“Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food” – Michael Pollen (Food Rules)
So, yes, I have been deliberately avoiding telling you exactly what I mean by “healthy eating” and explaining the seemingly random selection process by which recipes end up on this blog. It’s partly because I am still figuring it out, partly because it meant writing this looooong post but mainly because it’s such a controversial subject and you are all absolutely sick to death with hearing about what healthy eating means. Average edition of a UK newspaper at the moment? Eat like a Japanese person! Don’t feed your kids fruit! Sugar is going to KILL YOU (let’s just gloss over the fact that those Japanese folk eat a lot of it). And while you are here, have a look at our 8 page colour pullout on chocolate cake from Mary Berry!! Seriously, it’s bonkers. Random, inconsistent and, in some cases, deliberately half truthful assertions dressed up as science.
I am not going to pretend that I have not, in the past, been a total sucker for most of the healthy eating fads out there. I have been wheat-free, had intolerance tests done, read up on ‘alkaline’ and anti-inflammatory foods, researched the pitfalls of dairy, followed low-calorie diets (I lasted 6 hours on the Atkins) and spent a fortune on supplements derived from third world tree bark. I have launched into gluten and dairy free diets, switched to almond milk and made inedible biscuits with random flour and alternative sugar substitutions. Because that’s terribly fashionable isn’t it? It isn’t really very cool just to eat more vegetables and a bit less cake. That’s not a thing that they are writing about in Vogue. Much better to have gone ‘alkaline’ because you read somewhere that it’s what they’re all doing do in LA.
Of course, though, none of these new fangled ways of eating stuck and I’d fall back into the same old habits through lack of time to experiment with new things and an absence of any real motivation (I wasn’t particularly overweight or actually allergic to any of these things). Plus, the endless stream of raw cheesecakes, smoothie and bee pollen breakfast bowls and quinoa, sweet potato and kale salads that were churned out on the ‘clean’ eating websites and Instagram feeds I was looking to for inspiration were as expensive as they were dull.
I love cooking and food too much to eat like that every day, particularly when in my heart of hearts I couldn’t really explain why I was doing it. My starting point with everything that I eat is that I have to want to eat it. I think food, and eating, is about so much more than fuel and nutrients. I am not going to launch into some saccharine diatribe about it being about family, and culture, and tradition and whatever but I think you know what I am on about. You are reading a food blog rather than doing your work after all. But I also knew that our diet could be better (I cooked from scratch 4-5 nights a week but was a terrible vegetable dodger and lived mostly on croissants, toast, meat and pasta) and needed to find some middle ground between the endless chilli con carne and the unappetising quinoa patties with tofu dressing.
And then I read Food Rules by the American journalist Michael Pollan and had something of an epiphany. It was the most sensible thing I had read about food in as long as I could remember. It was the anti-diet. Nothing prohibited. No nutrition pseudo-science. Pollan is hugely skeptical as to the value of “nutrition science” in helping us decide how to eat – a science which has been around for less than 200 years, putting it where surgery was in around 1650. Promising, definitely interesting but safe? He rails against othorexia, the unhealthy but growing obsession healthy eating and seeing food only as a series of nutrients. What he believes, and with which I wholeheartedly agree because I am as guilty of it as the next person, is that we have totally lost sight of the straightforward common sense food wisdom that has managed to keep humans alive for the last few million years. What we have forgotten is that we used to rely on our mothers and grandmothers to tell us how to eat properly, rather than scientists, governments, manufacturers and food marketers.
Now, unfortunately, I do need to tell you what happens at the end of the book. SPOILER! He takes everything he has found in his research and comes up with one simple mantra for eating better:
Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants.
The book then contains a series of ‘rules’, many taken from his reader’s submissions, to give some context to the main principles (e.g. eat only foods that will eventually rot. Don’t eat cereal that changes the colour of the milk. Eat animals that have themselves eaten well. Some genius submitted – “only one meat per pizza” but it sadly didn’t make the cut). I made my husband read it and, for the first time ever, we were totally agreed on how we should be eating as a family. It costs less than a fiver. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.
As much as I could talk all day to anybody about this little book, you will definitely stop reading and never come back if I don’t move this on sharpish. So, instead, I am going to oversimplify horribly some of the more important bits from his book below. Or you can just click here to skip to the bit below where I tell you about the “rules” we now try and follow at home and whether it has been working (and yes, whether we’ve lost weight – that’s what you really want to know isn’t it?)
- The modern Western diet is failing us. Levels of obesity and chronic illnesses are far more prevalent in populations where the Western diet (i.e lots of processed food, meat, refined grains, added fat and sugar and lots of everything except whole grains and vegetables) is the norm.
