When I was a child, I used food to numb my brain and feelings in hard times. I did it when my parents fought, when my dad was emotionally or physically abusive, when I felt unloved, when I didn’t fit in, when I felt inadequate or unworthy.
For reasons unknown to me, at the time, eating was comforting no matter how temporary. It was my best and sometimes only friend. I’d sit in front of the TV and blissfully shovel food into my body like a drug addict getting a good hit. I’d be completely zoned out of the ‘reality’ too hurtful to face alone as a child. Now I know that what I perceived was a reality distorted by the voices of others.
As the weight piled on, my self-esteem worsened. My father was openly ashamed of my appearance and thus, I was too. I’d often find myself eating my lunch in a bathroom stall to avoid being teased by other kids. They were hard times filled with a quiet desperation and no lasting remedy.
I drowned my sorrows in food. Hungry or not I’d keep eating, and while the mean voices of others were muffled, my own self-berating voice grew stronger. Self-defeating statements about how fat, ugly and useless I was would play over and over again as I helplessly self-medicated myself with copious amounts of junk food.
As kids called me ‘fat’ and my father scolded me for eating too much, I developed the belief that my life would be better if I could lose weight; that people would like me better and I wouldn’t have to hide myself in shame and fear of what others would say. But I had no understanding of healthy eating or safe and effective exercise. My relationship with food was officially screwed. I used it as my crutch in hard times yet I was drowning in the guilt I’d associated with it.
I went from one extreme to the next. I began to starve myself. I’d go without food all day, run for an hour before and after school and finish the day with a little chicken breast and lettuce. The weight came off but the side-effects were horrendous.
Not only had I come to believe that food was the enemy, but I also developed a fear of it. I would base my sense of self-worth on how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ I did with limiting my food intake each day. Sticking to one meal of chicken and lettuce would make me ‘good’ for the day. Bingeing on carbs would make me ‘bad’ for at least the next 48hours.
To top it off, half the weight I lost was muscle and, as such, I was’t only lanky and shapeless, but I’d also shot my metabolism in the foot. My body became even More sensitive to food and fat piled on effortlessly. It wasn’t long before I was back in the spiritually suffocating cycle of eating to feel better and then feeling guilt and regret over it all. It was a roller coaster ride. I’d either completely deprive myself or lose control and eat till I’m sick. I hated my weakness with food but I was too addicted to turn it away in emotionally hard times.
When I ran away from Egypt and came to Australia in search of a better life, my low self-esteem stubbornly tagged along. I’d smother my loneliness with food every night till I was ready to pass out. I’d wake up hating myself, proceed to avoid food all day, only to end up back in front of the telly at night stuffing the void with biscuits and chocolates while the same record played – “You’re such a fat shit. You can’t do anything right. You’re ugly and a complete failure. You can’t even go One full day being good. You’re weak. You’re stuck. Just say ‘tomorrow I’ll start again’. You’ve already ruined everything.”
While I wasn’t aware that I had any control over that voice that incessantly talked in my head, I decided to take control of my eating and exercise. I figured that if I knew how to eat and exercise like fit people, I’d eventually be fit too. And if I could be fit, then I could love myself and stop thinking I’m ‘unworthy’. It was years before I learned that you can’t change you body or life without changing your most practiced thoughts first!
Nevertheless, through better understanding what real food is, distinguishing it from ‘Junk Food’ and engaging in regular exercise (mostly weight training) I lost 20kg. It was a huge accomplishment and it certainly changed my life and the way people treated me. But my relationship with food and exercise was still based on a rocky foundation of fear, guilt and self-loathing. That voice still told me “you’re fat” every time I looked in the mirror. And I still went to extremes with food though it was weekly rather than daily.
Every time I’d have too-hard a day, I’d throw my ‘diet’ and exercise routine out the window and turn to comfort food and my couch. I relied on the very things that perpetuated and worsened the situation. I used food to turn feelings of vulnerability into self-loathing. My weight fluctuated within a 10kg range for years and while I was no longer significantly overweight, all I saw in the mirror were the remaining rolls of fat that I wrongfully defined myself by and blamed for my unhappiness.
