Hi, cholesterol!

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So I went to my doctor’s surgery for a routine check up and it turns out I have high cholesterol. Not scarily high, as my ratio of good cholesterol to bad cholesterol is in my favour. In addition I know that neither of my parents have suffered from heart disease. However, I do need to do something about it.

To back track a little; I was rather surprised to hear that I have a potential problem, as I’m more than averagely active (I’ve written a Kindle book about the pleasures and benefits of walking) and eat healthy food (loads of veg and nearly all our meals are home cooked from fresh ingredients), so I was quite complacent about my diet. To be honest though I am aware that I am slightly overweight and I have been trying to shed a few stubborn pounds over the last few years. Chatting with the nurse, helped me to identify a few improvements I can make. Here are my thoughts. If you are in a similar position to me with your cholesterol, or are trying to find ways to help someone else, maybe my ideas will help you too.

The first thing I’ll do is to reduce the few foods I do eat quite a lot of that are high in cholesterol. Hard cheese, really. I am partial to a nice cheddar, especially when added to sauces and as a way to add a splash of flavour to other dishes. I don’t eat much cream or ice-cream, but I will try to reduce those even further, taking just a splash when I do indulge. I’ll also reduce the amount of prawns I eat, as these are higher in cholesterol that you might imagine. And I’ll avoid snacking between meals.

Will I eat products that reduce (or claim to reduce) cholesterol? Only if they are natural foods. So I’ll have porridge for breakfast more often – the oats apparently help to reduce cholesterol – but my personal choice will be not to switch to a margarine spread. I will continue to use butter, but I’ll make sure it’s in small quantities.

Otherwise I think the key to success lies in:

  • Not buying or making cakes/cookies/biscuits/desserts unless for very special occasions. If we are out and about and fancy a treat, then we can sometimes buy a slice of something not too rich and wicked to eat with our coffee. If we are invited to dinner, or have a special celebration, then dessert will be eaten, but it will not be a general daily habit. I know from bitter experience that if I have treats in the house, I am quite likely to give in and eat them, so it’s best to only have healthy options available.
  • Being aware of the content of the food I am eating. This means avoiding take-aways with heavy sauces, and dishes swimming in oil. While most oils are better than solid fats, all oils are on my list of things to eat/use in moderation.
  • Eating less red and fatty meat. I enjoy a varied diet, so I only eat red meat once or twice a week, most weeks. I can make sure I eat less meat by taking a smaller slice when we have a roast, and by including more vegeables in dishes such as stir-fries and stews. If I use no more than 0.5 kg of beef to 1.5 kg of vegetables, and take care with the flavourings and spices to ensure the dish has a good flavour, I won’t notice or care about the reduction in quantity of meat. Lentils are a good addition to dishes with beef or lamb mince. Reducing the meat by a half and substituting red lentils not only reduces the fat content of the meal but, if anything, improves the flavour.
  • Eating more vegetables. Fortunately I enjoy vegetables and so this won’t be a trial. Relying on seasonal veg, including frozen veg, shouldn’t make this too expensive an option. I am also learning to cook with pulses – lentils and such like – and these really are good value for money. I’ll be seeking out more vegetarian recipes, so that I have two or more meat free days each week.
  • Eating fewer potatoes. Not that I think they are too bad in themselves – it’s that I enjoy them most when they have cream, butter or cheese added, or are turned into chips or roasties.
  • Use lower fat cheeses where possible: cottage cheese, ricotta and mozzarella instead of hard and full fat cheeses.
  • Cook with wholegrain versions of rice, flour and pasta. This makes it more filling and better for you. I’ll also pay more attention to the recommended portion size, so I keep to the right amount.

As an example of my new approach, this very evening I am going to have spaghetti bolognese. To make it healthier, I’ll use some lentils along with the mince, mix in plenty of courgette spaghetti (made by cutting the courgettes into thin strips and then into strings) along with a small amount of pasta, and I’ll just have a little parmesan cheese on top. I’ll add some extra greens sliced up into the sauce as I have some delicious looking chard that needs to be used… Water to drink with the meal and maybe some green tea afterwards to complete the healthier approach.

Why does all this matter? There are plenty of websites with medical advice, such as this Heart Foundation of Australia page if you’d like more of the facts and figures. A side benefit for me is that through reducing the fat in my diet, I’ll also reduce the processed sugar I eat (no processed food with hidden sugar, and very few cakes, biscuits or desserts). Looking after my diet will help reduce my weight, generally improve my health and reduce the risks of diabetes and cancer, as well as heart disease.

A second side benefit is financial. Reducing the amount I eat means I can reduce the amount of food I buy. Although fresh vegetables aren’t cheap, they are cheaper than meat. Good cheeses are expensive too, so eating less meat and cheese and more seasonal vegetables and pulses will save a little money too.

