Thought for Food #3: Vegan Dark Chocolate Hobnobs Hobnobs are vegan. Chocolate Hobnobs are not, thanks to the inclusion of something called ‘butter oil’ or ‘anhydrous milk fat’ in the chocolate coating.

Hobnobs are vegan. Chocolate Hobnobs are not, thanks to the inclusion of something called ‘butter oil’ or ‘anhydrous milk fat’ in the chocolate coating.

This recipe began as your humble author melting a load of proper dark chocolate (naturally vegan) over a load of ordinary Hobnobs.

Delicious. Especially when sneezing one’s head off on Dartmoor.

However: as soon as one starts perusing lists of ingredients, one can’t help wondering whether one couldn’t do better one’s self.

Do those ordinary Hobnobs really need palm oil, sugar and partially inverted sugar syrup? I suspect not. Hence: this recipe.

Hob, nob, is his word; give’t or take’t
Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

Ingredients

Makes a baker’s dozen of large-ish vegan dark chocolate hobnobs.

  • 150g oats (small grade, not jumbo)
  • 75g flour (plain or wholemeal)
  • 80g rice syrup (about 4 tablespoons)
  • 75g vegan block
  • 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
  • 100g proper dark chocolate — I used 85%
  • Optional: pinch of ginger
  • Optional: tablespoon of coconut oil

The Biscuit Phase

Adapted from BBC Good Food

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (fan). Next time I’ll experiment with baking them for longer at a lower temperature — maybe even as low as 150°C.
  2. Line a large baking sheet with that brown parchment baking paper stuff.
  3. Beat the vegan block until it starts to behave. Add the rice syrup and mix well.
  4. Combine the flour, oats and bicarbonate of soda in a separate bowl.
  5. Add the dry mixture to the wet mixture a bit at a time, ensuring you mix well to incorporate all the ingredients together.
  6. Next time, I’ll wrap this dough in cling film and put it into the fridge for as long as I can bear — this recipe promises crumblier results.
  7. Roll the mixture into 13 little balls.
  8. Smoosh each ball into round biscuit shapes onto the baking sheet. Repeat until mixture is all used up.
  9. Bake in the oven (middle shelf) for 13 minutes or until golden brown. They’ll still be a bit soft, so don’t be fooled — they’re done.
  10. Allow to cool completely. 40 minutes is more than enough (I forgot about them).

The Chocolate Phase

The key here is to avoid un-tempering the chocolate — tempering is how it stays solid at room temperature. It’s not a complete disaster if you mess this phase up, you’ll just have sticky fingers during the eating phase.

The following, rather delicate, method was adapted from eHow, of all places. You might prefer to melt your chocolate with a tablespoon of coconut oil in 30 second blasts in the microwave, as per this recipe — but be careful not to overheat the concoction.

  1. Put only two-thirds of the chocolate into a glass vessal (I use a measuring jug).
  2. Put that vessal into a saucepan of water and gently heat the whole kit and kaboodle.
  3. Allow the chocolate to melt gently, without stirring, until it is nearly melted.
  4. After a gentle stir, allow the chocolate to continue melting.
  5. When the chocolate is fully melted, carefully remove the glass vessal from the saucepan and slowly stir in the remaining chocolate a few pieces at a time, stirring with each addition, until it’s all completely melted.
  6. When all of the chocolate has been incorporated, dab a small amount of the chocolate onto the inside of your wrist. If the chocolate is slightly cooler than your body temperature, it is ready to use.
  7. Add a pinch of ginger if you’re feeling that way inclined
  8. Pour the chocolate over the top of the biscuits or dip the biscuits into the chocolate — whichever makes more sense to you.
  9. Leave the biscuits to cool. In theory, if you’ve tempered the chocolate correctly, the coating will become solid at room temperature. I whacked mine in the fridge because I was desperate.
  10. Whatever you do, make sure that you either leave the biscuits on the parchment paper or you wipe the melted chocolate away from the base of the biscuits, otherwise they’ll stick to the tray and break when you attempt to scoff them into your mouth.

The Eating Phase

Compared to normal Hobnobs, these taste quite savoury, but quite delicious.

In reality, I’m not sure how ‘savoury’ these biscuits really are.

They might have nearly 30% less sugar content than a McVities, but there’s still 3.2g of sugar per biscuit from the rice syrup and another 1g or so from the dark chocolate coating.

We’re down to slightly shy of one teaspoon of sugar per biscuit!

Actually, that’s still loads, isn’t it? Enjoy!

Coconuts Versus The Climate

As an eater of a primarily vegan diet, and with COP26 in the news, I thought it was time to address a challenge that is occasionally thrown down in my direction:

Does the impact of imported vegan alternatives outweigh the environmental benefits of not eating meat?

There many, many angles on this question and I’ll only consider a couple in any detail: food miles and water.

I’m more or less ignoring the significant effects of land use change (chopping down old growth forests to plant oil palm trees is really bad) as well as the use of pesticides and fertilisers (which does nasty things to ecosystems). But there we go. I can’t do everything.

Bear in mind, while reading this piece, the following comment from Joseph Poore, a researcher at the University of Oxford who studies the environmental impacts of food, speaking to the BBC in February:

Nothing really compares to beef, lamb, pork, and dairy – these products are in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment, on almost every environmental issue we track.

Kiwis, lambs and apples

‘Coconuts!’ someone shouted at me last week. ‘Coconuts only grow in the tropics and have to be transported thousands of miles to get to your selfish vegan plate!’

I’m paraphrasing, but it does sound logical that exotic coconut oil (mmm) would have a higher carbon footprint than European alternatives like olive oil.

But it’s not necessarily true, as I’ll demonstrate with a story about lambs and apples.

A famous 2007 study found that lamb from New Zealand had a quarter of the carbon footprint of Welsh lamb, despite travelling 17,840km around the world to our shop shelves.

Obviously, lamb is of little interest to a vegan or even a vegetarian – but the study also found that British apples had carbon emissions almost 50 percent higher than their Kiwi counterparts.

This is so counter-intuitive that, to be honest, it hurts my brain.

An apple a day…

Digging deeper into the data, it turns out that the Kiwi advantage only holds if British eaters want apples all year round. (Which I suspect we do.)

The study authors report that the carbon cost of transporting apples around the world after harvest in the southern hemisphere is almost identical to the carbon cost of putting apples into cold storage for six months after the British harvest.

As well as seeing their local advantage wiped out, the British apples not only suffered from higher pesticide and fertiliser use, but a fuel efficiency per tonne that’s almost four times as profligate as apples from New Zealand.

This means that, even when British apples are in season, the difference in carbon footprint between apples from the two hemispheres is negligible. Astonishing.

Food miles might be an easy metric to measure a food’s environmental impact, but it’s not a very useful one. Local doesn’t necessarily mean better for the planet.

(It’s worth saying that the cited report is 14 years old and was published by a New Zealand university. You may also, of course, have considerations beyond environmental impact.)

But what if we’re talking about produce that doesn’t require storage in massive fridges for six months of the year? Surely then we’d be better off eating locally, wouldn’t we?

To answer that question, we’ll go back to our oily death match between the coconut and the olive.

Coconuts versus the climate

According to a 2014 study led by Peter Scarborough at Oxford University, the production of coconut oil creates less than half the greenhouse gas emissions of olive oil — and this data takes into account transportation from the tropics.

How can this be true?

Coconuts might come from far away, but – like lambs and apples – they’re transported here by sea, not by air.

That’s an important point because sea freight is so fuel efficient that the last hundred miles, by lorry from port to supermarket, can make up the largest contribution to a commodity’s transportation carbon emissions.

The good news is that almost all of our food is transported to Britain by sea. This is why, on average, transportation counts for only 11 percent of our food’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Great. That explains why coconut oil doesn’t come with a hefty carbon pricetag – but it doesn’t explain why olive oil is so bad.

What-a, wat-a, water surprise!

Olive groves, unlike coconut plantations, are incredibly thirsty places and all that water comes with a high carbon pricetag. Boom. That’s why olive oil is so bad compared to coconut oil.

But it’s not just the carbon cost of irrigation that’s makes a high water footprint bad for the environment.

Here in Britain, beef and milk are the main foodie contributors to our water footprint.

You might think that that’s not such a big deal – after all, we don’t seem to have much of a problem with our freshwater supply. I myself can bear soggy witness to another ample delivery only this morning.

But having healthy rainfall doesn’t mean that high beef and dairy consumption don’t cause problems with our water supply.

Pesticides, fertilisers, sewage, farmyard slurry and even waste products like dairy whey all easily find their way into our rivers, causing eutrophication – dangerously high levels of nutrients – that depletes the water of oxygen, suffocating fish and creating a dead zone inhospitable to life.

Fooled by paddy fields

On the other hand, some countries do have a real problem with their supply of freshwater and the effects of climate change are only going to make this worse, leading to desertification if we’re not careful.

This means we should be mindful about the water footprint of the food that we import. Vegans should watch out for olive oil, coffee and chocolate from arid countries.

Surprisingly, rice only sucks up about the same amount of water as wheat. Don’t be fooled by all those sloppy paddy fields.

Nuts typically use a lot of water, but they’re not all completely awful. Almonds and cashews should probably be avoided – especially from regions like California that are suffering from extreme drought.

Shelled nuts are a lot worse with water than unshelled nuts — but who buys unshelled nuts? Chestnuts are great.

Time for a little perspective: in terms of litres per kilocalorie, nuts aren’t much worse than chicken, better than lamb or goat meat and much better than beef.

No, you’re nuts

In fact, nuts often have a carbon negative impact on the atmosphere for the obvious-when-you-think-about-it reason that THEY’RE TREES.

Favour peanuts (AKA groundnuts) and hazelnuts over almonds and pistachios. ‘Pastes’ are more carbon intensive than their wholefood parents, but peanut ‘paste’ is still lighter on the carbon than raw almonds.

Peanuts are also lighter on the water supply. And higher in protein. If you want to slightly reduce your impression, then buy in bulk and make your own peanut butter.

It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that almonds are still a less water-intensive source of protein and calcium than olives, oats and rice.

Above: The carbon footprint of hazelnut, peanut, pistachio and almond products, including packaging, processing and transportation. Volpe et al (2015)

Or you could simply pick your own acorns. It’s a mast year, after all.

Yeah, but what does all this mean?

When it comes to considering carbon emissions caused by transportation, the only thing we need to worry about is whether our food is transported by air.

For someone living in the UK, a kilo of fresh asparagus from Peru has a higher carbon footprint than a kilo of chicken or pork. Yowzas.

Check your food labels, but a decent rule of thumb is to avoid fresh greens and soft fruit grown abroad.

If asparagus and raspberries are in season in Britain, then fill your boots. If they’re not: don’t eat them — or buy them in season and store them in your freezer.

