How I beat my food obsession

Fawn Clarke, who grew up at Ballymaloe House, tells COLETTE SHERIDAN about her destructive attitude to food, how she overcame it, and how she can now help others deal with it
How I beat my food obsession

Fawn Clarke, a mother-of-two, is the daughter of Rory and Hazel Allen

HAVING achieved long-term freedom from food obsession, Fawn Clarke is on a mission to liberate people from unhealthy destructive eating habits through her work as a nutritional therapist.

Growing up in the grounds of world-renowned Ballymaloe house, the daughter of Rory and Hazel Allen, where her father ran the farm and her mother ran the house, food was a constant.

But Fawn says that everyone else “was normal around food. When I started over-eating, I felt really ashamed.”

Fawn, a Ballymaloe-trained cook, used to work with her grandmother, the late Myrtle Allen.

“She was such a moderate eater. She could enjoy a little piece of cake whereas I was troubled after having one slice.

“It just created a craving for more and then, because of the shame, I became quite secretive about my eating.”

As a teenager, Fawn leaned more towards dieting to lose weight. But later, she overate and was bulimic. Food was her drug of choice. And in the pandemic, she has noticed that people’s issues with food are now heightened.

“People will always turn to eating for the wrong reasons,” she explains. They’re eating now because of boredom and anxiety. There is an increase in emotional eating.

“But it’s important to point out that everyone indulges at times. I’m working with people who have crossed a line. Their eating has become quite self-destructive.

“At some point, their eating became out of control and it’s really bothering them.

“It’s a constant obsession. You’re thinking about food and where you’re going to get it. You try to keep away from people so you can eat. You’re never satisfied with how much you’ve eaten. You’re not able to stop.

“It’s not about eating because you’re hungry. It’s eating to satisfy a craving.”

Fawn’s food obsession stopped when she started to deal with the issues at the root of her problem.

“I was in my late twenties when I started to deal with my eating. It had been going on for about 13 years. At 15, I became pre-occupied with losing weight and then, when I was about 20, I switched from under-eating to over-eating. I had never been anorexic but when trying to lose weight, I was restricting what I could have.”

Fawn’s parents were concerned. “They hoped it would pass. I’m one of five children and none of them have the issues I’ve had with food.”

To try and understand herself, Fawn “tried a lot of things”, adding: “I got a degree in psychology, thinking that would help. I studied nutrition at the Institute for Optimum Nutrition in London. I went to psychotherapists but none of them really understood the problem.

“It wasn’t until I went to Tabor Lodge (a Cork addiction treatment centre) that I understood that my real problem was an addiction to sugar.”

Fawn adds: “You can’t avoid eating, What I don’t eat is sugar. Apart from one occasion, I haven’t eaten sugar for 13 years. I can avoid it quite easily by keeping an eye on everything else.

“I also have to moderate my portions because there’s a danger that if I can’t eat sugar, then I’ll binge on everything else. So that’s why I have a food plan.

Describing it as being “a bit like an abstinence plan,” Fawn explains: “I know I’m going off track if I’m off my plan. It’s very simple. I have three meals a day, eating healthy whole food.

Nutritional Therapist Fawn Clarke avoids sugar and has a clear plan for her dietary needs
Nutritional Therapist Fawn Clarke avoids sugar and has a clear plan for her dietary needs

“For example, for lunch, I have protein found in chicken, fish, beans or eggs. I have vegetables. I don’t do very well on grains so I don’t have carbohydrates in my plan but for people I work with, I put carbs in their plan.

“It’s just regular food with portion control. Habits around eating are important, like sitting down at the table to eat.”

Fawn has found that avoiding sugar and processed food which contains sugar means she doesn’t have sugar cravings.

“It’s much harder to moderate your intake of sugar than not to have it at all. It’s like if you’re an ex-smoker, you don’t have the odd cigarette now and then because that will put you back smoking all the time. It’ s exactly the same with sugar.”

Chocolate, ice-cream and cake are trigger foods.

“If you don’t have them at all, you won’t actually crave them,” says Fawn. “The consequences for me of eating foods like that were so painful that I don’t miss them at all. I don’t actually miss sugar.

“People think — ‘how boring’. They say they couldn’t live without those foods. But for me, the freedom from the cravings outweighs any pleasure that sweet things gave me.

“It’s like asking a recovering alcoholic if they miss drink. They don’t after a while.” (Fawn is able to eat out once she chooses healthy options without sugar. She doesn’t drink alcohol as it never appealed to her and it contains sugar.)

As for the root of Fawn’s problems with food, she says she doesn’t know where they came from.

“It might be a genetic disposition. Definitely, part of getting well is dealing with emotions, thinking and ideas that don’t serve us.”

Married to John Clarke, the Rochestown-based couple have two young children, Poppy and Joleen.

Fawn moderates the amount of sugar her children eat “but I don’t make them avoid sugar. They’re on their own journey.”

She adds: “My husband is a very normal eater. Over the years, he has been coming round to eating naturally and more healthily with less sugar because he can see the health benefits.”

Sounds like a recipe for optimum health.

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