It’s probably no surprise that I spend a lot of my time thinking about food: what I’m having for my next meal, perhaps a new recipe I want to create or a restaurant I’d like to try out. I love food and it’s really important to me – but there’s a fine line between love and obsession.
I’ll be honest, there have been times when this love has veered into obsession and I can tell you from my own experience, it’s not healthy physically or emotionally.
This preoccupation has partly been down to some of my health issues connected to food, but also because I, like so many other people, am susceptible to the pressures of wanting to look a certain way or emotions driving my eating. It has led me down the hairy path of hunting for a so-called perfect diet. I wanted to eat good food, feel great about it, not put on weight and avoid spending vast amounts on crazy ingredients. The dream, right?
The thing is, there’s really no such thing as a perfect ‘diet’, even if it has a sexy name and lots of people telling you how wonderful it is. It might work for you in the short term, but is it something you can realistically sustain for the rest of your life? (And enjoy?)
You might be a little disappointed to know that I’m not necessarily going to jump in here with a diet solution. However there is a way that I now approach eating (and cooking) which gives me more pleasure. This has come from slowing down a little and paying more attention when I eat – and also more generally in life.
Eating well vs perfectionism
So what’s my story in all of this?
Food is what filled my spare time for many, many years. When I wasn’t at my day job, I was reading about food, playing around in the kitchen, attending cooking classes, going to food events and farmer’s markets. Actually, I even loved just wandering through supermarkets checking out what was on the shelves… You get the idea! I mean I was doing other stuff too, but really most things came back to food.
Even with this love, I have a complex relationship with food. I’ve always eaten pretty well and cared about what I put in my body, but I too got sucked into lots of the messages about low fat food (and very low fat bodies!) being better. Although I’ve never really been overweight, I’m not very tall so small changes of weight can feel like a big difference to me. I’ve also fallen into the trap of comparing myself negatively to other members of my family who are super slim and equating being slim with happiness and success
I’ve gone from comfort eating to depriving myself – and hiding the emotional tussle it was putting me through. I would at some points find normality and then slip off the edge again. I have a perfectionist streak in my behaviour and sometimes this even affected my eating choices. It’s taken me a really, really long time to find a better sense of peace and pleasure with eating.
My other challenge has been a health issue which can be exacerbated by food. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I have problems with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). When I was younger, I was pretty good at ignoring what my body was telling me from the effects of occasionally drinking too much, being generally a bit stressed (I’m quite a high emotion person!), not getting enough sleep and pushing down negative emotions I was feeling.
Having really bad IBS symptoms made me finally have to deal with things I’d been trying to avoid – including my relationship with food.
Even without all the other emotional stuff that food can bring up, having digestive issues adds a layer of complexity to food relationships. And for a while, it meant I almost fell out of love with food.
I learned over the years quite a few foods that didn’t make me feel great, like refined carbs and too much sugar, so I avoided them. But the reality is that my digestion still haunted me; it would lie around, grumbling in the background, gradually getting more and more uncomfortable.
A series of events then sent me spiralling down into a cycle of digestive despair.
There was a tragedy in my family, I’d been travelling a lot for work and personally, and I was in a job which although I enjoyed, wasn’t really what I wanted to do and was at times emotionally draining (coupled with a long commute). I then woke up one Monday morning and could barely get out of bed.
I was too scared to drive my long journey to work as it didn’t feel safe. I wasn’t sick exactly, but I felt awful, exhausted and my brain couldn’t focus on anything. It was actually another 12 months before I was able to read much more than a few pages of anything at a time. I worked from home for the rest of the week, then dragged myself into work the following week, but it felt like I was wading through concrete. I gradually started to feel a little better but things weren’t right.
A little while before this I’d had some stomach issues with a parasite I’d picked up while travelling in Peru. I hadn’t noticed it was a problem as my stomach was already a bit sensitive and prone to upset, so it was a few months before it was identified. At this second flare up, I wondered if perhaps the parasite hadn’t cleared up. I went back to the doctor for what would be the first of many, many medical appointments over the next year.
I had was prodded, poked and inspected for all sorts of things. After ruling out coeliac and Chrohn’s disease (phew), I was diagnosed with IBS. To be honest, it wasn’t very helpful as there’s not really a cure for IBS and treatments are variable. I tried probiotic supplements, elimination diets and FODMAP approaches, but none really sorted things out.
I was at the lowest weight I’d been in years. I liked how I looked in my clothes and was secretly pleased that I was shopping for size 8 dresses. But I felt like crap and I was terribly unhappy a lot of the time (not that anyone other than my husband would really have known this).
