Influences from your early life, even decades ago, can affect how you eat now

Some of the reasons we eat more than we need are pretty obvious and are to do with what’s happening right now with what’s on our plate – it tastes amazing and we don’t want to stop eating, or someone’s cooked it for us and we don’t want to offend them by not eating up.

But there are much older and deeper personal reasons at play for some of us. When eating was tied up with powerful emotions when we were little, we may have developed patterns we’re now barely aware of. These patterns from early childhood are often inter-generational: how our parents were fed can be passed down to us, along with the emotional charge from the time.

Why do such distant events affect how we eat today?

Throughout life, our thoughts and beliefs are shaped by what happens to us. And these in turn shape how we act. Eating is an act which is partly influenced by our thoughts and beliefs. If you grew up in a family where food was enjoyed in a fairly uncomplicated way, your beliefs about food may be rooted in the present, such as how healthy you think something is to eat. But if eating was linked with other powerful feelings, it may be another story altogether.

Take Liv’s experience for example. She is one of six children and her two older sisters both suffered with anorexia nervosa in their teens. Liv remembers that as a child she knew that clearing her plate meant more to her mother than simply avoiding waste. As she now realises, her mother was terrified that Liv would develop the same eating disorder that had been so harmful to her older daughters. Liv said that her mother was always really happy when she asked for seconds, or sweets. At times the atmosphere at home was very tense around mealtimes, and Liv came to see her job as helping her mother feel better by eating. Preferably lots.

As young children, few things are as important to us as our parents’ wellbeing, health and happiness, because our very survival depends on it. We are so dependent on our caregivers during the first few years of life that their wellbeing is life-and-death to us. Liv was aware of her beloved mother’s distress, and discovered that when she ate, her mother seemed happier. So whatever pleasure Liv got from eating, it came with a side-order of relief at her mother’s response, and a sense of being a good girl. As a result, this led to an association between eating more and feeling good.

Now in her thirties, Liv would like to stop eating large meals and family-sized bars of chocolate, but it is only now that she realises what has being driving her over-eating.

What is helping Liv to begin to change this pattern is reminding herself that she no longer needs to eat extra to keep her mum happy. She has a close relationship with her mother and they eat together often, and Liv has started reminding herself that she’s now 36 years old with a family of her own, and her sisters are long-since recovered. The old patterns are still her default if she doesn’t attend to how full she’s getting when she’s eating. But Liv has found that by checking where she is on the Appetite Pendulum when she’s eating, she’s able to gauge when to stop. And then she reminds herself that she’s thirty-six and the year is 2019.

I recently gave a talk about Appetite Retraining and a woman in her 60s came up afterwards and told me her story. She was the only child of parents who were each one of 10 children. Both of her parents had had very poor childhoods where food really was scarce. When she ate as a child, her parents would sit and watch her. And she “knew” that eating was morally the right thing to do to make her mother and father feel good. Her parents’ memories of their daily hunger from decades before had clearly stayed with them and it sounds as though something of that hunger was in the room when their only daughter was able to eat as much as she wanted. Perhaps it reinforced to them that they were giving her what they’d never had. Perhaps something else. But whatever was going on, this lady, now a pensioner, is still eating more than she needs partly because of the power of that poverty and hunger from the 1930s. These influences are powerful.

If you’ve struggled to change your eating habits, and you think it might be because of family patterns around food and eating during your formative years, being consciously aware of how old you are now, and the fact that life has moved on may be enough to help you focus on the here-and-now of what your body actually needs at this meal. If you want help to identify old patterns that are holding you back, you can find a therapist to help you through one of these organisations:

British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive
British Psychological Society
British Psychoanalytic Council
UK Council for Psychotherapy

You can learn more about Appetite Retraining from my book “How to Retrain Your Appetite“. Or you can listen to this podcast I recorded recently for Rachael Watson’s “Ditch the Diet” podcast.

Please share this blog with anyone you think may be interested, particularly anyone who struggles with their eating.

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