Fat chance

 

I am always adamant that January is no time to start a punishing diet or fitness regime, no matter what the scales might be telling us. It is cold, it is dark, there is an inevitable crash after the excitement of Christmas, and spring is still a long way off. This year, for good measure, Donald Trump has just become leader of the free world. Seriously, this is not a good time to give up chocolate, cake and wine – they may be the only things which get us through. I love my blogger pal Mostly Yummy Mummy’s latest post on how to take care of yourself and create your own sunshine this January –  wise words indeed.

However. Despite all this sensible advice I give myself, diets, dieting, fitness regimes and weightloss plans are everywhere in January, and and it is very hard not to be drawn into feelings of panic and insecurity. Especially when you managed to lose half a stone slowly and painfully over the autumn before putting it all back on again in December.

I’ve blogged about my relationship with my weight before. I’m not hugely over-weight, but I put on a gargantuan 4.5 stone when I was pregnant with Sophia and now, shortly after her second birthday, I’m still 1.5 stone heavier than I was when I got pregnant. I have no desire to conform to media expectations of what women should look like, and I know that realistically I am far too greedy to ever make it to a size 10 or below. But this extra weight pushes my BMI into the borders of the ‘overweight’ category, and takes my waist measurement to dangerously near what the NHS considers to be the ‘at risk’ zone for health problems. I’ve also got some really nice clothes which no longer quite fit. Losing that extra baby-weight (I’m sticking to this definition, rather than the possibly more accurate ‘chocolate brownie’ weight), would take me from my current top end of a size 14 to my former comfortable size 12, and I would prefer that for lots of reasons. Not least being that if I continue to put on half a stone every Christmas and fail to lose it, it won’t be long before I have a very big problem indeed.

So what do I do? One half of my brain is telling me to bite the bullet, enrol in Slimming World or Weightwatchers, endure three months of restricted eating to lose 2lbs a week, and then job done. The other, possibly more sensible part, is telling me that I am nearly thirty-six and I need to grow up and make peace with my relationship with food.

Apparently something like 95% of diets don’t work, in the sense of losing weight and keeping it off long term. That’s not a very encouraging statistic. If you told me a new washing machine had only a 5% chance of still working in three years time I very much doubt I’d buy it.

I no longer believe that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, in fact I think that’s an unhelpful distinction to make. Obviously there is more nutritional value in a tomato than a Creme Egg, but a sugary chocolate egg doesn’t have a moral value. Eating it doesn’t make you bad, any more than resisting it makes you good. I’m sceptical about organised diet programmes which penalise eating avocado or olive oil and promote sugar-free jelly or FryLight spray.

What I do believe is that I eat for positive reasons – because I’m hungry, because it tastes nice, because it’s fun to share a meal with friends or family, because I want to give my body fuel and energy, but also for negative ones – because I am lonely, bored, angry, tired, stressed or miserable. One of the reasons I have struggled to lose  weight recently is that I have spent quite a lot of time in the past couple of years being lonely, bored, angry, tired, stressed or miserable. Sometimes all simultaneously.

Hopefully things are improving. Sophia settling into pre-school gives me a better balance between full-time mothering and some time and space for myself. After a series of sessions with a psychologist I am coping much better with the PTSD and anxiety I was suffering from. And by and large (fingers crossed) Sophia is sleeping pretty well, ergo so am I. We won’t talk about the recent cold which caused her to wake up pretty much every hour on the hour screaming “Mummmeeee, where are youuuuu?”.

I don’t really want to ‘do a diet’. Partly because I’m not convinced it’s the best route, for me, to what I want, which is long-term good health and healthy habits. Partly because young girls are very vulnerable to developing poor body image, and at nearly eight Anna is extremely shrewd and observant, and I don’t think that watching mummy weigh out her Special K every morning sends a particularly positive message. And partly because I am feeding a family which includes a growing toddler, an energetic school girl and a husband with a metabolism the speed of light who has a tendency to lose weight if he gets stressed, something which happens a fair amount when you’re starting a new business. Just because I have the metabolism of a depressed slug and a tendency to eat family sized bars of Dairy Milk when I get stressed is no reason they should all suffer, and I certainly can’t be bothered cooking endless separate meals, or watching them tuck into homemade sausage and mash while I munch away on a low-cal ready meal.

