Are You Going To Eat…..Chard?

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Freshly harvested chard, from my garden.

I remember seeing chard mentioned on Masterchef increasingly frequently and assuming it was about to become the next go-to-food-twat ingredient taking the supermarket by storm. That was a while ago, as it’s been at least two years since I have paid any attention to Masterchef and I am still yet to recall a single incident of seeing actual chard to buy in a shop anywhere, though I think I have had it perhaps twice in restaurants.

Obviously there is a seasonal issue here, but chard has a pretty long growing season potentially from spring to autumn in the UK so we can’t just blame that. It is also tasty, potentially attractive to your plate and has a superheroic nutritional profile. So what is our problem with chard!?!?!?!

First to address is the above mentioned issue that you don’t see chard about much and thus a ton of people don’t know what it really is. Who is that adventurous about green leafy veg they don’t recognise? Not many people. Thus no one to sell it to. Thus no one sells it. The circle of consumerist life.  So what is it? Well I can tell you it is basically a big old leaf from the same family as beetroots and spinach, that grows much in the same way as a lettuce but is frankly a lot more robust in both texture and flavour. Young leaves are tender and can go straight into a salad, like most veg chard will retain the highest levels of nutrition when raw. Speaking of nutrition: 100 grams of raw chard will set you up with over a day’s worth of vitamin A requirements (to see in the dark), half your recommended vitamin C (which the body can’t store so you need to consume frequently) and 10, yes TEN TIMES the scientifically complicated daily volume of vitamin K that clever people in white coats think you should eat. Who cares? Women facing the menopause should, as vitamin K plays a big part in bone health. Nutritional (i.e. eaten) vitamin K is also known to play a role in inhibiting arterial calcification associated with heart disease* so if you have a heart or arteries, you should probably get plenty of it in your diet.

Older, and bigger, chard leaves are more bitter than the tiny wee ones thus more likely to be cooked in the same fashion as inexplicably trendier but not dissimilar kale. Like kale, chard doesn’t need a huge amount of cooking and tends to be shredded and added towards the end of the process of whatever you are rustling up in the kitchen. Chard is also much better at keeping it’s form when cooked and you can enjoy the stem as well as the leaf, unlike bitty annoying kale and its chewy horrid stems. The fact that it only need a short time to cook helps to maintain those lovely vitamin levels too** Not all of us like the bitter end of the taste spectrum, but if you find yourself cooking for oodles of children or indeed my own mother, you can sneak some chardy goodness into stews and bolognesey dishes by cutting it up very finely or add it to blended soups for some stealth nutrition. However if you take your coffee black and your chocolate dark, chard is quite wonderful as a vegetable in it’s own right, very quickly sauteed and stacked up alongside some red meat and a bit of gravy or shredded into a Spanish omelette. Raw vegan types might chuck it into a lurid smoothie for extra smugness and additional Instagram followers, and dinner party hosts and unicorn trend fans can seek out pretty old rainbow chard for extra photogenicity too.

There is a lot you can do with chard, and it is really good for you, so why the eff can’t you buy it anywhere?!?!?!?!?!

seeds

chard seeds are widely available and easy to grow at home

Actually along with the aforementioned lack of demand, it has a cruddy shelf life. Proper cruddy. But this shouldn’t stop you, as I have kept the Mr and myself in chard since this May with a simple planter box on our patio. As Grow Your Own veg goes it is incredibly easy to cultivate, needing partial sun, watering and the odd feed when they first start to sprout. You may have some interest from aphids and fleabeetles but there are many simple and organic pest control sprays that will fend these little buggers off (just don’t spray it near anything flowering and don’t eat within 2 weeks of a spray!). If you plant late march/early April you should be able to harvest your chard from May, and if you stick to snipping the outer leaves one plant will continue to grow for the whole summer. If you are very lucky more established plants will recrop even if you completely strip down to half inch of growth at the base. They will grow on a balcony or a well lit windowsill so come on people, grow some chard!

And eat some chard. Which is exactly what I am about to do with some scrambled eggs and a cheeky Sunday crumpet.

*thanks Wiki https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitamin_K

**for cooked nutritional info look here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chard

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Are You Going to Eat…..Quark?

clean

Now that is a clean plate…..

Did everyone see that rather brilliant long read By Bee Wilson in the Guardian this week about the rise and (arguable) demise of the clean eating phenomenon? It is a very well written and astute commentary around current attitudes to lifestyle, the evils of social media and the assumed right to violently defend a factually wrong ‘opinion’ at any cost. If you haven’t read it it is linked above and at end of this post. I think you will find it well worth the time to stick the kettle on and find a comfy spot to digest (ha food joke) this self confessed long read.

