A Super-charged ‘Bircher’ Breakfast Recipe

2016-01-13 08.26.24I don’t plan to post recipes all the time, as there are plenty of sites doing this. But I do have one of my own that I particularly enjoy, which I’d like to share. For anyone looking for a really filling, satisfying, no-added-sugar breakfast, I’d recommend this. It’s basically an over-excited Bircher Muesli. It takes about 10 minutes to put together (I do it in the evening to give the oats a chance to soften) and it’s good for 4 breakfast servings – 1 person for 4 days or 2 people for 2 days.  I don’t count calories as a rule, but I’ve included a rough guide to the calories here as some people like the measure. You may want to do your own calculation.

Ingredients (4 servings):

  • 100g plain porridge oats (376 cal)
  • 260g Fage Total Greek Yoghurt, full fat (260 cal)
  • 60g mixed nuts or brazil nuts/almonds/walnuts (approx 372 cal)
  • 20 raspberries (20 cal)
  • 20 white grapes, sliced into 2/3 pieces or 1 green apple, grated (60 calories)
  • 20g milled organic flaxseed, for flavour and all sorts of goodness (113 calories)
  • Almond Milk (or whole milk) to moisten (100 calories – total guestimate, I’m afraid)

1301 calories total divided by 4 servings: Approximately 325 calories per serving

Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl, adding enough milk to create a soft consistency (I use home-made almond milk, but whole milk or shop bought almond milk would work just as well). You can use any fruit you like, but I prefer raspberries, which break up through the mix and give it a bit of a raspberry ripple effect. Apples make it more tart and I like this, but grapes are a bit more convenient, and add little pops of natural sweetness, so that’s why they get my vote.  I’ve used blueberries and blackberries too.

You can vary to your taste of course. Add more fruit without overburdening the calorie content, or reduce the nut or yoghurt content to slim down. It’s up to you. Then seal the bowl and store in the fridge overnight, giving time for the oats and nuts to soften and the flavours to blend.

When serving, the mixture will have become more ‘sticky’, so add a little more milk or almond milk to loosen, then garnish with a couple of raspberries, just because it looks nice – and we eat with our eyes.

Bircher purists would probably baulk at the thought of grapes – grapes! – in their muesli, but this is my recipe, so there. They would also want to drizzle honey or agave syrup over everything, which is currently against my dietary religion. The grapes add the minuscule amount of sweetening this recipe needs anyway.

I find this breakfast will see me at least until lunchtime and often well beyond into the afternoon if I happen to be too busy to stop for lunch, or out-and-about and unable to find something healthy. The Fage Greek yoghurt is full-fat but natural/unflavoured. It’s thick and creamy, packed with good bacteria and NO sugar, which is simultaneously satisfying for those of us who like our food to be unctuous, and exciting for the sugar avoiders like me.

If you try it, I’d love to know what you think.

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Little Things Mean a Lot

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I walk regularly these days, often in the early morning – purposefully, dressed very obviously as someone out getting some exercise. I’m very non-threatening; though my zip-up has a hood, I don’t use it unless I get caught in the drizzle. Even so, it is rare for anybody I pass along the road to acknowledge me, though I will always nod and smile.  Granted, I’ve taken to going out in the dim early morning light without make-up (horrors!)  It seems pointless to put it all on, only for the ‘gentle glow’ of exertion to wipe it away, so I do all that stuff after my walk.  As a result I admit, I’m not at my best and it’s perhaps not particularly pleasing on the eye, to encounter a sturdy 50-something woman with bed-hair and no make-up, striding down the street or across the park. So maybe that’s reason enough for most people to walk past me as if I’m not there, their eyes focused on some point in the middle distance, lost in their own internal worlds. I don’t know what they think I might do if they should nod and smile back at me. But there it is.

It’s only when I remove my headphones as I approach and greet someone in the park, usually a dog-walker, with a clear and friendly ‘Good Morning’ that I can elicit any kind of a response – and I think I’ve forced the courtesy then, so perhaps it doesn’t count.  But to be fair, it’s invariably the dog-walkers who are more forthcoming, even though I lack the canine companion that would position me firmly as a ‘friendly’ passer-by.

So today, it was a particular and delightful surprise to receive a warm smile and a ‘hello’ from a woman who was unlocking and letting herself into a shop as I passed. I pulled my headphones from my ears and she mentioned she’d seen me several times in recent days, usually a little further up the road and a little earlier (yep, Sunday, I had a lie-in). She asked me if I walked regularly, how long my walk was, and whether I was walking for weight-loss. As we chatted briefly, she offered me the warmest encouragement and congratulated me on my success so far. Without a doubt she brightened my day with her kind, positive words.