- We have become obsessed with looking for the one single culprit. It used to be saturated fat, today it’s sugar. Or is it Omega-6 oils? Or refined carbohydrates?
- In truth, a HUGE variety of ‘traditional’ diets are followed around the world – all of which are resulting in significantly better public health outcomes than ours. Pollan cites the extreme examples of the Inuit in Greenland who exist almost entirely on super high fat seal blubber, South America where the staple diet is carbohydrate (rice and beans) and the Masai who eat a high protein diet of meat, milk and cattle blood. But the same goes for other populations following ‘traditional’ diets too: the Japanese (who have very low obesity levels and one of the longest life expectancies in the world) eat bucket loads of white rice, use sugar prevalently in their cooking but eat tons more more fish and vegetables than the average Briton or American. Iceland, who scrape in just behind the Japanese for life expectancy, consume loads of dairy products. And then, of course, there is the so-called French paradox – all those baguettes, steak, cheese and red wine and a relatively low incidence of coronary diseases.
- There is therefore quite evidently no ideal single human diet. Hardly surprising when you consider that we evolved as omnivores, after all.
- What is the difference between these traditional diets and ours? The prevalence of processed foods, mainly. Hence part 1 of Pollan’s ‘mantra’ – eat food. Real, whole food. Food that your great-grandmother would recognise as food. Food that isn’t made in a factory, that doesn’t contain endless lists of ingredients, or ingredients that an 8 year old can’t pronounce.
- The one thing that doctors and nutritionists seem to agree on is that eating plants, particularly vegetables, is good for you. Sure, nobody agrees as to why plants are good for you (might be the antioxidants, might be the fibre, might be because it’s Thursday) but I think we are all pretty clear now that they are probably good for you, might even be exceptionally good for you and certainly aren’t bad for you (well, vegetables at least, the debate about fruit rages on).
- Most studies show that vegetarians do, on average, live longer and are less prone to chronic illnesses than those who eat large amounts of meat (the average American eats more than half a pound of meat per day) but there is very little evidence to show that flexitarians (who eat meat a few times a week) aren’t just as healthy. Hence he says mostly plants, not exclusively.
- Chocolate brownies and their friends are fine too, just not every day. You know, use a bit of common sense. He refers to the “S Policy”: snacks, sweets and seconds on days beginning with S only.
- It’s important not to obsess about healthy eating and to break the rules sometimes.Everything in moderation, including moderation and all that.
- Drink wine with dinner. He is clearly a wise man.
Our Food Rules
These are the ‘rules’ (and I use that word in the vaguest sense) that we try and follow during the week. We eat whatever we like at the weekend. We don’t always manage it each week by any means. There are plenty of days where I can’t face cooking at 7pm and we get a takeaway or an M&S stick in the oven thing, or when I take my son to Pizza Express because I can’t be bothered to clear up after his tea. But these occasions are much fewer and far between than they used to be (we probably ate takeout/ready meals 2-3 nights a week before). It is about progress rather than perfection after all…
- Processed Food: Pretty much been entirely ditched, with some exceptions. Cooking from scratch with things that are minimally refined and look like they did when they were in the wild (or looked like that when they arrived at the butchers or fishmongers at least) is really the foundation of our new ‘regime’ and is the easiest way to avoid the added sugars, fat and additives etc that creep into processed food and ready meals (yes, even the M&S ones with the fancy packaging – the sugar and cream/butter levels in a lot of them are quite surprising). One big exception is sauces/condiments – I really don’t have the time or inclination to start making my own tomato ketchup, hoisin or chilli sauce (particularly as, by definition, it won’t keep that long) however much I am told how many ‘nasties’ go into them. I am not talking about those jars of pasta sauces or packet stir fry sauces – I don’t buy those and do make my own concoctions instead – but I really can’t get terribly excited about a bit of ketchup here or there or a squirt of chilli sauce. They are really small amounts in the grand scheme. And I am happy for my son to eat them too. Shoot me.
Carbohydrates: Still the lynchpin of our diet, albeit that Monday to Friday they are of the brown rather than white variety. I don’t really have a problem with wheat in and of itself but, like everything, try and make sure we don’t eat it three times a day (something that is otherwise actually extremely easy to do, particularly when feeding a 2 year old) so have made more of an effort to make sure bread and pasta is mixed up with brown rice, rye bread/crackers, corn tacos, lentils, spelt and pearl barley. (If you are looking for a wholewheat pasta that really doesn’t taste ‘brown’ look out for the Integrale range from Barilla. It is brilliant – it has lots of fibre but you would not know it is wholewheat and our son transitioned to it without batting an eyelid and now is perfectly happy to eat whatever brown pasta I can find). I do still eat white pasta – sometimes, like for a carbonara or other more delicate sauce, wholewheat really won’t do – but that is usually on weekends now.
