Kindness and IBS

Irritable Bowel Syndrome may begin with your bowels but in my experience it makes the rest of you pretty irritable before long. We sufferers experience discomfort, sometimes severe discomfort. From time to time your clothes don’t fit and your exercise regime no longer appeals. It’s problematic to enjoy food or your favourite activities and quite quickly your life can feel out of control. This is a vicious circle as we do less of what we enjoy and limit our diet. The more it doesn’t get better the more we search the internet for cures and causes and beat our heads against the indifference of the medical profession.

So I am here today to tell you that IBS can also respond, like the rest of us, to kindness and attention. Imagine your IBS is a friendly message from your gut trying to take care of you.  IBS is a symptom not a disease and it is usually a symptom that we’re overdoing it on an emotional front. It is a message from the gut to the rest of us to lay off the accelerator and stop trying to push through stress.

Sadly when the IBS plays up we treat it like an enemy that needs to be defeated.  When we are suffering we can get caught in an endless round of looking for ’causes’ and things to blame. ‘Maybe if I stop eating wheat? Maybe if I give up meat?’ Before you know it you have a long list of good things that you are not ‘allowed’ in case your IBS plays up. IBS then feels like an enemy – we make an enemy of our own nervous system!

So here’s my suggestion as a fellow sufferer : Try it the other way round. Do the things you like, eat what you like and if you notice your tummy is sending you warning messages, take a little extra care of yourself by making a risotto or a bowl of porridge or some other food that soothes you. This pro-active but positive approach can work absolute wonders and sidesteps the self-punishing avoidance diets that many of us in desperation adopt.

The kind approach is to stop looking for the villains of the piece (so called trigger foods) and to start looking for things that help. If you can feel into the difference in that approach you will already feel the sort of kindness that can help you. One way we feel under attack from within. The other we feel we need to listen a little more to our insides.

What can we do about the stress? Just accepting that something is stressful and that you are not to blame can reduce the symptoms substantially. When you’ve chosen a new job or a new partner or another exciting development it can be easy to blame ourselves when we find it stressful … and the blame adds another layer of stress. My last bout of IBS was associated with moving house and once I’d identified it as IBS (not the 4am bowel cancer) it responded very nicely to a little love and kindness. In fact it responded immediately to the realisation that it was probably about the traumatic business of losing one home and making another. I simply allowed myself to know that I was finding the experience stressful – even though I was moving somewhere wonderful that I had chosen.

So if you are suffering from chronic or acute IBS start by making a friend of your tummy. You are both on the same side! If there are difficulties in your life (if!) start by allowing that they are there and that they are causing you stress. Do not deny yourself things but make sure you do things that you know can help. But it is the allowing that really makes the difference. If you do a yoga class or take a massage to help with the stress it will help immensely if you don’t regard it as a deal : I have to stop feeling stressed after this. Keep an open mind. Allow your body to process all your feelings and your food in its own good time. It has its own wisdom. Treat it with respect and kindness. There is no limit to the amount of kindness you are allowed to give yourself.

Tomorrow a recipe for pasta with broccoli with blue cheese! Watch this space.

 

The Search for Honey

This is another story that tells of turning away from our habitual defences and the courage of trying something new. See what happens when we tread a different path : this is really the whole of psychotherapy.

 

At last I can wait no longer and I put on layers of clothing and open the door. I have to take off my gloves again to force the door which sticks and I hurt my hand getting it open. The wind near tears the door off and outside the bleak landscape is uninviting. My mouth is full of yearning and cursing; the hunger is insatiable now. My house was built long ago with wood from the tree of wilfulness and I leave it as little as I can. The tree still grows outside my door. Its fruits are bitter but I use the wood for the fire. It makes a poor fire but the wood is plentiful.

I venture out onto the hard beauty of the tundra and after a wearisome walk of some hours, encumbered by the thick clothes woven from pride, I find a small parcel of honey in a ruined building. I hurry back to the safety of my mean home where I give the honey to the children of my need and take some myself. The sweetness of giving the little ones honey gives way, when they are asleep, to the relief of filling my own mouth with what is left. The small fire has gone out. I fall asleep in the cold, bundled in most of the clothes I own, with sugar on my lips.

But sooner or later pride and wilfulness are not enough to keep the need at bay and I must brave the journey once more. Each time I must go further. Each time there is the fear that all the honey is gone. Each time the children cry harder.