I wish more people would take the time simply to notice the strangers around them.  Busy lives we all have, but a nod, a smile, even a moment of conversation – it costs nothing, and it can spread more than a little sunshine.

The Bitter Truth about a Sweet Tooth

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For decades, losing weight has been all about cutting fat. ‘Official’ health guidelines directed us to ditch the full-fat milk in favour of semi- or better still, skimmed milk. Butter was demonised and we were told it was better for us to smear synthetic spreads across our bread. Low fat products filled the supermarket shelves and most of us were unaware that once the fat was excluded, in order to endow them with any taste, they had been packed full of… sugar. How is any of that better for us?

You’ll probably be aware that the official guidelines have recently undergone a seismic shift. Fats – especially good fats are IN, and sugar – despite the protestations of the food industry – is now OUT. Sugar has been rebranded the biggest dietary evil of our time.

Let me pin my colours to the mast here. I believe this to be absolutely true.

I’m not presenting myself as an expert on the matter. But I’ve been persuaded of the arguments and benefits by reading and learning from sources such as:

  • Pure, White and Deadly: How sugar is killing us and what we can do to stop it; by John Yudkin
  •  Sugar – The Bitter Truth; a lecture available here on YouTube, given by Robert Lustig
  • Fat Chance: The Hidden Truth About Sugar, Obesity and Disease; by Robert Lustig
  • Action On Sugar (website here) and Cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra (website here)

The arguments are, believe me, compelling. Sugar rewards you emotionally, but does nothing for your body, and it was undoubtedly a major factor in my weight gain – and that’s not even taking into account the whole diabetes issue and a host of other damaging outcomes. The information is all out there – Google it.

Some time ago I had already significantly reduced my intake of chocolate, mainly because I realised I was addicted and was consuming far too much on a far too regular basis. I know. I know. People think I’m mad, but for the last three years, I’ve eaten chocolate at only two times of the year, for a couple of weeks at Christmas and Easter. Four months ago, along with a host of other dietary changes, I resolved to cut it out altogether.  I took the decision not to re-introduce it for Christmas 2015.  I’d enjoyed having those two indulgent periods of the year to look forward to, but they had rarely lived up to expectations and I’d become aware that for me, chocolate no longer filled the emotional hole it was supposed to fill.

Cutting it out resulted in a substantial reduction in my sugar intake, but it wasn’t enough. I don’t like sweet pastries and I  don’t crave cakes particularly, but I have a weakness for biscuits/cookies, sweet cereals and a variety of confectionary.  I had the killer Sweet Tooth.

Ah… biscuits/cookies… If I had them in the house, I would easily eat 4 or 5 with every cup of coffee. When I stopped buying them, there were days when I would prowl the kitchen looking for something – anything – sweet to plug the gap. But that passes fairly quickly, although I do recall squeezing spoons of toffee sauce one evening!  But the truth is, the less of the sweet stuff you have around you, the easier it is not to consume it.  And once the cravings diminish, you’ll be amazed, and you’ll wonder how sugar ever had such a hold over you.

There were two sweet things that hung about for a little longer… (1) I struggled with a nice, healthy bowl of porridge – I couldn’t enjoy it without a big squeeze of Golden Syrup and (2) I was still consuming sweetened yoghurts. Neither of these seemed particularly bad to me (it’s amazing how you can delude yourself, isn’t it?) – after all, I was eating porridge, and yoghurt, wasn’t I?  But they had to go. Now I can enjoy porridge with a sprinkle of salt (yes, really!) and some blueberries or banana, and I’ve replaced sweetened yoghurts with my favourite creamy indulgence – Fage Greek Style (ahem, full fat) yoghurt, packed with friendly bacteria, which is utterly sublime.

What surprised me most was how both my compulsion and my taste for sweet things has gone. I don’t miss anything – and that amazes me. Cravings disappeared quickly and on the one or two occasions when I’ve had a small taste of sweet, out of politeness or because I didn’t want to be too pedantic about it, I’ve found the taste… not pleasant. Sweet is now… too sweet.  That, my friends, is massive – the fact that once you’re no longer slamming your taste-buds with a tsunami of sugar, they don’t cry out for it, and when they get it, they don’t much like it any more. Massive.

It’s become so obvious to me that we are trained from childhood and endlessly influenced by advertising and the media, to crave sugar and regard sweet things as treats.  Now there are savouries which I regard as treats – although my goal is to ‘treat’ myself with other things, not edibles.  But, as they say, it’s a journey.

