The French paradox… again

October 29, 2014 § 9 Comments

In case you’ve never heard of it, there’s a something called the French Paradox. It’s a catchphrase in medical circles, and basically, it alludes to the fact that French people eat a lot of saturated fat, but they don’t have a lot of coronary heart disease.

This goes contrary to what our doctors have told us: that we need to reduce our intake of saturated fats if we want to have healthy hearts. So why don’t the French have high rates of heart disease? A number of theories have been put forward, and those of us who love our cheese and red meat have clung to the French Paradox while we scoff down wedges of Brie, while others have gleefully glugged down red wine ‘for its anti-oxidants’, among other things.

Now we find ourselves in a the midst of a new – and controversial – way of looking at diet, also known as Banting or LCHF (Low Carbohydrates, High Fat) for weight loss, diabetes, heart disease and even cancer! (If I had a sarcasm font I’d be using it, believe me. Is there anything that fat cannot cure?)

But I note, with a wry smile, that again the French Paradox applies. Because the French eat plenty of carbohydrates, nay SUGAR! Their boulangeries, patisseries and chocolatiers are world-renowned and the French make good use of them. And yet, they are not a nation known for their obesity or diabetes levels. (Although I concede those levels might be rising thanks to the increasing popularity of fast food with younger people.)

What this demonstrates to me, is how silly this very binary debate is. As if obesity can be reduced to carbohydrates versus fats.

Because I may not be a scientist, but I’ve been a health journalist for a very long time, and this is what many, varied experts in the field have told me: obesity is a very complex issue. Yes, there’s energy in versus energy out, but that’s not the whole story. Your genes, environment, hormones, and activity levels all have a role to play. So does any medication you’re on. So does evolution: your brain has a ‘set point’ for your weight, and it tries to protect you against starvation. So when you try to lose weight, your brain tries its level best to fatten you up again…

All of this means that when scientists try to study diets and what they do to our waistlines, there are so many variables that it becomes very difficult to say exactly what makes us fat and what makes us thin. And the French Paradox just keeps poking its head over the parapet whenever the newest diet guru demonises a new food group. Because the French eat absolutely everything, and remain thin and healthy.

I honestly believe it’s the demonising that’s the problem. Food has become the enemy. So many people spend so much time and energy obsessing about every morsel that passes their lips, that they forget that food is fuel, and that it can be enjoyable. And they set up a classic deprivation cycle: tell yourself you can’t eat chocolate for six weeks and you’re likely to crave chocolate 24 hours a day.

Here’s how the French treat food: they eat it. If it’s edible, it’s fair game (pardon the pun). They celebrate it and savour it and truly engage with what they’re tasting. They make it with care. They use fresh, seasonal, local produce, with plenty of fruit and vegetables on their plates. They eat small portions. They sit down at the table and eat with a knife and fork, while having a conversation and connecting with other people. They eschew fast food and cook at home.

If we can learn anything from the French Paradox it should be that food is not the enemy. Nor are carbohydrates or fat, or any other nutrient you care to demonise because it’s the flavour – or not – of the month. I believe the way we eat is the problem: on the run, mindlessly, and too often choosing convenience over real, quality food.

And that’s why I like Michael Pollan’s approach so much, because it’s about what you can eat. And it’s simple and sensible and sound: “Eat food, mostly plants, not too much.”


Music, my healer

October 22, 2014 § 6 Comments

A couple of weeks ago I walked into a local shopping centre and my heart skipped a beat. It was a Saturday morning, bristling with the hustle of crowds with weekend agendas, and yet I was completely entranced.

Because there, between two escalators, sat a man with an electric piano, his fingers dancing over the keys. Suddenly Saturday morning was serenity, not stress, and the tension of my working week began to leak away .

I wish I had the words to tell you what live music does to me. I get choked up at my children’s choir and orchestra concerts, because there’s just something about watching a small boy in long socks and flannel shorts play a rockin’ trumpet solo with his school jazz band, his feet dangling several inches above the floor.

When the notes from a real pipe organ swell and swirl through a wedding or funeral, I can barely breathe at the beauty of it all. The power of an orchestra in full flight suffuses me with liquid heat. When I sit in a dim corner at a small live music venue watching my favourite musicians sing and play together like they occupy one body, I go home with a stupid grin on my face, a grin so broad it keeps me awake till the wee hours.

Yes, I have music on my iPod and I can plug in my earphones and listen to it any time I like. But often it’s too clean, too sterile, too perfect. It lacks the grit, the authenticity, the creativity and humanity of a live performance, and that’s what I crave.


Lowering the bar

October 16, 2014 § 10 Comments

Since I decided on 9 January 2013 that Wednesday was blogging day, I’ve not missed a week on purpose. There are one or two weeks where I’ve forgotten it was Wednesday (this happens a lot in middle age) and had to frantically write something at 11.30pm, or catch up the following day, but those have been few and far between. Even when Christmas, New Year and my birthday all fell on a Wednesday – I blogged regardless. Until last night.

Last night I needed a good cry and a good sleep. So that’s what I gave myself. I’m tired of relentlessly driving myself to live up to what sometimes feel like impossibly high expectations of what I should or shouldn’t be doing – and most of those expectations I’ve generated for myself, if I’m honest.

Writing a weekly blog was a challenge I set myself. Challenges are good, and it’s how we push ourselves to achieve more. It feels good to have been as consistent and reliable as I have been, and I’m proud of how many half-decent blogs I’ve managed to turn out despite regularly looking at the blank WordPress page and wondering how the hell I was going to produce something coherent. Without once punting a product or running a competition I’ve built up a decent following, and I thank you for that, if you are one of the people who regularly reads the ramblings of my addled mind.