But equally not being ‘on a diet’ can’t be a carte blanche to eat everything I want. Unfortunately I just want to eat too much of lots of things! I don’t want to calorie count or weigh food or ban entire food groups, but I can’t eat as many sweet treats as I would like to and avoid putting on weight and becoming unhealthy. So my plan is something like this:

  1. Eat three balanced meals a day.
  2. Watch the amount of carbs, especially high GI ones like white pasta and potatoes.
  3. Limit sweet snacks between meals to once a day. I know a lot of people would say once a week, but I’m trying to be realistic.
  4. Wait until I’m hungry, don’t eat for the sake of eating or because it’s expected.
  5. Get a pedometer and walk as much as possible, at least the recommended 10,000 steps a day, but more whenever possible.
  6. If I fall off the wagon, don’t write the whole day off and think that because I had a pain au chocolat for breakfast this is now a reason to think sod it all and have chips for lunch, pizza for dinner and an entire tub of Ben and Jerry’s as an afternoon snack.
  7. Give myself 6 months doing this, and if I’m gradually losing weight, great, and if not then think again.
  8. Put these aims on my blog so that I can’t wiggle out of them.

Oh, and maybe not start until February…

scales

Happy January!

No, the title of this blog isn’t a contradiction in terms. I admit that January isn’t always the easiest month to love, but, if you persevere then you will discover its good points.

I am still basking in a warm glow created by the happiest Christmas I have had for years. Possibly since I was a child myself. It was perfect. No-one was ill, no-one argued, no-one cried. The presents I had chosen for others were well-received, and the presents chosen for me were delightful. We saw family and friends, sang carols round the Christmas tree, went to the circus, snuggled up with new books or DVDs, ate a ridiculously huge amount of delicious food, drank fizz at lunchtime (not every day) and I even got a couple of lie-ins.

I was worried that such a lovely Christmas would make the return to normal this week particularly painful, but it really hasn’t. I think the secret of a contented January is to be nice to yourself. It is a mystery to me why people choose this month to start an extreme diet or a gruelling exercise regime or to dip a toe into teetotalism. I mean, seriously. This is already a month where finances and waistlines are likely to be tight, which involves getting up in the dark every single day, and which is a long, long way from the next holiday. Please don’t make things more unpleasant for yourself.

I admit that I am trying to cut back on eating chocolate with every single meal and several times in between as well. Twice a day is probably sufficient. And we’re all going vegetarian for the week this week, but that is mainly because that is the food I fancy right now, after eating goodness knows how many pigs’ worth of bacon, sausage and ham over the last few weeks. My Christmas dinner contained processed pork in no less than four different forms – sausage meat stuffing, crispy bacon over the top of the turkey, sausages to accompany the turkey and pancetta with the sprouts. But the veggie food this week is about comfort rather than self-denial. On Monday I made a potato, mushroom and parmesan gratin which we had with tomato and avocado salad. Last night was big bowls of warming lentil and spinach daal. Tonight is Turkish style baked eggs, and tomorrow veggie chilli with homemade guacamole. When I’ve run out of energy and inspiration on Friday we’ll probably have pasta with some kind of tomatoey sauce containing any veg still left in the fridge. And cheese. And garlic bread.

The house looked a little bit bare after the decorations came down, so I treated myself to some fresh flowers, and decided to try a little de-cluttering.flowers Anna was off school for an inset day on Monday, so we spent the day clearing and sorting. After a successful cake sale in the autumn to raise money to help refugees, Anna’s next project (decided on by her) is to hold a jumble sale in our front garden in the spring. We’ve already filled four nappy boxes with outgrown toys and clothes and unloved books and knickknacks, and it has never been easier to persuade Anna to part with things she never plays with but develops a sudden violent affection for when I tentatively suggest they should go. Much to my delight, Anna then decided she wanted to play at being a cleaner, so I gave her a duster and off she went.

Yesterday I spent two hours doing an extremely tedious but necessary financial spring clean, which was soul-destroying at the time, but gives me a great feeling of self-satisfaction now it’s done.

I’ve also given my blog a little New Year makeover. I needed to take the Christmas theme down, and much as I love the cupcakes I had previously, it suddenly didn’t feel quite right to go back to, and I tried to find something slightly fresher and crisper – what do you think?

ancient houseFinally, although I know I won’t be saying this by March, I am rather enjoying the colder weather for now. It’s still not really cold for January, but at least I can now justify one of the snuggly cashmere cardis I smugly purchased in the spring sales and which have been sitting, loved but unneeded, in my drawer ever since. Walking through Walthamstow Village this morning also reminded me just how beautiful January can be. Just as long as you don’t try to give up chocolate!

