How do you know if you have a problem with food?
Where do you cross the line from taking a healthy interest in food and wanting to take care of your body, to it becoming a dangerous obsession which has a detrimental impact on your self-worth?
There is not a clearly defined answer to this. Every individual’s experience will be slightly different.
Here is a diary (*) that illustrates how food and poor body image can dominate a day to negative affect.
I wake up. The first thought that flickers through my mind is about my weight. I go straight to the bathroom. Whilst completely empty, and before a morsel of food passes my lips, I gingerly step onto the weighing scales and note the number. I sigh in exasperation. I get on again, this time more carefully whilst holding onto the wall. Once more, the number is several pounds heavier than I want to be. I feel demoralised and angry.
‘How can it be this way, when I am trying to eat so well?’
Immediately, a black, heavy cloud of self-loathing descends. I feel irritable and intolerant of those around me. My body feels fat and unattractive. I feel upset and disgusted with my lack of willpower. I fully chastise myself for this repeated ‘failure’.
I take ages to get ready. Nothing seems to fit properly and clings in the wrong places. I look recurrently in the mirror and my worst fears are confirmed. Stomach sticking out- check; thighs looking flabby – check; arms not toned - check. I feel vulnerable and exposed at the thought of leaving the house.
I turn on my fitness app and log my weight whilst considering breakfast options.
‘Never mind that I feel hungry now, my body has let me down again – I am back to counting calories’.
Although, I am hungry, I feel a sense of achievement in feeling empty and longing for food. Right now, I know that I can resist. I temporarily feel a sense of calm and control in making this decision.
‘I am determined to win this battle with my body.’
As I leave the house, I grasp a quick opportunity to look in the mirror at my reflection. All I can see is my tummy sticking out and I pull my coat tightly around me to try and hide away. I feel low, miserable and deeply self-conscious. I feel worried that others will be looking at me and judging me.
I am on the tube. I notice skinny women. I feel fat in comparison. I am ashamed of my body and feel sad inside. I look down at the floor shamefully.
At lunchtime, I scan the menu for low calorie options. It is cold. I feel hungry, and my stomach is grumbling. However, I am pleased to have chosen the virtuous option. I keep thinking of the scales and my fat tummy.
The day passes uneventfully. I spend my lunch-hour browsing fitness and recipe websites. I feel inspired and justified by these in striving to change my body shape.
I walk in the door. No-one else is here. I feel tired and hungry after a long day. I feel momentarily lost and alone. I go into the kitchen and open the fridge door. I close it again.
I go upstairs and my mood doesn’t shift. The kitchen is calling me. I am determined to resist. I will be ‘good’ and have a chicken salad.
I eat the salad and I am not at all satisfied. Afterwards, I decide that just one biscuit is allowed. I have done well by restricting my eating all day.
One biscuit is not enough though. I want desperately to eat more. I have three more biscuits before I can even think about stepping back. My anxiety hits the roof. How many calories already I wonder? I might as well keep going now though. I vow to myself that I will be good tomorrow. Before I know what has happened, I have eaten three bags of crisps, two chocolate bars, toast and yoghurt. I don’t even taste them.
I feel fat, disgusting and gross.
I go and stand on the scales after eating. I have gained 3 pounds from this morning. It is definitive proof of my failure and lack of willpower.
Tomorrow, I promise to start the diet again with iron rod discipline. Nothing will take me off course this time.
Tonight, I might as well eat a bit more and make the most of this last day of freedom.
My life cannot begin until I finally lose the weight. Until then, I feel that everything is on hold. Nothing else seems as important as getting my weight down and gaining the body I desire.
10 warning signs that you might have a problem with food and body image
1. You are obsessed with numbers in every possible way related to food and your body. Dress sizes, weighing scales, thigh measurements, weighing food, calories. Your ability to achieve the ‘right numbers’ strongly influences your self-worth daily. You know clearly in your mind whether you have succeeded or failed.
2. You find yourself restricting, dieting, missing out food groups or delaying eating for as long as possible in an attempt to change your body shape.
3. If you eat something you feel you shouldn’t have, you feel immense guilt and shame.
4. You eat in secret and it feels like a double life.
5. You cannot eat ‘one’ without seriously wanting to eat many more.
6. You don’t know what hunger is. You can’t trust your body to tell you when it needs food. It feels like an uncontrollable beast.
7. You compensate for overeating by restricting, over-exercising or purging.
8. You can’t eat out socially without severe anxiety.
9. You constantly compare your body size with others.
10. You feel that you are only acceptable if your body looks a certain way. It feels like chasing the end of the rainbow as the goal posts always seem to move, when you get closer.
(*Diary based on a variety of client experiences)
If you recognise yourself here, this could be a time to think about having counselling. Therapy can support you in developing a healthy relationship with food and to become more accepting of your body. It is really worth the step to start claiming back your life again.
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