And then, after years of such journeys a different thing happens. One day the needing takes me further from home, further into the cold than I have ever been before. The fear is great. I may freeze before I get home again to the cold comfort of the drafty hut and the smokey fire. I worry even more about the children.

My steps are heavy in my old boots and I pass the many ruined buildings where I have found sweetness in the past. These ruins are my friends and lovers of old and I pass them quickly for they hold nothing for me now. Their sweetness is exhausted.

After miles of slowgoing I can see another barn or such like ahead. Out here I am so far from the settlement that it is unlikely already to have been raided and my spirits lift with unbearable hope. My breath is short and my steps quicken. I do not feel the cold; I can see already the smiles of my children as I hand them the honeycomb later tonight; I can feel the stickiness on my tongue, the fullness in my mouth, the brief orgasm as I swallow. Don’t think about that.

And I am in luck. In a forgotten corner of this hay-barn is a jar of the sweetness I so badly need, the sweetness I do not know how to make. There is a relaxation within as I know that the need will shortly be assuaged, that my mouth will be full. I secure the jar in my top coat, tighten my scarves around my face, put on my gloves and step outside once more.

This way lies home. But see, the other way, the snows of make-believe autonomy and wilfulness run out and the bare earth is showing. I have never seen the earth before lying naked and unprotected by the snow. Here it is not frozen to stone as it is where I struggle every year to plant the terrible vegetables we must live on. Here there is mud instead. I am fascinated and I walk a little further away from home to see what I can find.

But the mud turns to mire. A man-made hell of unwanted rubble and shit emerges. Junk lies in dark oily puddles and there is scarcely anywhere to put one foot after another. I will never get my boots clean again. This is where I keep my blackest thoughts, thoughts of shame and murder and revenge and hope and self-harm. It is ugly here beyond imagination. This is why I live in the pristine snow where the suffering is less. 

I am pondering this long-forgotten decision when, beyond the mud, I see a fence. It has no doors or gates in it but it is a temporary fence such as builders erect around their work to keep out trespassers. The panels of the fence are not solid, nor are they heavy but every metre or so they are held in place by metal blocks of unimaginable weight. Each panel bears a picture of me and in every weight I see a refusal to forgive. I stand in the black mud and worse and contemplate the fence. Each weight had to be forged from the metal of unforgiveness and dragged into position. I remember each instance with an effort, each instance where I closed my heart with deliberation and turned away from forgiveness, away from the awful suffering of compassion. 

The sad work of erecting that fence took years and I called it growing up. 

Eventually I think to lift my eyes from the ground at last and I am overwhelmed to see, above the fence, the pink and gold domes of San Marco. The warmth, the pleasure, the plenty of Venice awaits there, within sight. I can hear music and laughter, like a party. Venice is like a party and I recognise that this is my heart, my journey’s end. The pink and gold domes sparkle in the sunlight with an inexhaustible supply of honey and I remember that within it is dark and private. Inside the cathedral there is the glimmer of the everlasting flame reflected in the ancient, gold mosaics which celebrate the deeds of the saints. There is the jewelled altar screen and an eternal holy singing and the smell of incense as the Blessed Sacrament is offered for adoration.

I begin to pick my way through the mire towards the singing. 

Narziss and Goldmund. Two Lives.

images-2

Watercolour by Hermann Hesse

Here is a short story I wrote some years ago which I’d like to share with you on this Autumn morning. It is not difficult to see what the story is about and it is of course partly a tribute to Hermann Hesse’s work. His lovely water colour introduces the page.

 

When I was about ten there were brothers in school and privately I called them Narziss and Goldmund because they were so different from each other and yet somehow they belonged together. In the old story Narcissus can love no-one but his own reflection and his own reflection dissolves as he reaches out to grasp it. That is his suffering. But the Narziss that I knew was not like that. He had a handsome face and he wore his compassion on his open brow like a standard from the wars, like a young Hector. He worked hard, he was popular and he regularly came at the top of our class. Narziss and Goldmund loved each other but they did not understand each other.

Goldmund was subtle and his intellect glittered like a dagger with a jewelled handle. In class he was unpredictable. If only he could be more like his brother, the teachers said. He was musical and often the first you knew of Goldmund was his song coming ahead of him and the last was the music he left behind like perfume in the air. At the village dance after the harvest it was Goldmund that people watched and it was Goldmund who did not notice. The boy with the golden mouth was gregarious and attractive. But he was elusive and there was something about him which made me feel even then that he was a visitor in his own community. He was lent to us. I was not surprised when he was first to leave the village. We all turned out to see him off and all the girls swore to wait for him but he just smiled and struck out towards the first town with a small knapsack, a stick and a beautiful melody he invented himself.

