The Psychology of Food

Food is such a psychological thing. From the moment when we are children and are told to “eat our greens or we won’t grow up to be big and strong” or those of us who are bullied by our grandmothers to clean our plates and at the same time admonished by our fathers for being “piggish” for enjoying food too much. We cling to food in hard times and expect so much of it as we would an old friend. I hearken back to my dear friend in university whose name shall silently remain unuttered and for whom food was her way of coping with crises. It became instinctively obvious to me that my talented and beautiful friend was troubled when after crying her eyes out she started binging on sandwiches stuffed with crisps and spaghetti sauce. I hadn’t dealt with anyone with eating disorders when I was 18, but I sure as hell knew how to recognise them from the copious amounts of teenzines I had hungrily consumed during my teenage years as an escape from all the crap that was going on at school.

Years later, I came across a sad and misguided gynaecologist whom I have mentioned in past articles – he had an abusive way of shouting at me and calling me fat, but much sadder was the way he saw himself. Despite his slim (and somewhat starved!) frame, he believed he himself was fat and so religiously followed the mantra that “an apple a day will keep the doctor at bay” – but he had his own special twist on it because – as he braggadociously proclaimed – that was about all he ate … and he was trying to tell me that I should do the same, not realizing that like him – and so many others – my weight was not due to overeating, but rather due to my mischievous metabolism. I highly suspect that his self-starvation was responsible for his frequent angry outbursts and his intolerance to crying babies even though that was his chosen profession!

I grew up with a slim figure that others used to compliment me on and as I started putting on weight when I got sick, my mother used to wistfully tell me how “lovely and slim I used to be” or in a concerned tone opine that “even if you want to buy jeans I don’t think you’ll find any in your size”. My sister made fun of my bust and compared it to a car airbag – whilst my waist and tummy expanded, it almost seemed as if my bust grew most of all – as I have mentioned in another article, it really was out of control. My dad, on the other hand, begged me to let him weigh me, so that he could track my progress and constantly wanted updates about whether I was going to the gym. He failed to understand that years ago my enthusiasm for gymnastics of any kind had sadly waned because no matter how much I worked out, I still remained (as I thought of myself in my head) “fucking fat!”

Sometimes our families are our worst critics: perhaps because they think that by voicing concern for our health and wellbeing they are also voicing love, but at the time such remarks hurt like hell and they culminated in angry and bitter outbursts from myself as I longed more than ever to be accepted by those of my own blood.

As I talk about this, I am no longer angry at them. Both of them long since apologized and realised how hurtful their remarks are. They are supportive of me these days and they have also come to understand thyroid disease – after all, my mother has it, but long and lean she has always been (although I remember way back when she went on a diet because she proclaimed she looked at a photo of herself and “felt like a beached whale” – perhaps we are even worse critics of ourselves than our families?) Dad is eager to read and learn to help mum and they are also loyal subscribers of my blog.

All this – and the whole package that comes with being sick – has taught me so much. It has taught me to try and walk in other people’s shoes. It’s so easy to look at someone and think how fat they are and some people will even comment on this, but I can’t bring myself to do this anymore (I may have been slightly more judgmental in the past) because I have experienced what it is like to be in that position – to have close friends tactlessly comment that I have put on weight and so I would respond that perhaps they should consider when making such hurtful remarks whether they were really helpful or constructive to the person they were directed at. We are not blind! We generally know when we put on weight and many of us fight for years to lose the pounds and get to that perfect weight. I long since gave up on being a UK Size 10/US Size 6 again. Now I’m a UK Size 16/US Size 12, but what the hell – I am healthy, I work out and I have muscle – probably more so than I ever did back when I was a teensy Size 10. And even if the media seems to have a skewed idea of what is “big” (namely a UK Size 16 to 18!), just look around and you’ll realise that your average woman in many countries is often about that size anyway.

Talking about feeling like a freak – I’ve talked to many people who have lived as expats and – like me – had to go shopping in countries where all the sizes seem to be for those with slim builds. One friend lived in Japan for a while and even though she is a below average size by American standards, she still struggled to find stuff there, which of course serves to illustrate just how subjective sizing can be.

For years, I beat myself up here in Germany, trying various diets – I bought Slim Fast, but soon tired of it and there was also the popular “Cabbage soup diet”, which held my interest for about five seconds! I think there have been times where I have starved myself in an effort to lose weight, although – as we know – regular food intake is actually vital in order to fuel our metabolisms. Shopping has never been easy here – I don’t fit in with what is considered beautiful or attractive in terms of figures and you won’t find many clothes that fit me well in the stores. I have come to realise this and just stopped shopping here as it upsets me too much and I sometimes feel self-conscious too, although less so since I lost a lot of the thyroid weight.

