Lunchtime had ended at my primary school. I sat alone in the dining hall, apart from two teachers who stood over me. They stared resolutely at me, while I stared forlornly at a plate of cold cottage pie. Everyone else had gone out to play and I could hear the familiar noises of the playground in the distance.
I was told I couldn’t leave until I’d finished my lunch.
At 10 years old, I truly loathed cottage pie. It was My Completely and Utterly Absolutely Worst Food in the World Ever, apart from my Mum’s curried egg (sorry, Mum).
It felt like I had been there an eternity. The (usually kind) teachers watched as, simultaneously crying and gagging, I attempted to force down another mouthful. Eventually I was allowed to leave but only because they realised I was actually going to be sick.
I’m sure many of you have experienced something similar.
Although I’m not suggesting that experiences such as these lead to developing eating issues later in life, I do believe that unexamined messages you receive about food when you’re young can definitely impact your eating behaviour in the present.
“Clear Your Plate” and Other Dictates
“You can’t get down until you’ve cleared your plate”.
“No pudding until you’ve finished your main course”.
“Go on, have another helping, you’re a growing boy”.
“No seconds for you – girls need to watch their figures”.
“Finish your food, there are people starving in other parts of the world”.
Do any of these strike a chord with you?
The belief that you have to “clear your plate” is particularly prevalent amongst people whose eating is emotion-driven.
It’s entirely understandable that this message has been passed down from wartime generations who experienced scarcity and rationing, a time when every morsel of food was a precious commodity – so much so that in 1940 the British government passed legislation to make wasting food a crime punishable with a prison sentence.
I firmly believe that every morsel of food should still be considered precious and we must take substantial measures to reduce the obscene amount of food that is wasted each year. However, if you want to resolve your overeating issues, it doesn’t serve you to override the signal from your body that you’ve had enough in favour of “clearing your plate”.
So what else did you learn about food in childhood that might be influencing how you eat today?
Not Enough of the “Good Stuff”
Sometimes there can be an absence of the “good stuff” when you’re growing up. Cake, biscuits, chocolate, crisps etc can be very scarce, maybe because you had family members who were “permanently on a diet” as my clients often put it, or because your parents were very health-conscious and trying to do the right thing.
The problem here is that anything in short supply can be imbued with a sense of power and mystery and, therefore, be given a greater value by kids. Children can come to view so-called “treat” foods as higher in currency than other “healthy” foods that were plentiful.
Consequently, when you clap eyes on cake or chocolate today, there can be an impulsive part of you that immediately squawks “Ooh! Nommy noms!” and before you know it you’re going to town on a Victoria sponge or a family size box of Quality Street.
You can also come to believe there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” to eat and that you should always be striving to eat the “right way”. If you detour from this you commonly experience feelings of guilt and shame – challenging emotions which can lead you to eat in secret.
Too Much of the “Good Stuff”
On the other side of the coin, sometimes there was an overabundance of the “good stuff” when you were growing up and the whole family regularly overindulged. Maybe there was no limit placed on these sorts of food and there’s a part of you that resents any attempt to do so now. This part feels entitled to food – its motto is “I want whatever I want whenever I want it”, regardless of what your body may be trying to tell you.
Maybe you loved going to visit Grandma when you were little and she loved you – the way she showed that love was to bake you pies and cakes and cookies. As a result, you can believe that if you refuse food you’re rejecting love.
Perhaps your childhood neighbours the McWhatsersons were mortally offended if you didn’t eat your own body weight in burgers and sausages whenever you went for a barbeque. They made such a fuss that you now believe it’s impolite to turn down seconds (…and thirds and fourths).
Maybe your family were pleased or your peers were impressed by how much you could eat. Perhaps being known for “eating big” was your “thing” and became a part of your identity and you’re not sure who’ll you’ll be without it.
Unconscious emotional drivers, such as the need to belong or the desire to be special, can have a considerable influence on your compulsion to overeat.
The Mixed Message Minefield
Children can often receive very mixed messages about food. It’s not unusual for food to be given as a reward for doing well or taken away as a punishment, sometimes in the same day.
The most difficult mixed message I’ve encountered in my work is when there was no limit on food, or you were encouraged to eat a lot, but when you began to put on weight you were taken to a slimming club or weight loss clinic, maybe as young as 14, 12 or even 8.
These experiences are shaming and confusing and interfere with you having a normal relationship with food. As an adult you can find yourself permanently stuck in a dieting/bingeing cycle as you endlessly re-enact the feast or famine you experienced as a child.
Make Your Own Rules
So how do you undo the messages you learned when you were younger that may be having a negative impact on your eating today?
As a child you had to follow the rules, but as an adult you get to make your own. Writing a list of your current beliefs and then counteracting them with a new belief is a really a good idea. For example, if your old belief was “I have to eat everything on my plate”, your new belief could be “I stop eating when I’m satisfied”.
It’s also helpful to acknowledge the parts of you that have a reaction to food and work with yourself. Attempt to stay present and notice if you’re eating out of impulsiveness, entitlement, obedience, politeness or any other reason other than hunger.
Try to have a conversation with yourself: “how much of this do I actually feel like eating?”; “do I really want this or is it just an impulse reaction?”; “am I only having seconds because I’m worried about offending others?”
Above all, please try to stop clearing your plate if you’ve had enough. If you’re eating beyond the point of fullness you’re still wasting food. The only difference is that instead of putting it in a rubbish bin, you’re putting it in your body.
And your body’s not a rubbish bin.
Respect your hunger, trust your preferences and listen to your body.
And that includes not having to eat cottage pie if you don’t want to.