In terms of your water footprint, vegans could dial down on the almond and cashews and maybe switch out the coffee and chocolate. Substitute with peanuts, tea and, er, locally foraged liberty cap psilocybe mushrooms?

I leave you by once again repeating the words of Joseph Poore, speaking to the BBC in February:

Nothing really compares to beef, lamb, pork, and dairy – these products are in a league of their own in the level of damage they typically do to the environment, on almost every environmental issue we track.

What me and my body learned from 324 days of isolation veganism—including blood tests

Does veganism make you anaemic? Boost your testosterone? Make you B12 deficient? Lower your cholesterol?

It’s been almost a year since I decided to give veganism a try, so last week I bought myself a late Christmas present: a battery of blood tests covering 58 different biomarkers. Not everyone’s idea of fun, but, as a self-confessed data freak, definitely one of mine.

If you’ve ever been curious about what veganism does to an otherwise healthy 38 year old male with Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, then, boy, are you in for a treat!

Step One: Finding dietary deficiencies

For the two weeks leading up to my blood tests, I also tracked my diet using a web app called Cronometer. It’s got a huge database of different foodstuffs—yes, including maca powder and pea protein—and you can create your own recipes. As easy as it is to use, however, I really can’t be bothered to do it for more than two weeks.

This is what I learned about my current vegan diet.

Don’t be shy to add protein

Without the meat-eaters carnal reflex, vegans can get distracted by the delicious rainbow of vegetables and end up eating less protein than they need. This was something a perspicacious friend noticed after my diet swerved to consist of nothing but incredible curries from Meera Sodha’s Fresh India.

In response to the data, I’m now drinking the odd protein smoothie for breakfast, particularly on days when I do press ups and kettlebell swings. Depending on the exact recipe, that gives me at least 45g of protein before I’ve even started the day.

Tofu and tempeh, beans and lentils are other popular vegan sources of protein and easily added to any recipe that’s otherwise missing that particular macronutrient. Other easy tweaks include exchanging white rice for British quinoa and preparing a 100g bowl of nuts and seeds to graze on through the day.

It’s worth noting that these vegan sources of protein cost 2-5p per gram of protein, a similar range as meat proteins (beef mince costs 2p/g; chicken breast 3p/g; beef steak 5p/g). Tempeh can cost a little more—my source is 7p per gram—but it’s delicious so I’m happy with that.

I have also dabbled with textured vegetable protein (TVP) and even defatted peanut flour—both much tastier than they sound and both excellent value for money at only 1p per gram of protein.

Eat these superfoods every day

One very cool thing about Cronometer is that it gives you a breakdown of where you’re getting your various nutrients from. That means you can easily discover your own personal superfoods: those foods that you should eat every day to make sure you’re getting the full spectrum of vitamins and minerals without having to resort to supplements.

For me, tahina is a superfood. It’s high in Omega-6, iron, saturated fats, vitamin B1, calcium, selenium, manganese and zinc, as well as protein. Plus it’s easy to hide in a meal or spread on toast or tortillas.

Flax, chia and hemp seeds are also superfoods for me. They’re high in Omega-3, vitamin K, manganese, zinc, selenium, magnesium, iron, vitamin B1, as well as protein. I can mix 15-20g of each into my morning oats or into a protein smoothie. Seeds are also a big part of my Bread of Life recipe.

A colourful daily salad is also a superfood, made up of vitamin-rich yellow, red and green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, okra). However: a daily salad is also a bit of a faff. If it’s too much of a faff (and recently I confess it has been) then I can downgrade this to an emergency carrot, which makes sure I get enough vitamin A so that I can see in the dark.

Another red flag in my Cronometer data is calcium. On only one day in the past fortnight have I managed to hit 100 percent of my recommended daily allowance. That was Pancake Day because I used a fortified oat milk to fuel my flipping overdose. I really should be eating green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach and okra every day. Or, when I’m thrill-seeking, dried figs.

Dr Greger’s savoury blend of ten different spices is also worth a mention in the superfoods column. One teaspoon offers a neat little dose of B vitamins, vitamin K and zinc—and will bring the zing to any lifeless snack.

Finally: nuts. A wee bowl of mixed nuts is fabulous for B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, magnesium, manganese, zinc and the full spread of amino acids. Brazil nuts deserve a special shout out for giving me all the selenium I could ever dream of, as well as a dose of that easily-overlooked calcium.

Vitamin supplements

As a vegan, the Cronometer data confirmed that I must supplement with Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D. Simple as that. I also take a daily multivitamin, which covers all bases, just in case.

More interestingly, I have also been taking a creatine supplement of about 3-5g per day. Creatine is an amino acid found only in meat muscle and is great for intense exercise and building testosterone.

Step Two: What does the blood say?

Now comes the part you’ve all been waiting for: the results of those 58 blood tests.

Drum roll, please… Ta-dah!

No diabetes, no gout!

I don’t want to blind you with data, so here’s a very brief summary of what the blood told me:

  1. I’ve been ill recently: my immune system was stressed.
  2. I have a thyroid autoimmune disease. Nice to know that the NHS hasn’t been gaslighting me all these years.
  3. Otherwise: all good! That is to say: the remaining 56 biomarkers were all within the normal range.

It turns out that, after almost a year of veganism, I have a healthy liver and kidneys, healthy levels of inflammation, protein and vitamin D. My cholesterol profile is ‘excellent’ and I don’t have diabetes or gout. My homones, including testosterone, are also completely fine.

Side story: Normal testosterone reference levels are different between the UK and the US. Apparently, testosterone has been falling in men for decades and, rather than untangle the environmental factors that may be behind this—stress, noise, pollution, antibiotics—medical scientists have instead been revising down their definition of ‘normal’. This is called shifting baseline syndrome and is also the reason why, as generation cedes to generation, we have been gradually downgrading our expectation of the number of songbirds in our garden. For example.

However: the doctor who interpreted the tests for me did mention that my B12 levels were on the low side. He recommended that I take a further test to check for any underlying problems, such as pernicious anaemia, which is fairly common in patients with Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism.

Then, when I shared my results on a semi-reputable Hashimoto’s internet forum, someone stepped in to tell me that my iron levels were also pretty low for a man. Apparently, people with autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s can have trouble absorbing nutrients like B12 and iron. All the more reason to stuff down that kale.

Step Three: What about my day-to-day feels?

It’s all very well analysing dietary and blood data, but what about my day-to-day feels?

Obviously, the past year has been WEIRD. Pandemic isolation was one of the main logistical reasons why I was able to make the leap to veganism in the first place, but the accompanying onslaught of weirdness is also a confounding factor when trying to decide whether I’ve felt stronger in mind and body since changing my diet.

Bearing that in mind, in short, I don’t think I feel any different. I don’t feel awful, but nor do I feel superhuman. And I think I’m still just as much of a hypochondriac as I was before—you can imagine my delight when I saw that the blood tests supported my assertion that I’ve been feeling run down over the past few months.

One thing that has definitely been a huge improvement since going vegan is how much more fun I’m having in the kitchen. As I mentioned earlier, the gift of recipe book Fresh India pretty much changed my eating life. I’ve also really got into baking bread, including tortillas and naans. Veganism has helped me enjoy making an effort—even when that effort is waiting three weeks for kimchi that would last only a weekend.

However, I’m not the only person in the world who has, over the past year, been forced to familiarise themselves with the interior life of hearth and home. If it wasn’t for my whimsical experiment with isolation veganism, would I perhaps be writing to you today about the wonders of knitting? We will never know. But it’s lunchtime now and I’ve got a loaf in the oven—bon appétit!

BREAKING NEWS

I have decided to experiment with a dietary change even more radical than eating more kale. Yesterday, I bought and ate 90g of Dorset lamb liver. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: yuck. Also: that’s not vegan. Both excellent observations.

The problem is that there are no wholefood vegan sources of B12. All vegans can do is eat supplements, either in pill-form or in fortified processed food. Even then, I’d need to eat 31 teaspoons of B12-enriched yeast flakes or an entire jar of Marmite to match what I’d get from one serving of liver.

Lamb liver is extraordinarily high in B12 and iron. According to Cronometer, that one portion of lamb liver gave me 2,868 percent of my daily allowance of B12, as well as 93 percent of my iron. Take that, poor absorption!

B12 with a side of iron: lamb liver, kale and spinach with a lemon dressing—the vitamin C helps with iron absorption, apparently

After reading Spoon-Fed, epidemiologist Tim Spector’s most recent book, I am prepared to at least entertain the idea that eating meat might be better for my body than eating pills.

Side note: I’m pretty sure that eating meat will be worse for the environment, but I am slightly comforted by the thought that the lambs lived very locally and that no one else will eat the liver anyway. Maybe?

B12 is water-soluble and the body doesn’t store much in reserve, which means that I need to get enough B12 in my diet every single day. My liver-vegan experiment will run for the next two months and I intend to eat one portion of lamb liver every week, split over three meals, take high strength B vitamin supplements every day, and continue to add a teaspoon of B12-enriched yeast flakes to my food.

At the beginning of May, I’ll test my levels of B12 and iron again and see what, if anything, has changed.

Rumours circulating on the Hashimoto’s forums indicate that this all-guns-blazing intervention might raise my B12 and iron to the point where I can drop the liver and return to a normal vegan diet. We shall see.

~

If you’re curious, I got the Ultimate Performance blood test from Medichecks. It’s usually £200, but often discounted. I got mine for £180, including an appointment with a nurse to take the blood.

Veganaury: Two flash-in-the-pan breads

The Bread for Life that I shared a while ago is still my daily loaf, but here are two very entertaining breads that can be made in a few minutes using your hob.

1. Proper corn tortillas (with thanks to L.H.)

For this recipe you will need:

  • Masa harina (maize flour)
  • Warm water
  • Cling film or greaseproof paper
  • Chopping board or similar flat, bigger-than-tortilla-sized, weighty object
  • Rolling pin or similar rolling object—I use a measuring beaker
  • Frying pan
  • Optional: salt or other spices

Instructions:

  1. Get your frying pan ready on your hob: you want it nice and hot.
  2. Mix the masa harina with warm water in proportions of 4:3—i.e two cups of flour to one and a half cups of warm water. This recipe is so quick that it hardly matters if you make too much or too little. Chuck in your salt or other spices if you’re going down that road.
  3. Use your hands to mush the mixture into a doughy ball. Split the big dough ball into mini balls.
  4. Tear off two sheets of cling film. Lay one down flat on the counter top and put your first mini dough ball in the middle. Lay the other sheet of cling film over the top. You can also use greaseproof paper, but it’s slightly more sticky so I find I have to be extra careful on stage 6.
  5. Flatten your mini dough ball into a circular disc shape using a chopping board and your body weight. You can also use a tortilla press, but who has one of those? To get the tortilla really thin you can gently roll it out using a rolling pin or similar—but be careful because the masa harina is really fragile.
  6. Carefully peel off the top layer of cling film. Flip the tortilla over and use gravity to gently unpeel the tortilla from the other layer of cling film. If you use greaseproof paper, you can actually cook the exposed side of the tortilla while the second piece of paper still attached—it’s easier to peel off after the tortilla is cooked a little.
  7. Lay the tortilla onto the hot frying pan. Cook for 30 seconds and then carefully flip to the other side for another 30 seconds. Keep on flipping until the tortilla is cooked through. It should be soft enough to roll without falling apart. You’ll get the hang of it.

