It is the most enduring relationship in all our lives. It inspires love and loathing, for some indifference, but we can not live without food.
It can be a simple relationship or an excruciatingly complex one. We can eat to function and feel full and fit, but we can also eat to be happy or to cover up sadness. It is the why rather than the what of eating that fascinates food therapist Pixie Turner.
After working as a nutritionist, she quickly found that many of her clients who were struggling to eat healthily and maintain a weight they wanted to already knew the basic facts of what they should be eating, but they still struggled.
Digging deeper into why so many people seem to have a bad relationship with food led her to qualify as a psychotherapist.
In her professional practice, she has found that the origin of issues with food, for around eight out of 10 of her clients, can be found in their childhood.
Whether benign and unwitting or more insidious, parents have a direct role in how our relationship with food is formulated.
A product of our upbringing
While it’s hardly a new observation (Philip Larkin rendered parents eternally guilty in his 1971 poem This Be the Verse), it can still be a shock to many of Turner’s clients.
But she is certainly not encouraging her clients or readers of her book to apportion blame. “We’re not here to blame anyone. Blame isn’t helpful. It’s about understanding how you got here; that there are reasons why you are the way you are with food.”
Otherwise, says Turner: “You’re sitting there saying, ‘Why am I like this?’ And you don’t have an answer. What happens then is because you don’t have that understanding, you beat yourself up for it and say, ‘There must be something wrong with me.’”
We are all a product of our upbringing and the values and experiences we are given by our parents. It is impossible to predict the depth of impact they will have. Two children in the same family might come away with totally different eating patterns – one may struggle, the other not.
There is also, of course, a spectrum of severity. Turner has helped clients at the extreme end of parental culpability, where they have been starved by abusive parents. She has also helped a client whose mother was an alcoholic and could sometimes forget to feed her daughter.
“She learnt to stuff herself when she could because she never knew when food would next arrive. She couldn’t rely on her parents to provide for her consistently.”
When a child grows up with that sort of unreliability with food and the worry about feeling hungry, that can carry through into an adult relationship with eating and hunger.
While the causal link is pretty clear-cut in these kind of situations, some are less obvious.
Next in the spectrum that Turner encounters are people who grew up in an environment where they were put on a diet, or their weight was explicitly referred to.
“I have a client whose mother criticised her body all the time. Every day there was something to pick at. ‘You’re not dressing properly,’ ‘Your tummy looks too big,’ ‘Why are you not pushing yourself in sports classes at school?’ ‘Why are you eating that? It’s an hour until dinner.’ Individually the constant criticism isn’t very meaningful, but if you add it all together, it wears a person down and makes them feel they are not good at stuff. That they can never be good enough.”
In Turner’s experience this most often leads to comfort eating and feeling out of control around food. “They feel they are not good enough so they eat to feel full, thereby trying to solve an emotional hunger with physical fullness. While this can be a temporary solution, what usually happens then is they feel like they’ve had too much and are too much, then they restrict again. This cycle then repeats over and over again.”
Even less obvious to recognise is the link between one’s eating habits and growing up in a household where people were always on diets.
“The parents don’t necessarily say anything, but it’s very clear in the modelling and the way they behave that certainly things are deemed to be shameful and not OK.”
While there might be zero intention of making their child feel that way, the message might be communicated by implication: “If I’m in a smaller body, then I’m more deserving of love than when I’m in a bigger body.”
Similarly, that message of being unlovable or that being overweight is shameful might be communicated by comments parents make about other people.
“You’re in a restaurant and your parents see someone in a larger body eating a burger and they say, ‘Ugh isn’t that disgusting!’” says Turner. “Or you hear from a parent, ‘Be careful, you’re getting a bit bigger.’ As if this is bad and there’s something wrong with you.”
A completely different childhood scenario that can lead to disordered eating (Turner says this tends to mean eating that is “anxiety inducing, fear-based, inflexible, or out of control”) as an adult might not originate from food or diet talk at all. If a child is taught to feel shame – due to making mistakes, not succeeding, or homophobia for example – they may then comfort themselves with food. If a child is not taught how to regulate their own emotions, they may use food as an alternate method of regulation.
“In the UK we unfortunately have a reputation for this idea of the ‘stiff upper lip,’ but actually kids need to cry and be taught to regulate their emotions, not push them down. When we do push them down, that’s when we’re more likely to turn to things like food.”