Bread: Yes, I know bread is a carbohydrate but I think it deserves a special mention as people can be really weird about it. Unquestionably, scoffing down loads of sliced bread that you don’t have to chew more than once before swallowing isn’t that great for you. And a quick look at the ingredient list on a pack of supermarket bread is quite eye-opening. Bread is flour, salt, yeast and water. Most supermarket sliced bread has 3 times that number of ingredients. Real bread – the stuff you have to really crunch into and chew (thus starting the digestion process), that fills you up when you have had one slice rather than 3 – is still very much on our menu at home, albeit during the week it is at least 50% wholewheat or rye. Sliced bread has disappeared entirely so we only have it when I can be bothered to go to the bakery or make it myself (yeah, right) which has had a natural limiting effect, and we try and eat it when bread is an important part of the meal rather than just a default option for breakfast, lunch and snack time.
Fats: We don’t use processed fats like margarine or ‘spread’, and avoid hydrogenated and trans fats (found in many processed foods) like the plague. Anything called “low fat” is also out as most are industrially processed but more importantly have had the fat replaced with sugar or something else unpleasant. Beyond that I use a whole load of different fats. Butter is my default for baking and eating on toast, olive oil for low temperature sautéing, grapeseed oil, non-toasted sesame oil or ghee for high temperature frying and extra virgin olive oil, walnut and avocado oil for dressing salads etc. I didn’t until quite recently actually know about smoking points and oils becoming toxic when heated past it, so had for many years been using olive oil for roasting things at 230C and for high temperature frying. I am still not entirely clear on all that, and most online resources on it are contradictory, but I try to use grapeseed etc for stir-fries nowadays. I am in a early stage relationship with the apparent miracle that is unrefined coconut oil at the moment but remain unconvinced that it is as versatile as its (zealous) advocates make out. We’ll see.
Sugar: Yawn. Yes, its a big problem but the general hysteria that has grown around it since earlier this year is a bit much isn’t it? The WHO recommended that we (adults) cut our sugar intake to 12 tsp a day at most but ideally down to 6 tsp. That is major reduction for most people undoubtedly – 6 tsp might seem a lot but there are 8tsp in a Coke and 2.5 in a Pizza Express Margerita – and does require us all to become more sugar aware, particularly of hidden sugars in places we don’t expect to find it, and make some real changes. But suddenly everyone is going SUGAR FREE. The number of times I have read that I can’t possibly be trusted to reduce my own sugar intake and simply must go completely sugar free first to Break The Habit is staggering.
I have no idea precisely how many teaspoons I eat a day but I do know that, by knowing to look for it and having cut out most processed foods, it has already reduced dramatically and that my taste has already changed away from very sweet foods in the space of a month or two. I have been trying to switch to less refined sugars (such as rapadura, coconut palm etc) and sweeteners like maple syrup but that’s as much to do with the more general philosophy of looking for things in their least refined state, where some nutrients etc may have been preserved (maple syrup, for example, has zinc and manganese, caster sugar has zilch). Basically, it’s about a few sensible changes and moderation, isn’t it?
- Vegetables: The new frontier in our kitchen. I can’t pretend that I have found it very easy to make vegetables the focus of our meals, rather than a reluctant side dish, but I am forcing myself to do it and against all odds have not really found myself missing meat all that much. The real challenge in truth is finding ways to make vegetables main courses that don’t automatically equal pasta, risotto or vast amounts of cheese but the tide is definitely turning. I am a long way from being truly flexitarian (I fill a lot of the meat gap with fish) but vegetables are now the first thing that I shop for each week and I plan our dinners around them. I do try and eat seasonally but am realistic about not living in southern Italy and so, while I try and stick to what is in season in the UK, I don’t feel terribly bad about extending that to Europe if needs be. Peruvian asparagus in November is definitely out though. And I think “eat your colours” is a great rule for making sure you are getting a wide range of vitamins, mineral and other (whisper it) nutrients without really having to think about it.
Fruit: Tricky one. I find all the current thinking on fruit sugar utterly impenetrable and I don’t really know what to think from day to day. I definitely do think that we have an odd relationship with fruit sugar though – I know many people who won’t let their children eat a biscuit or a slice of cake but will let them suck down 4 of those Ella’s Kitchen fruit pouches a day. And I am sceptical as to whether all these raw food brownies made with 92 bananas and a cup of dates are in fact better than a cake with 50g of caster sugar in. A while ago we switched to granulated fruit sugar for day to day stuff (tea, baking etc.) as it was hailed as a wonderful low GI alternative. See also the miracle food agave syrup. And now it is thought that fructose, while better for diabetics because of its low glycaemic load, is terrible for us in other ways, particularly in liquid form. (Even poor old Gwyneth had to do a U-turn on agave in her second book when it transpired that most of what is on the market is heavily refined and no better for us that High Fructose Corn Syrup).
