Book Review: Unprocessed by Megan Kimble

Megan Kimble was a twenty-six-year-old living in a small apartment without even a garden plot to her name. But she knew that she cared about where her food came from, how it was made, and what it did to her body — so she decided to go an entire year without eating processed foods

Unprocessed: My city-dwelling year of reclaiming real food by Megan Kimble (from back cover blurb)

It has taken me too long to read this book. That’s not down to the book at all, it’s well written, and informative without being dry or excessively technical. I started reading it a few months ago before my current bout of anxiety and depression. 

One of the first indications I’m getting ill is when I struggle to read. In general I’m a real bookworm, flying through book after book. But when I’m ill I struggle to concentrate for a paragraph let alone a chapter. Reading just becomes impossible.  

Contrawise it’s a good sign I’m on the road to recovery when I feel like reading again. Last week I read two pages. Over the weekend I read six pages. Yesterday I sat down and read the two and a half remaining chapters and finished the book. The return of my concentration is hopefully a good indicator that I’m on the mend. 

I spotted this book in the wonderful Quaker Centre Bookshop last time I was in London. It leapt out at me. I’ve been worrying about the amount of processed food my family eats for some time, both in terms of its impact on our bodies and in terms of the environmental impact of its production. Yet it seems impossible to avoid. Then here was someone who had avoided it, for a full twelve months, I could read about her experience, and possibly pick up some tips. I had to buy it. 

I enjoyed it from the start. It’s clearly well researched and referenced, without the level of excruciatingly complicated scientific detail which puts casual readers like me off. The style is chatty and cheerful. While I try and avoid processed food by avidly studying labels Megan Kimble actually visits food producers, from massive industrial dairies to small breweries and distilleries. She finds out more about how labels can mislead us than I’d ever have known without her. 

I hadn’t started the book with the intention to dramatically change the way I eat. One of the things Megan demonstrates is how much work an unprocessed diet is. I knew that for me completely cutting out processed food wouldnt be practical. But it did get me thinking differently. 

Some of Megan’s conclusions shocked me. Considering dairy for example:

I try to consume less, but better. By better, I mean whole — I eat eggs with all their yolks, milk with all its fat, cheese with all its curd. Not only do fat molecules help your body to absorb the nutrients in mill, but also fat is delicious. Fat fills you up, so its easier to eat less of it. 

Unprocessed: My city-dwelling year of reclaiming real food by Megan Kimble

 This is so counter to everything I’ve been told about low fat that it seems positively revolutionary. And I don’t know if I could do it. I’ve never had whole milk, unless they gave me whole milk at school in the 1970s (until it was notoriously snatched by Thatcher.) Its been semi-skimmed or skimmed all my life. Maybe I should give it a try?

In other areas her experiments in processing he food herself led her to realise why communities and eventually big corporations developed, as the time and effort taken to produce food was better spent when sharing roles. But the soullessness of these massive corporations is evident, churning out bland additive-filled food, caring for their own profits over their customers health, causing damage to the environment and seeing animals as commodities rather than living creatures. There are lots of good reasons to avoid processed food.

One of the compelling reasons for Megan, which she quotes more than once in the book, is the realisation that we as consumers have power, and can make changes. In the UK free-range eggs and various Fair Trade products are now generally available, all due to customer pressure. 

For me, living in the north east, one of the most deprived areas of the country, the argument about investment in the local economy also resonated. If I spend £100 on food at one of the big supermarkets most of that money will leave the region, going instead to shareholders and parent corporations. If I buy locally produced food with that £100 much more of it stays in the region, supporting the local economy. 

Unprocessed food is more expensive though, and we all have to decide where we spend our money. Whether its £5 or £50 it will make a difference. I try to buy organic and unprocessed, but its a fine balancing act between what I want and what I can afford. I often have to compromise.

If I had to have a negative, and its a very unimportant negative, the book was very much embedded in the American systems of agriculture and processing. This is only natural, it’s where it was written and the audience it was initially written for. But it let me wondering whether things are the same here, and how I would find out. And she just did food, a mammoth task in itself, but what about the chemicals we have around us all the time? Toiletries, cleaning products, plastic. I had unanswered questions. However I think inspiring me to look further into something is the mark of a good book, not of the author missing something out. 
All in all a good read, and one I’d recommend. 

You can visit Megan Kimble’s website to find out more about her year unprocessed. 