The messages “Don’t cry” or “Don’t be angry” can have implications for what we eat.
Looking back on these triggers for any present day eating habits is something that Turner says clients are keen to do when they start their own families.
“A large proportion of the clients I see come to me because they now have children. Often their children are reaching the age when they themselves became aware of there being something wrong with their body, or they were put on that first diet.
“They suddenly have that panic: ‘Oh my God, what if I pass this on to my children?’ That is the point at which people are able to interrogate behaviours and actions around food and how it affected them. They’re able to say: ‘I don’t want to do this to my own kids.’”
For some people though it can take time to make the connection between their own habits and their upbringing. Especially if they hold true to the narrative that “my childhood was good. My parents were perfect.”
“And sometimes people want to believe that, which I can totally understand. That is a lovely narrative. And because also if we believe that then there’s nothing to talk about and no problem to fix,” says Turner.
In those cases, a less confrontational approach she finds is to ask questions such as: “What did you learn about food as a child?” She doesn’t add the obvious “from your parents”. “So that it feels more open,” she says. “‘Or what did you learn about your body as a child?’ These are the big questions.”
Coming to that awareness can be extremely tough and Turner says people often have to go through a bit of a grieving process, but: “It means you can actually see your life realistically the way it is, which means you can work with reality rather than a fantasy.”
Focus on the present
So what are you supposed to do once you’ve found a connection between food and family?
Turner has clients who are desperate to confront their parents, which is rarely constructive.
“Often people will have that desire to say, ‘Hey, this wasn’t OK,’ but it all depends on your innate understanding of whether your parents are the type to listen and respond or whether you will be dismissed. I can’t tell each and every person what’s going to happen. They need to decide based on their own understanding of their parents.”
A more positive approach, Turner would suggest, is instead to focus on what you can do in the present. “Setting boundaries for future interactions is much more sensible.” Examples include saying, “I don’t want you to bring up my weight when we’re eating.” Or, “Can we not talk about calories at the dinner table please.”
“You set those boundaries about the now, so you can have a better time with your parents,” says Turner. “You can’t change the past but this is constructive for now.”
Another approach is to set boundaries around your own children, such as: “Please don’t make comments about my child’s body.”
The very worst thing any parent can do is put their child on a diet, says Turner. “Children need to be allowed to be kids. They don’t need to be aware of their body size.”
However identifying how your own childhood experiences might have informed your present eating habits isn’t an excuse for high-handed behaviour. Because, as Turner says, “People do their absolute best with the tools that they have and are available.”
It’s important to remember that intention and outcome are not the same thing. “As a parent your intention can be the best, but sometimes the outcome is not good. And you can hurt someone. We need to try and hold them separately, even though they are obviously interlinked.”
In trying to not stumble into the same parent traps ourselves, Turner suggests taking an approach that is more about how you feel inwards, than how you look outwardly.
Instead, encourage children to be aware of their bodies. What feels good. If a child says, “I’m really full,” you can say, “OK, what does that feel like? How do you know you’re really full?” Or, “How do you know you’re hungry?” “When you run around, how does your body feel? Does it feel good?”
Key to this is stopping the rule that everything on the plate must be eaten. “If a child is full they don’t have to finish everything on their plate. It’s actually far healthier for them to recognise they are full and stop, then have to finish a plate of food,” says Turner.
“The number of times I hear, ‘I always finish all the food on my plate, even if I’m really full, because that’s what my parents taught me.’ And then they beat themselves up for having eaten too much!”
When parents do tell their children to eat up, or that they can’t be hungry yet, the message that gets sent to the child is that they know better than their child does about their own body. “I don’t think that’s what parents want to do, but unfortunately that’s what they are doing in those moments.”
Finding a way to start thinking about some of these factors in our own relationship with food can allow us to look afresh at what’s behind the reason why we can’t follow eating patterns that we know would be more healthy and sustainable. And yet the process of doing so can be very challenging.
Meanwhile, no parent wants to feel as if he or she is to blame. Instead, says Turner: “It’s all about doing the best you can.
And when you come across new information and a more helpful way of doing things, go for it, rather than feeling defensive about the way you are currently doing things.”
‘Food Therapy’ by Pixie Turner is published by Piatkus on January 26, £14.99