Feeding the body, starving the soul

30 Nov 2017
Feeding the body, starving the soul
Photo Credit: Yuri Arcurs—iStock

The weight is starting to come back on, and now I find that I’m eating even when I’m not hungry,” says Mandy, who managed to lose nine kilos, only to discover that she’s gaining it all back again. “It’s gotten to the point where I dare not keep sweet things in the house, because I know I’ll just eat the lot!”

“Food has a lot of meanings. It’s a comfort, and it’s always there for us when other things aren’t,” says Melody Marks, a California psychotherapist. In her view, diets almost never work in the longer term—in fact, they only “stick” in about two per cent of cases!

Part of the diet “problem” is our culture. Where the image of beauty is a size 8, eating disorders can only be expected, particularly among women, who make up 90 per cent of dieters. And it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that 90 per cent of all hospitalised anorexics are also women, and at any one time 33 per cent of female undergraduate students are either bingeing or purging.

“The trouble with diets is that they create a vicious circle. You feel like you’re in jail with what, when and how you should eat being controlled by someone else,” says Marks. “So after a while you go on a jailbreak and eat the foods you shouldn’t. This leaves you feeling guilty and pledging to start again. This ‘doing time’ results in guilt and shame.”

Our bodies react to dieting. In response to the decrease in calories, the body’s metabolism slows down. The only way to increase this is physical activity (read: exercise). “We are built to move,” says Marks. “Without moving, any diet won’t change much of anything. Moving is the best antidepressant there is. And it’s free!”

Research shows that many people become depressed if they don’t do something physical. Unfortunately, they then beat themselves up for feeling depressed when they have nothing to be depressed about—then turn to food for solace. “If the energy doesn’t come out,” says Marks, “it goes inward. It needs to get out.”

People overeat for two reasons. First, they’re bored, so they seek food as a stimulant. Or second, they’re stressed and seek food as a sedative. But there are better ways to cope with both boredom and stress—again, exercise, with a walk or a workout—at least once a day.

Sometimes the issue is a lifetime of using food as a reward. “If you got a good report at school, you might have gotten rewarded with cookies,” says Marks. “On the other hand, if your parents didn’t like you to express anger or negative emotions, you might have been given food as a way to calm you down. The child then learns that whenever she feels something—happiness, sadness, anger—she gets food.”

When the child becomes an adult, it’s difficult to separate feelings from feedings, which is usually why diets don’t work: they don’t address the problem of the feelings. A good way to understand the feelings you associate with food is to remember your childhood at dinnertime. All kinds of dynamics occur around the dining table. Were they fun times or difficult?

In addition to family behaviours, overeating is almost always linked to low self-esteem. If you grew up in an environment where you received a lot of support, you can later dip into this reservoir when something bad happens. The people who fill this reservoir are normally parents. But if your parents were themselves needy, they probably couldn’t do that for you, so over the years you sought some other source of comfort, usually food.

“If you can’t nurture yourself, you’ll find something to do it for you,” says Marks. “Food is available, fast and easy.”

The psychology

As you look to develop a thinner, trimmer profile, it’s also important to decide what being “thinner” will mean to you. Try writing a list that begins, “If I were thinner, I would be . . . / do . . . / have . . . / feel . . .”

Your list might include “more in control,” “happier,” “more loveable,” “more successful,” to name a few. The trouble is that this is what Marks calls the “sucker list”—exactly the sort of things the diet industry wants you to believe so that you’ll spend your money on their products—the sales of which, in Australia, are more than $300 million annually! In fact, the bigger your list, the bigger your deprivation, and the bigger your deprivation, the more you’ll eat!

“The point is, people who are thinner don’t lose these negative things; little actually changes,” advises Marks. “You’re putting your life on hold. There’s no reason you can’t have most of these things now. We shouldn’t wait for something outside ourselves to come and fix us.”

Some dieters make things so hard for themselves that they’re bound to fail. “I’ve lost a few kilos, but I’m stuck at this weight,” says Mary. “I’ve kept some smaller-sized clothes from years ago, thinking I’ll diet my way back into them again.”

Marks advises against such a strategy. “Build a wardrobe in the size you are now,” she says, “and don’t wait to live,” suggesting that a person simply give away smaller-sized clothes. “These are your ‘beat up’ clothes,” she says. “They’ll only depress you. Let go of the expectation of getting into the smaller sizes from years ago and tell yourself you love yourself the way you are. Not enough of us got to hear that when we were young.”

One way to beat back self-loathing is to write out a list of the things you like about yourself (or imagine what a good friend would say about you): “ ‘I like myself because . . .’ This is important, because it will help you recognise your good qualities; too many women define themselves simply by their body size.”

Doing this can be invaluable, because an overeater will often feel she isn’t loveable. The “I don’t feel loveable” immediately translates into “I feel fat.”

Take notice of how you respond to compliments. You should just say “thank you.” In all likelihood, however, when someone compliments you, you’ll minimise their words. “You like this shirt? Oh, it’s just something I threw on this morning.” “You think I’ve lost a few kilos? Oh, I’ve got so much more to lose, and it will take me forever.”

“Let other people add into your reservoir,” says Marks; “otherwise, you’ll be emotionally starved and will fill up on food. Be aware that you may not be letting others in as a way of protecting yourself, because you don’t accept yourself.”


So is there any solution to the self-acceptance and dieting dilemma? Yes, there is. Part of it is to work out what kind of meaning you’ve attributed to being overweight. There are several possibilities:

  • feeling powerful because of your size—you’ll “have more weight to throw around”
  • a means to keep going when you’re tired—give yourself permission to rest instead of using food to carry on
  • protection against intimacy or for keeping people at a distance—they might find out you’re vulnerable
  • a statement of independence—“I’m in charge of my body”
  • an excuse for not taking on new challenges—“I’ll start once I’ve lost weight”
  • a way to avoid physical or sporting competition (particularly for men)
  • a means of suppressing anger.

“Eating is an attempt at self-care,” says Marks. “On some level you’re attempting to deal with your feelings. This is not a bad thing, but now you need to use other tools. If you’d known something else to do before, you’d have done it. Now you need to learn what else to do.” One tool is natural eating—a natural eater eats only when they’re hungry and knows specifically what they want. They find the food satisfying. Overeaters are usually wooed by food but find that once they’ve eaten it, they’re still not satisfied.

We are built to move. . . . Moving is the best antidepressant there is. And it’s free!

Therefore, instead of being wooed by food, think about the kind of food you actually want. “Zero in on the taste, temperature and texture of what you want, and you’ll be happier with what you eat,” says Marks. “Is your stomach empty?” she asks. “Then eat warm, soothing, bulky foods. Do you feel the hunger in your throat and mouth? Then choose sweet and cold foods and drinks.”

If it’s an emotional hunger, determine what the need is that you’re trying to fill. And when you do eat, slow down, savour your meal and get only to the “right moment” where your body (not your head) is satisfied. Then stop. You’ll feel comfortable but not full. This takes practice. Also look to non-eating activities to deal with the longing for food when you aren’t physically hungry. These could include reading a good book, phoning a friend, exercising or completing a practical project.

When you realise what purpose your being overweight was serving you and you learn to reward yourself with means other than food, chances are that your fat will indeed begin to disappear.


Sheila O'Connor