Fat & Fit? #NewcastleCan

It’s been a while since I posted a Newcastle Can update. My mental health wobble has been of more focus lately, but this isn’t because I’ve forgotten my physical fitness. 

An explanation for new readers: Newcastle Can is a local project to get my city working together to change the way we live and become healthier. Their website is here, and you my previous posts about it are listed here.


I’ve been signed up to Newcastle Can for four and a half months, and I’m seeing significant progress. My weight loss has stalled, which is disappointing, however my body shape is definitely changing and I’m feeling fitter. I’ve lost 17cm off my waist, my skinny jeans are far less skinny than they were, and I’m going to have to start investing in new clothes soon! Its made me realise that weight isn’t the only way to measure progress. 

While I’ve been off work I’ve been doing significantly less steps each day, rarely hitting my 10,000 daily steps total. I’ve also been eating more unhealthy snacks, because the link between stress and food is one I’ve not been able to completely sever. I’m nowhere near the volume of sweet treats I used to eat, but over my self-imposed one a week limit. I’m not stressing about this, because at the moment getting well is the priority. I’m still doing a lot more cooking from scratch, of healthier meals.

I am proud that despite how unwell I’ve been I’ve kept up my regular additional exercise. I’ve made it to Dancercise every week, and only missed my weekly gym session one time, when I was in bed with migraine. It’s at the gym in particular that I’m really seeing the improvements. A few weeks ago I struggled to do 10 reps on some of the machines, now I’m up to 30. When I first went I struggled to do 3 minutes on the elliptical trainer, now I’m up to 15. 

I had worried that only being able to go once a week to the gym would mean the results were limited, and am happy to have been proved wrong. Would I get better results if I went more often? Probably. But the whole point of the Newcastle Can challenge is making sustainable changes. I usually get a 90-105 minute session, enjoy it, and leave feeling energised. That’s good. I don’t want to force myself to do more than I can manage, getting to a stage where fitting it in becomes something else to stress about. It’s about making the most of the time I have.

So it’s going well and I feel fitter. But I’m still a long way off a healthy weight. So am I healthy? There was a lot in the news last month when scientific research debunked the “Fat but fit myth.” You can read what the Guardian wrote about it here. I found it disheartening. And I also think it over simplifies it. Fit/unfit isn’t a binary thing, getting fitter is a gradual process, not a sudden thing that magically happens when you hit your ideal BMI. I am certain that I’m physically fitter now than I was when I joined Newcastle Can. I’m not yet the healthiest I could be, but I’m making gradual improvements and heading in the right direction. And the important thing is I’m keeping up the changes I’ve made, which will benefit me long term. Yes, I may be more at risk than someone with a healthy BMI, but I’m sure my risk levels are dropping as the weeks of healthy eating and more activity go on. 

I’m interested to hear what’s working for other people. Are you trying to get fitter, and have you found something that works for you? Can someone be fat and fit, or at least fat and fitter? Let me know what you think. 

Resetting My Brain To Battle Anxiety.

When my anxiety becomes so chronic and debilitating that I can’t hold it together for a couple of hours, let alone a full shift, as happened last week, I retreat. 

For ten days I’ve hardly left the house. I did a supermarket shop, but used the ‘scan as you shop’ so I wouldn’t have to interact with anyone. I did make it to Dancercise on Saturday, but drove there and back to minimise the potential social contact. I was glad I got there, it does me good mentally as well as physically. Other than that I’ve only spoken to my family and left the house to walk the dogs. Where I’ve had to communicate with people I’ve done it in writing.

The last few days I’ve felt slightly less anxious. Its come and gone, rather than the constant barrage of catastrophising thoughts they’ve ebbed and flowed. In the gaps between the anxiety there’s been nothing. Numbness, inertia, nothingness. 
Despite a million things to do I’ve struggled to move off the sofa. Getting dressed has seemed a monumental challenge that requires several hours of sofa-sitting before I can attempt it. While on the sofa its been hard to concentrate on anything. I’ve played repetitive games on my phone or spent time colouring (another of my many u-turns, I was convinced it was just a fad, then tried it and found it helpful.) I’ve thought about how thirsty I am but not managed to summon the energy to get to the kitchen to make a drink. 

I think this is my brain resetting itself. As if my subconscious has noticed the state I was in and decided the only way forward is a reboot. 

Image from quickmeme.com

Yesterday, after a morning of inertia and numbness, I suddenly felt alive. Like I needed to do something. I baked, I tidied, my daughter and I sorted out some clutter. I made a new meal and wrote a blog post. I didn’t feel anxious. 

