The free-from-fear diet

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 13.33.5023 November 2015 for the Observer as “What is Healthy Eating?“:

It’s easy to develop a case of the latest psychiatrically acknowledged eating disorder, orthorexia nervosa – an obsession with avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthy. I got one for just £65. That’s the price of an introductory session at London’s Hale Clinic, an alternative therapy centre a couple of stuccoed blocks from Harley Street.

The Hale was opened by Prince Charles back in the 80s, and celebrities have been aromatherapied, ear-candled and detoxed there ever since. As you pass through its Grecian columns you cannot but ponder the fact that here Princess Diana’s colon was regularly irrigated. I arrive for something simpler: a consultation on my diet. I am a normal 50-something foodie whose diet philosophy has long been “Don’t eat crap” (with occasional cheesy Wotsits permitted). My complaints are pretty normal for my age cohort, too: a little joint pain, a desire to snooze after lunch, a failure to tolerate the quantities of alcohol I once enjoyed. Oh, and those close to me might mention a mild tendency towards flatulence. Like the bulk of the British public, I have a somewhat troubled relationship with my gut.

Today I have an appointment with the much-recommended Linda Crawford, a Hale Clinic veteran who is also principal of the College of BioEnergetic Medicine and director of the London Shyness Centre. She is cheerful and charming as well as multitalented: a psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, neurofeedback practitioner, kinesiologist, treater of chronic fatigue syndrome, dietary problems and – according to a recent promotional email – able to treat the potentially fatal Lyme’s disease by homeopathy.

In an upper room that reeks of burning herbs, Linda straps a velcro band round my head. A lead runs from it to the back of her PC. She tells me to relax while she measures my body’s “stress response to certain hertz wave frequencies”. This is painless and a lot less hassle than a stool sample (I offered; it wasn’t needed). After 10 minutes or so my magnetic resonances have been fully read. Linda, with an I-told-you-so smile, prints out a sheet and hands it to me.

It is amazing. I have won the hypochondriac lottery. I’m the owner of 29 different allergies, sensitive to substances from MSG to strawberries and including such regulars in my life as milk, chicken, wheat dust, red and green peppers, cheese, peanuts, honey, lentils, brewer’s yeast, lactose, various grasses, cat hair, tobacco and “summer and fall pollens”. The fact that I believe I have no hay fever or allergy is not of importance.

I am aghast. I don’t know where to start. Cheese? I love cheese. “But your body doesn’t,” says Linda, wagging a finger.

2-Lucky-Strike–To-Keep-A-Slender-Figure-No-One-Can-Deny

Peering at her computer screen, a seer into a crystal ball, she finds other problems. “I see a lot of stress… I’m seeing insomnia, depression, constipation… Very stressed in the cranial nerve, the large and small intestine. Do you get constipated?” “No,” I say. “Hmmm… Is your memory poor?” “I’m a middle-aged man,” I say. “We tend to worry about our memories.” “That’s what I thought! I’m seeing stressed kidneys, which would affect your memory.”

This sparks my scepticism, not a common reaction at the Hale. But the diagnosis all seems a bit “You’ve met a tall dark stranger”. Ask any adult in later life if they are ever stressed or have sleeping problems, memory issues or depression and you are likely to get at least one positive. And whether it’s constipation or flatulence or irritable bowel syndrome, an astonishing 80% of adults are not happy with the workings of their bowels.

Read more here

Nathan Myhrvold – dinosaur-hunting, myth-busting physicist geek chef inventor tycoon (and lots of other things too)

3 Feb 2015: My piece for Intelligent Life – now FREE to read on moreintelligentlife.com.

COMMISSION FOR INTELLIGENT LIFE MAGAZINE JAN / FEB 2015 FeaturesNathan Myrhvold

Dr Nathan Myhrvold in his office with a prehistoric shark fossil and an ICBM nose cone

