Ask Philippa

Our agony aunt tack­les your is­sues

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I am in­tel­li­gent, ca­pa­ble and at­trac­tive. But I am also un­able to stop eat­ing too much choco­late and other sug­ary stuff. I have been do­ing this since I can re­mem­ber. I know I am ba­si­cally eat­ing my feel­ings be­cause I have no­ticed I eat more when I’m stressed, al­though I overeat when I’m not, too.

I eat in se­cret, mainly packs of choco­late bars, big pack­ets of sweets and bis­cuits, then I hide the wrap­pers. I have put on three stone in three years. I think I would cer­tainly fall into the ‘obese’ cat­e­gory from the med­i­cal point of view, now. Twice I have lost a stone, but it has al­ways gone back on, plus more, af­ter­wards.

As a child I was very keen on sweets and cakes, and re­sent­ful when my mum used to limit them. Al­though peo­ple see me as very cheer­ful, I find it hard to talk about my feel­ings. I don’t have an un­happy fam­ily life – I have a kind hus­band and two lovely chil­dren. Friends tell me it’s not too much of a prob­lem be­cause ‘it’s only choco­late’, but I’m des­per­ate for help. I would be so grate­ful for any advice. Name and ad­dress with­held

First, I am go­ing to play with your lan­guage a bit. You are say­ing that you are “un­able to stop”. I want you to change this to, “I am choos­ing not to stop.” It may not feel as if you are mak­ing a choice when you choose to give in to your crav­ings, but you are.

Some peo­ple just can’t seem to eat sugar in mod­er­a­tion and it can be eas­ier to give it up en­tirely. For some of us, sugar is ad­dic­tive.

Go­ing cold turkey may seem im­pos­si­ble, but I prom­ise you, it’s not. You may find it eas­ier to give up choco­late and sug­ary foods if you also give up all sugar and caf­feine, too. But it will be an un­pleas­ant process. As well as crav­ings you will prob­a­bly also get a with­drawal headache. Then, af­ter a week, you will find it so much eas­ier to stay off choco­late and sugar be­cause you will crave it so much less. When I did this, I also had to give up sugar sub­sti­tutes like those in diet drinks be­cause I found they made my crav­ings come back.

You can keep your­self busy by watch­ing your crav­ings in­stead of be­ing your crav­ings. Start a crav­ings chart; when you feel you’re in the grip of one, give it a num­ber, one for the weak­est and 10 if it’s very strong. An hour later, check in and rate the crav­ing again. Soon, you will be able to see from your chart that your crav­ings sub­side, cru­cially with­out you giv­ing into them.

It’s great you know why you eat sugar. But even if you do stop sooth­ing your­self with it, you may well find a sub­sti­tute soother. For ex­am­ple, you don’t want to switch to drink­ing a bot­tle of wine ev­ery night. To pre­vent this, you need to re­ally talk about your feel­ings rather than be­ing scared of them and push­ing them down with choco­late or wine or what­ever. The root of ad­dic­tion is of­ten in child­hood, from not hav­ing your feel­ings val­i­dated and not hav­ing how you ex­pe­ri­ence your­self mir­rored back to you ad­e­quately. That can leave you feel­ing empty in­side.

You could go to a ther­a­pist who, hope­fully, will at­tune to you, mir­ror your ex­pe­ri­ence to you and val­i­date how you feel. Join­ing a group of peo­ple who want to talk hon­estly and be lis­tened to can give a sim­i­lar ex­pe­ri­ence. For ex­am­ple, you could join or even start a group like those at Men­tal­health­mates.co.uk. Once you’ve had some prac­tice of shar­ing your story and your feel­ings, you’ll get bet­ter at talk­ing about all your feel­ings, not just those you were trained by your child­hood to think of as okay. Be­cause all of your feel­ings are okay and the only way you can find that out is hav­ing them ac­cepted and val­i­dated by other peo­ple. Be pa­tient, it may take prac­tice.

And back to lan­guage again, all of the above will work if, rather than try to do it, you de­cide to do it.

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