One thing that stood out for me in this article was the concept of certain foods being perceived as better than others; the horrors of #eatclean peddlers trying to sell you almond milk because it is “a superior alternative to cow’s milk”. I am a big almond milk user, because of all the reasons that it is DIFFERENT to cow’s milk. And those differences make me choose it, willingly, because I don’t want cows milk. When we start calling ingredients ‘better than’ or  ‘just like’ you need to put in an awful lot of very specific comparison points to avoid becoming a mass bullshit artist. I wont go into clean eating, I’ve dipped a toe in that ethos before and to be honest I find it a little boring and obvious, but this kind of ‘better than’ marketing of food types really, really pisses me off. There is an infuriating idiocy of ‘vegan fish and chips’ being bandied around recently and it is unfathomable to me. There is no such thing as vegan fish, unless it is swimming in the sea, so if it is on your plate and about to be eaten with chips, it is either vegan or fish, not both, so just tell the bloody truth. Call it a vegan fry or tempeh and chips otherwise will turn up to eat it and not really like it because it isn’t fish and that’s what they were expecting. You can’t compare them meaningfully, so why bother?

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My quark of choice.

What in the merry heavens does this have to do with a northern European curd cheese product, you may ask? Well, I really like quark, it is a useful and potentially slimming friendly ingredient and I meet so many people who think it is absolutely disgusting, mainly because they have been sold the ‘just like’ lie and been subsequently turned off when their baked-quark-with-splenda-and-lemon-zest came out absolutely nothing like a luxe-brand Sicilian lemon cheesecake.
Like so many things in this world, it is absolutely fine if you don’t like quark, but I probably wouldn’t like marmite if it was sold to me as hairspray and if you just freeze quark with some strawberries in the vague hope that it will be idential to your fave icecream with less calories then you are going to be disappointed. However if you use it in the way a slightly sour, soft curd cheese product thing is meant for, you might like it.

So what it is this Quark? In the least palatable terms it is the curds skimmed from heated sour milk. Yummo!!! Not to be confused with those slippery lumps of cottage cheese, quark can range in consistency from a fluffy soft cheese like Philadelphia to a french-set yoghurt. It is sharp and savoury with a clean and creamy finish. It has a great protein profile (full nutrition info here) and when bought in its most common form in the UK as skimmed milk quark, it is virtually fat free. This means it is a great option for those of us following weight watchers or slimming world or trying to reduce our fat intake for whatever reason. This does not mean it tastes just like or is ‘better than’ all other dairy products. It is not ‘just like’ all other creamcheese.

I think it is established that I generally like cheese in all it’s forms but the big selling point on quark for me is adding some creamy depth to a dish without ramming up the calories. Many Germanic baking recipes make use of quark and your traditional Polish cheesecake is based on quark, but is quite distinctively different to what we call cheesecake in the UK or USA. It’s sharp tang means that quark makes a truly excellent frosting for carrot cake when whipped up with icing sugar, but enough about cake because I think quark is best enjoyed in its savoury form.  Like similar ingredients such as generic soft cheese, sour cream and fromage frais, quark goes very well as a base for dips and sauces and works best combined with sharp and pungent flavours- try mixing it with chopped spring onions and lots of black pepper and tipping it over a jacket potato or combine with plenty of fresh green herbs and stirring into hot pasta. Add cucumber, chilli and a good squeeze of lime and serve it as a dip with nachos or crudites if you love a 1974 house party like I do. One of my favourite quick dinners is stir fried onions, mushrooms and chard with a bucket load of garlic and red chilii finished with a dollop of quark stirred through it.

Quark is actually a ‘free’ food on Slimming World or the No-Count method from Weight Watchers. When compared to whole milk sour cream, a 2 tablespoon serving of quark will save you 40 calories and about 5 grams of fat and give you roughly four times as much protein (about 4g). It has next to no net carbs and is thus not likely to cause hunger making blood sugar spikes, and if I have it on my toast in the morning instead of peanut butter I save 4 smart points per serving. That’s per slice of toast so on a standard breakfast I’ve saved 8 smart points for something important later on, like a glass of wine. Unlike so many other things low in fat, sugar and smart points quark is really nice on toast! But it’s not like peanut butter, obviously, and its not like full fat philly or laughing cow or whatever either. It’s a different thing, a good different thing. Don’t hate it because it isn’t something else that you aren’t eating, that’s just daft.

