That’s what apples look like! #NewcastleCan

My teenage daughter is looking suspiciously at the fruit bowl. I blame myself for this. 

It’s not that she doesn’t eat fruit. It’s that the fruit she’s used to is generally supermarket bought; uniform, highly-shined fruit, available all year whatever the weather. 

A couple of years ago I read Swallow This: Serving Up The Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets, by Joanna Blythman* and learned about some of the processes that happen to supermarket fruit to keep it shiny and fresh looking. I was horrified. I thought I was feeding my kids healthy fresh fruit, but it turns out its covered in chemicals the shops don’t need to declare because what they’re doing to the fruit counts as a process not an ingredient. 

There seems to be so much to worry about when buying food anyway, excess packaging, food waste, air miles, palm oil, E numbers, fats, sugar, carbohydrates, cholesterol… It’s all too much to take in – so I just filed the information away in my brain and kept buying the fruit. Because some fruit is better than none, and they wouldn’t be allowed to use anything dangerous, would they? 

I’m currently reading Unprocessed: My City Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food, by Megan Kimble* and it’s got me thinking about the issue of processed food all over again. In trying to get healthier for the Newcastle Can challenge I’ve been trying to cook more meals from scratch, less take always, less frozen chips, more fruit and veg. But if the fruit and veg I’m buying from the supermarket has already been sprayed with pesticides, shined with wax, and coated with chemicals to make it last longer is it still healthy? 

I don’t think I could completely avoid processed foods but I would like to avoid more of them. I think there’s a connection between the increase in obesity and the rise in power of the food industry. I’m no dietician or nutritionalist, I’m just a very confused ordinary person who wants to do better. But where do I start? 

In the introduction to Unprocessed Megan Kimble describes how a simple suggestion made her see things in a totally different way: “Spend money better.” Her example uses American dollars, but I imagine it would be similar in the UK. 

“If a community the size of Tuscon shifted 10 percent of its spending to local businesses – a 10 percent shift, not an increase – within one year, we would create almost $140 million revenue for the city. What this also means, I realise, is that we would withhold that $140 million from the balance sheets of those corporations that then use our money to influence government policy, to grow unsustainable food, to waste energy – and to process and sell us foods that aren’t good for us. 

This came as a revelation to me too. I mean, I knew buying local was a good thing. I try to support small local businesses rather than big chains when I’m treating myself to cake and coffee, going out for a meal or buying gifts, but it had never occurred to me to do the same for my food shopping. The supermarket is just where you buy your food, it has been all my life (although, at the risk of sounding like a grumpy old woman, the supermarkets when I was little were very different from the massive 24 hour stores I’m used to now).

For a while in the late 90s/early 00s I got organic veg delivered. But my budget was tight and organic food started being available much more commonly in the supermarkets, so I stopped. As money got tighter I started only buying organic for the things we eat raw, and gradually only buying organic if it was reduced to clear.

I like to think of myself as frugal rather than penny-pinching, careful rather than tight-fisted. I like a bargain, who doesn’t? As prices have been going up much faster than wages for quite a while I need to watch what I spend, as do most people. 

But I want to put my money where my mouth is. I don’t want to just whinge and worry about processed food, excess packaging, sustainability, air miles and the rest. I want to do something. And I think it would be great if as well as bringing the city together to get healthier the Newcastle Can project boosted the local economy! 

So I’ve signed up to a trial weekly fruit and veg scheme from North East Organic Growers. It felt really expensive, but then I’ve never paid for a full months worth of fruit and veg in one go before. And given what I’m saving on take-aways since signing up to Newcastle Can I have some spare cash.

Every week my fruit and veg is delivered to a local contact person and I collect it from there. I don’t know what I’ll be getting in advance, it’s like a lucky dip and the kids are always keen to help unpack to see what’s there. There will always be staples like onions, potatoes, carrots, apples etc. but there are other things too, things I wouldn’t necessarily pick up if I was food shopping. For example purple sprouting broccoli is something I’d heard of but never cooked with, so it’s challenging me to cook new recipes and try new things. 

Veg I recognise…

… and the odd thing I don’t.
It’s also showing my kids what real fruit and veg is like. I remember when I was little strawberries were a summer treat, waited for with anticipation, then wolfed down in abundance because they didn’t keep. To my kids strawberries are just another item on a supermarket shelf year round. Yes, I’m sounding like a grumpy old woman again, but it was different when things were special, when we didn’t all expect to have everything and have it now! 

Real fruit.

So, my teenage daughter is looking suspiciously at the fruit bowl. I blame myself for this. But I’m working on putting it right.

“Those apples look weird.”

“What’s wrong with them?”