HEAD EAST FROM downtown Seattle, into the suburban technopolis that has grown up around Microsoft’s headquarters, and you will find the warehouses and towers of a company called Intellectual Ventures. A featureless block turns out to be the cave of a geek Aladdin. In the corridors are a second-world-war German cipher machine (part of the Enigma apparatus), a Japanese anti-aircraft gun and a whole host of shabby Bakelite and wooden machines that are the ancestors of the computer on your desk. The staff kitchen has a hybridised coffee machine, which remembers all the espressos it has ever made and can replicate them. At reception, a full-size T. rex roars out of the wall: it appeared in the film of “Jurassic Park”. In the boss’s corner office, when you’ve taken in the view of the snow-peaked Cascade mountains, you can gaze upon dinosaur toenails and an entire fossilised prehistoric crocodile. You may also spot a model of a Gulfstream V jet. The coffee table, part of a nuclear-reactor core, stands beside a hip-high cone tipped with dull metal and a shabby column of plastic and old circuit boards. This is the nose cone and command centre of a Titan I intercontinental ballistic missile, the tactical nuclear device that saw the United States through the early cold war: technology that worked because it was never used. The hoard is more than a monument to its owner’s bubbling curiosity. It is also a statement from a self-styled “technological optimist”, a man who, at 55, has an unshaken belief that human ingenuity will sort everything out. Read the rest here

Don’t eat crap. Three times a day.

Actually, the fruit bit isn't so great after all (Getty/Guardian)

Actually, the fruit bit isn’t so great after all (Getty/Guardian)

6 April 2014: Published in the Observer, my piece on the “5 a day” debate got an amazing 900+ comments. Some of them quite well-tempered (must be something in the diet).

 

So now it’s seven a day? Here’s my easy alternative: just stop eating rubbish

Nanny Britain’s fruit and veg regime will never work while the list includes fruitcake and sugar-laden drinks

My children are apple-cheeked and glossy-haired, strong and slender as willow wands. Not a filling in their heads, either. All the same, we had a family council on diet last week. A study by the epidemiologists of University College, London found that the five-a-day diet is inadequate. Seven or even 10 portions of fruit and veg is more like it and might reduce our chances of early death by 42% or more. Odds worth having: so I asked them to audit their intake.

My daughter confessed that while she has a banana most breaks, she didn’t like the school lunch fruit salad. She is probably getting four a day, tops. My son said he easily ate five a day. You don’t count chips, I countered, because they are made from potatoes (he did know that) and a potato, being largely starch, does not make the NHS five-a-day lists. I think his score is perhaps three – as bad as mine.

Suddenly, I saw developmental disorders all around. The failure to learn Mandarin. The trouble with long division. The severe allergic reaction to the word “walk”. Might there be scurvy lurking there too? Rickets? And how the hell were we going to get up to seven a day? That’s 2,555 portions of fruit and veg a year for each of us, and we’d be living longer, too. Should we marry the kids to greengrocers?

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For the good of animals and humans, butchers’ windows should look like this

A high Street butcher in Suffolk has been forced to take down its window display, as shoppers are said to be offended by the sight of bits of dead animals25 Feb 2014. Comment piece published in the Daily Mail (original here): A high Street butcher in Suffolk has been forced to take down its window display, as shoppers are said to be offended by the sight of bits of dead animals. Hanging pigs’ heads, limp rabbits and dead pheasants were upsetting the children.

The story is  ludicrous. But such silliness is indicative of something disturbingly wrong in our nation’s culture.

The senseless twits behind the hate campaign mounted against JBS Family Butchers of Sudbury say they are trying to protect their children from the ugliness of ‘mutilated carcasses’.

This seems implausibly puritanical. Any child with internet access and a stack of video games will have seen far worse.

These sentimental folk are part of an ever-growing collective ignorance about food and farming that is immensely damaging not only to the countryside, to farming and to animals — but also to ourselves.

Our lack of understanding of where food really comes from is helping to create mountains of food waste and a population of fat, unhealthy Britons.

We should not underestimate the scale of that ignorance.

Last year, a survey of 27,500 children by the British Nutrition Foundation found that almost a third of those aged five to 12 thought fish fingers came from chickens or pigs. One secondary pupil in five didn’t know where potatoes came from. Ten per cent thought spuds grow on trees.