So yes, I am going to eat quark, I like it and it isn’t likely to make me any fatter, but I’m not going to pretend it is something it is not, because if I want a cheesecake then dammit I’m just going to have a real one and not destroy myself over one ‘dirty’ full fat dessert made and enjoyed exactly as it was supposed to be.

Give it a go.

 

That Guardian article is here: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/aug/11/why-we-fell-for-clean-eating

Are You Going To Eat……Flowers?

 

 

squash flower long

Courgette flowers are popular in season, especially stuffed and fried

A while ago I was blessed with a trug full of garden-centric gifts from the parental units, including some ultra glam gloves and several packets of seeds. I was especially delighted with a pack of nasturtiums and my Step Mum was equally delighted to point out to me that as well as being pretty, you could also eat them. This roused many unconvinced grumbles from two and a half generations of blokes in the room at the time which were not abated when I pointed out that Duck and Waffle Chef and personal fave social media type Tom Cenci does dishes with nasturtiums all the time. Unfortunately, a plate of lentils and green bits is never going to make my Father convinced of anything other than that he’ll have the steak, please, so we left that conversation there.

Until now.

Flowers are plants, people! And I’m willing to wager that you eat plants every single day, even if you don’t do so all that enthusiastically.  But where we all accept that we need to force down some greens to keep out innards clean and our calories down, the vast majority prefer to stick to peas and carrots and maybe a little pile of chopped parsley atop the casserole. All of these are good of course, and most of us will venture out into other more exotic fruit and veg options from time to time, or even every day but still shun the idea of chowing down on some petals. I think there are three main reasons for this.

basil flower

Basil flowers are a tasty, light addition to a salad

I don’t have time for all that faffing about. I must admit, when talking about eating flowers I immediately think of a TV Chef painstakingly placing a single nitrogren-frozen violet on to a pile of sheep’s milk ice cream with some very long tweezers and the expression of a movie hero about to snip the red wire and save the world.  It does not need to be like this. Whilst there is a hearty argument for using flowers for the wow-factor as garnishes or baking decorations, you don’t need to spend hours freeze drying or sugar dipping to make good use and enjoy them in your dinner.  Many herb flowers like dill or coriander can be snipped straight from the plant and used the same way as you would the usual herb to add some flavoursome prettiness to a salad or marinade. Basil flowers are particularly lovely picked, washed and chucked straight into a tomato salad.

Don’t they taste horrible? Taste and scent are very closely linked and the word ‘flower’ might send you back to memories of choking on your Great Aunt Edna’s rose perfume and you don’t need that kind of experience with your sponge cake. Think for a second how different a beetroot tastes to a sweet potato. Both root vegetables, though. It is the same with flowers, their range in taste is pretty massive and not always as you would expect from their aroma.

lavender

Lavender makes a wonderful cocktail syrup

Lavender, rose and citrus blossoms do however taste very much the way they smell but can be used sparingly to give an extra dimension of flavour to icings, pastries or sauces or alternatively try steeping theminto syrups to give a floral kick to cocktails or sweet dishes. There’s an easy lavender syrup recipe here  that will work very well in a martini or drizzled over ice cream.  Speaking of drinks, we’ve been making tea from flowers since the time of the dinosaurs, or something, so why not try some in your biscuits too? You aren’t restricted to sweet dishes with flowers though, who hasn’t seen those lovely bright courgette flowers being pimped all over the place by Masterchef contestants and gourmet Instagrammers everywhere? It is very on trend to stuff and fry all manner of squash blossoms, however if you do so you must expect for them to taste of deep-fried-whatever-you-stuffed-them-with and to my mind this is something of a mistake. I’ve been blessed with many pumpkin flowers from my triffid like vegetable patch this summer and they taste wonderful- light and only ever so slightly sweet they make a great last minute addition to a risotto (you can click here for a recipe ).
Many edible flowers like Hollyhocks don’t taste of all that much at all and are used purely for a show stopping garnish, where as borage flowers reportedly taste a lot like cucumber. Clover flowers have a distinct liquorice finish and marigolds have been reported to be quite spicy so quite like other fruit and veg, there is probably something out there for everyone if you are prepared to give them a try.

