Category Archives: Diary
Last week I attended the World Steak Challenge 2016 – hardly the sort of event deemed suitable for someone trying to lower her cholesterol! Having taking the precaution of eating a light lunch, I arrived peckish to the event in Hyde Park, where a magnificent sunset showed off the London skyline in a blaze of early Autumnal splendour.
Long before the steaks were slapped on the grill for guests to savour the outstanding meat that a panel of judges had been chewing over all day, we were treated to bite-sized portions of Japanese Wagyu beef. Considered the finest meat du monde, these mouthfuls really were the bees’ knees. With a texture more like butter than meat – due to the tenderness and fantastic marbling of the fat – I was in carnivore heaven, giving not a thought to my arteries. OK in honesty I felt a bit guilty about my arteries. But when one has the choice of another helping of a brilliant Wagyu tartare with pink peppercorns and a yuzu ponzu (a soy sauce and yuzu mix), well, I am not the sort to turn it down.
I was asked to answer a few questions about my experience of the different cuts of Wagyu. Most of the boxes to tick related to taste, texture, fattiness, appearance and healthiness. The last category surprised me and I responded that I did not think about meat in terms of health. But it got me thinking and when I returned home, stuffed with steak, I read up on what healthy properties Wagyu brings to the table for lowering cholesterol.
Wagyu beef has a high fat content and the fat has a lot of oleic acid. Oleic acid is a monounsaturated fat and is the main fatty acid in olive oil. It decreases the amount of LDL cholesterol in the body while leaving the HDL untouched. As those watching their cholesterol need to lower levels of LDL while boosting levels of HDL, oleic acid seems to be doing at least half the job.
Now I am not prescribing daily eating of Wagyu beef, although once you have tasted it you may be sorely tempted – until the eye watering price tag is produced. Mind you, I heard a programme on the radio this week where a representative from Iceland (the store) said they are now selling Wagyu burgers for £3. Hmmm. What I am mindful of is that when eating red meat it is worth getting the very best quality affordable. I eat very little red meat in general and try to eat lean cuts if I do. Paradoxically, it seems that some fattier (and expensive, top quality) meats – like Wagyu and Iberico ham (which I have written about previously) seem to have increased quantities of healthy fats! And as these are some of the most delicious meats, in my view, it may just be a win-win situation so long as I don’t overindulge. Did I heed this advice at the World Steak Challenge? Of course not, it was all just far too delicious.
The problem with social life is that it gets in the way of trying to lower cholesterol – not to mention weight. If I lived in a cave – or at least led a hermit-like existence – I might have a decent shot at keeping to my resolve. However, the past couple of weeks have been anything but conducive to my plans to get back in shape, or to make a start at the least.
No sooner had I declared my intentions a fortnight ago than a very fancy scale arrived at my door for me to review. I was delighted by the synchronicity. I have never owned a scale larger than one that sits on the kitchen worktop and that only goes up to 4kg so not much use for weight control. I loathe the idea that I should feel up or down depending on what the scale says in the morning so I have never wanted a bathroom scale. I can tell whether or not I need to lose weight by the feel of my clothes. Sadly, that tells me nothing about my cholesterol level. The timely arrival of this new scale, however, felt like a good omen. It is very high tech, so much so that my teenagers had to help me set up an app on my phone. The idea is that you stand on the scale and the app works out your BMI as well as your percentage body fat and muscle mass. Frankly, this is more information that I care to know, but my lack of tech savvy has saved me from the worst. Standing on the scale I can see what I weigh and that is bad enough. When I complained to my son that the app did not give me any further information, he asked me whether I had my phone switched on to the app while I stood on the scale! As I said, too high tech for me. And in any case do I really need to know what percentage I am of body fat? Just looking at the tyre around my stomach tells me all I need to know.
Having the equipment to measure my progress is one thing. Making progress is quite another. And that is where life gets in the way. Deliciously perhaps, but still in the way. Last week I was invited to a diner at a Spitalfields restaurant called Taberna do Mercado where top Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes adds his inventive touch to the cuisine. (You can read about it here if you wish http://kitchenjourneys.net/2016/09/portuguese-cuisine-showcased-at-taberna-do-mercado/ ).