If you’re shocked by those figures, consider this: 80 per cent of the secondary school pupils surveyed had been on a ‘farm visit’, presumably arranged to counter lack of understanding of food and its sources.

The senseless twits behind the hate campaign mounted against JBS Family Butchers of Sudbury say they are trying to protect their children from the ugliness of 'mutilated carcasses'

The senseless twits behind the hate campaign mounted against JBS Family Butchers of Sudbury say they are trying to protect their children from the ugliness of ‘mutilated carcasses’

Few of us today spend time thinking about where our food comes from. It arrives on supermarket shelves or over the fast-food counter without any traces of its origin.

There’s no mud on our salad or root vegetables. Most fruits are so perfect, glossy and uniform, they might have been made in a factory.

Butter comes wrapped in foil and a cut of steak or a chicken thigh is sold in a plastic tub covered with plastic film. Is it any wonder that some people, confronted with the visceral reality of  an old-fashioned butcher’s window, take fright? But there is a curious double standard at work. While we recoil at the sight of a pig’s cheeks or a pheasant, we are happy to put meats of much stranger origin in our mouths: ready meals full of chemicals, sugar and preservatives, even cheap ‘beef’ dishes that turn out to have been made from horses.

The consequences of our ignorance about food’s origins are far-reaching.

First, there is the waste. The average UK family loses £60 a month throwing away usable food — nearly a meal’s worth a day. And supermarkets reject huge amounts of food because it doesn’t look right. Retailers say they are only catering for our inability to tolerate anything not recipe-book perfect.

In a refreshing bout of honesty, Tesco admitted recently that nearly half its bread products, more than two-thirds of its bagged salads and 40 per cent of its apples are thrown away. Yet this food is good and healthy.

Neither Tesco nor any other store has admitted what weight of edible parts of animals are chucked out. Yet there is little of a farm animal, other than the hide and bones, that cannot pleasurably be eaten.

Hypocrisy

As the chef Fergus Henderson says: ‘If you’re going to kill an animal, it seems only polite to use the whole thing.’ But British butchers use less of an animal than their European counterparts — half a pig’s weight, whereas an Italian butcher will make meals out of 70 per cent of the carcass.

I’ve watched the Michelin-starred chef Andrew Fairlie preparing one of his most popular dishes — a ‘plate of pork’. It was a spread of delicious, old-fashioned treats: black pudding, smoked pork belly, a terrine made from the pig’s cheeks and tongue, and cuts from the head. ‘Any self-respecting chef should be using as much of the animal as possible,’ he said.

One of the window-display horrors that the good people of Sudbury complained about was a pig’s head. These are usually thrown away now, though for our ancestors they were a treat. Think of the ancient carol The Boar’s Head, which describes a great Christmas feast, and the many pubs named after it.

The second consequence of our ignorance concerns animal welfare. Those animal-lovers who object to seeing carcasses of birds and occasional pig parts in butchers’ windows are guilty of a grim sort of hypocrisy. Anyone who truly cared about animals would support any butcher who used whole animals.

Our squeamishness is a  driving factor in two evils: cruelty to animals and damage to the environment.

Choosy consumers who will eat only the lean meat from animals at the bargain prices we demand have driven livestock farming into a crisis. It is not possible for modern farming to keep animals in a traditional and kind way while supplying a narrow range of cheap cuts.

Ninety-five per cent of the chickens and almost all  the pigs we eat are raised in factory farms, where conditions would appal anyone with any feeling for animals.

The image of Daisy the Dairy Cow, happy in a green meadow, is becoming a myth. The new milk-factory super-farms, common in the U.S., and arriving here, house cows that never see daylight and die after just four years of production. All so we can have a cheap pint of milk.  A third of British pig farms have gone out of business in the past ten years and we now import 60 per cent of our pork from Europe, where pig welfare standards are  much lower.

The third point is that eating like this is bad for us. Rather than cooking from scratch with cuts of meat from a local, trusted butcher, we buy cheap meat from unknown sources, sold to us with added salt, preservatives, flavourings, colourings and fatty, sugary sauces. This does none of us any good at all and has helped to fuel our obesity crisis.

