The Feminine Agenda – Part Two: Diet is a Dirty Word

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Like SO many women I know, I’m always complaining about my health, diet, weight and expressing a desire to do something about it so that I can feel better about myself / look better/feel better.

Every evening when I come home from work, I have developed the hunger of ten men and practically the first thing I do is to reach out for a snack. ( I say practically the first thing as I may have to hang a right to the loo – commute plus middle age equals a need to wee more than ever). I charge through the house to the kitchen and go straight for the cupboard where I keep the peanut butter. Armed with my weapon of choice – a teaspoon  ( a dessert spoon has proved to be too big to get into the neck of the jar) – its an easy battle to snatch off the lid and stick the spoon into the craters of the delicious, satisfying goo left by previous home time snack attacks.

Whilst in the shower one morning I was contemplating what else I could have as a less fattening ( oh yes it is – you should see the size of the spoonful/s I dig out) but equally as satisfying arrival snack. Then, in the car on the way to the train station an advert played on the radio for a well know diet and and weigh loss company. It said, ‘Don’t do this diet, or try that one (mentioning two other well known weight loss methods), try us instead because we’re healthier’.

This started me thinking.

What is healthy?

What should a healthy diet consist of? What does it mean to be healthy and what is this whole diet malarkey all about? What is this obsession with diet ? When did dieting become necessary and when did it become such a global past time?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines DIET as:

  • the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats.
  • a special course of food to which a person restricts themselves, either to lose weight or for medical reasons.

The UK diet industry is apparently worth a staggering 2 billion GBP.

In our effort to ‘be healthy’ and as part of our ‘dieting’ lifestyle, out of the 64.1 million Brits, 1.5 million of us are members of a gym. Sport England reported that as of April 2016, the number of people taking part in sport is growing, with approximately 15.6 million people taking part in some form of sport at least once a week (more about women in sport in a later post).

What’s dieting all about? What started us restricting our food intake out of choice?

Dieting is generally considered to be a fairly modern invention that kicked off along with Jane Fonda’s workout videos when she told us to squeeze our buns tight, but actually it started much much earlier – there is evidence that dieting began in the Greek and Roman times.It is believed that dieting then was for all round health, mental and physical health, but the modern concept of fad dieting didn’t start in earnest until the 19th century.

Throughout history the issue humans had with food was that there simply wasn’t enough of it. Think the Irish Potato Famine, Marie Antoinette suggesting her starving subjects desperate for bread should eat cake instead and young Oliver Twist asking for more gruel    (okay he is a character in a novel, but as we know, Dickens wrote about real life issues). The simple fact was that for your average person, wages were simply not enough to support a whole family. Families were large; there was no birth control. Work was hard but not well paid and it was only the upper classes and royalty who had a surfeit of food.

There have been some weird diets since the 19th century. Here are a couple of the craziest that I’ve discovered. You could try either the Chew and Spit Diet or the Tapeworm Diet

At the turn of the 20th Century, an American named Horace Fletcher advocated the Chew and Spit diet. He promoted the belief that food should be chewed until all goodness had been extracted – for example a shallot should be chewed 700 times. (Seriously, they just ate a shallot on its own?) Both Henry James and Franz Kafka were followers of this diet. The ghastly thing about it was that you ended up only going to the loo perhaps once every two weeks and then when you did go apparently the resulting specimen was a weird non smelling affair. Fletcher carried one around with him in a tin to show other people!

A truly ghastly diet idea was the Tape Worm diet. This was about 100 years earlier in the early 1900’s when dieting suddenly took off as a concept. The boom in celebrity caused a real interest in dieting with mass advertising on various cures for being overweight. This was one of them and you’ve guessed it, it involved swallowing a beef tapeworm egg and then once the thing had reached adulthood it would absorb food causing weight loss (yahoo) along with vomiting and diarrhoea (not so yahoo). Once the dieter had reached their goal weight they would then have to take an anti parasitic pill which would help them to (hopefully) excrete the tape worm. Of course this also caused other problems like abdominal and rectal complications. However, whilst having the creature in your body other problems could occur. Tape worms can grow up to 30 feet ( 9metres) long and can cause many diseases such as meningitis, epilepsy and dementia.

If you didn’t fancy ingesting a worm (and I really can’t think why you would) then there were other ways of dieting. Pills and potions were invented to help people to lose weight but the trouble was that these drugs contained some pretty dangerous ingredients. These ingredients were advertised as helping to speed up the metabolism. We now know them to be injurious to life – strychnine and arsenic being two. Generally, these ingredients were only a very small part of the recipe but just as so often happens today, people overdosed on the drugs or took drugs that didn’t have a list of ingredients so they didn’t really know what they were taking. The industry, so similar to today, was full of charlatans and people claiming miraculous effects of their products and were clearly just as gullible and desperate then as we can often be today. And there were other diets such as the Vinegar Diet favoured by Lord Byron and the other Romantics.