There was talk of his going to Dortmund to continue his education. Some said music, others said he had gone into the church and been sent to Rome, that he was highly spoken of in the Vatican. There were even rumours that he had gone further afield, changed his name, given up everything to pursue an idea, to become an adept of the mystical practices of the East. In short, what happened to Goldmund became the stuff of local myth and in time we who had known him divided into two camps. Those whose pride he had hurt said he had burned himself out and come to nought. Others preferred to imagine him living the lives they would have liked for themselves – lives full of adventure, or of extraordinary asceticism and spiritual revelation, or perhaps of fame and adulation. In listening to this talk we learned much about each other but nothing of Goldmund.

Meanwhile Narziss had married and bought a plot of land. He built his modest house with wood from the tree of patience and turfed its roof with the flowers of honesty. He had sons who looked like him. He never spoke of Goldmund but a terrible endurance came into his eyes if you asked him about his brother. He would put his hand on his heart and he would say,

“My brother is in here and in here he can be free. That is enough.”

On Narziss’ land there ran a good stream which he used to water his crops and his animals. His wife brought water from the same stream to drink and to wash with. At the edge of his plot the stream went underground to reappear in the field beyond as a river. Narziss could see the field and the river over a gate in his hedge. The gate had been padlocked before his time and no-one now knew where the key was. In any case, the lock was thick with rust. In his heart when he was a young man, there was a yearning to enter the next field which looked so beautiful from his own land. When his family were out, Narziss had even searched the outbuildings for that key, thinking perhaps to find it in some hayloft or forgotten corner, but he never did. For a while there was a terrible conflict in his heart.

In time the yearning died down. Life became too busy for Narziss to worry much about anything but providing for his family and enjoying the prosperity that his labours brought him. By the time his sons left school to help him, he had extended his house with hard-earned stones of wisdom and he had built barns of prudence and charity against hard times. He gave work to six men and he was a person to whom others came in their need. He turned no-one away, although to each he gave from a different purse.

Years went by and his wife died; his sons did more of the hard labour on the land and Narziss had more time to look around him. In the evening, especially when the sun was setting, he liked to stand by the boundary gate and the yearning that he had known as a young man, grew in him again. Cut down like a thistle, it sprang up again more vigourous than before. His heart hankered after the field beyond where the wheat seemed always golden and waiting to be cut. With the evening sun in his eyes, Narziss sometimes thought he saw figures harvesting that wheat or resting in the stacks after their labours. Now and again it seemed, one or other of them might give him a friendly wave but they were never close enough to be sure. The river ran with milk and honey in the distance.

Narziss often looked wistfully at the rusty padlock and the tall hedge – again the conflict arose within. Why had he not dealt with these things when he was young and had his strength? His sons were busy enough now, he could not ask them to help him. Regretfully Narziss accepted that he had left it too late to strike out and find the key, too late to keep the brambles from the hedge. He had been too busy building his house, weeding his fields, providing for his family and giving charity to others. He had stilled his heart in a way that Goldmund did not know how to do and it made him sad. Perhaps after all, Goldmund had chosen the better path and he was ashamed of the judgments he had made those years ago.

He thought more often now of his brother. He remembered his laughing mouth, his bold countenance, his disregard for the everyday and his courage as he strode away from all he had ever known. He knew that in his position Goldmund would have let his land go to wrack and ruin, his children go hungry whilst he hunted for that key until he found it. He envied him a little. Why did Goldmund not suffer the same struggle as he? But I could not have been different, he told himself. It is in my nature to be steadfast and I could not abandon my duties to

follow my heart. Still I will do what I can for those who come after me, for my sons. I will bring a little piece of wire wool with me on my evening walk and I will remove the rust from the padlock though I will never be able to open it.

And that is what he did. Each evening that Summer after supper cooked by his daughter-in-law, he went down to the boundary hedge and sat by the gate. In the golden light he worked with his once skilful hands at the rust on the big, old padlock and all the while he soothed his heart with the beauty of the field nearby, the faint rushing of the river, the harmony of the figures in the distance. By the time his own crops were in the barn, the padlock was bright and well-oiled and that evening there was joy in his face as he went back to the house and to bed. It was as if, in polishing the padlock, Narziss burnished his own heart.

