What kind of relationship do you have with food? Healthy? Unhealthy? On again, off again? Is she your high-calorie, high-guilt mistress? Do the two of you get together late at night? Under the cover of darkness? Away from prying eyes? Do you find yourself day-dreaming about her? Does she call out your name from behind her seductive wrapper? Is she your escape? Your medication? Your distraction? Your drug of choice? Is she your dirty little secret?
Over the years, she’s been all of that (and more) in my life.
Food and I have had a torrid and tempestuous affair for as long as I can remember. She wooed me with her tastes, textures and smells when I was but a child. A fat child. As a kid, I was a total foodie. I loved food. I mean l-o-v-e-d it. And not in a healthy way. I thought about it, lied about it, planned for it, bargained for it (at school) and consumed it at every opportunity.
I even hid it.
Like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter. A fat, sneaky teenage squirrel.
For a long time, food represented pleasure in my life. Instant, glorious, sensory pleasure. It was my drug of choice. My escape. Interestingly, I would later discover (as an adult) that the moment certain foods pass my lips, a roller-coaster of feel-good chemical reactions are triggered. Not unlike the experience of a drug addict.
Addicted to Pleasure
Interestingly, alcohol, drugs, food, sex (and a bunch of other things) are very similar (on a level) in that they can all produce an almost-instant feel-good chemical response. If you’re a dog lover, even lying on the floor with your canine buddy can facilitate biochemical changes throughout your entire body in a matter of seconds. Dopamine (a chemical associated with pleasure) is released in certain areas of the brain (specifically, the nucleus accumbens and the prefrontal cortex) by, not just addicts using their drug of choice, but also by the guy inhaling donuts at his desk. And the couple sharing their nightly glass of wine. Or five.
No wonder addiction is such a huge problem in our society.
In reality, the addiction is actually pleasure. It’s only the mechanism that varies.
One day, while peering out of my fat teenage body, I experienced something of a paradigm shift. A realisation. Things changed. Or, more accurately, I began to change. Because of my ever-expanding body (and the subsequent issues and challenges), I started to associate food with pain. Emotional pain. Psychological pain. Sociological pain.
And then to ease all that pain, I’d eat. Of course I did. I’d numb the emotional pain (of being a fat kid) with some momentary physical pleasure. Namely, food. In hindsight, not a great strategy. And something of a vicious cycle. But then I was never that smart around the pantry.
Okay, not smart in general.
A Glorious Distraction
And that story is the reality for many over-eaters. It’s a messy cycle of reactions, emotions and regrettable decisions. I was not (am not) unique. It’s curious that the same thing can be the source of both pleasure and pain. For the same person. And more often than not, all in the space of five minutes. Of course, we don’t always eat because we ‘need’ food. No, we eat because it makes us feel great. For a moment. For many people, food is a glorious distraction.
From the crap. The pain. The reality of a certain situation.
For years (as an adult), I ignored much of what I knew (about health and intelligent nutrition). Unbeknown to most people in my world, I was constantly alternating from healthy choices and behaviours (around food) to unhealthy ones. I constantly did what I knew I shouldn’t do. And then I would rationalise the crap out of my destructive habits. If there’s one thing I excelled at, it was rationalising bad behaviour and poor choices. I could justify anything to anyone.
I remember a time in the nineties (I was in my late twenties) when I had a thriving personal training business (probably the busiest in Australia), was a well-known trainer and educator and when nobody was looking, I was eating my arse off. Or, more accurately, eating it on. One day, I stepped on the scales at work and the number said 117kgs. 257lbs.
F*ck! Was my measured response.
To put that number in perspective, my weight today is 86kgs (189lbs). In that moment, I felt sick at the sight of those three numbers: 1, 1 and 7. Sick and disgusted. And ashamed. The days of living in baggy trackpants and big sweat shirts had to come to an end. The only thing that stopped people from realising how fat I actually was (the fat trainer; not a great career move), was my muscle mass and my baggy wardrobe.
Yes, my biceps were big. But sadly, my gut was bigger.
