Happy Easter!

Let’s face it: Easter is a chocolate holiday.  You can run from it or you can embace it.  Being the chocolate lover that I am, I chose the latter.

I consider chocolate to be one of life’s great pleasures.  I once owned a fridge magnet that read: “Chocolate isn’t only for breakfast.”  Indeed, I am quite capable of eating chocolate for breakfast, lunch and dinner and all the snacks in between!  Obviously this is far from ideal.  When I began my most recent weight loss attempt, chocolate got banned along with my other favorite snack foods.  However, chocolate is making a comeback in my diet in a very interesting way.

When figuring out how to eat, I came to the conclusion that foods need to be divided into 3 categories:

  1. Total abstinence:  These are not really foods at all, they are drugs and they have to go.  They are the foods that promote addiction and are toxic when consumed at high doses over a prolonged period of time. Foods that you should just have one of at the very most, but you can’t. Soda, french fries and donuts are at the top of my list.  I am sure you have your own.
  2. Regular inclusion:  These, for want of a better word, are “whole foods” or “real foods.”  Vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, eggs,dairy and whole grains all make the cut for me.  Of course, you might choose to restrict or eliminate certain whole foods because of allergies or intolerance (gluten, nuts, dairy) or dietary preferences (meat, animal products).  However, they are still real food with health benefits, they just don’t happen to work for you, but can form a healthy part of a balanced diet for someone else.  I would argue that if you decide to restrict one of these real foods, please have a logical, practical and personal reason for doing so.  Don’t do it just because it is the current diet fad, or food phobia that someone has inflicted on you!
  3. Moderation and appreciation:  This category is reserved for “the finer things in life.”  Whatever it is that having a little of just makes life worth living for you.  Foods that are relatively harmless, or even mildly beneficial when consumed in moderation, but where over-consumption is problematic.  This is where chocolate fits into my diet.

The secret to moderation in category number 3 is appreciation. You need to be able to have just a little, enjoy it thoroughly and then stop because you have had enough.  How does this work in practice?  Chocolate is a great example for me.  Most commercial chocolate is all about quantity over quality.  If you can consume 100 grams of your favorite chocolate without even blinking, you are doing it wrong!  If you are going to have chocolate at all, I propose that it should be the finest, most expensive chocolate that money can buy.  Chocolate that melts in your mouth, overwhelms you with a burst of complex flavors and leaves you completely satisfied after one or two blocks.  To begin with, this means dark chocolate.  For me milk and white chocolate have been consigned to category #1 because they are high in sugar and hydrogenated fat.  One of the reasons why dark chocolate is often praised for it’s health benefits is that it is consists of 70% (or more) of cacoa and cacoa butter and  only 30% sugar.  Note that the fat in your chocolate must be real cacoa butter, and not cheap and unhealthy vegetable oil.  Sugar should never be the first ingredient as this indicates that the manufacturer has replaced healthy cacao with unhealthy sugar to save on cost. Cacao is considered a “superfood” because of it’s high anti-oxidant and magnesium content, among other things.  It also makes you feel good because of certain brain altering compounds that can ease depression or produce euphoria.  And therein may lie the problem – too much of a good thing is not such a good thing anymore.

I am of the opinion that any “treat” food should have an inbuilt mechanism to limit consumption.  Like my cake experiment.  With the cake the limit is imposed by the high fiber content that makes you feel really full and unable to reach for another.  I have also discovered that the same can be true for chocolate, although for a different reason.  By only eating really good dark chocolate, I naturally only desire an appropriate amount.  I am happy to pay whatever it costs for high quality dark chocolate, because I know it isn’t going to suck me in to addictive eating.  I can no longer stomach commercial milk chocolate which I find ridiculously sweet and devoid of real chocolate flavor.

Producing high quality, self-limiting treat foods is not in the interests of a food industry that wants to sell a high volume of products.  For this you need to seek out artisanal producers who respect the food they are working with and are passionate about quality and taste. Expect to pay handsomely and do so gladly, because you are getting something truly special. My current favorite chocolate in the whole wide world is from DV Chocolates.  (I also love Cacoa Bella in San Francisco, but I don’t live there so need to rely on my most awesomest brother to bring me some occasionally.)  DV Chocolates is an artisanal producer located in the Cape Winelands.  They make 6 varieties of single-origin chocolate and offer tastings and chocolate appreciation workshops.  I love the concept of single-origin chocolate because it allows you to approach chocolate tasting as you would wine tasting.  Instead of eating large quantities for the sugar rush, you eat just a little for the flavor and see if you can identify the different flavor compounds and learn to distinguish one from the other.  DV Chocolates also kindly provides a detailed explanation of the health benefits of chocolate so you can enjoy the experience guilt free 🙂 My husband and I now have a daily ritual where we enjoy one or two blocks of this exquisite chocolate.  This serves a two-fold purpose: satisfies our chocolate craving and kills our desire for all other chocolate. Be warned: when you eat really good chocolate, all other chocolate you eat forever after is bound to disappoint.  If this means eating just a little healthy chocolate and none of the unhealthy commercial kind then this is a very good thing!

Single origin dark chocolate

DV Chocolates single-origin dark chocolate. One of each!

One of the most interesting benefits of chocolate, currently under investigation, is it’s ability to stimulate the same muscle response as vigorous exercise as a result of a compound called epicatechin.  See “Chocolate as good for you as exercise.”  What is even more exciting than the mouse study referenced in that post is a study done on human patients with advanced heart failure and type 2 diabetes.  After 3 months of supplementing with chocolate, the researchers looked at the abundance and volume of cristae, the compartments necessary for the efficient function of mitochondria:

“The cristae had been severely damaged and decreased in quantity in these patients,” said one of the senior investigators, Francisco J. Villarreal, MD, PhD of UC San Diego’s Department of Medicine’s Division of Cardiology. “After three months, we saw recovery — cristae numbers back toward normal levels, and increases in several molecular indicators involved in new mitochondria production.”  From Science Daily

This study was sufficiently promising that a larger study on the effects of dark chocolate on the exercise capacity in sedentary individuals is currently underway.  Unfortunately I am not one of the lucky participants, so I am conducting my own study at home.  Purely in the interests of science, you understand. I will let you know how it turns out!

I have one other way I sometimes like to enjoy chocolate – making it myself.  In this panel discussion Michael Pollan suggests that one way to limit overconsumption of foods that should be enjoyed as occasional treats is to make them yourself.  The idea is that the effort involved will act as a deterrent against indulging too frequently. His example is french fries, but I find them too easy to make and would cheerfully make them every day, so in my case that is a terrible idea.  I do like the principle, however. Chocolate is challenging enough to qualify. I find making my own lots of fun, but a totally exhausting all-day affair so I can only see myself doing it once in a blue moon. An added advantage of making my own is that I can use xylitol instead of sugar as the sweetener.  I found organic, raw cacao and cacao butter from Soaring Free Superfoods.  I then treated myself to a wonderful recipe book by raw food dessert chef, Heather Pace: Raw Chocolate Dream. (Heather, here’s some free advertising for you: “You must buy it, you must buy it now!”)  I replace the agave syrup (which is essentially the same thing as High Fructose Corn Syrup) with a xylitol syrup that I make by melting xylitol in a little water on the stove.  I also reduce the amount as I find it too sweet otherwise.

Since it is Easter I thought it was the perfect time to try out my budding chocolatier skills.  I did pecan and cranberry squares, puffed amaranth blocks and filled chocolates using the Moonie Mint Pie recipe from “Raw Chocolate Dream.”  I currently have a thing for puffed amaranth and I read that it is made into chocolate candy as a traditional treat in South America, so I just had to give that a try! The amaranth blocks were my favorites from my latest chocolate adventure because the crunch inside the chocolate is like a party in your mouth.  As you can see, my chocolate bunnies need practice as their minty insides are coming out a bit along the sides.  Did I mention that making your own chocolates is incredibly difficult?  However, for better or worse, here is my Easter basket:

Homemade Easter Chocolates

Homemade Easter chocolates

Whatever the celebrations of your culture and religion, if they involve food, this is meant to be enjoyed heartily with family and friends.  We had some good friends over for a wholesome meal involving Jamie Oliver’s mushroom soup, come crusty whole wheat herb bread and loads of delicious fresh veggies. For dessert we brought out some homemade Easter chocolate.  Because if you can’t enjoy chocolate for Easter, then what’s the point?

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Coconuts – A love story

2013 is the Year of the Coconut for me.  We met one sultry summer evening over cocktails, fell in love, and now I harbor dreams of moving to a tropical paradise where I can have a little coconut tree of my own some day!

Coconut Drink

Coconut Drink. Image courtesy of Stockvault

The smell of coconuts conjures up images of summer, the beach and holidays.  The taste is like nothing else on earth.  But not only are they exotic and delicious, I had no idea that the humble coconut had so many uses!  I now can’t imagine cooking without:

  1. Coconut oil
  2. Coconut milk
  3. Coconut cream
  4. Coconut butter
  5. Coconut flour
  6. Coconut palm sugar

If someone sends you out for milk, bread, butter, flour, oil and sugar, just get a coconut and tell them to make their own! 🙂

For years I was afraid of coconuts and regarded them more as a “guilty pleasure” than a health food, because of the saturated fat content, so when I read that coconut oil was a good oil to use in cooking I was highly skeptical.  However, I was reassured by the explanation that they contain medium chain fatty acids, (MCT) which have actually been shown to assist in weight management, and can lower overall food intake by promoting a feeling of satiety!  According to this article one study showed that coconut oil has a thermogenic effect and can significantly raise the metabolism for up to 24 hours after intake.  I am a sucker for anything that sounds like it might give me the edge in The Hunger Games.  Once I heard that coconut oil could assist with insulin resistance and slow the digestive process, so that glucose is released more slowly into the blood stream,  I just had to give it a try.

Result: It is the most beautiful oil I have ever cooked with, stable at high temperatures, it locks in the flavor of whatever seasoning I am using and lends a wonderfully exotic aroma and taste to my dish.