 

I wouldn’t know where to start.  I need to add the idiot disclaimer now and insist that not all flowers are edible, in fact some of them will really make you very unwell indeed so before you start foraging for some pretties to tart up your Saturday dinner plate please research this extensively and avoid eating something that may cause you to suffer stomach upsets, blindness and a drawn out case of being dead. You can start by clicking here for a list of flowers that are safe to try. You will see many common garden favourites on this lists and incorporating them into your menu is really a lot simpler than you might think, just follow the following rules:

  1. Don’t eat it unless you are 100% sure what it is, and that it is safe to eat. Here’s that link again: https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?pid=764
  2. Stick to plants from your own garden or certified sellers and avoid anything that has been treated with pesticides. Some pest-treated plants will be safe to eat after a specified amount of time (check your bottle label) however you are doing a massive wrong to the bees of this world if you use such sprays on anything that flowers.
  3. Avoid using flowers from a level where they might have been, erm, visited by a dog or cat. For obvious reasons.
  4. Harvest your flowers early in the day or after a reasonable rainfall for the best flavour and use them quickly. Most of them will cope in the fridge for a day but the fresher the better.
  5. Before use, wash the flowers thoroughly but gently in cold water, being careful to evict any insects that have hitched a ride within!
  6. Use a recipe. If you had never baked a scone in your entire life would you just wing it with a bowl and some butter? No. Spend ten minutes researching how best to incorporate your florals into your food. The food site on the BBC is a good starting point, especially if you have courgette flowers.

If all this hasn’t convinced you then how about the nutritional incentives? As you will probably expect, the calorie content of flowers is negligible (before crystalisation/deep frying etc) and they wont upset any of your fat or sugar goals either. They do, however, provide a wealth of micro nutrient action often in the form of vitamins C or A, iron and potassium. Obviously this depends on the flower in question, and like your other fruit and veg the best way to get the most from them is to look for a variety of brightly coloured options to pack in the goodness along with the pretty.

So my summary point is that yes, I’m going to eat flowers, I already have, and maybe you should too. It’s a great time of year to try if you are in the UK it isn’t too late to spring some primroses or violets in the garden or head to your local greengrocers or farmers markets for flowering courgettes.

marigolds

marigolds can have a strong, peppery taste as well as being stunning in the flower beds!

 

Are you going to eat….Jackfruit?

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glorious jackfruit, image from wikipedia

Right off the bat, I will confess proudly to being no kind of coconut scented veganuary detox guru. I eat meat, I’m overweight and I’m not sure how to pronounce ‘quinoa’. That’s not to say I don’t see the benefits to this planet and all the bodies on it to eating plenty of plants, easing up on mass meat farming and frankly not putting all manner of living beasts through experiential hell for the sake of a cheap dinner.

Going vegan is not an easy thing to do, I know I tried it. For most of us it isn’t a desirable thing to do either. We like steak and eggs, or honey-chilli-chicken wings, or a low fat mint choc chip whey shake after the gym. That’s ok. Some of us live entirely off greens, nut butter and b vitamin supplements and that’s ok too. What’s not really OK is to make a massive change for the sake of a month in the belief that it will save the world, increase your 5kPB and undo all the damage of three straight weeks of mince pies, cheeseboards and ‘social’ drinking. |Yes, you might drop a few pound in fat and save a few in cash but if you go straight back to mainlining Big Macs and drinking like Oliver Reed when the calendar turns that will all be for nowt. Speaking of drinking, the only thing that irritates me more than the veganuary trend is the Dryanuary bore off. If you need 100% abstinence from booze to stop getting smashed then you have a bigger problem than staying out of the pub until February 1st- which also happens to be one of the financially hardest months for every small landlord and chef-patron out there. If you think you drink too much, seek professional help- a hashtag and a charity donation are not going to fix you. If you think you eat too much meat, for whatever reason, then learn about nutrition and seek out some new culinary tricks.

And that’s why I’m going to talk about Jackfruit: a big spikey looking thing from the fig family that grows in the rainier forests of south east Asia and as such is common in the expected cuisines such as Thai, Vietnamese, Indian and so forth. It is the national fruit of Bangladesh, which I think we can all agree is fascinating. Read more about it here*.

Nutritionally speaking, you get a little under 1 calorie per gram of Jackfruit which is considerably heftier than a lot of fruit despite still being roughly three quarters water by weight. It is also packing in fibre with a relatively high starch content, so hooray for the dieter amoung us too. As per most fruit, there’s plenty of mineral and vitamin action going on here plus a protein content of about two percent by weight and *fanfare* an enviable vitamin B complex content, B6 in particular. This is one, of some, reasons that makes Jackfruit a good go-to edible for the vegan crowd. Another reason is that the firm and distinctly un-mushy texture of a green/unripe jackfruit does very well as a meat substitute to the point of this glorious angiosperm being dubbed as the ‘vegan pulled pork’. Although recent trends will push anything that you are trying to sell as some kind of pulled porkish thing, this claim isn’t entirely without merit. If you know what you’re doing, some canned green jackfruit takes only a small amount of meddling to become shreddable, easily spiced and chucked in a bun with some BBQ sauce. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t going to kid any blind taste testers into believing they are chowing down on Babe’s little brother, but it’s well alright.