There is a chap called Professor Robert Lustig from the University of California who appears to be on a one man crusade to explain the dangers of fructose to the world, and a lot of people are taking him seriously – there is a lecture on YouTube that is fascinating, compelling and terrifying in equal measure and worth a watch if the subject interests you. But, whatever I read and hear, I just can’t quite believe yet that an apple is a bad thing for my son to be eating and it will take a lot more persuasion before we consider really limiting fruit. We do, partly through child preference, live at the lower sugar end anyway (apples, pears, berries rather than bananas, mango and grapes) and he (and we) eat it in its ‘natural’ state i.e. with all the fibre intact. Fruit juice has been vetoed (it took about a month of blaming the Ocado man and now we are over it). I have also tried to keep an eye on the small person not eating it after every meal (he is an avowed yoghurt avoider) and at every snack time but beyond that fruit is still on our list.
- Meat/Fish: Much easier this one. We eat fish twice a week now. And have cut meat down to 2-3 times a week, with at least one of those being chicken. It is all purchased from the butcher. I have often joked about chorizo or bacon just being a ‘seasoning’ but in fact that is exactly how we use it nowadays (very much like the Chinese, I understand). If a small amount of chorizo perks up a huge bowl of beans and vegetables or makes a baked pepper, tomato and egg dinner more exciting (and therefore ultimately more likely to get eaten regularly) then I think that makes it OK.
Dairy: I’ve bored you with this before. In short, we still eat it but I occasionally switch to nut milks for cereal or porridge for variety (too much of anything can’t be that great for you) and tend to lean towards sheep and goat’s cheeses more than cow, but that is largely a taste preference. I am fairly relaxed about saturated fat but I think common sense dictates against eating vast amounts of cheese and butter every day. We eat a lot more Asian food these days – big spicy flavours tend to detract from the absence of fat and sugar, and less dairy is a natural by-product of that.
Take-Aways: when we get them we get what we like. I’d love to pretend that I scour the menu looking for the healthier options and eat loads of vegetables rather than a Beef Rendang with coconut rice or a Chicken Tikka Masala with rice and a naan bread (and two poppodums. Please. 45 minutes? Great. Thank you). But I would be lying to you. We don’t eat take-aways much at all anymore and in my book that means that I should order what I actually want to eat, not what I think I should be ordering. None of it is really ‘healthy’ so you may as well enjoy it if you’re going to do it.
Is it easy? No, of course it isn’t. I have had to spend the last four months rethinking what I cook, searching for new recipes and cooking them enough that they begin to become my go-to dinners in place of my old favourites. To be able to stand in the supermarket vegetable section and know what I am going to make. Lunch is still a challenge but that’s another story (blogpost). Oh, and I have actually to cook. I can’t sit and watch Coronation Street at 7pm because I have to chop and slice and fry and whatever (while drinking wine, obviously). But if it were easy we’d all look like Jennifer Aniston wouldn’t we?
Does it work? Yes. I am not going to tell you that I suddenly look 18 again and that I leap out of bed every morning with boundless energy and never want a Kit Kat at 4pm. But overall I do have more energy, my blood sugar levels are definitely more stable and my skin is better. My palate is definitely changing – I ate a mars bars the other day and felt quite genuinely sick half way through (I still finished it, obviously). And I genuinely feel that we are a least making small steps towards something that is more environmentally sustainable, for whatever that is worth.
The weight thing? I don’t think that this way of eating is a ‘diet’ in that sense, but what I do know is that the last stubborn 5lbs of baby weight finally disappeared (in a matter of weeks) once we started doing this and I weigh now what I did when I was 25. (I’d obviously love to weigh what I did when I was 19 but I am not getting any younger and my face definitely could not withstand that kind of weight loss). People comment endlessly on how much healthier/slimmer my husband looks too. The most interesting thing? My weight stays entirely stable now – I can eat cake and pasta and roast chicken all weekend and have week-long splurges on holiday or over Easter and it does not change. (I feel I should add that I am old enough and wise enough to know that weight isn’t everything or even really a very important thing and I think that there is a lot to be said for Fit Not Thin as a proposition. But I think a lot of us – girls at least – would be lying if said we didn’t sometimes wish our jeans fitted just that little bit better).
If you have got this far, thank you for staying awake. Asparagus, Vietnamese Monkfish and more cake coming very soon!