No one has a food problem, they have a feelings problem, says award-winning beauty journalist and producer Ateh Jewel. Here, she writes about her 15-year cycle of food addiction and the wakeup call that finally freed her
I was a skinny, wiry super-athletic kid. I won all the races, was on the volleyball A team and was captain of all the others. I triumphantly lifted up the London Inter Girls School Junior Fencing Cup and was a sporting champion in my teens. I was a curvy toned size 10-12 with an hourglass figure when I nervously stepped out into the world at 19. I set off to read history at Bristol University and begin my new life. I had £30 in my pocket and didn't know how ends would meet but I was going to go for it.
So how did I manage to double in size to become more than 10 stone overweight by my late 30s? There’s no simple answer when discussing weight and body issues. For me, it wasn’t my parents’ divorce or being pregnant with twins, it was a slow process.
But I can see how the seeds were sown when I was a child. I associated food with emotion, watching and listening to the women around me chatting at coffee mornings about their husbands, insecurities and their latest diets: the Cambridge Diet, Fasting Fridays, hot water and lemon to kick-start the digestion. I associated diets and being body conscious with pleasing men, holding onto your man and making sure he doesn’t sleep with his 22-year-old blonde Russian secretary Olga.
When I was eight, my parents had a dramatic and scandalous divorce, when my mum caught my dad out. It was a confusing and heartbreaking time as my mum, my brother and I were no longer financially secure and I glimpsed for the first time the dark side of human nature. I knew then I would never let a man determine my financial security and be able to destroy my happiness and stability. I didn’t want to be a disempowered woman, a housewife, who drank hot water and lemon and exercised three times a week to keep my ass in the same place it had been at 21. I associated being body conscious and exercise with being a victim and powerless.
My childhood was a turbulent rough sea. My Trinidadian mum didn’t have residency in the UK and was permitted to stay only through marriage to my dad. After the divorce, she had to go several times to America, where she happened to have a Green Card, to apply for UK residency from there. I spent long periods away from her as my brother and me were looked after by family friends. I felt under threat and siege all of the time. The threat of losing my house, my school, my formerly wealthy golden 1980s’ childhood. While my friends at nine or ten were worried about what Cabbage Patch Kids they would get for Christmas, I was worried about my mum getting residency in the UK and how we’d pay our mounting bills. Every night I would pray to the Home Secretary to grant my mum leave to stay.
My father leaving made me feel worthless and unlovable. He could start again and could focus on other relationships. What filled the void for me was my school work, in which I excelled, and being the best. Old MGM musicals and dancing were another refuge, as, to some extent also was food. I was a couple of stone overweight but knew I could lose it again if I really tried.
My out-of-control weight gain began at university when I felt totally alone; food became my number one comfort - a reliable friend. I was living away from home, supporting myself by working four jobs and working on university deadlines until 4am. I had no emotional or financial support and food stepped up to embrace me and protect me. I couldn't afford to do any sport both because I was time-poor and every penny counted. The weight piled on. When I felt happy I ate, when I felt sad I ate and when I felt frustrated I ate.
I had to make a decision. I could be dead by 50, or I COULD do something and be the embarrassing mother-of-the-bride THAT I LONGED TO BE at my daughters’ weddings, twerking on the dance floor
After university, I threw myself into my work, going freelance as a journalist at 22. I enjoyed pulling writing all-nighters until 5am and I got high from the validation of being published by all the titles I wrote for. By the time I turned 28, my adrenals were fried. I wasn’t sleeping and as I tried to find more balance with my work, the weight piled on and I realised I was a workaholic. I don’t drink or do drugs but I have an addictive, type-A control freak personality. I know these don’t mix well with chemical stimulants, so I don’t touch them. Food was my drug of choice and I was abusing it and my body with sugar, the same way an alcoholic or coke-head would.
To gain crazy amounts of weight is actually hard. I’m not talking about being a stone overweight, but by the time I was 30, I had added the equivalent of Kim Kardashian’s bodyweight onto my ass.
For a time, my weight levelled out when I became pregnant with twins at 32. I actually lost two stone. I knew I had to look after my unborn babies, so I ate like a 19-year-old Instagrammer, all chicken salads, blueberries and super healthy food. I could love my body for my daughters but not for myself. As a result, even though I was pregnant my bodyweight evened out. However two years later, with fast and furious days of being a twin mother, beauty blogger, journalist and film producer, I was eating chocolate cake three times a day, a tub of ice cream every night and drinking numerous cans of Diet Coke.
I’m a hard nut, I’m a grafter. However, when you’re suffering from insomnia and starting every day shaking and vomiting, you know something is very wrong. Hysterically, I thought I was a coeliac; a quick trip to the GP confirmed what was obvious, but what I had been in denial about. I had given myself type 2 diabetes from my sugar addiction. I had scored an own goal against my body. I had used it as a dumping ground and disrespected it. Addiction is a form of self-harm; my eating was a form of self-harm, just like a teen girl cutting herself. I was numbing my stress, frustration and anger with food.
I had to make a decision. I could be dead by 50, or I could do something and be the embarrassing mother-of-the-bride at my daughters’ weddings that I longed to be, twerking on the dance floor. I knew they needed me and I had to make drastic changes in my life in order to be there for them. I’m an extreme person and I knew deep down nothing would stop me unless it was a life or death situation. August 16th, 2016, the day I was told I was diabetic, was my wake-up call. I lost 27kg – more than four stone - in four months. Being extreme can be a force for good too, right?