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stages of pulled jackfruit from my kitchen

I first attempted a pulled jackfruit affair when rustling up a soulfood dinner for the fam a couple of months ago. I had always had a degree of interest in the jackfruit phenomenon and what better reason to test it than having a vegetarian at the table! I have to say, I liked it. It has a pleasing bite and semi-solid texture not unlike your quorn sausage or questionable pink and white seafood stick product. Grim as it is, I love a dodgy seafood stick in my ramen so this worked for me, particularly when heavily seasoned with plenty of garlic and hotsauce. It is quite difficult to imagine it as a fruit rather than some kind of textured protein product, but herein lies the irony that this also makes it a potentially unpopular choice for the non-meat eaters at your table. Of the six of us eating that night, it was the bloody vegetarain who was least enamoured of my BBQ jackfruit offering, I suspect due to this very meaty texture which is one of the main reasons he doesn’t like to eat most TVP type quorn cutlet or fake burger products to begin with.

Well you can’t please everyone.

And you don’t have to stop at the pulled jackfruit attempts. If you can find a fresh one (try bigger Asian or specialty grocers) the ripe fruit is likened to a sort of banana-mango hybrid, working well in a simple fruit salad or all manner of curries, cakes and casseroles. It has to be said though that on these fair Western shores, the bulk of recipes for jackfruit involve faking some kind of crabcake or meat product. Try this link for various takes along this general theme or if you really just want to run with the hipster vegan pulled pork crowd this is a brilliant, easy recipe that we all really enjoyed from my new favourite vegans at It Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken.

So are you going to eat Jackfruit? You might as well, it’s pretty good for you and takes up an afternoon playing in your kitchen and the canned stuff should set you back more than £1.75 a pound. You might really like it, even if you aren’t an insufferably hip and conscientious veganuaryer.

 

*thanks as ever to wikipedia for reference material https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jackfruit 

Are You Going To Eat…..Clean?

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stock images, getty images.

One thing I have learned from joining various diet forums and net based support groups is that people behind a keyboard become great, brave, judgey bullies about diet and weightloss theory when they get to comment from a safe and virtual place. Log on to any diet app with a chat function and you will find the boiling war that is Clean Eating vs IIFYM. Just the term ‘clean eating’ causes tidal waves of derision from the If It Fits Your Macros crowd with such mockeries as ‘if I wash this bagel under the tap I can eat it’ and ‘I like my french fries dirty’ and the like. This mockery is based in the defence of eating whatever the hell these people choose as long as it doesn’t take them over their daily calorie expenditure and fits in with a rough guidance of how many carbs, fats and protein make up those calories. This is 100% OK and a process which gets many people through their desired weightloss journey and subsequent maintenance time. Get down with your bad selves, macros counters. However, clean eating continues to grow as a craze/fad diet/lifestyle choice and instgrammers everywhere want to show you how sharp it has made their abs and how trouty their pout is now, so what the hell are they actually talking about?

Well I’ll tell you. The term ‘clean’ is a rather preachy way of defining an eating plan based on natural, unprocessed foods.  Basically you can eat plants or stuff with a face. Potatoes? Fine, they are plants. A 200g bag of kettle chips did not grow out of the ground, so they’re no good. A rump steak has been cut off a cow, which has a face, so that’s ok. A Cumberland sausage is packed with cereals and may well have once had several faces so not allowed. Apart from having a highly sanctimonious general outlook on how you eat, going clean is actually quite restrictive as it takes out pretty much anything but pure meat and fish, vegetables, nuts, whole fruit, eggs and milk plus some oils like olive oil. Although some clean freaks seem to ignore the fact that yoghurt is a processed form of milk and sneak that in too. Sound fine to you? Yeah, it’s ok if you have a constant supply of fresh and high quality seasonal produce, plus time to prep and home cook all your meals.It is surprising how often people confuse going clean with ruling out carbs though, an easy enough mistake when considering that a truly clean plan will cut out bread, pasta, white rice, couscous, sugar, syrups and sweets. In truth you get plenty of sugar going clean from fruits and vegetables which are all allowed in any quantity as is honey or agave syrup on most plans.