Of course it’s not as simple as that. No magic fixes. If the secret to mental wellness was to reset your brain by taking a few days feeling numb, well, Britain wouldn’t have the epidemic of mental ill health we seem to at present. 

This morning I was numb and unable to motivate myself again. 

This afternoon I had to go out, and I had to speak to people. I was slightly afraid that I was only feeling a bit better (numb does feel a bit better than anxious) because of my voluntary isolation. What if I fell apart again the moment I got near people?

I did OK. 

The anxiety tried to make an appearance while I was shopping with my daughter (I refused to ask a sales assistant for help finding things) but I was able to overcome it (I did ask about a discount we’d heard we might be entitled to). 

It tried to appear again when on the way to my son’s youth club (we were running very early) but again I overcame it (better early than late, right?)

Anxiety tried to appear a third time when I got to the gym (everything had been moved around) and for a third time I overcame it (I want and asked when I couldn’t find one of the machines I wanted to use.)

So for today I’m beating anxiety, 3 – 0. 

Managing a few hours active a day is not the same as being recovered, but its a step in the right direction and I’m celebrating the achievement. Hopefully I can keep building on it. 

Trying new veggies: Pak Choi #NewcastleCan

My quest to eat helthier continues! This weeks veggie bag included another new to me veg, pak choi. This one I did at least recognise, but I’d never bought or cooked it before. Luckily a quick trawl of Pinterest turned up several recipes, and I decided to adapt this Stir Fry Pak Choi recipe.

I doubled up the ingredients, as we have 4 adults in our house. I was using what I had in, so substituted rapeseed oil for the sesame oil in the recipe. I also omitted the chillies, as both my son and I have no stamina when it comes to spicy food. As I was cooking a main meal rather than a side I added noodles too.

As the cooking time was really short I got myself organised and prepared everything before I started cooking. There wasn’t much to do, chop the garlic and ginger, separate the stems and leaves of the pak choi, and mix the soy oil.

All prepared!

Cooking was quick..

A couple of minutes for the garlic and ginger.
Another couple of minutes with the stems…
Add the leaves and carry on stirring for a couple of minutes more.

I added the noodles at the same time as the stock and soy oil and upped the amount of vegetable stock to 800mls. Let it bubble away for three or four minutes until most of it had absorbed. And voila.

Finished stir fry.

Quick and tasty. It used slightly more oil than most of the healthy recipes I’ve been trying, and because of the soy sauce slightly more salt too, but well within healthy limits. There was some initial reluctance from some of the family, due to the pak choi stems resembling celery. After establishing it didn’t taste like celery they got stuck in and pronounced it very tasty and definitely a recipe I should try again.

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Newcastle Can is the project I’ve signed up to which is inspiring all my healthy eating and exercise. It aims to get the city healthier and help residents lose 100,000lbs over the year. To find out more click here

Dancing, Memories, Exploration, Cooking – a good weekend.

Saturday morning was my fourth Dancercise session. It seems I can still get either my legs or my arms moving in time, never both. Despite that I am improving. Certainly I’m managing more of the high impact moves now, and feeling confident enough to sing along. Its doing me good at many levels.

After a shower and change my partner and I headed off across the Pennines for a night away, a much needed break. Our destination was chosen because I wanted to visit my dad’s memorial bench and the place we scattered his ashes. 

I like to think I’m all scientific and logical, I know he isn’t really there. I believe he’s still alive in our hearts and memories more than in the place we left his physical remains, but science and logic can only get you so far. Sometimes I need to be in a place he loved, to take a few moments to be quiet and remember him, away from the busy, challenging turmoil of everyday life. 

It’s changed, but everything changes. His bench had been revarnished and repositioned to face the meadow where his ashes were scattered.

The view from dad’s bench.

The tree that used to stand in the meadow is long gone, but a darker patch of grass showed me where it had been, and closer examination revealed some remaining bits of tree stump. I felt a connection to how it had been when my dad knew it, despite the changes. The bee hives were busy, the sun shining, the gardens beautiful. It was evening and felt like summer. I was glad I’d gone.

We had dinner in a local pub. My tactic to try and eat healthily when eating out is to go for either fish or salad, and the red snapper was delicious, but the meal was considerably less healthy than it could have been due to the marvellous dessert! We had a long walk through the town, possibly confusing the folk outside the local pubs as we walked through the market square several times in an hour, from every possible direction. 