I am still cautious, especially because some of the literature suggests that over consumption of MCT can lead to a build up of fat in the liver.  However, this may only be the case if the oil is hydrogenated, so I am taking my chances with virgin coconut oil used in moderation for the time being.  After all, island populations have been consuming diets high in coconut oil for centuries with no ill effects. (See this article for an excellent discussion of the benefits of coconut oil)

I have been using coconut oil and coconut milk for the past 2 months and the biggest difference to me is that it has absolutely killed my craving for junk food items such as donuts and french fries. Finally I can walk through a supermarket and be completely unmoved by the smells from the bakery or the sweets in the check out line! I had already improved my diet and lost weight, but I date the end of cravings almost precisely to the day I added coconut oil and milk to my diet! It also helps me stay full for hours, so that makes me very happy indeed!  However, I only recently discovered coconut palm sugar and coconut flour.  First the sugar:  It is an unrefined sugar with a measurable nutrient content. However, even though coconut palm sugar is reported to have a low GI (35) I am using it very rarely and only in baking with a very high fiber content to mitigate the effects of the sucrose. Although it is a sugar, with all the hazards that sugar entails, once again coconut palm sugar is an absolute winner on taste!  It has a complex, rich, caramel/butterscotch taste  that is just gorgeous. The thing is, coconut palm sugar is mostly sucrose (50% glucose – 50% fructose) so use with extreme caution if at all.  Personally, I confess that it is part of my coconut love affair, but only under one condition . . .

. . .to be used in baking with coconut flour.  Coconut flour is the last of my coconut discoveries and potentially one of the most exciting.  I have been making coconut milk for awhile now, because I want to get away from the BPA in canned food as well as the additives in commercial coconut milk.  I always felt wasteful when I threw away the pulp but didn’t know what to do with it.  To my delight I recently learned that I can use this to make coconut flour!  I immediately popped some coconut pulp in the oven, ground it in the food processor and shortly thereafter the perfect cake was born!

Imagine if you could eat a cake that contained an inbuilt limitation on consumption, not only of the cake itself but on everything else you might consider eating thereafter?  Such a cake would be worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, in my opinion! As Ricky Gervais points out, fat people f’ing love cake.  It’s true, we do.  It’s not why we’re fat, but that’s a whole other story . . .Ricky’s novel solution is to put cake behind a door too small for fat people to fit through.  Not a bad suggestion, but I think I have a better one!  You know the problem with cakes and cookies is that you can’t only have one?  Well I just made a batch of absolutely delicious ginger-pear muffins , and the best thing about them is you can only have one!

Sound too good to be true?  The secret ingredient is the coconut flour, which is extremely high in insoluble fiber (a whopping 6 grams per serving).  They also have oat flour, which provides the soluble fiber. You only use a third of coconut flour to replace any regular flour the recipe calls for because it is highly absorbent. The muffins are light and fluffy and give you all the warm fuzzy cake feelings in your mouth, but when they hit your stomach it is feels like the opposite of cake !  After just one you feel as if you have just overdone it at an eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet!   End the meal with one of these babies and then just try going for seconds, I dare you!

Ginger-Pear muffins

Ginger-Pear muffins with coconut flour

So that’s it, I love coconuts in all their forms.  If you hear that I have eloped with a coconut, never to be heard from again, don’t be surprised! 🙂 I hope they are healthy as the current hype claims.  If not it is going to be a painful divorce.  But in the meantime they have added a wonderful dimension to my cooking and they are helping me feel full and satisfied like never before!  That has to be a good thing, right?

Diet and Children – Is it all up to the parents?

I recently heard someone who opposes the regulation of sugary food argue for “personal responsibility” and when asked “what about children?” the response was “well, that’s parental responsibility.”    Articles such as this one argue much along the same lines: Junk Food Studies Ignore Parent Responsibility. Really?!

When I hear stuff like this I am grateful that I don’t have kids, because I know that getting them to eat right would be a challenge that I would not be equal to!  However, it has lead me to reflect on my own childhood, the diet I was raised on and the diet I ended up with.

I can’t say enough about my late mother and her understanding of nutrition and the immense skill and patience with which she tried to raise my brother and myself to eat a healthy diet.  I often smile when I think about how much of the “eat real food” advice I am embracing now is exactly the principle that governed cooking and meals in our home.  So much so that I am even digging up her old recipes, and going through boxes in the garage to find old appliances that I used when I learned to cook as a child and later inherited for my own kitchen.  (I have her electric mixer that is older than I am and still works like a dream.) Never was there a mother more committed to giving her kids “the best start in life.”  Although I wasn’t exactly paying conscious attention at the time, I am told that she ate the best possible diet while she was pregnant with me.  She was lean and healthy at the start of her pregnancy and remained that way until shortly before her death.  I was, it goes without saying, breast-fed.

Once I started on solid food my mother tried, with the force of a thousand angels, to keep 2 things out of my diet: sugar and meat.  We’ll get to the meat bit in a moment, but she was up against it from the start when it came to sugar.  I am told that a nurse fed me sweetened condensed milk while I was in the neonatal unit, unbeknown to my starry-eyed 22 year old mom.  When she found out about this she was near hysterical with outrage, and she got to take home her first baby with streaming diarrhea, most likely as a result of the ministrations of this nurse.  I am not sure who told her, but my mother seemed well aware that sugar at high doses is toxic, especially to newborn infants!  However, she got a hard early lesson in just how much “parental control” she would get to exert over the diet of her first born daughter.

Once she had me safely at home, I am told that there was no more sugar for the first few years of my life.  Until a certain someone named granny arrived on the scene!  You know how grandparents are.  The dote on their grandkids and want nothing more than to make them happy.  So granny dearest snuck me my first chocolate and it was love at first bite.  Again, I was later to learn that this was the cause of considerable tension between my mom and my gran.  My gran, however, did not cease and desist from supplying the choccies, she would just slip them to me with the admonition “Don’t tell your mom.”  I was only about 3 years old, but I was eager to play along because I understood that secrecy was key to my continued chocolate supply, and to this day I can’t help but feel that we would have got away with it, had she not made the fatal error of giving me Smarties (candy coated chocolates like M&Ms).  As I clutched the precious treasures in my 3 year old fists, the food coloring came off in my hands, and was later transferred all over my cherubic visage, so when my mom arrived to take me home, gran and I were literally caught red handed!  I will confess that when asked by my mom who had given me the Smarties, I ratted out granny without a moment’s hesitation!

So my theory is that despite my mom’s best efforts, between the nurse and my grandmother the damage was done, and I have been engaging in drug seeking . . . uhm . . I mean sugar seeking behaviors ever since.  My mother began allowing occasional treats at home in the hope that she could prevent my rebellion by not depriving me completely, but alas, these treats were merely in addition to the ones I was obtaining elsewhere, not my total intake. There were the kids at school who I would do lunch trades with, the other kid’s parents who would ply me with candy when I played at their house, and of course, the school tuck shop where I could just blow my pocket money on the cheapest sweets available.  What’s more, when it came to anything containing sugar I was highly susceptible to advertising.  If a new chocolate came onto the market, I simply had to try it.  And then try it again a few more times to confirm that I really liked it as much as I thought I did 🙂  I remember thinking that eternal bliss and happiness would be mine, if my mother would only succumb and buy me Froot Loops instead of that 7 grain porridge she would lovingly prepare at home and cajole me into eating.

So you get the picture: Mom doing everything right, offering whole foods and occasional treats, encouraging healthy eating every which way she could think of.  Me, the addict, sourcing my own supply through skilled manipulation of well-meaning relatives, an illicit sweet trade with friends, and, when I entered the free market as the proud owner of a monthly allowance, through my own buying behavior. I therefore put it to the journalist who argues that “junk food studies ignore parent responsibility” that he has failed to consider a child’s resourcefulness!  Radford writes:

But parents, not fast food chains, have near-total control over what their kids eat. If parents can’t say no to little Billy when he says he wants a Happy Meal, that’s not McDonald’s fault; that’s poor parenting.

He can argue this only because he asserts that the parent is the only person who feeds a child and that children are only able to obtain food from parents.  From this I can only conclude that he is either not a parent, or his kids are remarkably maleable and compliant! I, on the other hand, employed my resourcefulness, not only as an older child, but from the moment I could bat my eyes and look cute.  Family legend has it that as a toddler I would wander around restaurants taking french fries off the plates of other patrons, much to my parents’ horror.  When they tried to intervene and teach me some manners, the other patrons kept reinforcing my bad behavior by offering me more, because I was a cute kid.  You can imagine how easy it was to get me to eat my vegetables with so many more appealing options available to me!

Earlier I mentioned that in addition to a low sugar diet, I was also raised a vegetarian.  Now given my track record on sugar consumption, what do you think my level of compliance was for avoiding meat? Was I scoring cheese burgers on the side? Was I taking a bite out of grandpa’s steak or spending my lunch money on hot dogs?  Given the lengths to which I would go to obtain a food item I craved, would it surprise you to learn that my compliance on the meat issue was 100% and has been to this day?  This notwithstanding a huge amount of social pressure to eat meat, ample opportunity to do so behind my mother’s back and just as many willing accomplices eager to slip me a chicken wing as there were pushing candy my way.  I was having none of it.  No way, no how, not interested, not now, not ever, take your meat as far away from me as possible thank you very much!  I could detect meat at 100 paces and would go to any lengths to avoid it, with or without parental supervision.

The purpose of this post is not to argue the merits or demerits of a vegetarian diet, but this story from my upbringing is fascinating to me and makes me think “parental responsibility” isn’t a simple answer to the problem of childhood obesity.  Here we have the same parents, the same kid, and the same set of circumstances.  And yet on the meat issue their parental authority achieves 100% sovereignty and success, but on the sugar issue they score exactly 0%?  Of course we know that babies come out of the womb craving sweet stuff, so in an environment where sweet stuff is readily available, who seriously rates parents as having a decent chance of keeping their children’s intake at acceptable levels? People who have never tried, that’s who! Especially in a world where not everyone in the child’s social circle is on the same page about what kids should eat, and a massive food industry actively markets sugary food to kids at every turn!