2. Vegan naan bread

I stole this recipe from Loving It Vegan. Naan bread takes a bit longer than tortilla because the dough needs to rise. I leave it for an hour in an airing cupboard. For that authentic naan flavour, I also add nigella seeds while the bread is cooking on the hob.

He’s not the messiah, he’s an ethically ambiguous cut of lab-grown meat

Yesterday, a friend sent me a Guardian article that announced the regulatory authority approval in Singapore of lab-grown meat. It’s news that has been met with cautious optimism.

Unlike livestock, lab-grown meat doesn’t need to be injected with antibiotics, which—quite apart from being healthier for meat-eaters—would also help protect even non-meat-eaters against what the World Health Organisation calls ‘one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today’: antibiotic resistance.

If lab-grown meat replaces animal-grown meat consumption, then it could also reduce the amount of land used to raise livestock and thus remove one of the biggest drivers for land use change, a major contributor to the current climate and biodiversity crises.

Reading this news article more closely, it becomes clear that it is still a story of ‘ifs’ and ‘coulds’:

The small scale of current cultured meat production requires a relatively high use of energy and therefore carbon emissions. But once scaled up its manufacturers say it will produce much lower emissions and use far less water and land than conventional meat.

My question is: how far would lab-grown meat have to come before it could challenge a plant-based diet for lowest environmental impact?

Even if it does, it’s far from a given that lab-grown meat actually would replace animal-grown meat. What if the only market for lab-grown meat turns out to be people currently eating a plant-based diet for ethical reasons and animal-grown meat continues to rise unabated?

Surprisingly, a 2019 study that examined dietary data from 137 countries around the world found that the level of meat production has a bigger influence on what we eat than our appetites: the more meat that is grown, the more we eat. So what if lab-grown meat makes us more dependent on animal meat rather than less?

The study also found that the two biggest drivers of rising global meat consumption are income and rate of urbanisation. Given that the rate of urbanisation is highest in countries like Uganda, Burundi, Liberia, Laos and Afghanistan, what reason is there to think that these people would have access to expensive lab-meat factories?

The word ‘news’ comes from the Latin ‘novus’, which means ‘unusual’. News stories, like this Guardian article, are stories that are unusual. Most of the time, that means there is a more mundane, less ‘newsworthy’ story. In this case: a surer way of reducing landscape use change and our vulnerability to antibiotic resistance is to lose our taste for flesh, however it’s grown.

Thought for Food #2: Bread of Life

Egyptians use the same word for bread as they do for life: عيش—‘aish. Bread, quite literally, is life. Street bread in Egypt عش بلدي—‘aish baladi—translates just as well as ‘rustic loaf’ as it does ‘live my country’.

More broadly in Arab culture, عيش وملح—’aish w melh, bread and salt—is used to celebrate an alliance of gratitude between two people. Breaking bread together in any culture is symbolic of friendship. For Salvador Dalí, bread was a subject of fetishism and obsession.

If you like your bread leavened, then you’re at the mercy of burping microbes. This episode of BBC CrowdScience follows the fabulously unlikely story of how humans found yeast that actually tastes good.

Besides walking upright, gripping a hand tool and moaning about the weather, baking bread is the closest modern humanity comes to the lived experience of our Mesolithic ancestors.

If you’re uncertain about your status as a flesh and blood human being, what more direct way of communing with our evolution than to bake and break a loaf of bread?

Perhaps that’s why so many people have turned to their ovens during this pandemic. In a very literal sense, we knead bread.

Now I too have joined the baking legions, with a loaf that might consume your soul, but won’t consume your time. My bread of life recipe doesn’t need any kneading because there’s no gluten and no added yeast. It doesn’t need fancy weighing scales or even a loaf tin. You simply mix up the ingredients, leave it to rest (or don’t) and bake it.

Credit where credit’s due: I pinched the bones of this recipe from the back of Bauckhof’s gluten free, organic, vegan bread mix packets. I have also found this similar recipe by Sarah Britton, which gives a great explanation of how this bread works without the binding gluten of flour, and what kind of substitutions you can play around with.

Bread of Life: Ingredients

  • 155-215g wholemeal rolled oats
  • 185-245g of your favourite whole seeds (not ground). Bauckhof use (in descending order of quantity):
    • Pumpkin
    • Sunflower
    • Linseed (= Flax)
    • Sesame
  • 2 tbsp Chia seeds
  • 3 tbsp Ground psyllium husks (important!)
  • 1 tsp Fine grain sea salt

Play around with the ratio of oats to seeds (or go crazy and add a few nuts) for a total weight of about 430g for all the dry ingredients.

If, like me, you don’t have weighing scales, then simply measure out the dry ingredients using a measuring jug. You want to fill it up to about the 700ml mark.

Please don’t worry too much about precision: you’ll soon be able to tell when you mix the dough with water whether you’ve done too much or too little, whether it’s too wet or too dry.

Bread of Life: Method

  1. Put the mix into a bowl and add 360ml cold water
  2. Mix well and leave to stand for a few minutes
  3. Mix again. It should be sort of sticky, but still hold its form
  4. Form the dough into a loaf and put onto a greased baking tray. You can also use a well-greased loaf tin if you have one
  5. Leave for as long as you can. I leave it overnight, but don’t sweat
  6. Bake for 70 minutes at 200C. I use a fan oven, but every oven is different so keep an eye on it. It’s ready when tapping the bottom sounds kinda hollow
  7. Take out of the tin and leave to cool, about 20 minutes

What you’re left with is a nutritious loaf that, per 100g and depending on your ratio of oats (higher carb and fibre) to seeds (higher fat), delivers:

  • 15-17g fat (supermarket wholemeal comparison: 1.8g)
  • 17-21g carbs (37.8g)
  • 12g protein (10g)
  • 8-9g fibre (6.8g)

NOTE: This is not the Chorleywood Process, so forget any notion of airy vapidity. This recipe makes a dense loaf, an equal partner in a meal rather than the merest carbohydrate envelope for your sandwich fillings. Bauckhof note that ‘oat grain fibre contributes to an increase in faecal bulk’—great for happy guts!

Lockdown complete.

Thought for Food #1: Making an effort

Making an effort with simple flapjacks, sweetened and bound with dates and banana

If I’ve learned one thing about eating vegan in the past six months, it’s that I need to make more of an effort if I’m not going to die—not of malnutrition, but of boredom. I’ve often thought of this as a bad thing, but it’s actually an extremely good thing. (When I can be arsed.)

Non-veganism made me lazy. Any ragtag collection of roasted vegetables could go from gross to gourmet in the time it takes to grate half a pound of Davidstow. Strip out the dairy, however, and the vegan remains are revealed for what they truly are: hastily thrown together and technically edible plants flavour-masked with lashings of chilli sauce.

The only response, short of depressing vegan junk food, is to improve my cooking combinations, by practising flavoursome recipes. This is mildly profound: I’ve always been happy putting time into cooking for others, but now I have to acknowledge that me, myself and I are worth cooking well for.

So I bought a cookbook: Dirty Vegan by former professional skateboarder Matt Pritchard. (Two series of Dirty Vegan are also available on BBC iPlayer)

One of the issues with veganism is the paucity of fatty treat foods. The human brain loves two kinds of foods above all else: fats and carbs.

Thousands of years of human ingenuity have created dairy fats prepared and packaged into delightful forms for our brains: cream, cheese and cream cheese, to name but three. Vegan fats are manifestly not. Things are improving—step forward Naturli vegan block, the affordably tasty butter-killer—but there is a long way to go.

The temptation for vegans, then, is to depend on carbs. But, because there’s only so much bread that you can eat, sugar starts to creep into the diet. More raisins, prunes and dates; bananas, apples and berries; biscuits are a temptation for the first time in years. Sugar creep is the only reason I’ve ever wondered whether my vegan diet is any healthier for me than my old dairy diet.

The solution is the same: make an effort. I can’t slop a quart of cream into a bowl with oats and nuts as a dairy treat. Instead, I need to spend an hour making a tray of ‘no-sugar’ vegan flapjacks or maltloaf. And that’s a good thing. It’s good for me, it’s good for the planet and—this is the kicker for me—it’s good for other people.

You see, not many other humans would put up with a daily diet consisting of roasted vegetables (no matter how much cheese) and a bowl of cream. If I want to delight my friends, then I need to become the sort of person who puts time and effort into making tasty, satisfying and healthy food. And preparing food for others has to begin in the workshop, preparing food for myself.

Last weekend I made a full Bristolian breakfast for a friend’s birthday: five guests around the table, some vegan, most not. Scrambled tofu, garlic mushrooms, smokey beans, spinach, toast and mimosas. That it was vegan was irrelevant; it was nutritious and delicious.

Well worth the effort.

Making an effort with breakfast: garlic mushrooms and scrambled tofu—labelled by my collaborator as ‘a triumph’. Recipes by Dirty Vegan (since this photograph, I’ve also made his smokey baked beans and they’re banging)

Swallow the rainbow

In the greengrocers, I met an elderly man who’d ‘spent the last week in bed’. He shook his head at me as he fumbled for the word ‘avocado’. The Platonic Form of an avocado floated in his mind—‘Rough, green…’—but the abstraction stayed maddeningly out of reach. ‘Kiwi!’ I guess.

He shook his head again, this time at the world around him. ‘What do you make of it, bud? What a mess we’re in.’ I made some optimistic comment like, ‘We’ve survived worse’ and I was surprised by his abrupt reversal: ‘Oh yes, my man,’ he said with feeling. ‘Believe me, I’ve survived worse!’

This man was probably born the wrong side of the Second World War and remembers well the food shortages and fuel shortages. I found out today that there was a timber shortage in the 1960s and the door frames of our apartment were built with metal. The strength of this survivor’s feeling as he shopped for avocados and groped for words gave me a glimpse of our privilege.

The sun shone and we are surrounded by a rainbow of colours: striped pumpkins and carmine tomatoes, tricolour peppers and blanched potatoes, pale celery and deepest broccoli, gaudy bananas and russet apples, wine dark berries and chestnut mushrooms, blonde figs and treacle dates. The shop manager fills the man’s bags with colour and loads them up onto his mobility scooter.