The Food of Love

I love food. No big secret there. I spend a very large proportion of my waking hours either shopping for food, cooking, eating or thinking about what I want to buy, cook or eat.

The last couple of months, though, have challenged this love somewhat. Sophia is now eating three meals a day (and by ‘eating’ I am using the baby definition, which actually means throwing to the floor or smearing as widely as possible across face, hair, clothes and anyone unwise enough to be in her vicinity), and so in addition to all the other family meals I have to think about what she is going to eat. If there’s one thing hungry babies don’t like, it is mummy vanishing into the kitchen to spend ages cooking, so Sophia’s food needs to be planned and preferably cooked in advance.

My husband and I have always eaten separately from Anna during the week. There are several reasons. One is that my husband is almost never home before 7pm, often much later, and, in my opinion anyway, that is far too late for a young child to be eating and going to bed. There is the option of me eating with Anna and husband eating alone later, but that would still be two  separate meals, and it is not something we’ve seriously considered as we both feel that taking the time to sit down together for a proper meal, sometimes a glass of wine, and really catching up on each other’s days, however dramatic or mundane those days have been, is a real cornerstone of our marriage. I sit at the table with Anna, and chat to her, and sometimes have a snack to keep me going until dinner at 8.30pm, but I am always glad to have that adult time to look forward to. Another, more prosaic, reason for our decision is that we (especially I!) love spicy food. Rarely a week goes by without us eating Thai. Indian or Mexican style food, and Anna has made it abundantly clear that she is not a fan, and I’m not prepared to give up my curries in the interests of a family meal.

My plan was (and is) that now Anna and Sophia can now eat their evening meals together. This is working a lot of the time, but they’re not always eating the same food, so often I’m cooking separately for them. Sometimes this is because Sophia is still on a strict(ish) no salt, no sugar regime, and I don’t want to deprive Anna of reasonable treats for the sake of eating the same as her sister. Sometimes Anna has eaten a big school lunch and only wants a sandwich. And sometimes I want to take advantage of the fact that Sophia is yet to develop an intolerance for green veg and cram as much spinach and broccoli into her as I can before she decides they’re inedible. Anna has been of that view since she was about fourteen months. Meals I have discovered which work for both of them are eggy bread, beans on toast, macaroni cheese, pasta with tomato and veg sauce, baked potatoes, and chilli (without the hot spices). I’m working on increasing that repertoire, but in the meantime, a standard day can see me making porridge and toast for breakfast (having previously batch cooked the granola my husband eats), then something for mine and Sophia’s lunch, then a snack for Anna when she gets home from school, then an evening meal for Sophia, an evening meal for Anna and an evening meal for us. Throw in a play date guest, or a bake sale at school, or an ungovernable yearning for chocolate brownies, and you can see why I’m never out of the kitchen.

I still love food and cooking. I love the sense of nurturing and providing for my family. And I am thankful daily that we are lucky enough to be able to afford plenty of good, safe, nutritious food and the fuel to cook it with. But. But. Sometimes it just all feels so relentless. It’s not just the cooking, it’s planning it, and making sure we’ve got the ingredients in stock, and then clearing the kitchen, loading and unloading the dishwasher, picking up the discarded food from under the table and wiping everything clean, washing the filthy bibs and muslins and mopping up the spilt milk. There is a certain, inescapable, amount of drudgery involved, and it can be difficult not to feel overwhelmed by it, and lately I have been.

cinnamon bunsOn Sunday, though, I surprised myself by trying a new and fairly complicated recipe for cinnamon swirl bins, just for the fun of it. I’d got the recipe from Jenny Colgan’s novel The Little Beach Street Bakery (if there’s one thing I love more than a good chick lit novel, it’s a chick lit novel with ace recipes in it!), and I was a little trepidatious because dedicated viewing of the Great British Bake Off has taught me that sweetened, enriched doughs can be very tricky. I could almost see the sceptical look on Paul Hollywood’s face. But, do you know what, they worked! They were absolutely delicious if I do say so myself. Their appearance could probably be tactfully described as rustic, and I may have been a bit heavy handed with the icing (although no one complained), but they tasted incredible – so much nicer than anything similar you can buy. Along with an omelette they made a fantastic lazy Sunday brunch which we all enjoyed (I stretched the no sugar rule sufficiently to give Sophia a taste), and I rediscovered my love for pottering in the kitchen. Perhaps simply because they weren’t an essential meal it made baking them all the more enjoyable. The food I make generally comes out of love for my family, but it was nice to reignite my own love of food too.