You need to consider when people other than my parents gave me the bad stuff, my parents were in a position of not only having to discipline me, but they had to navigate their relationship with the other adult, and this adult was often a person they respected and wanted a good relationship with, and also needed me to respect because that person was also a carer who had charge over me for at least some of the time (grandparent, teacher, friend’s parent).  An unenviable situation, I am sure you can understand!

I know there are many parents out there who are doing an amazing job, and I look on in awe!  Neither do I presume to offer any parenting advice, as I am not qualified to do so.  All I am saying is that, after reflecting on my own upbringing, given their best possible efforts, there was nothing more that my parents could have done to prevent me from becoming a sugar addict.  And even if there are other parents who are having greater success, it is way harder for them than it should be.

While I am not denying that parents have a pivotal role to play, the food industry, government, schools and society should not get to get a free pass and simply cry “leave it to the parents!”  They should not call for parental responsibility and then use this as a license to be grossly irresponsible themselves! No responsible adult would get away with giving a toddler alcohol, and any reasonably sane person would grab bleach out of a kid’s hand before they could chug it.  But not everyone will respect the wishes of a parent not to have their child fed cookies and flavored milk!  And let’s not be naive, the food industry actively, deliberately and expertly strives to undermine parental responsibility at every turn.  So yes all you, “parental responsibility” advocates out there, if a parent is willingly buying their kid large quantities of junk food, clearly that is a problem.  But it is a massive error of logic to assume that if the parent is not doing so the child will eat their vegetables, stay off the junk and grow up healthy!  For that to happen we need a paradigm shift in society, reform in our schools, regulation of the food industry and appropriate government legislation.  Because as my former self, the sugar-loving 3 year old, with candy smeared all over her pretty little face,  can tell you:  “It ain’t going to happen any other way!”

I took my money – and I left!

Local, organic produce

Fresh, organic produce from the Blaauklippen and Route 44 Markets in Stellenbosch

You know how it goes when two kids play together.  It is all fun and laughter until one child accidentally (or intentionally) hurts the other child.  Then the injured child bursts into tears, grabs their toys and runs home. That is pretty much how I feel about my play-date with the food industry.  For decades I enjoyed my milkshake and french fries until I ended up as an obese type 2 diabetic.  There were definitely some tears and, instead of toys, I took my money . . . and I left!  Or, in the epic words of South Park’s Eric Cartman: “Screw you guys, ima going home!

I left because I finally understood with shocking clarity that anyone who sells a substance meant to be ingested by humans, that alters mood and perception, affects behavior and creates dependence is a drug dealer.  Any time you consciously try to get people to eat, drink, inject or sniff more of whatever you are selling, that is exactly what you are doing. More and more we are beginning to understand and accept that segments of the food industry should be regulated like the alcohol and tobacco industry, precisely because we are finally recognizing that they deal in substances that are toxic at high doses, create addiction and are prone to abuse in a percentage of individuals. Of course not all drugs are, or should be, illegal, but we should at least be given all the information to recognize them for what they are and, if we decide to use them at all, do so appropriately and responsibly and at our own risk. Which means they cannot be marketed to children and should not even be sold to children.

Given this understanding, supermarkets are starting to annoy me more and more. Not just because of the constant price increases, crowded aisles and long queues.  They annoy me because they sell drugs mixed in with food items! This may sound melodramatic and over the top, but after reading books like Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss and The Compass of Pleasure by David Linden, and after personally experiencing the addictive power of refined and processed foods, there is no doubt in my mind that this is exactly what they are doing!  But the worst part is they are marketed in a context that makes them seem “safe,” “innocent,” and even “healthy”.  To score some heroin you would have to seek out a dealer, to buy alcohol you would have to produce ID, cigarettes carry prominent warnings and even when you go through a drive through you are well aware that the food you are buying is not particularly healthy for you.  But when you make your way through the cereal aisle in a supermarket, trying to discern the difference between a genuinely healthy whole grain cereal and a sugar bomb is not as straightforward as you might think.

The fault for all of this, we are told, lies with consumers, not the manufacturer or the merchant. We hear things like: “Learn to read food labels” – the implication being that if you don’t make good food choices you are either negligent or illiterate .  Except that I would cheerfully read the complete works of Shakespeare before breakfast before I will try to decipher some food labels!  The lists of ingredients are long, often unpronounceable and many of them I have never heard of, let alone have any idea what they are and how they affect my body.  “Make healthy choices”  we are advised.  Again, I made my best effort and the closest I could come was the fresh produce section.  But even there I don’t know where the food comes from, how it was grown, how far it travelled and how fresh it is. Furthermore, in my supermarket the fresh produce section is right next to the bakery, which, let’s face it, might as well be a crack house!

These days, trying to score a bit of food in a supermarket feels like picking up bread and milk at 11 at night in a bad neighborhood.  The best approach is “don’t make eye contact, walk swiftly and purposefully, get in and get out!”  Although I do still pick up the odd item at the supermarket, that is pretty much how I approach it.  When I go I know what I am there for, I get it quick, pay and leave.  No casual browsing in the biscuit section, no picking up boxes in the cereal aisle searching for the “healthy kind” and definitely no eye contact with the sweeties in the checkout line designed to solicit “impulse buys.”

For the rest I order food online from The Ethical Co-op, get a few items from health shops, or visit the farmers markets and artisanal food producers in my area.  I then prepare everything from scratch at home.  I make my own coconut milk instead of buying the canned variety.  I bake my own slow-rising whole grain bread and, more latterly, I have turned my kitchen into an ice cream factory.  Because let’s face it, you’ve got to have ice cream!

I am discovering the most amazing insights from the best thinkers we have today on this subject.  Yesterday I was spellbound by this panel discussion between Michael Pollan, Robert Lustig and Andrew Weil. Well done to whoever got those 3 on the same couch, you couldn’t ask for better!  It is interesting to me that the discussion took place in 2011 and I just watched it in 2013.  Does this mean that it took roughly this long for these issues to reach public consciousness?  If so that would still be fast, but thanks to the internet I think it is actually almost happening in real time.  The fact is I wasn’t interested in this topic in 2011 so I wouldn’t have watched it then.  Also, the presenter mentions that this forum had been taking place for 7 years and members of the public were present along with health care professionals.  I am really playing catch up here.  It seems that there has been a ground-swell of public awareness and dissatisfaction for some time with the current state of our food supply, both in the USA and the countries to which they have exported their diet – my country, South Africa, being one of them.

The ones who will most likely be the last to catch on will be the mainstream food industry.  They are famous for saying that they are “just giving the public what they want.”  Well, in response to that I would like to say that I am Average Jane Public.  I am as lazy, complacent and mainstream as they come when it has to do with issues of diet.  I would choose taste and convenience over health every time.  Until my health got so bad that this was no longer an option.  The food industry should be alarmed that in the last few months someone like me has not only rediscovered cooking, I am making everything from scratch using ingredients I only recently heard of and they don’t supply.  This is a dramatic revolution in the life of one person that is being replicated across the globe, as the diseases that result from our diet catch up with more and more people.  So now the supermarket, who used to just sell me what they convinced me I wanted, has a whole lot of stuff I don’t want, and very little that I do.  For example they don’t carry amaranth, chia seeds or coconut oil and I need all three just for my breakfast!

In the Q&A section of the panel discussion, someone from the audience made an interesting point about “a tipping point of consumer rejection.”  What exactly the tipping point is, seems to differ from product to product.  I wonder if we are approaching that tipping point for high sugar, refined carbohydrate products, because if so that is a lot of products!  I really hope, however, that we engage our brains and don’t just go “low carb,” thereby just creating the next marketing angle for Big Food.  Instead we need to go for whole food, as it grew out of the ground, because that will mean real change.

Michael Pollan said something beautiful right at the end that I would like to close this post with: “There are people like you and your neighbors who are building an alternative food system now.  And that’s politics too.  That’s voting with your fork.  Not giving your money to multi-national food companies but building an alternative economy.  People want an alternative even if they can’t even express exactly why” – Michael Pollan

That’s the alternative I am looking for, and it is right on my doorstep.  I’ll be playing there until further notice and will only consider visiting the food industry again when I am sure they are not going to hurt me anymore.  I don’t expect that to happen any time soon.

The head bone is connected to the neck bone. . .apparently!

This post is about how I tricked myself into joining a yoga class.  And changed my life!

It all happened one fateful day when I was going about my business as usual when an unexplained, random thought popped into my head:  “I should join a yoga class!”  I can’t explain what prompted this brief lapse of sanity, and under normal circumstances the thought would have passed out of my mind uneventfully and as quickly as it had come.  Impulses like this usually result in a quick mental process whereby my brain assesses the merit of the thought along the following lines.  “Yoga is exercise.  You are Monique.  Monique does not do exercise.”  Case closed. However, on this occasion I happened to be sitting at my computer when I had the weird yoga thought.  Although the rest of my body is a blob, my fingers are supremely fit, and when they have access to a keyboard they are capable of moving much faster than my brain.  Consequently, before I was able to engage in the logic outlined above, my fingers had typed “yoga teacher somerset west” into Google. Oops!  The profile of Domenique Hendricks popped up, I quickly read it, accidentally filled in her contact form and clicked submit! She sent a prompt, pleasant reply, and to cut a long story short I somehow convinced myself to try out a class.