Food (and with that our own self-image) triggers so many emotions in us, doesn’t it? I have a dear friend who beats herself up a lot about not losing enough weight and who posts many articles about diet and weight loss. I love her the way she is, but I also understand how she feels because food makes us feel guilty. Not just from eating too much or eating unhealthily, but also for those of us who are on a special diet and “fall off the wagon”. Another dear friend confided in me that recently she had fallen off the “gluten-free wagon”, she felt too guilty to publically admit it on the group I co-moderate (and I will keep her secret!), but this is something I have seen so very often. This friend has only just started on the gluten-free diet, but another good friend (whose name shall also remain anonymous) “sinned” by eating dairy and gluten all in one week! God, it can happen so easily and it certainly requires a huge amount of willpower to resist temptation.

Talking about special diets: I’ve been on mine for four months now. Years ago, when I first became more acquainted with gluten-free (because my sister-in-law Heide has celiac disease), I thought I would die if I ever had to give up gluten! Luckily, it is easier than I thought, but damn I miss some things sometimes and can certainly understand why people might end up repeating to themselves at regular intervals: “lead me not into temptation!” It is at times like this when a piece of cake really can seem evil (particularly when you consider the “rewards” of horrible tummy problems et al you might be faced with from making an exception).

I’ll never forget the first few weeks of the new diet – no gluten, no dairy, no eggs and various other foods that screamed “no! no! no!” I felt like it was a death sentence and I felt bloody angry that once again I had something else to deal with healthwise. But like thyroid disease, it has taught me to understand those who are faced with having to follow a special diet and it has also taught me a lot about food and how nourishing, but also how damaging it can be. In the beginning, it seemed like billboards all around me were coming to life with delicious gluten-, dairy- and egg-containing products tantalisingly screaming my name.

But I soon came to realise that food is often all about psychology: we tell ourselves we need to eat certain things and half of the time they look better than they taste, but sometimes they also taste bloody good even if they are “forbidden fruits” – so far I have not knowingly fallen off the wagon, but shit I can understand how easily it could happen. Food addresses all our senses – the smell of it, how it feels in our mouth, the memory of certain tastes, the experiences we had when we (first) tasted these foods and, as I mentioned, the way it looks … you get the picture. Cravings are common for many people, although interestingly and ironically we sometimes crave the foods to which we are intolerant. The solution for me is to make sure that you are able to get hold of suitable alternatives, although from my own experience I know that can be easier said than done. Germany has some allergy-free foods that I think are outstanding, but I’ve found it hard to get hold of yummy gluten-free, vegan (no dairy, no eggs) cakes and desserts (probably better for my waistline though and even if I did have regular access, I would still limit these to the occasional treat!)

As it happens, that’s one reason I am looking forward to moving to the States – there is simply more of a variety in the grocery stores and I know from experience that shopping should become easier. We’ll be living near NYC, so I look forward to trying out places like Babycakes allergen-free bakery and the Turtle Mountain dairy-free, coconut milk-based products are also quite tasty too (especially the ice cream! I have only tried their milk and ice cream so far when we spent a holiday on Bermuda). When I first heard about Turtle Mountain, I quipped to Linda, the founder of the wonderful Facebook group Allergen Free Diet for Hashimoto Patients (which I also co-moderate), that I didn’t know turtles lived on mountains. She laughed at my crappy joke.

Of course, anyone should eat cakes and desserts in moderation, but it is nice to know there are some yummy alternatives out there because it makes those of us with intolerances and allergies feel more included and that was actually where I got the inspiration for this blog post when I woke up from a nap this afternoon. Corey and I will be visiting Haworth, the home of the Brontë family, in about 10 days’ time. I was on the phone to a very lovely lady earlier this afternoon because we have decided we are staying in her bed and breakfast. I was deeply touched by how kindly she reacted when I told her about my food intolerances. She was thoughtful enough to ask me about breakfast and whether we had any special dietary needs. I always feel uncomfortable and like I’m inconveniencing people by telling them I can’t eat so many major foods and breakfast time is often the most difficult meal of the day without gluten (bread, pancakes, cereals …), eggs (fried, boiled, scrambled, sunny side up, omelettes!) and dairy (milk, yogurt …). She was going to try and get their local organic butcher to make me some special gluten-free sausages and she also talked about how she makes all of her cakes herself (this is also a coffee house) and that she likes to place some shortbread in the rooms and would make me some special gluten-free shortbread (too sweet of her!). She went on to tell me that her ex-husband had celiac and so she understood what it was like. I told her that I often feel like a bit of freak when telling people, as not everybody is that understanding (it’s also annoying when you are forced to pay for breakfast although there is nothing decent you can have! So I truly appreciate it when people make an effort like this).