Weighing up the issue

I’m thrilled to have been asked to guest blog for the Huffington Post. This is my latest post for them:

Like many women, my attitude to my weight and body shape is fairly complicated. There are many factors influencing it – health, feminism, the desire to be attractive, the desire to eat cake, whether or not I’m about to meet up with someone I haven’t seen for a few years – but really it comes down to a constant tension between two polar opposite ethoses which play out in my head thus:

Day One – I pull on my jeans. They feel a bit tight. I reflect regretfully on last night’s pizza, half bottle of wine and half tub of Ben & Jerry’s. I am seized with a conviction that this is not the way to treat my body. My body is a temple. You are what you eat. The way to happiness (and slimness) is suddenly blindingly apparent. I should cut down on sugar, alcohol and other refined carbs. I should increase the amount of fish, seafood, fruit and vegetables I eat. I should avoid heavily processed, salty food. I should exercise regularly. My energy levels will increase, my skin will glow, my jeans will fit, and I won’t get Type 2 diabetes, bowel cancer, breast cancer, Alzheimer’s or CHD. What’s not to like about that?

Days Two, Three, Four and Five – Wow, this really works; I’m so glad I’m the kind of woman who takes care of herself. What delicious recipes I’m discovering. My stomach is flatter, my skin is clear and my energy levels really are soaring. There can be nothing tastier than fresh grilled fish and a huge salad dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. And that endorphin rush after going for a run or a swim, it’s unbeatable.

Day Six – Yuk, it’s cold and rainy today. What I need is an afternoon in the comfort of my own warm kitchen. I’ll bake cupcakes with my daughter. I’ll put a delicious beef and red wine casserole on to simmer, and serve it later with mounds of buttery mashed potato. Syrup sponge and custard would go down a treat after that as well. Yummy. Oh, but hang on a minute. What about the that healthy living malarkey? The reasons for thinking that was a good idea are suddenly obscure. I’m not one of these health food fascists. I am a cook and a foodie. I am a woman with curves. I’m not a whinging calorie counter, I’m a live life to the full kinda gal. And I’m definitely not going to become anaemic through iron deficiency, or get osteoporosis through calcium deficiency. Bring on the pudding!

Days Seven, Eight, Nine and Ten – I’m so glad I’m not one of those women who obsess about their weight all the time. What amazing recipes there are in the world. Hmm, should I make chilli or risotto for dinner tonight? There can be nothing tastier than organic bacon from our local butcher, nestled between two slices of homemade white bread, slathered with butter and a smear of brown sauce. And the endorphin rush of sinking into a hot bubble bath with a good book and a glass of wine, it’s unbeatable.

Day Nine – I pull on my jeans. They feel a bit tight…*and repeat, ad infinitum*

The thing is, when a lot of people fall off the healthy eating wagon, they do it consciously. “Oh, I really shouldn’t have this slice of chocolate cake, I’m trying to be good. Never mind, salad for supper.”, whereas I manage somehow to convince myself that not eating the chocolate cake would be tantamount to denying my whole personality, and so I should eat it with relish, and then enjoy steak frites for dinner into the bargain. Then a few days later, I genuinely feel that fresh fruit is all I want for pudding, I know that anything else will make me sluggish and lethargic all afternoon, and that seems genuinely undesirable.

And this internal debate is inextricably linked with my vision of femininity, how I perceive myself as a woman, and how I want the world to react to me. I have my Gwyneth moments (well, sort of) of feeling I exude a healthy glow, that I am setting a positive example of healthy living to my daughter, that I am enabling myself to get the most out of life by looking after my body. But I also have my Nigella moments (well, sort of) of feeling that I am healthily voluptuous, that I am setting a positive example of joie de vivre for my daughter, that I am enabling myself to get the most out of life by wholeheartedly embracing the sensual pleasure of amazing food.

One of the quotes which I always think of when I reflect on this issue is from Jennifer Weiner’s fabulous debut novel Good In Bed, when her heroine Cannie is finally able to accept her body shape:

“I will love myself, and my body, for what it can do- because it is strong enough to lift, to walk, to ride a bicyle up a hill, to embrace the people I love and hold them fully, and to nurture a new life. I will love myself because I am sturdy. Because I did not -will not- break.”

Which, funnily enough, seems to work whatever mindset I find myself in that day.

I’m still wishing, however, that I’d bought the sign I saw in a gift shop recently “Never trust a skinny cook’.