At this point a bit of my personal background is relevant.  Healthy eating is not a foreign concept to me.  I was raised by an extremely health conscious mother who taught me to cook and to eat right.  She also raised me a vegetarian and I have never eaten meat in my life and never plan to.  I absolve her of any and all responsibility for the fact that I became a “junk food vegetarian”, because never did a mother try harder and face greater resistance than mine did with me!  However, when I eventually decided to stop being a brat and eat like a grownup I had plenty of healthy diet information and cooking skills to fall back on.  What’s more, I actually like healthy food on condition that I eat it to the degree that I have no space left for junk food.  Once the addictive junk food eating takes over for some reason the veggies I adore taste “yucky” and they remain untouched and go rotten in my fridge.  Exercise, however, is a whole other story.  I was extremely uncoordinated as a child and horribly bad at sport.  Always last in a school-yard pick.  The sports field or the gym were places of intense humiliation for me.  In the classroom however, I reigned supreme and took my revenge on the jocks who spurned me at recess and during physical education class.  I excelled at academics and inevitably felt good about myself when engaging in intellectual activities.  It is no surprise then, that I ultimately opted for a sedentary lifestyle and avoided exercise as much as possible, particularly in group situations. I have no positive history with exercise from my early development to return to, unlike the rich heritage of healthy eating that is currently serving me so well.

But enough with the autobiography and back to the yoga class.  How I ended up there is still something of a mystery to me, but perhaps on some level I knew that if I wanted to get somewhere I have never been, I would need to do something I had never done.  I was so ignorant of what yoga entailed that I wasn’t sure if I was meant to wear shoes or go barefoot.  So arrived wearing a pair of trainers just to be safe and quickly discovered my mistake when I stepped across the threshold and was greeted by the instruction “no shoes in the yoga studio!” Also, although Domenique was welcoming, she clearly had serious concerns about my general state of health and my ability to do yoga – for very good reason.  I felt the old feelings of embarrassment rising and tried not to let myself think too much about how this felt like high school all over again. However, Domenique encouraged me to try a class and also informed me that yoga was non-competitive, we all worked at our own pace and ideally the whole class was done with your eyes closed.  Phew!  So not like high school after all!  I was particularly relieved to learn that while I would be watching to learn the yoga postures (asanas) the experienced members of the class would keep their eyes closed and not look at me.  If only my gym teacher had a rule like that things would have turned out very different for me! 🙂

When I joined the class I had made myself one promise:  No matter how tough it was, I would keep coming back until it felt better.  So I did. I was a bit sore after the first class, but other than that have had none of the DOMS (stiffness or “delayed onset muscle soreness”) I have with other high impact workouts. I certainly found it strenuous and struggled through the first few classes, but it was doable.  I put this largely down to the fact that Domenique is an excellent, extremely experienced teacher who knows how to work with people at different levels within the same group.  She modifies exercises for me, and forces me to work within myself.  She also does this in such a way that I do not feel I am disrupting the rest of the class too much.

So now let’s get to how yoga is changing my life:

  1. For almost as long as I can remember I have suffered from regular, severe headaches.  I was getting tension headaches almost every day and severe migraines every few weeks. This is debilitating, to say the least. In order to function at all, I was taking a codeine-based painkiller pretty much like a chronic medication.  This made me feel lousy and I knew this was terrible for my health so I really wanted to get off the drug.  The doctor thought my problem was rebound headaches as a result of addiction to the painkiller, and while this almost certainly was going on, it was not the whole story and she wasn’t giving me any workable alternative. It is probably the headaches more than anything that made me consider taking yoga in the first place.  I have other health issues related to diet, but I firmly believe that my headaches are caused by stress and lack of exercise. I noticed a marked improvement in my headaches within the first week of starting yoga and today they have almost disappeared and when I do get one it is much milder and more manageable.
  2. Yoga has helped me to reconnect with my body. It frightens me when I realize how much I was trying to live my life like some sort of disembodied consciousness hoping somehow that my body would look after itself and leave me alone!  Starting yoga was literally like flicking on a switch, or reconnecting a lose wire.  Simply by exercising with your eyes closed, your awareness automatically shifts inwards.  In addition, yoga focuses very much on breathing, meditation and relaxation which greatly improves your sense of connection to your body.  This is particularly helpful for someone trying to lose weight because you find that you naturally become more aware of signals of hunger, thirst, tiredness, stress and anxiety and can take corrective action before they become a huge problem.
  3. Yoga is one of the best strategies for stress management I have ever come across.  At the end of a class you feel profoundly relaxed, even more so than if you had had a full body massage or taken a sedative!  This is critical for losing weight because high stress levels push up cortisol, which signals the body to eat more and store fat.
  4. I find that I am better co-ordinated, more agile and generally able to get through normal daily tasks more easily since starting yoga.  I have also found that I care more about what I do to my body and am much less inclined to abuse it by eating the wrong things!

One thing that did concern me when I started was that although the internet is full of articles discussing the benefits of yoga, there are quite a few stating that it is not particularly helpful for weight loss.  However, these articles are based on the assumption that the primary goal of exercise for weight loss is to burn calories. Since it is believed that you don’t burn as many calories from an hour of yoga as you would from, say, an hour of running, it is not considered the best choice if your main aim is to shed body fat.  Well, as my new bff, Dr Lustig, points out, calorie burning is actually the least compelling reason to exercise.  In “Sugar  – The Bitter Truth” he states:

  • It’s not the Calorie Burn. You’d have to work-out too many hours to burn off the calories from a candy bar, juice, or dessert.

However, exercise is extremely beneficial for:

  • Toned Muscles. Exercise improves skeletal muscle insulin sensitivity–because insulin works better in strong lean muscle.
  • Stress Reduction. Exercise reduces stress and the release of the stress hormone cortisol–appetite goes down when stress goes down.
  • Detoxifies Fructose. Exercise makes the body’s “Citric Acid Cycle” run faster, which detoxifies fructose, improving liver insulin sensitivity–and preventing fructose from turning into fat.

You can’t beat yoga for strength training and muscle toning, stress reduction and detoxing! Which means that yoga is a fantastic form of exercise, not only for all it’s other well known benefits, but for weight loss as well!  It is has definitely made a massive difference in my life, and I am convinced that it is one of the key reasons why I am succeeding this time where I have failed in the past.

If you are trying to lose weight, get healthy or just generally feel better, I highly recommend finding a good yoga class with an experienced teacher.  If you happen to live in Somerset West, South Africa, look no further than World’s View Yoga Studio.  If not, there is bound to be a good teacher near you.  Come on!  If I can do it, so can you!

More about calories: They do count, but not the way I thought

When I started caring about calories, I was unprepared for how complex, and at times confusing, my exploration would become!  Yesterday I wrote about some myths (or at least gross oversimplifications) around calories and weight loss.

I was particularly hard on health professionals that perpetuate these myths.  In their defense, I know that the real experts do understand the complexity but are faced with the challenging task of trying to modify behavior in their clients, and therefore find oversimplifications like “calories in, calories out” a useful starting point. And this may work well for some people.  I just haven’t met them yet, and I am definitely not one of them!   Instead of starting me down the road to health and lean living, this dictum is apt to send me round and round in circles, chasing my tail until I inevitably end up collapsing in a heap under a great big pile of food!  My problem with “calories in, calories out” is that it sounds like a judgment-laden injunction to simply try to “exert a cognitive inhibition over a biochemical drive that goes on every minute of every day of every year. ” (Dr Robert Lustig)  I have finally had the sense to realize that, for me anyway, this is: Just. Not. Possible!

I am not looking for an easy way out of this, believe me.  In fact I would LOVE it if there was a simple formula for me to follow that would result in guaranteed, permanent and sustainable weight loss.  If anyone discovers one, I will be the first to sign up! But so far it has proved to be anything but simple.  Therefore, for my own benefit, I thought I would use this post to summarize my current understanding of calories and where they fit in to nutrition and weight loss.  Anyone reading this, please take note that this is a lay person’s understanding and subject to re-evaluation and further learning on my part.  Also, I think that everyone should study and understand this topic for themselves, examine how the issues around calorie intake play out in their own lives and reach their own conclusions.  I am open to correction and further guidance, but this is what I currently believe:

  1. There is such a thing as an “energy balance” in which a healthy, lean individual takes in the right amount of food to support their energy requirements. In simple terms: they eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.  However, calculating exactly what that energy balance is, is not achieved by a simple equation that a primary school child could understand (Calories in = Calories Out).  It is infinitely complex, highly individual and achieved most successfully by the workings of the body’s own hormones that regulate appetite and fat storage: leptin, ghrelin and insulin.  When these hormones are in balance and functioning correctly, and the brain is sensitive to them, then the individual knows intuitively how much they should eat.  When they are out of balance, or the brain is resistant to them, then the individual is incapable of an appropriate caloric intake regardless of how much theory they know and how much will power they attempt to exert.
  2. From #1 it therefore follows that the first objective of anyone concerned with weight loss, be it: the overweight individual, doctor, dietician, personal trainer, therapist or researcher should NOT be trying to control behavior and somehow getting the starving fat person to “eat less.”  Instead, it should be figuring out how to bring those hormones back into balance and to restore sensitivity to them.  A great deal of research is going on in the area of leptin resistance in particular and I am following this with great interest.
  3. The continual, ready availability of calories is possibly one of the greatest environmental challenges that modern humans have to navigate. We evolved and adapted to an environment of scarcity and now live in one of abundance and excess.  In other words, we are hard-wired to take in as many calories as possible during times of plenty and store excess for the coming famine.  The fact that the famine never comes is irrelevant.  To be human means that if you are hungry and food is available, then sooner or later you will eat.  If you did not have this drive then your ancestors would have died out long ago and you wouldn’t be here to have this conversation!  The disaster is that if you are always hungry and food is always available you will become obese and the very drive that would have ensured your survival in an environment of scarcity could be your undoing in an environment of abundance.
  4. The source of the calories matters as much, or more, than the calories themselves.  In other words you can eat a 2000 calorie a day diet that will promote metabolic syndrome, addictive eating, excessive hunger and obesity, as well as making you disposed to eat more and more calories over time.  Or you can eat a 2000 calorie diet that promotes health, a lean body, balanced hormones, appropriate appetite and a consistent calorie intake over time.  Because a calorie is only a calorie when you are burning food in a bomb calorimeter.  As soon as you put it in your body, however, the source of the calories matters very much indeed! I would even go so far as to propose that the first goal of any weight loss program should not be calorie restriction but calorie replacement.  In other words if you simply try to get the fat person to eat less they will yo-yo diet for the rest of their lives (how much more proof do we need of this?) but if you get them to eat different (whole foods instead of processed junk food) it may be possible for them to gradually move back towards an energy balance, appropriate food intake and a leaner body mass.