I would encourage anybody to take a run at this. Like any addiction, it’s tough at first, but eliminating sugar has so many positive effects on the body, that it’s worth persisting.

I’m not, as I mentioned, totally pedantic about it. My focus was on eliminating the main sweetened food groups – cakes, biscuits, breads, cereals, confectionary, deserts, sweetened drinks and fruit juices (but NOT whole fruit) – and avoiding added sugar in processed or ready meals, mainly by avoiding processed or ready meals. Doh. If there is sugar here and there, as there is, say, in salad dressings and other condiments, I’m content to overlook this. But at a guess, I believe I must have eliminated 95% or more of added sugar from my life, and I’m happy with this.

The anti-sugar lobby began to find its voice last year. Now it must demand that food manufacturers lower the quantity of sugar in their products – and it can’t do that without support from the general public. It’s bound to take some time. I would urge you not to wait for the food industry to catch up. By far the easiest way to reduce your own sugar intake immediately is to turn you back on those highly sweetened products.

Oh, and one small piece of advice. If you decide to begin this process, don’t just put or throw away the sweet stuff in your cupboards… douse it with washing-up liquid first!

The Ups and Downs of a YoYo Dieter #yo-yo

potato-chips-448737_1920You might be wondering how it’s possible for a woman – educated, intelligent and with a healthy understanding of the tenets of good nutrition – to get to 270lb (that’s a fulsome 19 stone, UK). Indeed, I wonder myself sometimes. I watch those programmes on TV featuring overweight people trying to lose the pounds, and invariably they’re shown gorging on triple servings of hamburgers, kebabs and curries, or piles of donuts and chocolate, indulging in midnight fridge raids or slurping gallons of full-fat cola or beer. And that’s just not me. At least, I don’t think it is.

So how did it happen?

As a child I was not without what they politely used to call puppy fat, though it probably wouldn’t even be remarked upon today.  Even then I had a weakness for savouries, and would buy two or three bags of crisps (that would be potato chips for Stateside readers) each day from the school tuck-shop and chomp the lot at break-time. But I got lots of exercise to mitigate this greed. I would walk 1½ miles a day on my journey to school. I enjoyed ice skating and swimming at the weekends, and judo, rounders and netball within school hours; I tolerated tennis in the summer but I hated hockey in the winter as my chubby thighs would chafe in coarse woollen shorts.  But if a little podgy here and there, I was nonetheless fit and in robust health.

The puppy fat fell away when I discovered… boys. Now, that’s motivation.  My first serious boyfriend was a skinny youth and call me precious, but I didn’t think a girl should weigh more than her boyfriend.  The year I spent with this guy was a constant struggle to stay below 126lb (9 stone). I’ve not been close to that magic figure in the 38 years since then.

A few years later, happily engaged to be married, my weight had crept up to 154lb (11 stone) – a by-product of Friday and Saturday evening drinking, cheap takeaways on-the-run and having acquired a motorcycle, which swiftly overtook my legs as the preferred mode of transportation. I took myself off to Weightwatchers and shook off 22lb in preparation for the Big Day, earning myself a Lifetime membership in the process. Weightwatchers clearly knew something I didn’t yet realise about the life of a yo-yo dieter. I’d reached 132lb (around 9½ stone).  At that weight today I’d be beyond triumphant, but back then it felt like defeat, that I couldn’t make it all the way to 9 stone. And even that didn’t last; looking back at the pictures, I was probably was already close to 140lb (10 stone) by the time I walked down the aisle.

Over the next few contented married years, the weight went back on, and a quite a bit more besides. I passed through 168lb (12 stone). I remember going on a holiday to Devon, booking on a pony trekking day and wondering if the horse would have the strength to carry me. Back in the mid-1980’s, 12 stone felt… massive.  But I still managed to put on at least another 28lb over the next three years – I think I got to 14 stone and something. I was cooking hearty entry-level supper meals for both of us, but consuming much the same in portion size as my husband. He was in a very physically active job and though I still swam at weekends and walked a little, I was desk-bound for work. That’s a recipe for laying down the fat, but I hardly even realised what I was doing. Relaxed and secure, I had let down my guard – and the climb through the pounds and stones was steady but relentless.