Medical professionals kept asking me if I was stressed – but to be honest, the biggest stress was from how my body was behaving. Everything I ate seemed to inflame me. I was even put on low dose anti-depressants to soothe my digestion (quite a common treatment for extreme IBS) after going back to the GP in floods of tears after many nights of little sleep and extreme stomach pain. The tablets helped initially, but then I started getting mouthfuls of ulcers so painful that my tongue swelled up and I couldn’t speak.
I was feeling spaced out and stupid, barely able to concentrate. It was a very low point for me.
The power of slowing down
Fortunately I was given access to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) around the same time I started taking the medication. This was really a starting point for me to think about how I could better manage things not just through what I was eating, but also how I was caring for myself and even talking (internally) to myself.
I’d practised tai chi and qi gong for many years and had an awareness of mindfulness, so I had a good grounding in holistic approaches to wellbeing. However I hadn’t really been aware of all my negative internal chatter and the perfectionist streak that was wreaking havoc with perceptions of myself.
I was so excited about the chance to start my own business and I loved the opportunities that were coming up, but it’s pretty hard to feel on top of the world when you’re spending the first big chunk of your day sitting on the toilet with an upset stomach. And being a perfectionist is not actually a great quality to have an as entrepreneur!
It was also around this time that I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia; IBS is one of the common symptoms of fibromyalgia, alongside extreme fatigue, brain fog and muscle ache. It was a bit of a shock, but it explained many symptoms I’d been experiencing for a long time. Like IBS, there’s no real cure only management.
With the CBT, my own research and starting to create more of the life I wanted to live, working in an industry that I was passionate about (food!), I started to creep back to reality. It took small steps, mostly forward but sometimes back, and patience (something I’m not always naturally good at) to move myself in a positive direction. I was forced to slow down, get better at listening to my body and find some semblance of peace.
All of this was a blessing in disguise.
Through this whole experience I had to rebuild my relationship with food and listen to my body more carefully (though I still don’t always get this right!). Meditation and reflection were, necessarily, becoming part of my everyday life rather than just when I did my tai chi classes.
At the same time I was also getting more and involved with one of my favourite ingredients, dark chocolate. I’ve always been a bit of a chocolate geek, but I was starting to gain a professional interest in it too. Through all of these routes I was discovering new aspects of taste and it changed the course of my business and how I wanted to work with people.
This was also what made me realise that eating well is not just about what you eat. If you’re body and mind is in a constant state of inflammation, it’s really difficult to digest your food properly, let alone truly enjoy it. I have found a whole new pleasure in the power of slowing down – and not just for one slot a week.
My marathon running has been replaced with long walks (for now). I have a much greater awareness of simple things that make me happy, like smelling spices while I’m cooking or listening to the sounds outside of my window for a few minutes in the morning. I don’t pack my weeks and weekends with activities, and allow time for rest. I also keep my meals relatively simple and my portions on the smaller side to allow me to digest things properly. There are some foods I avoid, but I’m also now able to eat a much wider variety of foods than when things were at their worst.
But I haven’t turned into a whole new person; I still get massively over-stimulated when I spend time with other people and get a bit excited and talk too much. I also sometimes make the wrong food choices and end up with an upset stomach. I just try not to beat myself up quite so much about it (meditation and journalling helps this a lot).
Working with chocolate has also been another way I’ve discovered how to centre myself; it’s very difficult to multi-task when you’re tempering and I’ve learned from messy experience that you ruin chocolates very quickly if you’re rushing around the kitchen. But a whole day can pass very easily once I get into my chocolate flow – and I have something delicious to taste at the end of it!
I’m also no longer seeking a ‘perfect diet’ to manage my symptoms as it doesn’t really exist.
My body needs different foods at different times; sometimes lighter foods in warm weather, warming curries in winter, very simple foods when my stomach is upset. I always have a wide variety of colours, vegetables, grains – and a bit of dark chocolate on the side of course. And I keep working on other ways to calm my body – including not being scared of stress and trying to accept it as a natural part of life rather than something to always run away from.
So, if you only do one thing after reading this, next time you’re eating a piece of chocolate think of me. Stop and leave it to melt in your mouth, really paying attention to how it tastes and feels. Then celebrate choosing to eat something so delicious and so slowly. And smile.
* If you have serious issues with IBS or have other dietary related problems, please seek advice from a registered nutritional therapist or dietitian if you don’t know where to start (ideally someone who specialises in your issue). There is useful information available online, but I tend to refer to official sites dedicated to a specific health issue/disease or NHS Choices