Later in the week I attended a book launch at Brindisa where the inimitable Monika Linton has written a long awaited cookbook. The tapas were plentiful and delicious. This evening I am eating a 10 course tasting menu at The Frog (once more to Spitalfields neck of the woods) and tomorrow I will be having afternoon tea at The Dorchester followed by dinner in a lovely restaurant with visiting cousins.
I don’t expect sympathy. Not from people at any rate. It would be nice though if my new fancy scale with its app could be a little kinder under the circumstances. That is the problem with a piece of equipment – it has no interest in excuses.
A confession: it is months since I last wrote a blog post and I have neglected From The Healthy Heart almost as much as I have been neglecting my health. No doubt the two neglects are related. The truth is that I have not been looking after my eating and therefore felt somewhat hypocritical writing about lowering cholesterol. The result of lack of exercise and constant eating of everything and anything is that I approach the end of summer many pounds heavier and feeling sluggish. Having taken a fortnight’s holiday in Corsica did not help either as the cuisine is rich with charcuterie and cheese. I ate a lot of it and tasty it was too.
So what is to be done? Well, I have been considering my options. I definitely need to shed the extra weight and I shudder to think what level my cholesterol has risen to while it has been left unattended. I also must get back to regular exercise. Promptly.
I could embark on the 5:2 diet as several of my foodie friends have done. They tell me that it is wonderful for people who are eating out a lot as they can plan around these events. Eat only 500 calories twice a week and what you like the rest of the time. Somehow this seems too good to be true even though I have seen the results in friends. But I am not a fan of calorie counting. While it might lead to weight loss, eating rich foods as I do when out on blogging events – especially afternoon teas – is not a good way to look after my arteries. For lowering cholesterol one cannot really just eat whatever you like 5 days a week.
All other diets are bound to rebound in even further weight gain as this is what diets do so I have no plans to go down this path. I guess that leaves the option of what has worked before – my own plan which began years ago when I first began to lower my cholesterol. It resulted in weight loss partly as I was exercising a fair amount and also due to eating a low fat diet devoid of all cakes, biscuits, sweets, charcuterie and the likes.
I am thinking about getting out the food diary I kept at the time – it took 3 months – when I documented everything I ate (call me obsessive) and simply following that. It makes perfect sense. The only sticking point is that I know that I have nothing like the steely determination I had back then. Still, even following 80 % of the plan might help. After all I can no longer fit into much of my wardrobe so action is needed. If that is what I look like from the outside what is my system looking like on the inside?
My other new plan is to eat more fermented foods. I have been researching this for an article I wrote and am taken with the idea that our gut bacteria is depleted and can benefit from the healthy bacteria in fermented foods.
I enclose the link to my article on fermentation for anyone interested to read it.
So if you too are in need of getting your cholesterol down and want to do it in a measured and healthy way, join me as the summer draws to a close and let’s eat well – stock up on salmon, almonds, oats and pulses and we can get started.
This week I am feeling so downcast by the political situation in the UK that it is hard to concentrate on the pesky issue of lowering cholesterol. I feel more concerned about the political turmoil and the future opportunities for my children’s generation than I do about the future of my cardiovascular health. But maybe the two are not mutually exclusive.
Talking of the future of the next generation, the weekends these days are filled with university open day visits. I have been surprised to discover that self-catering facilities have the sort of kitchens that would not look out of place in an IKEA catalogue – spacious, bright, funky chairs at large kitchen tables, multiple hobs and fridges. Viewing several of these on Saturday, I was just itching to get cooking. I wondered how much real food is prepared in these kitchens in any academic year. One of the tour guides opened a freezer to show prospective students (or the parents) how the space is divided up. As I suspected the freezer was packed tight with boxes of pizza and oven chips. In the corner of the kitchen there was a pile of empty bottles presumably awaiting recycling. The pile was sizeable and composed mainly of alcohol empties. Perhaps the less parents see of these kitchens the better.
