Food, inflation, health and the poor

As post titles go, I suppose this piece’s moniker is nothing if not broad and inclusive. It represents the bringing together of a number of my passionate concerns in one glorious concatenation, but before I go further I need to provide something in the way of a disclaimer.

One of the least attractive examples of rank hypocrisy and deliberate misdirection is that hoary old bollocks so beloved of our right-wing press, the (usually) Tory matron who declares that they have lived on £2.50 a week for a month, and that therefore no-one in this country is so poor that they can’t eat both healthily and deliciously, so please could they, and their supporters in evil outfits such as the Child Poverty Action Group, shut-up and stop whinging. The Daily Fail article that follows Lady Living-Bracingly-In-The-Countryside’s heroic experiment in poverty research reports lovingly that her Ladyship has gleefully made stews out of old toe-nail clippings, fricasséed freely available larger spiders, supplemented all this with a bewildering variety of root vegetables, and flavoured it with the juices from her Beeton-style everlasting stock-pot which has preserved her family’s left overs for several generations. Later in the article one casually discovers that it just so happened that Farmer Giles from the estate did in fact lob over a couple of haunches of venison, and his Lordship did allow her Ladyship to wash all this bracing fare down with a choice claret from Château Lafite-Rothschild, and a rather promising white Burgundy that by chance were gracing the cellars at the time. I realise that I might be accused of doing something similar in what follows, minus the classic vintages just mentioned, obviously. I can only hope not.

We heard today that the inflation experienced by the poorest people is greater than that experienced by the richest. This is for the simple reason that inflation in food and fuel is much greater than inflation generally, and even more because the costs experienced by richer people are often represented in large part by mortgage payments on property, and the current minuscule interest rate is in fact making those payments lower than ever before. So feeding ourselves is getting more expensive, but feeding ourselves is also a much greater proportion of poorer people’s expenditure than it is of richer people’s. It’s true as well that feeding ourselves is increasingly becoming not a means of nutrition, but a means of self-abuse. Channel 4’s modern day freak-show, Embarrassing Fat Bodies, illustrated this again last night in its trade-mark gory and repulsive detail. Much of this “eating as self-harm” has its roots in the kind of food people eat, and it’s equally generally true that the diets of poorer people are worse in this respect than those of richer people. One of the commonest explanations of this relationship is that bad food is also cheap food. Poor people cannot afford to eat well or healthily.

That is simply not true. It is true that that in any given category of food, cheaper versions are generally less healthy than more expensive ones. But the extrapolation from the undeniable truth that, for example, expensive sausages with higher proportions of good meat are healthier than cheap versions stuffed with starch and fats procured from commodity markets and made just about palatable with flavourings, texturisers, and colourings, to the overall conclusion that therefore only the rich can eat well is entirely false. Another common fallacy is that the middle-class obsession with organic food is merely an indulgence that the poor cannot afford.

I am not impoverished. And that is why I fear that sharing my own experience about mitigating food inflation might be dismissed in the same terms as my own dismissal of Lady Living-Bracingly-In-The-Countryside. Undeterred, I’m sharing it anyway.

Recently I’ve started taking an organic vegetable box each week from Abel and Cole (and I must immediately add that other providers of poncy delights are also available.) This costs me the princely sum of £11.50p, and is also delivered to the door releasing me from part of my otherwise steadily increasing fuel bill. Along with the box, I generally buy a little meat, some fish, and things like breakfast cereal and milk. I’ve never spent more than £35, including Abel and Cole’s massive delivery charge of £0.99p (eat your heart out Ocado with your charges of anything up to £8.) I also buy pulses and other bits and pieces from supermarkets to create my lunches each day. Perhaps on average I spend an additional £3 a week in this way, producing delights such as today’s red kidney beans, walnut pieces, and apple salad bound together with olive oil and flavoured with home-made garam masala. I eat meat or fish about 4 or 5 days out of the week’s 7, on one of which it will probably be a tin of sardines. If I spend £40 on food in a week I’d be surprised. Before starting to organise myself in this way, I probably spent not far short of £80-£100 every week. I accept that this approach takes some discipline, but that is mostly to do with eating whatever the box contains, and refusing to throw anything away. But be clear, there is nothing hair-shirted about this. I eat better now, and enjoy it more. I do it because it makes me happier, not because I hope it will make me more virtuous.

Ironically, that point about eating whatever the box contains is actually the key to all this. We live in a time when choice is supposed to be king. The new proposals on the NHS may have moderated the foolish pursuit of competition, but they still wax eloquent about the centrality of choice. One of the wonders of modern western capitalism is indeed the supermarket with its bewildering array of choice when it comes to food. This choice is not a liberation, nor a nutritional bonus; it’s exactly the opposite. But it’s also largely an illusion. Of all that vast array of choice, most of it is made of the same 4 or 5 things. Wheat, soya, sugar, corn and a medley of deconstructed and reconstituted plant and seed oils. And even though the resulting confections are not actually all that cheap, the raw materials certainly are and they contribute a tiny minority of the final price.