‘Oh yes,’ the man chuckles to himself, shaking his head. ‘Haven’t we been through worse?’

At work, I’ve been covering a conference about big data in agriculture. One of the conference organisers, the environmental scientist Dr Andy Jarvis, made this comment about the pandemic:

We were all expecting a food system collapse—people were panic buying and didn’t have confidence in the food system and in our farmers. But the farming community has worked incredibly hard, the food system has stood up, and we’ve all remained well-nourished through this crisis. A big thank you to all the farmers.

Next time you’re in your local greengrocers, look around you at the colours on display. Look more closely and see the fingerprints of the farm workers who planted the seeds, the soil, light and water that grew the plant, and the robust food system that brought these colours to your high street.

Buy the freshest food you can, make something delicious and swallow the rainbow.

The 64 Hour Neapolitan Food Tour

Some people might like to go for a drink or something afterwards. Who knows.

Those were the last words I wrote in my diary before heading out for an evening food tour in Napoli.

64 hours later, my Neapolitan food tour finally ended in an orgy of pastries and coffee – my companion and I fervently insisting with each successive bite that we were quite replete and couldn’t possibly finish it all.

Reader: we finished it all. Not just that morning, but the whole long weekend. All of it. There was not a corner of Napoli that went unsampled by our insatiable taste buds.

The official tour started from the shadow of Dante’s statue and led us around the street food of Napoli.

Buffala mozzerella fresh that morning – quite unlike the mozzerella palmed off on us in Great Britain. Served with carralo biscuits made with almonds dry as dustpaper, best suited to mopping up the olive oil dripping from your antipasti.

Limoncello, of course, made with lemons from Sorrento and alcohol from Dante’s Inferno. Aperol spritz in cheap plastic cups, served from windows open straight onto the street.

Two species of pizza, from Sorbillo’s – the finest pizzeria in Napoli and thus the world. First pizza a portafoglio – a simple wallet pizza that’s eaten folded and on the run, then pizza fritta – a deep fried specimen that wouldn’t be out of place on a night out in Glasgow.

Frittatine di pasta is a depth charge of carbohydrates, macaroni, bechamel and pork weighted with enough oil to power a medium-sized caravan. One to be halved, quartered, and shared to soak up the limoncello.

Sfogliatelle, rhum babá and gelato to finish. Or so I thought.

‘You guys wanna come for a drink?’ asked a voice I would come to know well from the late night, early morning menu inspections that would plaster our weekend.

She’d come for the coastline, Capri and Amalfi. But the storm we watched roll in one night – sea spray dousing our wine – put paid to that. So we sacrificed ourselves instead to tracking down the city’s gourmet offerings of seafood and pasta.

I don’t have the heart to ruin your Friday lunch (nor mine) with any more distant dishes. Suffice to say that, were I still wandering the alleyways of Napoli, I suspect I would already have Type 2 diabetes and a drinking problem.

Smooth stone slabs and close houses make for a furnace. Narrow alleys burst open onto ornate cathedrals. Religious niches behind glass. A white dog with a pink tongue. Songbirds. The street spills into houses, households tumble onto the street. Families in states of undress around a floral tablecloth, bunk beds in the corner. Impromptu greengrocers and fruit-sellers. Washing lines decorate the walls. Courtyards hidden behind doorways and pillars. Cigarette vending machines. And, above all, mopeds.

tl;dr: Your Questions About Food and Climate Change, Answered (NYT) How to shop, cook and eat in a warming world

tl;dr is internet speak for ‘too long; didn’t read’. It’s probably my favourite semi-colon-based acronym.

I am a huge supporter of thoroughly researched articles, but sometimes you don’t have time to wade through pages of text – no matter how beautifully laid out.

So this post takes the gargantuan Your Questions About Food and Climate Change, Answered: How to shop, cook and eat in a warming world by Julia Moskin, Brad Plumer, Rebecca Lieberman and Eden Weingart (NYT, April 30, 2019) and boils its 3,300 vital words down to less than 1,000.

You’re welcome.


Does what I eat have an effect on climate change?

Yes. Food is responsible for about one-quarter of greenhouse gases we generate.

How exactly does food contribute to global warming?

  1. Deforestation, to make room for farms and livestock, releases huge amounts of carbon.
  2. When cows, sheep and goats digest their food, they burp up methane, another potent greenhouse gas.
  3. Animal manure and rice paddies are also big methane sources.
  4. Fossil fuels used in the industry.

Which foods have the largest impact?

Meat and dairy, particularly from cows.

Emissions from livestock account for roughly the same as all forms of transportation – including aeroplanes.

Is there a simple food choice I can make that would reduce my climate footprint?

  • Eat less beef, lamb and cheese.
  • Substitute with pork, chicken, eggs and molluscs.
  • Replace with beans, pulses, grains and soy.

How much would changing my diet actually help?

People on a meat-heavy diet could shrink their food-related footprint by at least 33% by becoming vegetarian.

If the average American replaced a third of the beef he or she eats with pork, poultry or legumes, his or her food-related emissions would fall by around 13%.

Dietary changes are often one of the quickest ways to lighten your impact on the planet.

I’m just one person! Can I really make a difference all by myself?

Yes.


Why does meat have such a big climate impact?

It takes more land, energy and water to produce 1kg of animal protein than it does to produce 1kg of plant protein.

Bacteria in cow and sheep stomachs create methane, a potent greenhouse gas, that is released through burps and flatulence.

Does it matter how the cows are raised?

Yes. If the Amazon is being cut down, that’s really bad.

What about grass-fed beef?

The jury’s out.

What about chicken?

Chicken usually produces far fewer emissions than beef and a bit fewer than pork.

Should humans stop eating meat altogether?

Not necessarily.

What about ‘fake meat’?

The jury’s still out. Looks promising, though.

Are there other ways meat could become more climate-friendly?

Yes, and there’s a lot of room for further improvement.


What kinds of seafood should I eat?

  • Wild fish: anchovies, sardines, herring, tuna, pollock, cod, haddock.
  • Mollusks: clams, oysters and scallops.

Warning: wild shrimp and lobster can have a larger climate impact than chicken or pork.

Huge caveat: most fisheries are being fished at their maximum sustainable level, while others are being overexploited.

Is farmed seafood a good long-term plan?

Depends. With tight environmental regulation (e.g. Norway), farmed fish can have relatively low impact. But that’s not what’s happening everywhere (e.g. Southeast Asia, China).

How do I know whether a farmed fish is good or bad?

It’s tough. There is a lot of variation from farm to farm.

So what’s the single best choice I can make about seafood?

  • Eat more mollusks.
  • Check your fish is certified sustainable.

[That’s two choices, ed.]


How much impact do milk and cheese have on climate change?

Milk (including yoghurt, and cottage or cream cheese) typically has a smaller climate footprint than chicken, eggs or pork per kilo.

Many other types of cheese (Cheddar, mozzarella) can have a significantly bigger footprint than chicken or pork, since it typically takes about 10 kilos of milk to make one kilo of cheese.

Wait – cheese might be worse than chicken?

Depends on the cheese, but yes.

Are some kinds of milk better than others? I pay a lot more for organic milk.

The jury’s still out.

Which nondairy milk is best?

Almond, rice, oat and soy milk all have a smaller greenhouse gas footprint than cow’s.


So are you saying I should become a vegan?

A vegan diet does have the smallest climate footprint around.

I don’t like vegan food. What should I eat?

Look again at your definition of ‘vegan food’.

I don’t think I can go completely vegan. What else can I try?

  • Eat less meat and dairy, and more protein-rich plants like beans, legumes, nuts and grains.
  • Go vegetarian: no meat, poultry and fish, but dairy and eggs are allowed.
  • Go pescatarian: add seafood to a vegetarian diet.
  • Partly replace meat and dairy with plants.
  • Replace beef and lamb with other meat.

Is organic produce really better than conventionally grown produce?

Jury’s out, in terms of climate impact.

Should I worry about whether my produce is local and seasonal?

Transportation is only about 6% of food’s total climate footprint, so don’t over worry. Avoid produce that’s perishable and needs to be flown between distant places.


Is food waste a big part of the climate change problem?

Yes.

How can I reduce my food waste?

  • Plan your meals.
  • Don’t order more food than you can eat at restaurants.
  • Use a freezer.
  • Ignore ‘sell by’ dates.

Should I be composting?

Ideally, yes – it cuts methane emissions.

Should I use paper or plastic bags?

Don’t freak out. Packaging makes up only about 5% of global food-related emissions.

Does recycling really do anything?

It can help, though it’s not as effective as reducing waste in the first place.

Why aren’t there labels in the grocery store explaining the carbon footprint of different foods?

It’d take a fair bit of effort.


Takeaways

  1. Beef, lamb and cheese tend to do the most climate damage. Pork, chicken and eggs are in the middle. Plants of all kinds typically have the lowest impact.
  2. What you eat matters a lot more than whether it’s local or organic, or what kind of bag you use to carry it home.
  3. Small shifts help too. Eat less meat and more plants, or switch from beef to chicken.
  4. Waste less.

Abu Falafel

Our guide and translator was a Syrian engineer I’ll call Abu Falafel. The first time I met him was at the house he’d been allocated by the ministry on the outer ring of Thessaloniki. It was on the ground floor of a unspectacular apartment building and he shared it with his youngest son, who is deaf.

Abu Falafel started, as all Syrians do, by ignoring our protestations that a second lunch would be unnecessary. He’d gone to so much trouble already, prepping ingredients, that we gladly acquiesced.

And so began the theatre of falafel that would give him his name. Continue reading Abu Falafel

No Meat: Meaty Moths & 3 Observations

After three weeks of No Meat, I feel like I’ve finally arrived as a vegetarian. Mainly thanks to a catastrophically meat-centric encounter at a restaurant. I’ve heard these sorts of stories many times from my vegetarian friends, about being served chicken or thin slices of ham, but I’ve never experienced vegetarian-does-not-compute dining myself.

Until last night.

I should preface this by saying that the meal was otherwise excellent; the two vegetarian dishes we had were superb. But the bread contained meat.

I’ll say that again. The bread contained meat.

We were enthusiastically tucking into hummus and baba ghanoush with hunks of warm flat bread, until my friend pointed out that this surprisingly delicious bread had a certain je ne sais quoi. Then we did sais quoi: ground lamb.

For the sake of the experiment, I took my hummus neat after that. Not too long after, we found a moth in the pomegranate salad. Suffice to say, we got a free dessert…

Observation #1: Identity Crisis

In other news, I’m having an identity crisis. At the restaurant and when others are cooking, I am forced to identify as a vegetarian. As a life-long (and eager) meat eater, this is very odd, especially as vegetarianism is not a neutrally-charged. In our society, being vegetarian comes along with some level of prejudice and judgement – not least by myself.