By 1988 things had changed. With divorce looming and my soon to be ex-husband and I sharing our house yet trying to live considerate separate lives whilst it sold, the weight once again fell away. Not wanting to spend time at home, for several months I rarely ate a decent sit-down meal; I filled time swimming and playing squash. Afraid that I would drink too much in this unsettling period, I gave up alcohol altogether for a while. Stress aggravated my digestive system too. This was all the silver lining to the cloud of marital breakdown. Unintended it may have been, all told, I lost 56lb (4 stone). I remember watching the faces of the men at work change, and enjoying their attention, as my body changed shape. As I emerged from my marriage, it was as if I were shedding a skin. At 28 years old, I looked the best I’d ever looked and it was an exciting time as a result. I joined a gym for something to fill my single-girl spare-time, and spent several evenings a week maintaining my new shape – even dating my personal trainer for a while. I bought a bicycle and tested myself on the London to Brighton Bike Ride. I’d done no training but I took it slowly and made it in one piece.

Christmas 1987
Christmas 1987. Dressed, I think, in tin-foil
What a difference a year makes: Christmas 1988
What a difference a year makes: Christmas 1988

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But it didn’t last. Over the next decade or so, my weight crept slowly, slowly upward again. Work and career became more intense and evenings at the gym more intermittent as a result. For the first time in years, I didn’t have a regular squash partner, and a succession of short-lived relationships had left me jaded. I don’t remember much about this time, except that it was tense, unsettling and not particularly happy. Work was challenging and stressful and I suffered panic attacks. I would drive for hours to visit clients, snacking on a passenger-seat full of crisps, chocolate bars and shrink-wrapped sandwiches. I developed a MacDonald’s breakfast habit and a KFC lunch habit. That was all bad, and I cannot hide from it.

But the truth is, even without those bad habits, you don’t have to eat that much over and above your daily requirement for the excess pounds to show up, slowly and steadily, and latch on tight.  This time it took the whole decade, but I reached 225lb (16 stone).

In 2001 the double-whammy of a seriously toxic relationship and a second redundancy put me in a shit-or-bust frame of mind. I wanted to start working for myself, and I was determined not to be caught out by another low-life. Bearing my gold Lifetime Membership card, I reintroduced myself to Weightwatchers. Things fell into place with the Points system and over 6 months, I lost 50lb (3½ stone). I joined the gym again, showing up three mornings a week at 6:30am and twice at the weekends. This time it was not happy accident but relentless determination – and it paid off.

But… but… but… as soon as I took my eye off the ball, the weight surged back on again. And just like every time before, more went on than had come off. This time, already in my 40’s, it seemed to happen so fast. I shed a stone or so following a Jason Vale Juicing Retreat in 2006, but I couldn’t sustain the success. By 2007 I was doing battle with the menopause too. It was like slamming into a brick wall. Fatigued, I struggled to motivate myself to do any exercise at all. My eating patterns became lazy – Chinese take-aways, poke-and-ping meals, quick-fix junk food and stuff-on-toast – for months on end. The result was predictable; despite a few feeble attempts at weight loss with Atkins, juicing and raw food, a too rapid climb to my highest ever weight – 270lb (19 stone).

To be honest, I thought it would be worse. I’d expected 20 stone when I finally braved the scales. I hadn’t weighed myself for a year and the last time I’d jumped on the scales I’d seen that same figure. That it hadn’t risen in 12 months was, bizarrely, excellent news!

That’s how I got to 270lb. On the way, I’ve lost close to 200lb and put on probably half as much again. I actually got scared of dieting, because each time, I put more weight back on. I cannot afford for that to happen again this time. Already in morbid obesity territory at 270lb, any more than that would surely be tantamount to suicide.

So this time, I’m taking a different approach. This time it’s all about healthy lifestyle, not dieting. I don’t know if it will work, but I’ve been at it for a few months now and with 35lb already shifted, I think it stands a good chance of being sustainable. I am actually enjoying the changes rather than suffering them. Maybe… just maybe this different mind-set will see me through.

An Easy Squeezy Three Day ‘Detox’

2015-09-10 09.50.07 copyI should begin by saying that I don’t, strictly speaking, believe in detox. I’m pretty comfortable with my own body’s everyday capabilities in that department.  It is, after all, what the liver, kidneys and miles of intestine were invented for.

However, I was persuaded to try this simple and non-extreme set of guidelines for revitalising and rebalancing, by my Vitality Coach (great to have support when you’re making big changes). Having found it perfectly doable, and seen benefits even over a short period, it’s become a regular monthly thing.

So here it is.  For just three days:

On rising:

  • Begin each day with a diaphragmatic breathing exercise: 10-15 deep and slow in/out breaths
  • Drink a glass of warm water with lemon juice, ginger and a pinch of pink Himalayan salt
  • Get the day moving – a minimum 10-15 minutes walk, ideally longer. But if all you do is 10 minutes, definitely do a longer walk later in the day.

