Food and me: a love-hate re­la­tion­ship

‘I never learned what it was to eat nor­mally: I was al­ways on a diet or eat­ing too much’

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health Fitness - Dr Paula Gil­varry

Ihave al­ways loved food. From the time I was weaned I would gob­ble up ev­ery­thing I was given. Mind you, my mum was a very good cook, and in the 1950s and 1960s all our food was home-grown and home-cooked. I used to watch her from un­der the kitchen ta­ble as she pre­pared de­li­cious meals, tarts and queen cakes for us.

I then grad­u­ated to lick­ing the cake bowl, rolling the ends of dough into snails and lit­tle men when­ever I got the chance. At 11 I could cook a fry, make a brown stew and bake a Swiss roll.

At univer­sity I shared a house where four of us would take turns to cook a din­ner ev­ery evening. You had to turn out a din­ner and a sweet that was good, tasty and eco­nomic.

As a ju­nior doc­tor I hated week­ends on call where the choice was ei­ther stodgy can­teen food or rasher and cheese sand­wiches, the usual con­tents of the doc­tors’ res­i­dence (Res) fridge, so I reg­u­larly brought my own in­gre­di­ents and cooked in the Res room. All good so far? It seems so, but there was an­other side to all of this.

From a very early age I learned that food was a con­so­la­tion and a re­ward. A cut knee was treated with a dab of mer­curochrome and a sweet. Pocket money on a Satur­day meant a trip to the sweet shop and an af­ter­noon spent read­ing that week’s choice of li­brary books and scoff­ing the sweets.

This be­came a pat­tern as I grew up. As I came into my teens I used sweets and choco­late to con­sole my­self when sad, wor­ried or con­fused. The tuck box that my mum reg­u­larly sent me at board­ing school would set off a binge of eat­ing cake and sweets.

At 16 I went on my first diet. Twiggy was the nat­u­rally slim su­per­model that ev­ery­one looked up to in the 1960s, and I have a curvy fig­ure that I hated at the time. I wanted to look like her so I starved my­self and lost up to seven pounds a week. Of course, though, the pounds go straight back on once you start eat­ing nor­mally again.

This has been the pat­tern through­out my life. Eat too much – gain weight. Diet – lose weight; and then put the weight back on again. I did ev­ery diet in the world. I never learned what it was to eat nor­mally: I was al­ways on a diet or eat­ing too much.

Us­ing sweet food to con­sole my­self

Learn­ing to eat nor­mally has been the most dif­fi­cult part of main­tain­ing my weight. I gained sev­eral stone dur­ing each of my two preg­nan­cies and gained more af­ter­wards as I suf­fered with post­na­tal de­pres­sion. I didn’t know I had it at the time – I just felt aw­ful and dragged my­self around, us­ing sweet food to con­sole my­self. Years fol­lowed of Unis­lim, Weight Watch­ers, high-fi­bre, low-fat, Atkins, and count­less other di­ets. I would lose one to two stone, but once I started eat­ing nor­mally I al­ways gained the weight back. Then I dis­cov­ered VLC (very low calo­rie) di­ets where you con­sume 600 calo­ries a day in the form of high-pro­tein drinks. What ac­tu­ally hap­pens is that you go into a state of ke­to­sis; your body is in star­va­tion mode and be­gins to con­sume fat stores. You don’t feel hun­gry and the weight falls off, but once you start eat­ing nor­mally again the weight piles on. (There is a main­te­nance pro­gramme to fol­low but I never did it.) I did this diet a few times, in dif­fer­ent vari­a­tions, and from a start weight of 8st (51kg) at 25, I was even­tu­ally 17st (108kg) at 56.

I gave up then and just ate what I wanted: my weight stayed at 17st un­til I was 60. When I re­tired I ac­tu­ally lost seven pounds just by chang­ing from a desk job to get­ting ac­tive through cook­ing and run­ning the Yeats Ex­pe­ri­ence with my hus­band.

At this stage I had health is­sues: arthri­tis in my knees, a dodgy back, high blood pres­sure and choles­terol, and then I de­vel­oped a heart ar­rhyth­mia (an ir­reg­u­lar heart­beat called atrial fib­ril­la­tion that if left un­treated can lead to heart at­tack or stroke.) It was only then that I started on a diet that ad­dressed the com­bined phys­i­o­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal rea­sons for weight gain.

It worked. I had the in­cen­tive of want­ing to be health­ier, lessen the risk of a re­cur­rence of the heart ar­rhyth­mia, and re­duce the amount of med­i­ca­tion I was on. Over the course of a year I lost 70 pounds (five stone).

I am now 12 stone. I have a BMI of 31, which is still in the over­weight range but, at my age, if I lose any more weight I will look hag­gard. I no longer need med­i­ca­tion for my blood pres­sure or my choles­terol. I con­tinue to take heart­beat reg­u­la­tion medicine, but hav­ing lost so much weight the chance of a re­cur­rence of a heart ar­rhyth­mia is low.

I fi­nally dis­cov­ered the right way to eat, the rea­sons I over-ate and, most im­por­tantly, how to main­tain my weight loss. Any­one who has gone this road will know that keep­ing the weight off is the hard­est task of all.

I had to learn what it is to eat nor­mally, how to watch por­tion size, how to recog­nise the trig­gers that could cause me to over-eat, and how to find other ways of con­sol­ing or re­ward­ing my­self apart from eat­ing.

I re­alise that it will take time for new habits to be em­bed­ded in my mind and for me to learn to man­age the trig­gers that caused me to over-eat in the past. I keep a daily food dairy; I use a smaller din­ner plate. I eat slowly, and I stop to think be­fore I de­cide whether to have a dessert or piece of cake.

I make healthy food choices. I cook fresh food; rarely, if ever, eat pro­cessed food, and watch my in­take of wine.

Right foods

I am feel­ing very good about my­self. I have learned that if I give my body the right foods then it will re­spond by want­ing more of them. (Bac­te­ria in your gut con­nect with your brain through the va­gus nerve and if by eat­ing cor­rectly you have the cor­rect bal­ance of healthy bac­te­ria in your gut, those bac­te­ria will sig­nal to your brain to pro­duce the hor­mone that con­trols your ap­petite.)

Eat­ing highly pro­cessed food is bad for us; it ru­ins our gut, plays havoc with our blood sugar, causes weight gain and con­trib­utes to many health prob­lems. As Bill Gates said: “Make food your medicine or medicine will be­come your food.”

I still have plenty of slips but now I do not feel guilty. I work out why it hap­pened, and I try to learn from this.

I am fi­nally learn­ing to have a healthy re­la­tion­ship with food.

Dr Paula Gil­varry (left) with her hus­band Damien Bren­nan. ‘Doc­tor on a Diet’ by Dr Gil­varry, pub­lished by Gill Books, is priced at ¤19.99.

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