But in the end, it’s just a blog, not life or death. I’m sure – I hope – none of you has decided that I’m a terrible human being because Wednesday is blogging day and today is Thursday. Life happens. Shit happens. Sometimes a person’s got to do what a person’s got to do.

So last night I needed a good cry and a good sleep. I had both, I feel better and believe it or not, the world continues to turn. This may not be the best blog post you’ve ever received from me, but if it helps just one person to stop beating themselves up, or driving themselves into an early grave, then it will have served a purpose.

See you next Wednesday.

Fashion: it’s sarong

October 8, 2014 § 6 Comments

Can we just stop for a minute and talk about the fashion industry? Like, seriously? Have you ever stopped to think about how this industry actually works?

Firstly, there’s some weird illuminati trend-deciding shit going on. Who decides what’s going to be hot this season? Do all the fashion designers meet in some fabulous secret location to plot the next set of shows in Paris or Milan? Do they all cackle away behind their oversized sunglasses, cigarettes spilling ash everywhere as they come up with their next collective set of ideas?

It’s something that’s always fascinated me – that suddenly this item or that cut is all the rage, and “all the designers are doing it” – seemingly by magic. And then that’s it. Every fashion magazine performs free marketing services, all the shops follow suit, and all the sheeple rush out to buy This Season’s Must Have.

And that’s the second thing. What is wrong with you people? Where’s the rebellion? Surely this is the bossiest industry on earth. They tell us that this or that is on trend, so that’s what we all buy and dutifully wear. Says who? Who are these people and why do they get to tell me which clothes should hang in my cupboard?

Also, and this is where I take most offence, they are messing with our language. We don’t wear watches anymore. No no! They’re timepieces now. We’re awash in apparel and garments, when all we really want is clothing. And between the thneeds and the snoods and the culottes and the gilets, no-one knows how to pronounce what they’re wearing anymore, never mind having the faintest clue what any of those words mean.

And why the endless tinkering with trims and buckles and blingy things and ties and whatnots? Why must everything be decorated and branded to within an inch of its life? I just want some simple clothes: plain white shirts and T-shirts, well-cut jeans, a blazer, a couple of soft dresses that cling in the right places and some snuggly jerseys for winter. Simple, classic, plain… Why does everything have to be so complicated?

But actually, what I’d really love, is if we could make pyjamas the next big thing. Because, really, pyjamas are the pinnacle of good clothing design: they’re comfortable and they cover all the unmentionable bits. What more do you need? (I’m talking proper pyjamas here, obviously, not those scraps of lace held together by prayer alone. Sensible pyjamas, worn by sensible people.)

Everything else digs and pinches and shifts and slides and constricts and strangles and generally irritates me these days. Give us pyjamas as daywear, I say. Pyjamas are designed for people like us. People who are normal shapes and sizes, and who don’t know how to walk in high heels.

So if anyone knows where the designers hold their secret fashion illuminati meetings, give me a heads-up, and I’ll be over there in a flash to make my proposal. Incognito, of course. All I need to do is dress in black from head to toe, with appropriate eyewear and I’ll blend in with the crowd. (And that’s another thing – why don’t designers ever wear the clothes they send down the runways?)

There I’ll be, the very picture of understated je ne sais quois, nodding and smiling slightly, and adding a well-placed murmur here and there. And then, when they’re just about to pass a motion that high-waisted circular skirts are just the thing we need to break the monotony of low-rise skinny jeans, I’ll suggest my revolutionary plan.

You can thank me later, preferably with cash.

On bad writing

October 1, 2014 § 14 Comments

There’s some writing advice I’ve been dispensing often of late, and it’s this: write badly. Odd, I know, from someone who writes for a living and coaches other writers, but it’s the best way to overcome that “Aaaaaaargh! I’ll never get this damn thing written!” feeling.

Without wanting to brag, I’m a bit of a writing machine. As long as I have a brief – the briefest of briefs, even – I can pretty much sit down and write something decent, no matter how I’m feeling. But every now and then, I can’t. And I’ve finally figured out what the problem is: perfectionism!

Every single time I can’t write, it’s because I’m utterly terrified I won’t be able to produce Good Writing. As if I get one go at it. As if I chip every word out of the Rock of Gibraltar and then that’s it. Posterity will witness my shame forever. (I have a flair for the dramatic.)

But here’s the thing – there’s a backspace key on my computer. And the option to cut, copy, paste and edit until it’s as good as I can get it. And it’s never going to be perfect – there’s always something you can change or improve.

So when people tell me they are struggling to write something now, I tell them to write badly. Because, most often, the hardest part of writing something is getting started. And most excellent writing doesn’t just flow from the writer’s brain fully formed – it is edited and rewritten and rejigged and tweaked and crafted into a thing (hopefully) of beauty.

And then, when it’s been printed or published somewhere, every writer I know will look at it again and wish they’d left out that word, or inserted a comma just there, or rephrased that paragraph completely. It will never be perfect.

So stop hankering after perfection, or even Good Writing. The thing is just to start. Get the words on the page, and keep going. And then leave them there for a bit and get some distance from them for a couple of hours at least. By the time you come back to them you’ll be able to see what needs fixing, I promise you.

Don’t give up on writing just because you’re struggling with the words. Start. Write badly. You can always fix it.

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