Psychotherapy, dieting and food - stepping off the roundabout
Food is a complicated issue yet so many of us get stuck in the fight to control what we take in; balanced with the energy we burn through exercise. The diet industry takes a behavioural stance - change the amount you eat and get the reward, change our shape and our lives. Changing thinking and behaviour can feel easy when we are in a weekly diet meeting and the pounds are falling. Yet often the weight goes back on as soon as we step out of that controlled, contained environment and a cycle of loss and gain begins.
Eating disorders occur when the need to control the intake of food becomes too powerful, leading to the misery of bulimia and anorexia, overtaking life and threatening it at the same time. In the UK 1.6 million people are affected by eating disorders and it is estimated that 10% of sufferers die as a result of their disorder. The majority recover but may become locked in a battle with food, constantly monitoring their eating and exercise throughout adult life, without fully understanding what food means to them and their relationship with it. Though eating disorders are at the extreme end of pre-occupation with weight and size there are many who live with “disordered eating”, who may over-eat and binge, starve and deprive, with most alternating between the two in the pursuit of a body ideal.
Of course food is an important part of life; it is why we stay alive, but it is much more. Food can quieten a grumpy baby, bribe a “wilful” child, it can be a way of showing love, there can be too much or never enough. We might feel safe and secure whilst eating, yet repulsed, guilty and ashamed after binging.
Our relationship with food begins at the breast or bottle and our feeding as babies is often surrounded by family mythology. These stories describe us as “greedy” or “insatiable”, often “picky” or “awkward". There will also be those who know nothing of those earliest experiences even in the form of myth, only that their feeding was disrupted by adoption and loss.
Our complex relationship with food is influenced by our attachment to our earliest caregivers, their eating patterns, the patterns of eating in our family and of our peers and our ability and inability to speak about the way we feel and the response of others to those feelings; the list goes on.
Psychodynamic counselling and psychotherapy can offer the space and opportunity to think about what food means to you, and to begin to understand the multiple functions food can serve in life. Along with this understanding comes the possibility of lasting change and a move away from pre-occupation with food and the roundabout that diets can become.