Anyone still with me?  You’re a hero!  Given my current thinking on calories, I actually do keep a food journal and I do (sort of) count calories.  But not in an effort to force myself to stick to a daily calorie limit by pure discipline.  I do it to observe which eating behaviors result in the most consistent, economical overall intake that promotes gradual, healthy weight loss.  Not the way I intended to approach this when I started out at all!  I started out by trying to figure out the least number of calories I could eat to lose the greatest amount of weight in the shortest possible time. The outcome was:  I couldn’t keep it up long enough, I felt miserable and, worst of all, I stopped losing weight! I have now wrapped up that experiment and stored it away in a large box marked “FAIL”    I have started a new strategy, as outlined in my post A Bold Experiment.  So far so good, check back in a year or two for the thrilling conclusion 🙂

“A Calorie is a Calorie” – and other dumbass diet dogma

If trying to lose weight weren’t hard enough, us fat people have to navigate through a maze of myths and misinformation.  Today I would like to examine 3 dieting myths that have served to confound my weight loss efforts.  And no, these are not “urban legends” that no sensible person would seriously believe, they are believed and taught by professionals to this very day!

Myth #1: A Calorie is a Calorie

I recently wrote about the research Dr Robert Lustig in “Fat People are Hungry – The Science“.  I am finding his insights particularly helpful at the moment.  Above all, I love how he debunks the myth that “a calorie is a calorie“.

As anyone trying to lose weight can tell you, it’s all about the calories!  As veteran dieters we spend our lives trying to figure out how many calories our food contains and many of us can list the calorie counts per serving for various foods by heart.  We might keep food journals or count every calorie, but still we fail to shift the extra flab around our middle. I sure got the message about calories when I went on my famous “energy bar and appetite suppressant diet”.  Being of above average intelligence, I understood that it really didn’t matter what I ate, even if it was donuts, as long as I created a nice big calorie deficit!  Because a “calorie is a calorie” I dealt my poor body a double insult – ate far too little to provide proper nutrition, and the calories I did eat were the worst possible kind: a nice little cocktail of hydrogenated fat, sugar and sodium!  But “a calorie is a calorie”, right? “So how’d that work for you?”  I can hear Dr Phil ask.  Not so well, to be honest.  Sure, I lost the weight but I felt like death warmed up and as soon as I started eating again the fat came back and brought some of it’s little friends along too!  I gained back exactly double what I had lost in no time flat!

In the strictest sense of the word it is, of course, true to say that “a calorie is a calorie.”  It’s just that this is a tautology and doesn’t really convey any useful information! It is the same as saying “a pound is a pound” – duh, thanks for the newsflash!   As we well know, a pound of iron weighs the same as a pound of feathers.  True, but I know which one I would rather let you drop on my head!

The problem is that when the diet industry, personal trainers and, more latterly, Coca Cola, say that “a calorie is a calorie” they are saying a lot more than that “a calorie is the unit of measure for energy contained in food.”  What they are actually saying is that total calorie consumption is the only factor in weight loss and weight gain, whether the calorie comes from broccoli or french fries!  In the Coca Cola add they spell it out so that we are left in no doubt:

“Calories count, no matter where they come from.  Including Coca Cola and everything else that contains calories.  And if you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you’ll gain weight.”

Nice one, Coca Cola!  You would have us believe that the calories from Coke are just as innocent as calories from brussel sprouts and that the only culprit is the idiot who ate and drank too much?

I would be extremely interested in a study in which 2 groups of people consumed an equal amount of calories in excess of their daily requirements.  Except in one group the calories came from sugar sweetened beverages and in the other they came from vegetables.  I am no scientist but I am willing to stick my neck and take a bet that not only will the ones who binge on veggies be a lot healthier, they probably won’t even gain weight from their excess consumption.  If you think I am wrong, do the study and get back to me, and if the results disprove my hypothesis I will be happy to post a retraction!

Myth #2: Calories in Calories Out

How about this one then?: “Its all about Calories In, Calories Out.”  Repeat this one enough times and eventually you will believe it.  It would be so convenient if this were true: eat more calories than you burn off and you will gain weight, eat the same number of calories as what you burn off and your weight will remain stable, eat less than you burn and you will lose.  Like everyone else, I believed that one with religious fervor and so when I started my weight loss efforts a few months ago I spent ages trying to calculate my basal metabolic rate, the calories I ate, the calories I burned through my workouts and therefore the rate at which my body would respond by simply melting off the fat.  I did this in an effort to calculate how long it would take me to reach my goal weight.  Because, as you know, when losing weight “we are on a deadline, people!”  Well that turned out to be a fool’s errand if ever there was one!  Not only did it require maths I can’t possibly do, it is based on a number of mistaken beliefs:

1) That the human body is a closed system.

2) When faced with a calorie deficit the human body will preferentially burn fat.

3)  All human bodies burn energy with the same efficiency.

4) Dieting myth #1 “A calorie is a calorie” and all calories have the same effect in the body regardless of their source.

To see all of the above debunked, please watch:

Myth #3  To lose a pound of fat you need a 3500 calorie deficit

To understand why this neat little calculation doesn’t work, see myths 2 and 3!  Again – tried this one, did all the calculations, charted every work out and calorie consumed and then got to hear my scale laugh maniacally at me every day as it showed me exactly what it thought of my efforts.

You’ve got to love those moments on The Biggest Loser when some hapless contestant gets on the scale and loses a “mere” 2 pounds for the week.  Camera pans to trainer, looking aghast who says: “I don’t get that.  That just doesn’t make sense!”  Or, if they really want to be dramatic, they accuse the contestant of “throwing the weigh in”  DUM DUM DUM. . .In all seriousness though, I can only conclude that the trainers a) are putting on an act for the sake of the show b) have such an ignorant and simplistic view of the human body that they should never be allowed within 100 meters of a fat person, let alone make a career out out of helping people to lose weight!  And since I own books by the trainers on Biggest Loser and I know that they have a lot of useful advice, I can only conclude that it is the former!

By the way, I am still waiting for the Biggest Loser to let us know that the woman getting on the scale happens to be premenstrual.  I once gained a whopping 4kgs in a single day shortly before my period.  That sucked, although it was fun when I lost it all a few days later!

If you watched the video on weight loss and thermodynamics like I asked, you should now understand that if you create a calorie deficit of 3500 calories it does not follow that you will lose a pound of fat. Damn!

So what should we do then? If all the maths and science does your head in, just remember this: Your body is a magnificent and complex system and you need to figure out how to work with it rather than against it if you hope to lose weight.  When you do your level best and your scale still gives the lie to all the diet myths you have been indoctrinated with, don’t beat up on yourself!  And when you decide what to eat, forget “a calorie is a calorie” and remember the “pound of metal vs a pound of feathers” analogy.  Some “calories” will drop on your body like a ton of bricks causing pain and injury.  And others will drift by gently like feathers, doing no harm and a lot of good!  If you eat 100 calories of refined sugar, expect zero nutrition, devastating sugar spikes, weight gain and a host of other problems.  Eat 100 calories of  almonds and you will get plenty of protein, fiber, vitamin E etc and none of the harmful effects of the refined sugar.  In other words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” (Michael Pollan), go for a brisk walk, and let your weight take care of itself!

Woman lying in bed of feathers

© Innershadows | Dreamstime Stock Photos & Stock Free Images

A Bold Experiment

If you have read through my ramblings on food, addiction and hunger thus far, you deserve a medal!  This post is going to be short and to the point and strive to answer the burning question:  “So where do I go from here?”

The picture is pretty bleak, truth be told.  At the ripe old age of 38 I am spectacularly disillusioned with my ability to lose weight by dieting, much less keep it off!  What’s more I now understand that there is a biological reason for this.  In the words of Dr Lustig: “No one can exert cognitive inhibition over a biochemical drive that goes on every minute of every day of every year. It is just not possible.”  So where does that leave me?  Am I destined to die young and die fat?  I really hope!  In an effort to avoid this fate, I am have devised a bold experiment that seeks to determine whether it is possible to eat a diet:

  1. So delicious that I never crave junk food.
  2. So satisfying that I never get hungry.
  3. So rich in nutrition that my body gets everything it needs for health, energy and well-being.
  4. Sufficiently low in calories that I am able to reach and maintain a healthy body weight.

I also want to achieve all of the above by:

  1. Avoiding extremes.  No deprivation and no bingeing. The “weight loss” phase of the plan needs to be as similar as possible to the “maintenance” phase.
  2. Not demonizing or deifying any of the macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat).
  3. Not using any means to artificially suppress my appetite  (no pills or potions!)
  4. The concept of a dieter’s “Cheat Day” must be rendered meaningless by every-day delicious and decadent eating!

As Dr Phil would say: “It’s a good deal if you can get it!” Of course I realize a deal this sweet will come at a cost.  In order to achieve the above, I will commit to:

  1. Continually educate myself on the subjects of health and nutrition.
  2. Learn to cook and prepare my own meals from scratch.
  3. Do everything within my power to source the healthiest versions of all the foods I consume on a regular basis.
  4. Engage in regular physical exercise and strive to lead a generally active life.

The experiment will be deemed a provisional success if and when I have achieved a healthy weight and maintained it for one year, on the understanding that I would then need to commit to the plan for the rest of my life.  This blog will chart my progress for the purpose of accountability and for my own interest and entertainment.

Anyone who chooses to follow my journey:  Welcome and thank you!  Feel free to comment, offer suggestions and encouragement and ask any questions you may have about what I am doing and why.  I will try to answer to the best of my ability.

