Struggling to lose the weight and keep it off? Irish sociologist and entrepreneur Dr. Bernadette Rock says her new company, HeyDay, has the solution you've been looking for.

Tell us a little about your company: When did it form?

Heyday is a new weight management program with a difference. It re-trains your mindset around food and eating, instead of relying on diets and feeling out-of-control around food. I used my training as a sociologist and PhD to develop the program. I researched and delivered the program in the Weight Management Clinic in Loughlinstown Hospital, Dublin, with excellent outcomes among clients.

The program takes the focus off food and diet to support people in learning practical tools and skills to address ‘all-or-nothing’ eating, eating for stress or boredom, and childhood eating habits. It’s a move away from the focus on diet and what you eat, to help people feel more empowered and in control of their eating.

"It’s a move away from the focus on diet and what you eat, to help people feel more empowered and in control of their eating."

How did your personal experience contribute to

Food is an emotive topic. I grew up in Roscommon in a family of 7 children. My parents routinely warned us to “clean your plate, the children in Africa are starving” or “eat it all up before it goes cold.” When we had the stations or mass in our house, my parents would provide an enormous spread of fabulous food but “just for the visitors!” My mother conveyed a link between food and love that led to a struggle with weight gain in my 20s.

I got caught in a cycle of constant restricting or overeating, which I eventually overcame. I was aware that aside from diets and food plans, there wasn't a whole lot of support for people like me. So I drew on my own personal experiences, my PhD in Sociology and mindfulness practices to create the Heyday program.

How does the program work?

Heyday takes the form on a support online program with a community forum, as well as workshops and 1:1 meetings. The online program can be completed over 3-4 months with continued ongoing support.

How many customers do you have now?

Right now, there are over 300 people engaged in the online program, which is exciting. I also deliver workshops and 1:1 meetings in Croi, Heart and Stroke Centre, in Galway, and in numerous other clinics.

What has the success rate and feedback from your customers been like?

The online program has been created with input from women and men overcoming weight challenges and health professionals. Feedback from customers has been amazing. Weight loss tends to be gradual but - importantly - maintained over time. I get excited when a client emails saying “I’ve lost 10lbs in 2 months. But I’ve noticed that I’m also starting to like myself, and I’m not criticizing myself, especially when I fall off the way”. It’s crucial that a person can dust themselves down and get up, when they fall off track instead of thinking “well, I’ve eaten a few cookies, I might as well finish the packet”.

Prof. Donal O’Shea, founder of the Weight Management Clinic in Loughlinstown hospital, is very supportive of Heyday and offered the following remark: “I am happy to recommend Dr. Bernadette's program. It is extremely valuable in supporting people who struggle with weight challenges. I have been happy to refer patients to Dr. Rock’s Programme.”

Do you think that extra weight is a cause or a symptom of unhappiness?

It can be both! Often we turn to food to alleviate stress, anxiety or for comfort. Food is very effective in numbing feelings, but only temporarily. For some people sinking their teeth into food provides an instant relief and it takes the edge off anxiety or distracts them. Then often we’re annoyed or disappointed with ourselves after eating, and then the guilt and shame sets in. It’s a familiar cycle for many, and while most people want to change their eating habits and weight, they often feel ‘stuck in a rut’ and helpless, and so eat to compensate or because they feel desperate. It becomes a very frustrating cycle.

So learning to pause and identify the flashpoints that trigger your eating is important, and practicing new skills and strategies to meet your needs instead of reaching for food.

From your experience, are changes to behavior and mindful eating easier to maintain than a pure dietary change?

Practice and patience are important in changing habits and being more mindful. For example, one of the keys to the success of this program is learning that you can pause before eating. Once you pause before reaching for the packet of cookies, you can ask yourself, “why am I eating this – is it because I am hungry or do I just want the taste”? “How will I feel if I eat this?” You may just decide that you will eat it later.

It’s good to bring your focus back to the fact that you are an adult and that you have a choice. You don’t have to clear your plate or eat because people around you are eating. You can make a decision to take proper care of yourself, including your food intake. So this is a long-term balanced approach.

A focus purely on diet tends to be short-lived, and it’s a limited focus, especially if we eat for stress, anxiety, to treat ourselves or because we’re offered food. A balanced mix of both is good. Croi, Heart and Stroke Centre, in Galway, have partnered with Heyday to provide nutritional advice and awareness as part of the online programme.

