Food Glorious Food!

This blog post is the second in my series based on Dr Chatterjee’s book The 4 Pillar Plan (How to Relax, Eat, Move, Sleep Your Way to a Longer, Healthier Life). My aim is to spend a month concentrating on each of the pillars Dr Chatterjee outlines in his book, and if you haven’t yet read the first part, please see And Relax….

For October, I focused on Eat.

This chapter – paying attention to improving your eating habits – was fascinating and packed with science too. This did make it a little overwhelming at points, but it was helpful to see an evidence base for Dr Chatterjee’s advice, and it was full of helpful suggestions of how to apply this knowledge. I will outline the five recommendations that the author makes, and discuss how I found each of them.

 

  1. Denormalise sugar (and retrain your taste buds)

I am not going to lie: this was the recommendation I was most daunted by! Dr Chatterjee argues that we have become addicted to sugar in our society, and so proposes that we need to break this addiction in order to live healthier lives. Indeed, he lists symptoms that may indicate an over reliance on sugar, and many of them felt all too familiar to me:

  • Concentration dropping mid-morning
  • Experiencing an afternoon slump
  • Feeling hungry – irritability between meals
  • Experiencing a huge boost in energy or fatigue after your meal
  • Feeling light-headed if you’re late for a meal

Feeling challenged, I decided to take heed of his guidance! His suggestion to only eat sugar three times a year felt a little drastic to me, but my friend’s suggestion- to cut all cake/ biscuits/ sweet treats from my diet- seemed more doable. I got prepared- making sure I had plenty of healthy snacks like fruit, veg and nuts in- and I considered healthy alternatives to the things I thought I’d miss most (for example Sweet Freedom Choc Shots only contain naturally occurring sugars so I thought this could replace my Cadbury’s hot chocolate!).

I was apprehensive about how we would make baking work, as this is an activity that we enjoy doing together as a family, but most things we make contain loads of sugar. However, we tried a few different things:

  • Energy balls (Recommended by a friend. When dusted with cocoa powder they went down a treat in our house.) 
  • Healthy apple crumble (the oat topping was delish, though this recipe does have maple syrup  in it, so is not strictly sugar free, though I’m sure naturally occurring sugars are better for you than refined ones!) 
  • Sugar-free banana bread (Though it smelt scrummy cooking, I did not enjoy this recipe, despite the dark chocolate chunks I added in as a compromise! However, the kids were less discerning than the adults and scoffed it down; clearly anything that resembles cake is a winner in their books!)

On the whole, I found it much easier to cut out sugary treats than I’d anticipated. There were only a couple of times that I struggled: once at a study day when instead of eating the delicious cake available I munched on nuts (and was aware people probably thought I was being ridiculously pretentious!), and another at my cousin’s wedding (Dr Chatterjee does condone sugar on special occasions so I broke my fast for this one; it would have been churlish to turn down a triple chocolate trifle!). However, one evening whilst I was commenting (perhaps smugly) on how well I was doing, a friend pointed out the glass of wine in my hand and reminded me that contained a lot of sugar! Touché.

The truth of the matter is that if I was going to properly give up sugar it’d be much tougher. I’d have to do without bread, pasta and cereal. Indeed, I did try giving up processed cereal, but quickly got bored of porridge, and tended instead to substitute cereal with fruit, yoghurt and seeds (but fruit is still packed with sugars, albeit natural ones!).

That said, the second half of Dr Chatterjee’s recommendation is to retrain your taste buds, and I definitely feel that my experiment has done that. Since October- and my associated sugar fast- finished, I have allowed myself to indulge in several sweet treats, but I can honestly say that I don’t think my life would have felt any less without them! I was über aware of how sweet they all tasted, and after munching through bowl of peanut butter fudge popcorn with my husband on Saturday evening, I felt somehow unclean! I also haven’t had my usual cravings for pain au chocolate on a Saturday morning! So, I think I will continue to try to denormalise sugar, though I won’t be legalistic about it. Not because I have to, but because I want to. And surely anything to reduce your chances of getting Type 2 Diabetes has got to be a good thing…

 

2) Eat 5 different vegetables every day

Dr Chatterjee proposes this as an alternative to the government recommendation of 5 fruit and veg a day, because he comments that we often fall back on fruit to make up the five, yet fruit simply isn’t as healthy for you as vegetables. The theory behind his guidance makes sense: by increasing the amount of vegetables we eat we are diversifying our microbiome (gut bug flora), which in turn improves our health and immune system. However, I still felt a bit uncertain as to how to make sure we ate 5 vegetables a day (and this is despite generally eating only vegetarian food at home). And further still, ensuring the vegetables reflect the colours of the rainbow, to increase the variety.

