Saturday, 14 January 2012

The 'D' Words

This week I have returned to regular cooking, which makes me feel like a whole person again. I started last week with things so easy I could have cooked them while standing on my head - poached chicken, multi-veg and beef bolognese and a chicken and ham pie. This week I stepped it up. (I’ll blog these adventures separately.) I also cooked for two instead of the usual three this week. As appertains every six-to-eight weeks, the unwelcome purple glow of Weight Watchers branded products enters the kitchen and my food is deemed too heavily calorific to be consumed. My food does not apparently fit the institutionalised eating ethos. This used to spark fierce arguments, until I realised my shopping bill would reduce by a third, so I now let it wash over me and quietly shake my head. I’ve also learnt that it won’t last more than a week or so. A small tin of purple labelled chicken soup with a side of low-fat cream cheese on rice cakes always loses out to real and lovingly prepared food in the end.

January brings with it all kinds of insufferable detox and diet guff. We are bombarded with it through every possible medium. I angrily deleted a promotional email from Twinings Tea yesterday - a company I love dearly - because it just happened to be the 20,000th time I’d read the word ‘detox’ over the past fortnight, give or take a few. It seems that even if you’re not dieting, a term I detest with a passion, you are made to feel that you should be. It’s less a gentle poke at our insecurities and more a violent punch in the gut. In newspapers, magazines, in emails, on Twitter and on television, there are countless companies looking to make a fast buck off the back of our body image hang-ups and I absolutely refuse to pay them lip service. Apart from the guided weightloss companies, one of which emailed its members on Christmas Day to remind them to take it easy, diet based television is the most abhorrent, with The Biggest Loser at its helm. 

It makes no sense to me that January happens to be the time that everyone aims to diet. At Christmas we eat too much rich food we wouldn’t normally buy. That is just one of the reasons that Christmas food is so wonderful. It’s something to look forward to. It’s a four-week indulgence that usually sees everyone gasping for a salad and tipping half-eaten tins of unwanted Quality Street soft centres in the bin by the end of the month. It’s a process that happens naturally. By not continuing to eat Christmas food in January, we automatically return to normal eating. There is no need for extreme starvation and glorified laxatives wrapped in clinical detox labels.  

My greatest frustration is the way in which so many perfectly healthy foods are demonised. There is a maddening misconception that ‘diet food’ is good for your body. Flora Cuisine, for example, is touted by Vernon Kay and his mother as better for you than olive oil, because olive oil has 40% more saturated fat than this revolutionary product. Low-fat foods aren’t necessarily better for you and it’s been advised than sudden detoxing can put unnecessary and sometimes dangerous strain on the body. The health benefits of extra-virgin olive oil in particular have been accepted by nutritionists for years. A quick look at the ingredients on the back of a Flora Cuisine bottle list Polysorbate 60, Potassium Sorbate and flavourings. But hey, as long as it’s low-fat, right? The Mediterranean diet, of which olive oil is a staple, is thought to be one of the healthiest in the world. I have just begun reading A Year in the Village of Eternity by Tracey Lawson, which recalls a year spent in an Italian town where the residents’ astonishing life expectancy has been put down to their diet and lifestyle. 

In Britain we have an obsession with fat and self-imposed food deprivation, which can often lead to unhealthy yoyo dieting. The real focus should be balance and general good health. The first Masterchef Australia winner, Julie Goodwin, wrote a lovely piece on health and body image just a week ago.  Personally,  I’m nowhere near as fit as I used or want to be. I miss the gym more than I ever mention to others.  I cannot wait until my health allows me to return to my fitness routine. Of course I had days where I deliberately skipped it, but when you physically cannot do the same things anymore, it changes how much you look forward to doing them again in the future. You really don’t appreciate what your body can do until it’s broken. When so many of your heroes are athletes, there is immense personal sadness in watching your strong muscles gradually (if only temporarily) soften and lose their tension. I inherited my mother’s diminutive height but my father’s broadness. When I had to stop going to the gym I was considering taking weight training rather more seriously, inspired by Michaela Breeze. Skinniness never appealed to me, just health and strength.  

Throughout this period of illness and restriction, I can honestly say that I never once allowed it to damage my very happy relationship with food and cooking. If anything, the bond is even stronger. In my younger and more foolish days, when I assumed that a lifetime of dieting was the norm, I never took on a single diet in which I did not feel utterly miserable. When I did the Atkins diet for a few painful weeks, I genuinely think the extreme lack of sugar made me depressed. I remember bursting into tears after eating dinner one night and not knowing why. I was hungry, I had low blood sugar and I was sad, but I managed to turn my mood around completely within days of dropping Atkins. I’m pretty sure that’s when I realised that the whole diet industry was utter madness. 

As a cook, I feel that the infatuation with low-fat and low-sugar sacrifices flavour and the freedom to cook without constraint. For me, working with food is one of the most exciting things you can do. It never gets boring. Every new month brings different seasonal ingredients that open up a whole new set of possibilities that can be as healthy as you want them to be. Food is a gift to be enjoyed, not to be put on the naughty step while a boney finger wags at it.  Maybe once we learn to love and respect food the way they do on the continent, the penny might drop that we’re doing it all wrong.

Note: I'm creating an archive of articles on relationships with and attitudes towards food for a future project - both positive and negative, but especially positive. I'd be interested in any links you may come across.  

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