Nothing to wear!

I had a blog-worthy weekend!  I repacked my kitchen cupboards, made coconut milk, bread and cashew nut spread.  Cleaned out my wardrobe and went clothes shopping and then went on an awesome local food adventure!

Women and clothes have a special and complex relationship.  I will fill you in on a secret.  When a woman says: “Honey, I have nothing to wear!” she is usually full of  it. Except me this weekend.  I woke up to realized that I really, truly had NOTHING to wear. I got 2 large boxes out of the garage and filled them with all the clothes that no longer fit me. It turned out to be more than 80% of my wardrobe.  I thought this would be a joyous occasion, but I had mixed feelings about it, to be honest.  I really hate all the clothes I chucked out, so no loss there.  The problem is what to wear now?  I don’t want to spend a fortune on clothes which I hope to have to turf out again in a few months’ time. I briefly considered, and rejected, the idea of joining a nudist colony 😛  Then went off to the shop to buy a few items that I hope will allow me to get by for a bit longer.  Tried to go for things that would be suitable to wear both to yoga class and to the office to save money – not an easy task but I sort of managed!  Came away with 3 tops and 3 pairs of trousers that I was very happy with.  Especially a really cute pair of jeans with embroidery down the side.  Haven’t had anything that sexy in my wardrobe in a very long time!

The fun part was for a change I had to go back for smaller sizes instead of bigger ones.  Ended up buying in a size I last wore 10 years ago!  So that somewhat cheered me up after the tragic demise of my ex-wardrobe.  I still shop in the plus sized store and have a long way to go to my “dream” size, but it is wonderful to finally have a few things to wear that I am excited about!  Although I am sure I will be sick of them soon as I am going to have to wear them very frequently for the time being 😦

Any other women losing weight?  What do you do about clothes during the process?  Any suggestions welcome!

What’s for Breakfast?

In my post, Top 10 Tips for Winning the Hunger Games, I wrote about the strategies that work for me in managing hunger.  This was a brief overview and probably too much for one post, so I thought I would write a series of posts going to each “tip” in greater detail.

Let’s start the series where I start my day, with breakfast!  If you identify with my description of “unnatural zombie hunger” and want to do something about it, just start eating breakfast if you do nothing else. Yes, your annoying mother was annoyingly right when she told you that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”  So if breakfast is the most important meal, I say it should also be the most delicious!  When you wake up in the morning, how awesome would it be if your first thought were not that you need to check email, rush to get ready for work, sort out the kids but “what’s for breakfast?”  Yum!

I can already hear the excuses: “I am not hungry in the morning.”  “I don’t have time.”  Yeah, yeah, I know you people, because I was you people 🙂  Let me give you a clue:  You are not hungry in the morning because you are hung over from your TV and snacking binge of the night before. What’s more, you can find time if you get organized and make a few minutes to throw something together before you rush off into your stressful day.  The bottom line is if you don’t eat breakfast, plan to stay fat, hungry and miserable!

I started my breakfast habit by drinking a meal replacement.  Not ideal but better than nothing and it allowed me to gradually transition to smoothies and then to a full main meal.  Start with whatever works for you and just have something every day and soon you will wonder how you ever got by without it!

My breakfasts include:

  1. Fruit: I choose berries for anti-oxidants and deliciousness!  I get a month’s supply from Hillcrest Berry Orchards.  They have a great variety and their quality is out of this world! I then divide the berries into 100 gram portions in Ziploc bags and keep them in the freezer.  I normally indulge in 200 grams of 2 or 3 kinds a day.  This special treat alone is enough to keep me showing up for breakfast every morning without fail!
  2. Protein:  My go-to choices are eggs, whey powder or Greek yoghurt.
  3. Healthy fat: Favorites are nuts or a bit of Coconut Oil.
  4. Fiber:  Chia seeds are the perfect choice because they keep you full for hours and can be eaten on their own or added to just about anything.
  5. Whole grain.  If I am having grain on any given day I make sure at least one of the portions is for breakfast.  My new discovery and current favorite is puffed amaranth, but also love whole oats.

Need an exotic breakfast idea?  Here’s one that includes all of the above that I keep coming back to:

flapjacks, berries and ice cream

Puffed Amaranth and Chia flapjacks with berries, nuts and homemade ice cream

I love this breakfast because besides being so decadent that it should be illegal, it allowed me to make creative use of the interesting ingredients I have been collecting from The Ethical Co-Op and local Farmers Markets.  I have Ashley of Edible Perspectives to thank for the fantastic amaranth recipe (she calls hers French Toast but mine came out more like flapjacks because I made the batter a bit wetter.)  Between the flapjack and ice cream layers are blue berries, black berries, raspberries, brazil nuts and pecan nuts. Sigh. . .

This would be a great time to introduce my new recipe page.  Swing by to get the ice cream recipe for this breakfast and see Edible Perspectives for the Amaranth French Toast recipe.  Hope you like it and that it  inspires you to begin your own Breakfast Adventure!

Fat people are hungry – The Science!

When I wrote that fat people are hungry I had no idea that I was shortly to discover the science to back this up.  I had read bits and pieces and was already aware of the problem of leptin resistance, but last night I was aimlessly browsing around YouTube, looking for some random entertainment and I found a series called The Skinny on Obesity, thanks to YouTube’s ability to suggest content that you are interested in.

I was absolutely riveted and watched the whole series in one sitting.  Dr Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist, takes us through his research on sugar and it’s effect on the body.  The “Skinny on Obesity ” is a great introduction, and Dr Lustig’s full lecture “Sugar – the Bitter Truth,” will change the way you think about food, diet and exercise forever! Watch for yourself, but in summary he explains scientifically what I already know to be true experientially!

Here are some key quotes from the “Skinny on Obesity” series:

“No one can exert cognitive inhibition [will power] over a biochemical drive that goes on every minute of every day of every year. It is just not possible.”

“Everyone wants to tell people to eat less.  I wish I could tell people to eat less.  But they can’t.”

“Our drive overrides our volition.”

“Currently in the store 80% of the food has been laced with sugar. That limits consumer choice. If you have no choice, how can it be personal responsibility?”

The conclusion?

“Public health officials consider regulation when 4 criteria are met:
1) Unavoidablity
2) Toxicity
3) Abuse
4) Negative impact on society

All the criteria for societal intervention are met.”

Is soda a drug?  Should it be regulated?  Watch and judge for yourself.

Tick Tock Goes the Clock!

One of the most effective marketing strategies of the food industry has been to collectively convince us that “we don’t have time to cook.”  Basically none of us have enough time for anything these days, so if someone came along and said “hey, you don’t have enough time to breathe, let me do it for you” we would probably sign up, no questions asked! And so we let a bunch of drug pushers take over our food preparation and keep us addicted, sick and miserable. The “no time” belief has become so firmly entrenched in modern culture that we hardly even question it anymore.  I see it in action every time someone hears about the changes I have made to the way I eat.  Almost without exception they say: “Oh that is so great, but I just don’t have the time to do all that!”

I completely understand!  For most of my life I have believed the “no time” lie with as much conviction as anybody.  Preparing my own meal, let alone a meal for anyone else, was the absolute last thing on my agenda.  I lead an extremely busy, pressured life just like the rest of you.  I probably would have continued believing the lie until my dying day if it were not that the state of my health finally forced me to make time.  If you don’t have time to cook you better consider if you have time to manage a chronic disease like diabetes!  Trust me, a few minutes of food prep pale into insignificance compared to the stress, inconvenience and time wasted on managing a totally avoidable, lifestyle induced illness.  And then there are the insane number of hours of exercise I am going to need to do to get all this blasted weight off my body!  Exercise is great, but the amount I need to do to effectively lose half my body weight is daunting, to say the least. When a personal health crisis forced me to reconsider my time and how I spent it I suddenly realized how ridiculous the “no time to cook” deception really is.  It struck me that if I continued to buy into this myth, I better make time to be sick, exhausted and ultimately prematurely dead! A few minutes of cooking a day is a small price to pay for years added on to my life!

Here’s the thing: after a bit of initial reorganizing and re-education, preparing food from scratch at home is not nearly as time consuming as the food industry would have you believe.  In fact I am prepared to race you on the time it takes for just about any fast food option you can think of and a home cooked meal, and in many cases I believe I can not only equal your time but beat it.

Here’s an example.  Timed my last trip through a McDonald’s Drive through:

10 minutes to get in the car and drive there.

20 minutes to get to the front of the queue and place order.

10 minutes in the “waiting” bay for my veggie burger to be prepared.

10 minutes waiting for them redo part of the order they got wrong.

10 minutes to drive home.

Total time: 1 hour

Time taken to prepare lunch yesterday:

2 minutes: Get ingredients and cooking utensils together.

10 minutes: Cook Quinoa Pasta

While pasta is cooking: Chop artichoke hearts, pink oyster mushrooms and cherry tomatoes and sauté in a pan with Coconut Oil.  Season to taste with herbs and spices and a pinch of Maldon salt.  Grate an ounce of Mozzarella Cheese.

2 minutes: Strain pasta and plate up with veggies and cheese.  Sprinkle generously with Alfalfa sprouts for extra crunch and yummyness!

Total time: 14 minutes

So the pasta won hands down, not only on time, but also on flavor and even on cost!  And it goes without saying that it was much higher in nutrition and lower in calories than the burger and chips from MickyD’s!  It was so delicious in fact that I think I will have the same for lunch again today but I honestly don’t care if I never eat another meal from McDonalds in my life!

What about having your take aways delivered to your door, you may ask?  Certainly an option if you are willing to add on the delivery cost and tip.  But guess what, I also have my food delivered, and not only one meal at a time but enough for a whole week!  After a bit of googling I found this wonderful service that delivers in my area: The Ethical Co-op.  My last order included a family sized box of organic vegetables, kale chips, flax seed crackers, organic coconut palm sugar, raw chocolate, pink oyster mushrooms, spelt bread and amaranth.  More than a week’s worth of food for less than the cost of having pizza delivered for a family of 4.  (Luckily the price of healthy food in my country still compares favorably to that of fast food.) You might not be lucky enough to be able to conveniently buy healthy food online and have it delivered to your door, but then again maybe you can and you just don’t know it yet!  Certainly worth researching and you may be surprised to discover a wealth of local, alternative food vendors right in your neighborhood!

