Imagine you live in the stone age when wild animals were not just going through your dustbins of an evening but threatening to eat you and your children. The regime, we may surmise, was feast or famine. After a prolonged period of stress (how much fun do you think living off berries and roots and fending of the local bear actually was?) comes at last the day when the young bucks are successful and bring home meat for dinner. Party time. The big fire gets going, alcohol is unleashed, the resident shaman is warming up and at last there’s hot food, streaming with animal fat. General rejoicing. Nobody back then said ‘I only want a little’, ‘No meat for me’ or ‘I’m sorry I’m on the 5/2′. When there was food, everybody ate what they could get because who knew how long it would be before there was meat and fat again. Simple.
Now imagine you are a new baby, unused to being out of the womb, unused to being on your own, oh and you’ve never been hungry before. (The placenta used to deliver all of your needs before you knew you had them.) Suddenly you’re out in the world and hunger is pretty frightening. Warm sweet milk (our own animal fat), when it arrives, is an end to all suffering. Party time. Eat all you can get. This regime too is feast or famine because just a few moments’ hunger feels like a famine to the infant – witness the noise they make which rivals a fire alarm and produces just one desire in any nearby adult. Make It Stop. The milk almost invariably arrives with a caring person attached so you get company, physical pleasure and an end to some nasty feelings all in one hit. You feel great. Simple.
These two scenarios explain how it is second nature to cheer ourselves up and relax (or self-medicate as the psychs say) with ‘unhealthy’ food. It wasn’t unhealthy food back then (either in the cave or in infancy). It was just what we needed. Have you noticed that under stress the body effortlessly chooses high calorie foods? Bad morning? Before you can turn round the body will have hoovered up a bag of dried fruit and nuts from Pret. (Real food but high cal.) Adding insult to injury, it then tends to hang on to all the calories as long as possible, slowing down your metabolism, rather than burning them up efficiently. When the nervous system has been under threat and then that threat is removed the body wants to eat, eat, eat – and we’re not talking salads here. The body, in its wisdom, wants to restore its wellbeing by wolfing down the highest calorie food it can lay its hands on.
What was an intelligent response in the stone age isn’t so great today when the only threat has been a ticking off from the boss, a tube strike or a visit from your mother. Your nervous system does not distinguish between the agony of the working mother with a sick child and the heart-pounding flight from the sabre-toothed tiger. Your nervous system has all its alarm bells ringing (‘My office, now!’ ‘Can you come home?’ ‘It’s only me…’) just as if your life were in danger. When your break comes a doughnut or some chocolate or a Big Mac may feel like the very thing that will restore your sense of well-being because you feel as though you’ve run a marathon and it’s only 11am. But then comes the kick-back. The voice that makes you feel worthless.
That endless monologue about what you’ve ‘earned’, what you ‘deserve’ has no place in your food choices. What to do?
Back to basics. When we eat those high-fat, high-sugar things we are trying to restore our sense of well-being. They taste good in the mouth but they also signal to the body that the threat is past and the sympathetic nervous system (what a misnomer) can throw itself on the sofa and watch TV for a while. Chill, if you will. In a word, our evolutionary heritage is on the side of MacDonalds. Show it a burger, steak and chips, pancakes with maple syrup and butter and it rolls up its sleeves and digs in before you can say Weightwatchers. As so often, our evolution into human beings is in microcosm replicated by our journey from embryo to adult. If we call ‘bad’ the very foods that produce the sensations of physical safety and which mimic our earliest, sweetest experiences of love it is a short step to confusion, anger and eventual revolt. (The revolt will be high calorie, trust me).
So how can we drag our bodies out of the stone age, out of infancy and into the present where there is no shortage of food and where the ever-present danger is of ruining our health through over-eating? Here is a step by step guide.
- Abandon the notion of good and bad. This is not about being good. Reward and punishment have no place in our diet.
- Focus on what the food represents for our physiology – that loving attempt to restore our well-being.
- Feel into the kindness of that attempt – this is love for ourselves, a way of looking after ourselves.
- As you feel into the kindness bring in the knowledge you have of your own situation and what you know about food so that something can emerge which will respect exactly where you are.
- ‘Your own situation’ means your health, how much running about you’ve done today, what the rest of the day holds. If you’re in ill health, can’t run about and tonight you’re out to dinner somewhere fun, you need to choose your lunch and snacks with a kind and light hand. If you’ve already done a work out, you haven’t sat down all day and tonight will be a boiled egg and soldiers (my favourite supper when I’m on my own) you need some energy and your lunch should reflect that.
- Never again think of things you put in your mouth as ‘treats’. Inherent in the word is that good/bad splitting which keeps us rebelling and eating heavy.
So here is the best brownie recipe I know of. It is also shamingly easy. Humour your body by making them and having a taste each day for a couple of days. Share them widely and you will be much loved and go straight to heaven.
Ultimate Chocolate Brownies (adapted from Gary Rhodes’ recipe)
10 ozs caster sugar
8 ozs unsalted butter
3 ozs cocoa
3 ozs plain flour
8 ozs plain chocolate
4 ozs hazelnuts or pecans, chopped
4 ozs white chocolate in chunks
Whisk eggs and sugar. Melt the butter and add. Then add flour and cocoa. Melt the plain chocolate and add that. Then the nuts and the white chocolate.
Grease a shallow tin and bake at 180 degrees for 25 minutes. Cool before cutting into very small rich cubes. Eat with creme fraiche and raspberries adjusting the ratio of cake to fruit according to your situation.