They’re not very shiny. And that one’s got speckles.”

“That’s what apples look like! Just try one.”

She liked it.

– – – – – 

Click here for an extract from Swallow This: Serving Up The Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets, by Joanna Blythman

Click here to find out more about Unprocessed, by Megan Kimble.

Ignoring my inner bully.

I was brought up to believe good attendance was incredibly important. You only missed school in our house if you were physically incapable of going. Partly this was because both my parents worked and parental leave was even more of a nightmare in the 70s and 80s than it is now, but mainly it was because it was the right thing to do. 

You’re supposed to be at school, you make every effort to go. You’re supposed to be at work, you get there. You have obligations, you’ve made a commitment. You do it because you’re better than the layabouts, the slackers, the people who don’t try their best. You get on in life by working hard. You stay busy.

Its a mindset that has stuck with me and it’s not uncommon. Every workplace has its share of people who hardly ever phone in sick as they try to struggle on despite cold, headache, fever etc. Good managers will send these people home, both to give them time to recover and to protect the other staff from the germs, but other workplaces expect staff to work through illness, penalising sick leave and treating those who are unwell with contempt.

I once worked for an organisation where “Staff Health” was used as an intimidation technique by managers, if you didn’t stop disrupting their business by being so selfishly unwell they threatened to get rid of you by sending you to Staff Health. I know people who’ve worked for organisations where the staff health systems were well used and supportive of staff with ongoing medical conditions, as it’s surely designed to be. I think it just shows bad managers will treat people badly with whatever tools are at their disposal. 

If I find it really hard to take sick leave when I’m physically sick, it’s even harder when it’s my mental health that’s failing. I saw my GP this morning and was advised not to go back to work just yet. I know I’m struggling, I know I can’t do my job as well as I should just now, and the anxiety about everything would just keep building til I broke if I went to work. 

And yet there’s that bullying voice in my head “There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re perfectly fit. If you can get out to walk the dogs you can get out to go to work. Why are you just lounging about doing nothing? The world would grind to a halt if everyone just gave up whenever they felt sad or worried. You useless waste of space.” And so on. 

But there is something wrong with me, and just because it’s not visible doesn’t mean it’s not real. My whole pattern of thinking is scewed just now. My reaction to any sort of decision making is a fight or flight panic, heart pounding, head hammering, sweaty, breathless fear. The fact I recognise it’s illogical doesn’t make it stop. I know from past experience that if I try to do things when I’m wobbling like this I will just keep getting worse, until I no longer recognise this scewed thinking as illogical. That is where the real danger lies. 

So the break I wrote about last week in Stopping is becoming longer. I will take this time to reset, to ease my mind, get to grips with altered medication, grow my strength. It’s not selfish, it’s necessary. I will try to ignore the voice telling me otherwise. I will try to do things that will fill my spiralling mind without worrying that I should be at home in bed since I’m too ill to work.* 

If I’d injured myself I wouldn’t think it was selfish to go to physio or occupational therapy, so why is self care for mental health seen so differently? Why does our society make us feel guilty for being ill, being less than perfect? Why does what’s visible matter most?

I’m trying to be more open about my mental health, to feel less embarrassed and ashamed of my lack of control of it. I have decades of trying to hide it to overcome, but I know talking about these things helps to normalise them, I know I’m not the only one struggling. Its really helped me to know strong people who were open about their mental health challenges. I don’t feel strong yet, but I’m done feeling guilty for something I can’t help. 

Slightly the worse for wear, but still beautiful.

* I first wrote this section with “I need to” instead of “I will…” but I remembered what I’d written earlier this month about using need too often, and decided I sh/would be more decisive about it! 

It’s Official! 

I’m just back from seeing the nurse, and it’s official – I’ve lost 1 stone and 5 pounds since my last health check. That was back in November, but I know I’ve lost most of that since I signed up to #NewcastleCan, 1 stone 1 pound since late January. 

I knew I’d lost weight, my clothes feel bigger, and my scales at home were telling me my weight was dropping, but having it confirmed feels good. A small paranoid part of me wondered about faulty scales or stretched fabric. In fact the official scales had me 3lbs lower than my scales at home!

My blood pressure is down. I don’t get the cholesterol results until next week but I’m hopeful that’s also moving in the right direction. While I was there I also had a smear test, which I only mention because I know lots of women either don’t go at all or put it off, so I’m reminding you it’s a normal thing to do and it’s important. 

So how have I made and stuck to healthy changes?

