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

Realising I was a fat bastard: Part 1

Despite only recently making the decision to get serious about my health and fitness, I’ve been feeling pretty up and down about my body and my weight for around four years. Time and time again, I’ve come up with gimmicks and quick fix solutions, thinking I could find the magic silver bullet to averting my eyes every time I see a mirror. Sugar free drinks. Elaborate rules about what I eat that didn’t change anything fundamental. Buying dumbbells that gather dust in the corner of the living room. For four years I found more and more ways of putting off the inevitable, and truly understanding the state of my health. And for four years I found more and more ways to ignore the fact that I was a fat bastard.

The first time I can remember starting to realise I was a fat bastard was on a holiday in the South West of England. For five years prior I’d been vegan, and I’d just recently begun eating dairy and eggs again. After a few months, I started to notice my body expanding in ways that were unfamiliar – which I assumed was largely down to thrusting cheese back into my diet. But after a few more months of growing and growing, I came to the sad conclusion that this wasn’t going to just go away if I ate less or no cheese.

I don’t recall if there was a particular moment or event that triggered it, but this realisation culminated in the ultimate in quick fix solutions – installing fitness apps on my phone. Perhaps intuitively, I thought that I needed to get a handle on the scale of things. If I had no record of what I was currently eating, what exercise I was getting, and so on, how could I change things at all?

So far so good. With my jazzy new free mobile apps installed, I began logging my meals and checking in on how many steps I’d taken. Naturally the exercise app remained unopened and unused. But I felt good about the seemingly high numbers on my pedometer each day (who knows if they really were high? But they made a damn impressive bar chart). And there was something therapeutic about recording all my meals and reminiscing about they were all so delicious. I didn’t bother looking at the data for a couple of weeks.

Holy fuck it was a shock when I did. Percentages were flying high all over the place – spiralling at over 4 and 5 hundred in places. Over the course of two weeks, not a single day had passed where I’d not consumed over 4,000 calories or double the recommended intake for saturated fat and sugar. On two separate days I’d taken in over 8,000 calories and 100 grams of saturated fat. Most days, my breakfast had seen me nearly hit – or in some cases exceed – the amount of calories I was supposed to have in an entire day. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t this.

I didn’t last long before deleting the apps (although I kept the pedometer, because who doesn’t want to know the exact speed they walk at throughout the day!?). With them gone, I think I convinced myself that I could just make small tweaks to my diet and it would all be okay in the end. I definitely felt that the scale of it was just overwhelming – far too much to take on.

And so with the apps went any drive or interest in changing. At the end of the day, a few extra numbers on the scales didn’t matter. I’d always been a little scrawny, so why care about filling out my t-shirts a little more? Sure 8,000 calories in a single day is excessive, but fizzy drinks and takeaways are a price worth paying, right? I’d got by just fine so far in my life like this, so why bother? The status quo was just so appealing.

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