I feel fat and panicky: Part 4

In this final article on feeling fat and panicky, we’ll explore the emotions that accompany it – which can be the most devastating part.

This is because if you’re feeling fat, the shame that accompanies this can be a terrible sensation. It extends beyond the physical and makes us feel that the whole of us is unworthy, that something is wrong with us as a person.

Dealing with these feelings is an important part of getting back to an even keel, as these feelings of self disgust can cause us to eat even more. We feel like giving up on ourselves.

We believe that we should have more ‘self control’ and that getting ourselves into this situation is entirely our fault. And sometimes we believe that we don’t deserve better.

It can be hard to work our way out if we feel like this. Not only have we given up on self-love and ourselves, we’ve given up on hope.

Before I found a different way of eating and of treating myself, I used to feel like this and sometimes the feelings would be so intense that it would seem that the whole of life was pointless. It took me to a very dark place.

When the feelings are bad, it’s best to just take tiny steps, steps that are kind, even when we don’t feel kind to ourselves. It might be something like taking a hot bath, or going to bed when we are tired. It might involve a trip to an art gallery, or taking the time to cook our favourite recipe. The important thing is to be kind to ourselves and to stop the cycle of punishment and hatred.

The weight will come off. It might take a little time, but the bloating that can accompany it, will vanish much faster.

Ensure that your meals are enjoyable. Take time when eating them and try not to nibble in between – promise yourself that you will eat when you are hungry so you don’t have to stave off hunger pangs with incessant nibbling. This will also allow yourself to feeling sensations and emotions that you may be uncomfortable with. These emotions might include sadness, anger, loneliness or even boredom.

Try welcoming these feelings, as though they were small children that you had lost and were rediscovering. Bring them close to your heart and treasure them, even if you have been taught that they are ‘bad’ or ‘unpleasant’. Gorge yourself on these, and watch what happens to your eating.

 

If you’re feeling particularly black, and the shame is too great to approach friends or family, there are lots of support groups from Samaritans to Overeaters Anonymous who are full of compassion for those who are struggling. Please reach out.

 

Is gluten bad?

There’s a lot of press around gluten, and many people are now avoiding it. Some writers have associated it with bloating, weight gain and ill health and none of us want those things! So surely, avoidance is best?

Not so fast…

There is clear evidence that gluten is very damaging to those who have Coeliac Disease. But there is no evidence that either gluten or grains are bad for the rest of us, despite books like ‘Grain Brain’.

So what does science show beyond doubt? (very little, actually).

It shows that high fibre diets, that include whole grains (and gluten) are very beneficial for health as they help ward of cancer and heart disease. Increasingly, it looks as though part of the reason is because they encourage beneficial microbiome (gut bacteria).

What about if you think you have a reaction to gluten?

Many experiments have been run on people who have a diagnosed gluten-intolerance, and when given gluten in random doses, they displayed no reaction to it. So it looks as though something else is going on, but what?

Firstly, any carbohydrate consumed in a large quantity will cause bloating, and as our portion sizes are now completely out of whack, it’s hard to know when to stop. We’re talking half a bagel, or one to two slices of bread (depending on the size of the slice and the loaf). That’s a serving, and some of us are feeling bloated because we’re eating too much.

Secondly, in some instances, the use of herbicides on the grain prior to harvesting (yes, this is common practice in some countries, especially America – where wheat is sprayed with Glyphosate a few days before harvest to make it easier because the wheat is already dying). These herbicides remain in the grain and do us no favours at all.

Thirdly, highly processed carbs don’t always sit well in the body.

Many people are fine with barley and oats – both whole grains that contain gluten.

It seems that the gluten itself isn’t a problem for most people, but some of the processing of the grain might be.

What suits your body?

Eat at your desk at your peril…

Eating without noticing is one of the fastest ways to put on weight.

Snacks are so easy to forget. They are usually high calories and not very filling. In fact some (like a handful of sugary lollies or muesli bars) can even make you feel hungrier shortly afterwards. If we’re eating at our desk, it’s even easier not to register what we’re consuming. Our minds are focused on the spreadsheet, conference call or project, while we funnel foods into our mouths.

If you want a snack, try and get a plate, and make a proper small meal.

I can feel you resisting. “But then I’ll get fat if I eat all that.” “But I don’t want a proper meal’. If you don’t want a proper meal, perhaps you’re not hungry and you actually don’t need a snack either. In the event that you are hungry, maybe it would be better that you register that you’ve eaten something, something substantial, which might sustain you and prevent you from nibbling again in half an hour.

There are other hazards of snacking. The constant stimulation of our stomach means that it never has a chance to rest, or more importantly ‘clean up’. We have brilliant little helpers in our guts that maintain our bodies. If we have eaten a steak, it might take five hours for it to be digested in the stomach and small intestine. Once this is done, the small intestine sweeps itself in a such a cute manner that even tough-minded scientists have called it the ‘housekeeper’. If we eat before it has a chance to do this, it once again goes on standby to receive food. But constant snacking means there is no time for ‘cleaning’ which helps keep our gut healthy.

