How accountability transformed my relationship to food

Content note: This article discusses mental health and the relationship with food.

One of the most striking things I’ve found since starting to lose weight and get fit is just how transformative the process of telling another human being about your diet has been.

After my first session with my personal trainer, I diligently filled in the food diary she had sent me. Right from the off, it was transformative.

Obviously, I had been largely aware of just how shocking my diet really was. I’d tried monitoring my diet in the past. But even so, it’s a whole different kettle of fish when you know somebody else is going to find about all your awful eating choices.

On the first day, my thinking about food changed quite radically. Before making a meal, the first thought wasn’t “how much of this utterly delicious food can I cram onto a plate and into my stomach”, and instead, “how will this look when written down on paper in the cold light of day”.

Similarly, before tucking into an oversized snack, my immediate thought was “can I rationally explain why I’ve eaten a 150g back of crisps and a packet of cocktail sausages at 1 in the morning.

Fortunately, this thought process has now become relatively second nature and hasn’t had a negative impact on how I experienced food. That was always a risk.

There are so many ways that our relationships with food can becoming damaging and toxic. For a long time, mine has been. Eating in excess hasn’t been something I do on occasions, or at moments where I treat myself. Rather, it’s something that has long been a day-in day-out part of my routine.

At a simple baseline, for a number of years I’ve been eating far more than is healthy – and specifically eating far more of the things you aren’t supposed to eat lots of than is healthy. A friend of mine used to ask me when I last ate a piece of fruit and make light of the way the days, would become weeks, would become months. No doubt a fun joke between the two of us, but indicative of a much larger problem.

Outside of that, for a long time, I’ve been self-medicating sadness, depression and mental ill-health with food. Going through a depressive patch for a week or two? Why not binge eat take-aways, cheese and crisps? Had a bad day? Build the biggest portion possible for your dinner and make sure to find the time to squeeze in two or three snacks before bed.

The ramifications of this are probably quite obvious and straight forward. Most meals I’ve eaten in the last four or five years have left my stomach pained from the sheer volume of food I’ve put inside of me. The numbers on the scales have gone up and up and up. The size of my waistline has grown and grown and grown. My reaction to my reflection has got worse and worse and worse.

The obvious implication here is that this only serves to make things worse and worse. Going to sleep most nights with a pain in your abdomen and a feeling that you’re on the verge of vomiting doesn’t do wonders for your state of mind or your wellbeing. Being in a constant state of upset at the shape and size of your body doesn’t either.

So this all becomes reinforcing, and it’s obviously a very difficult cycle to break.

For me, the psychological impact of writing down what I have eaten, showing it to another human being – in my case, my personal trainer – and then being held to account on it has helped start to break that cycle. I’m not a psychologist, a nutritionist, a doctor, or any other kind of medical professional that has any evidence whatsoever to back this assertion up. But I’m certain that this has more impact on my relationship with food than anything else I’ve done in the past six weeks.

Obviously my diet isn’t totally transformed. And obviously some times I remember that I can just circumvent the accountability mechanism by being a little economical with the truth when filling in my diary.

Nonetheless, it’s been five weeks since I’ve had a takeaway, whereas before doing this, I would rarely go five days. Since starting the diary and taking advise from my trainer, I’ve not eaten a single grain of white pasta, rice or bread at home. Since I started my training, I’ve completely cut out my binge eating in the early hours of the morning.

Most of this has come through the act of telling someone else exactly what I’m eating and little else. Who knew something so simple could be so transformative?

The day after my first trip to the gym

One of the last things my personal trainer said to me before I left the gym at our first session was “you will probably feel quite sore tomorrow”. She wasn’t lying.

I woke up the following day, somewhat brimming from the undeserved pride of having done my first bit of proper exercise in year. That feeling didn’t last. As I reached over to turn off my alarm, my arms felt heavy, weak and pained. That feeling did last.

Throughout the day, even the most basic tasks were a struggle. Crouching down to get a pan out of the cupboard felt like a mammoth challenge. Rolling a cigarette was a battle. Walking up the stairs? Forget it. I was getting staggering pain in muscles I didn’t even know existed.

Painkillers and video games at the ready, I bedded down for the day. A day of rest and it’ll all go away.

Sadly, this hope was ill-placed. Tuesday through Friday were a write off. It feels pretty physically pathetic that after a short batch of moderately intense exercise your entire body decides to shut down. No amount of frantic googling of DOMS and trying to cheer yourself up with the knowledge that apparently “most elite-level athletes experience DOMS” will shift the gloom.

Naturally all of this was exacerbated by the fact that the usual comforts were also now apparently gone. What do I do when I feel down, tired and lethargic usually? Binge eat starchy, oily, sugary, fatty, salty, delicious foods of course. Not any more. Even before my new food regime had kicked in (stay tuned for that!), I realised I couldn’t put into my first week’s food diary a long list of crisps, white rice, potatoes, cheese, pizza, ice cream and biscuits.

So despite my good ambitions and high hopes, the first week after my first ever trip to the gym left me feeling miserable and dejected. By Friday I start to think this new fitness thing really isn’t for me.

First trip to the gym

Until three weeks ago, I’d never set foot in a gym. In fact, I hadn’t been regularly active for over a decade. But with my first personal training session booked, I got on the bus, adorned in my carefully selected gym attire. The cheapest pair of trainers I could find in the first sports shop I could find. A pair of tracksuit bottoms. And a brand new t-shirt I’d selected to be unnecessarily large so as to attempt in vain to hide my ever growing belly. I chose an Adidas t-shirt – with a vague memory that they had something to do with sport – so everyone would know I was super serious about my new fitness regime.