Going slowly and making small changes
  • Cutting unhealthy snacks, first at work and then completely. If I’m hungry now I have fruit or nuts.
  • Limiting treats, e.g. one cake a week and one take away a month.
  • Cooking from scratch as often as possible rather than buying heavily processed food.
  • Upping the vegetables in recipes and reducing the other ingredients.
  • Reducing dairy, a maximum of one milk based drink a week and much less cheese.
  • Walking as much as possible and pushing myself with stairs and hills.
  • Telling people, so I feel more compelled to stick to my new rules.
  • Recording what I eat, honestly including all snacks, and understanding better how many calories are in my food.
  • Allowing myself exceptions, but being mindful about them, e.g. It’s fine to eat out with friends but I try to pick something small, or salady, or I exercise more that week to work off the extra calories. 
  • Reminding myself of my success and not stressing out of the scales don’t move one week.

I feel physically healthier, and I want to celebrate that and keep improving.

As today is World Health Day 2017 with a focus on depression and mental health I’ll be honest and say that despite my physical improvement I am still very up and down with my mental health. In general I think I’m better than I was, but the lows are very low when they come. I do recognise them now, and try my best to give myself some space and time to myself to recover, which is movement in the right direction. I wonder if the lows seem so low because my general mood is better? I’m not sure. 

What I am sure of is that physical health and mental health are linked. So I’m hopeful that the more I improve physically the less frequent the lows will be. 

A like this video from MIND recognising the importance of exercise to mental health:

Wednesday walk. #NewcastleCan

My son and I have a deal. If I walk at least 10,000 steps after dropping him off at youth club I can have a piece of cake before I pick him up. 

I’m trying to make my walks more strenuous. I don’t have a lot more time I could give to walking each week, so to try and get fitter I’m trying to make the walking I do have more impact. I suppose I could join a gym, and I know many people who have done so and love it, but for the moment I’m too nervous, too used to exercising alone.

So, how to add impact to my stepping?

I’m doing it with stairs and hills. I go along the Quayside, up one flight and down the next. I have a little circuit that I challenge myself with. It’s a flight of approximately 80 steps up, a little hill, a flight of 30 or so steps down, then along the flat to get my breath back before I go again. I’m up to four loops now, and this week for the first time I managed to run up the entire first flight. Definite improvement. By the fourth circuit my legs feel like jelly and I’m dependent on the handrails to reach the top. Maybe next week I’ll manage five times round.

Made it!
Would I get this view at a gym?
 
I’ve started throwing a little jogging into my walk. Very little, with long walks in between, and only on the flat, but it’s progress. I’m also still nervous about being seen exercising in public. I walk past the pubs.
Exposed by low tide.

The Gateshead side of the river has a fantastic walk. I do the hilly side heading out and then back along the flat of the riverside. There are hidden artworks and more daffodils than I’ve ever seen in one place before.

Is this enough to count as a host of golden daffodils?

As I head back towards town I hear, over the sound of traffic, river and birdsong, the unmistakable roar of a St James’ Park home crowd. Back over to the Newcastle side and I have so many stairs to choose from, Castle Stairs, Long Stairs, Dog Leap Stairs. I can’t run up them by now but I keep going.

I’ve done over 14,000 steps since I dropped my son off. Time for my reward! 

Worth every step!

In praise of giving it a go. #NewcastleCan

One of the benefits of taking part in NewcastleCan’s campaign to get healthier and lose weight is that I’m getting braver in the kitchen. 

For years I’ve had a shelf full of beautiful recipe books which sat on the kitchen shelf exuding cooking vibes, hardly ever used. I found them intimidating, often full of ingredients I’d never heard of, and so prescriptive that I was terrified of deviating from any step. There were a couple which were friendlier, but only a handful of recipes I used regularly.

For NewcastleCan I’m trying to avoid processed food by cooking more often, and I’m trying hard to make what I cook healthier. I’m deviating from the recipes, trying new things with less worry about how it will turn out, and getting an understanding of the impact of the food I make on my body. I’m not resorting to takeaways as often, I am eating more fruit and veg, less dairy and carbs. 

Cooking from scratch.

If I don’t have an ingredient I substitute. Sometimes it works. Usually it works. Sometimes it doesn’t, but I learn from that (learning sweet potatoes don’t take as long to cook as regular potatoes is a case in point.) Occaisionally something unexpected happens. I learn from that too. Tonight the egg in the fried rice I was making went green due to the green peppers and spinach creating excess liquid in the pan. It tasted fine, and luckily I have a family who’ll pretty much try anything! 

As well as feeling healthier and losing weight it’s saving me money. There’s less wasted food, bought with good intentions but never used. More homemade lunches taken in to work, and so less cash on lunches. And making sure I make filling meals is helping me snack less too. 

I’m hoping these are habits I’ll stick to. Of course I’ll allow myself occasional treats, but I’ll make sure they are just occasional. So far so good.

