No Supermarket: Week 1

Well that was resoundingly successful. I haven’t been to a supermarket since 2010.

Here’s what I bought this week:

  • 3 loaves of sesame bread @ £2.67
  • Le Figaro newspaper @ £1.70
  • 20 bananas @ £3.18
  • 2 cucumbers @ £1.00
  • 15 tomatoes @ £2.25
  • 1 loaf seeded white bread @ £0.97
  • 2 tins of Heinz tomato soup @ £1.78
  • 125g tube of Aquafresh toothpaste @ £0.99
  • 1 punnet of red seedless grapes @ £1.00
  • 200g feta cheese @ £1.69
  • 350g jar of Ajvar sauce @ £1.29

Total: £18.52

So what would it have cost at my local Sainsbury’s? Obviously you can’t get quite the same things – what the hell is Ajvar Sauce anyway?

So, if we exclude that from the list:
My No Supermarket shopping cost me: £17.23.
The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost: £16.88.

So I spent £0.35 more than I should have done. Tsk.

There are a few differences in the shopping basket to note:

  1. I would have had 24 bananas, not 20 (Sainsbury’s Basics bananas come in packs of 8).
  2. I would have had only 12 tomatoes, not 15 (Sainsbury’s Basics tomatoes come in packs of 6).
  3. I would have had only 100g of toothpaste, not 125g (I couldn’t find 125g at Sainsbury’s).
  4. I would not have bought Heinz Tomato Soup, I would have got Sainsbury’s own brand Be Good to Yourself Tomato Soup, saving me another £0.30.
  5. I would not have bought feta from Sainsbury’s. I normally get mature cheddar on special; this week it would have been Cathedral City Mature Cheddar 400g for £1.99. Ouch. It hurts to see that.

I think those things more or less even themselves out (apart from the cheese).

It doesn’t just come down to cost though. It can’t. Even if you include the extra £0.30 saving from the soup, I would have saved only 3.8% on my week’s shopping by going to Sainsbury’s. That is a much smaller saving than I expected.

The Lessons of Week 1

If it’s not about cost, then what is it about? I have no idea, but here are some things I learnt this week:

1. No Supermarkets are less convenient

My ‘local’ shops are further from me than Sainsbury’s – and the markets are even more of a walk. This shouldn’t have been a problem, but turned into a complete disaster when I developed a debilitating foot injury which meant I couldn’t walk for most of the week.

2. I need to learn how to shop again

Without a supermarket crutch to support my dietary habits, my diet has been all over the place.

I’ve eaten a lot more bread than I normally do, simply because it is filling, tasty and widely available. At times in the week, I confess, I was hungry. I’ve eaten everything that was lying around in my cupboards – including muesli that was over a year old, yum!

I expect my diet to stabilise as I learn where to buy what I want to eat. And as I learn to walk again.

3. I can pay by credit card at my local shop

…if I spend more than £5. This is a nice bonus because the nearest cash machine around my way is… at Sainsbury’s.

4. There is an awful lot less choice at No Supermarket

This is a good thing, I reckon. Although it cost me on the soup and the cheese front, it did mean that I got to try Ajvar Sauce! See also #7.

5. There is a lot less packaging involved in No Supermarkets

The fruit and vegetables that I bought were either in recyclable paper bags or were loose. This is a good thing because it means I don’t have to lug all my plastic packaging back to Sainsbury’s for recycling.

6. Fruit and veg at No Supermarkets is a lot more variable

You actually have to look at what you are buying. Once I’ve got over the shock, I’m sure this could turn into quite a pleasant thing. It might make me less of a shopping machine.

7. I spent a lot less money at No Supermarkets

Not item for item, but in total. There is very little opportunity for impulse buying at No Supermarkets because there is a lot less choice and so a lot less to tempt you with. A lack of availability also means that you have to make do without. Things I didn’t buy this week include: a ball of string, a rubber and porridge oats.

Well, it’s been a promising start and I’m looking forward to increased mobility in Week 2!

No Supermarket: Suma Co-operative

I live in a housing co-operative. Which is awesome, not least because the people I live with try to do things together.