I’ve been surprised to notice that I like being a meat eater. It’s part of my identity. I like being a meat eater, not for the nutritional benefits of eating meat, but because I like the idea of being that sort of hearty, eat anything, eat everything, sort of person. Vegetarianism, on the other hand, strikes me as being somewhat frail: it feels like an absence, rather than an abundance.

I know that’s ridiculous, especially considering my previous meat and beans diet, but hey.

On the plus side, as a vegetarian, I can share food more often with my vegetarian house mates. Or with anyone, in fact, because no one wants to eat meat and beans all the time.

Observation #2: The Power of Meat

I now fully appreciate the power of meat. That first week was tough. The Friday, five days in, was terrible. I felt dizzy and had to roam the streets at night looking for vitamin pills.

Now I supplement like a Tour de France dope fiend. I take a full A to Z of vitamin pills, garlic capsules, fish oil, extra vitamin D3, as well as my pea protein, creatine and spirulina milkshake.

This brings me onto a related observation: most vegetarians I know eat meat. That might be a weekly fish supper, or monthly meaty treats. This was a surprise to me, but having lived on a purely lacto-ovo vegetarian diet for 3 weeks, now totally understandable.

It’s hard work making sure you get full nutrition on a No Meat diet. My friends seemed to be most worried about iron deficiency. I’m most worried about wasting away, especially with a half marathon next weekend.

Observation #3: The Laziness of Habit

To be honest, I was expecting to go back to meat after that first week, but for some reason I didn’t. That reason was laziness. I simply couldn’t find time to buy any meat, so just drifted on without.

This laziness shows, not only how much my condition improved after that first Friday, but also the power of inertia. Inertia usually works against us, keeping us wallowing in the rut of habit, lazily taking the same bike route to work every morning, annoying our house mates by leaving the washing up in the sink, or popping in for a swift half that always turns into five or six.

With this No Meat experiment, however, it was surprising how quickly inertia flopped over on to my side. It was an additional effort to buy meat, so I simply didn’t.

I also benefit from the positive nature of my decision. It’s not that I can’t eat meat – no one is stopping me. I simply don’t eat meat – it’s my free choice.

Vanessa M Patrick and Henrick Hagtvedt have researched this very linguistic nuance and found that a refusal that is termed as I don’t… is “more effective for resisting temptation and motivating goal-directed behaviour”.

My own I don’t… was tested when I went for a take-away alone for the first time. I could have chosen anything from the extensive meaty and fishy menu. (The two vegetarians who were staying with me both had fish and chips from next door.) But I didn’t. I didn’t even think about it. I freely chose a vegetable masala. And bloody good it was too.

No Meat

After No Hot Showers and No Pressing the Open Door Button on Public Transportation, here comes a positive constraint that is, shall we say, a little more… meaty.

If in doubt, open with a pun, that’s what ma always told me.

My Old Diet: Meat and Beans

For the last two years, my diet has almost exclusively consisted of two ingredients: meat and beans. That might not sound like a varied diet, but sometimes the beans were butter and sometimes they were black. When I couldn’t get either, I’d settle for kidney.

I even once ate this. Yuk.

Of course, I’m slightly exaggerating. These two primary ingredients were bonded together by a tin of tomatoes and served with a selection of coleslaw, hummus and/or soft cheese. That essential melange was what I ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For two years.

This diet might not sound particularly healthy, but over those two years I’ve managed to remain an active human being, who runs three times a week and cycles pretty much everywhere. The meat and beans combo is high in calories and protein, which gives me good energy, and low in carbohydrates and fibre, which means I don’t get bloated.

This monolithic diet had a few practical benefits on the side too:

  1. It’s simple.
  2. It’s quick.
  3. It’s filling.
  4. It’s cheap.

What more could a person desire? My taste buds aren’t up to much, so I wasn’t that bothered about endless repetition. In fact, repeating the same meal over and over meant that I got absurdly proficient at its preparation and, for someone whose priority is to spend time in the study rather than the kitchen, that’s a good thing.

No Meat means more time staring at these. Riveting.

 

Why No Meat?

So why on earth would I trade in that sweet deal for the unknown mystery of a vegetarian diet? The clue is in the question: if there’s one thing that I can’t resist, it’s an almond ice cream unknown mystery. I didn’t know what to expect to learn, but I knew I would learn something. And that’s the best reason for doing anything.

Like all good students, I started my education, not in the kitchen, but slumped in front of the computer watching a film. Cowspiracy examines the devastation the animal agriculture industry wreaks on the environment and, as the title hints, wonders why government, industry and even environmental advocacy groups like Greenpeace turn a blind eye.

Vegetarianism has never appealed to me on compassionate grounds. I am happy to kill animals for food. I’ve lived and grazed alongside pigs, turkeys, chickens and sheep. I killed one of those turkeys for food and I’d do it again. I understand the philosophical arguments for animal rights and I respect those who fight that battle, but it’s just not an ethical dilemma I can get riled up about.

Global warming and the environmental degredation of the planet, however, is something that does concern me. I don’t mind killing an animal for food, but if by killing that animal I am part of a vast unsustainable feeding industry, then that’s a personal moral decision I would like to investigate.

Cowspiracy is unambiguous:

Animal agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation, water consumption and pollution, is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the transportation industry, and is a primary driver of rainforest destruction, species extinction, habitat loss, topsoil erosion, ocean “dead zones,” and virtually every other environmental ill.

You can read more facts about animal agriculture on the Cowspiracy website, complete with percentages and dates, billions and millions.

But the main reason for giving No Meat a try was to learn more about food, food preparation, my body and my health.

No Meat

At the beginning of this week, then, I stopped eating meat. As I hope I’ve made clear, this was no small modification to my diet. Just in case it’s not obvious, about 50% of my calories, 85% of my protein and 50% of my fat came from meat.

This was going to be the biggest challenge: where would I find my calories, where would I find my protein, where would I find my fat if not from the flesh of an animal?

The answer, as it happens, was from different bits of animals: eggs, cheese and milk. So much for avoiding the animal agriculture industry!

Delicious saladiness. Spot the animal products.

Since Monday, I’ve been eating salad and scramble. In the salad, we have:

  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Cucumber
  • Red pepper
  • Red onion
  • Avocados
  • Feta cheese
  • Rocket
  • Spinach
  • Chickpeas

All raw and dressed with pumpkin seed oil.

Well that looks gross. Sorry if you were eating while reading this.

In the scramble, I put:

  • Eggs (scrambled)
  • Mushrooms (fried)
  • Red onion (fried)
  • Black beans (boiled)
  • Lentils (boiled)

Even this wide variety of ingredients, it’s a struggle to eat enough to give me sufficient calories, fat and protein. Just to give you a sense of the scale of the protein problem alone:

  • I used to eat about 500g of meat a day, which gave me 170g protein.
  • To get the same amount from eggs, I’d need to eat 24 a day. Just about possible without throwing up.
  • To get the same amount from beans, I’d need to eat about 4kg, or 16 tins’ worth. Impossible without growing into a huge ball of bloat by the end of the day.

For every gramme of protein that I consume from beans or lentils, I’m getting at least a gramme of gassy fibre. This is not a good trade, so yesterday I bought some pea protein isolate, which I can throw into a blender with milk, almond butter and a banana to make a 40g protein, 22g fat smoothie.

Without this addition, I think the transition to a vegetarian diet would have been extremely difficult for me. Thank the lord for modern food technology!

Real food technology: the inside of my compost bin.

Nutritional Comparison

Because I like to do these things properly, I have analysed, weighed and measured every single ingredient in my new vegetarian diet, so that I can compare it precisely with my good old meat and beans.

One new No Meat meal (excluding the supplemental pea protein smoothie) contains:

  • Much less energy (800kcal vs 1050kcal) because I simply can’t eat enough!
  • Much less protein (42g vs 100g) because there’s no meat, duh.
  • Much more fibre (28g vs 14g), mostly down to the avocados and increased bean intake.
  • Much more sugar (12g vs 4g). That’s those sweet cherry tomatoes and red pepper.
  • Much more salt (3g vs 1.2g), thanks to the feta cheese in the salad. I’ll go with something less salty next time.
  • Comparable carbohydrates (46g vs 44g). Mostly from beans in both diets.
  • Only slightly less fat and saturated fat (44g and 17g vs 53g and 21g). The eggs, cheese and avocados help here.

If I include one pea protein shake, then we can add:

  • 571kcal energy.
  • 38g protein.
  • 24g fat (of which 7g is saturated fat).
  • 48g carbohydrates (of which 34g is sugar).
  • 8g fibre.
  • 1.2g salt.

This pretty much doubles both protein (good) and carbohydrates (less good). Energy, fat and carbohydrate intake now exceeds my meat and beans diet, while protein still lags behind.

Next time, I’ll try it without the banana, which alone adds 31g of carbs. I might even try the pea protein on its own, mixed with water (urgh!).

Practical Difficulties and Lifestyle Adjustments

Unfortunately, however, the problems with nutrition were just the tip of the (rapidly melting due to animal agricuture incited global warming) iceberg.

  • Yesterday I spent 1 hour 15 minutes preparing my vegetarian meals. Cooking meat and beans used to take me 20 minutes, most of which would be spent playing guitar while the pan sat on the stove.
  • Meat and beans is a one pan, one bowl meal. Preparing vegetables uses all manner of kitchen accoutrements: a knife, a chopping board, two pans and two bowls. That means more washing up.
  • It also creates more waste by-products such as onion peel, avocado stones, egg shells and that juice that comes out of feta cheese. Luckily these are mostly compostable.
  • The shopping list for my vegetarian diet is much longer, having risen from three ingredients to fourteen. This means more time spent in the greengrocer. Luckily, he’s a great fella, so shopping turns into more a social occasion.
  • I find that, not only am I almost painfully bloated from eating so much, but I am also visiting the toilet a lot more, which is slightly inconvenient. I’m told that this may well settle down as my body gets used to the diet.
  • Because meat covers so many nutritional bases, from protein and fats to vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids, I’ve got to be much more organised with what I eat. The plus side is that, in doing so, I’ll also learn much more about my food.
  • The basic salad and scramble meal plan works out slightly cheaper, roughly £3 per meal compared to £3.30 for one of meat and beans. The pea protein smoothies cost £1.30 each, however, making the vegetarian diet more expensive in total.
Too much washing up.

What’s next?

This week has been largely delicious, if time consuming. I’ve spent a lot more time in the kitchen and learnt a lot more about vegetables and nutrition. As I write these words, I’m a bit hungry, but then it is lunch time. So what’s next?