So you can make a great big ordeal out of cooking if you want to, but it really isn’t necessary.  After a day or so of cleaning the junk out of my kitchen and restocking with the good stuff, the rest has been surprisingly easy.  Here are some tips that have made it a breeze:

1) Maintain a shopping list of foods you use in your diet and restock as needed so that you have the right foods on hand and are too broke to buy any junk food!

2) Stock up on BPA free tupperware and Ziploc bags and save your glass jars for easy food storage.

3) Spend a little extra time on the week end preparing food for the week that will keep in the fridge or can be frozen.

4) Google for recipes and local food suppliers.

5) Try at least one new dish a week to grow your repertoire.

If you do all of the above I promise you that you can walk right over to your own kitchen and grab a fabulous meal in 5 to 10 minutes during your work week, or spend an hour on something fancy on the week end if you feel like it.

So there you have it, one ridiculous lie of the food industry debunked.  I am off to throw together the most fabulous berry smoothie you will ever taste.  Wish you were here – I might even consider sharing!

Top 10 Tips for Winning at the Hunger Games!

Let me make myself 100% clear:

I think it is unhelpful to tell hungry fat people to eat less.  However, I am absolutely convinced that the desired behavior is for them to eat less, and by “less ” I mean fewer calories, especially from refined and processed foods.  Although we can argue about all the factors that contribute to weight gain, an excessive intake of calories is clearly at least one of them.  Interestingly, in the process of eating fewer calories one may end up eating a greater volume of food and a lot more nutrients, and that is a good thing and just goes to show that just saying “eat less” without explaining what you mean by that and how to achieve it is pointless.

I do not defend overeating, but I do seek to understand it.  My quest for understanding begins with myself.  It has lead me to the conclusion that although the desired outcome is that I eat fewer calories, this is unachievable without first addressing the problem of hunger.

Here’s what I know:  If you are hungry and you have access to food, sooner or later you are going to eat.  What is more, the hungrier you are by the time you give in to the urge to eat, the more you are likely to overeat and the less healthy and rational your food choices will be.  That’s the bad news.  On the flip side, the good news is that if you eat in such a way that you are nourished and satisfied and your hunger is well managed then you will be able to eat more appropriate amounts relatively easily.  Of course while it is quite possible to overeat when you are NOT hungry purely because food is there and it tastes good, it is not inevitable and it becomes relevant to talk about things like will power, self control and common sense.  However, if you are hungry all of that goes out of the window and you can no more prevent yourself from overeating than you can hold your breath indefinitely.

So here are the top 10 things that work for me.  As I write this I am grateful that I can afford to eat in this way and embarrassed that I squandered this privilege by eating badly when there are people in the world that genuinely have nothing to eat or are unable to afford healthy food.  My experience of hunger and obesity is very much a problem of affluence, and fortunately the solution is also within my grasp because of my privileged economic position.  In future posts I will write about how much more complicated the problem becomes when poverty is factored into the equation.

1) Eat a hearty breakfast as soon after waking as possible.  I know your mother already told you this, but this one really is non-negotiable! According to the National Weight Control Registry 78% of people who maintain their weight loss in the long term eat breakfast every day.  There are many reasons for eating breakfast including: kick starting your metabolism for the day, maintaining energy and blood sugar levels etc.  The main reason for me is that it is at breakfast where the battle against hunger for the day is won or lost.  I was one of the “not hungry for breakfast” people who then started bingeing on refined carbs from midmorning until bedtime.  The thought of food first thing in the morning made me nauseous.   Now my stomach screams for breakfast like an angry baby until it is fed, and then my appetite gradually tapers off throughout the day until by evening I am done with food and ready to close the kitchen.  I have gone from eating my main meal at night, followed by incessant mindless snacking in front of the TV to not even particularly needing to eat an evening meal and being perfectly comfortable with a salad or an apple.  I did NOT do this by deciding to eat less at night.  I did it by eating more for breakfast!

2) Drink Water!  Especially: First thing when you wake up (with some lemon juice if you like) and half an hour before meals.  Then drink as much throughout the day as possible. By drinking more water I have stopped drinking other beverages including fruit juice and diet soda (do I even need to bother to mention regular soda?).  I don’t talk a lot about “cutting out” anything from my diet except when it comes to sugary or artificially sweetened drinks.  These simply have to go and a habit of water drinking is critical to success.

3) Eat at regular intervals throughout the day.  Don’t allow yourself to become hungry before you eat but don’t eat past the point of satiety either. End the meal when you feel comfortable, but not “stuffed.” Initially I found that three meals and two snacks worked well for me but now I struggle to manage more than two meals and one to two snacks.   My schedule is:  Breakfast first thing, mid morning snack, lunch, light supper.  I didn’t decide that I would eat fewer meals and snacks.  I ate more earlier in the day and ended up eating less by default because it’s all I can manage.

4) Include a lean protein, a small amount of healthy fat, and plenty of fiber with every meal.  Bulk out the meal as much as possible with non-starchy vegetables.  This combination works best because you get a sustained feeling of fullness, both from the quantity of food and the composition.  I measure proteins, fats and carbohydrates very carefully and throw caution to the wind when piling on the non starchy vegetables. I find that if I just eat a big plate of steamed vegetables I still get hungry, but if I include appropriate portions of protein and fat and occasionally some whole grains, I  am sated until my next meal.  I also make sure to include protein with every snack.

5) Limit your intake of grains and make sure they are really whole grains.  I say this because the more grains I eat the more I want to eat.  Basically they make me hungrier! They also push my blood sugar too high.  Now I know that there is a lot of talk about going gluten free or grain free these days, and if that works for you good and well.  I just don’t feel good on a completely grain free diet, both physically and in terms of satisfaction with my meals.  However, I do make sure that I buy my grains from good sources, and prepare them myself.  I have also tried to make sure I eat diverse grains and severely restrict my intake of wheat and corn.  Learning to cook with quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth has been fun and enjoyable.  I do not eat any grain-based food product from a supermarket or convenience store because I just don’t trust it and  I try to eat no more than 2 measured portions of whole grains a day.

6) Smoothies, Soups and Salads are your best friends and can form the basis of your meal plan.  I love all three because they are satisfying, bulky and an easy way to introduce major nutritional variety.  If I am short of ideas on what to eat I will have a smoothie for breakfast, soup for lunch and a salad for supper.

7) While you are still trying to control hunger, there are some great low cal or no cal options to create a feeling of fullness in-between meals and snacks.  My favorites are: Green Tea – the warmth relaxes my stomach and takes away the stab-you-in-the-gut-and-laugh hunger pang! Soaked Chia seeds – full of Omega 3, soluble fiber and other goodies and great for filling up a belly for relatively few calories. Non-starchy vegetables for an eat as much as you like buffet!

8) Don’t cut out food from your diet, crowd it out! Once you have a good understanding of what you should be eating on a daily basis, the foods you shouldn’t be eating almost become a non-issue. Don’t obsess about what you will be missing out on, and rather think about all the delicious food you are going to stock up on and enjoy from day to day. Make sure there is no room in your budget, your trolley, your kitchen cupboards and, above all, your tummy for the wrong types of food! If you eat something on a regular basis, make it earn its place in your diet. Research its nutritional profile, understand what it does to your hormones, and make sure its benefits outweigh its disadvantages. If a food is not worthy of a regular place in your diet, don’t have it in your home. Make sure home is a “safe eating” zone. This ensures that foods that should only be eaten as occasional treats are not easily accessible and tempting. We all face enough temptations as we live in the real world and we certainly don’t need them in our own kitchens!

Before starting with this approach my relationship with food was troubled to say the least. I didn’t like to think about food. I never cooked, and seldom did grocery shopping. I could never tell you in advance what I was going to eat for my next meal, and when you asked me what I felt like eating I would struggle to tell you, although it definitely wasn’t “vegetables!”  I lived from meal to meal – ate at a restaurant, got take out and if I did prepare something it was usually a sandwich.  Worst of all, although I craved it constantly, I didn’t actually enjoy my food, even the so-called delicious junk food. Now I know exactly what I am going to eat, grocery shopping is done decisively and with military precision and I really look forward to every meal!

9) Every meal should be utterly delicious and fill you with pleasure and delight. I am finally beginning to figure it out – in addition to managing hunger and eliminating cravings, it is really important to me to love the food I eat! People who struggle with weight often develop a lot of emotional issues round food that involve shame, guilt and obsessive compulsive behaviors and erroneously conclude that they are “bad” for liking food so much and that they need to suppress their appetites and put food as far out of their mind as possible. Extreme dieting can just be another part of this dysfunctional dynamic. Sooner or later your body will rebel and force you do perform the basic functions you need to stay alive, be it breathing or eating. Learning that it is healthy and normal to openly love food and derive pleasure from enjoying it is a big part of adopting a sustainable, healthy eating plan. There are so many healthy foods that deserve a place in our diets, so if you aren’t enjoying your bill of fare, keep trying out different foods and experimenting. See “The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth” by Jonny Bowden for ideas.

10) Prepare your own food! The first thing I learned in the Hunger Games was that when it comes to feeding myself, I am the only person I can trust!  Until further notice everyone with an economic interest in my food supply is guilty until proven innocent.  I have also discovered that the manufactures of processed foods are horrible chefs!  They actually don’t know how to prepare food at all, they just know how to manipulate combinations of sugar, salt and fat to promote addictive eating behaviors.  They literally have this down to a science, but I bet if you gave them a basket of fruit and vegetables and told them to turn it into a meal a kid would eat they would be at a complete loss.  This is why the “healthy version” of any processed food tastes like cardboard – because you have restricted the only ingredients the processed food industry understands.  The flavors in processed and fast foods are simple, overpowering and boring.  Once you learn to enjoy complex, subtly flavored, balanced and artistically prepared dishes, the fast food alternatives quickly become disappointing at best and unpalatable at worst. Unfortunately many restaurants are not much better.  If you do eat out, go to a good restaurant with a great chef who is an artist with fresh local produce and understands portion control. You will have a more enjoyable meal and it won’t do your waistline any damage.