What that means is that every month someone from the co-op orders in bulk from the ethical retailer Suma. Suma is also a co-operative, which means that the business is jointly owned and managed by all the staff. Everyone is paid the same and they work collectively to do all the jobs that need doing (I discuss this mode of business here).

So today (for the first time ever, I’m ashamed to admit) I ordered some food from Suma. This is my shopping list:

  • 80 jasmine green tea bags @ £4.95
  • 1kg of raisins @ £2.95
  • 6kg of porridge oats @ £6.99
  • 12 eggs @ £2.62

Compared to Sainsbury’s, this isn’t bad. You can get 20 jasmine tea bags at Sainsbury’s for about £1, so that’s a touch cheaper at the supermarket. The eggs and the porridge come out at about the same cost. I normally buy Sainsbury’s Basics currents, which are dirt cheap at about £0.60 for 500g (I think), so Suma’s raisins are an expensive upgrade.

Anyway, that should be my breakfast covered for the rest of the month. Now I’ve just got to wait for the delivery on Thursday. At least I don’t have to walk to the shops.

No Supermarket: Deptford High Street

Yesterday I went to Deptford High Street for my first No Supermarket grocery shopping.

And it was rather good fun. This No Supermarket business forces you to pay attention to your surroundings. You can’t just go to the shelf, you can’t just look for the own-brand stuff because you know it will be cheap, you can’t very often even know the price of what you’re buying until you’ve handed over the goods. It forces you to look, to ask, to say no, to negotiate – in short, to connect?

A couple of traders just said hello to me, for nothing. Can I help you? Aright, mate? Another looked for a smaller ball of string for me. I didn’t have to ask, he saw from my face that it was too much.

In all, I went to two fruit and veg shops, a bakery and a newsagents – instead of one big supermarket.

This was what I bought:

  • £1.18 6 bananas
  • £1.00 2 cucumbers
  • £1.25 6 tomatoes (on the vine)
  • £0.97 Loaf seeded white bread (sliced for me by the bakers)

Total cost: £4.40.

I reckon at Sainsbury’s I would have spent about the same, or perhaps slightly more. I wouldn’t have spent so much on the tomatoes, but these ones are very tasty. I normally buy Sainsbury’s Basics, to be honest, at about £0.80. But the cucumbers were much cheaper – saved me about £0.50. So it evens out.

I have to say, pleasurable though this shopping trip was, it was not convenient. It’s a longer walk to Deptford High Street than to Sainsbury’s and I didn’t buy any string, an pencil rubber, porridge oats – or the dreaded toothpaste.

No Supermarket January

New Year Resolution: I’m not going to use supermarkets during the whole month of January.

For me, that’s quite a big deal. I am accustomed to going to my local Sainsbury’s at least four or five times a week, sometimes just for the walk or the simple pleasure of picking up a value bag of sultanas.

Well, no more. From the 1st of January I pledge not to purchase a single thing from any supermarket, be it Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Asda, Lidl, Aldi, Costcutter, Iceland, Netto, M&S, Waitrose, Morrisons – or any of the other behemoths that bestride our consumer culture.

Why?

  1. I don’t like being too dependent on anything – and supermarkets definitely fall into that bracket of dependency at the moment.
  2. I fancy seeing a bit more of the world – or my local community at least.
  3. It’s embarrassing coming home with a pile of plastic-wrapped food of dubious quality.
  4. Somewhere inside me there’s a vague sense of unease surrounding the operation and supply tactics of supermarkets.
  5. I guess it will support local economy a little bit.
  6. It might be a good way to meet more people in my community.
  7. It might be cheaper, you never know.
  8. It might help me eat better, you never know.
  9. It might reduce impulse buying of sultanas.
  10. It’s something to write about!

The Toothpaste Test

At the moment my shelves are looking pretty bare so I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the wonderful (so I’m told) markets in my local area. But, to be honest, I’m a little concerned about where to find toothpaste. I know I can get toothpaste at pretty much any corner-shop or mini-mart, but Sainsbury’s toothpaste is about £0.30 or something ridiculous. I like that: it’s good value.

