There’s only one diet that works – Sigmund’s
Published in The Times – January 3rd 2004
This is not an essay on 19th century Jewish cookery. Besides, Sigmund Freud only got stick-thin by chain-smoking foul cheroots. My aim instead is to extend your life and enrich your soul. En route, I have to point out that if you want to stay thin forever you need to change all of your life not just tinker with your food intake. Diets help only when you have first confronted the feelings that make you over-eat.
My qualifications are that I once lost four stone in a period of two years and have kept the weight off ever since. Before that, I was a teenage bulimic, discovering the practice from A-level history. An obscure text said that luxury Roman feeders ‘tickled their tonsils’ between courses. I said: ‘When in Rome’… I have also spent many years talking to clients with eating disorders.
Let’s start with a truism. For most of us in normal health the cause of gaining weight is always eating too much food. It is neither a moral nor a feminist issue, just a plain fact of biology. If you consume more calories than you burn, you will tend to lay down fat. Superman confined to a wheelchair will tragically lose his figure. Truism two. Lay down more fat but then eat fewer calories, you will eventually lose weight. Television presenter Anne Diamond has been demonstrating this for decades.
The proof of the pudding is this. There are no fat people in the land of famine except those who distribute the grain. Even then, because of biology, your ultimate size greatly depends upon the motivation to exercise. For instance, Charles Dickens in middle age regularly scoffed 10-course dinners but remained thin as a pipe because he was nervously addicted to rambling the length and breadth of the City. Saved by his lifestyle. The more cerebral Sir Leslie Stephen, father of novelist Virgina Woolf, could afford to sit through a gluttonous high table at his Cambridge College because afterwards he walked home to London. It is 56 miles.
Truism three, a diet is simply a neutral description of what people eat. From the point of view of fat retention, special diets are neither good for you nor bad for you. Because they only tackle symptoms, however, they are always self-defeating unless you first address your psyche. Whether you go in for food-combining, allergy reduction, grapefruit juggling, high fats, low fats, meals in a biscuit, slimming drugs, death by bottled water – none will work unless you change your underlying attitudes. As soon as you begin to starve, your appestat (appetite-controller) compensates, replaces lost water and drives you into the arms of a convenient cholesterol manufacturer.
Why, then, does the diet industry represent the gross national product of Paraguay? The unpalatable truth is that we’d always rather tackle symptoms than causes. Our human brains, food tycoons and slimming media collude. They don’t want us to delve deeper. But if we look beyond the end of our noses, we find a distress about body shape and size that can only be explained by a Freudian diagnosis of anxiety verging on depression. This is what in fact drives many people to yearn to lose weight. They desperately want their body shape to conform to their inner selfconceptions. Whether the feelings are reasonably mild (after Christmas) or severe (after bereavement), or somewhere in-between (after pregnancy) a depressed body image is the elephant in the room.
Freud usually interpreted such depression as sexual frustration but we know that any of the following can be responsible: shyness, lowered self-esteem, anti-feminist education, workaholic habits, divorce, carping critical parents, romantic rejection or startling loss of status. Some of these problems may have a genetic content but the net result is that the majority of those who abuse food are trying to satisfy a hunger that could never be met by the entire output of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. For yo-yo dieters the real remedy is to feel differently inside not ingest extra calories, a change, as I say, that has to precede any new food regime.
Look dispassionately at Western food habits that have triggered the obesity explosion. Why are the grown-ups guzzling from the children’s menu? What makes Americans drink pint buckets of ice cream after toying with their low-cal chicken fillet? Or the City slicker switch to tuck shop mode while munching his seventh Custard Cream biccy? Or Glaswegians seek the school treat known as a batter-fried Mars Bar? Even upmarket Marcel Proust is pushing patisserie in the guise of art. How many ‘petites madeleines’ to the literary paunch, do you suppose?
Could it be that we are all in some ways like adult babies who don’t really need filling up on the inside so much as holding on the outside? Can we only associate such feelings of safety with nursery food? Would it not be simpler to find an absorbing job that led us to forget about our stomachs altogether? What’s so wrong with advertising for friends? Or working out how we could make new ones? Or as Freud might suggest, getting sex in any lawful way that we can?
The crunch question about comfort-eating is precisely what needs ‘comforting?’ Have we ever considered expressing our feelings of inner emptiness to others? Perhaps to ‘Dear Diary’ if not to some real people? Or have we always decided on little or no evidence – or evidence from the distant past – that people never listen to us? How can you be so sure? Have you tried communication lately? Is it beyond our wit to recognise that sometimes low blood sugar only signifies a need to lie down and rest?
I ask these questions because they crop up when people consult therapists about their out-of-control appetites. Yet nothing is wrong with the appetites as such – they are always ‘healthy’. Put simply, the problem lies with the mismatch between selfimage and ‘approved-image’, leading to varieties of negative thinking, and what a therapist does is listen out for the cues.
BOX: Freudian Leaks
“I’ve been naughty again… I have no discipline. It’s like Mum said. I don’t know how to be happy. I have a memory like a sieve so she was always organising me. In my 20s, every time I went home, she’d have tea ready then supper with four different vegetables. The taste of her Yorkshire pudding with best beef gravy was to die for. Mind you, she was a toughie. Never went in for extravagant praise. She said I’d inherited her looks and my Dad’s brains, unfortunately. I can’t remember her ever kissing me goodbye. But every time I drove off she’d stack my car boot with enough food for a month. Dad was similar – practical, he used to describe us as ‘a family of feeders’. He loved planning meals and shopping, something I dread. Especially for clothes. Nothing ever fits me. It just makes me feel even worse. You’ll hate me if I tell you the truth. But people like me are deadly, deadly boring. I pretend to be a grown up but it’s really an act. I come home, shut the door and eat.
It’s not compulsory to consult a psychotherapist if you want to be thin forever but you WILL need to start with the idea of a total life audit and not just a tinkering at the nutritional margins. Life audit first; diet second. So here’s the five-point programme:
1. Plan to change your size over 18 months not 18 days.
2. Examine the depression triggers in your life. Ask yourself what gives you pleasure (apart from food). Then take more of it.
3. What consumes the greatest amount of your time and energy? Is it time and energy properly spent or could you try to make it more rewarding?
4. Look at your skills and talents and choose to learn about something at which you could become absorbingly adept.
5. Obey the human givens – rest, sleep, good food, exercise, work, friendship, love. Freud says you should also enjoy ‘mature genital fulfilment’ but I think you should please yourself.