Autumn came and Narziss still took his walk each day. He needed a thick jacket now and a stick to help him and he leaned heavily on the gate when he got there to get his breath back before returning to the house for the night. As the months came and went it was by moonlight that he toiled down to the gate and each night it seemed further away. On such an evening with a full moon and a mackerel sky, Narziss was

rubbing his cold fingers and looking across to the river, black and silver in the moonlight, when something caught his eye. There was a figure moving towards him across the field. This he had never seen before. The people he had seen cutting wheat or making hay had always remained stationary like figures in the mind’s eye. This soul was different as it came – purposeful, deliberate and of course it was Goldmund moving easily, as lithe as when he left fifty years ago. He too had a stick, though he used it for cutting tall grass ahead with all the old energy that Narziss remembered. As he grew nearer Narziss could hear his song, a song he had heard in his dreams. As the notes settled into his old heart Narziss began to weep with love and with hope. His tears washed away the last grains of rust, the last traces of conflict within.

At length Goldmund was upon him, seemingly the same young man who had left, the same song on his lips, the same glitter in his eye. But no, now Narziss could see him close too. Goldmund too had aged. Leaner than Narziss and fitter it is true with a young man’s vigour about him, yet in his face were the lines of a life-time’s learning, the hollows of many hungry days and sleepless nights.

‘What have you learned on your travels, brother?” asked Narziss.

‘I have learned patience and fortitude’, replied Goldmund. ‘The very things you were born with. And tell me, what have you learned at home?’

‘I have learned joy,’ replied Narziss, ‘The gift you came into the world with I had to learn, and I learned it late’. They embraced across the gate and were silent a long time and then Narziss felt a movement in his heart like the spiral of the Milky Way.

‘What have you brought me, brother?’ asked Narziss.
Goldmund did not reply but put his hand deep into his shabby coat and pulled out a large key. At this Narziss was overcome and put his head on Goldmund’s shoulder for a good while.

‘Have I wasted my life, Goldmund, toiling after food and shelter? You have brought me my heart’s desire and I have nothing for you.’ He began to chastize himself but Goldmund touched his face and looked into his eyes. Narziss was quiet.

‘I am the key, brother, but you are the gate,’ said Goldmund.

When they found them next day the gate stood open, the old key in the shining lock.

Let your heart do the eating and give your brain a rest.

Now this post does not have a title that trips off the tongue easily but hear me out. This is about the mind and the heart and how we may get the best out of them. In this context the heart is not some sloppy sentimental old dear hanging like a millstone around the neck of that great warrior, the mind, and rendering it less efficient. It is the winged Sufi heart, a warrior in its own subtle way. The Sufi heart is a thing of great beauty and wisdom, a connector between body and mind, a temple within which to worship which reveals that where ever you turn, there is God’s face.

Unknown

Did you know the Buddhists do something handy when they are meditating. If they are distracted by discursive thought they simply label it ‘thinking’ and return the attention to the breath. It’s a great technique. No fighting, no arguing, just name it and return to the present. Thinking is pretty much how we run our lives here in the West. It has had a great press in these parts since the Enlightenment, so much so that we seem to have forgotten all other ways of being. Don’t get me wrong, thinking is a wonderful tool and it does things we cannot do without. Following a recipe springs to mind. Reading instructions for your new chainsaw (aargh!).

Our minds are a bit like the government. They tend to hog all the credit for what happens when it goes right and to blame the rest of the system (the body, the heart) when things go wrong. Yet the mind is wrong about all of that for our actions are rarely, as they seem, the end result of careful consideration. We now know that the body is preparing for the action you have committed to (lifting that glass of wine to your mouth) way before our minds know we have ‘decided’ to act. Monitoring our physiology reveals that the brain is already enjoying dopamine to the reward pathway while you still think you’re deciding whether to have the drink of not. Our conscious decision-making and careful weighing of evidence is not quite as linear a process as it feels. If you don’t believe me take a look at The Decisive Moment by Jonah Lehrer or Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

So the mind is not quite the action hero we thought. In addition, things not even accessible to my mind crop up all the time it’s just that the mind is very reluctant to acknowledge them. They may be of the elevated philosophical kind (the infinite nature of the universe, the apparently localised nature of time – what’s that all about??) but they may also be personal and hum-drum. Shall I go to my brother’s birthday party even though I am upset with him? Shall I tell my friend I don’t like the way her boyfriend treats her and of course he’s like the last boyfriend? The mind has a strong storyline about these things but the logical conclusion may not feel right. The heart has its reasons, said old Pascal, that reason knoweth not and while he wasn’t the kind of guy you’d want at a party, he had a point. He was no slouch in the mathematics department, young Blaise, but he knew the limits of thinking. In tricky areas I have to ask my mind to take a step back and engage with my Heart instead.

