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...

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Diet hard

Everyone I know of my age is trying to lose a bit of weight. And, if they’re not, they probably should be.
I was shocked into my latest regime after spending two days in a bijou Seville apartment with a mirror lined bathroom. When I told my friend and her daughter about this, the daughter asked, “Do you mean there were mirrors on the floor too?” Fortunately not – but the horror of seeing my body from every other angle was enough to trigger my latest efforts to lose a bit of weight.
I had for too long been avoiding the scales – I was afraid that the results would cause me to gain more weight instead of losing it.
In the end I decided to weigh myself in kilos instead of stones, as going metric would enable a certain amount of denial on my part.
I also decided to weigh myself daily. This would A) hopefully inspire me and B) prevent complacency from setting in.
But the results, over the last seven weeks, have been comparable to watching paint dry – or at least dry, and then get wet again, as weight has a funny habit of fluctuating hugely from one day to the next.
Along the way I am, of course, trying to bear in mind all the diet tips I’ve ever come across- many of them contradictory…
. Count the calories – to lose weight a calorie calculator worked out I need to consume no more than 1200 a day.
. Forget the calories – another theory is that you can eat all the calories you like, as long as they’re the right ones. Protein is in, carbs are out. A high protein duet has been shown to boost metabolism by 80 to 100 calories a dat, while also helping you to feel more satiated so you eat up to 441 fewer calories daily. And cutting carbs can help to double or trebble your weight loss compared to a normal low fat diet...  
. Eat an apple before your meal and you’ll consume 15% fewer calories with your meal.
. At the first sign of hunger, have a glass of water. It may just be thirst sending the wrong signal. Drinking water before a meal can also boost metabolism by 24-30% over the next hour or two. 
.  Don’t drink juice close to a meal – the sugar encourages overeating, with juice drinkers eating 3% more calories than those who avoid them.
. Drink coffee… it can increase fat burning by up to 10-29%.
. Drink green tea… its catechins are supposed to help boost metabolism.
. Avoid fizzy drinks. Full stop. The full calorie versions are loaded with sugar (10 tsps per can of coke), but the low cal ones are even worse as their artificial sweeteners increase appetite.
. Use a smaller plate – you’ll trick yourself into thinking you’ve had enough.
. Don’t go back for seconds for at least half an hour – it takes 20 minutes for satiety to set in.
. Don’t drink alcohol with your meal – it makes you less guarded and more likely to over-indulge. Plus it’s loaded with its own calories.
. Don’t “diet” – just eat healthily… Tried that, and it didn’t work!

Monday, 17 November 2014

More Happy Health Writer musings

Read more musings from the Happy Health Writer on my other blog at

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Good egg!