She commented how those of us with intolerances and allergies often feel left out and I felt that she had hit the nail on the head. Whenever we go out to dinner, Corey always waves away the bread basket and often refuses to eat foods I myself cannot eat as he feels that it is unfair. I remember months back how one friend told me how she was going to a family dinner and she was so disappointed that she couldn’t eat her sister-in-law’s lovely lasagne – I sympathised with her back then, but only now that I have been through this myself do I know what it’s like. And that is why it is so important for those of us who are going through this to support each other – emotionally and by sharing information. I also feel obliged to spread awareness and explain to people what gluten is when they don’t know and what it means to some people. We are not alone; there are plenty of us out there and perhaps if we make enough noise, things will increasingly improve in terms of people’s understanding of food intolerances and allergies, as well as products and dishes on offer in supermarkets and in restaurants.

I know we have already made heaps of progress because I have talked to people who were gluten-free way back when and I will never forget how my own sister-in-law told me that she walked through the supermarket crying because she didn’t know what the hell she was going to eat after she had been told to cut gluten out of her diet. I was so traumatised and scared to eat anything the first day at all that I felt pretty much the same as her, but it does get better and remember that you are doing it for a reason – since being on the new diet for four months, my thyroid dose is back to normal (down from 3 grains to 1 ½ grains thanks to improved absorption, although many Hashimoto’s patients may also find that their antibodies decrease as gluten can cause these to flare – in my case, I have never had positive antibodies) , I have lost weight and I can wear jeans again without feeling like a baby is about to pop out at any minute. The sacrifices have been great, but so have the gluten-free, dairy-free and egg-free rewards!

By Sarah Downing

My name is Sarah. I was born and grew up in England and currently live in Düsseldorf, Germany, with my fiancé Corey and my cuddly cat Biscuit. I work as a translator and writer for my own company Aardwolf Text Services ( and I love vintage clothes and music, as well as singing karaoke.


  1. I walked through the grocery store crying as well when I first got off gluten, soy, milk, eggs and God knows what else.
    The question is, what is left to eat? Well All the fresh produce 🙂
    Thanks for the article Sarah, well done.

    1. Dear Linda,

      Thank you very much for your comment. I think many of us can definitely relate to that overwhelming feeling of doom when you know that your diet is henceforth going to be severely restricted. Luckily, however, such a diet opens up our eyes to new foods we never even encountered before. I sometimes wonder what it must be like for those poor sods who don’t like fruit and veggies – the transition for us was much easier partly because we were already eating quite healthily.



  2. hi sarah… 🙂 i wish this town had a worthwhile health food / whole food store like the good earth or the wild oats i got used to when in utah. oh well. i do enjoy some things here – pickled okra (i love okra!) and also… peanut butter. and the candy corn (well, the autumn mix is what i like, i am into the little sugar pumpkins really). i am almost glad i cannot eat certain things – otherwise i would have ballooned by now, probably. anyway. looking forward to your move to the u.s. 🙂

    1. Hey Annette,

      I will always remember how sweet you were to me when I was first diagnosed with food intolerances, bringing me treats that I could actually eat when we went to the cinema! So thoughtful:-). I know you know what it’s like. I’m sorry to hear that there isn’t a good health food store – I guess without a car it’ll be hard to get to one. I know many peeps like to shop at Whole Foods or Trader Joes, but I think they tend to be a bit far out too and they’re not exactly cheap from what I hear. Glad to hear you seem to be doing so well since your move to the US. Hope we get to meet up at some point!:-).



  3. Beautifully written and so true! I have Hashimoto’s Disease and a partial thyroidectomy December 2010, and I am trying to go gluten free. It is so tremendously difficult because I am lazy and I really don’t know where to start.

    Why have you gone dairy and egg free? Is that yet more information I have missed along the line of what hurts your thyroid?

    1. Thank you, Neisha. Going gluten-free is quite life-changing and takes a lot of effort, but in my case it was worth it. I had food intolerance (IGG antibody) testing, which is how I knew I had issues with egg and dairy, too – may well be related to leaky gut syndrome, which is apparently something lots of Hashi’s suffer from. I wrote about it in another post. The thing about dairy is apparently many people with gluten intolerances also suffer from dairy intolerances and sometimes food intolerances like to party on together!:-( Hopefully at some point, by healing my gut, I will be able to reintroduce some of these foods I currently can’t tolerate. That’s generally how it goes, although many people decide to be gluten-free for life because of the connection between this and autoimmune disease.

      We started by cleaning out our pantry of things I can no longer eat. It helps tremendously that my husband is also on board, so that means there is no need to separate the gluten-containing and the gluten-free products (and the preparation areas/toasters to avoid cross-contamination) as many households do. Gluten-free is tough, but it is not as hard as one might think. It requires more cooking at home and more planning, but you might actually be surprsied how many great brands there are available these days and when it comes to gluten-free grain substitutes there are actually more than there are gluten-containing ones – we just haven’t heard of some of them or even tried them before we go gluten-free, but some of them are quite delicious!

      Good luck in your journey! Feel free to ask if you have any questions and you might even consider joining the Allergen Free Diet for Hashimoto Patients, a Facebook group I co-moderate which I believe I mentioned in this post.



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