What's Your "Mental Weight"? And how does it affect your relationship to food?
Does food make you panic, cause you anxiety, is it your enemy or your comfort? You are not alone. Statistics relating to people with food issues, including both those with an eating disorder like anorexia or those who are overweight or obese, are staggering when you consider the level of unhappiness associated with these. Presently there are well over a million people in the UK with an eating disorder and it's estimated that 46% of men and 32% of women are overweight, plus a further 17% of men and 21% of women are clinically obese.
In my roles of agony aunt, life coach and psychologist I've spent years speaking to men and women about a whole range of issues. You'd be amazed how often food and weight related issues seep into these conversations. It's led me to conclude at an anecdotal level that what I call your "Mental Weight" - ranging from healthy to dangerous - determines your relationship with food. I define Mental Weight (MW) as the sum total of your feelings and attitudes towards food. This is more helpful than thinking in terms of your actual physical weight because, e.g., you could appear to be a healthy weight when actually you’re dangerously bulimic. In this case I'd say you had a dangerous MW. Your relationship with food may range from a positive and healthy one to a negative and dysfunctional one leaving you prone to issues around weight and body image affecting your whole life.
As people associate the term "eating disorder" with anorexia and/or bulimia and as I'm also concerned with those who are overweight or obese, I use the phrase "poor relationship with food" to encompass anyone who has an issue around eating. Because whether you're punishing yourself by restricting your food intake through anorexic behaviour, or bingeing and purging as in bulimia, or bingeing and/or constantly over-eating as in those who are overweight, your relationship with food is a negative one. It's this relationship that needs improving. By determining what I call your Mental Weight I hope it will help you crystallise your feelings in relation to food with a positive knock-on effect to your behaviour.
Presently your feelings and behaviour may be out of control, frightening, unpredictable, and making you anxious and unhappy. There's certainly a strong association between anxiety and depression and those with a poor relationship with food. Once you've identified your Mental Weight if you follow the advice it should prevent further negative developments in your relationship to food. And help you rectify negative feelings and behaviours currently associated with your eating patterns.
Answer my six question quiz to determine your Mental Weight and follow the relevant advice.
!/ Do you know the calorie, fat and/or sugar contents of the foods you eat?
I wouldn't really have a clue; what's important is a well-rounded diet
I sometimes check these things and sometimes worry about them
I always check food packets for calorie, fat and sugar contents
I always check food packets for these things but then don't care and eat whatever I want. OR avoid some of them like the plague!
2/ At a friend's birthday party there's a gorgeous cake on offer. Do you -
A. Enjoy a slice without giving it a thought.
B. Have a small piece because you'd worry about the calories in a whole piece.
C. Fantasise/obsess about how delicious it'd be but resist eating it OR eat it and feel very guilty.
D. Have a slice, then seconds, and even more. Hate myself for it. OR Eat a piece, vomit or exercise excessively later that day.
3/ Have you ever hoarded food, binged on food, binged and vomited, severely restricted your intake, eaten one or two particular foods to the exclusion of others, over-exercised, been secretive about what you eat, thought obsessively about food and/or your body weight/shape?
I've thought about such things but don't do them
Sometimes I do such things
I frequently do such things
4/ How much energy do you put into thinking about food, preparing it, avoiding it, etc?
Only enough to prepare decent meals.
I waste energy fretting if I've eaten something I shouldn't.
Every time I eat I think about what's in the food and how it's affecting my size/shape.
Food is always on my mind - eating, not eating, what I crave, the foods I hate, etc. I waste loads of energy on this!
5/ Does your weight/body shape affect your self-esteem?
My self-esteem has nothing to do with my weight.
When I'm at a good weight/shape my self-esteem is higher.
My weight/shape has almost everything to do with the way I feel about myself.
I never feel good about myself and this is utterly bound up with my weight/shape
6/ Have you ever dieted?
I can't see the point as I eat well and take regular exercise.
I occasionally diet when there's a special event I want to look good for.
I've tried loads of diets but I know a real change in my lifestyle/attitudes would probably work better.
I'm constantly on a diet or yo-yo diet. OR There's no point to anything if I can't stick to a strict dietary regime.
KEY/ADVICE TO THE FOUR MAIN MENTAL WEIGHTS:
HEALTHY MENTAL WEIGHT:
4-6 "A" answers. No "C" or "D" answers.
You have a very good mental outlook and emotional relationship with food! Food is not the enemy or comfort, it is to be enjoyed and fuel your energy needs. You eat a good variety of foods and understand how important the different food groups are to a well-rounded diet. You don't succumb to food fads. You're not obsessed with counting calories or fat content. You understand that occasional treats are absolutely fine when set against a healthy diet. You keep fit without getting fanatical about it.
Advice: Keep up the good work! Ensure you exercise regularly. If you're a parent encourage the same healthy eating habits in your children. Discourage "grazing" on food (instead of proper meals) which is so common in children. Have regular family meal times. Don't emphasise attractiveness/looks with them but emphasise them as whole people.
2. BORDERLINE MENTAL WEIGHT - NOT ACTING OUT:
4-6 "B" answers. No "C" or "D" answers.