The drip feed of food also keeps insulin churning up and down. Our bodies don’t have an opportunity to find their point of homeostasis where blood sugar and hormones are regulated, balanced and consistent and don’t have to deal with a constant influx of food. This constant demand for insulin, to deal with the food, can artificially inflate our appetite. So constant nibbling and snacking not only adds to our waistline because we’re not paying attention to it, but also because it makes us want to eat more.

If that isn’t bad enough, if we eat at our desks, we associate being at our desk with eating, which triggers us to want to eat, whether we’re hungry or not. All in all, we’re not helping ourselves.

Step away from the desk. Can you get in the habit of eating somewhere else?

You saw it, so you want it…

Pavlov is well known for his experiments regarding dogs. When he fed them, he rang a little bell. Eventually, he only needed to ring the bell and the dogs salivated, even when there was no food.

I know we’d like to think that we’re superior to dogs. But there are lots of things in our lives that act like this trigger. Events that induce salivation due to habit. It might be turning on the television, if you usually eat in front of it. Or driving past a garage if you buy snacks when you fill up. Or walking past a certain bakery if you often buy cakes there.

You weren’t thinking of eating a cinnamon roll, were you, until you walked past the bakery and that delicious sweet, spicy smell engulfed you? All at once, your tongue tingles with the anticipation of the sugary coating, the warm, yeasty bread beneath. You find yourself in the shop. A moment earlier you weren’t even hungry.

Or maybe you’re watching television and there is Nigella, dipping her finger into an oozing mass of chocolatey sauce. All at once, the idea of chocolate, or Nutella or a hot pudding fills your mind. The next thing you know, you’re on the hunt for it.

What in your life, acts like that bell, and has you salivating for food whether you’re hungry or not? Can you retrain the dog?

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

Neuroscience is proving what food manufacturers have known for years…

Until recently, research focused on physical hunger, and assumed that being obese meant you were just incredibly hungry and therefore had to eat loads. I suspect a number of us could have told them that eating dessert has nothing to do with feeling hungry or full. And at last, research is catching up.

Michael Lowe, a clinical psychologist at Drexel University coined the term “hedonic hunger” in 2007. He says: “A lot of overeating, maybe all of the eating people do beyond their energy needs, is based on consuming some of our most palatable foods.” No kidding! Please don’t tell me it took years of scientific research to work that out. Who gets fat on cucumber?

Research shows that extremely sweet or fatty foods light up the brain’s reward circuit in the same way that cocaine, drugs, gambling and other ‘addictive’ behaviours do. The brain begins to react to fatty and sugary foods even before they enter our mouth: just seeing them excites the reward circuit. As soon as such it touches the tongue, taste buds send signals to the brain, which ramps up dopamine. The result is an intense feeling of pleasure.

Over time, the brain gets desensitised, so to get the same ‘high’ or pleasurable feeling, we need to eat more. It’s the same with any addiction. We need a bigger and bigger hit. The brain needs a lot more sugar and fat to reach the same level of pleasure that it once felt with smaller amounts of the foods.

This isn’t a sign of us being weak. It’s us being in thrall to an addictive circuit in our brain. When dopamine levels drop, we feel down. So no wonder we turn to fat and sugar. They are literally acting as an anti-depressant. Food is acting like a drug.

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

The bites that ‘don’t count’

Perhaps you turned down a slice of cake, but now you find yourself at the plate, knife in hand, just making sure that the edge is even. You cut a sliver and shove it into your mouth. The cake tastes delicious. You return to the platter and ease off another morsel. Now the edge is a mess. You take the knife again and cut to smooth the ends. A short while later, the cake is considerably smaller…

It’s very easy to say that one mouthful won’t make a difference. The question is then, which mouthful makes us fat? Is it the first? Or the hundredth?

Maybe your friends are saying, come on, you’ve done really well! One dessert won’t kill you! They are right, it won’t, but it’s very easy for that one dessert to become many.

There are many times we can tell ourselves ‘This doesn’t count’. I didn’t order a dessert – I ate it from my husband’s plate, so that doesn’t count. Or I was just clearing dishes, and it was a shame to let the rest go to waste. So I scoffed it rather than put it in the garbage.

It’s much easier to let ourselves off the hook than stick to a diet because diets require us to make a huge effort. They ask for such a large change. Everything we know, everything we do is thrown out of the window. Your normal eating habits are utterly disrupted to make way for a new miracle fix that promises amazing results.

This is mainly because most of us believe that losing weight is so hard, so painful and so mysterious, that only the truly radical solutions will work.

But what if that wasn’t the case at all? What if one tiny change was all that was needed?