What’s the solution?

Sign: JBS Family Butchers has reluctantly had to remove the display after it become the target of a campaign including anonymous hate mail and people hurling abuse in the shop

Sign: JBS Family Butchers has reluctantly had to remove the display after it become the target of a campaign including anonymous hate mail and people hurling abuse in the shop

As we know, British children are toured around farms on school outings but many remain uncertain of the link between an egg and a chicken. More needs to be done.

A few years ago, concerned that our own urban children were growing up just as ignorant, my wife and I decided to keep a ‘remote pig’. So with the help of a friendly farmer just outside Edinburgh, where we live, we adopted a piglet.

We visited him fortnightly, often bringing chocolate. It was a bit like having a child at boarding school – in slightly more friendly conditions.

Fond as we were of the pig, there was no sentimentality. The kids called him Crispy Bacon. And a year later the family assembled in the butchering shed as we turned the grown-up piglet into a freezer-full of delicious roasts — and sausages and bacon.

We had worried about the emotional effect this might have on the children. But on the trip home, my five-year-old saw a field full of ewes and their young. ‘Can we get a lamb?’ she asked. ‘We could eat him!’

We were pleased — and so was the farm. It now has a wider adoption programme to help other city families be remote meat-producers. It’s fun, the meat is a bargain and we have learnt a new respect for farmers and animals.

Getting back in touch with the land and the origins of our food is good for us, for the economy and for Britain. Ignorance, of the sort shown by the silly shoppers of Sudbury, is causing untold damage to our farming traditions and the animals those shoppers purport to love.

Alex Renton is author of Planet Carnivore: Why Cheap Meat Costs The Earth (Kindle and iBook, £1.99).

Original here, with 100+ comments : http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2567186/Why-sake-animals-humans-I-wish-butchers-windows-looked-like-this.html#ixzz2uKneIDHE

Hunger, child nutrition and eight ways to feed the world

Wrote three stories for the Observer (links to each one below) this weekend around the G8 discussion on food security and child hunger. Interesting comments, particularly on the piece on the Gates Foundation’s work; boy, do some Guardian Online users hate the corporates. Often with good reason.

But when government has done so badly at tackling hunger among the poorest, we’re not in a position to refuse any ideas. Don’t you think? According to new research, 3.1 million children are dying every year, largely because of malnutrition – in a world with more food than it needs.

Here’s a good Economist note on the problems around using the likes of Nestle to tackle child hunger.

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Eight ways to solve world hunger

Millions of people are starving, despite the world producing more than enough to feed everyone. What can we do about it? Read more 

How lack of food security is failing a starving world

Starvation is a symptom of a larger problem involving land, health, power and ecological damage, say experts. Read more

Bill Gates: UK leading the way in tackling world hunger

Microsoft mogul addresses London rally to praise British efforts on fighting starvation

Read more

The future of fish farming?

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Alastair Barge with one of his (smaller) halibut

May 24, 2013: Here’s my Guardian  story on Gigha Halibut, the onshore farm producing gorgeous, chemical-free fish –  at a premium – on Scotland’s West Coast.

It got interesting reaction from the salmon-farming industry. Some of it not even rude. See below.

There are stealth bombers cruising through the huge swimming pool, flat-fish the size of doors, changing colour as you watch, from matt black to pebble-and-sand. Fish farmer Bob Wilkieson pulls one up in a net. It is 7kg of dense, thrashing muscle, utterly alien with its twisted face and deltoid wings.

These are four-year-old Atlantic halibut, and they may be the future of fish-farming: raised onshore, without chemicals and on organic feed. Unlike the flabby, slimy stuff we have come to accept as farmed salmon, this halibut is lean and far better to eat – in terms both of ethics and taste – than its wild brothers.

I went to Gigha, a little island off Kintyre, for a taste. Smoked Gigha halibut, which has kept popping up on menus since its launch 18 months ago, is worth the trip. Sliced thin, with a little lemon, its sweet, gently oaky taste (Gigha’s smoke-recipe using whisky-barrel chips was designed by the acknowledged master, Allan MacDougall, late of the Loch Fyne smokery) has high-end chefs queueing up for some of the strictly limited production.