So what has all this to do with eating? Put simply, it is interesting when you are contemplating what to cook tonight or put in your mouth right now, to try that Buddhist technique and label all that is going on within your head as ‘thinking’. Let your enquiry into what to eat become a kind of meditation from which a wonderful action can emerge. It can let the steam off the pressure-cooker of the brain and its constant efforts to do the right thing.

This very morning I ended up in the beach kiosk having a splendid breakfast, a departure my mind had all kinds of reasons for not making. Great decision, thanks to my heart.

 

And now finally, you’ve been very patient, a recipe. This is a great dish if you have mixed vegetarians and meat eaters at the table since it goes brilliantly with steak or roast chicken or fish but can also hold up its head on its own.

Mozzarella Stuffed Aubergines for four

You can make it a day or two ahead and bake it as needed. If you don’t know what time people are arriving, take the dish out of the fridge in good time and get your oven nice and hot. When they knock the door pop it straight in the hot oven for half an hour or so while they are having a glass of Prosecco and an anchovy puff. (I’m coming to those).

1-2 aubergines depending on size

2 packets of mozzarella

A large bottle of tomato passata

Start by griddling some sliced aubergines, lengthways, pretty much as thin as you can slice them. Brush your griddle with olive oil and either salt and drain the aubergines first or simply sprinkle a little salt on them as you take them off the griddle to cool. Now cut the mozzarella into convenient chunky strips and wrap each one in a slice of aubergine. Roll the aubergine up into a sausage.

aubergine

As each little roll is ready position it in a shallow oven proof dish. When the dish is full cover the lot in tomato sauce. You can either use a bottle of passata ready made from the supermarket, or you can use the same bottle of passata that you have improved.

How to improve bottled passata

Depending on how much time you have you can either :

  1. let it reduce slightly in a large shallow pan with some olive oil, salt, fresh basil and a smashed garlic clove. (Some people add sugar – you need to taste and decide.)
  2. or add roasted fresh tomatoes to the pan as well

If you have mozzarella left over you can put slices on top. If not serve the baked dish with fresh Parmesan. It makes great leftovers too. It is calorie heavy so make sure to eat it with a large plate of salad and a light hand with the bread basket if you’re watching the pounds.

Anchovy Puffs (Halloumi also works)

I hardly like to give a recipe for these since I serve them all the time and they are shamefully easy. Once upon a time I got the idea from a Victorian cookery book called Mrs De Salis’ Sweets and Savouries which I bought as a student. I also use her Christmas pudding recipe. However we will not be using Ruby the kitchen maid to make the puff pastry when she gets up to light the boiler. We will be using Tesco’s best.

Roll out your shop bought puff pastry (fresh is better than frozen but frozen will do). Cover the sheet of pastry with individual anchovies our of a tin or jar and cut round each anchovy leaving a margin of pastry so that you can make a parcel of it. Now brush round the edges with milk and roll them up into fingers or parcels – it is impossible to make them unattractive so don’t worry – and put them on baking parchment on a baking tray.

Brush with milk or milk and egg and put into a very hot oven (180 degrees) 10 minutes before you want to serve them. Serve with paper napkins as they are a bit oily and flaky as well as delicious. (You can put your Stuffed Aubergine into the same oven.)

Being Awake and the Sunshine Breakfast

I have been dipping into Pema Chodron’s writing again and finding, as ever, joy and wisdom there and above all an encouragement to accept myself with love. So I fell to wondering how this relates to what I eat.

PC is talking about meditation when she says ‘Whether you are caught up in […] thought for the entire sitting period, or whether you feel that enormous sense of space, you can regard either one with gentleness and a sense of being awake and alive to who you are. Either way, you can respect that.”

