Written by Eira Hammond
At ‘Kestival’ back in the summer with the Keto Fitness Club, I was privileged to meet and listen to Dr Jen Unwin and her husband, Dr David Unwin talk about their Low Carb and Keto experiences and how they have helped so many people over the years. When Dr Jen mentioned a programme that she was establishing to research and help people who may have a food/sugar addiction I wanted to find out more, so before the day was over, I made a beeline for Dr Jen and got the information about the forthcoming weekend planned for mid-
September. I checked my diary as soon as I got home and sent the email with the deposit to secure my place. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the weekend, and the following up support, but I absolutely knew that it was something I needed to do for myself. To understand why I wanted to join in that research programme it would help if you understood a bit more about my food addiction and dieting history.
Feeling good for once – before the weight piled on again
I have spent my whole life either being on or off a diet; the first time I joined a famous slimming club with my mum, dad and brother I was barely a teenager in the late 1970’s; our family were the stars of the group, always losing the most weight week after week and being highlighted regularly by the group leader. That was my first experience of a ‘healthy diet’ and ever since then I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve paid to join different slimming groups or gyms, doing really well for a period of time, then going back to ‘normal eating’ and ending up in a worse place than I was previously. The one that probably
shocks me the most when I think about it was in 2006 when I ‘survived’ for nearly 10 months on soups, shakes and bars with no real food at all. I lost a massive 9 stone and felt so proud to have achieved what I’d never been able to previously. I got to a size 10 in clothes, ran the race for life (5k) and felt absolutely fantastic (even though I still felt fat). But unfortunately, this was short lived, as that kind of plan was not sustainable for life, and it didn’t take long for me to re-gain all that weight, plus more. I spent the next 13 years until
February 2020 on and off similar plans eating nothing but soups, shakes and bars, and continued to lose 3-4 stone, then re-gain the same amount and more, over and over again,probably at least twice a year.
Before starting Keto – March 2020
Early in 2020 I’d just finished another couple of months on ‘pretend food’ and ended up, like so many others during that first lockdown, gaining a lot more weight. In May 2020 I was the heaviest I’d ever been in my life, but following an introduction from a friend, I found Keto, and shortly after, the Keto Fitness Club where it didn’t take long for me to become a full member, then a lifetime member. At last, I’d found my new ‘normal’ and realised that you can live, eat real food, and be healthy. All I’d ever known previously was either being on a
‘diet’ or not, losing weight or gaining weight, never in between, or maintaining – I’d never experienced just ‘being’.
Most recently – I’m on the way!
Through the Keto Fitness Club, I learnt to find Keto alternatives for some of my favourite foods (in particular the Keto Fitness Club Megga Loaf (thanks Michele C!), which I always keep in the freezer for a lunch treat now and again), and sometimes a sweet treat using plant-based sweeteners and nut flours; but mainly I gained an understanding about real food, protein and fats, and how a good balance of those, with some low carb vegetables, is all we need to
have a healthy lifestyle. I’ve not been someone who has lost lots of weight with Keto like others have. I have done some intermittent fasts and felt the benefit, but with a few health issues including fibromyalgia, arthritis and post menopause symptoms, as well as a broken metabolism due to the years and years of ‘yo-yo dieting’, I know it’s going to take a long time to reverse all the damage I’ve done to myself and get to a healthy and comfortable weight again, I’m in it for the long haul, not the race!
So why, having stuck to Keto pretty much consistently for 18 months, did I feel the need to attend the Food Addiction Recovery programme? I wanted to understand the psychological effects of food addiction, eating, and why food had caused me such a problem in the past; I wanted to understand the impact food has on people, the emotional side of eating, and more importantly, what knowledge I could gain to stop me ‘relapsing’ and going back to my
old ways in the future. Understanding and knowledge is power, and I wanted to finally gain power over something that had taken hold of me for over 40 years.
Obviously, I can’t share specific details of the weekend, as the material was created especially for the delegates attending the programme, but I did want to share some of the experiences and knowledge I gained personally. The weekend was run by Dr Jen Unwin and Heidi Giaver in collaboration with the Public Health Collaboration UK.