So how does clean food equate to better health and weight loss? In the most part, by restricting high calorie foods which you then have to substitute with more filling, lower calorie bulk in order to feel satisfied.

A good example is the ‘Paleo’ method- which works on the concept of going back to a Paleolithic era diet when humans may or may not have been healthier (depending who you talk to, the medical records from those days are somewhat sketchy). The basics are that if you can’t hunt or gather it, you don’t eat it, and in some ways this is ultra clean as it takes the ‘processed’ defintion back as far as to things that need excessive cooking or farming methods that were just not around in those days. This rules out beans, grain products like barley, processed meats and dairy- leaving your carb intake to come solely from fruit and veg with a lot of hunger balancing protein. Most paleo plans aren’t big on white potatoes or corn either leaving you to lower calorie yams or sweet potatoes. How does this magic formula work for your waistline? It is not rocket science. It is not really even chemistry. Once again, it is maths. Paleo, like basic clean eating, immediately bans a lot of high calorie foods such as  bread, cereal, rice, cheese, butter, bacon, pate, beans and vegetable oils. You can still have a baked sweet potato with your dinner, but no butter on it. You just saved around 90 calories. You can have that veggie soup for lunch but lose the roll and butter, maybe 200 calories there. Swap the bread for a load of carrot sticks and you are still saving. Weekend fry up for breakfast? Switch to eggs and avocado and a grilled tomato save yourself maybe 400 calories vs a traditional full english with bacon, toast, sausage and baked beans. Yes, you are cutting out processed foods. Yes, you are really cutting out calories too.

I once read an amusing forum post on how eating clean lets you eat as many calories as you want and still lose weight. Oy, but that was a bloody take down. As we all know, calories are calories and too many of them will stop you from losing weight. What this ill informed and virtually flagellated poster meant was that if you stay totally clean, it’s hard to eat in a huge excess. Even if you eat an entire lettuce, a whole cucumber, a couple of tomatoes and a tin of tuna for your lunch salad, you aren’t going over maybe 400 calories. Add in 2 boiled eggs, still under 600. A tablespoon of olive oil to dress it and 650 but seriously can you eat all of that before you feel full? As an average middle aged male existing on about 2000 calories a day dinner should clock in at about 7-800 calories. Turn that into chicken and broccoli and that sheer physical amount of food will make most people be full before they are finished. Of course, you do have to stop eating once you are full. So if you go clean you don’t necessarily have to count your calories as tightly as someone who incorporates all the filthy evil into their tummies but the principle is the same- if you lose weight it is because you are eating less than you burn off, not because unprocessed food is magical.

Another, lesser proven, angle to the clean diet is that you are avoiding many additives, preservatives and not entirely tested chemical wonders that come into the process of, er, processing food. Who cares, right? Well this is all about GI levels and how some food can make you hungry which we can look at another time. In short, the more you strip something down (particularly carbohydrates) the more they mess with your hunger levels. The easier something is to digest, the less filling it is. Think about it, what’s easier to eat all night: lumps of baked potato or that bag of kettle chips we were talking about earlier? Not only is the food essentially already a bit digested for you, it has all manner of other wonderful things added for flavour, colour, longevity and texture. Some stuff we know of, like salt or vinegar, water or potato starch. That’s ok, right? Also stuff like high fructose corn syrup, soy lethicin, maltose, dextrose, aspartame and monosodium glutamate. Those are ok, are they? Anyone without an advanced organic chemistry degree know how these things work in your body or affect your health? In fairness we don’t know for a fact yet that these things are harmful but there is growing evidence that consumption of many food additives and process ingredients can monkey with your hormones and affect both hunger and fat storage triggers if you eat them in volume and often. Again, if you want to learn more about this I point you towards Master Your Metabolism by Jillian Michaels.

So we ask, are processed foods making me fat? Well, yeah maybe they are and in more ways than one. Will giving up everything in a packet make you skinny? Not if you drink a litre of olive oil a day instead. If I try to cut out processed food will I find it easier to lose weight? Maybe so. I know for a fact that I feel better, sleep better and bloat less if I stay off the cereal bars, crisps and package dinners regardless of if I am losing weight or not. But I’m someone that can happily eat half a roast chicken for tea which is a calorie breakdown regardless of how organic and un processed it is, so I still count when I can.

