6 reasons why you STILL have a difficult relationship with food

Many of us would like a relationship with food like the one butterflies have with flowers and nectar – taking only what you need. However, many of us struggle to achieve such a relationship. Problem eating and its effects have been identified as a national health crisis. Conditions linked to eating problems such as obesity, diabetes and cancer, are estimated to costs society billions of pounds a year.

Why does this happen? After all, most of us know what we should and should not eat. There’s more than enough nutritional advice out there online… So, why do so many of us eat more than we need to? Why do so many of us fail each diet we start? In this blog, we considered 6 reasons why.

1. The identity trap

At a recent wedding I attended, the best man’s speech had some great fun with the groom’s love of food. The best man pointed out what was obvious. ‘He’s never happier than when he’s eating.’ We see variations on The Identity Trap. Sometimes it is associated with the individual as above, sometimes with families and sometimes there is a cultural basis. Either way, identity shapes how we think, behave and feel about food. And sometimes this can trap us into a cycle of poor eating.

‘Going back to a conversation we had in our first meeting Mark raised a point that sometimes people have a “fantasy” about the person they are or want to be…I have given this concept a lot of thought since then and have come to realise that there is a part of me who enjoys the idea of doing certain things more than the actual execution of it and actually, it is that part of me that sets the unrealistic and unachievable goals which then has a knock on effect with my poor eating habits and leads me to be unhappy and so the cycle continues.” Emma

Two recent clients of ours had Italian and Asian background respectively. Their strong sense of national and cultural identity was bound up with food – lots of food. In their minds, eating less meant a loss of self. Obesity and its related chronic health conditions were rife in their families, and yet this evidence was conveniently overlooked.

2. Self-esteem: escaping into food

A recent client of ours, Beryl, came into therapy with poor self-esteem. She described herself as ‘repulsive’ and ‘disgusting’. Over-eating was how she reinforced this view of herself. To eat sensibly was to accept an alternative, positive version of herself – and that was frightening. However, in therapy she found the courage to challenge this fear:

‘We spent very little time in therapy on what and how I ate. This was not what I was expecting. Rather, we worked on my view of myself as repulsive. I truly believed that I was. Mark’s relentless kindness won me over. In time, I created a different version of who I am and much to my amazement I stopped wanting to overeat.’ Beryl

People with adequate levels of self-esteem do not overeat or have a problematic relationship with food because they have no need to escape who they are. Escaping who they are is a constant for those with low self-esteem, and food is an easy means of doing so.

3. Cave & continuation

Many people embark on the challenge of changing how they eat. Some succeed and some of don’t, of course. What everyone who tries has in common is they all reach a certain point: to cave or continue. We call this the ‘Cave & Continuation’ point. Understanding how to continue and avoid falling back – caving – is crucial.

Continuing and caving come with distinct thoughts, beliefs, behaviours and feelings to do with food. Spotting the signs of caving early on, can stop someone from caving as they can put in place measures to avoid doing so.

‘The cave and continuation point helped me understand my yoyo patterns. Odd as it might seem, I never really connected the fluctuations in my weight with this key moment. I’d make progress over a few weeks such as in the New Year, but would stop without realising. A while later I’d think ‘Got to shed a few pounds’ and the whole diet and exercise thing would start again. I was living in a goldfish bowl, so I started to use a diary and calendar to check my progress. This enabled me to spot the signs I was caving. One sign was how my shopping habits would start to change. Amazing! I never knew.’ Steven

4. Taking a leap of faith

Here’s a telling clip from the BBC programme ‘Lose Weight For Love’ https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03vg31r The young lady featured says she ‘expects to fail’ when trying to lose weight, thus establishing a self-fulfilling prophesy. Like many people, she would commit to losing weight if she had the evidence such commitment would pay off. This is a classic ‘rock and a hard place’ scenario: the one thing we need to begin is the one thing we don’t have. At its heart is often fear such as fear of failure or judgement.

‘Mark talked about trusting myself – that it was a question of when I achieved my eating goals, not if. Our discussion about needing the evidence of success to justify starting was the missing piece. It explained so much. Trust was the antidote to fear. Trust allowed me to take a leap of faith that I would lose weight without knowing for sure that I would.’ Stephanie

5. The right goal, but the wrong strategy

We think the enduring popularity of diets despite evidence that they don’t work for many, can be explained by this maxim. The goal, for example, weight loss, becomes the overriding focus of attention. As a result, the emotional seductiveness of the goal and all that it promises obscures the strategy to achieve it. Like a mountain climber looking at the summit and not the mountain in front of them, so someone wanting to lose weight (the summit) MUST equally keep their focus on how (climbing the mountain) they will do so.

‘If I’m being honest it was too stressful thinking about how I would lose weight. Much easier to pop along each week to Weight Watchers and wait for some mysterious, magical process to kick in – as if simply being told a number by the Weight Watchers lady was all that I needed. Mark told me about a psychological law human beings are subject to called The Law of One Step at a Time. Apparently, this law was turned into a story called The Hare and the Tortoise. I stopped obsessing about the goal and focused on the strategy, as Mark suggested. It worked.’ Peter

6. Will power is NOT enough!

On a recent edition of Radio 4’s Women’s Hour there was a feature on our relationship with food. Part of the feature, was a listener phone in. One caller was firmly of the belief that losing weight is just a question of will power. If this were true, then Conversations With Impact would be out of business, but we’re not and neither is the diet industry for that matter.

The reason? Because the many ‘benefits’ to a problematic relationship with food have been hardwired into our brain’s reward and punishment circuitry. Our normal reward and punishment mechanism gets hijacked by food so we become ‘rewarded’ for overeating and punished when we don’t. Only when this process is reversed can will power help us. On its own, it just isn’t strong enough.

‘A lack of will power was used as a judgment against me. If this were true, then I was morbidly obese through choice. I used to believe this, which made my weight gain all the worse. Mark’s explanation about it not all being about will power, lifted the weight of those years of judgement. Mark showed me how to make it more rewarding not to eat too much.’ Helen

Getting support

Every person has their own, unique relationship with food. At Conversations With Impact, using a variety of approaches tailored specifically to an individual’s eating problems, we help our clients to overcome issues, such as overeating, so they can improve the quality of both their life and health.

If you or someone you know would like to resolve their problem eating, then please get in touch. We have a lot of experience successfully with people to overcome their problem eating.

Read our other blog on Managing Food Cravings and Bad Eating Habits.

Please note – this blog relates to what we call mild-to-moderate eating problems, not what are called Eating Disorders. Eating Disorders require specialist services, which we do not provide. For more information on specialist support see b-eat