As far as I can tell, I’ve got three options:

  1. I could continue with this No Meat experiment as it is, hopefully becoming a tastier, faster and more knowledgeable lacto-ovo vegetarian chef.
  2. I could reintroduce meat, but perhaps eat less. If not for the taste (my buds are really not fussed, remember), then for the wider nutritional palette. A 2011 study, for example, found that supplementation with 20g of creatine per day could enhance cognitive functioning in vegetarians. Not to put too fine a point on it, we get creatine from eating animals.
  3. I could go the whole hog (sorry) and try No Animal Products or, as it’s better known, veganism. This is what the makers of Cowspiracy would love me to do, for the sake of the environment. I also happen to have a good friend who is a miraculous vegan chef (I particularly recommend her Chocolate Orange Black Bean Brownies). If I can make veganism work for me the way it so radiantly works for her, then, quite frankly, winner, winner, (no) chicken dinner.

Whatever I decide, at least I’ve started the process of self-enlightenment, which is the primary purpose of all the best experiments in positive constraints. If you’d like to stay in touch with all my experiments – and get first news of the very exciting book – then please join my mailing list.

Now I can join in the meat or no meat conversation: What do you think?

I hate crisps

I hate crisps.

There. I’ve said it.

I really do hate crisps. And I don’t say that lightly or with a cheeky twinkle in my eye. I loathe crisps. I abhor crisps. I detest crisps, crisp-eaters and every aspect and association of this most deplorable variety of snack.

Do you love crisps? Then, I guarantee, I hate you. (At least I do whenever you stuff your slobbering maw with fried potato.)

It never used to be like this. I used to eat crisps when I were a lad. They would be served up as a treat once a week, or poured into bowls at parties, and I would devour them with quick-fingered crunch. Because the addict doesn’t notice the madness of their addiction.

And that explains my hatred: there is no more acerbic anti-smoker than the former-smoker. There is no more hate-filled anti-crisper than the former-crisper. (Indeed, you will occasionally witness me, in a fit of self-loathing, suffer a relapse.)

But my hatred of crisps is founded on rational principles, just as the anti-smoker is medically justified in their high-minded disgust of smoking and smokers.

Forget for a moment your addiction and your long and fond history of crisp consumption and think about the characteristics of the snack. Then decide if you still want to be what you are eating.

Just 5 Disgusting Things About Crisps

Examine the crisp with a dispassionate eye and what do we find?

1. They are noisy to consume, from the constant rustling of the foil sealed for freshness packaging, the rummaging fingers for the right crisp, through to the crunching of the snack chew, the sucking of fingers and constant mastication as the unfortunate victim digs half chewed gobbets of potato from between their teeth. Not to mention the scrunching of the packet when finally, mercifully, the crisps are finished.

2. They have absolutely zero nutritional value, being largely a conveyance for salt. This is unforgivable. If you really need a snack, even a noisy snack, why not just eat a bag of almonds or an apple? Or put a fistful of sand into your fat gob?

3. They stink. There is no smell quite as toxic as the breath fumes of E-numbered crisp “flavours”. Amazed that you can find crisps in flavours like Vanilla Ice Cream and Pecan Pie? How do they manage that?! By poisoning you, that’s how.

Not only will you not get the stench off your breath for hours, but the whole room into which you have just opened your mouth will suffer the olfactory fog of your idiocy.

4. They are addictive. They were invented for the sole reason of making you drink more, you fool. Somehow Pringles tried to make a virtue of this: “Once you pop, you can’t stop!” You could say the same for crack cocaine. Why allow a snack food to be your masochistic master?

5. They are ubiquitous. You can’t go anywhere these days without having crisps foisted upon you. Sit down on any train journey and within minutes you will hear a diabolical orchestra tuning up with rustlings, crunchings and suckings, closely followed by a noxious waft of stinging fumes that will persist like a cloud of pestilence until you get to your destination.

Even restaurants insist on spoiling their food with the addition of crisps – usually before you’ve even caught sight of the menu. Poppadoms: crisps. Prawn crackers: crisps. Tacos: crisps. Meal ruined.

Why oh why oh why?

Given this cursory examination of just five hideous features of the crisp (I could go on), it is clear that they are nothing more than a successful marketing campaign.

So why do people eat crisps? Because they actually enjoy the taste? That I can’t believe. You’ll hear smokers too, talking about the glory of that first cigarette of the morning, shortly after hacking up their guts.

No. We eat crisps because we’re childishly drawn by the garish packaging, by their ubiquity in every shop around the country, because we’re told to like them by our parents and the rest of our moronic nation.

We are cursed; a crisp-obsessed society that has deluded itself into believing fried potato is the optimal snack for every occasion: at meal times, in school packed lunches, on trains, with a drink in a pub.

The only reason we eat crisps is because we are a dogmatic crisp-eating society. You could no more imagine English society without crisps than you could without tea or cricket. It’s pathetic.

But perhaps a society gets the snacks they deserve. We deserve nothing better than a throwaway, antisocial, vacuous snack food that litters the highways and byways of Britain. The crisp is garish, loud and ultimately empty. Our garish, loud and ultimately empty society deserves nothing more.

Thank-You Letter to the Daily Mail

UPDATE: Now you can watch us thank the Daily Mail in person!

Dear Our New Favourite Newspaper, The Daily Mail:

A thousand thanks for your tireless support for the much-abused Calais migrants! (Or, as they’re also known, “Fellow Human Beings”.)

Some freeloading scroungers might have cynically used your festive promotional offer with P&O Ferries to go over and stock up on cheap continental booze and fags. But we know you meant to launch a D-Day-style flotilla of solidarity with Fellow Human Beings who have fled the blood and torture and killing and more blood and bombs (paid for by the British taxpayer!) in the hope of joining us in El Dorado where you can’t even have a fag indoors any more.

Your courageous humanitarian stance should be saluted – but instead you’re constantly pilloried by the loony left as “anti-immigration”, “anti-welfare” and “anti-freeze”. Everyone should clearly understand your newspaper is cover-to-cover political satire!

For example, we found your ironic article of January 15, “Michelin Chef And Curried Turkey”, to be an absolute hoot! The story was a lampoon of the highest order – imagine “thousands” of Fellow Human Beings being served “three-course meals” by a “three-star Michelin chef”!*

All this frivolity is “partly-funded”, of course, by… the British taxpayer! We love that catchphrase and the comic effect would simply evaporate if you were to list all the funders, the Cypriot, Latvian and Bulgarian taxpayers – in fact, every EU taxpayer. No, the gag wouldn’t have worked in the slightest.

Satirical Daily Mail Calais migrant story alongside hard-hitting news story about a woman wearing see-through pants.

What a shame fact-starved “Cheddarcakes” didn’t see the funny side, commenting on your spoof article, “They eat better than I do! And when they make it here, they will be put in a 4-star hotel.”

Don’t you hate it when a joke falls flat?

Your comically embellished language conjures up images of Fellow Human Beings dining out on British taxpayer’s money, as they whimsically discuss with the starched-shirted waiter the troublesome quandary of whether to have a starter and a main, or a main and a dessert – utterly priceless!

Of course, everyone knows the food at the miles-out-of-town day centre is not enough to feed even a quarter of the Fellow Human Beings in Calais, even once a day. The people we helped, thanks to your generosity, hadn’t had a meal in two days.

“Spacious accomodation in a leafy Calais suburb…”

A straight-laced piece of fuddy-duddy “factual” journalism would naturally have mentioned such realities and maybe too the violent harassment by police, pepper spray in the face, daily beatings – we met one chap who’d been chased into barbed wire, slashing open an eyeball or two!

But you played it for laughs and, inspired by your cutting satire, we used the money we saved on the ferry to do a supermarket sweep for “hundreds of smiling migrants”, packed forty to a room in a squalid end-of-terrace, without electricity, running water or heating.

“Oh, well, if we’re all having starters..!”

On a border where a Fellow Human Being is killed every two weeks trying to cross the Channel, everyone finds the idea that Britain has an “open door” policy on immigration to be absolutely gut-busting.

Syrian Daniel, 32, said he hadn’t laughed so much in months, not since he was quoted $2000 to cross the Mediterranean in a rusty bucket. He sends his thanks for the morale-boosting laughs – keep up the good work!

In peace and solidarity,

Beth and David

p.s. After running the Daily Mail Big Fact Checker, it was found that this “three-star Michelin chef” had once been a trainee at a one-star restaurant. This is like saying you’re an Oscar winner when you once did an internship with Carlton Television.

p.p.s. Thanks for the free bottle of wine! The perfect way to wind down after a hard day’s solidarity.

Be like Satirical News Journal The Daily Mail and Support Calais Migrants!

1. Book a ferry ticket with P&O by the 1st of February, using code DAILYMAIL4, to take advantage of the Daily Mail’s humanitarian largesse.

2. Pack up a backpack or load up a car with tents, blankets, (men’s) shoes, winter jackets and a couple of sets of dominoes. If you have none of these things, take a warm hug and a friendly smile.

3. Visit the migrant camp at Impasse des Salines or the “Jungle” along Rue des Garennes. If you want to support activists in Calais, contact Calais Migrant Solidarity on +33 75 34 75 159.

4. Enjoy your free bottle of wine, courtesy of our sponsor, The Daily Mail!

p.s. Harkerboy comments that, “We should all go to Calais and demand that we are looked after in this camp”. This picture is for you!

Home, sweet home…

Refuelling: The Food of Tunisia

Tunisia is a wonderful country to cycle around, but it’s an even better place to eat around. One of the beauties of long-distance cycle touring is the capacity to eat like a goat: grazing on anything and everything all the time. Hungry? You will be.

Lemons and garlic at Tunis central market

Two unique and inescapable ingredients distinguish Tunisian cooking from the rest of the Mediterranean.

1. A nose-snorting chilli paste called Harissa:

Harissa by the tin. Serve with olive oil and bread. For breakfast.

2. Tinned tuna:

Tuna in tins. With tuna, of course.

There is no reason at all that I can think of for why the Tunisians love tinned tuna so much. It’s not like Tunisia is land-locked; there’s 1,148km of Mediterranean coastline to fish in. And it’s certainly not like the Tunisians don’t know how to cook a fish (which I suspect is the reason why the English buy tinned tuna). I can vouch for that.

Fish.
Ex-fish.

But despite this oceanic bounty, the Tunisians will serve tinned tuna with every conceivable dish. If it can be served with, beside, on, in or under a dollop of tinned tuna, you can bet your last dinar that it will be.

I once asked for a green salad, expecting a plate of leaves. I got half a head of lettuce, a tin of tuna and an egg. In my country that’s called a salad Nicoise. I wasn’t complaining – I like tuna – but the menu in this restaurant also listed a salad Nicoise. What would THAT come with?

Tuna is so popular that it can take chefs by surprise when you ask for something without tuna. I ordered a ham sandwich in Tunis and the chef (on auto-pilot) smeared it with a layer of tuna, before sheepishly scraping it off again.