Have you encountered people with specific ‘body aspirations’ (ie.they want to look like another person/celebrity instead of their slimmer selves through dieting)? What advice do you give to these people?

Most of the people I encounter have been struggling with dieting and weight for many years, and they have reached a point where they’ve accepted that it’s not working and they’re looking for a different approach. Someone once showed me an old picture of herself, of the "skinny" woman she once was. When I asked her how she felt about herself at that time, she remembered that she'd felt fat and ugly. Now she wishes she was the same weight as back then!

A crucial part of the Heyday program is learning to like yourself and who you are. It’s accepting that maybe you are good enough. If you don’t like yourself and your body as you are right now, the weight loss will only be temporary. That's why most people regain lost weight- they still don’t like themselves in their slimmer form.

What are your plans for the next 12 months with heyday? Do you plan on moving into foreign markets, in particular the US?

Most definitely! I view the Irish market as a test market only. The response from clients and health professionals here has been fantastic. I’ve a great team behind me and I’m excited about moving into the U.S. market - with a particular focus on the Irish community abroad. Some eating habits are particularly Irish, and I notice a sort of ‘famine mentality’ among Irish clients. Heyday has just won the Eircom Digital Boost Fund, which has meant I can further develop the programme.

I’m excited about partnering with the Irish International Immigration Centre in Boston, and I’ll be giving a class in the IIIC in Boston in the very near future. 

Describe the typical client that comes to you. What are the general struggles between people and long-term weight loss?

For Irish people living in Boston, the cost of good quality food can be a real challenge. So too are time pressures and constraints, as well as large food portions. Most of my clients say they could write the diet book, but they’re still struggling. A lot of them have busy schedules and often end up grabbing whatever is convenient to eat. Many are caught in the ‘all-or-nothing’ mentality where they’re ‘good’ during the week but over the weekend [they eat a lot of] takeout and there are no limits. Eating to ‘treat’ or relax in the evenings is such a common habit, and then there’s the guilt and shame that accompanies out-of-control eating.

It’s interesting that a lot of people who come to me feel overwhelmed, but find it difficult to ask for support from those around them and believe they should be able to cope by themselves. For many, asking for help would be an admission that they’re not good enough.

What is the worst thing people are doing to contribute to weight gain in your experience?

Dieting! Research shows that on average people stick to a diet for a maximum of 2 months, before sliding back into old habits. Usually people regain all the lost weight with some extra pounds. Years of diets can really skew our relationship with food. A lot of people tell me they feel under pressure to lose weight because they have a wedding or a holiday coming up. Often this pressure only drives further eating. Instead push out your goals and think about where you would like to be in 6 months or 12 months. Drop the diet and focus more on balance. Look at the bigger picture. Ask yourself, “why am I eating when I’m not hungry? What’s bothering me?”

In your opinion, has dietary awareness changed rapidly in Ireland in recent years?

We’re seeing two very different dynamics. On the one hand, Ireland is on course to become the most obese country in Europe according to the latest figures from the World Health Organisation (WHO). Europe is headed for an unprecedented explosion in rates of obesity and excess weight – with Ireland at the forefront of the trend. On the other hand we're bombarded on social media with #cleaneating and Instagram images of gym-tight abs. But often that only replaces the diet mentality and is pretty restrictive. Social media is often where we negotiate our own fears and body insecurities, seeking approval in the follows and likes of others.

"Social media is often where we negotiate our own fears and body insecurities, seeking approval in the follows and likes of others."

So there is still a stark lack of balance. Eating should be flexible and vary depending on your hunger and your schedule.

Does age affect weight loss and weight gain in your experience?

Yes, unfortunately weight loss gets harder as we get older! And of course, as we age we need less energy from food. Whatever diet or weight management approach you adopt, ask yourself can you see yourself doing this in your 60s? Most people don’t want to be counting points or calories in their 60s. A mindfulness and balanced approach can bring a lot of long-term benefits, and not only for weight.

Do you think that faddy diets will become a thing of the past as people learn the reasons behind why they eat like they do?

I certainly hope so. Faddy diets and restrictive eating create so much misery! There will always be a demand for quick fixes, diet pills, and weight loss teas. But I believe people are more willing to look beyond diets to understanding the habits that draw them to eat. Food is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. It is just food – a source of nourishment that your body requires in order to stay alive and functioning. Often it’s how you think about food that drives your negative eating habits. There are many practical tools and skills that work really help in supporting people in this program.

Interested in HeyDay? You can email Bernadette for further details: [email protected].