Let me eat cake! 

Don’t ban any foods from your weight loss plan, especially the ones you like. Banning foods will only make you crave them more.

From NHS weight loss tips http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/weighti-loss-guide/Pages/successful-diet-tips.aspx

This makes sense to me. 

It works psychologically: If I ban myself from eating cake and succumb by Wednesday I’ve failed, and may as well give up. Whereas if I allow myself one cake a week and succumb by Wednesday I try extra hard not to have any more cake that week.

It also works practically: It allows me to plan ahead. If I know I’m eating out at the weekend I’ll try harder to avoid cake through the week. I find it easier to try and behave healthily when I set myself targets and limits, whether it’s one cake a week, 10,000 steps a day or at least five portions of fruit and veg a day. 

I’d previously decided to allow myself a day off from my healthy eating today, having planned to take my mum out for afternoon tea. The day got even less healthy when my children woke me up with the most amazing cake they’d made.

“It looks wonderful. Thank you. I’m going to have to scrap the one cake a week rule!” 

“Ah, but it’s only one cake. We knew about the rule so we didn’t make cupcakes.”

I love kid logic. 

I decided to go with it for one day. I mean there’s no point even pretending to be healthy after chocolate cake for breakfast! 

So I also had afternoon tea. It was wonderful.

I made sure I got my 10,000 steps in, so not everything healthy stopped. I’m going to be trying extra hard to be healthy this week to make up for it. And I’m not going to beat myself up about it, even if my weight goes up a bit this week. Because I had a fabulous day with my family and enjoyed my treats immensely. I recognise how one day full of treats in many weeks is a massive improvement on the several cakes a day I used to have. And how sweet it all tasted now I’m used to eating less sugar. One sugar filled day is a sign of flexibility not of failure.

If you decide to eat sugar, choose a REALLY nice cake or similar and REALLY enjoy it. Do not feel guilty about it, just plan to eat less or less often next time.

https://marionated.wordpress.com/2017/03/15/sugar/

These boots were made for walking #NewcastleCan

In 2014, hoping to get healthier, my partner and I signed up to September for Scope. This was the first time I’d really heard of the 10,000 steps a day target. It was a massive challenge, my legs ached, I struggled to find the time to fit such a huge number of steps in. 

Stepping out.

I decided to try to keep it going after the month, and have done so fairly consistently right up to now. The physical change in me has been considerable. My walking pace has sped up considerably. I no longer have to pause to catch my breath on hills. I can run up a flight of stairs. My legs no longer ache the day after walking 10,000 steps, in fact I routinely get around 12,000 a day and more on the days I push myself. What used to feel like a long way now feels like an average walk. Where I used to drive everywhere I now think nothing of walking if my destination is a half hour or so away.

There have been other benefits. I’ve explored my community and city and found fascinating places, routes, alleys, patches of nature, public art, staircases and so on that I didn’t know existed. When I can I walk in more rural settings, where I feel even more connected to nature. I’ve never learned to read maps, but am lucky enough that many public footpaths nearby are well signposted. I said in an earlier post that walking hard challenges me physically and soothes me mentally, and this sums up for me why I’ve been able to keep going with this. 

Exploring and making friends.

The times I haven’t kept it up have been when I’ve been unwell, either physically or mentally. And I need to be kind to myself and not beat myself up for missing my step target when I’m unwell. I wouldn’t expect myself to walk 10,000 steps with a migraine or stomach bug, so why do I think I should do it when my depression and anxiety is at its worst? I was pleased to read this article which reflects my feels about this more eloquently than I could.

I saw a physiotherapist recently. She told me increased walking is one of the most sustainable increases in exercise you can do. While people drop out of gym sessions, or can’t always get to the swimming pool etc, people who walk more are likely to keep walking. To anyone struggling to get more active I’d recommend giving it a go. 

A few tips to get started:

  • Many smartphones have built in pedometers which can give you a good idea of how many steps you’re already doing.
  • Start small. If you’re only doing 3,000 steps a day an increase to 5,000 will have significant benefits, you don’t need leap straight to 10,000.
  • Make sure you have supportive comfortable shoes. Definitely don’t try to walk 10,000 steps in brand new Dr Marten’s- I did once, never again!
  • Take the stairs not the lift. When I first started I needed to stop for a breather halfway up the stairs to my son’s youth club. Now I can run up them!
  • Walk short journeys, and build walking time into your planning.
  • If you sit down all day at work go for a walk in your breaks.
  • Walk with other people. Whether for companionship or competitiveness will depend on you, but I find it does make a difference when you’re not doing it alone!

This may all seem obvious, often the hardest thing is getting started. But it does make a difference. Good luck!