boring” things - in order to make eating healthily sustainable, experiment with different ingredients, flavours, food groups and cuisines! When the only choice you are giving yourself is between a boring, plain salad and some cake... of course it becomes miserable to lead a healthy lifestyle. When however eating “healthily” means eating delicious stews, curries, beautifully prepared breakfast dishes packed with nutrition but also delicious, chilli, delicious fish dishes, sweet fruits etc.... healthy can be very very tasty!

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