Making allowances

Earlier this evening, I succeeded in drooling all over my keyboard, while editing a recipe for the blog I’ve recently started managing. [That would be Matryoshka Haus’ In Da Haus blog. Recommended for tales of Chateau Duffy from people other than me and accounts of what we get up to when not on French building sites.]

The recipe in question was for Beef Bourguignon (and yes, every time I have used that word today I’ve had to copy & paste it from an authoritative source), which is a long-time favourite dish and something that’s beyond special when eaten in the Limousin region of France – famed for its beef (and its porcelain). It’s also beyond special when cooked by a professional chef with a love of story-telling and eaten at the end of a long day on the scaffold.

It got me thinking – at the end of a long day sitting at my desk and generally hanging out in church, but getting next to no exercise – of how wonderful it is to spend a week being able to eat some of the greatest food in the world and really not having to worry about its impact upon one’s waistline or one’s calorie counting app. Everyone knows that the best thing about holidaying in France is the plethora of bread, cheese, meat and wine that is required to be consumed, but most people fear its results. Not when you spend all day working to the point of physical exhaustion…

While we were away, I made a mental list of all the things I was ‘allowed’ to do while at Chateau Duffy – or rather, things that would be exceptional in normal circumstances:

  • Have sugar in my tea. (Well, when one is being a builder, one acts like a builder…)
  • Drink full-fat coke. (This is combined with the fact that Coke Light – the French Diet Coke – is awful.) 
  • Eat biscuits without guilt. 
  • Ditto chocolate. (Especially Creme Brulee Lindt – to die for.) 
  • Spread butter on every single piece of bread I consume, if I want to.
  • Eat more than one croissant for breakfast. (And again as a mid-morning snack.)
  • Drink red wine as if it were going out of fashion. Actually, what am I saying, I allow myself to do that in London when the mood takes me. 
Not all of them were to do with food:
  • Wearing clothes from my ‘clothes to be worn when cleaning/building/doing pilates/moving house’ pile which usually wouldn’t see daylight. 
  • Deliberately not brushing my hair for 3 days. 
  • Smelling clothes before putting them on.
  • Putting aforementioned clothes on even if what I’ve discovered when sniffing isn’t entirely pleasant. 
And this, people, is why it was observed last weekend that a week at Chateau Duffy brings me back to life. All you need to feel alive, people, is unlimited bread & wine (oh, how emblematic) and several days of wearing dirty clothes. I’ve been back at work two weeks and I’m counting down to August already…

Openness, honesty and t-shirts

A couple of weeks ago, a friend asked me whether I was the ‘real me’ on Twitter and on my blog – I’m not entirely sure how or why this came up, but it prompted an interesting discussion. The bottom line is that it is the real me exists – here, on Twitter and on Facebook.

No, not every single detail of my life is documented [though one friend at the weekend suggested I did just that on Twitter, with the exception of dating activities – though as I go on very few of those, it’s not exactly a massive omission], but the highs and lows are both in evidence. While I don’t necessarily blog about moments of heartbreak in the public sphere, I do mention the days when life isn’t quite as great as it might be. I’m more likely to rant on Twitter than Facebook; my blog dwells on the quirkier side of life; and Facebook is day to day stuff with real friends. I have boundaries and make conscious decisions about what to share and when (except when under the influence…).

I wonder sometimes at the ability of others to be so candid in their online activities, those that ponder deep philosophical thoughts, document the harsh realities of life, or tell the world just how much they’re hurting right at that moment. I’m not that kind of person, I keep my messy stuff anonymised and highly inaccessible. But openness is also important. Like many a good Christian, I belong to a small group which requires me to be honest and accountable about even the difficult areas of life. It’s scary, but utterly worth the feelings of vulnerability it brings with it – like on Sunday when I shared something incredibly personal and very scary.

In a bizarre coincidence, this concept was the main thrust of this week’s Glee, kind of. At the end of the programme they appeared singing Born This Way (Lady Gaga) wearing t-shirts on which words or phrases were printed that summed up their deep secrets or insecurities – Kurt’s said ‘likes boys’, Santana’s read ‘Lebanese’ (i.e. lesbian, it’s an in-joke), Emma’s admitted her OCD. Within seconds, Twitter was abuzz with people contemplating what their own t-shirts would say.

What about mine? Well, that leads me to the main point of this ridiculously long and honest post…

One of the things I’m particularly in awe of are people who write about their experiences of food, weight and diets in a public forum and use that context to stay accountable. A Facebook friend posts their weight updates every week – good for them, but you wouldn’t catch me doing that. (Partly because it would be so hard in the weeks when things don’t go your way; partly because I wouldn’t want people to know my actual weight; partly because it’s such a bloody hard journey that only the most supportive friends should be involved. Plus, I have a paranoid fear that people will think I’m attention seeking.) However, I came across something a little while ago that I wanted to share, and this seems the logical place to do it.