So there you have it.  This has turned out to me a much longer post than I intended.  In my defense, everything I have written has been enormously helpful to me and I hope that at least some of it will be to you too!

Figuring out Food – The joys of eating more to weigh less!

Yesterday I wrote about why it is a bad idea to tell a hungry fat person to eat less. I am still nervous about being arrested by the diet police, so I thought I should follow up quickly with a post about what I think should be done instead!

All joking aside though, anyone who is overweight or obese and experiencing excruciating hunger pangs is in serious crisis and is in dire need of intervention.  I know this from personal experience.  I have absolutely no doubt that such a person is in just as much physical, psychological and social trouble as an alcoholic, drug addict or a person with a serious eating disorder.  Although this is still a hotly contested topic, I do feel that the term “addict” is entirely appropriate for someone in this situation.

It is a very complex problem – if it wasn’t we would have solved it by now instead of holding crisis talks about how to address an “obesity epidemic!”  Hungry fat people are most likely dealing with some or all of the following:

1) They are malnourished from eating a calorie dense, nutrient poor diet.  Hunger signals that are really the body’s cry for nutrients are misinterpreted as a demand to take in more calories, and so a vicious cycle is set up.

2) They constantly ride a roller coaster of sugar highs and lows, always inevitably hurtling towards the next sugar fix.

3) The hormones that regulate appetite and fat storage (Leptin, Ghrelin and Insulin) are in disarray, and will work together to keep the person fat, come hell or high water.

4) They no longer understand the difference between “eating” and “substance abuse” so instead of nourishing their bodies they are abusing sugar, salt and fat to achieve hit after hit of pleasure (at the expense of health and sanity!)

5) They are overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness and despair as they know they need to do something but have lost count of all the times they have tried and failed.

So when I say that fat people are hungry I am not merely referring to the fact that they get slightly peckish between snacks and after swinging by the drive through are no longer hungry.  I am referring to chronic, long term hunger that rages unabated for days, weeks, months and years.  A situation akin to starvation.  I have lost a lot of weight in my life and gained even more and, like many people, I always felt that my problem with food was particularly insidious because “an alcoholic can commit to never drinking again, but food addicts still have to eat.”  This thinking had me feeling like a victim, which of course is completely unproductive, until I had a life changing insight: there is a world of difference between food, and drugs pretending to be food! Once I understood this difference I realized that it was in fact possible to take a journey to recovery exactly like any addict trying to get sober.  One that involves taking responsibility for your health and eating more real food in order to get off fake food drugs.

As a veteran yo-yo dieter I kept making the same fatal mistake over and over again. Yes, you guessed it, exactly like a crazy person!  I would start a diet, no matter how extreme and unsustainable, in a bid to just get the weight off, and I would tell myself that once I had lost the weight I would figure out how to keep it off.  I once lost 30 kg by eating 1 energy bar and a handful of appetite suppressants a day. Everyone was super impressed and proud of me, when really they should have been dragging me off to the psychiatric ward of the nearest hospital! This was socially sanctioned madness because everyone and their mother likes to tell fat people to eat less! What I didn’t realize was that the decision to start a diet involving eating less was nothing more than a stage in the “try hard – give up” cycle of addiction!  Now I consider myself to be an intelligent person, so I can’t explain why it took me so long to realize that in order to get a different result I would need a different strategy.  But let’s let bygones be bygones – for whatever reason what I am doing now is different, dramatically successful and 100% sustainable.

The breakthrough came when I began to discuss my experience of hunger with my husband. He had no idea what I was talking about, and although he loves to eat as much as the next person, he says that he has never experienced “hunger” in the way that I described it.  This allowed me to figure out that what I felt on a daily basis was not the same thing that every human on the planet felt, but some were just able to ignore.  News flash: Skinny people do not have super powers, after all!  Winning the Hunger Games has absolutely NOTHING to do with will power! This lead me to give up on trying to lose weight and made me decide to just figure out how to stop being hungry.  It was the best decision I ever made!  I also decided that I would lose weight in exactly the same way that I hope to keep it off, and that I would never “go on diet” again.

I figured out a workable strategy through reading books, searching the Internet and experimenting to learn what worked and what did not.  I am happy to say that I have not felt “unnatural zombie hunger” in months.  For some specifics, see my next post: “Top 10 Tips to Win at the Hunger Games.”  Besides not being hungry anymore, I have painlessly lost 25 kilograms (55 pounds), my type II diabetes is controlled without medication and I have gone from being hypertensive to having blood pressure on the low end of normal.  The jury is still out because I know that I could still relapse. I also still have 36 kgs left that I need to lose, but all early indications are that something is finally working!

Fat People Are Hungry! – The misery of being overfed and under-nourished

Listen up!  The Diet Industry, self-help gurus and self righteous skinny bitches need to stop telling fat people that they need to eat less!  It is cruel, ignorant and spectacularly unhelpful!

Now I realize I have just uttered diet blasphemy.  But before you try me as a heretic and burn me at the stake, please hear me out.  I think I can make my case.

Here’s what I know as a soon-to-be-formerly fat person.  For most of my life I have been really, really hungry.  Anyone who saw how fat I was and knew what I used to eat on a daily basis would wonder how this is possible. But trust me, it is.  And I don’t think I am the only one.  Our kind are real and we walk among you! I was hungry (or starving, more accurately) for the simple reason that I was eating the wrong “food” – and a lot of it!  “Food” that was high in calories, low in nutrition and deliberately engineered to make me keep eating without ever addressing my hunger.  It would make a great plot for a horror movie:  the more I ate the hungrier, and the fatter, I got! I was suffering from something I have affectionately named “unnatural zombie hunger.”

Fat people are often encouraged to do a great deal of introspection, hand wringing and soul searching to answer the obnoxious question of some well meaning personal trainer, therapist or parent who looks them in the eye and gravely asks “why are you so fat?”  This line of questioning usually ends with a tearful confession about some childhood trauma with the interrogator nodding in sympathy and self satisfaction at their ability to get to “the heart of the problem.” Well I have asked that question of myself and finally found an answer that makes perfect sense to me. No, it isn’t because I have poor self-esteem, am seeking my father’s approval or didn’t get cuddled enough as a baby.  It is also not because I am lazy, have no impulse control or just “f’ing love cake” as Ricky Gervais so eloquently puts it.  I am fat because I was hungry, plain and simple! Now I realize that this answer is not sensational enough to get me a spot on a reality TV show, but it is one of the greatest insights of my life and the first huge step in my recovery!

Hunger is a basic human drive, like thirst, sex, or breathing!  It is a necessary component of our biology without which we would not survive.  However, we can seriously mess with hunger and turn it into a monster that controls our every waking moment. Simply put, we do this by not eating the right food in a timely manner and then eating way too much of the wrong food.  The big problem for me is that I had no idea that my hunger wasn’t the normal healthy kind, it was the diabolical make-you-fat-and-kill-you kind!  I experienced hunger as an intense physical pain in my gut so extreme that I needed to eat with the same urgency as one might feel when needing to empty a bursting bladder! I classed it as the same level of emergency as needing to take a pain killer for a migraine headache! For me being hungry meant: eat as much as you can, as fast as you can and eat foods containing as many calories per bite as possible!  And I had no idea that this was not normal.  In that state I was eating purely to alleviate physical pain, not for pleasure and most certainly not for nourishment! All I knew was the word for “hunger,” and my physical experience of it.  I didn’t realize that this was not how everyone experienced hunger.  I just thought that skinny people had ironclad will power that allowed them to live in perpetual agony without giving in to the drive to overeat the way I did on a regular basis.

This blog will explore the question of why I was so hungry and what I am doing about it in greater detail.  But here’s a sneak preview:  all my previous attempts at dieting and weight loss were epic failures because they were founded on an attempt to “eat less.”  The problem is that eating less is a really dumb idea if you are starving! Of course I didn’t know I was starving and nor did anyone around me, because I was a great big fat person. But now that I know what the problem is, I know exactly what to do about it.  I have started eating more!  Or, more accurately, I have started eating real food and stopped eating drugs masquerading as food.  “Real food” meaning whole, unprocessed, nutritious food that my body recognizes and knows what to do with. Result:  I am no longer hungry, I don’t have cravings and although the volume of food I take in has increased, without really trying my calorie consumption has dramatically decreased.

So yes, I am mad at anyone who simplistically tells fat people to just “eat less” because I feel that this only aggravates the problem.  This doesn’t mean that excess calorie consumption, especially the wrong kind of calories, isn’t a serious issue that inevitably results in weight gain, among other things.  But this problem is, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, solved by first getting a hungry person to eat more of the right foods until they no longer suffer from “unnatural zombie hunger.”

Not everyone oversimplifies the problem of course, and there are many very insightful, caring professionals who provide excellent advice.  I appreciate the insights of Michael Pollan, for example, who sums it up beautifully and simply with the often quoted: “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”  My contention is simply that we first need to stress that people should eat a diverse plant-based, whole foods diet (as opposed to fake “food” products), and then the “not too much” will follow as a matter of course.

So I say again – stop telling fat people to eat less!  Doesn’t the statistic that 90% of people who lose weight on a diet gain it back make anyone realize that this advice is completely useless? Having said this, fat people like myself are not victims and we can and must take personal responsibility for our health. For me the best way to do this is not to “go on a diet” but to eat more delicious healthy food, thereby crowding junk food out of my diet, and gently, kindly and sustainably shedding unwanted weight in the process!