This experience set me to thinking about preparing my son for a self-catering life that is not composed of endless dinners of pizza and oven chips. Eighteen years of eating lots of fruit and veg, wholemeal pasta, brown rice, loads of grains, fish and fowl and a small amount of red meat, homemade bread – all this is but a distant memory if he does not learn to cook. He makes a good cheese omelette and a mean toastie, can put together a simple pasta sauce and recently roasted a chicken under instruction. So the bones are there.
How many students are ready for a future in which they will have to take care of their own nutrition? Our schools do little to prepare our children for an independent life – oftentimes they are not even prepared for being independent thinkers. Cooking should be as much part of the curriculum as PE. Nutrition and eating well is every bit as important as exercise.
Back in my student days I learnt to make pasta and not much else. No one had taught me to cook before I left home. On campus I ate the cheapest meal deal in the lunch canteen – usually large slabs of macaroni cheese. Along with my peers I ate at late night greasy spoons. I did no exercise aside from running to lectures that I was usually late for. I put on a whole lot of weight in the three years that ensued. It took another three years to get back to my normal size.
This morning I paged through a Student Cookbook to see if it might offer inspiration to my son but in fact it was far too complex for a student. Who takes an electric mixer to university? Some of the recipes were time consuming with ingredients unlikely to be available in the campus grocery shop. I assured my son that I will teach him to cook a few dishes that are quick and easy – one fish, chicken, egg, veggie, and of course, pasta dish– macaroni cheese probably as it is a favourite. After all it takes the same time to put fish fingers on an oven tray as it does to put a fresh fish fillet on an oven tray. A squeeze of lemon and a grinding of black pepper and supper is almost ready. I feel a new cookbook coming on.
We all know about the obesity epidemic and might feel powerless to do anything about it. Teaching our children to cook is one way to ensure that they are able to feed themselves healthily once they are no longer eating their meals in our kitchens.
Low fat, no fat, full fat, healthy fat, eat fat, don’t eat fat – if you are as fed up as I am with all these contradictory messages then you can hardly bear to read another word about it. Yet, I suspect that we are going to be hearing more and more about the topic as the ‘facts’ continue to trickle down to the public from research new and some old but only recently revealed. I have written several times recently about this confusing argument in the nutrition world. How is it translating into action in my daily diet?
The biggest change is that I am feeling more relaxed about eating full fat products. In fact, I would go as far as to say that I am now avoiding eating low or no fat dairy. I have had enough of eating 0% yoghurts, for example, that only push more sugars into my bowl. Instead I have begun to buy full fat yoghurt and I must say that I have not yet noticed any weight gain. Perhaps this is because I have cut back in general on how much I am eating in the run up to summer. It would be nice to fit back into my summer trousers. I tried on a favourite pair the other day – lightweight, a neutral shade and not prone to creasing. What more can one ask of a pair of trousers? My side of the bargain is to be able to close the zip. I also have my annual cholesterol test in mind. As usual it is overdue – every year I seem to postpone it while I have a mad dash to knock off a few pounds and to get more lower cholesterol eating onto my plate.
I was recently invited to lunch at The Greek Larder in Kings Cross where my colleagues and I were treated to a tasting of some top quality Greek products imported by Odysea. While we ate our way through plates of mezze we were given a fascinating talk about Greek olives, honeys and details about how Greek strained yoghurt is made. This is the real Greek yoghurt, the full fat variety not the Greek styled low fat stuff. It was deliciously creamy and utterly lovely with a spoon of Pine and Fir Tree Honey which is unique to Greece and the Turkish coast and available in an upmarket supermarket.
This week I decided to buy some full fat Greek Strained Yoghurt. Having spent the past years eating 0% fat Greek Yoghurt I was a bit shocked to realised that my new purchase contained 10% fat. But I was even more surprised to discover, when reading the small print, that the 10% yoghurt only contained 2g sugar while the low fat one had 5.6g sugar. So you either eat the fat and less sugar or less fat but more sugar. I leave it to you to decide. For now I have decided to eat the full fat variety in smaller quantities as it tastes so creamy that one needs less to feel satisfied. Of course adding honey only brings the sugar back into the bowl so I put the jar aside and added a handful of juicy blackberries instead. Food of the Greek gods!