Each evening:

  • Spend 10 minutes in an ‘inversion’ position – that is, legs higher than heart.  Fear not, you don’t have to be upside-down! If you do Yoga or Pilates, you’ll know exercises which fit the bill.

Food guidelines:

  • Exclude all wheat and wheat products (ie, bread, crackers, pasta)
  • Exclude all added sugar (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?)
  • Exclude all milk products (ie milk, cheese, butter) except for natural yoghurt (because we like friendly bacteria)
  • Exclude all alcohol (sorry!)
  • Replace any poultry or other meat with fish
  • Eat any fruit before, rather than after, a meal
  • Drink plenty of water.

There. I have found this surprisingly easy as I don’t drink much alcohol anyway, and I’ve already eliminated added sugar from my diet.  The first time I tried it, back in early November, I lost 4lb in the three days. More significantly for me, my ankles, which had been oedemic for the whole of the summer (think swollen, water-filled balloons), deflated, and the problem and discomfort has not returned. I have normal ankles again – a cause for much alcohol-free celebration!

I did the detox again in early December and with the turn of the year comes the perfect opportunity for another run at it.

That first three-day detox also led to me cutting back quite a bit on wheat.  Whilst I don’t believe myself to be ‘intolerant’ of wheat, I’ve certainly noticed I feel more comfortable having reduced the amount I eat. I do enjoy the odd ‘healthy’ cracker (my favourites, for UK readers are NoNo with sesame, Ryvita with pumpkin seeds and Rude Health multigrain crackers), but I rarely eat bread or pasta these days, and I haven’t missed either. That surprised me as before, I would eat toast every day and pasta several times a week, especially in winter.

I realise people with an alcohol or sugar habit will find this harder than I did – but then, they might see even more positive outcomes. It is just for three days, and in January many people focus on eliminating the boozy and sugary treats in which they’ve over-indulged across the festive season.

I’m not a medical person, so let’s be clear, I’m not offering anybody any advice. But for me this regimen, over three short days, feels vibrant and healthy. I think it could be a great way to rebalance after a period of excess, and I’ve certainly found it a valuable point of refocus within a longer dietary journey.

Fat Girl Slim (eventually)

Breakfast at Denny's, January 2015. I know... I know...
Breakfast at Denny’s, January 2015. I know… I know…

These are my achievements in 2015:

  • I published my first novel
  • I kicked a lifelong sugar habit into touch
  • I have lost 35 surplus pounds (so far…)

The novel, Singled Out, came out in February and has sold modestly, as self-published novels are wont to do, but received some amazing reviews. Thank you, hugely, to all those readers who took the time and trouble to give their feedback so positively this year on Amazon and Goodreads.

Kicking the sugar habit began in September and was a gradual thing, no ‘cold turkey’ for me. But I’m confident I’ve now succeeded in eliminating all but the very occasional appearance of added sugar in one or two sneaky little places.  I’m going to blog on this in coming days because whether you’re overweight like I am or not, you should probably be consuming less sugar.

The serious attack on my surplus poundage also began in September, and at an average of just over 2lbs a week, I’m deliriously happy, quite beside myself, at this initial, steady and sustainable success. I’d chosen to believe for so long that as a middle-aged and largely sedentary woman, I was stuck with my wraparound flab for life. No so, it seems. But there is some distance yet to be travelled.

Regular readers will know I’ve been blogging for a while about the experience of writing fiction and navigating today’s publishing landscape. Then I started slipping in a few posts relating to Singled Out – the ups and downs of being single, Turkey, foodie matters and the psycho-side of life.

Now with my sights set on maintaining my new healthier lifestyle into 2016 and continuing to offload unwanted pounds, I’ll be blogging about my experience of turning around a lethargic, sugar-laden, poke-and-ping mindset and offering a few thoughts on the way the world at large is chewing over what it has branded “The Obesity Epidemic”.

When I sat down to think up a few topics, it took me about five minutes to get to 40. That surprised even me, especially since I’ve been struggling for months to think of what to write… about writing.

So this is not a blog about writing any more – at least for now. But I do hope you’ll stick with me through 2016 though, as it turns out I have a bit to say about the experience of developing positive addictions to healthy lifestyle habits, being overweight and losing it, and the whole horrible obesity debate.

I can’t be too triumphalist about it, because take a glance at the picture above (on holiday in Florida, a year ago and several months before the fun-and-games began) and you’ll realise that even 35lbs down, I still have a tonnage to deal with. But I’ve learnt some valuable lessons and changed some important things in the last four months; which means I can with reasonable confidence say that whilst this is neither the end, nor the beginning of the end, it is perhaps the end of the beginning.