You see the thing is, my t-shirt would probably read ‘Fat’ or ‘Used to be Fat’ (though people have such varied definitions of the word than in many contexts, like the Daily Mail, I still would be fat). Yes, I used to be fat. Not just ‘could do with losing a stone’ fat, but almost Monica in Friends fat. In my late teens/early 20s I would watch episodes in which her diet was mentioned and think “Wow! If only I could do that…” [though obviously Courtney Cox never was fat so it was a slightly unrealistic ambition]. There were moments when she’d make the throwaway comment “oh, I used to be fat” to explain her attitude to cheese or cookies – a phrase that I’ve actually found myself using recently in pastoral contexts where food issues have cropped up.

Aged 21 I began a journey that saw me lose 5 stone in just over a year. Over the following years I put some of the weight back on and two years ago I began over again with a new attitude and lost another 4 stone. Some people know about both these times, having known me way back when; others know about the last two years; while lots of you have never met me in the flesh and have little idea of what I actually look like.

While I may not put those words on a t-shirt and wear it in public when we go and watch Glee Live in June, there is something I can share publicly that’s just as honest. The photo below was taken on my 21st birthday, while on a walk with the family that lived next door (it’s desperately depressing that the baby in the backpack is now 9, Doris needs to stop growing up!) – today, I honestly don’t recognise myself.

The point of this post is to draw a line under the photo, to stop the past being what identifies me. I’ve put a lot of time and energy into getting out of that mindset and improving my quality of life – it isn’t who I am any more.  I appreciate that it sounds awfully cheesy, but it’s an important idea. Emma’s t-shirt doesn’t need to say ‘OCD’ once she’s dealt with it; you – and I – don’t need to be defined by our pasts once we’ve moved on. Whether it’s a t-shirt that reads ‘Fat’, ‘Divorced’, ‘Self-harmer’, ‘Single’ or whatever, we don’t need to keep wearing it. 

52 Weeks

I’m one of those people who usually knows how long it is since something happened – the last time I saw a particular friend; what years we went on holiday to Germany; how many weeks we’re into the new year (11 and a bit, if you’re interested!) – for example.

This morning marks 52 weeks since I got up on a Monday morning, took a deep breath and weighed myself for the first time in quite a while. I got out a brand new notebook, wrote down the weight, looked up the appropriate calorie allowance in my Rosemary Conley cookbook and proceeded to follow a healthier lifestyle than the day before. [As an aside, on the same day I also met with a friend for coffee after they’d had a meeting at my office and went to a friend’s birthday meal where I ate my favourite stir-fried broccoli…I have a freakishly good memory for random things!]

52 weeks later and this morning I was lighter by 53 pounds. (Well, 53¾ officially, but who’s being pedantic?) I rather liked the symmetry of the numbers (though in some ways I’d have preferred it to be 52 in 52, though I’m definitely not complaining that it’s more!) and therefore used it as a Facebook status. It was one of those statuses which I pondered, wrote and immediately closed down the tab and ran away. Thing is, I haven’t shared much about this process in the general scheme of things, nor did I want to flaunt my achievement online and be perceived as boasting or even fishing for compliments.

I could go off on one about how I’ve done it and why, but this isn’t the time or the place. Suffice to say that I’m now convinced the only way to do it effectively is to approach it holistically – quite literally with mind, body and spirit. (If you want to know more, get in touch, but it’s probably way too random for even this random blog.)

What’s amused me most is the way that people (especially ones I really don’t know very well) have brought it up. Don’t get me wrong – receiving compliments well is important, but some of things people come out with are quite frankly hilarious:

  • “You’ve lost a lot of weight. Are you doing it intentionally?” [No. One day I woke up and it had all fallen off, just like that.] 
  • “How have you done it? I suppose you’re going to say something annoying like you’re eating sensibly and exercising…” [Yep, that would be exactly it – rocket science.] 
  • “Are you ill?” [Genuinely touched by the concern, but this was a very random thing to say. If anyone I know well thinks I look ill, please do tell me, but I barely knew this person!] 
  • “How much exactly have you lost?” [Unless you know someone well, or the information is offered to you, this question is just plain rude. There are also very few good responses to the answer you receive…] 
  • “When are you going to stop?” [The plan’s to continue the lifestyle forever, though I am not aiming for a size zero (4) – I strongly suspect the family’s hips don’t get much smaller than a 12.] 
  • “But I just saw you eat a [mini] flake, aren’t you dieting today?” [This was this afternoon, and it’s not a ‘diet’ it’s a lifestyle change – and nothing’s banned!] 
It’s a funny old thing, our obsession with weight/appearance/food/size. I’m kind of glad I wrote the Facebook status – not because of the compliments – but because I’ve just spent half an hour chatting to a random school friend as a result of it. Perhaps one day I’ll write a best-seller on the topic, but until then I’ll try not to become an attention-seeking lifestyle bore – if you suspect me of becoming one, do shut me up. Thanks. 