It always seems to be some celebratory week or other and this week is the time for vegetarians. Yes, it’s National Vegetarian Week. Quite how these things are designated is anyone’s guess but everywhere you turn on social media there are vegetarian recipes. Which is good, of course, as we should all be eating as much veg as possible.
Two things have happened this week which rather sum up the life of the vegetable-loving carnivore. In fact these two events happened on the same day at the same time. I was invited to a press launch of a couple of vegetarian cookbooks and I gladly went along because I can never have enough cookbooks and it is fun to meet the cookbook authors – or should one call them chefs? This always arouses two conflicting emotions – firstly awe and secondly envy. I am in awe of anyone who is talented enough to be able to get an agent to look at their idea for a cookbook and then has the energy and determination to see the process through. I am envious that the person just described is not me. One lives in hope. Mostly, book launches of cookbooks make me hungry – no there were not nearly enough canapes – and I enjoy being excited about the recipe ideas in any new book. Just think about how many wonderful meals one could cook if starting on page one and cooking all the way through to the end. Instead, I rather suspect that most of us end up trying one or two dishes and then getting back to the few dishes we repeatedly cook each week.
While I was out and about sipping orange juice and meeting the most dynamic vegetarians I have ever encountered – a set of twins known as The Happy Pear – a parcel arrived at my front door which would have scared the vegetarian horses. It was a box full of meat! Steaks to be precise. Gammon, pork, sirloin, ribeye and flatiron. Not being much of a meat eater and never having cooked any of these cuts of meat – I usually cook lamb – I hastily put it all in the freezer, waiting for good weekend weather to do justice on the BBQ to some of these fabulous looking pieces of meat. My son informed me that he no longer eats beef, having watched a movie about the cattle industry’s contribution to the destruction of the planet. All the more for the rest of us.
I reflected on the enthusiasm with which I had embraced vegetarianism but an hour before returning home to find the meaty gift from a company called Market Porter. Suddenly I was planning a blowout feast for carnivores as soon as the sun came out. Funnily enough it has been raining all week since then. Is the universe telling me it is time to embrace my inner vegetarian? Perhaps, but first I must have my steak and eat it.
Those following the ongoing debate about whether saturated fat is the biggest killer will know that the new baddie is actually sugar. It turns out that this debate does not go back a mere eight or nine years. It goes back to the 1970s. So how come the fact that sugar is bad news for our health has only recently been given increasing media coverage?
An article in The Guardian on 7 April 2106 tells the long story. Ian Leslie informs readers that a British professor of nutrition rang the alarm bells about sugar in 1972 in a book entitled Pure, White and Deadly. The author, John Yudkin, saw some success when the book was initially published but he was discredited thereafter by prominent nutritionists working alongside the food industry. Now, 40 years later, we finally see a sugar tax in the UK and a cap on sugar consumption recommended in the US. In the intervening years we have also seen an obesity epidemic in these countries. Might it have been avoided?
Leslie sets the historical context of the 1960s when a low fat diet was becoming the new ‘nutritional orthodoxy’. John Yudkin disagreed with this direction and argues that it was sugar, not fat, that was causing obesity, diabetes and heart disease. But by then he was a voice in the wilderness and his views were dismissed.
By the 1980s the US and UK governments had issued dietary guidelines to reduce intake of saturated fats and cholesterol. The food industry fell in line and we began to eat low fat foods. Doctors followed this advice too. Yet the two nations began to get fatter. In 1980 6% of people in the UK were obese. Now two thirds (66%) are obese or overweight. Now there is a frantic search for the culprit. Guess what gave all those low fat foods any taste? Sugar. And transfats.
