Saturday, 25 July 2009

Children and intuitive eating

I raised my children with strict rules - they could only eat chocolate after tea and only if they had been good, they could only eat sweets after tea at the weekend and only if they had been good. They were allowed fizzy drinks once a week, never allowed lollipops and no cereal with more than 20g of sugar per 100g. I wanted to give them eating habits that would keep them healthy. And then I realised that I was giving them attitudes to food that would ruin their relationship with it: food is a reward, some foods are bad and shouldn't be eaten, some foods are good and have to be eaten before any bad food can be eaten, food is an emotional issue. So after much careful deliberation, I decided to change.

The switch from heavy regulation to intuitive eating could not be done slowly - it had to be done all at once. We told the girls, aged 3, 6 and 8, that they could now eat anything they wanted provided they were hungry, they sat down at the table and concentrated on their food and they stopped when they had had enough. We asked them what foods they wanted to eat and we bought them in abundance. And then the binge started.

In the first 2 days they ate more sweets than they would have been allowed to eat in a month. They ate coco pops, chocolate brioche, marshmallows, chocolate digestives and turkish delight. They didn't eat any bread, fruit, vegetables or cheese. In short, they indulged their food fantasies.

As they started to realise that this was a permanent change, they slowly reduced their bingeing and started to eat more of the foods they had enjoyed before. My biggest challenge then was getting them to understand what 'hungry' meant. How often do any of us actually get hungry before we eat? How do you explain to a child what hunger means? They wanted to eat again 30 minutes after a big lunch, and said they were hungry. Is this what it is like being a growing child, or were they just bored and saying they were hungry? Was it a big lunch for me because I had eaten too much and they had only eaten just what they needed? I had to trust them and allow them to eat.

3 weeks on things are really settling down. They eat what they want for breakfast but if they aren't hungry, they don't eat and I put a snack in their coat pocket on school days for break time. We still sit down for family meals but they don't have to eat if they aren't hungry. If they prefer, they can get something else out of the fridge or the cupboard if they aren't hungry for what I have made. I put the main course on the table and allow them to help themselves. At the same time I put any cake we have, yoghurts, fruit and puddings on the table. They can move onto sweet whenever they want, or even start there.

The discussions about what they can and can't have have stopped completely. They know that if they are hungry, they can eat and they don't bother me with the details any more. I don't have to consider and agree to or turn down their requests any more, or deal with their pleading or complaints. I don't have to decide if they have had enough main course to have pudding, or remember if they have been good enough to have their treats. For them, food isn't an emotional issue any more - it has nothing to do with their behaviour, their previous eating or the time. It is just about whether they are hungry or not, and what they are hungry for. Exactly what it should be about.

My only remaining concern is their teeth. We have always tried to keep their eating of foods containing sugar to 4 occasions a day and most days it is now more than that. I will be taking them to the dentist in August and will see if there has been any change in the state of their teeth.

Although I am aware that their diet is not as 'healthy' as it was, I believe that a daughter is for life and not just for childhood. Although I was controlling their food intake now, I was setting them up for eating problems as adults. Taking their whole lives into account, their new beliefs about food will give them a healthier overall lifestyle and a good relationship with food and their own bodies.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

on alcohol

Sitting here with a glass of wine, I think it is time to talk about alcohol.

My family has a tradition of over-use of alcohol so I have always known that I have to be careful . I do have a lot to thank alcohol abuse for - I started seeing my husband because I had heard that he needed a drink at lunchtime and decided to go and save him. I didn't know at the time that he had a similar family history and was well aware of where he was heading. But I did save him, and he repaid me by becoming the love of my life.

In my late 30s I had come very close to being dependent on alcohol. I spent 2 months of the year abstaining completely, which is widely acknowledged to be a sign of dependency problems. Outside of those months, I usually had a set of rules to stick to: sometimes I only drank at weekends, sometimes I limited myself to 2 units in any one day, or 14 units a week. I never allowed myself to drink until Dave was home or the children were in bed. None of these rules did anything to curb my desire to drink.

I had my first memory blackout on my 19th birthday. I remember sitting in the bar in the early evening and telling the people I was with that I wasn't drunk enough to get on my chair and dance yet. That is the last thing I remember until the morning. Apparently, I was dancing on my chair before the end of that song, and was found wandering around at 2am, but I remember nothing of it. These memory gaps have been a regular occurence since and always caused a huge feeling of guilt - we all know that we get sentimental and over-emotional when drunk but not to even know what I did or said was quite embarassing and sometimes frightening.

After a few weeks of following the principles of Beyond Chocolate, I decided to apply them to alcohol. I got rid of all the rules with one new addition - as I couldn't really equate being hungry to alcohol, I made a different stipulation: if I 'needed' a drink, then there was something I had to address, and I found a different way of doing that. If I wanted a drink, then I had one. Often the need would subside if I just waited and then I could enjoy a drink later.

The difference this made was huge. Firstly, because I didn't drink out of a perceived need, I drank much slower. Previously, I had got past that 'I think I have had enough' stage, because by the time I felt it, I had already drunk enough wine to put me past it into the 'lets have lots more' stage. Drinking slower allowed me to notice this warning and stop when I had had enough. Much like food, I was no longer using alcohol as a way of expressing or supressing my emotions.

When I limited myself to drinking at weekends, Friday to Sunday for example, I always drank on those days. It would be a waste otherwise. When I could only have 2 units a day, I had those 2 units every day. Now I have as many units as I want and some days I have none. The most solid behaviour - not drinking when alone with the children - has remained. When I want to drink at these times, it is always out of 'need' rather than desire.

I have used the same approach to wine as I did to chocolate - I started focusing on quality rather than quantity. We are paying more for our wine now, but drinking less. I always look forward to a glass of wine when I have finished teaching and felt quite deprived when my rules didn't allow that. Now I can have one and yet I don't always. Perhaps the most exciting change is that I haven't had a memory blackout since I read the book. I haven't had a bad hangover either.

I don't think I have it cracked - I still feel that I am parked at the top of a slippery slope and will always have to be vigilant, but now I am static and not concerned about sliding down.