My view on arrival at Ambleside
After arriving at Ambleside in the absolutely gorgeous Lake District and had some introduction sessions with the other delegates (about 12 of us). We started looking at addiction generally, and each performed a self-assessment to help us understand whether we were, in fact, addicted to food, not sugar, or carbohydrates, just food in general. What I’ve learned over the last 19 months is that even though I cut out most of the carbs in my diet, I can still overeat, and that, in itself, is addictive behaviour. I have definitely changed my outlook on food since being Keto, but I still have occasional days where I increase carbs,
but those are generally planned, conscious choices, rather than unplanned relapses. That point is very important to me as I was no longer just throwing in the towel to eat something ‘bad’ after having an emotional response to something, I was planning to enjoy a particular food as a treat on a single occasion. I definitely feel more in control now than I ever have
been before, but I also recognise that I still have a tendency to overeat – volume overeating is another form of addiction, and it’s good to recognise that, even if we are overeating on the right type of foods. I didn’t understand before the weekend that sugar or food addiction comes in so many forms; you don’t have to be fat to be a sugar/food addict…
It was really interesting to learn that when we start a Keto or low carb lifestyle, it can take weeks for our body, and months for our brain, to recover from eating ‘sugar’ or carbs. It really does depend on your starting point, and our level of ‘addiction’ as to how long it might take. We are all different, and so can never compare what happens in our recovery, to anyone else. Sugar or food addiction, is a progressive disease, starting for many of us from when we were children, being given treats on special occasions, being told to eat everything on our plates, being rewarded with food for good behaviour. It can take years to
‘free ourselves’ from that kind of addiction.
Dr Jen mentioned a sculpture in Philadelphia by Zenos Frudakis that puts it into perspective:
"I wanted to create a sculpture almost anyone, regardless of their background, could look at and instantly recognize that it is about the idea of struggling to break free. This sculpture is about the struggle for achievement of freedom through the creative process." - Zenos Frudakis
I don’t think I’m quite ‘free’ yet, but I’m definitely well on the way, and it feels good!
One of the key things that resonated with me during this weekend, and the research I’ve done since, is that we have to learn to show ourselves some compassion and be kind. We have to be positive; recognise when we’re doing good, when we’re going in the right direction and what we will look like or feel, when we make good progress. We all need to learn how to stop self-flagellating if we do fail; and we need to support ourselves, be kind and encourage ourselves and stop being self-critical. I’m gradually learning to take things one day at a time, one meal at a time, one hour at a time.
On the second morning we started the day with a choice of a walk to Lake Windemere in the chilly morning mist, or a yoga class – I decided on the walk. It didn’t take long but I took the opportunity to take a few photographs on the way. That definitely cleared the cobwebs away and set us all up for learning more about ourselves. We had the chance of joining in with some simple Yoga poses a few times during the weekend with Heidi’s sister, Sis. It was lovely just having that time to relax and meditate, calming our thoughts in preparation for
more learning. We started the first session by looking at cravings and compulsions and why our brains tell us it’s ok to just have one more… (which never ends with just one!). Dr Jen and Heidi used ‘CRAVED’ as detailed on the Public Health Collaboration conference material (https://phcuk.org/) to explain the how and why. This information is what is used for the treatment and recovery of all types of addiction, not just food and is really useful to understand the psychology behind addiction. You can read more on the PHCuk website.
Addictions to alcohol, substances, drugs etc. are usually treated with total abstinence, but we can’t completely abstain from food, so it’s helpful for food addicts to be abstinent from the specific foods that cause issues. There’s some great infographics about what foods are the main causes of addiction and can include foods such as pizza, chocolate, crisps, biscuits, fizzy drinks, cake and even cheese (which many of us eat as part of our Keto lifestyle). I found it useful to understand my ‘trigger’ or ‘drug’ foods, and we talked through ways of
eliminating those foods to make our recovery easier. Some people in the group found they just had to leave cheese or cream out of their Keto/Low Carb lifestyle completely as they couldn’t control the amount they ate if they had even just a small amount. This could then lead to overeating on other foods causing a spiral and an out-of-control moment.
When I first started Keto, I learnt a lot more about sugar, and how it manifests itself into some of the foods we typically eat. This infographic, again from PHCuk, really shows the amount of sugar a person could typically eat without even realising.
Sugar is sometimes known as ‘The Gateway Drug’ – leading from food addiction to other types of addiction - this video with Eric Clapton from 1999 explains it very well.
I was never very good at sciences at school but loved learning about the biochemistry and the effects of Dopamine, Serotonin and Endorphins etc. and how they affect how we live in terms of motivations, happiness and general fulfilment. It all began to make sense how our ‘trigger’ foods can cause us such devastation if we indulge. We also learnt that carbohydrates aren’t essential for life – carbs can’t make protein, which is essential for life, but it can make fat – body fat! I think I learnt that it’s the only type of food that we can actually do without completely! It certainly is a whole new way of thinking about a healthy
plate of food – so opposite to what I’d learnt in all those slimming groups over the years!
