■ Refused to drink a Coke someone paid good money for because it was full sugar, rather than diet.
■ Spent 10 minutes every day of my working life trying to figure out the least fattening option for lunch.
■ Thrown perfectly good food in the bin, so I wouldn’t pick at it later.
■ Got said food out of bin and eaten the bit that wasn’t contaminated by the other rubbish.
■ “Helped” my body throw up after a particularly indulgent night of wine and barbecue meats. Ostensibly to stop room spin, but part of me was glad to be rid of the sausages and chops.
Written down, it looks shocking, but I know I am not alone. Bridget Jones’s constant kilojoule count chimed with an entire generation and I reckon, like her, at least 50 per cent of the women I know keep a running total in their heads of food consumed that day.
Worrying about how your body looks, whether your jeans are too tight or your arms are too flabby, can ruin whole days and cast a blanket of depression over the sunniest skies. As can constantly berating yourself for lack of control when you succumb to office birthday cakes. This background hum of body insecurity, the endless dissatisfaction that you are not slim enough and the consequent agonising over what you have and haven’t eaten is being coined “semirexia”. Not as life-destroying as an eating disorder, but still very much a negative force in a lot of women’s lives.
James Lamper, a British-based psychologist who runs eating-disorder clinics, believes that “the majority of women now have some concerns around body image”. Nutritionist Vicki Edgson is also worried about what she sees as “women’s increasingly obsessional behaviour around food and how it affects their body shape”.
Research last year by the University of the West of England, Bristol, found that 30 per cent of women would trade at least a year of their life to achieve their ideal body. Shocking, maybe, but understandable to a lot of us.
Signs that you have crossed over into more dangerous dieting territory include panicking in a restaurant when choosing food, judging how good or bad each meal has been and then berating yourself when a food rule has been broken. Oh, and planning how you will compensate for being “bad” by either restricting food or over-exercising the next day. Only the most well-adjusted of us will not find something to identify with on that list. Who hasn’t said: “No biscuits for me, I had a pad thai last night”, or sweated on the treadmill until the kilojoule counter hit 1000 to counteract the chocolate bar you couldn’t resist?
It may seem comical, but it’s really not funny. Certainly not when you consider that there is a real risk that this hum of body anxiety could turn into an ear-piercing screech, before spiralling into an eating disorder.
But when is that tipping point reached? According to Drazenka Floyd, the clinical director of The Butterfly Foundation, an organisation that supports people with eating disorders and tackles negative body image, a highly regimented diet does become a serious cause for concern when it starts dramatically impacting the day-to-day.
“When you stop feeling like you have control over your eating, when you are counting every kilojoule, when you are changing your life to fit around your eating plan...then you’re heading down a really dangerous path,” she says. However, according to Floyd, identifying as semirexic does not necessarily translate in to having a diagnosable problem. “Not everyone who has unusual behaviours around food necessarily falls into the category of having an eating disorder.”
The causes of semirexia are complex. Easy answers to its proliferation are our culture’s ever-growing obsession with celebrity. Or, perhaps, it’s the advertising industry’s increasing reliance on the airbrush. Maybe it’s even our own “alpha-woman” pursuit of self-improvement? These factors undoubtedly play a part, but, for a lot of women, Lamper thinks it’s more deep-rooted than just wanting to look good in a bikini. “Often the issue is not the food itself, but the emotions that sit behind the eating habits,” he says. He suggests a diet obsession often occurs as a reaction to your childhood, stemming from a family member’s relationship with food or constant talk of dieting and focus on body image within the house.
This theory is supported by Florence, 28, a public relations executive, who is on a constant mission to lose 5kg. She talks about her mother, who made her and her sisters very aware of “good” and “bad” foods. “We were conscious that eating certain foods would make you ‘fat’,” says Florence. “And, as a result, I think about the outcome of every bite.”
Other causes are suppressing painful emotions, trying to attract attention or, most often, wanting to gain control over a situation. Ever aimed to recover from being dumped by getting a new haircut and a more streamlined body? (Subtext: I’ll take back the power by making myself slim and desirable.)
The irony of this is that under-eating can make you pile on the kilos, rather than lose them. “If you restrict food, it has a chemical effect, influencing the signals of hunger and fullness,” says Lamper. “So you overeat, beat yourself up, then soothe yourself by eating more.” It’ll also make you less good at your job because, says Edgson, “when you are not taking in enough protein, the brain is not able to fire up the neurotransmitters it needs for concentration”.
And finally – and this will come as no surprise to those of us who have lived with hunger pangs – it can make you angry. A study by Ancel Keys, an American scientist who studied the influence of diet on health, showed that reducing men’s kilojoule intake made them more obsessive, depressive and prone to mood swings.
Surely there must be a middle ground – a situation that falls somewhere between being perma-hungry and relinquishing all control and locusting our way through every chip, cupcake and spaghetti carbonara in our paths?
The experts say it’s all about changing our mindset to focus on “nourishing” ourselves with good food rather than denying ourselves the “bad”, and to stop over-thinking it because by doing that we get into the binge/starve/binge cycle and make the situation worse. Edgson talks about “back-ending” – this is her term for people who “starve themselves during the day, then lose control in the evening, eating so much, so quickly, they don’t know when they are full”.
“I will often be ‘good’ all day,” says Lou, a 39-year-old account manager. “A banana for breakfast and soup (no bread) for lunch. Then, by the time I get home, I’m so hungry, I’ll inhale three crumpets and two pieces of toast while cooking dinner. I know this is counterproductive – I have probably had a whole meal’s worth of kilojoules before I even sit down to eat my actual evening meal.”
Edgson is dismissive of the “low fat” foods and diet drinks (“water mixed with chemicals and addictive sweeteners”) that all semirexics are familiar with to try to stave off hunger. “The route to a healthy body lies not in them, but in food that comes as nature intended – fruit, vegetables, and salads,” she says.
It makes sense. I spent a decade in that cycle of blowout then denial, of drinking Diet Coke to fill me up and eating cereal for lunch, wrestling with the background noise of saddlebag angst and kilojoule consumption. It didn’t control my life, but I can see now it was far too big a factor in it.
The irony is, I now weigh the same, but with a quarter of the angst. There’s a semirexic lurking inside somewhere. I still “run off” a big blowout and I still eat healthily all day then succumb to excessive crisps after a glass of wine, but I’ve sworn off diet drinks and stopped crucifying myself for not being a size 8. And what was it that changed? Motherhood. I had to give up control of my body and front up to the fact my eating habits could affect my babies. Now, I look back and wish I hadn’t wasted so much time berating myself. We need to put an end to all this self-flagellation, if only for the next generation.
“I want to set a good example to my daughter,” says my friend, Simone, who admits to a complicated relationship with food. “It makes you realise the throwaway comments about whether you’ve been ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in relation to food are deeply damaging.”The Butterfly Foundation’s Drazenka Floyd agrees, saying the key to establishing a better attitude with what’s on our plates is to learn “how to eat intuitively”. “It is all about eating to follow your hunger cues, not having moral values around food, such as this is ‘good’, this is ‘bad’. That’s the only way to develop a positive relationship ... the only way to nourish ourselves.’’