But what does this mean outside the meditation zone? When I get on the scales this morning and they give me a figure I do not like, can I regard that with gentleness and a sense of being alive to who I am? Can I respect that? If I wake up with a hangover and a sense of having poisoned myself (with food or alcohol or rage or hatred), can I regard that with gentleness and a sense of respect? And what happens if I do?

To me it feels as though simply in making space for those horrible feelings (hating my body, hating my behaviour, hating others) eases my suffering. Simply by considering that I can be gentle and respectful of myself when I am full of rage, without having to change myself even when I feel hateful, there is balm. An outbreath. A letting-go.

If you are interested in meditation, do read Pema Chodron. If you are interested in your life, do read Pema Chodron. She has written a lot and it pretty much doesn’t matter which book you choose. The message is the same. It’s not complicated. I can be with myself (however I feel) with gentleness and respect, alive and awake to who I am.

And now, in the same spirit of simplicity, I give you :

The Sunshine Breakfast

sunshine breakfast

Arrange your peach or apple slices or both into a sunshine and pop a few berries in the centre. Now the sun is shining where you are.

Stress and Addiction Eating

Under stress our addictions pop right up again even when we thought we’d sorted all that. If you’re under stress (who isn’t?) look after yourself. Here’s how.

Have in a wide range of food in healthy proportions. (That means a packet of biscuits in the tin, sure, but a fridge and a fruit bowl overflowing with fresh raw things. Cheesecake is not a raw thing.)

  1. If you feel the need to eat and it’s not a meal time reassure that anxious part of you that it’s not going to starve and lay your hands on as much fruit as you can. Eat it straight or arrange it like a still life first. Don’t want fruit? Always have access to some tomatoes and miso soup, maybe a hard boiled egg too. Keep reassuring the anxious part which is not your stomach. If your anxious part is afraid of the food, reassure it just the same. There isn’t going to be any force feeding. There is only kindness. Sense into the part of you that panics. How old is it?
  2. If part of you is always afraid of being deprived, eat off large plates. A large plate filled with raw foods and a small amount of protein/carbohydrate/fat (meat, fish, cheese, bread, mayonnaise, salad dressing, butter etc) . This feels generous and is less likely to send that hungry frightened part into orbit.
  3. Equally if your small and hungry part is frightened by food, make it a small and tempting plate. Imagine you are looking after a toddler.
  4. Make it tasty! Anchovies, lemon juice, fresh herbs, garlic, ginger, coriander on your salad mean you don’t need so much oil.
  5. I’m all for healthy eating but this isn’t the time to start giving up salt. If you’re trying to eat sensibly in terms of quantity make it delicious. If you try to revolutionise your eating in one go (from a Full English diet to no-salt, low fat)  you are asking to fail. One thing at a time. Don’t feed the part that believes in all or nothing. Feed the grown-up part that knows to take it slowly. Someone needs to look after that toddler.
  6. Make soup. Make soup often! Making it is incredibly therapeutic and eating it is pretty good too. My current favourite is root vegetables such as carrots, swede and parsnips – whatever you have in but go easy on the potatoes. Chop and saute and onion. Peel and chop your root veg and add to the pan with enough Marigold vegetable stock to cover generously. Cook until the veg are soft and then liquidise. Freeze some and meanwhile season what you are keeping out for the next few days. By seasoning at the time of eating you can vary the soup. I like to add cayenne and curry powder for quite a spicy taste, then add some good yoghurt or a dash of cream to your bowl when serving. Next time you can add ginger and lemon and parsley or some other wonderful combination you’ve discovered.

 

Today’s recipe is for Pasta with Prawns.

Prawn Spaghetti

 

Chop finely some parsley and garlic and put in a small bowl with the prawns (room temperature), the juice of half a lemon, salt and pepper. Heat some good olive oil in a small pan and when your pasta is drained and ready add everything from the bowl with the prawns in it and a teaspoon of Harissa pasta or a sprinkling of chilli flakes. Warm through and divide between the pasta dishes. This also works beautifully with crab meat or sautéed courgettes or roasted broccoli instead of the prawns.

When is a brownie kinder than a fruit salad?

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.

  1. Abandon the notion of good and bad. This is not about being good. Reward and punishment have no place in our diet.
  2. Focus on what the food represents for our physiology – that loving attempt to restore our well-being.
  3. Feel into the kindness of that attempt – this is love for ourselves, a way of looking after ourselves.
  4. 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.
  5. ‘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.
  6. 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

4 eggs

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.