The Women’s League for Health and Exercise

Fast forward to the 2oth century: the 1950s to be precise. Listen up ladies, the average house wife in the 1940s and 50s was having more sex than us! She was at it at least twice a week (gratuitous fact). Despite the fact that food was scarce and rationing was still in place, we were dieting. Back then, diet books were delivered and read covered in brown paper, but women were as interested as ever in dieting into that delicious hour glass shape. We also started exercising and the Women’s League for Health and Exercise was created. Take a look at this classic film:

 

Then came the 1970s and 80s. Lynda Carter must have caused a lot of jealousy among modern women when she donned that Wonder Woman outfit ( she had already been crowned Miss World). She had never intended to be a sex symbol for anyone except her husband but she set pulses racing.

In 2016 in the UK, PwC reported that 725,000 people have an eating disorder.

11% of those are male, meaning that a 89% of that number are women with a disorder. Eating disorders have been reported in girls as YOUNG as 6 and in women as OLD as 70. in 2014 the NHS reported that it had received an 8% increase in eating disorder admittances. around 40% of those suffering from a disorder suffer from Bulimia and 10% with anorexia, the other disorders are non specified. Of all anorexia sufferers around 20% will die prematurely as a direct result of their disorder.

Eating disorders and their causes are extremely complicated. They are not caught as if they were a cold or mumps and they aren’t a sign that the sufferer is mentally unstable in any way. They can be triggered by a number of root causes including trauma and loss.

However, its also true to say that the demands of society today requiring women to look a certain way absolutely don’t help. And..girls, we can be so hard on ourselves and to each other can’t we? I went to a convent school and there was definitely bullying of all sorts. Bullying if you weren’t one of the “in” crowd; bullying if you weren’t pretty; bullying if you didn’t come from a wealthy family; bullying if you got lower (or higher) grades; bullying if you were rubbish at sports; bullying if you cried when you were bullied and, of course, bullying if you were fat.

We diet because we want to look good and its been the same for hundreds of years and much of the time its because of the (often overwhelming) external pressure to do so. These days the images of film stars, singers and catwalk models have women and men doing somersaults eating and drinking virtually nothing, or some of the craziest foods and/or supplements to achieve even a semblance of their looks. The demand for non-surgical cosmetic surgery is on the rise in the UK and cosmetic interventions are worth an estimated £3.6billion.

Despite the fact that so many of us are dieting and undertaking cosmetic procedures to enhance our looks, Britain is the Fat Man of Europe.

Medical agencies state that a healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 25. Over 24.8% of adults in the UK are obese with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or over and a staggering 61.7% are either overweight or obese according to statistics developed this year. Obesity is caused by eating too much and moving too little and by eating the ‘wrong’ kinds of food foods that are too highly processed and/or with too much fat and sugar.

Where will it all end?

From what I have read (and indeed, from what I can see on a daily basis), we are a nation that is massively polarised between the food and health followers who study every millimetre of a food label before even considering using what its stuck to, to the other end of the spectrum where, through ignorance, lack of time or other circumstances no food is too fatty or salty or sugary and enough is never enough.

Whilst doing my research for this post, I’ve been surprised at how many people seem to be unaware of the effects of their daily diet – for good or for ill – even though we have more information at our finger tips than ever before.  Despite society’s development and quest for a generally more tolerant society, we seem to judge and be judged whatever we put in our mouths. There is no end to the relentless quest for uber health and beauty amongst an ever-growing number of people and there is no sign of a let up in the tsunami of new ideas and techniques to help people lose weight, gain muscle, burn fat or manipulate and pummel their bodies into their desired shape.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with dieting. People should be able to do what makes them feel better about themselves ( except maybe ingest tape worm larvae). I agree with the Greeks though – it should enhance emotional and mental health as well as your waist line. So, in that spirit, I’m off to have a spoonful of peanut butter to keep my spirits up!

A Dip in the Ocean

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This is the title of the first book written by the astonishingly brave adventurer Sarah Outen. The summary on Amazon reads as follows:

4,000 miles of unpredictable ocean
500 Chocolate bars
124 days of physical exertion
3 Guinness World Records set
1 incredible journey

I’ve just read Sarah’s book about her record-breaking crossing of the Indian Ocean, SOLO mind you, in a specially designed boat called Dippers. I was inspired to learn more about Sarah after seeing her present at the Night of Adventure organised by Alastair Humphries. (You can read more about this in my earlier post).My Night of Inspiration

I work in London and saved myself the treat of reading this great book as I travel to and from work. My goodness! what a courageous and inspirational lady Sarah is! I am full of admiration for her. Her story has so many moments of extraordinary bravery. Her journey started as she tried to deal with the overwhelming grief of losing her beloved father far too early from cruelly debilitating arthritis. Spurred on by wanting to do something in his memory and having begun rowing in earnest at uni, she planned her incredible journey.