These two ingredients, tuna and harissa, are so ubiquitous that you can assume they are present in every dish, unless otherwise stated. Needless to say, Tunisia is not an easy place to eat if you are a vegetarian who doesn’t eat fish. Or if you have delicate bowels that can’t take a dash of hot sauce.

Talking of vegetarianism, there is actually one reason I can think of for Tunisia’s obsession with tinned tuna: it’s cheap meat. In Tunisia, if you can afford meat, you eat meat. Being a Muslim country, it’s usually chicken or lamb, occasionally beef, but you can also try your teeth on camel or (if not Muslim) wild boar.

Rotisserie chicken. Eaten in quarters, halves or wholes.
Rotisserie chicken, in close up.

The classic Tunisian meal is based around couscous. Couscous is semolina rolled with water and salt. It’s made at home and it takes a day to make 50-100kg, then about three weeks to dry in the sun (hence why it’s made in the summer). After that, it lasts for a year. In Tunisia, the couscous is small and fine; in Morocco they make bigger granules.

Couscous is prepared in a couscousiere, which is a two-tiered pot-steamer. In the bottom you cook your spicy meaty stew and in the top you put the couscous, together with carrots, onions, potatos, chick peas – or whatever you’ve got in the larder. The stew is made with lamb, merguez sausages, fish or camel and, as it bubbles away, its meaty steam cooks the couscous and vegetables and infuses them with flavour.

Merguez couscous.
Camel couscous.

I can assure you that it is perfectly possible to get bored of steamed vegetables, but luckily couscous is not the only dish of the day in Tunisia. Ojja is almost like a curry, with garlic, peppers, onion and tomato, a bit like a Kashmiri rogan josh. It’s never served with rice, but is mopped up with a French-style baguette.

Ojja. Plenty of chillies. Like a curry, but without rice.

Another speciality of Tunisia is the tagine. You probably already know what a tagine is, so I’ll confuse you with a photograph:

Tunisian tagine: nothing like Moroccan tagine. More like a quiche. Super tasty.

Yes, this is a Tunisian tagine: absolutely nothing like the more famous Moroccan tagine. Thank goodness. This tagine is way nicer. It’s almost like a quiche, with lots of lightly whisked egg. Often served cold. Yum.

Finally, I give you the brik. It is nothing like the English brick. Thank goodness. Instead it is a sort of deep-fried Cornish pasty, filled with whatever the chefs got in. Usually tuna, of course, but sometimes an unexpected burst of boiling fat will sear your tongue. It’s often served as a starter and comes highly recommended – just don’t watch them prepare it if you’re trying to avoid oily fat.

Brik. With tuna (inside), of course.

Talking of deep frying, here are some more random deep-fried objects:

Assorted fried goods. With tomato and onion.

When Tunisians are not eating couscous, tuna or harissa, they are probably eating baked goods. These are usually a toothsome blend of French patisserie and Tunisian taste. This creates such delights as the Tunisian pizza:

Tunisian pizza! With tuna, of course.

The Tunisian pasty:

One Tunisian pasty for the road. With tuna, of course.

And the Tunisian deep-friend sandwich, known as a fricasse:

Fricasse. Super oily. With tuna, of course.

Galettes, a kind of pancake, are served up everywhere and stuffed with cheese, ham, egg, harissa, tomato, onion, chips, mechouia salad – and tuna, of course.

Preparing galettes on the side of the road. With tuna, of course.

Luckily, there ARE limits to the Tunisian use of tuna in baking. You can get decent French baguettes, pain au chocolats and croissants and pretty much every region has its own speciality sweets, all without tuna.

One sweet I didn’t take a photograph of was the Corne de Gazelle of Tataouine, in the south of Tunisia. This is a baked hard cone of pastry (the horn of the gazelle), filled with nuts and seeds and then slathered in syrup. My teeth still hurt from the sugar-rush.

Sweets. Make sure you have sesame seeds, dates and loads of syrup.

Biscuits are popular and come in a variety of shapes, like stars and moons and hearts. They probably shouldn’t be called biscuits, actually, because they are very soft – more like the cakey bits of Jaffa Cakes, which are famously NOT biscuits. Perhaps biscuits are taxed at a higher rate in Tunisia as well.

These “biscuits” do not, however, come in a variety of flavours. They are basically flour plus jam. The jam can nominally vary in flavour, but they all taste the same. I advise you to avoid anything purporting to be “chocolate” – it will only disappoint you. The “chocolate” is a brown substance finely sprayed onto the surface of the biscuit, so as to give the appearance of abundance, but it is nothing but appearance.

Lemony biscuits. Very floury and crumbly.

Beyond the colonial boulangerie influence, Tunisia has its own native baking tradition. Tunisian bread is flat and often flavoured with yummy things like cheese and olives. And tuna and harissa, obviously. In the country, it comes out of ovens like this one:

A bread oven at a farm.

And it looks like this, all lovely and warm like a jumper just out of the tumble-dryer:

Bread! From a campfire at Ksar Ghilane oasis.

Or like this, topped with cheese and impregnated with harissa:

The best bread in the world: impregnated with harissa.

When you enter a Tunisian restaurant, a basket of some sort of bread will be dumped on your table, accompanied by a saucer of harissa. Eat it: it’s free. Quite often you’ll get a plate or two of salads as well. In fact, by the time the main course comes around, you won’t be hungry!

Tunisia does a good line in salads. Salad mechouia is a green splodge that tastes of burnt peppers. It can be very spicy, so dip before you add harissa yourself.

Salad mechouia – with tuna, of course.

And, being a Mediterranean country, Tunisia is abundant with fresh vegetables, ripe for the salading.

Tunisian tomato salad. Like an English tomato salad, except this one tastes of actual tomatoes.

But mostly you’ll get a chopped salad buried under tuna and egg:

A salad. With tuna, of course.

A post on Tunisian cuisine would not be complete without mentioning drinks. Juices are blended at street stalls: lemon, orange, carrot… Whatever blends, gets drunk. Coffee is an Arab speciality, coming in tiny glasses and as black as your soul. The English word “coffee” comes from the Arabic, incidentally.

So does the word “sugar” and you’ll understand why if you ever take a tea with a Tunisian. Every meal is finished off with a glass of tea, with a twist of mint and an inch of sugar in the bottom.

Tea. Serve with an inch of sugar and a twist of mint.

Phew. I don’t know about you, but I’m stuffed. I know I’ve missed out all kinds of dishes (e.g. Kamounia, a spicy meaty little number), but just like my cycle tour it’s been only a brief taste of Tunisia.

Eating and cycling are made for each other. The one makes the other all the better and they find perfect harmony in Tunisia.

Gourmet-a-tron Mexican Spice Mix

Anything tastes good with this. I know: I’ve tried it with Tesco Value “Mince”.

Ingredients

This usually makes about one spice pot’s worth of spice mix. I’m pretty careless with the quantities; it’s not precise.

  • 2 tbsp chilli powder
  • 1 tbsp paprika
  • 1.5 tsp onion powder
  • 0.5 tsp garlic powder
  • 0.5 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 0.5 tsp cumin
  • 0.25 tsp chilli flakes

You can add some salt and sugar if you want extra flavour-zing. I normally throw in a dash of salt, perhaps a teaspoon.

Mixing

The way I mix this is to throw all the ingredients into a bowl, then funnel the contents into the spice pot and shake the pot until well mixed. Simple and effective.

Use

I shake a generous load all over mince and then fry. I like it spicy and flavoursome so one pot-load usually only lasts me about four 500g meals. But it’s worth it.

Recipe for the-only-thing-easier-than-making-it-is-eating-it hot salsa

This salsa is ridiculously easy. It won’t take more than about five minutes and will leave your lips tingling, but not your tonsils.

Ingredients

Makes 300g of salsa.

  • 1 400g can of plum tomatoes.
  • 2 green chillies.
  • 1/3 of an onion.
  • 1 handful of fresh coriander.
  • 1 squeeze of a lemon.

The total cost of these ingredients is about a £1*. This is cheaper than supermarket salsa, tastes better and doesn’t have Xanthan Gum in it. Whatever that is.

Tools

  • Knife.
  • Bowl.
  • Sieve or colander (optional).
  • Blender (optional).

Method

  1. Drain the can of tomatoes. You can use a sieve or a colander or just pour the juice out of the can. It will look like you’re losing a heck of a lot of product. Don’t panic, just drain those plums! Now throw them into the bowl.
  2. Chop the stalks off your chillies. Take out some of the seeds and pith while you’re there. Throw into the bowl.
  3. Chop off a third of an onion. Throw into the bowl.
  4. Grab a handful of fresh coriander. Throw into the bowl.
  5. Chop a lemon in half and squeeze some into the bowl.
  6. Blend the ingredients until they are salsafied! If you don’t have a proper blender then just mash and chop with your hands and your knife. Salsa should be pretty rough anyway – you’re not making a soup here.
  7. EAT.

You can always modify to taste with garlic, salt or chocolate. I won’t shout at you.


* You will have to buy a whole onion and a whole lemon. Save them for next time.

Haute Cuisine in Sarajevo

A restaurant in Sarajevo. My friend is interrogating a waiter about his establishment’s unhelpful menu.

“…and what’s in this – the Sultan Bey soup?”
“That’s lambs brains fried in offal fat.”
“And this one?”
“Sheep liver with beef.”
“Er, what about this one?”
“Chicken with two types of ham.”
“And this… Tahamoa?”
“No meat.”

My friend pauses to take this information on board. Then he resumes his attack.

“What exactly is in the ‘fishy fillet’?”
“Fish.”
“Thanks. I’ll have that.”

The waiter leaves.

You know, for a city that makes such a big thing about how disgusting the food was during the siege, they don’t seem to have celebrated a return to haute cuisine.


I was in Sarajevo in summer 2007. I loved it.

11 Tips on How to Eat and Drink Less, in 59 Seconds

This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

  1. Start eating at normal speed, then slow down to enjoy each mouthful
  2. Drink from a tall thin glass.
  3. Place food out of sight to avoid temptation.
  4. Focus on your food – you eat more while distracted. Like popcorn at a film. Or, in my case, Marylands in front of the computer. I can inhale them now.
  5. Use smaller crockery.
  6. Keep a food diary.
  7. Use the power of regret to motivate you to get to the gym: you know you’ll feel bad if you don’t go so just do it. As someone once said. 
  8. Do not exercise in front of a mirror, you’ll get really self-conscious and do less!
  9. On the other hand, do put a mirror in your kitchen to make you aware of your body.
  10. Use more energy in your day-to-day activities.
  11. Diet packs of food just make you lose vigilance so you end up eating more.

    No Supermarket: Week 4 – The End!

    So it’s over: 31 days without spending money in a supermarket. Before the post-mortem, some details about this past week.