I hope I haven’t come across as suggesting that poor people’s poor diets are poor people’s own fault. There’s a lot more to it than that. But it is true, I believe passionately, that poor people do not need to be locked into bad food and poor nutrition. There is a choice, but it’s unlikely to be found in Tesco or Sainsburys. And part of that choice, strangely enough, is giving up choice.


If you are what you eat, then I’m this…

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!

Transmuting fat into thin air: the alchemical delusion of our age

One of the less appealing attributes of modernity is our tendency to look with disdain on our forebears because they didn’t have the scientific world-view that we sophisticates now enjoy. Alchemy, and the doomed search for a method of turning base metals to gold, is frequently trotted out as a pretext for just such condescending self-congratulation. Not enough merely to note that we have found out some things that our predecessors had not: our sense of superiority also requires that we rubbish their pathetic credulity, their seeming willingness to believe any old tripe. Surely the search for the philosopher’s stone was self-evidently fatuous, and yet enormous amounts of money and energy were expended in its fruitless pursuit.

Well, actually, our ancestors had one very big excuse that we do not – they actually were ignorant of the mechanics of chemical transformation. But for our equivalent of alchemy – the equally fruitless search for some magical way of stopping ourselves from getting grossly fat, and of doing something about it when we have already become so – we have no such excuse. There is nothing whatsoever that we do not already know, that we have not already known for well over half a century, about how and why we are getting fatter and fatter, nor about what we need to do to stop continuing down the obesegenic road, nor indeed about what we need to do if we’re already too fat and want to get thinner. Nothing. Oh, to be sure we don’t know all the ins and outs of the duck’s arse that is the exact relationship between our personal genetic make-up and how easily we put on weight, or with how much difficulty we might then shed it. There is always more to know. But apart from the minuscule number of people who have a genuine pathology of weight-gain, we have no need of further knowledge. For all the rest of us we know what to do, and what to stop doing. Doubtless if we all used that knowledge, there would still be some fatter, and some thinner, people. The human species is rich in genetic variation, and our energy metabolism is a part of it. But that is not a “public health disaster”. If I, as a middle-aged man of average height, weigh 75 kilos I’ll be pissed off with an equivalent comrade who behaves exactly as I do but who weighs a more ripped 68 kilos, but then I’m also pissed off that I’ve never resembled Robert Redford in the facial beauty department. Actually, by living a reasonably disciplined life, I no longer weigh 75 kilos, and I endeavour with good success to keep as close to 70 kilos as I can. But if I were less vain, then 75 kilos is unlikely to have me high on anyone’s obesity-related health scare index.

And yet, as the New year comes around once more, we are bombarded again with the alchemy of weight loss. Join this support group. Eat this wonder food. Follow this vacuous celebrity’s DVD. Buy this processed meal substitute. Pop this “natural” pill derived from the roots of an unheard-of miracle plant from the pitiful remnant of some tropical rainforest. As in every New Year preceding this, thousands of men and women – mostly women – will part with their hard-earned cash, lining the pockets of the alchemists de nos jours. None of them will succeed, any more than past believers in hocus-pocus succeeded in turning lead into gold.

But we do know what to do. We all know that we eat too much of the wrong crap, and we sit around the place doing bugger all. We use lifts we don’t need. We have remote controls to spare us the ordeal of getting off the sofa to change the channels of our flat-screen TVs as they peddle more weight-loss alchemy. I can guarantee, absolutely guarantee, that if you do the following things, you will never get obese. Unless you really do have a pathological condition, or are disabled in some significant way that prevents you from undertaking any form of aerobic exercise, then follow this advice. It will work. You can pay me if you like, since you may feel that nothing’s for nothing, but you don’t need to. I am not an alchemist.

  • Buy an exercise machine, such as a cross-trainer or treadmill.
  • If it doesn’t have a heart-rate monitor, buy one that uses a chest strap rather than relying on finger pulse measurement.
  • Put the machine in your bedroom.
  • As soon as you get up, before breakfast, get on that machine and use it to raise your heart-rate to 75% of your aerobic capacity (for most middle-aged people about 130bpm).
  • Keep going, without stopping, for 30 to 40 minutes.
  • Don’t go on a diet, but never (well, hardly ever) buy anything that is a cake, a biscuit, a confectionery item, a ready meal, a pie, or suchlike.
  • In Michael Pollan’s pithy phrase, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”.

I know this will work, because we all know what to do. Mostly we don’t want to admit it. Mostly we want to hide from it. Mostly we want a philosopher’s stone that will shield us from doing what we know we need to do. There is no such thing. Get over it. And whilst, like me, you may have watched “Britain’s fattest man” on Channel 4 last night, you will also know that Paul Mason has no physiological problem. He is mentally ill. His tragic case has nothing to teach you.