There’s a new form of eating disorder, ‘Serial Dieting’ says Cork psychotherapist Emma Murphy. She talks to MARTINA O’DONOGHUE about the rise in the number of women who have a disordered relationship with food, and how they can tackle it
WITH the delicious indulgence of Christmas behind us and a new year underway, the inevitable focus on a ‘new you’ is gathering pace.
From the return of Operation Transformation to our TV screens, to intense marketing for diets and weight loss programmes, the message is hard to ignore.
But according to Emma Murphy, a Cork-based psychotherapist specialising in eating disorders, the message is all wrong.
“All the messages out there about food and healthy eating are very confusing for people. The overall message is ‘if you just ate less and moved more you’d lose weight’. But that’s missing the emotional component.
“Why are people using food as a coping strategy? Why are you eating when you’re not hungry? People are eating to bury their feelings. They tell themselves it’s a reward or a treat but it’s not a treat — it’s punishing and they don’t realise it’s punishing”, she says.
While Emma has long worked with patients with very serious eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, over the past two years she has noticed the profile of her average client changing dramatically to that of the ‘Serial Dieter’. That’s the term she uses to describe women, aged anywhere between 25 and 55, who ‘start again on Monday’, week after week, with nothing much changing, because what they are doing is all wrong.
Emma says these women consistently start the week with a resolution to ‘eat healthily’.
Unfortunately, with all the conflicting messages on what healthy eating actually is (Paleo, Low Carb, No Carbs, Low GI, Vegan, Gluten-free, Dairy-free, etc.) they simply end up restricting their eating. There is a long list of ‘bad’ or ‘forbidden’ foods in every diet programme, which sets up what Emma calls a ‘Deprivation Mindset’.
In addition, almost every dieter will have an all or nothing mentality which results in failure and frustration.
“Clients are inadvertently restricting themselves. They are undereating during the day, then in the evening their bodies are starving so their brain over-rides their willpower and they reach for the crap, the quick energy hit, the quick sugar.
“As soon as one bite of a ‘bad’ food passes their lips it is game over. They go straight into ‘Failure Mode’, i.e. ‘I’ve done it now, so I might as well keep going. I’ll start again tomorrow, or even next Monday’. And because they do not know what else to do, this pattern just keeps repeating itself.”
Emma believes the problem is complex because it is not simply about food but rather has its roots in how people feel about themselves and how they behave around others.
“My clients are extremely hard on themselves”, she says. “They put themselves last all the time. They have a constant, negative critical voice in their heads. And they are all ‘people pleasers’, keeping everyone else happy
and never saying no, because of their intense fear that others will not like them, or worse, reject them”.
Emma believes that many women she sees have a “faulty thought process” when it comes to food. When she recently posted a picture of her own lunch on Facebook — consisting of tuna, mayo, scallions and beetroot on sourdough bread with Taytos on the side and a cup of black tea — one girl commented that she would only be able to eat the scallions as all the other ingredients were banned in the diet she was following!
She has worked with another who simply grazed all day and never actually sat down to the structured three meals and two snacks per day that we should all be consuming.
“They don’t realise how far from normal eating they’ve strayed,” says Emma.
Through Emma’s guidance at Harmony Clinic in Douglas, she wants to see women re- connect with food in a positive and guilt-free way and also to re-connect with themselves and banish the inner critic.
“What clients do not realise is that they think if they lose weight and look better, then they will feel better. Actually, it is the other way around. If they choose to feel better about themselves now, and treat themselves better now — even though their body is not how they would like it to be — they will see a far bigger change, far sooner. It’s like if you throw a pebble into a pond the ripples radiate out, not in. If you can make a commitment to look after yourself with proper, appropriate, self-care you will radiate energy out to others, whereas my clients are looking for ripples of approval to radiate in to them.”
Modern life is also to blame, with many people unable to cook, having become so accustomed to packaged convenience food. Emma is very aware of how this contrasts with her own upbringing.
“The diet industry has trained people to look at labels for the carb, fats and sugar content. My mother used to shop from the fruit and veg
van that would come around and she’d get her bread from the bakery. There were no labels!
“There’s also a pressure now to be working 24-7 and people are feeling guilty to stop for a one hour lunch break.
“In the 1970s, my dad used to cycle home from work in the bank and eat his dinner and we’d come home from school and have our dinner in the middle of the day.”
It’s never too late to change the course of one’s life. Just ask Emma, who went back to college to train as a psychotherapist at the age of 30. In her younger days she had dropped out of UCD where she’d signed up for French, Spanish and Politics, with the very specific but ultimately misguided aim of becoming a political correspondent in the EU.
She was unsettled in various jobs in the 1990s and working in the Chamber of Commerce in her native Dublin when she finally enrolled in a degree in Psychology, thus beginning what was to become her true calling.
She has had more upheaval in recent times, with a move to Cork four and a half years ago with Corkonian husband Tony and daughter Robin, who are now settled in Monkstown.
Now she wants to temporarily take her expertise away from the confines of her clinic by offering clients a week-long residential retreat with the aim of ending emotional eating and letting go of old, unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and values. To be held next month in the beautiful location of Dzogchen Beara in West Cork, it will be limited to 12 participants who will benefit from the group dynamic, with everyone supporting each other.
“There’s no substitute for the one-to- one approach and making a personal connection, especially as my clients can feel very isolated as it is”, she says.
“We will take people out of their normal environment for six days — away from their normal triggers — and we will re-set their appetite.”
Joining her on the retreat will be Harmony Clinic colleague, Rachel Barry, a Nutritional Therapist; and Louise George, a Yoga Instructor who worked as an Eating Disorders Therapist for over 12 years in the UK, before moving to Cork in 2007 and retraining in yoga.
Also in the line-up is Mel Murphy, an Energy Therapist, Psychic Artist and Art Teacher; Ann-Marie Callaghan, a Reiki Master and Massage Therapist; and Banu Balaji, from the Anam Indian Cookery Club, who promises to change people’s minds about how easy it is to cook nutritious and delicious food from scratch.
Following the retreat, there will be online group support to help participants keep on track, during which they will consolidate and implement what they’ve learned.
“The goal should be health and peace of mind, not weight loss as a number,” says Emma. “I don’t offer weight loss; I offer guilt loss and punishment loss. If there’s extra weight there, your body will let go of it when you’re eating properly.”
The retreat will take place from February 18 to 25 and for details see www.eatingdisorderecovery.com or Facebook.com/Mindful Emotional Eating or call 087 9111390.