It’s not surprising that Dr Jane McCartney’s publishers thought they were on to a winner with a book called Stop Overeating. At the last count one quarter of UK adults were medically obese, and they didn’t get that way by saying no to second helpings.
Being no stranger to second helpings (or indeed, if there’s no one looking, thirds) I grabbed a copy as soon as it appeared on the shelves last week. As I turned the pages, however, it quickly became apparent that the real title should be Stop Emotionally Eating. It is this phenomenon – eating for emotional rather than physical reasons – that McCartney is addressing, with a book that is structured into four fairly challenging “therapy sessions”.
These consist of various exercises, interspersed with some illustrative case studies. At times I found these tragicomic: Frank’s teenage mum used to go out in the evening and leave him at home with a big pile of toast and the dog – “and when the dog died, it was just me and the toast”. Linda eats to deal with her feelings of rejection by her father, partner and son, who take it in turns to belittle her while she supports them and runs the house. Let’s hope that when she comes off the cake, Linda does the appropriate thing and takes a gun to the lot of them.
Initially, I found all this a bit offputting, because it made it seem as if the book was there to deal with people who have a much more serious problem than I do. But reading on I decided that there are lessons here for people who simply overdo it every now and then. In a world that contains both the skinny vegan Gwyneth Paltrow and “two for one” deals on Cadbury’s chocolate fingers, most women’s relationship with food is probably a bit messed up.
So, our first exercise is to think about a recent incident of emotional eating, considering what led up to the binge, in “backward steps” from the immediate to the underlying causes. Kate bins her salad lunch and buys something unhealthy instead because she feels left out by a colleague at work, but takes a step back from that to realise that she is worried about her relationship with her husband, lonely, and bullied by her anorexic sister. Identifying the emotional chain of events is key, McCartney says, because “if you can accurately identify your experienced emotions, you can then start to challenge, ignore or dismiss [them] as irrelevant.”
The second session looks at where it all went wrong with food – whether we’re using it to comfort, suppress or punish ourselves. I largely failed in this task: thinking back to my childhood relationship with food, I recall sneaking extra bits of the iced ginger cake that my mum used to make, but rather than identifying some emotions about it all I can think is that that cake was JUST SO GOOD. While we’re on this topic, was a packet of biscuits really the ideal cover illustration for a book that’s supposed to help us stop overeating? Isn’t this a bit like putting a massive pair of tits on the front of a self-help book for sex addicts?
But I digress. By the third session (the idea is to read one chapter per week, setting aside a time and space to think about it carefully) we have moved on to stopping. McCartney suggests taking ten minutes when you are tempted to emotionally eat, time that should be used to examine your feelings rather than buy chocolate. She calls this a Mini Moment Intervention – by this point the titles are starting to grate on me, but I give it a try anyway next time I’m in Costa and the giant jaffa cakes are calling to me. I take ten minutes to have a coffee and think about whether I’m feeling upset about anything: in the end, I decide I’m just hungry, but eating it feels somehow less guilty for the fact that I thought about whether I really wanted or needed it.
If my overeating has an emotional cause, by the way, I reckon it’s a chance to feel s*** about myself. I love to eat, but I usually feel guilty and embarrassed after overdoing it – and then of course there’s the self-disgust you get from being fatter than you know you should be. Hours and hours of my life that could have been spent more productively (writing my novel? Curing cancer?) have been spent prodding my belly fat. It’s a fantastic method of self-sabotage.
But how do you really stop? This may be where a self-help book falls a little short. Some of the exercises are incredibly difficult, such as making lists of people in your life who are either supportive or unsupportive. You don’t have to cut ties with people who are “untrustworthy, bullying, two-faced”, says McCartney, or to have it out with them; just be aware that they have the potential to weaken you, so that you can spot what is going on and deal with it in a new way. If we’re talking about a very entrenched pattern – Linda and her emotionally abusive dad, say – that is a pretty big ask. McCartney also suggests “acknowledging” the history that has made you an emotional eater, but notes that not everyone is ready to move on from their past.
Assuming that you have the will and the resilience to do all this, she spends the final session looking at things or people who can undermine your efforts to change. I found the section on “saboteurs” boring (there’s no one in my life who will feel threatened if I stop eating pies) but the Fear Of Missing Out really resonated. I usually want the last biscuit, because if I don’t eat the last biscuit, someone else could eat it and then there will be NO MORE BISCUITS. And what should happen if I’m hungry?
Fear Of Missing Out, McCartney says, stems from formative experiences of unavailability. “This could be material things like food or possessions such as housing, money or warmth. Or quite likely your fears are just as much, if not more, rooted in and based on the unavailability of significant people in your life and not having the availability of emotional security.” To break the pattern, you have to acknowledge the root of the problem and take a mini moment to realise that you do not really need to eat the biscuits. These are not the last biscuits you will ever see. There are biscuits in your future.
McCartney finishes with a few practical tips to help you stay on track and a 28-day eating plan. I skipped the diet because I don’t really think I have a problem: I’m a Size 13, not a Size 23. But as I close the book, I’m left wondering… did I fail to engage with it because I’m not ready to let go of the past, face up to the problems in my life and change my coping strategies? For all its slightly clunky, cringey case studies and neologisms, Stop Overeating has certainly made me reappraise my relationship with food – something that most of us could probably benefit from.
Stop Overeating by Dr Jane McCartney , £10.99, is published by Vermilion