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Is “health bread” a scam?

Bakery firms are making big promises: touting premium loaves to help with everything from dieting and flatulence to memory loss and the symptoms of menopause. I enlisted some experts and we took apart 12 supermarket loaves to ask: are health breads a big gluten-loaded con?

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(Extended version of an investigation for the Daily Mail, published 21 Feb 2013)

Once there was white bread, which was nicer, and there was brown bread, which was better for you.

Now most supermarkets stock 40 or more different breads. They’re far more than the building blocks of a sandwich: some “health breads” claim to make you fitter, slimmer, to improve your memory or even to stop you eating so much bread.

Some of the designer health breads cost five or six times what a normal loaf does. They are imported from France, Italy and Germany. Yet many of the products have little or no health value at all – and the claims may be in contravention of labeling law.

Many of these breads also taste horrible. But people don’t buy them first for flavour.

One of the brands, Burgen,  calls itself “bread shaped health food”. One of the loaves is flavoured with linseed and soya and claims to help with symptoms of the menopause through adding natural hormones to the diet.

But medical professionals told us that was “extremely unlikely”.

Burgen, which is owned by Britain’s biggest bakery company, ABF, claims a whole range of medical benefits for its loaves, but our experts poured cold water on most of the promises. We requested scientific evidence from Burgen, but it didn’t provide any.

Burgen breads cost £1.40 each in supermarkets, more than twice as much as basic bread.

There are breads that promise healthier bones and better brain function and memory, and of course, relief for a range of allergies to gluten, wheat or excess yeast. But many of the claims are misleading or unproven.

Our survey found that expensive slimmers’ bread from WeightWatchers and Nimble is almost identical to and just as fattening as budget white bread at less than a third the price.

Some of these breads address problems – like healthy bones – that hardly exist among the sort of people able to pay for designer loaves.

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Britain’s shell fish disaster

Image nephrops prawn langoustine  bycatch fish waste

The catch from an Irish Sea bottom trawler – all they were after were the little red prawns. Copyright Johnny Woodlock

Here’s the top of my Observer Magazine  story on the sad and destructive prawn and scallop trawling that’s now the west coast’s most valuable fishery. A huge and interesting response – see the comments here – from academics, fishermen and shellfish lovers… Please tell me what you think below.

The dispute is savage (between the scientists and between the fishermen). Here’s an email I got today from a casual diver I know well:

I was diving for scallops off Lochmaddy 3 years ago and an Oban Registered scallop dredger steamed full throttle towards me and my buddy just after we had surfaced – very intimidating stuff – the intention was very clear and hostile, threatening words were shouted at us. The other thing that no-one sees is the damage these dredgers do to the seabed – everything is obliterated, torn from the sand, ripped and destroyed. It takes decades for the seabed to recover.

If you’re interested, make sure and watch Hugh’s Fish Fight on Channel 4  tomorrow, 14th Feb. We need a simple, clear public campaign not to ban bottom trawling, but just set a modest limit on the inshore seabed ploughing that’s doing so much damage – 1.5km or 3km has been suggested by the Sustainable Inshore Fisheries Trust.  There’s evidence that the Welsh and Scottish governments might be movable.

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Food is too cheap and that’s damaging all of us

Editorial I wrote for the Observer

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/13/price-to-be-paid-cheap-food

Sunday 13 January 2013 The world is throwing away a shocking amount of food. A report last week claimed that at least a third of the 4 billion tonnes of food the world produces each year never gets as far as our mouths. Between 30% and 50% of food purchased in Europe and the US is thrown away. The research is questioned, not least by the supermarkets, but it does echo the results of an exercise in Britain six years ago, when researchers for the government-funded Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap) went through the nation’s rubbish bins. It concluded that we were throwing away 30% of the food we’d bought while it was still edible.