Later in the day, we started looking at our ‘recovery’ and what the best pathway would be to overcome our ‘addictions’. There was a couple of suggested paths, one being cold turkey (as is usual with drug/alcohol addiction), or by simply changing our tastes by altering, step by step, how and what we eat. But generally speaking, understanding and then subsequently removing our trigger foods, will help us remain abstinent and speed up our recovery process.
I found my key to recovering from food issues when I started Keto, began with planning my meals, which is something I’ve been doing for over a year. The first step was to decide what foods to eliminate or reduce (to start with), such as carbs, and then creating a plan of exactly what I was going to eat for every snack, every meal, every day. I shopped just for those foods for me, and batch cooked as much as I could, or at least made sure I had the time to cook on the days where I didn’t choose meals I’d already cooked and frozen. I then
chose the simpler foods when time was short, saving the more complicated dishes (and there are some of those) for the days when I had more time. Yes, sometimes I switch things up a bit during the week, and have something unplanned from the freezer, but I’m rarely caught short with nothing ready to eat leaving me to grab something quick that is higher carb or ‘off plan’.
I’m lucky in a way to only have to cook for myself and my husband, although he’s pescatarian and doesn’t eat meat (which I eat a lot of), so I have to plan 2 variations of our dinners on the days I eat meat. I have eaten a lot more fish recently, and something has obviously resonated with him during recent months, as he’s now a lot more conscious of the amount of carbs he eats and enjoys much lower carb meals with no bread, rice, pasta or potatoes which used to be a staple at every meal.
Dr Jen’s book for our ongoing research and study
The last thing we looked at before ending the weekend was to do with the RPP (Relapse Prevention Planning). We looked at what a relapse would look like for each of us and what the circumstances would be or triggers to cause that to happen. We talked about whether there would be any warning signs before relapse occurred, and what we could do to prepare ourselves if it did happen.
It’s interesting now, writing about my experience a few months after the weekend looking back on how I felt then, and how I feel now. I felt very strong then, but it’s not surprising that this can change as our emotions and stress are often on a knife edge. My mum recently had 2 strokes and spent nearly 8 weeks in hospital and is now being looked after in a residential care home. It’s been tough these last few weeks having to sort everything out for her, and my eating has definitely suffered not having enough time to plan and prepare.
Despite this, I’ve concentrated on being kind to myself and looking at things positively, not getting concerned about the choices I’ve made, even if they’ve not been perfect, in the knowledge that things will settle down soon.
If you’re new to a low carb or Keto lifestyle and are just starting to make some changes, then a big tip from me is not to try and compare yourself to anyone else. The way we have lived our lives up to this point is absolutely unique; no-one else has lived our life, so whatever we do from now on is also going to make us different. Some people will lose weight quickly, some people will reverse their diabetes by following a low carb or Keto lifestyle, others will gain health benefits, or reduce their pain. Every one of us will experience something unique and only we will know what that is when it happens.
People often see the lovely meals I cook or the gorgeous sweet treats I bake when I post on social media and think that a low carb or Keto lifestyle is too hard but changing our habits doesn’t mean we have to become MasterChef’s overnight…. The old-fashioned meat and 2 veg (leafy green is good) followed by some raspberries and cream for pudding would be absolutely perfect – changing up the meat, fish, veg and berries now and again to mix it up.
It doesn’t have to be difficult! Then they ask how I manage without certain foods – so I use the analogy of my husband becoming a pescatarian. He made the choice a few years ago never to eat meat again – he’d never dream of having a ‘cheat’ day and eating a steak or a bacon sandwich – so I made a similar choice. I no longer eat high carb foods or sugar. It’s a choice I made, and there’s no need for me to have cheat days as I have plenty of other options.
One of the main things I learnt at the FAR weekend: “Motivation is what gets you started; habit is what keeps you going”. The Keto Fitness Club I’ve mentioned a few times has massive resources freely available on their website and social media channels, but membership options are also available which I have found invaluable during the past 19 months. I’ve learnt how to make fabulous Keto
meals and bakes as well as sharing experiences in the many Zoom sessions and have really enjoyed learning more about myself and my thinking in the mindfulness sessions.
If you fancy joining in with the Keto Festival next summer, tickets are available now - click here.
If you’re interested in attending one of Dr Jen’s FAR weekend, the next one is scheduled for March 25th - 27th 2022. There are also PHCuk conferences planned for 20th , 21st & 22nd May 2022 in Bristol. Tickets go on sale in January 2022. (https://phcuk.org/conference/)
FAR run by Dr Jen and Heidi