The following morning we decided to set off early but stop and explore Kendal on the way back. Despite confusing signage (one signpost directed us down a back alley at the end of which was the river and no further directions!) we eventually reached the castle, glorious in the sunshine and well worth the climb up the hill. We could see for miles.

Kendal Castle.

Home and back to reality. Dogs to walk, family to feed, all the everyday things to do. I didn’t want to spend a long time making tea, and after the indulgences of the weekend I definitely wanted it to be healthy. Our veg bag this week included cabbage, so I decided to have another go at this Garlicky White Beans and Greens Pasta recipe. Last time I tried it I hadn’t cut the greens small enough, so it had a slight raw cabbage vibe which wasnt exactly appealing. This time I was without beans, which I replaced with chickpeas, and rosemary, which I replaced with oregano (that and mint seem to be the only herbs flourishing in the garden at the moment.) It turned out well, definitely better than my last attempt and I’ll certainly be using the recipe again. 

All in all a good weekend. If I could only have stopped my anxious mind worrying about the week ahead it would have been perfect. Howeve there were times over the weekend when my brain was still, and that’s an improvement on recent weeks, so I’ll take it. 

Trying new veggies: Chard #NewcastleCan

The main positive change I’ve made in trying to eat more heathily since signing up to the Newcastle Can challenge has been adding more fresh fruit and veg to my diet. Most of the other changes have been negatives, reducing this, limiting that and cutting down on the other. To help with the fruit and veg I’ve signed up for weekly organic bags, as I explained in That’s what apples look like!

This weeks veggie bag had another new to me vegetable, a bag full of leaves labelled CHARD. Like the purple sprouting broccolli it’s something I’d heard of but never cooked with. I’m getting braver with new things, and am spending a lot of time searching online for recipes which include whatever’s in this weeks bag. Last week I made both Rhubarb and Ginger Muffins and Dark Chocolate Rhubarb Brownies, to the delight of my kids who’d begun to worry that the healthy eating meant I’d never bake again. It was a challenge not to forget being healthy and eat them all once I’d made them, but I coped!

I found this recipe for spaghetti with cauliflower and garlicky swiss chard gremolata after much browsing on Pinterest, and clicked through despite not knowing what ‘gremolata’ was. I was heartened by the fact that I had most of the ingredients to hand, and totally won over by it being described as an ‘oops recipe’. This perfectly describes most of my creations in the kitchen! 

There were minor challenges though, and its a mark of how comfortable I’m getting at cooking and improvising that I stuck with it. 

Challenge 1. No spaghetti. I am the sort of person who can’t eat soup without slopping it down my chest, so really messy food like spaghetti is rarely on my shopping list. I replaced it with 300g of wholemeal penne pasta.

Challenge 2. No food processor. As I mentioned way back in Kneading to Stop Thinking there was an incident with a dog, a hob and an almost fire. I’ve still not replaced the broken bits, partly due to lack of funds but also due to lack of motivation, to be honest I’ve been managing fine without. 

This recipe calls for the cauliflower and chard to be pulsed until the bits are the size of grains of rice, so I had to adapt this to my food processor free kitchen. 

The cauliflower seemed straightforward – just grate it. I decided to try the finer side of the grater, but one floret took ages, and even on a bank holiday there’s a limit to the time I want to spend in the kitchen, so I decided grating the florets on the coarse side and the stalks on the fine side led to near enough rice sized pieces. After 10 minutes the cauliflower looked like this:

The chard I decided just to chop as finely as I could with scissors, using the effective but not very high finesse method of grabbing a handful and chopping slivers off the edges until it was all done. 

I also had to consider how much chard was a bunch? One handful, two handfuls, the whole bag? This is the sort of lack of detail that used to terrify me away from new recipes, but the more I cook the more confident I am at just giving it a go and hoping. I decided as I’d only had a small cauliflower to use the whole bag of chard.

The chopped chard looked like this, and I added a dash of hope that the pieces being much bigger than rice sized wouldn’t affect the taste too much!

My only other alteration to the recipe was to skip the red pepper flakes as I didn’t have any.

I think it turned out well, if a little more bodged and less beautiful than the original! The family agreed it was very tasty. Because I’d used less pasta it made 5 portions rather than 6, so my partner and I now need to decide who’ll be the antisocial one breathing garlic fumes over our colleagues tomorrow! It’s definitely one I’ll make again, when chard and cauliflower next appear in my veg bag. 

Count Spatula approves!

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!