This week on my dearly beloved BBC Breakfast we faced the welcome return of Richard Westcott, now the Transport Correspondent, who was in Greenwich demonstrating the first vehicles being piloted as driverless, computer driven vehicles. Sensory devices detect obstacles and steer away or brake to avoid them. All wonderful, all progress. I mean, its ripe for chaos, but wonderful progress. The ethics of people being the at the mercy of mechanics, the issue of the need for registration and driving licenses if one is a passenger at the mercy of microchips and motors- these all give me a headache. But still, modern life is changing this world almost unrecognisably.
So whilst I contemplate the future, the past comes to deliver a correction. This week we facde further infomation about the dietary advice we have all been fed over the last 30-40 years. Now we are being told fat isn’t the foe, sugar is. That we have been steered towards a diet involving carbohydrates every day has pushed us towards a cliff, and the carbs will possibly kill us. The message we are being told clearly, we should have been eating butter and fats all along as the original research was flawed and inconclusive, so everything I have ever been told has been wrong. I don’t think I saw a block of butter in my mothers house, such was our Lurpak Fear. All this was wrong. Moderation in, elimination out. Butter isnt the enemy, but the potatoes and bread may be our downfall.
As I heard this, I became one of those people who react dramatically to the TV. Plate down, eyes dramatically rolling. “For gods Sake” being exclaimed loudly and aggressively. The tendency for this news being reported in quotables, in tabloid copy, I can see is very appealing, but it just feels so unhelpful. In a modern world where food can be grown, processed, preserved and packaged in a factory setting, food production now being undertaken in a fashion that means any semblance of normality in food origins is lost, by tackling these issues in such a crass manner seems to miss the bigger picture.
My trousers are at the moment universally tight. Not my jogging bottoms, mind, but all my nice trousers are tight. Why? I have eaten too much and exercised too little. I am aware of what I eat thats wrong. I eat chocolate. Remember, I am the person who ate Lindt Lindor in his sleep. I also eat too much bread. I eat too many crisps on my quest to win the Kettle Chips prize draw. I am aware of this. But I’m in the luxurious position of being able to buy the food I want to be able to eat, the be able to chose better. I am aware of where changes can be made. And I’m working on that change
Can we talk about Carbs. Remember when the world and his wife was on the Atkins diet?Carbs bloat, we know. Everyone lost shed loads of weight and were walking about town with chicken breasts and sirloin steaks in tupperware. Remember that? I do. I was at law school. There were only a few lifts but they wanted avoiding as the digestive systems of those on the Atkins led to some malodorous emissions.
And then that seemed to be forgotten. And now the world is all baking obsessed. Bread, pastry, cake. We have gone white flour mad. Pasta. God I love pasta. Rice. All Carbs. Aren’t Carbs fantastic? And the best thing? That carbs fill bellies.
Can I now talk to you about the real world? Well the one I inhabit, at least? Tough, im going to. A typical day starts at 5:30am. Im out the house by about 5:45am. I walk the dog, my Moves app tells me, for about 1 hour 7 mins on average. We do over 3 miles. Ok, not quickly, but Daphne’s legs are very little, and I live in the ‘burbs of Sheffield, a city surrounded by 7 hills so its uphill all the way home. I then have about an hour to feed the dog, drink, feed myself, shower, dress and get my stuff together for work. I walk most of the way to work. Its just under 2 miles and takes me about 30 minutes. I am at work for on average about 9 and a half hours. If I’m not in court, I run about 6 miles at lunch time. I get home no later than 7pm each evening, when I have to cook dinner. I am in bed around 10pm each night.
I spell this out as today I noted a tweet by John Whaite. You know John, young man who won the Bake Off Series 3. He’s a resident chef on Lorraine Kelly’s show I believe, and writes for magazines and newspapers and has hosted a show called Big Eat on Food Network. Now I have noticed that John employed a personal trainer and began to work out a couple of years ago, no doubt for a mixture of health and vanity reasons. Please don’t think that a dig, vanity has to be in there. On a day to day basis, and for a young person in any event, its one of the greatest motivators on a rainy Wednesday where you lack motivation. A couple of years ago when I was going to Mykonos I bought some very skimpy swimming trunks. On a wet dark late winter’s evening those trunks got me to the gym quicker than my cholesterol ever would. But today I have never felt more divorced from anyone else’s reality than I did when reading John’s tweet.
“These ‘health experts’ drive me mad with their nonsense.A diet high in fats and proteins (carbs and sugar as weekly treats) is best.”
These two short sentences made my body run cold. A carb and processed sugar free world. I still shudder.
I will take you back to my Mykonos diet days. I ate porridge every day with honey. I ate one pack of Malteasers on a Tuesday and a Thursday. I had strawberries for lunch. I had bananas and apples and perhaps a slice of watermelon. I ate grilled chicken or fish with spinach and brown rice for dinner every day, with perhaps some “fun” dinner on a Saturday and a roast, no gravy, at weekends. I never ate cake. I ate fat free yogurts with seeds and nuts. I lost a lot of weight. I looked sensational. I was miserable and thought myself less thin than I was.