Going clean tends to be higher fibre and protein rich, which is great. But it can also be expensive, high fat and frankly bloody impossible if you are caught on the hop without a packed lunch or eating at the home of someone who you don’t want to offend. I know it is boring but again we circle back to balance and moderation and maybe if you make every effort to chow down on whole veg and lean meat and fish most of the time then a beer and pizza blow out with the girls on a Thursday after yoga isn’t going to make you blow up and put weight on. I for one will always chose to forgo daily cornflakes, crisps and icecream if it means I can get in a couple of pints and a large Hawaiian at the weekend without losing sleep over it.

 

Are You Going To Eat…..Carbs?

First off, if you are diabetic or think you are, then please don’t take any of this on board, you don’t do carbs like other people do. See a doctor, don’t listen to me.

Second first off, let’s actually define a ‘Carb’ because the diet and health conscious world we now live in is carbs this and carbs that and cut carbs and rule out carbs and oh pssssssht carbs are fine as long as you watch your macros.

glucose-formula

your chemical carb building block- glucose. Image courtesy of nutrientviews.com

Carbohydrate- a molecule containing carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms, usually with a hydrogen–oxygen atom ratio of 2:1.
There are big ones and little ones, long chains and short chains. Some people will tell you good ones and bad ones but be under no illusion- the end nutrient is the same, and that is glucose.  Whether you eat a chunk of fudge or a raw organic potato with the dirt still on it, that is ending up as glucose in your cells, just in different amounts.

For ease of discussion your big/long/good carbs are ones that take longer to digest because they are bigger molecules that often come combined with some dietary fibre and thus your body uses up a bit more energy to process them. They also tend to have a less dramatic effect on your blood sugar levels which can stave off hunger pangs. Think whole grains, potatoes and beans.

Your short/bad carbs are easily broken down in digestion and join the metabolic systems in the temple that is your body with minimal effort. Think sweet and tasty foods- fruit, honey and table sugar.

Somewhere between the two you find your processed carbs and the less obvious sugars found in dairy which aren’t as easy to categorise. Many foods from bread to beer have sugars in them. The easiest way to identify a sugar is that most of will end in -ose. Glucose, maltose, dextrose and so on. If you are on the alert for added sugars these are on your hit list. Not to mention HFCS which may sound innocent enough until you call it out as High Fructose Corn Syrup. Learn your labels, people.

But do carbs make you fat? That’s what we really mean isn’t it?

No.

An excess of energy you eat vs the energy you expend through the day makes you fat. It is physics, it is thermal dynamics, it is maths. So why do so many diets and eating plans these days suggest that you cut or kill your carb intake? In all honesty it takes a lot of planning and preparation to completely swear off carbs and if you manage it that would be arguably not very good for you. Most low/no carb approaches are likely to reduce your overall calorie intake in one of two ways.

1-      You cut out higher calorie food options or combinations (going clean)

2-      You maintain steady bloody sugar which results in fewer hunger pangs and food cravings (low GI)

I started to get into these areas then strayed dangerously into the TLDR territory, so a better breakdown of these diet strategies will come in later posts. If you want to learn quickly about how sugars work in the body and effect hunger I suggest a copy of Master Your Metabolism by Jillian Michaels.

bread

mmmm lovely bready bread. But is bread making you (and scott pilgrim) fat?

But is it good for you? Even if we understand calories in vs calories out are there other benefits to chucking out the sugar?

The answer is a very muddy yes-and-no. You need an amount of carbohydrates for the energy to just be alive which is why it tastes good! Eating carbs results in serotonin release, the happy chemical, so we eat sweet things and feel good and by side effect have enough energy to breathe and walk and do stuff. Also bulky carbs like fruit and wholegrains come hand in hand with fibre which is really good for your digestive system making us feel full (more happy chemicals) and eliminate solid waste from the body. Yes, I mean poo. Pooing is good for you.

