Does your childhood hold the key to your weight loss struggles?
Updated: Mar 2, 2019
From sweets with your grandparents, a messy and disorganised home-life to pushy parenting, forgotten aspects of your childhood could be holding back your weight-loss success.
From the ‘I deserve it’ chocolate bar to the ‘this will cheer me up’ tub of ice cream, there will usually be a complex series of conversations going on in your head whenever you find yourself reaching for diet-busting food. But did you ever for one minute realise that these could stem from your childhood?
For many of us, eating habits are established in childhood, and psychologists have found that forgotten early events can have a long-lasting impact on your eating behaviour as an adult.
It is these links between life experiences and appetite - our emotions and our stomachs - that contribute to the way we relate to food for the rest of our lives.
Understanding this is the missing piece in the weight-loss puzzle. Once you recognise and understand what’s going on, you’ll be half way towards sorting the problem, and then finding and sticking at a happy healthy weight becomes so much easier.
‘Don’t cry’ sweet treats
Throughout childhood food is often provided as a source of comfort, even when you’re not hungry - the biscuit to stem the tears when we fall over, the sweet tin at Granny’s house - so it’s hardly surprising many of us grow up to associate ‘treat foods’ with reward, and vegetables as a necessary evil. Then, in adolescence, we’re so often hit by conflicting messages - the constant advertising of high fat and sugar foods, but also pressure to have the perfect figure. This can cause confusion just at the most fragile time when we’re developing our sense of self. It can lead to difficult-to-shift and potentially harmful eating patterns in adulthood.
A stressful childhood
Whether you were put under a lot of pressure to perform, suffered bereavement or your parents split up, a stressful childhood can trigger over-activation of finely balanced stress systems which can go on to affect the hormones that regulate eating and feeling full. In adulthood, this can trigger a seeming inability to control eating which, in itself, can increase stress levels, creating a vicious loop and uncontrolled weight gain.
Sometimes, personality differences between parent and child can impact later eating behaviours. Even something as subtle as expressing emotion differently from your parents can be enough to skew future relationships with food. An extroverted parent for example, might, with good intentions, encourage a shy child to be more outgoing, perhaps insisting they go to parties and playgroups when deep down the child need much more reassurance and support. You couldn’t possibly call this poor parenting but a strong disparity in temperament could lead to a heightened propensity to quite literally feed your emotions, specifically with high-calorie treat food in later life.
If you are the sort who struggles to identify, regulate and express your emotions, you might have grown up finding it hard to tolerate your own feelings. In these cases, very often food can become an effective way to dampen these strong feelings. It is the classic comfort-eating scenario which might see you diving head first into a tub of ice cream when you’re feeling grumpy, or seeking to cheer yourself up with chocolate when you’re sad. If there are any unresolved issues lurking deep down in your consciousness that you might not really want to face, you might find any small trigger brings out the pain. You can easily end up feeling as if the best way to avoid facing those demons is to stuff them back down with food. Refined sugar or starchy foods which are bulky and will do the job quickly and easily will be the first to grab because they can offer comfort (in the form of addictive pleasure chemicals like dopamine) at the same time.
As young children we learn about human relationships and concepts such as trust, security and the confidence to explore the world from our parents, grandparents and other adults. But studies have shown that parenting that could be described as distant and disengaged, inconsistent, disorganized or erratic can lead to low self-esteem and body dissatisfaction in the child. In order to deal with difficult feelings such as low self-esteem and insecure relationships with your parents, some people turn to food as a way of coping. These patterns can continue later into life and become so engrained that it’s difficult to disentangle where feelings start and food stops.
If your mother or father ever worried about you gaining weight as a child you could find yourself subconsciously believing that parental love might somehow be conditional: ‘if I’m good and stay thin, I’ll be loved’.
If someone doesn’t feel they are worth taking care of, they will struggle to stick to a healthy eating plan, as they can be plagued by thought patterns such as: ‘It doesn’t matter if I eat this as I’m rubbish anyway.’
You might have got lots of positive reinforcement at your skinniest, but if (when) the weight goes back on, you can end up feeling worthless. This emotional reaction can lead to a negative cycle of behaviour that we often see played out in adults with low self-esteem who make - unhealthy food choices and yo-yo weight gain.
How to break free from emotional eating
Here’s how to start shifting the shackles of emotional eating:
1. Do you recognise any of the scenarios above? Accepting that there is a strong link between mood and food is the first battle won
2. Shift your thinking from WHAT you eat (counting calories, fat percentages, carbs or vegetables) to WHY you eat. Keep a one week ‘food/mood’ diary and jot down what’s on your mind, your emotions, and how hungry you are against every morsel of food that passes your lips. Studies consistently show keeping a food diary aids diet success but by making a note of your hunger levels and/or mood every time you put something in your mouth, you can get a fascinating insight into how often – and why – you eat what you eat. In fact, studies show dieters who make a note of everything they eat and how much exercise they do can lose twice as much weight as those who don’t. So much of our eating is automatic, and you might not be consciously aware of the healthy and unhealthy elements of your diet. A food/mood diary is a great way to put you back in control.
3. Take the FREE Shrinkology quiz to find out which of six personality/eating types you are. This will help you identify the emotional and lifestyle triggers that might be lurking behind your set pattern of eating behaviours.
Five quick non-food feel-good fixes to take your mind off cake
1. Grab a steamy novel (try a Mills & Boon series or 50 Shades of Grey). If you’re feeling sad and lonely and you really want biscuits or ice cream a quick read can be enough to top-up levels of the brain’s pleasure chemicals.
2. Bite into a wedge of lemon. ‘A quick, sense-jolting distraction can be enough to nudge you out of destructive thought patterns (‘what’s the point of this diet?’) and get yourself grounded before things cascade out of control,’ says Dr Meg.
3. Give yourself a confidence boost. Think about the loveliest thing someone has said about you, and phrase it in a ‘self-statement’ (such as ‘I am a good and compassionate person who makes people feel loved and cared for – including myself’) then stand in front of a mirror each morning and read it out loud. Studies show self-affirmations really do make new neural connections and can change the way you behave.
4. Try knitting. Craft keep your hands and mind busily distracted and knitting a gift for someone enhances its mood-boosting power.
5. Run a floatation bath. Just add 2 scoops of Epsom salts to a warm bath, then dim the bathroom lights to create your own deeply relaxing floatation tank.