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?

Blood, Sweat and Vomit – my second trip to the gym

The second time is bound to be easier than the first, right? Wrong.

After my painful and unpleasant first gym session, the following week I was filled with confidence. I’d got over the psychological barrier of actually setting foot in a gym. I’d finished one full workout. I’d persevered through the agony of the following days’ DOMS. I could do anything.

We started off the second session as we ended the first. A short stint on the rowing machine. So far so good. My trainer diplomatically tells me that my food diary “isn’t the best she’s seen”, before we move on to some surprisingly challenging jumping exercise. Who knew jumping could be so difficult? Of all the things I thought I’d struggle with – jumping wasn’t one of them. But apparently I did.

We move on to various other things with varying degrees of pain. And then we move onto something I vaguely remember from my childhood. We used to do it as part of warm ups before practice and matches when I briefly played in a football team. Walking lunges. Simple and straight forward. Sure, you might look like you’re in an outtake of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks, but it’s nothing challenging. I’m blasé when my trainer tells me “this is one of the only exercises that often makes even me feel sick”.

One set through and I’m feeling just like Mark Corrigan does moments into a light jog. “An idiotic boob”. Thighs burning, gasping for air, we power through the following two sets.

We take a seat on some piece of gym equipment that I have no memory of. While resting, my trainer asks me where I would put myself on a scale of 0 to 10, where 0 is totally fine and 10 is going to be sick. I confidently give myself a 7 while holding my stomach, frantically swigging water and gulping for air. Moments later I tell her that I am in fact going to be sick, and run awkwardly toward the changing room, my legs buckling slightly as I go.

I fling myself rapidly into the cubicle. And then it comes. An ungodly wretch, as my body discards the litre or so of water I’d thrown down me in the last half our or so. Christ. My brain is working on overdrive, cascading thoughts around like a pinball. All the totally irrational and totally fucking wild thoughts you get when in a state of panic.

It settles abruptly on Andrew Marr. Two weeks prior I’d read Jason Williams of Sleaford Mods’ latest book. In it, he talks about his mind obsessing on Andrew Marr “doing that extra tug on the rowing machine”. That thought plants itself in my brain. Fuck – this is the end. Twenty-seven years old, trying to get my act together and it’s all going to come to an end on the slightly unsanitary toilet floor of a PureGym.

No sooner had that thought cemented itself than the second heave came. Specks of the morning’s strawberry granola (I’m trying already you see) splatter. This time it’s Mark Renton in Trainspotting. The image of him careering off the treadmill hits me suddenly, and the third heave arrives just on cue.

After the third, I hit that point when your body lets you know it’s finished. You feel that strange mixture of exhaustion, euphoria, embarrassment and relief. I pick myself up off my knees, and head to the sinks to clean myself off. Looking in the mirror, I can see that I’m pasty and shattered.

I head back outside, and my trainer asks me how I’m doing. I tell her casually that I threw up three times. She sighs, smiles and walks downstairs to get me some gum.

When she’s back she asks if I want to call it a day and talk about food, or whether we can do some light exercises for the rest of the session. We do food first – hoping at least this would be some respite.

Sadly, the news wasn’t good.

First things first, it’s an end to white bread, pasta and rice. I’ve long been of the view that people have got the idiom wrong. It should be that something is the “greatest thing since sliced white bread”. Alas, joyful, tasty, white bread, rice and pasta are out. Gritty, miserable brown bread, rice and pasta are in.

From the rest my disappointing food diary pastries have got to go to. As do most of my breakfasts, including – to my surprise – granola. It wasn’t worth bothering after all. We dodge the subject of the takeaway pizza or the two sides I had with my yaki soba when eating out that week.

We finish off the session with a few simpler things, none of which unsettle my stomach again. As I’m doing the warm down stretches, she promises me we won’t try the deathly walking lunges again for a while.

Later that day, I get an email with her meal suggestions. I don’t remember feeling this uninspired since Ed Miliband was leader of the Labour Party. I make myself wholemeal pasta for dinner, and decide that tomorrow’s breakfast is a banana pancake as that somehow sneaked onto her list.

Image credit: Channel 4 – YouTube Screengrab

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.