In his paper, The Sugar Conspiracy, Leslie argues that nutritional scientists have buried the information – such as was published by John Yudkin . He cites another journalist, Nina Teicholz whose book The Big Fat Surprise traces the history of the argument that saturated fats cause heart disease. For decades this was the accepted truth. More recently it has come to be questioned. The UN published a paper in 2008 and the American Society for Nutrition in 2010 stating that there is no significant evidence for associating saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. An Oxford paper in 2008 showed an inverse correlation between saturated fats and cardiovascular disease. In other words, those who ate more saturated fats suffered less cardiovascular disease. Teicholz argues that back in the 60s and 70s a few powerful personalities , including Ancel Keys, a nutritionist at the University of Minnesota, drove this idea from ‘controversial theory to accepted truth.’ She suggests that they exaggerated the cause of eating a low-fat diet while attacking those, like John Yudkin, who countered that argument. Yudkin found a correlation between heart disease and sugar consumption not with fat. He found that sugar is processed in the liver where it turns to fat before entering the bloodstream. He argued further that humans have been eating fat throughout our evolution (breast milk is high in saturated fats) whereas sugar only entered the human diet 300 years ago. He proposed that it was the newcomer to our diets that was making people ill.
Yudkin’s views were rubbished by those arguing the low fat corner and his career was destroyed. More recently, Nina Teicholz published an article in the British Medical Journal outlining the inadequacy of the scientific advice on which low fat dietary guidelines were based. She has received a similarly vitriolic response from the nutritional establishment.
As we read nowadays in the press, nutritionists are struggling to understand the obesity epidemic and having a serious rethink. Sugar is becoming a major focus. To read more about this fascinating and disturbing story which affects all our health I encourage you to read this article. It is too long to detail here but it should be read. (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/apr/07/the-sugar-conspiracy-robert-lustig-john-yudkin). Leslie suggests that we get most of our nutritional advice from our doctors and from government guidelines. All well and good if those bodies are informed by good science he says. What if they are not?
I woke up in the mood for brunch. It was the weekend after all. I had been sent a photo of a breakfast dish made by my niece and had it in mind for days. I happened to have the ingredients in the fridge. So it was a joy to plate it up in my kitchen and a fine meal it was too.
In addition to tasting really good, this dish is packed with good fats and the feelgood factor while lowering cholesterol.
Serve with a large pot of tea.
For 4 people:
2 ripe avocados, mashed
4 slices of smoked salmon
4 large eggs
4 thick slices of sourdough bread
Begin by preparing the avocado. Mash lightly – add some freshly ground black pepper. I don’t think it calls for salt as the smoked salmon is salty but add some if you want to.
Cut four thick slices of sourdough and toast. Spread with the avocado and lay the smoked salmon on top.
Poach the eggs – I poach for a minute or two – remove with a slotted spoon and then drain on kitchen paper.
Pop an egg on top of each toast, avo and smoked salmon combo. Add a grinding of black pepper and eat.
When I first started writing about reducing cholesterol over three years ago, I realised that there was a lot to learn. What I didn’t know at the time was quite how difficult it would be to know what guidelines to follow. At first it seemed straight forward – reduce saturated fats, essentially – and replace with good, unsaturated fats such as olive oil, oily fish nuts, avocados and low fat dairy products. As regular readers of my blog know, I set about this project with zeal and, along with regular exercise, my cholesterol level dropped within three months.
Since those early and naïve days, I have discovered that the relationship between a raised cholesterol level and mortality is far less clear than I first understood. Many people who suffer heart attacks have normal cholesterol levels. If this is so, then constantly trying to reduce cholesterol levels in order to extend our longevity might not be the simple solution I supposed it to be.
Over the past few years the notion of saturated fats being the devil incarnate has also come under scrutiny. Sugar is now in the spotlight as the number one killer and sad to say, low fat products are packed with the white stuff.
This week a very interesting article was published in the New York Times which had me scratching my head. It is an important addition to the ever increasingly muddled picture of what to believe, who to believe and what to do to preserve our cardiovascular health.
Entitled, A Study on Fats That Doesn’t Fit the Story Line, Aaron E. Carroll, professor of paediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, reports on an article published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) on that controversial topic of how our diet affects our cardiovascular health.