Your relationship with food is reasonably healthy but you could succumb to negativity in this relationship if overly-stressed or you hit a low-point in life. You eat a variety of foods but can obsess about some foods. You worry about it if you "step out of line" and eat something "unhealthy". You've got a good idea of calorie and fat contents, etc., but still allow yourself some foods that might be considered unhealthy or fattening. You might fantasise about being slimmer and/or more toned. You worry about things like cellulite but don't act out by exercising excessively.
Advice: All the advice above plus be aware of stress in your life that could tip the balance from the positive, into the negative, with your relationship with food. Resist any obsessing about having eaten "the wrong thing". Let it go if you've, e.g., indulged in an extra piece of cake! Be aware in advance of any "Event" or "Seasonal" dieting. If you have an event or, e.g., when the Christmas season is coming up, plan to look after yourself but don't go on a fad diet. Practise self-affirmations that, e.g., you are worth far more then what you weigh or what your body shape is. On your mirror and at your desk, pin up a photograph of yourself in a happy moment to give you a feel-good vibe during the day. If you're carrying excessive weight then aim to lose no more than 2 pounds per week with sensible eating plus moderate exercise rather then a traditional "diet".
3. POOR MENTAL WEIGHT - SOME ACTING OUT:
Any "C" answers but no "D" answers.
Your relationship with food is poor/negative. Food is constantly on your mind and you tend to "punish yourself" if you've had a "bad food" day, e.g., eating something you consider fattening or bad for you. This "punishment" may take the form of resisting eating or comfort eating and feeling worse. You check food packets regularly for fat and sugar content. You're prone to food fads where you eat a particular food for an extended period of time before switching to another fad. You've tried a number of diets. You might be obsessed with preparing your own meals. You might worry about social situations where you may have to eat in front of others. You've probably been secretive about some of your food habits. Ultimately what goes on in your life is at least partly acted out through your eating habits.
Advice: These negative food behaviours are symptoms of how you feel about yourself generally. Time to be kinder and gentler with yourself. Learn to put yourself first if, e.g., you've become a "People pleaser" who always puts others first. You then feel neglected, resentful, or second best and end up comforting yourself with food or punishing yourself by restricting food intake. Challenge distorted thinking like, e.g., reassuring yourself that you have some control your life because you restrict food intake. Such distorted thinking actually means food is controlling you and not vice versa! Come clean with your loved ones that you're struggling with your relationship with food. Keep a "food and feelings" diary for a week. Note down what sets you running for comfort foods or what makes you even more determined to control your intake of food. For example, does arguing with your partner, a family member, or your boss make you reach for the biscuits or decide you won't eat anything that evening?
It's time to de-stress your life as stress exacerbates a poor relationship with food. Learn to identify the things in your life that stress/upset you and say No to excessive responsibilities. Speak to your doctor about your situation and get their approval for a moderate exercise regime. If you're overweight and "hate exercise" then choose something fun like dance classes. If you're over-exercising resist doing more than four hours per week maximum. Enlist a crisis buddy for negative behaviours like bingeing on comfort foods or running to the gym to burn off more calories. Ring them, tell them you're upset or stressed and that you need a pep-talk.
Take one-day-at-a-time. Accept that some days will be happier and better than other days. Don't punish yourself if you have a bad day - it's not the end of the world. Imagine the "healthy you" and pin up a photo from a time you looked fit and well. Each time you mentally categorise yourself as the "fat me" or "not good enough me" replace this with the positive image of the "healthy me". Start communicating with loved ones, work colleagues, etc. Learn to face hurdles with honest dialogue. Make time to sit down and talk through things that trouble you. You'll be less likely to comfort or punish yourself through food if you talk about the little niggles and issues we all have to face. Don't allow things to build up instead seize the moment and speak when things arise. Get in touch with the Eating Disorders Association for further information or support 0845-634-1414 or Over-eaters Anonymous 07000-784-985.
4.DANGEROUS MENTAL WEIGHT - MUCH ACTING OUT:
Any "D" answers.
Your relationship with food is in the danger zone. Food is constantly on your mind in some shape or form and you either punish yourself by restricting your intake or binge-eat or constantly eat because of your negative feelings. You can't go anywhere without thinking about food and what may be offered at, e.g., a friend's home, restaurant, or function. You might hoard foods of your choice in your home and/or Office. You're prone to night eating when you're half asleep. You're either very underweight or very overweight. Unless you outwardly look an average weight through your bingeing and purging. You're secretive about most of your food habits and/or rituals. Loved ones are worried about you. You regularly feel, e.g., anxious, unhappy, angry, terrible about yourself, hate yourself or lethargic about life. Ultimately what happens to you is acted out through your relationship with food.
Advice: All the above advice plus you must immediately tell loved ones the trouble you're in with your relationship with food. I have a saying that "secrets make you sicker" and if you're, e.g., secretly vomiting, over-eating, or restricting your food, then you must get this behaviour out into the open. It's terribly important you consult your doctor about such behaviours as they can have severe effects on your body. This is extremely serious as the mortality rate for, e.g., anorexics is higher than any other psychiatric disorder. You may need a referral to an eating disorders or obesity counsellor, and/or a nutritionist.
Published in the Express Newspaper