I took myself off to the Bodyism gym and started yoga and ballet. I knew I needed to nurture my soul and body instead of doing self-punishing hardcore cardio. I cut all refined sugar, took daily walks in nature and chased positive pleasure - going to art galleries, having massages, doing adult colouring books and taking time for myself. My soul was in an emotional coma and probably had been since childhood and I had to wake it up. I had good days and bad days. I did everything by myself, the way I’m used to doing, but I know asking for help is also powerful.
I started eating dark chocolate like methadone to take the edge off, but that spiralled into a full-on sugar relapse. I had to go cold turkey again. Like an alcoholic, one drink is too much and 100 are never enough. I abuse sugar, so I can’t have any - period.
No one has a food problem, no one has a drug problem, no one has a sex addiction problem, no one has a gambling problem, no one has an alcohol problem. They have a feelings problem. Anyone who has pushed their body, their loved ones and their health to the edge, is trying to dull and numb their pain, their boredom and their frustration with their drug or activity of choice.
I’ve lost almost five stone altogether and still want to lose more. I’ve almost reversed my diabetes and my doctors are in shock. I’m disappointed that I didn’t do it in a year. I would have, had it not been for my little relapse. So hopefully by the end of this year, I’ll do it. Ballet and yoga have really helped me tap into my feelings, to listen to myself, find my focus and be still.
Ballet has helped with my concentration, expression, focus and has reminded me I am strong both spiritually and physically and not to beat myself up so much. My ballet teacher Karis is part healer, part ballet teacher and I’m very grateful to her for helping me. Yoga has helped me be less frustrated and angry. The way you move between poses, the way you let it go and move on to the next, has been very helpful for my mindset. Having an hour simply to breathe, be still and focus on yourself is necessary when you have a busy full life. I have learnt that self-care isn’t selfish!
This all sounds like something I would have mocked a couple of years ago. But not listening to myself got me into this dangerous situation with my health in the first place. My husband and kids have been very supportive and I’m teaching my girls how to have a balanced healthy life. They do ballet, yoga and art classes every week and have a healthy attitude towards food. No food is good or bad or a friend – it’s just fuel.
Some people in my life have reacted in a negative way. The day after I told a loved one I was diabetic, they brought round cakes and ice cream, I was shocked and hurt and they claimed it was for the kids. Was it sabotage? Whatever the motivation I know I need to minimize contact with people who don’t wish me well, whether that’s out of malice or ignorance.
I’m taking one day at a time. If you want to take control of your health and body and weight, here are the top 5 tips that helped with weight loss.......
1. Ask yourself what is the eating really about?
Most of us live in some state of denial. We’re in denial that the creeping weight isn’t really a problem. If you’re not happy in your skin, confront your feelings and deal with the real problem. Are you in a bad situation? What’s frustrating you? What’s the real problem? What is triggering feelings of low self-esteem?
I was frustrated in my work. I had something to say and express myself so I started my website jeweltonesbeauty.com. I’m working on a new beauty range and foundation for darker skin launching next year. I pushed aside my fears and low self-esteem and decided to go for it. Tackle your real issues head-on and your hand won’t reach for the biscuit tin.
2. Edit your life
Once you pinpoint the real problems, which are making you stress eat and pile on weight, it’s time to clear out the closet. You hate your job? Change it. You’re in an abusive relationship? Leave. You have toxic friends and family who constantly jab and chip away at your self-esteem on a daily basis? Dump them or minimise contact. I have cut out toxic people and only work with clients and people who fill me up with love and pride. I've cut out the crazy from my life.
3. Chase pleasure
I was told this by a fabulous yoga teacher Nahid de Belgeonne of www.goodvibesfitness.com . I was wrapping myself in the chemical hug that sugar gave me. Sugar lights up the brain and boosts dopamine levels in the same way cocaine and heroin do. Unless you live on an island, it’s normal to be irritated and frustrated by everyday life. Instead of reaching for sugar, I now reach for other things to calm me and give me pleasure. I love colouring, it sounds crazy but busy hands can quieten your cravings. Meditation has also helped as well as having more manicures, massages, quiet coffees out by myself. Before, I wouldn't have done these things and would have put the needs of others before looking after myself. Those days are over.
4. Let your hurt go and the weight will follow
I read that being dramatically overweight is the result of protection or punishment and I think this is true. The fat you put on is literally a barrier between you and the world or it can be the burden you are piling on yourself because of shame and rage. Perhaps, like me, it’s a bit of both.
Confront your feelings, forgive yourself and others who have harmed and hurt you and live for tomorrow instead of in the past. Let it go and the weight will follow. There's a quote I love about revenge and anger. “If you want to follow this path dig two graves, one for the person you hate and one for yourself”. I had to let go and forgive those around me who did me harm such as my dad. I've moved on, not for them but for me. I have my own family and have created a safe space. They won't change but that's ok.
5. Pick up your fork and eat
This seems crazy but often when you’re overweight you aren’t eating enough. I would often skip breakfast and have a latte, then a sugary snack around 11am. Then I would starve myself until a late lunch at 2/3pm when I would wolf down some high carb sandwich and crisps because I was so hungry and then follow that by a light supper. I would then reach for sugar again and have 3 slices of cake or a tub of ice cream. Madness. Eat like a French woman. Eat a healthy hearty breakfast full of protein like eggs and avocado on gluten-free bread, then eat a proper lunch, soup, chicken salad, have a home-made smoothie at 3pm, then eat a proper dinner. This is at least three times more food than I ate when I was 27kg heavier. Three pieces of chocolate cake are not the same as a plate full of fresh vegetables, fish, lean meats, fruits and nuts. So get eating. Just choose the right foods that will nurture yourself and break the cycle of self-harm.