Britain – and much of the rich world – has got used to filling the fridge with what looks nice, not what it actually needs. The cost of that indulgence is, says the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, £10bn annually. Globally, the cost, in money, energy and ever-scarcer water, is unquantifiable.

Our future food security has been climbing the top 10 of current global worries. The prospect of feeding a mid-century planet of around 9 billion people looks impossible without major and potentially unattractive changes to farming and our diet. If you accept the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation’s call for production to be increased by 70% to feed the population of 2050, most of the work will be achieved just by being a bit more thrifty. All we have to do is to use better what is already there.

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Nine things to do today to solve world hunger

As requested… I went to an Action Against Hunger Love Food Give Food event this week to speak on social media and hunger: publicised as “Can bloggers end child hunger?” Which is what you might call a big ask. However… it all came out rather hopeful. Blogging won’t end hunger – but there’s an awful lot we can do. Today. Culled from all the meetings like this I’ve been at recently, here’s nine ideas, and a brief (and skippable) introduction:

There is frustration and horror that this crisis has happened again, so soon. That, despite the bloodshed and the anguish of 2008-2010 crisis nothing has happened to address our broken food economy. But there is hope. Lots of it. For one, no one thinks there isn’t enough food or any prospect of it running out, despite the pressures of changing climates. As ever, we just need to distribute it better. ( In this video, hear economist Raj Patel’s excellent explanation of how a few corporates have gained control of global food distribution.)

Corporations can be brought to order: the answer lies in political engagement. It’s still true, as the Nobel-winning economist and philosopher Amartya Sen stated 30 years ago, that there has never been a famine in a democracy. The recipe: get involved in the politics and get involved in your food. Eat better, shout louder, be happier!

  1.  Campaign to stop the speculators. Regulation of the commodity markets to stabilise food prices is crucial in the fight against hunger – some analytsts say that the bankers betting on food prices since 2008 has caused more hunger than climate change. Sign up to World Development Movement’s campaign ahead of this October’s crucial meetings of finance ministers. http://www.wdm.org.uk/action/food-speculation-photo-petition
  2. Eat less meat. Raising meat is depleting food resources and water unsustainably: 20% of greenhouse gas is the result of industrial meat production. Try holding Meatless Mondays. If you love your bacon sandwich, buy half as much bacon, but spend twice as much on it. You’ll get a tastier sandwich, and support a farmer who treats his animals more decently. More on the”flexitarian diet.
  3. Supermarkets are part of and a cause of the broken food economy, in UK and abroad. You don’t have to give them up– though it would certainly help. But, once a week, or when you can, get the groceries at an independent shop – especially one that supports local food systems – and give yourself a pat on the back.
  4. In the shops. Question what’s going on. Suspend your trust. Tell managers you don’t like excess packaging, or imports that are dubiously sourced. Bargains like BOGOFs are usually paid for by the ever-squeezed producers and farmers, not the shop. Choose food that’s local and in season.
  5. Reclaim the land. Brown-field sites all over our cities are there to be occupied, restored and planted with crops. http://www.reclaimthefields.org.uk/
  6. Reduce your food waste – in UK we throw away 30% of usable food, and that’s putting up prices across the planet. Tips here at http://www.myzerowaste.com. And support campaigns to keep food waste out of landfill:  like the movement to get spare and discarded food from commercial outlets used as pig feed again.
  7. Resist hi-tech solutions – they won’t feed the planet, most scientists agree, just corporate profits. We can keep GM out of Europe, if we fight.
  8. Get to know the food system. We need to return to an understanding of the land, rebond with the farmers and producers, and see how we can be take part in keeping the world fed. See the Soil Association’s Community Supported Agriculture site for schemes near you that are ready to welcome adults and children.
  9. Publicise and donate to Action Against Hunger’s Love Food Give Food appeal on acute child malnutrition: new methods mean children seriously ill from lack of food can be treated in their own homes. Vastly increasing the numbers who can be reached, while lowering the cost. Do share the link.

Any more? Leave a message here.

  • The nine ideas: gathered from people at events organised by World Development Movement, Action Against Hunger and the Take One Action film festival in Scotland.