I arrive intentionally 15 minutes early, to scout things out and for a compulsory pre-workout cigarette. As I’m rolling my cigarette I look into the gym windows. Good Christ. Windows should be banned on gyms. They should be like sex shops, with blacked out windows and a seedy entrance round the back where people shadily shuffle in. That way the general public’s idea of the gym wouldn’t be just rows and rows of unbelievably huge men with strained faces lifting large weights that should be well beyond human capacity. It might make the whole first impression be just a little less intimidating.

I stub my cigarette out and walk inside. After fumbling for a while with the entrance keypad and nearly getting stuck in the strange door mechanism, I sit down in the foyer and await my fate with my new personal trainer.

She takes me into a small room and takes my height and weight. Sadly, my attempts to hide my physical anxieties were foiled at the first hurdle – my carefully selected t-shirt that would hide my body can’t deceive the scales. Worse still, apparently these aren’t your ordinary scales. These are somehow imbued with witchcraft, as my new trainer kindly tells me that actually my biggest problem isn’t my body fat – reassuring at first – but rather the substantial fat surrounding my organs. Who knows how the magic scales can tell this, and who knew I’d be coming out of my first session with a brand new thing to be paranoid about? Life’s just a roller coaster of treat after treat.

After my new terrifying medical diagnosis (presumably having layers of fat around your organs is not a good thing) she throws me onto a cross trainer to start off. Two minutes we’re doing. Easy. I can do that. No problem. Once I feel like I’ve got into the rhythm, my trainer politely tells me that I should be pedalling forwards, not backwards.

Having nailed going in the right direction, we move onto other things – starting with squats. We run through a few sets (I’m learning all the lingo), and I start to think that this isn’t so bad after all. I can do this fitness lark. There’s nothing to worry about.

Then we walk over to a different area, and I realise my legs have turned entirely to jelly, and I’m on the verge of keeling over. Luckily my trainer is walking in front of me, so she can’t see that I’m teetering on collapse. I steel myself as we move onto something else.

The rest of the session continues much in the same vein. And with each exercise, it becomes more and more painful, and I’m more and more breathless. At various points, my trainer helps me finish a set by basically doing all the work for me. But we make it through in the end, finishing first with some planks – which I’m convinced have no fitness benefit whatsoever and are solely designed as a modern form of torture (I managed 30 seconds, 21 seconds and 11 seconds – an achievement I assume is fairly pathetic). And then three long, arduous minutes on a rowing machine. Three minutes sounds like nothing of course. But after 50 minutes of more exercise than I’ve done in at least the last year combined, it’s the equivalent of dousing your thighs in paraffin and throwing a lit match on them.

We’re through. We’re done – I’m thinking. Oh boy, was I wrong. I’m then told that I have to do some stretches. I’ve always thought the whole ‘you need to stretch after exercise’ thing was basically nonsense. But now I realised that it can also be total agony.

It got even worse after that. My trainer said two words I’d been dreading: “food diary”. Images flicker in my mind. The three take-aways a week. The 150 gram bags of Kettle Chips I eat as a pre-dinner snack (or the similarly sized bags of Walkers lime and coriander chutney poppadoms – which are divine). The two cans of soup with three white bread rolls for lunch. The thought of writing all of that down and sending it to someone who’s Instagram feed is filled with early morning smoothies made my whole soul cringe.

And with that, we really are done in the gym. But as I leave to walk to the bus stop, my whole body feels like it’s imploding in on itself. So much for that good feeling you get from exercise. Maybe the second week will be better?

Image credit: Snehalkanodia — WikiMedia Commons

A fat bastard starts the fitness journey

I’m 27 years old and I’m a fat bastard. 

I’ve always had a non-existent relationship with personal health. 

I’m an asthmatic, but for over a decade I’ve been a relatively heavy smoker. By “relatively”, read very. 

Most weeks, the only exercise I get is the short walk to work, the pub or the bus stop, and the walk up and down stairs to go for a cigarette.

And I’ve always been a big eater. The kind of big eater who’s favourite thing about Tuesday is that major pizza retailers run by one get one free deals — and whose favourite thing about Wednesday is that you only managed to get through one and a half large pizzas on Tuesday but have half a pizza greeting you for breakfast. The kind of big eater who ambitiously batch cooks for three days worth of meals but after finishing a plate on the first night, goes back for seconds and eats the next two days’ meals too. The kind of big eater who doesn’t understand why anyone would buy a six inch Subway instead of a foot long, and why anybody would choose not to double on cheese.

But sadly my disregard for my own personal health has caught up on me, and I came to the realisation that I am a fat bastard. I peaked at just shy of 14 stone, having put on 3 stone is as many years. At 5 foot 6, the NHS BMI calculator helpfully informed me that this officially makes me obese. 

Coming to the realisation that I am a fat bastard led me to firing off an awkwardly worded email at 2.37am two days before Christmas to a personal trainer. 

This felt like a sudden, gigantic leap. After spending my life ignoring the impact of my lifestyle on my body and my health, I’d taken the plunge into a brave new world of food plans and workout routines. 

In reality, it was a much longer journey. And over the coming months, I’ll be using this blog to explain how I came to the realisation that I am a fat bastard, detail why I decided to make a change, and chronicle my experiences trying to get fit and lose weight. 

At the time of writing, I’ve done just two gym sessions with my new personal trainer. And already it has been far, far harder than I’d anticipated.

Image credit: Snehalkanodia — WikiMedia Commons