The article in the NY Times points out that questions were being raised about saturated fats as far back as the late 1960s and 1970s. Guess what happened to this data? It wasn’t published. The study was called The Minnesota Coronary Experiment and was a well –designed study that collected data on the cholesterol levels of over 2 300 participants. They were put on a diet that reduced their saturated fat intake and increased their unsaturated fat intake. Over the course of the study their overall cholesterol levels dropped. No surprises here – many of us have found this to be the case when we replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats.
However, the study showed that there was no decreased risk of death from this reduced cholesterol level. In fact, it showed an increased mortality especially in the group of participants who were 65 years and older. Most surprisingly, perhaps, was the finding that those whose cholesterol level had reduced the most, were also at the greatest risk of dying from any cause – ie not just from cardiovascular disease.
Since this time studies have proven and disproved these findings. The question is – why was the Minnesota study not published? Why was the Sydney Diet Heart Study (1966 – 1973) not published until three years ago? Could it be because it too found that eating a diet higher in unsaturated fats resulted in more deaths from heart disease? What might have happened to the health advice given over the past decades if all this research had been published? Where would the low fat food industry be then? Would we have grown fat on the sugars we have been eating as part of our low fat diets?
If this is sounding like a conspiracy, perhaps there has been one. The NY Times article suggests that perhaps these studies were not published because they contradicted the accepted wisdom of the time that saturated fats were the big bad wolf.
As Professor Carroll concludes “the state of nutrition research in general is shockingly flawed. It’s hard enough to debate the data we can see. Knowing there’s probably data out there that people haven’t shared makes everything much, much harder.”
So there we have the conundrum. No-one knows what to believe, which studies to follow, whose advice to take and what is being hidden from the public. Most of all, I don’t know whether to put butter on my toast and a steak in the pan or to just continue trying to get my cholesterol down. Who knows if that is more likely to extend or curtail life expectancy?
Next time: The Sugar Conspiracy
In the meantime you may like to read my fully saturated fat article published today in The Boston Globe: https://www.bostonglobe.com/lifestyle/food-dining/2016/04/18/what-like-eat-heston-blumenthal-hinds-head/8Z8utjEVDdnTECx2cYbXCN/story.html
I am supposed to be sitting at my computer writing a blog post on lowering cholesterol. But the truth is that I am simply passing the time until the evening episode of The Archers is broadcast. Archers fans will understand that nothing much else matters this week. Of course it does. It is just that sometimes the real world is too filled with real pain. So we turn hungrily to the made up world which, ironically, can also reduce us to shaking with fear in our own kitchens. If non-Archers fans do not know what I am on about, Radio 4 has a particularly disturbing story line about domestic abuse right now that is gripping middle England.
But back to the real world. I was greatly moved last week –as were many others around the globe – by the announcement that the great Zaha Hadid had died. One of the world’s greatest architects, whose buildings I adore, she suffered a heart attack while in hospital in Miami where she was being treated for bronchitis. Now I know nothing about Ms Hadid’s health history but it struck me that even while in a hospital her heart attack turned out to be fatal. You would think that having a heart attack in a hospital would give one a better than normal chance of survival.
What disturbed me most about her passing away was not only that the world will not see any more magnificent buildings with her instantly recognizable style, but that so much talent is cut short by cardiovascular disease. Considering how much is known now about preventing this disease, it seems especially cruel.
Yet, how many of us really change our lifestyles to lower our own risks? I count myself as part of the group of people who know the right things to do but find it so hard to keep up. At the moment I feel in the doldrums health wise. I am struggling to shake off a nasty virus that is doing the rounds and leaves people feeling exhausted. But in truth it has been some time since I have attended in a meaningful way to lowering cholesterol and taking general care. My weight is up, my eating is pretty much free for all and my exercise is at a three year low. What I do keep up is a daily bowl of oats for breakfast and almonds as a snack. The only downside of this cholesterol lowering behaviour is that my helpings are too generous by far – probably enough for two. Each morning I remind myself of this but as I tip the oats and milk into my pot I resolve to start cutting back the next day. And the day after.
The positive news is that Spring seems to be here – on a very short walk this week, I marveled at the buds bursting out on trees in the woods. Which makes me think that nature knows what to do to keep replenishing life. If only we could keep in tune with it.