Food and health. If there was ever a subject more fraught, I’m not sure what it might be.
(On which subject, this article inspired today’s post, and if you do in fact have food and/or weight issues, neither this nor the article itself may be for you.)
I’m lucky in many ways; the vast majority of my interactions between food and health have been in regard to mental health. I’ve written before about my policy of food as self-care, and the way in which I can track my general mental-health by how regularly I’m cooking and how well I’m eating.
It wasn’t until my most recent temp role that I really had to deal with – on a day-to-day basis – just how dysfunctional a lot of people’s relationship is with food. Most other places I’d worked we had staggered lunches, or we were all skint so were all bringing leftovers for lunch. (Or for a while, they were all workaholics who ate lunch at their desk and rarely took a break.) But latterly I worked somewhere were my cheerful little packed lunches of soup or bagels or leftovers were a subject of fascination. My colleagues seemed to be always on diets. Restricting themselves to a greater or lesser extent in a constant quest for a smaller dress size or a beach body. (There always seemed to be a next ‘thing’ to lose weight for: the next holiday or wedding or dress.) I used to swim before work twice a week, a habit I took up – and gradually built up to – after I stopped playing roller derby and could feel my already dodgy joints seizing up from my sedentary job. Apparently not wanting to seize up wasn’t enough of a reason for the exercise, but as I’d taken to motivating myself for my early morning swims with the promise of a nice coffee and a muffin breakfast afterwards, I found an explanation they could understand. I like cake, since turning thirty I don’t burn calories like I used to so it was either give up cake or take up exercise.
Complete nonsense of course, but it kept people off my back about it. In fact, when I did find myself drifting out of the healthy weight range a couple of years ago – and really I was more concerned that my favourite dress was uncomfortably tight – the dietary change I made the most difference was changing from full-fat to semi-skimmed milk and making my pasta bakes with more vegetables and less pasta. But then, lots of people don’t want to hear that small sustainable changes over a long period make more impact than big dramatic restrictive changes that you can’t possible sustain. The only people I know who’ve cut whole food groups out of their diets and sustained that are vegetarians – who generally cut down and then out types of meat over time before going the whole hog – or people who’ve developed/discovered food allergies or intolerances who are sustained by the sudden relief from the side-effects of the food group in question. And even they have the occasional wobbles when faced with a former favourite – looking at you prawn crackers – or when it’s follow the rules or go hungry.
One of my colleagues is mildly dairy-intolerant, something I only discovered because we’d been working on an Outside Broadcast and he was looking a bit ropey at breakfast the following morning. We’d had a late post-work dinner the previous evening so I knew he hadn’t been drinking – he doesn’t drink as a general rule – but he approached that morning’s breakfast with all the wariness of the queasily hung-over. Cheese, he confessed later, he loved the stuff but it did not love him, and occasionally he would risk the consequences for the sake of a tasty dinner.
The obsession with calorie counts seems both baffling and counterproductive to me. I have a clear memory of reading Bridget Jones’ Diary as a teenager and her friend Tom pointing out to her that her standard calorie count – both the one she aimed for and the one she normally achieved – were lower than the amount that you’re medically supposed to need each day. The only time she actually reached her fabled ‘ideal’ weight, everyone kept telling her she looked ill. Whatever other problems those books might have, I owe Helen Fielding a lot for giving teenage me a big flashing arrow to point out what nonsense the whole dance was. And yet, increasingly I see calorie counts everywhere. They seem utterly counter-productive; I can’t help but feel that if you’re picking your sandwich by whether it has 20 less calories than the other one, you’ve got bigger problems going on. And frankly if I’m having the kind of day where treating myself to a coffee and cream confection is the only way to improve it, the calorie count is the last thing on my mind. And frankly it’s the kind of thing that makes me ask for extra whip.
I don’t believe in mixing guilt and food. Even when it comes to being a vegetarian I try to avoid falling into that trap of pointless self-flagellation. I try not to worry about the trace ingredients – I may make sure that the hard Italian chees I buy for my own cooking is vegetarian, but I’m not going to interrogate the waitress at the Italian restaurant about whether that’s authentic parmesan she’s offering me. (A Mint Aero is a guilty pleasure to me, not because of the chocolate itself, but because Nestle have a bunch of unethical business practices I prefer not to condone, but they’ve also cornered the market in decent mint milk chocolate.) The bad food of the month will change just as surely as the weather; all we can do is eat the best we can with the resources available to us. I’ve known skinny people who ate terribly and have sundry health issues and fat people who are athletes with excellent diets, and I know exactly which of them are getting hassled by their GP.
Food should be pleasurable; you should feel better after you’ve eaten than before. (At the very least, less hungry.) If you don’t there’s a problem. If it’s your only pleasure then that’s a different problem. But in the end it’s usually a symptom of another ill – whether physical, mental or social. And those we can only fix gradually and carefully over time. But we can start, by being kinder about food and bodies, both to ourselves and to each other.