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

How food porn arouses us

I love the introduction to the scientific paper called Eating with our Eyes: “One of the brain’s key roles is to facilitate foraging and feeding. It is presumably no coincidence, then, that the mouth is situated close to the brain in most animal species.”

The mouth is close to the brain, indeed! This same paper talks of ‘food porn’. We are currently obsessed with images of food. Instagram feeds are crammed with photographs of meals and snacks. Cookery channels dominate television with depictions of luscious ingredients whisked into appetising meals. Food has become more forbidden than sex. We are ogling pictures of it in the same way that men used to sneak glances at 1970’s centrefolds.

In America, digital media influences more than 70 percent of the food eaten by households. Research show that “external food cues, such as the sight of appetizing food can evoke a desire to eat, even in the absence of hunger.” Again – no kidding… these scientists seem to spend years researching things that you and I knew to be true from a relatively young age.

What’s really interesting is that physical things occur within us, just from seeing a picture. We salivate (we all know that). But more worryingly, we produce insulin. Our bodies shoot out the hormone required to deal with the sugar even when we haven’t eaten it. And of course, when our insulin goes up, we crave sugar even more to balance it out. Even our heart beats faster in anticipation of the food.

This is where we need to track back to hunger. Food manufacturers know that seductive images of delicious food will draw us in, hungry or not. And our brains will take the trigger and act on it, without even consulting our conscious selves.

If we can stay in touch with our natural appetite, and eat when we are hungry, it reduces the impact of these external stimuli, and allows us to remain in control of what we eat and when.

Excerpt from ‘Why we Cheat when we Eat and how to stop’.

How did the packet end up empty? Part 2

Not only is this embarrassing. It’s extraordinary. It seems that our left hand literally doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

The first thing to do, is not to add to your woes with a large helping of guilt. These are well worn paths that you are travelling. Part of your being is just doing what it thinks you want.

David Kessler, the former head of the US government’s most powerful food agency, the FDA, talks of ‘priming’. Sometimes just one taste of a food, a single bite, is enough to trigger conditioned ‘hyper-eating’. Priming involves stimulating areas of your brain. The use of the word ‘conditioned’ means it’s already a habit. Your body recognises the primer, or taste, as the beginning of a conditioned or habituated pattern of behaviour.

The problem is that it’s hard to shut those habits off. Once primed, they stay activated and you may continue to eat until all the food is gone. That’s what the food industry knows when it tells us “Bet you can’t eat just one.”

The good news is that priming only holds power for a short time. If you eat one piece of candy and there’s a bowl of them in front of you, chances are you will keep eating more. But if no more are available or you have to search for them, the priming response may be undermined.

If you travel these paths less, or stop doing the behaviour, the priming will fade and it will stop being automatic, and you will not feel so compelled. But how to get there?

It’s easiest to stop the habit in the earliest stages. If you know there are times when you eat unconsciously, and they are usually in a certain place, or preceded by a certain thing, then try to address the first step.

What do you need to do to arrest the behaviour? To wake yourself up before your subconscious takes over?

How did the packet end up empty?

Have you ever driven home from work, pulled into your driveway, and realised that you have absolutely no memory whatsoever of the journey? Perhaps you commute to work, and you find yourself at your desk, with minimal or no recollection of the various trains or buses you took.

When behaviours become habitual, or regular, our brains relegate them to the subconscious. We don’t need to focus on them, so the brain allows our consciousness to focus on something else: our phone, our worries, our plans.

Unfortunately, this same mechanism can come into play when we have regular eating habits or addictions.

The brain is used to us thinking: “Hmm, that was a stressful day. I really could use some … (insert ‘comfort food of choice’)…” And it knows exactly how to get us to the shop to buy some, and get the food into our bags and then into our mouths.

Many people have told me that they have believed that they were sticking rigorously to their diet, only to find themselves sitting on their couch with an empty food packet on their lap, and no idea of how it happened.

One of my first clients was a Mum called Maureen. She would insist that she ate without realising it. “I opened the packet, it was a packet of granola. I buy it for my kids, I don’t eat it, it’s too fattening. But I just wanted one of those banana chips, so I opened it to find one of those. There was one at the top, and I ate it. I recall delving back into the bag for a particularly large clump with a sultana in it. And the next thing I knew, fifteen minutes or more had passed, and the bag was half empty. I honestly don’t remember doing it!”

The brain has well-worn paths. It is used to a flood of sugar at certain points in the day, and can turn off your consciousness while your preprogrammed behaviour runs, acquiring the substance, and then ingesting it, all without realising it.

I have, in the past, sworn off sugar, only to have a friend point out the chocolate I was shovelling into my mouth from the bowl on her table. It was in front of me, and my hand reached for it, bypassing all my declarations that I was never going to eat it again. A tad embarrassing.

In my next post, we’ll talk about how to deal with this.

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