A lot of people are entirely allergic to any television programme that might be described as “reality TV”. Whilst that is often not a bad rule of thumb, I don’t personally agree with such a sweeping generalisation. One such programme that I find by turns fascinating, morbidly voyeuristic, enlightening and irritating is Channel 4’s “Super-size versus Super-skinny”. For the reality TV allergic amongst you this programme brings together two members of the public that have opposing eating disorders. One is “super-sized”, rolling in folds of fat and eating gargantuan quantities of all the wrong foods. The other is “super-skinny”, addicted to punishing exercise, and lives on a couple of haricot beans and a gallon of sugar-free coke a day with resulting skeletal frame and multiple nutritional deficiencies. Under the watchful supervision of a handsome and perfectly proportioned doctor these two unfortunates are then invited to eat each other’s diets for several weeks. The grossly fat one stares disconsolately at a breakfast of water and single digestive biscuit, whilst the minuscule one tries with greater or lesser gusto to force down a grease-laden repast of 10 eggs, several beefburgers, and a couple of bags of crisps, whilst casting a doleful eye on the mid-morning snack of bacon sandwiches that they will shortly also have to consume.
It is nothing if not shock therapy. As in all the best of the reality genre, there is a liberal oiling of cod-psychology to keep everything slipping along nicely, and if you’re lucky you might get a couple of scenes of bitter recrimination in which the thin one fails to consume all the goodies on offer and is chided by the fat one, who claims that the thin one is not keeping to the bargain. In return, the thin one demands to know how they are expected to consume half their own body weight at every sitting. Interspersed between the sequences of ill-matched meals and psychological warfare are the voyeur shots of anatomically incomprehensible folds of blubber in the one case, and a pitifully protruding skeleton in the other.
One of the programme’s fixtures is a scene in which each participant’s weekly food and drink intake is gathered together in one modest, and one spectacularly vast, pile. The contestants (for that is what they really are) are then obliged to stare in horror and amazement at what they are doing to themselves. The doctor intones in a sympathetic but authoritative voice-over all the evils of obesity, the diabetes, the heart disease, the worn-out joints: and the equal and opposite evils of vitamin and mineral deficiency, of potential heart failure, or of acid reflux that will bedevil the anorexic.
But it’s those piles of weekly food that tend to catch my eye. We don’t normally see our week’s food paraded in front of us. And it’s made me wonder what my pile might look like. I’ve absorbed at some level or another over the years all the healthy eating messages with which we are bombarded at every waking moment, but I’ve never really considered what I actually eat en masse. I have no idea how close or far I am from that magical 5 daily portions of fruits and vegetables; from that average man’s 2,500 calories a day; from the proper quantity of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids.
So I’ve decided to find out. I’m keeping a food diary, but I’m not making any attempt to change or modify my diet. I’m simply noting down as accurately as I can everything I eat or drink (other than water). For meals that I prepare for myself (the vast majority) I’m trying to capture quantities and calorific values, but when I eat outside of my home, then I’m using my best guess as to both ingredients and quantities. I started doing this last Wednesday, so later today I’ll be reporting on the week from then (6th April) to yesterday (12th April). I’m not doing it meal by meal, but instead creating my own virtual weekly pile à la Super-size vs Super-skinny. I’ll keep it up as long as I can, or at least until boredom overtakes me. I recognise that no 2 weeks are identical, and that in order to get a reasonable grasp of what I am if I eat this, I need to average it over several weeks. If I really get into the swing of it, and find I’m able to do it over a longer time frame, well I can always sell the results to some researcher into British eating habits.
Food’s not everything, since there’s expenditure as well as income in the food accounts. I work in an office, and am as perfect a sedentary worker as you could wish to meet. Most days I do little walking, although I do always walk up the stairs to my 6th floor office and eschew the lift. However, to set against this, I am rigorously disciplined in taking exercise every day on my cross-trainer. I have programmed it so that I do the equivalent work of 400 calories every weekday morning (before breakfast if you’re interested) and this equates to between 35 and 45 minutes exercise depending on the heart-rate I’m exercising at. The longer times are when I’m working at 122 beats per minute (about 75% aerobic capacity at my age) whilst the shorter times are when I’m working at 146 beats per minute (about 90% aerobic capacity). In addition therefore to the food and calorie data I’ll be reporting, I’ll also include blood pressure, resting heart-rate, and body weight.
So look out for my first set of results later!! And if you’re a doctor or nutritionist, please feel free to analyse my life-style and tell me if it’s still worth me worrying about my pension!