Food glorious food

This is not one of my normal posts. 
In a fit of contemplation on Saturday night I wrote this essay and after a few days in the drafts folder I think it’s ok to bring it out. My ‘serious’ writing always goes against the grain of my regular stuff, but it’s the only forum I have to publish my work. Skip it you want, I won’t hold it against you. Come back tomorrow – I’ve got driving updates and a treatise on mittens for you. 
(If that’s not enticing, I don’t know what is!!) 
Food (noun): any nutritious substance that people or animals eat or drink or that plants absorb to maintain life and growth.

One word. Four letters.
Our need for it fuels our ealiest instincts.

The lack of it kills over 20,000 people per day.
The over-consumption of it contributes to the death of 300,000 people per year.

We love to talk about food – to share recipes, recommend restaurants, offer a taste of something new, different, exciting… But for so many people, food – whether it’s the lack of it or the over abundance of it – is a major issue.

If food is essentially about nutrition – about ‘maintaining life and growth’ – then it should be a fairly simple equation. Calories consumed should roughly equal those used in activity. The major food groups should be accounted for, plus those providing vitamins, anti-oxidents and other nutrients.

But, because food (usually) tastes good, it becomes so much more than simple nutrition. It’s about taste and texture, sensation, subtleties, sweetness, spice – even endorphins.

Food is something I find it hard to talk about. I realised some time ago that I’m quite categorically not a foodie. I very rarely find myself in ecstasies over a particular product or taste. Quite honestly, when I look at a menu I’m looking for the things that fall into both the ‘food I will eat’ category, and are preferably fairly low-fat.

Fussy eaters aren’t uncommon. Everyone has their particular foibles when it comes to food. My father won’t eat brocolli or cucumber; my sister wouldn’t eat eggs for a very long time; I don’t eat raw tomato… It’s perfectly normal. But what about when fussiness gets out of control?

I’m a massive fan of the BBC3 show Freaky Eaters – where individuals who only eat cheese, or chips or who are scared of salad, are treated by a nutritionist and psychologist to find the root of their food issues. It makes total sense and raises awareness that idiosyncracies regarding food are actually a more serious issue than they first appear.

Not that I’m at that level, but I’ve been afraid of food. One of the main motivations for my mostly vegetarian diet was that I didn’t trust myself to cook meat safely. Even now, I am incredibly suspicious of any meat that doesn’t look ‘quite right’. I don’t eat fish, mostly owing to its taste, but also partly out of genuine fear regarding the bones. I’m generally not adventurous because I don’t want to run the risk of not liking it, or feeling ill.

The other day I had my first ever mussels. (Well, I managed precisely three – at which point my dinner companion said I could stop as he could see my grimaces and knew I wasn’t enjoying it!) But it put a dampner on the whole meal. I was so nervous about them – in terms of taste & horror stories I’ve heard of food poisoning from them – that I could barely eat my main course, which is a bit of a sad state of affairs.

In actual fact, I’m on a journey as far as food is concerned. After many years of abusing it, whether it was for comfort or simply a lack of understanding, I’ve gradually been altering my attitude towards it. I understand the nutritional element of it, but I’m still a way off reaching ‘foodie’ status. It’s difficult to glory in food when you need to keep track of its calorific content in order to lose weight. Low-fat food doesn’t taste that great either. (Chilli flakes are a great way of making low-fat pizza palatable.) But I’m improving and taking the time to experiment with cooking styles and flavours; embracing food rather than let it intimidate me.

Would I like to become a foodie? Maybe. In the mean time, foodie friends should have patience with me, perhaps introducing me slowly to this world they inhabit. And, maybe we should all think more carefully about the food we shove into our mouths…is it the best we could consume? Would something else taste better or be better for us? What are we eating for – basic nutrition or a pleasurable experience, or both?

When it comes down to it, surely it needs to be about so much more than ‘maintaining life and growth’, or else we’re no better than animals…?