I haven’t consistently managed it, but I certainly have introduced more vegetables into our diet by:

  • Buying more cucumber, carrots, tomatoes and hummus so we can have that as a regular snack.
  • Buying olives to eat as a snack.
  • Buying beetroots and avocados each week to supplement my lunch.
  • Having veg on the side of our main dish (previously we would have had cauliflower macaroni cheese on its own, but this week we had it with courgettes and peas, for example).
  • Blending up vegetables to make pasta sauces (spinach, pea and cheese, vegetable bolognese and Jamie’s 7 veg tomato sauce have all gone down well).

I felt one of the author’s suggestions was a bit unrealistic: have two vegetables with each meal. I’m genuinely baffled by how you can manage this with breakfast?! One day we had poached eggs with sautéed spinach and crushed avocados, and it was delicious, but I have neither the time- nor inclination- to make this every morning. Any good ideas about how to implement this one, folks?!

3) Eat all food within a 12 hour window

Apparently having a micro-fast within a 24 hour period is particularly good for your health, as after around 12 hours with no food, the process of autophagy happens. Dr Chatterjee describes autophagy in this way:

‘It’s your body sorting out its mess and busying itself with cellular repair, immune system repair and a host of other essential maintenance projects’

I did not need to make any changes to implement this recommendation; generally I eat within a 10 hour period. However, I did need to exercise will power when my husband got his cheese board out at around 9pm each night! (Jon’s always peckish by then as we tend to eat pretty early with the kids, and he is not as inclined to follow Dr Chatterjee’s advice as me! Plus, he’s a sucker for cheese and chutney, and our friend owns a company that delivers delicious cheese packages to your home. Darn you, The Welsh Cheese Company!).

 

4) Drink 8 glasses of water a day

Ditto the above; I tend to drink a lot of water as it is. Especially now I am trying to keep any UTIs at bay following my recent introduction to the pain and inconvenience caused cystitis last month!

 

5) Unprocess your diet by avoiding any food product that contains more than 5 ingredients

Dr Chatterjee recognises that in our culture people often tend to be ‘overfed but undernourished’, and processed foods are often to blame for this. In our house we tend to cook most of our meals from scratch so I wasn’t sure how to action this recommendation. However, in a bid to ensure our food was less processed, this month I replaced our usual pasta with the wholewheat pasta, tried to eat more brown rice, and used wholemeal flour when we’ve made home made bread. I’m happy to report I’d be very happy to carry on with each of those changes.

However, as I was writing this I realised that we’ve now moved into soup season, and though pre-children I made a lot of soup from fresh ingredients, latterly I’ve started buying it to save time! So without realising it, this month I’ve been re-introducing processed food into my diet, oops. I also recently realised that though I thought the sliced bread we buy is healthy-it is super seeded after all- it is indeed white bread, and contains far more than 5 ingredients. So perhaps I need to go back to basics and make my own soup and bread? Realistically though, I don’t think I’d have time for that, so perhaps I will just try to unprocess my diet at weekends!

 

So, does it work? Do I feel healthier?

To be completely honest, I feel disappointed to report that I don’t feel particularly healthy at the moment. Despite eating plenty of fruit and vegetables, I still feel full of cold, though I suppose this is inevitable when you live with young children! However, I did notice that when I reduced the amount of sugar I was eating, I felt like I had more energy, and felt less of a need for the morning coffee that I often resort to! I also maintain that even though I may not be feeling the benefits of a diet change immediately, I can’t deny that it must still be helping me in the long term, and that surely these dietary changes can in no way affect my health negatively?! So with that in mind, I am happy to stick to the recommendations that Dr Chatterjee sets out in the Eat chapter of his book.

I’d be interested to hear your experiences… Have you ever reduced your sugar intake? What are healthy breakfasts that you enjoy? How do you increase the amount of vegetables you eat? Have you had much success in unprocessing your diet?

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