The conversations we have with ourselves and others about food can be deeply damaging, says clinical psychologist, Dr Helen McCarthy, The Appetite Doctor…

How often do you hear someone in the office say they’ve been ‘naughty’ after having another chocolate? Or see someone you follow on Instagram hashtag a dessert with #guiltypleasure?

According to clinical psychologist, Dr Helen McCarthy, talking negatively about food not only has a huge impact on our self-esteem, but it can actually get in the way of our progress if we’re trying to lose weight healthily. We must fight the temptation to bad-mouth meal-times and trash-talk treats, and form healthy eating habits for good…

Helen, who runs The Appetite Doctor, helps people to lose weight by changing their attitudes and behaviours around eating, says adapting the language we use around food is crucial if we’re trying to change habits such as over-eating and stress and boredom snacking.

Not only, she says, do more positive conversations about food promote better body image messages in general, it can have a beneficial long-term impact on our own healthy eating goals.

“It starts with the way we talk to ourselves about food,” says Helen, who has worked as a clinical psychologist for the past 28 years, 13 of them in the NHS and now works from private practices in Cardiff, Bristol and London, offering one-to-one and group sessions.

Part of her therapy involves taking clients to high-end restaurants for three-course meals in an approach that’s designed to celebrate, rather than demonise, food.

“How we talk to ourselves has a massive effect on how we feel and what we actually do,” says Helen. “It’s the “C” in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. And it’s relevant whether or not you’re in therapy.”

Helen says our moment-to-moment thoughts are generated by the underlying beliefs we hold about ourselves, based on early experiences from as far back as childhood, that become part of unconscious thinking.

“So you can start secondary school feeling OK about yourself but if you’re on the receiving end of a bunch of bullies, the day-in, day-out put-downs will affect how you see yourself. You’ll feel inferior and unworthy,” she says. “Once you’ve formed a belief about yourself, it becomes part of your unconscious thinking, and acts as a guiding principle.”

So why does this matter in relation to food and eating?

“When we tell ourselves we’re greedy, or weak or that we’re unworthy, we act as though we are,” adds Helen. “Which means we eat as though we are.”

“Even leaving aside the moral objections to having these messages reinforced by others, when we think these things or post these thoughts on social media, we’re fuelling the fire of over-eating and self-denigration. But it’s possible to break the cycle. By making small changes to how we think and talk about food, we can make long-term changes to how we eat.”

Here are seven ways to stop the toxic chat around food and start developing a healthier relationship with eating…

Treat your food as a blessing

Don’t make lovely food into the enemy. See it as the blessing it is. Rather than enjoying something that could be really pleasurable, we often spoil the enjoyment. And far from this making us eat less, we turn to eating in secret, or apologising for eating.

Remember who’s listening

When children and teenagers hear us, or see a social media post where we’ve said we’ve ‘let ourselves go’, we’re giving them the message that eating is shameful or sinful. When we talk about needing to ‘lose the Christmas weight’ before we’re able to do x y or z, if they look up to us, they’ll believe that’s true without question. So resist the temptation and encourage a healthy positivity around food.

Don’t ‘ban’ foods

It’s a common reply when someone offers a piece of cake. “No thanks, I’m being good.” There are many reasons why this is an unhelpful reply. 1, it creates negative food associations for other people, and 2, it has a counter-productive effect if we’re trying to lose weight. Research shows when people who view certain foods as ‘bad’ are given a disallowed food (the laboratory experiments used milkshakes), they eat more ice cream in the second part of the experiment.

This creates a “what the hell” effect because of thinking, “What the hell, I’ve already blown my diet by having that milkshake; I might as well keep going with the ice cream”. Even small amounts of a ‘forbidden’ food have this effect.

Stop fighting with yourself

Change the words you use to describe eating, to noticing and accepting what you’re doing. For example, “I notice that I’m eating when I didn’t mean to, but that’s OK”.  As the heat of your internal battle cools, you can use calmer language to talk yourself in a way that actually helps, like you’d talk to a friend.

Gently challenge negative thoughts

And dispute the beliefs driving them. Get a notebook, make two vertical columns and title them “Negative thought” and “Alternative realistic thought”. Practise focusing on the alternative thoughts.

Imagine your two selves at a table

Visualise two parts of yourself – the one who’s critical about how you eat, and the one who does the eating. Imagine the two parts sitting together at a table, talking about changing how you eat. Get each to say what they think and get the other to “listen”. Then vice versa. This can be a useful technique to discover what’s going on beneath an internal battle. Both parts need to respect the other, so they can come to some sort of agreement to work together towards the goal.

Unfollow ‘slim spam’

I saw one celebrity post a meme that said “I’ve gone from eating pigs in blankets to being the pig in a blanket”. Friends on a quest to lose weight in time for the summer can constantly post bikini emojis and photos of skinny models with the hashtag #bodygoals. While that’s their prerogative, and there’s no shame in wanting to lose weight, it can interfere with your own goals to make gentler changes, and put unnecessary pressure on you to keep up.

Dr Helen McCarthy is based at Litfield House Medical Centre in Clifton, Bristol and Cyncoed Consulting Rooms in Cardiff. She is running an eight week, group weightloss course in Bristol from April 17.