Monday, 25 April 2016

How old are you, really?

I love writing about the things that age us – and those that keep us young. And last week, doing just this, I came across a brilliant little quiz from the BBC’s HowTo Stay Young – it took about 3 minutes to complete, and told me I am biologically 20 years younger than my actual age.
Now that’s just what any girl wants to hear. So how did it come about?
Well, starting with my height, weight, and age, I had years taken off for owning a dog (doddle!), never having smoked, only drinking up to 14 units a week, and having a sunny outlook. Stress is fine, it seems, as long as you can cope with it by distracting yourself or talking about it (the box I ticked). And by saying I was “always optimistic”, I had another 8 years knocked off my chronological age. Had I been “mostly optimistic” (I was torn), I would still have scored well – but not quite as well as I did.
Exercise was another biggy. I ticked that I exercise “most days”. There was a note on this page to say that by exercise the test meant doing something for 20 minutes that would leave me out of breath. I’m not sure how out of breath I should be – but hope that a raised heartbeat on a 30-40 minute dog walk counts. If not I could be 8 years older…
I was proud of my biological age of 35 – but I could have knocked yet another five years off if I’d regularly fasted.  (Which could be just the incentive I need to go back on the 5:2 diet).
Chillingly, I then tried putting in different results to see what would happen if – even at the same weight – I was a 20 year 20-a-day smoker who drank more than 14 units a week, ate a lot of processed food, never exercised, and was a born pessimist… The result? Those habits – adopted by so many people my age – would have pitched me at no less than 108!!
We are now expected to live until our early 80s. But this little test shows just how much our lifestyle should influence this expectation.
Here are some of the other things I’m doing to try and preserve my youth:
. Being wordy – those who write complex sentences tend to keep a healthy brain for longer. I write all the time – but only rarely is my writing complex, so I also do the Times Codeword whenever I can. (Though I have to admit the Mirror’s Codeword was far more challenging last time I did it, on the plane to Nice).
. Eating blueberries – they’re full of anthocyanins, the substances credited with keeping brains young and healthy.
. I do yoga, and swim – both of which help to keep me agile.
. I walk: not only does it help to keep my heart young, but a London University study found that just one hour of brisk walking twice a week increases the number of neurons in the hippocampus, significantly boosting mental skills in just 10 weeks.
. Finally, I’m also trying to practice the sit to stand test – going from standing down to cross-legged sitting on the floor, and back up again unaided and without too many wobbles. In one study of 51 to 80 year olds, those with the lowest scores were 5-6 times more likely to die within the next six years than those with the highest scores. If you’re going to try this, start with your maximum score of 10.  Five for sitting, and five for standing back up. Lose a point every time you have to use a hand or knee for support, and a ½ point every time you wobble.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

