With Christmas approaching and the unbridled food-fest that comes with it, I thought I’d do a post about food.
I’ve had a slightly uncomfortable relationship with food for much of my life, although the reasons behind these issues have shifted over time.
The Childhood bit
For the majority of my childhood, I was very lean indeed. I say majority because I was on the large-size as a baby. I believe mostly because when I went onto solid food, I still rather liked all other food sources as well. But they I started growing fast and that seemed to kick the metabolism into shape.
At home, my parents tended to cook everything from scratch and meal times were sat down at the table as a family and eating ‘proper’ food. I ate plenty of sweets too, but for one reason or another, I was able to burn off those extra calories without having to consciously do something about it.
Off the wagon
In fact things remained this way until after university when I first had my own place. I had a 9-5 sedentary desk job and although I walked 3ish miles on a daily basis in my commute, but that was it. I’ve written before about my negative experiences of sport in school, but the net result was that I didn’t take any meaningful exercise and would be out of breath running for the train on the occasions when I cut it a bit fine. And whilst I grasped the theory of cooking, I was somewhat lazy. It’s difficult to be motivated to cook for one, and so I regularly lived off pre-processed meals, often in large portions.
It was only following a routine GP visit that I went on the scales and was told curtly that I was overweight which, at that time, was a bit of a shock to me. My blood-pressure was high also, but I’d managed to convince myself that was a genetic thing as both my parents had high blood pressure.
Back on the wagon
I think at the time I took the matter quite personally. Almost ‘how dare they say I’m overweight?’ However, it was the catalyst to clean up my diet and to start a bit of running. This is years before parkrun was a thing, and it was all a solo effort as I didn’t feel I fitted into the group of people that might join a running club – I was rubbish at sport after all, wasn’t I?
I lost about a stone in 6 weeks and the surgery panicked that I was doing some sort of crash diet. Which I wasn’t. I was just being a bit more sensible about things.
Food allergies a go-go
Everything settled down on this front for about 18 months. I had met my late-husband in this period, done a few 10k and half-marathon races and was physically in decent shape. However, for reasons that nobody has really been able to explain, my immune system decided to throw a curve ball. Over the summer of 2007, I progressively became allergic to lots of foods that I was eating. It started with tomatoes, and apples, and oranges & bananas & pears. Red fruit. Salad. Green vegetables.
I had a conflict between what I was supposed to be eating (the GP helpfully advising me to maintain my 5 a day) and what my body was doing, which was ulceration of my throat and tonsils and swelling in my tongue and lips. As it was happening so piecemeal and so rapidly I didn’t know what was setting off the reactions at first and it took a lot of effort to find the link to the food; you see my natural response to feeling run-down was to eat al the ‘correct stuff’. However, it turns out that here lay the problem.
I finally received a diagnosis after a huge amount of tests (cameras inside many parts of me I’d never envisaged the BBC going in to make a documentary) – Oral Allergy Syndrome if you want to look it up. It was a relief only in that in confirmed what I already knew, and that this thing was actually happening, regardless of what the GP was saying (apparently it was all in my head, which given the ulcers were in my mouth and throat I suppose was technically true but anyway……….)
Elimination diets are the only way forward in this situation and I did discover that cooking most of the problem foods prevented a reaction occurring. I also discovered I could limit the impact of the reaction with anti-histamine, which at least gave me a back-up plan should I miss an allergen and have a reaction.
So you can see why I have hang-ups about food. And to be fair, GPs. I love food, don’t get me wrong. It just doesn’t love me back in quite the same way!
Over the following 9 years, everything seemed stable. I had to watch what I ate, and believe me, it’s a challenge trying to explain to people what you can and can’t eat when I’m out and about with many people seemingly assuming these things are just a fad. But I was training and racing well and my weight didn’t budge in any direction seemingly regardless of what I was eating. Which is a nice place to be, but also a dangerous one. And for reasons unknown, whilst I’m still allergic to most of above list, I’m able to eat raw oranges and bananas these days. And onions………
What happens when you stop training but keep on eating a lot….?
In 2018. I took a break from my training. Over the past 4 seasons I’ve trained for road marathons, and along the way picked up a number of injuries that wrecked the plans and were generally very annoying. I decided instead I would try out some new challenges, take on some fell races but quit the endless long runs which seemed to break me each year. I’ve had a lot of fun this year (you’ll have seen the long stream of race reviews from 2018) without feeling that everything was being directed towards a marathon which I may or (more likely) may not make the start line of.
I didn’t think much of it really. My fitness seemed OK, although hindsight now suggests that it wasn’t so rosy. The battery in the bathroom scales had given up and I’d not got around to replacing it. In fact it was only at the English Half Marathon in September that I really felt out of sorts. It was a course that was very straightforward (flat) compared to my normal races, yet I was slow and lethargic. I got home, put a new battery in the scales and hey presto, discovered I was a stone heavier than I had been when I’d previously checked. No great surprise as despite knocking the training on the head, I was still eating the same amount. Chickens coming home to roost etc!
It was at this point I realised I’d never really thought about portion sizes. Or about the calorific content of anything I had ever eaten. And to be honest I felt pretty stupid given I’m an active person these days and had a decent education at some point in the dim and distance past.
Eating the truth
Having done a bit of researching I installed MyFitnessPal on my phone. To be honest in the first instance I didn’t really like it and wasn’t convinced of its accuracy – digging into some of the finer details certainly exposed big holes in the data they were using in their database. Perhaps it was simply that the target I set myself to lose the excess was more than I was initially ready to accept. The suggested figure only just covered my 3 daily meals with little leeway. However, I stuck with it, and the weight came off over a period of a couple of months, carefully tracking the progress with my weight as well as my energy levels.
For me the power in this app was in the numbers. And we all know how much I like numbers! But seriously, knowing a total daily figure and then seeing how each foodstuff contributed to that total was very powerful. Staples such as wholemeal bread and rice were much more calorific than I had believed, so clearly eating my weight in jam butties for supper was never going to help the cause!
Onwards to Christmas
I guess it’s fortunate in a way that my weight gain was simply down to lazy food and a reduced training load and as a result, it was simple to change. Refined sugar products are out of the house now, as are the pre-packaged meals that had started to creep back in. Cooking from scratch wins on a health and cost front, although I did have to stop my regular cooking when I ran out of freezer space to store the additional portions I’d made.
And actually it’s the portion sizes that have been the surprise. As I started the diet I presumed that my portion sizes were too big. Because that’s what we’re always told is the problem. I’m now finding the opposite to this; my standard meal portions didn’t actually cover my calorific needs according to MyFitnessPal. I’m aware enough to actually go on feel over and above any numbers as they’re based on averages rather than being tailored to me. Hence the continuing with the scales. It’s less about putting weight on now, and more about not losing any more weight.