My great big fat story

[vc_column_text]When I was aged just nine, a doctor put me on my first diet. I remember walking home with that  joyless bit of paper in my hand. Typed on one side were instructions to eat half a grapefruit for breakfast, or one slice of toast with a thin scraping of margarine, and a cup of tea, ideally black but a small dash of milk would be permitted if absolutely necessary (for the weak-willed!). This regime allowed me about 1,000 calories a day – which was the accepted wisdom in the 1970s. ‘Just consume 1,000 calories a day and you will lose weight’ they said. ‘It’s that easy, no arguments. If you can’t do it, there’s something wrong with you.’ And that was the lie I bought.

That was then and this is now… (this ‘before’ photo was still 10kgs lighter than my highest ever weight)


I spent the next 30 odd years thinking that if I could just stick to a diet for long enough or just do more exercise – even though I was running marathons, teaching aerobic classes, and cycling everywhere – the weight would have to come off. Wouldn’t it? It just has to, doesn’t it? That’s what every so called expert was advising me. The massive billion-dollar diet industry is built on that premise.

Well, it didn’t work for me and it didn’t work for any of my clients. The only thing that decades of deprivation, calorie counting, and punishing exercise regimes did  was make me feel like a failure, make me obsessive and miserable. It also triggered a storm of eating disorders, cravings, and binges that led to metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, leptin resistance, famine response, thyroid and hormonal disorders, sluggish metabolism, digestive disorders, lethargy… it was a cascade of knock-on issues that led to more and more weight gain. I actually dieted myself fatter! It would be funny if it hadn’t robbed me of years of my life (bitter? Me? Yes I bloody am.)

At 19 years old, after 10 years of dieting, I peaked at my heaviest weight, which was about 45lbs or 20kgs more than I weigh today because, instead of helping me shift some fat off my nine-year-old frame, all that dieting triggered real problems, both physical and mental. And it ignored the real reasons for the extra weight that had so quickly manifested; reasons that had nothing to do with food and everything to do with love.

So for decades I turned to diet after diet to try and lose that 20kg (45lbs).  I was obsessed with my weight and with food. It was all I could think about all the time. ALL THE TIME. Even when on the surface I was talking about something else, it was always there, hate-speak chattering in my head. It’s ruined countless special times in my life from celebrations to milestone moments to holidays and travel. It clouded every moment of my life until I worked out how to extricate myself from the tangled emotional and physical ball of chains and superglue that is obesity.

That took a long time though. I persevered with the low calorie, low fat dieting for so long because that was the accepted wisdom of the time – and still is in many quarters. ‘Eat less and exercise more’ was the mantra, ‘it can’t fail,’ we were told. But it did fail. Over and over again this approach failed but instead of blaming the advice or seeing it as incomplete, I, like millions of others, blamed myself. Every authority and media platform told us that more dieting and more exercise was the only solution to excess weight so I spent years on that hamster wheel. The promised results stubbornly failed to transpire yet I kept blaming myself for the failure. The official definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. I was insane.

The corporate diet industry is insane. Blaming and berating myself, shaming myself and my body, punishing my body with yet more stupid diets and even more excessive exercise – that’s insane. And I did it for decades. And when it didn’t work, I blamed myself – then gave myself a stern talking to and tried again.

On top of the low calorie and low fat dieting, I did excessive and punishing levels of exercise for years. I ran marathons, completed triathlons and did relentless long distance running. I certified as an aerobics teacher and taught classes a few evenings a week on top of my marathon training and a full-time day job – a day job to which I cycled there and back, usually stopping off at the gym on the way to fit in a 30 minute run on the treadmill.

I also did long distance cycling and once spent three months cycling around a whole country (albeit a smallish one – Ireland)… I just couldn’t understand why the excess weight wouldn’t budge. ‘What am I doing wrong?’ I asked myself, for the millionth time. ‘How on earth could I even fit more exercise into my life without giving up my day job?’ And I came back with the usual answer, ‘I’m obviously not trying hard enough…’ which is something I hear today from the clients that come to me for help with their own weight issues. In their first session with me, I can just about guarantee that a new client will blame their extra weight on ‘needing to try harder’ or ‘not having enough willpower’. These are all intelligent, hard-working, resourceful and motivated people. These are people who get up at 5.30am to do a gym class before taking the kids to school and then going to their own workplace. These people are amazing. They just don’t see it.

Like them, I was trapped in a vicious cycle of self-blame, self-punishment and self-criticism. I put parts of my life on hold; I was obsessed with my weight, with calories, with what I ate… ironically, I could never enjoy or appreciate quality food because I was always thinking of it terms of guilt and calories.

I would often end up in tears of despair because it felt like my body was battling with me every step of the way… and that is the clue. My body WAS battling me every step of the way. Or, more precisely, my subconscious mind was battling with my conscious mind and my body was simply following orders from the vastly more powerful of the two.

Everything started to change when I understood that my body and mind wanted this extra weight. I didn’t believe it for a long time though. I so desperately wanted to be thinner that I couldn’t accept that  some part of me, deep inside and very well hidden, wanted to be overweight. But that part of me was there because if it wasn’t, the excess weight wouldn’t have been there. And until I got in touch with that part of me, and got it on board with what I consciously wanted, I was never going to win this fight. I wasn’t even in the right boxing ring! I was shadow boxing up a dead end alley.

The key factor was that my subconscious mind had a whole load of very good reasons for keeping on that extra padding and no matter what I did with regards to diet and exercise, my subconscious had powerful tools to combat my efforts. From lowering my metabolism and increasing my appetite, to silencing the hormonal signals to the brain that control fat storage and satiety, to triggering an underactive thyroid, my efforts with the latest diet theory that had worked for some celebrity never stood a chance.

Let’s go back to that doctor’s appointment when I was age nine. My mother took me to the doctor because she couldn’t figure out why I’d gained so much weight in just a couple of years. It was a mystery! Then again, maybe it wasn’t.

When I was age seven, my parents broke up because my father had been cheating on my mother. The divorce was nasty, messy and vicious. Her world shattered, my mother very quickly rebounded into a new relationship with a controlling man who, frankly, didn’t want someone else’s kids in the deal. So in that two years, my family had crumbled, my beloved dad abandoned me (it seemed to me), we moved house three times and I found myself living with an intimidating man as well as his son, a boy who was four years older than me who never let an an opportunity to call me fat, ugly or stupid pass him by (bless him though, he had his own baggage to deal with).

What happened? My suppressed emotional pain showed up in my body as excess weight. Subconsciously, I was using food as a comfort to numb all the emotions I couldn’t process. I was also using extra weight to hide behind; to avoid unwanted sexual attention from these intimidating men. I was also learning behaviour from my mother who became obsessed with her own weight and dieting in the wake of the divorce and a subsequent nervous breakdown. But I didn’t realise that at the time. I was a child of the 70s. The diet industry was just getting ramped up as the realisation sunk in of the vast fortunes that were there to be made. There was the grapefruit diet, the F plan diet (basically, you eat fibre), the Scarsdale Medical Diet, meal replacement shakes and endless calorie counting. I used to carry a calorie counting book around with me. We were sold the message that if low calorie dieting wasn’t working, you were doing it wrong, and the answer was more self-flagellation, deprivation, self-punishment and of course more calorie counting and exercise until you do get it right. ‘If it’s not working, it’s your fault, you don’t have enough willpower…’ was the bullying and erroneous message.

Ok, so far so depressing, but what does work? I’m glad you asked! Click here…[/vc_column_text]