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Food, family and diabetes: fables

In her continuing series about the psychology of food and eating, Dr Jen Nash looks at family fables and how they might have a long-term effect on our ability to lose weight.

You may not realise it, but you’re probably telling yourself a fable or two every day as you decide what to eat!

Fables are the stories – both conscious and unconscious – that you associated with food and eating.

These might be statements you say aloud, to yourself, or to someone in your family, such as:

  • “It’s wrong to waste food” 
  • “I must finish everything on my plate”
  • “Eat your vegetables before having dessert”

Or they may be an internal ‘rule’ that you have accepted unquestioningly:

  • “If the clock says it’s a mealtime, I have to eat”
  • “I must have something to eat with my hot drink”
  • “A meal isn’t complete without something sweet”
  • “A sandwich is always two slices of bread”
  • “I always have carbohydrate with my dinner”

So why do we have these fables?

They aren’t necessarily bad or wrong – some have been valuable, particularly in previous generations, for example after the war when food was rationed. But in order to feel more in control of your weight, you may need to question their use and create more helpful narratives that serve you and your family better.

So how do you work out your personal fables? Start with those you may have picked up in childhood. Are any of these true for you?

  • “It’s wrong to waste food.”
  • “You must eat what I give you.”
  • “Finish your plate.”
  • “Think of the starving children…”
  • “I’ll cook you something nice, it will make you feel better.”
  • “I’ve slaved over a hot stove to make you this.”
  • “Sit there until you finish.”
  • “(Insert name) is the only brand of (insert food) that tastes good.”

You may have ‘role-based’ fables – as a parent, family member, friend or colleague.

As a parent?

  • “My child needs to (fill in blank) to be healthy.”
  • “I show them I love them through food.”
  • “They must clear their plate.”

As a family member?

  • “I can’t say no when (mum/mother in law etc….) offers me food.”
  • “I can’t say ‘I love you’/’I’m worried about you’/’I’m proud of you’, but I can give them food.”
  • “We always get a takeaway on Fridays.”

As a friend?

  • “We have to meet for coffee and cake, for dinner or in a bar.”
  • “I can’t lose weight because my friend will feel bad.”
  • “I have to finish this because she/he’s cooked it for me.”

As a colleague?

  • “I have to eat to be part of the team.”
  • “We have to have biscuits at work.”
  • “I have to bring back chocolates when I’ve been on holiday and cake on my birthday.”

So, now you’ve got a sense of your fables, can you start to question how useful they are? Some fables are helpful, some are unhelpful, some are a bit helpful. This helps you work out, which are serving you and which aren’t.

The five steps to questioning your fables

  1. What’s the evidence for this fable? What’s the evidence against it?
  2. Are there other ways of thinking about this fable?
  3. How would another person see this fable? What would you say to a friend or a loved one if they were wondering about this fable?
  4. What are the pros and cons of this fable?
  5. If I look back at this fable, in five years’ time, will I look at it differently? 

Challenging a common fable: 

“I must finish everything on my plate”

  1. What’s the evidence for this fable? What’s the evidence against it? Evidence for: It isn’t great to waste food – it’s a waste of money. Evidence against: There is some food I feel OK about throwing away (eg bruised apples, out of date food, food that’s dropped on the ground) so it’s not always true.
  2. Are there other ways of thinking about this situation? What’s on my plate is variable – sometimes I put too much on my plate and then eat beyond being full. Or sometimes I’m eating because that was what someone else (eg a family member) decided was the ‘right’ portion size. But everyone is different.
  3. How would another person see the situation? What would you say to a friend or loved one if they were in this situation? I know people who leave food on their plate, so this fable can’t be a ‘fact’ or there would be no plates with food on them after a meal!
  4. What are the pros and cons of thinking this way? Pros: It means that I can eat what I want! Cons: I can see that just blindly following this fable means that sometimes I continue to eat beyond the point when I’m full, which isn’t helping me manage my diabetes and my weight.
  5. If I look back at this fable, in five years’ time, will I look at it differently? It feels a bit silly that if in five years time, I am still finishing my plate just because I was told I must do as a child. I can see that always finishing my plate isn’t helping me to lose weight. Either I need to perhaps try putting less on my plate, or be OK about sometimes leaving some food.

Now you have questioned your fables, you’ll have more options to choose from. Use your answers to create a new fable to experiment with:

  • ‘I’m learning that although this fable can feel true, it isn’t always. I can try and experiment with a new fable, such as:
    • “I can serve myself less and go back for more if I’m still hungry”
    • “I can leave some food on my plate”

Remember you’ve been telling yourself the old fable for a long time, so you may need help to remember the new one(s). Write it on a note and stick it on the fridge in the kitchen, put a reminder in your cutlery drawer or invite others to remind you. Talk to family members, friends, colleagues about your shared fables. Can you experiment with new ones together? Be playful, it’s just an experiment, you can go back to the old fables if you find they serve you better. Enjoy working out your food fables!

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