Its an unsustainable way to live your life, and I could only do this because I had more time and less dog. I would spend so much time obsessing about exercise. My fridge looked like Simon Cowell’s wardrobe- uniform, plain and uninspiring. Function over feast. The idea of a living every day actively swerving carbs and sugar just feels punitive. Maybe its this thinking that is my downfall, but when you make decisions to not eat things but for on a “treat” day, you automatically process it like its a chore or hard work. If it were easy or pleasurable, why on earth would one need a treat?
Modern life has its benefits. Information is at our finger tips. The world feels a smaller place. We can interact in so many ways with people, that you take it for granted almost. FaceTime calls, instagram, photo texting- our lives don’t feel as divorced anymore. Even if we aren’t by the sides of our nearest and dearest, we dont feel so far behind. But it has its pit falls. As innovation growns, patience wains. Information is sent at speed, that those inputting it, processing it, reading it, advising upon it, taking the next steps- we are expected to act as quickly. 9-5 is now more likely 8:30- 6pm. And here is the thing, the working week drains you. On a nightly basis we go home and dont immediately switch off. Funny stories are exchanged, difficult conversations are rehashed, items of work you haven’t finished are remembered, noted down and mentally drafted. You are then stood in a room with a different type of “work” ahead of you. Cooking.
Now I love cooking. I love food, so the preparation is exciting to me. I am happy to do it. But there are many nights when back from work where this does NOT feel like a pleasure. The fatigue, anxiety, the desire to lie in the bath with the radio on and just pretend for a minute it was all a long forgotten dream- all juztaposed with the reality that a West Highland Terrier is between your feet looking up wanting feeding and the other half is sat on the sofa asking “what are we having for tea, dear?”
Often what I have to do first is empty the dishwasher to get a few bits out and ready for the prep to start again. This bit I hate. I have longed to be that person who plans his meals regimentally each Saturday so we know what we are having, but I’m not. If I end up home a lot later than I anticipated, I don’t want to be faced with a set plan of Prawn risotto when the last thing I can face is 40 minutes of ladling and stirring ahead of me, so I tend to plan on one day for the next day, and shop to our tastes at a weekend. Plus there is always the freezer. And it is this dialogue, this easy to empathise with list of reasons/excuses/realities that one has to consider when faced with the suggestion that perhaps the carbohydrate can be a once a week naughty indulgence.
As a home cook, I already face the shame. The shame when Mary Berry is banging out a fish pie for a nursery supper when the kids are coming back from school, nice and and easy to put together. (I dont have kids and a fish pie would be prayed to if I ever managed to make that on a weeknight). The shame when you watch food TV in general continues when the chef in question starts a “quick and easy” menu of massaman curries or pies in homemade pastry, exotic Korean dishes or roasted joints of meat. You start to wonder if you are the only one who has a limited number of recipes that are relied upon to feed the family on a school night. But if in the mix of this, you want to throw in a bit of shade about the fact that I am a carboholic, well I’m not sure I can cope. Tortillas, rice, potatoes, pasta. Scrap these, and I will starve.
You will say that I could re-educate myself on these food items to make this less daunting, but for me it represents another great myth in life- that anything other than just wisening up to your own excesses is the way forward. Its true that its all about choice. Dont eat everything in sight. Don’t dine on doughnuts. Don’t fry everything. Ensure that your diet is balanced. And exercise. Weight loss requires cardio. Muscle gain requires weight work. This is the modern age, we have access to all this information. But the idea that if I were to make a pasta dish Monday would rule out rice on Wednesday or Avocado and Poached Egg on toast on Friday is just ridiculous. Im currently exercising 5 days a week. My pay off from this must surely be that I can have sensible amounts of carbs a day, as long as those carbs arent 18 yum yums. And isn’t this the definition of balance? By undertaking some vigorous exercise, you require energy, fuel. As long as the fuel is being burned off, the reload can’t be penalised too much.
I know this may seem like a small thing to get hung up on, but this is the time of year where most people start to feel like self conscious failures. Diets not kept to, exercise starting to dwindle, motivation lost. Can we all please just stop adding to the reasons for people to feel worse about themselves. You want dinner on the table without too much effort. Kid, thats fine. You’ve been up and moving for 14 hours, no one will horse whip you. Its just two of you, no one expects a pavlova, a bowl of yogurt is more than adequate. Can someone come into my kitchen and tell me these things.
And if someone could come in after and remind Pete that its only fair he washes up, that would be lovely too. Especially after he passed out asleep last night. One more job for me.
Please afford me some common sense. Please give me a bit of slack. We all want to achieve perfection, but have to settle for something far south of that. For anyone else who, like me, is distinctly unremarkable in this world we set our sights to a more achievable height. My champagne taste has to make do with my beer bottle budget, to paraphrase Ertha Kitt. I hear you about salt. I hear you about too much red meat. I hear you about excessive everything. But stop sending me into a spin about everything inbetween. And I’m sorry, carbs once a week? That dog won’t hunt. Heck, that dog won’t come back to you in the park when you yell it’s name, let alone hunt.
And before I go, let me leave you with this. I had leftover toad in the hole for lunch, and I’m having steak and chips for tea. Double carb Friday. You’re terrible, Muriel.