Clear your plate? Don’t be so greedy! This will make you feel better… Enjoy… You deserve it… Don’t get fat… We are all taught how to eat by the messages and actions we see around us. Maybe our mother dieted, or ate a lot of low-fat but high-sugar foods and so we associate those chemical-laden horrors with health? Maybe we were taught to eat up, and so we never learnt to hear our body’s signals of hunger and satiety? Maybe we were rewarded with sweets: pudding is all too often an easy way to show a love that it can be hard to say.
We use sugar to celebrate and commiserate. It’s certainly what I do. Good day: chocolate. Bad day: chocolate. And it is, quite frankly, unhelpful. Especially when the reality is that we just eat and eat, hoping that the food will fulfil the promise we have been sold – that it will make us feel better – and then blame ourselves when we just feel worse…
For me, it was the comfort that the sweets provided, the sense that I had chocolate to hand and that meant I would be okay. The chocolate became a way to soothe feelings that I had not been taught to handle by myself or to sit with. And yet all the sweets ever did was distract me from the hurting for a while. After the binge (how do you stop? Once the third biscuit has been eaten, isn’t the seventh just inevitable?), I was always left feeling guilty and queasy.
The breakthrough came when I was writing Appetite. Through David’s story in particular, I began to unpack the story of my relationship with sugar, how I used food and sugar as a comfort, and the extent to which that was a habit from childhood. I realised that, even at six years old, I was hiding food, storing it away as a secret support for myself.
And now, despite the fact that I see the truth of it, I still find myself picking up ‘treats’ and ‘rewards’ for myself as well as for my young family. And I want to break that connection.
The change cannot come from outside: no sugar tax will effect a real shift. It all begins with thinking about how you interact with food and sugar. It begins with observing. What do you eat and when? What is your family story when it comes to food? What memories or feelings come to mind when you think about your childhood and food? About yourself and food? It is about seeing the stories we tell ourselves about food and time, to see where they have come from, and begin to think about which parts are helpful, and which are narratives we need to let go of.
For me, one practical solution has been to limit sweets and desserts to Friday-to-Sunday, and to only two items a day. This still often feels like too much, but it is the best I can do right now. It is about honestly seeing where you are right now and then making one change at a time: whole-nut peanut butter not jam, brown toast not sugary cereal, water not juice at lunch… Small changes made one at a time (and not making more changes until that one has mostly stuck) do make a difference.
And, to help unpack the emotional associations, it is about pausing when there is upset with the young, and not so young, ones and saying: You feel bad and part of me wants to give you sweets to make you feel better but how about we just sit together and have a cuddle? How about we do a drawing? Read a book? Go for a walk?
Work on my own habits and awareness is very much a work in progress. I am still watching how I interact with food. I see myself hiding a bar of chocolate (or three) in my drawer still – I did it this week… I have to learn to let go and trust that I will change more permanently when I am ready.
This work is the work of learning to soothe ourselves, learning to sit with some discomfort and pain and not instantly trying to push it away, make it disappear. It is a personal journey, and not an easy one. But it is one that we can take together and, by talking and sharing these stories, we can begin to make the changes we need to for ourselves, our families, and each other…