A weighty issue

I realise that the original point of blogs was to express an individual’s opinion & prompt discussion, but I’ve always shied away from that aspect – preferring to dwell amongst the random and inane. I’ve also avoided deeply personal things, as I have a closed blog for airing my dirty laundry to a readership of one (moi). I also try to keep things brief(ish) – this post is not.

Tuesday night, there was a glut of weight-related programmes on TV. The Hospital on Channel 4 [excellent 3-part series on the NHS, catch it on 4OD] focused upon 3 women under 25 who were morbidly obese & exploring surgery. A short time later, BBC1 aired ‘Georgia: 33 stone at 15’, a documentary about a teenager who left Wales to spend a year at an American weight-loss boarding school.

The Guardian’s response to these shows was: “…I’m still not convinced by weight loss as TV. I know I’m the only person in the world who isn’t: you just need to glance at the schedules. We’re a nation obsessed with food and eating and weight and, most of all, with fat people.”

Yes, we’re a nation obsessed with food, eating, weight, weight-loss, fat people. There’s been ‘Celebrity Fit Club’; ‘You are what you eat’; ‘Inch-loss island’; ‘Freaky Eaters’…I could go on.

But, do you know what? As I watched these two shows on Tuesday, I realised that actually, they were amongst the most sensible programmes on the subject, because within both of them they showed the only method of weight-loss that works:
– Diet, monitoring energy intake (i.e. calories) & fat content.
– Exercise
– An understanding of the psychological reasons behind an individual’s eating pattern.

Those in The Hospital were followed as they met with a nutritionist and attempted to lose weight via conventional means before resorting to surgery. Only one went under the knife, the others (though one took longer to get into it than the other) used a combination of diet and exercise and radically changed their lifestyles. This was also the approach followed by the school Georgia was sent to, where, by the end of 6 months she had lost a staggering 12 stone.

We all know crash diets are rubbish (cabbage soup anyone?), and understand the theory that calories in need to be balanced by calories expended, but who’s there to guide people through it? Why did it have to wait until these women were morbidly obese before real time and money was spent on trying to change things?

Membership of a well-known fat-club (as my friend affectionately calls hers) can cost upwards of £6 a week, before factoring in the cost of good quality, low-fat foods and exercise – whether that’s gym membership, leisure centre costs , home equipment or a simple DVD. Not everyone can afford that – yet again, the poorest within our society are trapped in a cycle of poor food, poor understanding of nutrition & little access to exercise facilities.

Of the three women considering surgery, I’ve assumed that two could be termed ‘working class’ whilst another was ‘middle class’. There are sociological assumptions, but the most successful patient also happened to have the money to hire a personal trainer.

The biggest barrier to weight loss is mind-set. One patient was meant to follow a 750cal diet for the few weeks prior to her op, yet was filmed munching on her 2nd hobnob, having been unaware (until prompted by the film crew to check) that each biscuit contained 67cals. Unsurprisingly, her liver was fatty (unhelpful for surgery) when operated on, which the surgeon said did not bode well for her future lifestyle, even with the gastric band. She hadn’t changed her mind-set to one that was focused on making radical changes.

In contrast, the girl with the personal trainer lost stones (& didn’t need an op) thanks to exercising, dieting, creating space for herself and having a supportive family. How were the others meant to cope if their family (who were equally obese) were eating junk food whilst they were on a restricted diet? Hardly supportive, and why wasn’t the NHS targeting them too?

As a country, we seem to be waiting until it’s too late to do something. What about PE in schools? I know for a fact that if it had been less humiliating doing cross-country, maybe I’d have enjoyed it more. As it is, I had to wait until my 20s to discover sports that I enjoy. What about introducing counselling as soon as a GP recognises a weight problem? Education regarding food can only go so far – one patient was filmed munching a KFC bucket claiming “everything in moderation”…

And why do I care? I’ve been there, I am there.

Six years ago I changed my lifestyle, eating a calorie controlled diet and taking up regular exercise for the first time in my life. I lost 5 stone in a year, thanks partly to Rosemary Conley and the fact that her clubs offered an exercise class with the weigh-in (still the biggest gripe I have with the Weight Watchers empire is that they don’t). I looked completely different and almost didn’t know who I was anymore. The psychological basis for why I’d got into that position hadn’t been dealt with. I knew the maths, I had willpower and it worked.

It didn’t last, for various reasons. For the last couple of years I’ve been on an emotional & spiritual journey exploring who I am and what that means. Only in the last couple of months have I felt in the place to start again. I’m happy with who I am (who God created me to be, in fact) and I know the maths, so I know what to do to reverse some of the damage I’ve done.

Victimising fat people will do no good. Neither will victimising food. Until there’s an holistic approach to Britain’s ‘obesity epidemic’ no change will be permanent.