    Things I learnt this week:

    • Eggs are cheaper in my local shop: only £1.09 for 6, compared to £1.57 in Sainsbury’s.
    • Tesco Express (i.e. a small supermarket) stocks 26 different varieties of bottled water. You do know that you can get it out of the tap, don’t you? For free.
    • Sainsbury’s is very useful: for their extensive recycling facilities and the pharmacy where I get my (free) prescriptions. This month I have shamelessly used supermarket resources in exchange for nothing.
    • Expenditure at No Supermarkets: £17.00
    • Hypothetical expenditure at Sainsbury’s: £16.18.

    The Final Score

    • Over the course of one month shopping at No Supermarkets I spent £89.94 on food.
    • The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost approximately £80.28.

    So what am I going to now it’s over?

    Will I go running back to the fluorescent-strip-light warmth of Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Lidl? Hell no.

    Was everything perfect about my month of No Supermarkets? Hell no (where the devil can I get decent, reasonably priced cheese?). Can I do it better? Hell yes. I promise myself every week that I’ll go to the local markets more often, rather than running out of food, panicking and buying soup and biscuits for dinner.

    I’ve enjoyed visiting all my local and not so local shops. I’ve built up quite a rapport with a shop around the corner from where I study. Cherry flapjack: £1.05, thank-you very much.

    But why do I like No Supermarkets so much?

    • I don’t have to queue, like I would in the Sainsbury’s just up the road. 
    • I don’t have to walk around six aisles just to find the flapjacks, like I would at the Sainsbury’s. 
    • I’m not paralysed by the choice of six thousand different oat-based snacks you can have from Sainsbury’s. Half the time my shop doesn’t even have any of the cherry ones left. So I have banana. Variety is the spice of life and all that.
    • I’m not advertised at.
    • I can have a little chat with the person who serves me and they say please and thank-you like they give a shit that I came into their shop. Because they own it.
    • It’s closer to the college where I study.
    • I like the fact that their prices are marginally cheaper than the other little shop just across the road. It reminds me that competition is alive and well. It hasn’t just been blown away by corporate supply chains.
    • I feel like the money I’m handing over for my flapjack is going to someone I know.
    • The lighting isn’t so bright. Not everything gleams. The floor might even be dirty. It’s human.

    Yeah. I like it. In fact, I like it so much that I’d feel a bit wrong going into a supermarket now. Perhaps I will for some things. Perhaps I won’t. I no longer feel restricted in my shopping habits. I no longer feel compelled towards those glowing orange lights.

    So here’s to much more No Supermarkets in 2011.

    No Supermarket: Week 3

    No Supermarkets again this week (apart from my little tourism on Tuesday). It’s really a lot easier now than I thought it would be. It’s hardly even inconvenient, in fact it’s fun. When I go some place new I keep my head up for little shops, pop in, have a chat, browse and buy. Already my local shopkeeper calls me ‘a regular’, which is nice.

    Here’s another thing. This week I met up with a friend for dinner. Normally we go down to Sainsbury’s, do some shopping and get cooking. Not this week. We went to a restaurant. Shock. More expensive, maybe, but it’s about more than just the chow – it’s the experience. That might sound like pure guff. It is. But hey, I enjoyed it.

    So how was it price-wise this week? Not including the restaurant, just going on what I bought at shops and markets, here’s the comparison:

    • No Supermarkets: £23.07
    • Sainsbury’s: £18.91

    As usual, there are a few discrepancies: I would have had three less avocados at Sainsbury’s – but one extra banana and a smidgen more spinach.

    One thing I found is that I spend a good deal more on fruit and vegetables at local shops, compared to local markets. This explains a lot of the difference in price this week. I can get fruit and veg cheaper at local markets than at Sainsbury’s, but the shops tend to be a little more expensive. The key to getting good deals at No Supermarkets is to shop around, travel, investigate and explore. The French had it right when they called their supermarket Monoprix.

    I won’t bore you with a great long list of things I bought this week, but here’s a good one:

    • 48 Ibuprofen tablets from New Cross Station Pharmacy: £2.25
    • 48 Ibuprofen tablets from Sainsbury’s: £0.84

    Massive.

    However, this might not be such a big win for Sainsbury’s as it first appears. The purpose of buying Ibuprofen is to kill your pain, right? It shouldn’t matter how much it costs, right? – Wrong. Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, has shown that the more you pay for your pain-killers, the more powerful their effect. You can watch a short video of Ariely here.

    It’s hard to tell if paying more has worked for me, but all I can say is that my foot is much better today than it was on Friday morning, when I started taking the tablets.

    No Supermarket: Air Miles and Bursting Aisles

    I went to my local Sainsbury’s on Tuesday – no, don’t panic, I didn’t buy anything. I went there to do a little research. I wanted to know a couple of things:

    1. Where in the world does Sainsbury’s food come from?
    2. How much choice is there at supermarkets?

    And here is what I found.

    Where is Sainsbury’s Food From?

    Answer: Spain.

    I only looked at the Fruit and Vegetable section because that seemed a reasonable sample size: 119 products. Astonishingly, these products came from a total of 36 countries. The top five were:

    1. Spain (20 products)
    2. UK (19)
    3. Israel (9)
    4. Morocco (6)
    5. South Africa (6)

    I was surprised to see Israel at number three I have to admit. We get tomatoes, peppers, herbs and exotic fruit like kumquats and Sharon fruit from there. The West Bank did also appear on the list with two products, the herbs dill and sage.

    I guess one big reason for the reliance on overseas fruit and vegetables is the time of year. Traditional English Summer produce like cucumbers, tomatoes and spinach have to be shipped in from Spain or elsewhere.

    More concerning, however, was the number of products that ARE in season in the UK, and yet it was still possible to buy them from abroad. For example: apples, pears, beetroot and mushrooms, as well as packaged herbs. It seemed that if you wanted herbs in a pot, then they had to be British, presumably because of the care required for potted plants, but packaged herbs came from abroad, presumably because they are cheaper there.

    The full list of countries supplying Sainsbury’s New Cross Gate (in order of products supplied): Spain, UK, Israel, Morocco, South Africa, Egypt, Italy, France, Kenya, Mexico, Peru, USA, Brazil, Chile, China, Holland, India, Portugal, Senegal, Thailand, Turkey, West Bank, Argentina, Burkina Faso, Canary Islands, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Ireland, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Namibia, Tunisia, Uganda, Zambia.

    How Much Choice Is There?

    Answer: Too much.

    To focus my research, I examined just one type of product from Sainsbury’s 30+ aisles: soup. Here’s what I found.

    There are, broadly speaking, four different kinds of soup product on sale at Sainsbury’s: tinned, potted, fresh and dried soup mix. Tinned represent the overwhelming majority of the market.

    There are, in all, sixteen different brand labels on sale, including eight for Sainsbury’s alone: Be Good To Yourself, Sainsbury’s, Chunky, Basics, Microwave, Simmer Soups, SO Organic and Taste the Difference. Prices range from £0.17 for Sainsbury’s Basic tomato soup to £2.29 for some of the posh fresh soups.

    This meant that there were, in total, on sale at Sainsbury’s… Wait for it – 138 different types of soup.

    That, my friends, is ridiculous. Contrast my local shop, where I can purchase one brand in about six different flavours. Fine, considering I only ever buy cream of tomato! Prices there range from £0.89 to £0.89.

    Is Choice a Good Thing?

    Supermarkets rely on the idea that more choice makes us happier. But is this actually the case?

    Malcolm Gladwell makes the case for supermarket-style choice in a TED video from 2006. He recounts a story of the psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz:

    Vlasic Pickles came to him, and they said, “Doctor Moskowitz, we want to make the perfect pickle.” And he said, “There is no perfect pickle, there are only perfect pickles.” And he came back to them and he said, “You don’t just need to improve your regular, you need to create zesty.”

    From this idea, pickles, spaghetti sauces, soups – everything – proliferated, all in the cause of making us happy.

    You can see the full video here:

    But Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice, warns:

    Beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures.

    “In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis. And in a culture that tells us that there is no excuse for falling short of perfection when your options are limitless, too much choice can lead to clinical depression.”

    In other words: choice, generally-speaking, is good, but too much choice is toxic.

    At my local shop I have the choice of about six different flavours of soup. That’s a reasonable selection, given that I could make my own soup if I wanted something a little more customised. But faced with an aisle of 138 soups?

    I wouldn’t know where to start.

    No Supermarket: Week 2

    Week 2 and I still haven’t been to a supermarket – or even so much as a High Street chain. I have to say, it’s going rather well. The Suma order arrived on Thursday with 12.5kgs of oats for our house at only £8. I also got a load of Jasmine tea, raisins and eggs. Cue massive omelets.

    Yesterday, I went to another local co-operative, Fareshares, who sell organic, mostly fair trade food and other household goods at the right price. Here’s what I bought:

    • 1l washing detergent @ £2.96
    • 250g sunflower seeds @ £0.50
    • 100 rooibos teabags @ £2.83
    • 500ml Aspall’s balsamic vinegar @ £2.83
    • 680g sauerkraut @ £1.67

    And I made an incredibly generous (!) £0.21 donation to make it £11.00 in total.

    The same stuff at Sainsbury’s would have cost me £10.34, but I would have had 500ml more detergent, 50g less sunflower seeds and 20 fewer teabags. [Incidentally demonstrating there the way you use ‘less’ and ‘fewer’ in the English language. I’m educational too!] If I’d been able to buy the exact same quantities, Sainsbury’s would have cost me a theoretical extra £0.05, so it more or less evens out.

    However, as I’ve said before, it’s not all about price with No Supermarkets. The stuff I would have bought at Sainsbury’s probably wouldn’t have been fairly traded and certainly wouldn’t have been organic. I also wouldn’t have met the lovely people at Fareshares or ended up with some random sauerkraut!

    Fareshares

    Fareshares is a food co-operative near Elephant and Castle in South London. They buy their stuff from wholesalers and then sell it on to us little people at near wholesale price. The people who work there are volunteers and the only major overheads are for the building.

    They sell all sorts of stuff. There’s lots of dry foods: seeds, rice, millet, oats, nuts and dried fruits. They also sell tinned things like tomatoes, bottled things like oils and sauces, cartoned things like soya milk. There’s also a small stock of fresh fruit and vegetables and bread (on Thursdays only) – and I’m sure much much more.

    It’s a co-operative so try and turn up with a bag or some cartons for your stuff. Then go around picking and packing your own shopping, totting up the total as you go on a piece of scrap paper. Then head to the till and pay. It’s an honesty system, so be honest!

    Opening hours: Thursday 2-8pm; Friday 3-7pm; Saturday 3-5pm
    Address: 56 Crampton Street (near Walworth Road), London SE17 3AE

    Go – it’s brilliant!

    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.