War on wheat

So this is what happens when you take your eye off the ball. Or, as I did, your feet off the scales. I stopped stepping on them (that should have been a cause for concern in the first place). And when I next did, I’d gained 1.5kg! And now it’s 1.8!
So where have I gone wrong?
I’ll start with the fact that my husband’s been making his own bread. Always easier to blame someone else. I’m not eating very much of it. But nor am I eating none of it. And it is delicious.
We’ve also had two holidays in the last three months – one in Paris, where we frequently found ourselves in the delicious Moulin de La Vierge at the end of the afternoon; and then in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, near the French Italian border on the Cote d’Azur, where more cakes and a lot of bread were consumed. Happy memories of a baguette and Brillat Savarin in the Hanbury Botanic Garden at Mortola Inferiore.
Steve’s latest endeavour is his own homemade starter yeast. I nod off before getting to the end of the detailed description of how this is made, but it essentially involves flour and water (and nothing else), which is cosseted in the airing cupboard and fed or not fed, with bits being thrown away – or not - according which aficionado you follow… Who cares? What matters is that it made a sour dough to rival any I’ve ever had from an artisan baker here or abroad. It is hard to resist and I’ve just had another slice, toasted, with salty butter and a banana.
All these carbs and excess pounds have ominously coincided with the news last week that we need to stick to a weight loss diet for a whole year if we want to maintain our new weight. That’s how long it takes for the hunger hormone ghrelin to adapt to your new way of eating so hunger and cravings do not sabotage all your hard work.  Or so says Signe Sorensen Torekov, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen. 
After this time ghrelin remains sufficiently suppressed but a coinciding rise in the appetite suppressant hormone GLP-1 is sustained. 
This is all well and good – providing you don’t succumb to your husband’s sourdough. For it seems – and there are various studies that support this – that ghrelin is putty in the hands of a good loaf of bread. A nice big slice of toast may keep it down for a bit – but then it springs back with a vengeance.  Basically, found one University of Washington study, carbs eventually make people hungrier than before they had eaten… That is very bad news for any dieter struggling to maintain their regime for a year, and hoping that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie – be it in a juicy steak or a big fat baguette.
I’m not aware that the odd slice of Steve’s sourdough at breakfast has made me eat more at lunch or dinner. But my weight is far easier to control when I give carbs a wide berth. I even seem to be able to get away with a couple of glasses of wine several times a week without the scales sounding a siren.
I have not yet tested the effects of different types of carb on my diet – and it may just be wheat that’s the problem.
It is quite likely. Dr John Mansfield, author of The Six Secrets of Successful Weight Loss, lists the 20 foods that people are most likely to be intolerant to, and wheat is right there at the very top. But how it causes weight gain is yet again ghrelin-related, the theory being that food intolerances cause a glitch with the lipostat – the feedback mechanism that tells your brain that you’ve already overeaten and now need to eat less and exercise more.
Yet another theory – held by the nutritionist Stephanie Lashford – is that the culprit food causes a reaction called angioedema, whereby every cell in the body swells up – piling on pounds in the process. 
Whatever the cause, if I am to go with the wheat theory I now have a choice to make. Either I go back to daily weighing – in which case Steve’s sourdough’s days are numbered, and breakfasts will be yogurt bound once more. Or I put the scales away, eat all the bread I like, and never look in the mirror or wear my favourite dresses again.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Zen and the art of soup making

Long time, no posts – sorry about that. But one thing I have stuck to is the weight loss regime. It’s amazing how much difference getting on the scales every day makes, even when I seem to be doing little else to alter my weight. OK – let you in on a secret – I have eaten very, very little wheat in the last six months. Minimal bread, and hardly any pasta (only once in Italy, and that was a disaster as I mistook zucca – pumpkin - as a label for the filling; not the shape of the pasta, which turned out to be filled with one of my all-time unfavourites, hard boiled egg… yeeuch).
My new weight even survived Christmas in tact. But, since then, there have been a lot of leftover hamper foods knocking around. Betty’s Yorkshire Gingerbread is to die for.  Who knew? I certainly wouldn’t have, and I could have ignored it had I not tried one first morsel.
By last weekend I was starting to feel those carb cravings revving up again. And that “will I get hungry?” question mark hanging over me whenever I was planning my next meal.
My remedy was to cook soup – something I find hugely therapeutic on the rare occasions have the kitchen to myself. And soup is a nice filling and comforting winter food for lunchtimes that isn’t overloaded with calories.
Over “twixtmas” I’d already made and frozen several litres of turkey stock, and spent Sunday night chopping onions for two soups – pea and ham, and celeriac and mushroom. There were further onions for a lamb and aubergine stew, and a Spanish tortilla – so all four burners had onions sweating on them.
Then, for the soups: easy mcpeasy РI added fried bacon, garlic, tarragon and a bag of frozen peas (plus stock) to one pot, and chopped and saut̩ed celeriac and chestnut mushrooms with garlic and stock to the other.
A new ingredient I’ve just discovered that went into everything I cooked that night is Lemon Salt from Spice Mountain in Borough Market. (Deliciously umami and I’ve just sprinkled it on an avocado too.)
I had to get written permission from my husband to use his Thermomix – but, after promising to clean it thoroughly and put it all back together, back where I’d found it, what joy! This is a machine that whizzes up soups to a fine cream. Steve even makes fish soup using all the bones, and they are crushed to silky smoothness by this kitchen wizard.

So we are now eating soup every day at lunchtime. And though I am not really losing weight any more (after losing 3-4 kilos, which turned out to be about 6% of my bodyweight, I am hovering) the soups, and the daily weighing, are stopping me from soaring again. And helping me eschew wheat...