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’
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.
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.