Big, Fat, Fraud
For years, I felt conflicted about food. How could one thing be the source of so many emotions and issues? I knew what to do but I didn’t do what I knew. I often felt like a fraud and a fake. And in many ways, I was. There were many times when I was all or nothing. Years, in fact. I was either eating like a competitive bodybuilder (lean and clean) or a bear about to hibernate for the winter.
A bear with food issues.
I guess I was about thirty years old when I became significantly more aware of (and proactive about) my relationship with food. I acknowledged that it was more about the emotional and less about the physical. For me. I stopped waiting for my food issue to ‘sort itself out’.
Over time, I came to explore and understand the concept of conscious eating. Of listening to, and respecting, my body. Of delaying gratification (that was massive for me). Of owning up and stepping up. To my behaviours and my decisions. Of course there were ups and downs. Peaks and troughs. Physically and emotionally. All part of the transformation process. My unhealthy relationship with food was so long-standing that it would have been unrealistic and ignorant of me to expect a ‘quick-fix’.
And don’t we love quick-fixes.
I came to acknowledge (publically) that I had an issue with food. Not dissimilar to admitting alcoholism or drug addiction. I acknowledged that I had behaved erratically around food. For a long time. Too long. That I had destructive and unhealthy habits. That I needed to change my relationship with food.
Uniquely Wired. Or is that Uniquely Weird?
Over the years, I’ve come to understand that we all have our own unique relationship with food. Some of us have a healthy relationship, some unhealthy and some, somewhere in the middle. My experience has taught me that there is no single best strategy when it comes to the issue of food or changing our relationship with it. Clearly, different things work for different people. Which is why no single program or product has a one hundred percent success rate. The way we each feel, behave and react around food is influenced by many things: physical, emotional, psychological and sociological.
It might interest you to know that over the last twenty (plus) years I’ve worked with numerous doctors, psychologists, trainers, dieticians and professional athletes who have struggled with food issues. Their eating habits typically sat somewhere on the scale between ‘disordered eating’ and ‘eating disorder’. And while education and knowledge might influence behaviour (and outcomes), they certainly don’t determine it. People who believe that the solution to our current obesity is education (alone) clearly don’t understand the depth or the complexity of all the relevant issues.
More importantly, they don’t understand the way people behave around food.
I’m not here today to give a prescription for, or solution to, anything. My intention with this post is merely to open a conversation that might be interesting and relevant for some. To stimulate thought and to share some of my personal story. What you do or don’t do with this information is totally up to you.
One of the obvious challenges for a ‘foodie’ (me) is that I can’t avoid it or remove it from my life (as is the strategy with many other addictions). Therefore, I need an eating strategy and philosophy that works for me. Practically and emotionally. For example, over the last few years, I’ve discovered that I’m better off avoiding certain things altogether (cheesecake for example), than to have the occasional piece. When I don’t eat it at all, I don’t miss it (honestly) but when I do open the cheesecake door, it’s like I flick some kind of chemical switch that’s almost impossible to shut down. As crazy as it sounds, it’s more enjoyable for me to have none, than ‘just a small piece’.
For years, people have told me that “one piece won’t kill me”. In a literal sense, they’re right. Obviously. But can you imagine telling an alcoholic to have ‘just one beer’? Of course, I don’t recommend this approach for everyone, but for me, when it comes to certain foods, abstinence works best. Over the years, I have learned to shift my attention from what I’m missing (five minutes of taste-bud nirvana) to what I’m gaining (a lean, strong, functional body).
Nothing tastes as good as being in shape feels.
Interestingly, more often than not, the person trying to force-feed me cake is an overweight, unhealthy friend who hates their body. There’s some irony for you.
Like you, I’m a work in progress and will always be. And to be honest, I like that. These days I never feel deprived, I rarely struggle around food and I’m (arguably) in the best shape of my life. Of course, I still enjoy my food immensely (albeit a different diet) but it’s fair to say that the nature of our relationship has changed.
No more lies, no more secrets and no more baggy trackpants.