My unhappy relationship with food and my body, and what I did about it
How journaling gave me back a feeling of being in control of my body and mind
Rachel Flaherty: ‘I learned a new appreciation for my body and how resilient it is.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Shame, disgust and guilt were feelings I’d become accustomed to when thinking about my body, but I didn’t speak about it at the time.
I was afraid to openly admit how deeply unhappy I was with my eating and fitness behaviours, and mindset. The issue had silently grown in my thoughts to be an overwhelming and out-of-control problem, which in reality it wasn’t, that I was too weak-willed to conquer.
I felt silly and embarrassed for letting it affect me so much when there were people struggling through illness and various circumstances in life that they had no control over.
It didn’t make any logical sense to me that I kept repeating actions that gave me negative feelings. I kept busy and much of the other parts of my life were fulfilling and successful. But my relationship with food, exercise and my body worsened.
I was 5st 6lb (34.5kg) overweight at my biggest weight (using the BMI scale as a measurement), but I already knew I had unhealthy habits that quietly tormented me before I became overweight.
Shortly after reaching my biggest weight, I remember struggling to breathe walking up a stairs in August, 2017. I knew I needed to take action or my health would suffer. I was always acutely aware of how I looked with my expanding waistline and how my clothes fit me less and less, but now my body was telling me it was stressed and I needed to listen.
I had no desire to be “skinny” but I did want to feel healthy and good about myself again, and feel strong, fit and proud of my body. I decided I wanted to tackle this issue once and for all in a sustainable way that worked for me, and not with a fad diet or any of the usual restrictive programmes I embraced with gusto in a cycle of deprivation followed by the other extreme of bingeing on food or overdoing exercise.
I knew I needed to be brutally honest but it was unnerving and difficult even though it was only me who was going to see what I wrote
I needed to confront my habits and actions that made me feel this way and writing it down was the method I chose.
I began there and then as the time would never be right to prioritise it and I did not want to wait for a “fresh start” Monday. I knew I needed to be brutally honest but it was unnerving and difficult even though it was only me who was going to see what I wrote. This was different from when I used to write a food and exercise journal when I thought I was doing the plan “perfectly” and underestimated calories to trick myself into feeling good.
But this time I felt both vulnerable and empowered. I didn’t change any part of my habits when I started writing it down at first. I allocated 20 minutes a day to record my food and exercise and how I felt before or after eating, including if I was hungry or not and the time. I also included how I was feeling about myself, my “inner voice”. I remember writing just “horrible” after a night of overeating and not much sleep, and other times writing “better” and feeling more upbeat after some exercise. The one word was enough to capture what I needed to say some days.
The days I was tired and reluctant to write, but did it anyway, were the days that gave me a lot of insight into what small changes I could make that would make a big difference over time. I could see how sometimes my mood was dictated by food or weight.
After about two weeks I stopped and read it back. Seeing my behaviours and thoughts staring back at me, in black and white, allowed me to step back and look at them with a different perspective and evaluate them.
It was confronting and provoking, sometimes upsetting, and also a huge relief. It was also good to acknowledge I also had some good behaviours that I didn’t recognise before.
I could see patterns emerge – I would leave myself get extremely hungry and then binge eat; I was viewing exercise I once enjoyed as a punishment; and often I was eating out of procrastination. I saw that I had categorised food “good or bad”, as if the “bad food” was some malevolent entity on a mission to test my willpower and “good and healthy food” was not to be enjoyed but necessary.
The journal made it clear that even when I ate hundreds of calories in sugary foods, I would still feel unsatisfied and hungry afterwards
I could see the reasoning for my actions like drinking fizzy drinks, which I’ve never really liked much, with a takeaway meal because of thinking, why not – at this stage it won’t make a difference to all the junk food I’m eating anyway. But it did make a difference. I added the calories to check the difference. I could also see how each little action made a difference to my mindset, confidence, self-belief and wellbeing.
The journal made it clear that even when I ate hundreds of calories in sugary foods, I would still feel unsatisfied and hungry afterwards. I had described how they first tasted really good, then sickly, but I kept going.
After the two weeks I committed to changing the focus of what I was writing. I would still acknowledge my negative thoughts, but it was mandatory to include three things I was grateful for each day. If I missed writing or recording a day, I would pick it up again when I could, or keep it short. I didn’t want to make it a chore, but it did make a difference to changing my mindset.
I switched from writing on paper to on my phone, back to paper, whatever was most convenient. I wrote about why it was worth making the changes and being more compassionate to myself as my extremely critical self-talk had never achieved anything good.
Thinking about the amount of weight I needed to lose was overwhelming, so I broke it down into smaller goals and used multiple measurements of progress. This caused it to fade from being a big issue to overcome to small targets over time. I decided even if I didn’t lose any weight, the constant beating myself up after “bad meals” needed to change and I needed to make the effort to understand and reconnect with my body again.
Journaling gave me back a feeling of being in control of my body and mind again. I feel freed from the vicious cycle of “clean eating” to guilt and regret. I didn’t know I would lose more than 3½ stone over the next year and five months, but I quickly regained confidence that I would build a healthier relationship with food and exercise.
I learned a new appreciation for my body and how resilient it is. It was not the end of the world if I got things “wrong or failed”. It was tough at the start, and difficult at times, but it was also fun, rewarding and worth it to push myself to get healthier and fitter. Losing weight is almost the bonus result now.
Since starting this column readers have asked me what was the one thing that helped me stay on track with losing weight and getting healthier, and that initial recording of how life was with my bad habits and their effect has played a large role.
I don’t write in a journal all the time but if I’m feeling frustrated with my progress or demotivated, looking back at how I used to feel reminds me how far I’ve come and taking it up for a couple of days again gets me back on track and excited to keep pushing myself to achieve more.
Part 1: I lost 3st and I'm stronger now
Part 2: Stuck in the weight loss plateau
Part 3: Friend called my fitness holiday a fat camp
Part 4: My plan is driving me up the walls
Part 5: It is slow and fluctuates but has stayed off
Part 6: Why are we doing this? This is terrifying
Part 7: I want to form new habits
Part 8: I gained 4lb. My fear of failure returned
Part 9: It’s time to face my nemesis – running
Part 10: Losing weight without trying
Part 11: Letting go of the shame and guilt helped
Part 12: Habits have led to weight loss
Part 13: I’ve fallen in love with running
Part 14: The mountain doesn’t care who you are
Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!).
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
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- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!