Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Health stories to make you give up: pt2

A salad of rare quality
The award for the biggest throw-your-hands-up-in-despair moment to come out of last weeks health stories was not membership fees for the NHS or even African sand clogging up our lungs.

It goes instead to University College London for announcing that five a day isn’t enough, and we should all aim for seven a day.

Actually, there’s no scientific evidence that five – or seven – a day is an essential health requirement, although this advice does at least have the benefit of making sense.

The recommendation also says not that the majority of your seven should come from veggies, because fruit contains sugar and even natural sugars should be treated with care.

At which point I find myself musing over whether olives and tomatoes – technically fruits – count as such in this context.

I’m not bad on the old five a day: sometimes I don’t make it and sometimes I get more than that.

Breakfast is the biggest bugbear though.

A helpful – or attempting to be – piece on the BBC website last week was trying to suggest how you could increase your intake of veg, but managed only one practical (sort of) suggestion: adding a handful of spinach to a breakfast omelette.

Now, my understanding on five a day has long been that a portion is something like a whole apple, where it's an obvious whole, or about 80g of a food that doesn’t come as such a convenient handful.

But that’s an awful lot of spinach – or any other leafy food.

The advice also suggests swerving clear of fruit juice and drinks like smoothies, simply because they concentrate a lot of fruit – and therefore sugar – into a single portion.

And also based on my understanding of previous advice, only one portion of any veg counts per day – so no, if you have three portions of mushrooms, you can’t count it as three – and the same goes for pulses.

Variety is part of what makes sense.

To be honest, I ignore the fruit juice one myself – a small glass a day of pure stuff will not be the death of me.

So how else do you get your five – let alone seven?

Weekends are easy. On Sunday, for instance, I had a late but substantial breakfast, with quality bacon and scrambled egg, fried bread – and enough tomato, mushrooms and baked beans to constitute three portions. Plus a glass of fruit juice.

After that, it’s a coast.

Dinner came with carrots and leeks, and there was a little fruit after.

That was seven without any strain.

The difficulty is weekdays.

The most I’m likely to get if I breakfast at home is fruit compote (which means some added sugar) in plain (unsweetened) yogurt and a small glass of juice.

These days, breakfast out usually means eggs on toast – the toast might not be top-quality bread, but at least it's mostly my only bread of the day.

Quality eggs on toast
Lunches are easier – if I take my own, which I manage approximately 2/3 of the time, then it’ll be assorted salad and pickled veg, with some source of protein.

But if lunches are bought out, then most of the time I either end up with soup (vegetarian, so a source of at least one portion) or something between lumps of factory bread, which is never going to give you much on the greens front.

It’s worth noting here that mass-produced bread may be the reason for the rise in some intolerances: there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of people who cannot eat bread in the UK because it makes them feel bloated, but have no such problem on the other side of the Channel. And that’s without mentioning the taste.

However, back to those bought lunches: most salads struggle to be appetising.

Last week saw an exception that proved the rule. Arriving early in Islington for a job, I had time to while away and a need for lunch, so took the opportunity to enjoy the first al fresco meal of the year on a gorgeous spring day, at a café called The Blue Legume (geddit?).

Scanning the menu, I opted for a goat’s cheese salad.

It came in a large bowl that was filled with a veritable mountain of assorted leaves, plus cherry tomatoes, all topped with garlic ‘crouton’ – actually a thick piece of baguette, sliced on the bias – and a roundel of very slightly melted cheese, and with a dressing that included loads of finely-chopped walnut.

The main thing to point out is that the leaves were worth eating – not bland or lifeless or left in a dressing for hours to become simply depressing, as it so often the case. Even the little tomatoes had actual taste – no mean achievement in this country, particularly at this time of year.

The crouton was seriously garlicky, the cheese as pleasing as it should be and the dressing an ideal compliment without overwhelming everything or soaking the leaves.

I like salad, but there’s a reason I still remember one eaten in a café for local office workers near the railway station in Perpignan in spring 2006.

And the reason that I remember it was because it wasn’t a posh café and yet it was one of the first times I realised how good leaves can be – and it had three sorts of cheese and not just the one, rather bland one that you’d be likely to get in the UK if you ordered a cheese salad.

Dinner, as on Sunday, sorts itself out quite efficiently: it's not difficult or time-consuming to peel and slice a carrot and toss a few peas into boiling water out of the freezer – and frozen peas are one of lifes decent conveniences that dont destroy the nutrition.

But given UK food culture in general, it’s not difficult to see why anyone would, on reading this new health advice, just feel like giving up entirely.

Ultimately, all this sort of advice seems counterproductive and will leave people feeling that they face impossible challenges – particularly if they read enough to know that it’s not even grounded in concrete scientific proof.

So what do you do? The easiest thing, it seems to me – and I realise that this too has its logistical complexities – is to eat fresh food, freshly prepared; to eat as little heavily processed food as possible and to eat as big a variety of vegetables as possible.

Eat good-quality protein, cut back on the crap bread, eat three meals a day and don’t snack as a matter of routine.

Dont worry about a couple of sugars in your afternoon cuppa, but avoiding processed foods and loads of fizzy drinks will keep your sugar consumption down – and there seems to be a growing body of evidence that artificial sweeteners arent good for health either. But do drink water – something that you can even get free.

Apart from our food culture, though, there is another elephant in the room. And that is falling incomes and the rising cost of living.

It’s easy to tell people to eat better: to eat this or that or the other. But when the majority of people’s incomes have been falling steadily for 30 years – and more rapidly in recent ones – against a rising cost of living, then something has to give.

And for many, one of the few things that they feel they can control to a degree is food. It’s arguably easier to buy cheaper food than it is to cut lighting or heating beyond a certain point.

It’s no surprise that, in the last few years, average household spending on food has declined further, from a point that was already well below that on the Continent.

If we really want to change how people eat, there are a very great many things that need changing. Hectoring them with constant messages about what they should eat and how many minutes of how many days a week they should do whatever amount of exercise really will only start to make them feel it’s all hopeless anyway.

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