Only in the last couple of years have I come to terms with the fact that food addiction is real and the voices in our heads are only a figure of our imagination which must be quietened from within. I learned that happiness is a choice and a prerequisite to success, not a byproduct of it. I discovered that all the love, acceptance and belonging I needed were attainable from within. I learned the difference between self-pity and self-compassion. I learned that food is our source of energy and nutrition, not emotional comfort. I began to appreciate exercise for the alone-time and positive energy it provided, and recognised that the body of your dreams is just an added bonus!
Over time I’ve given up my reliance on food for fleeting comfort. Regular training, thoughtful eating and affirmations have become my weapons against negativity and poor self-esteem.
When I face challenging times, the urge to close all my blinds and sit home alone in front of the telly with a bucket of chocolate still visits from time to time. But I’m always aware that succumbing to that will only worsen the situation. And while the last thing I may want to do is workout, I know that I must treat myself with the love and care I yearned for in my younger years. So, like a loving parent pushes their child to do what’s best for them, I drag myself up, throw on some gym cloths and hit the weights while purposefully repeating affirmations. By the time I’m done and endorphins have been released in my body, my perception of pain has lessened, my energy levels are up, my thinking is clearer and what I crave is a nutritionally satisfying meal. Rather than telling myself ‘I can’t be bothered cooking or working out’ I say “Marleen, You are worthy of the effort and time it takes to look and feel great”. And because I Am, I Do.
As a Personal Trainer I see many of my clients make uninformed and harmful decisions similar to the ones I made in my earlier days. It breaks my heart knowing their self-worth is mistakingly tied to their weight and any time their self-esteem takes a hit, they turn to processed, calorie dense foods and run from the gym. When they experience unbearable emotional pain the desire for short-term relief overpowers the self-discipline required to delay gratification and hold out for greater returns.
What we are slow and often reluctant to understand is that junk food is the most abused drug and exercise is the most under-utilised antidepressant.
Of all the drugs people use to numb their feelings, ‘junk’ food is the worst because it’s socially acceptable to use publicly, it’s filled with harmfully addictive ingredients (such as sugar aka white poison) and it’s too easily accessible. In fact it’s more available and affordable than the foods that are good for us!
We may not think of food as a drug, but it produces a temporarily euphoric feeling similar to that experienced through drug use. When we overeat we flood our dopamine receptors, which help us feel pleasure. And just like a drug, over time our receptors are desensitised to food causing us to require greater doses for the same level of pleasure.
Yes, overeating does scientifically provide temporary release from psychological stress. This is casually referred to as a “food coma”. When the stomach and intestines are overwhelmed by copious amounts of foods, there is an energy drainage from the brain and we experience short-term diversion from feelings of sadness, shame, loneliness, anger, fear etc.
We think food is our friend in hard times but it only perpetuates the cycle of feeling negative emotions and searching for a way to cope. When we overeat, not only do we feel disgusting in our bodies, but we also experience fatigue that steers us away from physical activity or general productivity. As our bodies feel more lethargic and we lose our sense of purposefulness, the attraction to our own body disintegrates and we lose our sexual desires. With the weight piling on, our desire for solidarity or fear of connection grows stronger and in no time we’re stuck in a vicious cycle that shames us from reaching out to others or ourselves for help.
If you’re struggling with low self-esteem and the basic human need for love and validation, understand that running away from the gym and straight to food will only dig you deeper into the pit. It’s not the solution you need.
Instead of going on diets and working out SO THAT we can love ourselves, why don’t we eat well and exercise BECAUSE we love yourselves? Developing self-love means doing what’s best for you, not what you necessarily feel like doing. It means consciously practicing positive self-talk even when it’s easier to just let your inner voice berate you. It means taking your body for regular tune-ups and putting good fuel in it just like you would for your car. It means choosing to find solutions to improve your life, not problems and excuses. It’s about replacing judgement with compassion when you fall down and getting back up. It’s about taking the time to get to know what you enjoy and doing it. It’s about treating yourself with the respect you give others. It’s about knowing you deserve better; that you’re worthy of the effort it takes to get the best things in life.
The next time life feels tough, remember that you’ll Never regret a workout or healthy meal, but you will always regret abusing your spirit and body with a binge and the self-berating thoughts that follows.