Can we really change our food habits?Mon 10th June 2019
I began writing Appetite in 2014 as part of National Novel Writing Month. One of the ideas in the story was inspired by that image, from the Jamie Oliver series ‘School Dinners’, of mums pushing junk food through the school gates. At the time I thought: what would make you do that? How would that feel? What would you be trying to stop or do?
As I worked on editing the book, I slowly realised just how much David’s behaviour was actually my own: hiding in the toilets to eat, stockpiling treats in a draw, emotional manipulating parents to get the food wanted, the comfort found in it. I also began to take a look around me: at the way we eat on a Friday compared to how eat on a Tuesday. The way we create the habit of “treating” our selves after a bad, and even a good, day. Other European cultures do not do this in quite the same way that we do. Here in the UK we eat more crisps than the any other country in Europe. We are second only to the US when it comes to snacking.*
The messages we receive around exercise are often confused. All too often, we think (and teach our children that) we go to a sports club and then eat McDonalds after: that we exercise to enable us to eat junk. Sport is something children are forced to do under the guise of “games lessons” rather than them just being given the space, time and equipment to PLAY. We have been taught that what we DO is more important than what we eat when, in truth, it is the other way round.
Our children do not control what we give them to eat. They are not in control of their environments and this leaves them vulnerable to us as adults and the choices that we make. Also, we are not in control of much of our social environment. So, what can we do?
We can help ourselves (and our children) to understand that whilst we can control how we eat at home and we can control, to some degree, how we interact with the external and social environment, we cannot completely avoid the restaurants that sell and the adverts that promote less healthy choices. The marketing industry for snacks, fizzy drinks and fast food are part of a huge billion pound marketing machine that will only stop when we stop buying. We can also tell them that it will get worse before it gets better but that only we can care about how we feel in our bodies – a food company never will.
This has to be an ongoing conversation – like David says: one hour of PSHE on advertising in a school term is not going to change anything. Having regular and ongoing dialogue, listening to their questions and asking them what feels good in their own bodes, will help raise their awareness of the social and cultural environment they are living within.
We are creating and reinforcing habits all the time and only awareness of this can help us change. We often don’t see the connection between what we eat and how we feel and nor do we see the connection between how we think and how we feel. I believe that our inability to cope with our own emotional states has led us to many of us seeing food as a fix, a convenient way to feel better, to fix the moment and change a mood or a feeling that we cannot tolerate. I know I certainly did, and still do sometimes do this. And that is okay. We all have alot to unlearn. Even the slim, as ‘Appetite’ shows through James, can be unhealthy. It’s about learning to see our habits clearly and addressing them. Once we can see the story behind our habits we can begin to change them.
What writing ‘Appetite’ and David’s story taught me is that there are no quick fixes. There are no shortcuts, no jump cuts to the end. There is just the day to day of acknowledging feelings, paying attention to the body and the slow, hard but, ultimately, very rewarding work of learning to take care of the self without feeding it or distracting it.
We need to start small and we need to be gentle on ourselves. We also need friends to help if possible. Accountability and support really does make a difference but we also need to understand how we work best and to make changes in ways that are sustainable. Kindness to the self is key to what will likely be a lifelong journey.
That is what writing ‘Appetite’ made me realise. That we CAN change. That understanding our own story is what can help us change. But that, ultimately, we can only change if we want to and that means by actually making some changes – behaving differently.
David’s story, as well as my own, make it clear that it is down to you but that it is possible. If he can do it, so can we. If I can do it, so can you.
** Read: Joanna Blythman: Bad Food Britain.