Sarah’s journey was, as you would have expected, a monumental challenge and she survived capsize more than once. Her amazing little boat righted itself and bobbed upright and kept her safe. She must have been absolutely terrified and she doesn’t say that she cried, but I know I would have!

Sarah succeeded in her goal to cross the Indian Ocean landing in Mauritius. In doing so she became the first woman to do so, solo and became the youngest person as well.

When I think about Sarah and her astonishing achievement, the following quote crosses my mind because she was absolutely determined to succeed.

“A strong woman is a woman determined to do something others are determined not be done”

I am a hardened commuter, but Sarah’s beautifully written book had me smiling and laughing out loud and even holding back tears in public on many occasions. I was so touched by the bond that she built up with her lovely boat and the small fishes she nick-named the ‘Tweedles’ as they escorted her across the ocean. This challenge is one of the hardest journeys I have read about. Sarah has to deal with pushing her body beyond the limit of physical exertions coping with extreme tiredness, hunger and thirst as well as rowing injuries such as pulled muscles and horrible blisters and boils. She has to deal with the emotional exertions too: that of loneliness and fear and the uncertainties that accompany a challenge where, however well prepared you are, you are at the mercy of the incredible elements of the planet where the odds are more often than not, stacked against you. Sarah’s writing is so honest and heartfelt and as a reader you are drawn into her story so much so that, in my own case, I almost wanted her to quit so that she would be safely home. Of course she didn’t – she is way too strong and as a woman I’m so incredibly proud of the fact that she DIT IT.

I’ve been thinking about an adventure myself and rowing is something I’m rather keen on trying. I’m a fair bit older than Sarah, but having read Sarah’s book, I figure that there’s no reason not to give it a go. I feel inspired and encouraged to try, in my own small way. You can find the link to Sarah’s book on Amazon here.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004M8S9CM/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

 

Remembrance Ride

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I haven’t been out on my bike for a while. I’ve been doing other stuff trying to get a lot stronger and slimmer using weights and HIIT training with a big focus on my butt, abs and bingo wings… Anyway, I woke up this morning and the weather was so much better than yesterday and the early morning sun seemed to beckon me out. So, I took about half an hour of Top Level Faffing (I only do Top Level) to get my screamingest pink kit out and prepare myself and Gloria ready for the off.

I didn’t have a ride planned given that it was a bit last moment, I just wanted to get out and give myself some headspace in the glorious countryside and enjoy being alive. Autumn is my favourite time of the year. I love the amazing colours that nature creates as she moves through into winter and I love the smell of the damp earth and leaves and the scent of smoke that carries across the fields from chimneys across the countryside. Today, as I rode out, it was wonderful to be in the great outdoors – I felt like a horse who has been cooped up in its stable for a week and has been finally let out into its field! Freee….  The sun shone proudly over the fields and as I cycled, the wet roads and leaves twinkled and glistened with reflected light as if tiny little jewels littered my way. It was magical. Life and nature take my breathe away. Here we all are, tiny little dots living on this planet without compare and Mother Nature shares her beauty with us. If we’re lucky and we allow ourselves the time and opportunity, we get to appreciate the wonder of it all.

I find cycling a great way to ‘process’. This morning, I got to thinking about the fact that its Remembrance Sunday. My grandfather was a little 15 year old boy -one of the many who lied about their age in order to sign up and fight for their country – when he went off to The Somme. He was one of the ones who survived and we have a recording of him talking about his experiences. He was a wonderful man and we were lucky that he came home and after some time he eventually met my grandmother; a little strip of  a thing many years younger than him, but fate had a plan in store for them fortunately for me!!!

When I was studying for my A levels, I spent a whole summer season as a guide around the battlefields of The Somme and WWI (I was inspired by the fact that my grandfather had fought there) and so even though I didn’t go to Church today, I got some time to give thanks in my own way to grandad and all the other incredible people who have served – whether they’ve given their lives or not – to ensure that we are free to go out on our bikes or do whatever we want with our lives.

I pulled off the road at one point as I thought about grandad and looked at the beautiful colours around me.  I don’t take that many photographs as I am no David Bailey, but I took one today. What a wonderful planet we live on. How lucky am I to have had the opportunity to go out cycling and enjoy this beautiful view. In thinking about my grandad it made me also think about the future and the endless possibilities that lie in store. Grandad, if you’re looking down, I hope you like this picture – its for you. Here’s to the opportunities and experiences yet to come that you have given me.

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