“Botox in a bottle”, “stem cells in a capsule”, “happy tablets”… when health supplements make these kind of claims my first thoughts are usually, “yeah, yeah, yeah” and “blah, blah, blah”… As a health writer, I’ve heard it all before. And usually this latest miracle product that we should ALL be taking is quickly forgotten and replaced by something else. I’m thinking of blue-green algae (surely the reason we’re supposed to keep our dogs out of the lakes in Richmond Park?!) and - what-was-it-called? – a product derived from rotting fruit. Long forgotten, these supplements did not make it into the world’s medicine cabinets and we seem to be managing perfectly well without them.
So when a friend started talking about yet another new product earlier this year, I thought, “yes… and…?” And when it turned out it was not only dodgy sounding (derived from a 9-day fertilized egg) but also sold via network marketing, memories came flooding back of said blue-green algae - promoted to me in the 80s by people who also told me they were signing up for their bodies to be frozen when they died with the expectation that they’d be brought back to life within a few decades (OMG, who would WANT their ancient decrepit body to be brought back to life in a world that had long moved on without them?!)
But I politely took the information on Laminine, this 9-day chick fetus product, and immediately forgot all about it. Until, some months later, a friend who’d also heard about it at the same time, decided to trial it.
My friend has Parkinson’s disease and has so far resisted taking any medicine for it. Instead, she has been going down a natural route, seeking out supplements to help her – albeit at a huge price. Her health store bill topped £1000 a month this time last year – but she felt she was halting the progress of her disease, even though she still had tremors when she was excited or stressed. Two things she was unable to address, however, were the constant pains all over her body, and the gnawing lethargy that prevented her going out in the evenings and put her in bed early every night.
Within weeks of starting on Laminine her pains were gone and she had more energy too. As a bonus, her dandruff had also disappeared – and her health store bills had shrunk.
After a while she wondered if she was just imagining it, and maybe another amino acid supplement (for that is what Laminine is, essentially) would work just as well. Two weeks after swapping the Laminine for a supposedly high quality and similar looking product (but not one derived from a nine day chick fetus, because Laminine is the only supplement in the world that comes from this source) she was in pain again – and sleeping badly. Two days after swapping back to the Laminine, her pain had gone again; she was sleeping like a baby, and her energy was back in the ascendant.
Interesting, I thought. But I still don’t like the idea of networking. I don’t get it and feel suspicious of the fact that the product is not marketed in shops.
And yet I was intrigued. I started looking for other case studies. There are plenty on the internet – but one woman I spoke to had a particularly interesting story to tell. She’d had a knee operation that had gone wrong, leaving her unable to straighten her leg, and only able to walk with crutches and in pain. She ached so much that she needed prescription strength painkillers, and couldn’t sleep without them. Six months after starting on Laminine, she was off all her pain meds, able to walk without crutches (except uphill when she needs one stick) – AND – her spectacles prescription had improved from 3.25 to 2.25 in her right eye. Her left eye, in which she has been completely blind since birth, was now suddenly able to see the top line of the optician’s chart – not the best sight, but an improvement on what she’d had for the past 52 years.
Still sceptical about the method by which Laminine is marketed, I agreed to meet one of the sellers - Camilla.  She told me her story. She was not an unwell woman but wanted to take the product if she was going to sell it. It arrived through the post at a time when she was seriously stressed, her scalp was itching, she wasn’t sleeping, and her periods were haywire – the doctor having told her that, at 42, she was already perimenopausal.  She claims she immediately lost ½ a stone, because she stopped craving sugar; her periods got back to normal; the itching and stress went; and she had more energy than she’d known in years.
Camilla is a business woman and was looking for a new networking opportunity, after having had huge success with Aloe Vera which she’d brought into the UK 20 years before. She’d done her research – had the company investigated – and was convinced it was worth promoting. A few months later, she travelled to Kenya to stay with a friend. While the friend immediately remarked how well Camilla looked, Camilla could only say how absolutely dreadful her friend appeared. She had terrible arthritis and had to grip one leg with her hands just to climb the stairs. No surprises - having seen Camilla's glow, she signed up for the product and is now running for buses, and making money selling the supplements to the many people who've been bowled over by the change in her... 
I have run the products’ details past nutritional therapists with mixed responses. It is new – only being officially launched in the UK this winter – so not many people know of it.
One of my contacts is keen to try it on her fibromyalgia patients, because of its track record with treating pain.
It is also said to help with blood pressure, reduce signs of ageing, aid brain function, increase libido, burn fat and curb appetite, increase muscle strength and muscle recovery, reduce stress and elevate serotonin levels. Hence its claim to be “stem cells in a capsule”, “botox in a bottle”, and indeed a “happy tablet”.
I’m keen to hear from anyone who can confirm or dispute these claims. Do get in touch…  

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Would I like to take a statin? No thank you

I recently had a routine heart health screening – the kind you get when you’re of a certain age – which concluded that I have a 13% risk of a heart attack in the next 10 years. (Or, the way I view risk, an 87% chance of NOT having a heart attack in the next 10 years). ‘There’s nothing you can do about your family history or age, both of which influence this result,’ my GP explained. ‘So it’s just a matter of eating healthily and taking enough exercise’ (which I like to think I’m already doing). The further good news was that, with my risk, the GP would not yet need to treat me with drugs.
But then, just days later, came the news that NICE now plans to suggest everyone with a 10% risk should be offered a statin…! So that would include me.
What would I do if I was offered one? Well 1) I'd hope my GP would be shaking his head and pulling a “say no” kind of face while offering the drug. And 2) I’d point out that actually I do not have high cholesterol so – whatever my overall heart disease risk - what would be the point of taking a drug to lower the already healthy level of fat in my blood? Far better to lower my overall risk by taking a blood pressure drug if I have hypertension.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the Australian cardiologist Dr Ross Walker who pointed out that you have to treat 60 people for five years to prevent one non fatal heart attack, or 260 people for 5 years to prevent one stroke – and there is no difference in mortality figures in people in either group, whether they do or don’t take statins.