The thing is, I’d like to turn this experiment into a long-term life choice, but I’m not going to cut off my nose to spite my face. Sourcing affordable, minty toothpaste could well turn into the acid test of my No Supermarket January. Wish me luck.

Why Diets Don’t Work (or How to Stop Judging Obese People)

The Obesity Epidemic

Obesity has doubled since the seventies. The ruling hypothesis to explain this is that the rise is due to more calories consumed and less exercise performed.

But, according to food consumption statistics, our diet has ‘improved’. We eat less fat and saturated fat now than we did in the seventies. And we do more exercise now as well. Believe it or not, exercise was seen as potentially unhealthy in the 1960s. The only things that we are eating more of now compared to the seventies and earlier are carbohydrates.

Furthermore, obesity is linked to poverty, not to the excess food that comes from wealth. In very poor families, the men are very fat – and the women are even fatter, even though they do most of the work. Why would it be linked to poverty? The mass production and distribution of carbohydrates like rice, sugar and wheat means that these are cheap food products compared to the relatively expensive meat, cheese, fruit and vegetables. There is no ‘thrifty gene’ that tells our bodies to store fat when times are good or when we know that food will be scarce.

The storage of fat is an evolutionary adaptation, not a response to environmental circumstances. For example, squirrels will put fat on in winter, whatever you do. You can keep them from hibernating, you can starve them, you can even perform surgery to remove their winter fat – but their bodies will still put the weight on, and lose it again in the spring. That’s just what happens: it’s nothing to do with their diet and nothing to do with the reduction in exercise during hibernation.

It’s Nothing To Do With Diet or Exercise

(Of course, diet and exercise are vitally important in many other aspects of health. I am talking here purely about obesity.)

Starvation diets don’t work. You lose a bit, then put it back on with interest when you go off the diet. (This has nothing to do with the health benefits of eating slightly less than you want, see my earlier post.) Often the obese eat less than the lean. Gluttony and sloth are not to blame, they are just ways of making fat people feel guilty and of making thin people feel good about their superior morals.

Positive and negative caloric balance, eating more or less than you need, does not affect weight. Our body finds balance no matter what we do. If we eat more than we need, our metabolism will speed up and burn the excess calories off. If we eat less than we need, our metabolism will slow down and conserve calories (and we might live longer…).

Forced over-eating

There was an experiment where volunteers were fed 4000 calories a day. The subjects gained a few pounds and then their weight stabilised, so the researchers decided to increase the calories:

  • First to 5000 calories a day.
  • Then to 7000 calories a day.
  • Then to 10000 calories a day – all while remaining sedentary!

The researchers noted that there were, ‘marked differences between individuals in ability to gain weight.’ One person gained just 9lbs after 30 weeks of this regimen. Afterwards, everyone lost weight with the speed that they had gained it.

Calorific balance tends to 0, whether you are on a 1000 calorie diet or a 10000 calorie diet.

Exercise

Nor does exercise affect weight. If we exercise more, we eat more. Hence the phrase, ‘work up an appetite’. Exercise only burns a fraction of the calories we consume. You would have to walk up 20 flights of stairs to burn off the caloric input of 4 pieces of bread.

Danish researchers trained previously sedentary people to run marathons. After 18 months of intensive training:

  • The 18 men lost an average of 5lbs (2.25kg) of fat.
  • The 9 females lost nothing at all.

There are even studies that show people getting fatter with exercise, just as dieting regimes can do.

Genetics

Weight gain varies ten-fold between different people, indicating that it is genetic. This shouldn’t come as a surprise to us: we breed cattle for high fat yield using genetic principles. The difference in the size of cows is not put down to over-eating or sedentary behaviour, so why do we do that for fat humans?

We are born with a genetically influenced body shape. The proportion of fat on your body will not change even if you lose or gain weight. There are three basic types of body morphology:

  • Mesomorphs: wedge-shaped power houses.
  • Ectomorphs: thin as a rake.
  • Endomorphs: pear shaped.
Of course, most people have elements of one and aspects of another, but the general principle is clear: your shape is genetically influenced.