But excess sugar in the diet is readily swept up by your hormones and stashed as fat to keep you warm and stave off potential periods of starvation. As advanced as humans are, your endocrine system doesn’t know that you live within an easy commute to at least two 24 hour supermarkets. So we save calories in the form of body fat, just incase we need them later. This is part of the reason a lot of people recommend a high protein diet to lose body fat- because protein that isn’t pretty much immediately used for growth or repair in the body is excreted. If you eat more super lean turkey steak than your body needs today, you will pee it out. End of. If you eat more chips or yams than your body needs today, it ends up on your arse or, more worryingly, in your mid-section where it is now associated with many weight related health issues like heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Any lower-than-you-are-used-to carb diet can give an immediate result of feeling low, tired and hangry. In simple terms, your body ‘likes’ to run off dietary sugar. It is easy, and if it is what you are used to then your body will try to get you to seek out carby food before burning fat stores. You will crave the bread and the pasta and you will feel wretched while you do. It can take a couple of weeks to adjust. Google low carb flu and ketosis to learn more. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad move though as after the initial carb-flu many people report feeling less hungry and more energised IF they keep up the low carb lifestyle. Weight loss often comes in hand with this both from stored fat loss and elimination of the water that our body stores in the muscles with sugar preserves as glycogen. That’s what we mean when we say ‘water weight’, the dreaded downfall of the fad diet that looks great on the scales but isn’t actually as much of an achievement as it appears when we eat nothing but cabbage and paprika to lose 8 lbs the week before flying to Ibiza.

Dumping carbs is not a fail safe, nor is it an easy lifestyle choice to make. Most carbs are cheap and delicious and abundant. If you are limiting carbs you need to learn to either cook from scratch or religiously scan your ingredients lists. As someone who has been through a medical sugar ban, I can tell you that those -oses are everywhere. In crisps, in yoghurts, in stews and sauces and in the most diabolical way in so many ‘diet’ products where the sugar goes in to counter the lower fat content. That is another pitfall of going no-carb: you have to eat something else and that is likely to lead to an increase in your fat intake which is potentially worse for weight loss efforts and some health conditions. We will talk about that another time.

With so much stealth sugar out there, it can be seen as easier to blanket dump everything in that carbon-hydrogen-oxygen proportion altogether but I believe that you can get on just fine with regulated carbs included in your diet. And if you regulate most of the time the odd cake binge infront of Marco Polo or your netflix boxset of choice isn’t going to destroy your six pack. Or two pack. No judgement.

And still here we are, TLDR so time to sum up, are you going to eat carbs? Well yes, you will in some way or another unless you are going to full ketosis which is very difficult to maintain longterm and will make you cranky and smell bad. True story.

Are you going to live off chips and brioche then? I really wouldn’t. Just spend some time researching how many laps around the field it will take you to counteract that stack of sandwiches and tweak your diet accordingly. Get a macros tracker like My Fitness Pal or similar and be vigilant because hidden carbs are everywhere and they are not all created equally.

To prove this, I am going back to the front in the name of science and my readers and go for a week where I am going to record my carb intake and do my very utmost to cut out added sugar and let you know how that goes. This is going to hurt.

 

Are You Going To Eat….. Whelks?

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Lovely whelks!

I was beyond thrilled to discover my local fish boss Terry had a glut of whelks available last weekend. Already cooked, shell on at less than four quid a kilo which meant I could add plenty to my shopping list for our fishy Easter holidays night in. I bloody love whelks. Ok they aren’t posh and salty and gilstery like oysters. They’re aren’t small and cheeky little cockney geezer cockles. Whelks are the Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson of the seafood world- big tanned rubbery lumps of muscle that just make you grin even though you know they are probably a little bit wrong.

Enthralled, nay, enraptured, I turned to my co shoppers, barely containing my delight at this find only to be met with stony, tragic masks of gastro-horror. Somehow I have ended up with whelk haters in my life and a brief Google shows that I’m far from alone in this.

I seriously don’t know what is wrong with you people, whelks are awesome. At about 80 calories per 100g they are a great source of lean protein with bonus high levels of vitamin B12 and ‘master mineral’ magnesium. Being a sea mollusc they have a thick, satisfyingly fibrous consistency and strong flavour easily turned to so many culinary uses.  Whelks emote the sea and the cold salty wind and grandads and brown ale. All fine, stalwart British things. They are also cheap and abundant in these here British Isles. Why would you not eat whelks!?

Ok apparently some people really don’t like them, and they are a bit fiddly, but fiddle schmiddle! Just boil them in the shells for 5 minutes then cool and simply pop them out of the shell with a cocktail stick. Chop off the hard end at the shell opening and scrape off the sack at the other squiggly end once you’ve got it out then serve them doused in malt vinegar and white pepper. Delicious, low fat and perfect with a pint!
Not a fan of the rubbery charm of the sea snail cousin? Get them uncooked then freeze overnight to begin the destruction of the tissue as a tenderising cheat. Then you can use them as you would most seafood- boiled and tossed in a salad or stirred into your pasta sauce or awash with butter, garlic and white wine.

I’m not going to let this one go into the No pile. Whelks are brilliant, healthy and all over the shop so buy some and try something new and support your local fisherman. Go Whelks!