Size is a Class Issue

There is also a class issue here. McDonald’s is blamed, but Starbucks is not, even though a large frappacino with cream has just as many calories as a Big Mac. People who watch TV are called couch potatoes and lazy, but people who stay sitting at their desk reading books are not.

Finally: if our environment was toxic, then why aren’t we all fat? It is not down to will-power or moral rectitude, as some people would like.


This article is based on the information found in The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes (p233 onwards)

How to Live Longer

Eat less for a long life

It has been found that calorie restriction (i.e. eating less) in mice:

  • Extends life.
  • Prevents rapid tumour growth.
  • Makes the mice more active as well.

Anecdotally, the Okinawans of Japan, one of the world’s longest living and active populations, abide by an old saying, ‘hara hachi-bu,’ which translates roughly as ‘eat until you are 80% full.‘ Of course that is only an anecdote. In reality, they eat, on average, 11% less than the average Japanese diet.

How does that work?

It could be because, when you eat, your body produces insulin to metabolize carbohydrates and fats. Insulin also promotes growth. That means it promotes growth in malignant, i.e. cancerous, cells. Diet can change the growth environment of cells, including cancer cells. It changes the nurture, not the nature of cells. Diet does not contain carcinogens. It can just create an environment that cancer cells will flourish in.

If you restrict rats to 2/3rds of calories then they will live 30-50% longer. Why? Because they have less body fat? Because they have lower weight? No. Obese mice on a restricted diet live longer than non-obese mice on a non-restricted diet and the same as non-obese mice on a restricted diet.

Eating less is the thing, not leanness.

Why?

The popular answer is that it reduces the creation of free radical cells and therefore reduces the oxidation of cells and thus the opportunities for cancerous cells to develop. When food is scarce (i.e. when your body gets a signal that it is not eating a 100% diet) you live longer so that you will survive the starvation period and still be young enough to reproduce.

This may well be correct, but calorie restricted mice also have:

  • Low insulin resistance.
  • Low blood sugar.
  • Low insulin levels.
  • Low levels of Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF).

Low-carb for a long life?

The glucose found in carbohydrates causes IGF and insulin levels to rise sharlply, in comparison to other food groups. So, in 2004, Cynthia Kenyon asked: could a low-carbohydrate diet lengthen lifespan in humans?
By reducing carbohydrates and glucose she was able to reduce:

  • Blood pressure.
  • Triglyceride levels (a fatty acid linked to incidence of heart disease and strokes).
  • Blood sugar levels.
  • And to increase levels of HDL (High-density lipoprotein, ‘good’ cholesterol).

While she is not able to conclude, after just six years, that a low-carbohydrate diet will lengthen the human lifespan, it seems to be promising data.


This article is based on the information found in The Diet Delusion by Gary Taubes (p218 onwards)

How to be Amazingly Happy!

Here’s a list of the most pleasurable (legal) things humans can do:

  • Have sex.
  • Suck on a piece of dark chocolate (minimum 60% cocoa).
  • Have a relaxed lunch with a friend.
  • Learn something new.
  • Go shopping!
  • Use your sense of smell – really sniff that flower!
  • Do some gardening.
  • Cook.
  • Sit in silence.
  • Go fishing (aka sit in silence).
  • Play or listen to music.
  • Go for a walk (or any form of exercise).
  • Trust others.
  • Have a nap.
  • Dream (including lucid dreams).

Just for the sake of completion: yes, certain drugs are also extremely pleasurable, but remember how harmful they can be – and just because something is less harmful than heroin doesn’t mean it’s safe! Also realise that your use of drugs could give you such a massive high that real life just doesn’t seem that great any more. I’m being serious: a cocaine high can increase dopamine levels by 300-700%, compared to the 100% dopamine increase during sex – and you don’t even want to think about what amphetamines can do. Just remember that dopamine is involved in the wanting (i.e. addiction) rather than the liking (i.e. pleasure). Cool, now I sound like your dad.

This list is compiled from Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure by Paul Martin.