During the coming months I’ll be making sure I eat wisely and keep active too, with plenty of walking, pilates and other classes. It’ll be slow progress towards where I want to be. Next summer I’ll have my blood cholesterol retested, and if I have adjusted my diet enough I’ll be able to continue my healthier life style without resorting to statins.

We shall see, and I will keep you posted!

Putting your best foot forward. How are your New Near Resolutions going?

Do you manage to stick to your resolutions? It seems that most people just can’t do it. They know what they should do, right enough (lose weight, get fitter, spend less, be tidier etc) but it’s just too difficult to see it through.

Well, there’s a simple trick to achieving what you want to achieve, and that is to find the fun in it. Let me explain.

walkingfoot

Let’s take getting fitter as an exampler. It’s mid-January, so the annual peak in gym membership applications is here. There will be lots of new faces signing up for classes or inductions to the gym to start the process of losing weight and toning up. How many of these people will still be regularly training in February? Not so many, I’d be prepared to bet. The problem is that unless you are fairly fit to start with going to the gym, or an energetic Zumba or dance class, it’s going to be too hard to be fun. And if things aren’t fun, it’s very hard to stick to them. At the slightest excuse (it’s pouring with rain: my kit’s in the wash…) it’s too easy to give up. But if things are fun, you do them whatever the inconvenience. Shopping? Going to the pub? Many people don’t have to be asked twice!

I’ve written a short Kindle book to explain my thinking about getting fit through walking, and I’m sure that this is a really good way for most people to get started.

You see, establishing the habit of walking doesn’t need too much time or special equipment. Most people can easily fit some walking into their normal day, either walking to work, or walking the children to school, or walking the dog or going to the library. If you choose your walks carefully and have the right mental approach you can easily find that walking is fun. The more pleasure you find in walking, the more you want to do it, and the fitter you become. The key is enjoying the place you are walking; taking notice or and an interest in what is around you. If you can manage a fast walk for 30 minutes or more, preferably including some hill work, then you are probably fit enough to enjoy going to the gym or starting an energetic class. Read more in my book. A beginner’s guide to walking for pleasure   ASIN B00L3D7ENY.

The same principles apply to other areas of life. To take one more example, it’s easier to eat better and spend less on food if you learn to enjoy cooking. It is fun to cook if you approach it with the right positive attitude; starting with something quite easy and building up new techniques as you gain confidence. I’ve enjoyed cooking for years, but am still working through some techniques that are new to me – making my own pasta for example, and getting good at making bread by hand. (My rye and wheat loaf with caraway seeds and ale was a masterpiece!) Again, it’s about enjoying learning new skills and the results of your work.

So, don’t set yourself up to fail by setting too big a challenge for yourself. Start small-ish, but keep challenging yourself. Above all, find a way to make what you want a pleasure, by focusing on the positives, and you’ll find it much easier to get where you want to be.

Taking the pressure out of everyday meals

I love food and relaxing over a good meal but I do worry about food related things too: how much cooking fuel costs, how sustainable the food I eat is, how I can eat well on a budget.

Soup

If that makes me sound neurotic, I’d rather say that I prefer to think about the best way to do things, rather than putting my head in the sand and carrying on in the way I always have. And the messages about thinking about what and how we eat are really stacking up.

  • Obesity in the west is still a growing problem, while people are starving all over the world. I read that in the UK weight and diet related illnesses such as diabetes are the biggest drain on the health service. 
  • In the UK we throw away around 30% of all food produced – I haven’t seen the current figures, but I am pretty sure we haven’t turned things around significantly in the last couple of years. And this is at a time when most people are finding the cost of living is rising, and income is at best static.
  • Fuel prices are gong up year on year, and likely to continue to do so.
  • The amount of meat eaten in the west per person is unsustainable – as summarised on the BBC Horizon programme last week. Plus eating more than a very small amount of (red) meat each day leads to health issues too – fat around your internal organs for one. Part one of Horizon focused on the amounts of meat we can healthily eat.

So in our house we’re reviewing our food and cooking choices to see if we can manage our budget better, eat more sustainably and generally feel we have less to worry about. This is what we’ve done so far:

  • We’re reducing the size of the meals we eat – and this is easier if you eat food like stir fries and shepherd’s pie. You just have a modest portion to begin with, eat slowly and enjoy, and then think carefully about whether you really need a second helping. This ties in well with our efforts to manage our weight through exercise.
  • We make truly delicious vegetable soups from the rather scrawny looking items left in the vegetable rack and fridge on a Saturday, sometimes supplemented by anything seasonal and good value from a shop. You can easily make six servings for just a couple of pounds, and we freeze what we don’t eat to have for lunches later. 
  • We’re trying out meat free days, rediscovering things like jacket potatoes and salads. We’re finding that if they are well done they are delicious. Vegetarian recipes from around the world are well worth checking out.
  • We’re eating more dishes that combine small amounts of meat with terrific vegetables to make food that doesn’t feel meat free – stir fries with a sprinkling of pork, or chicken, or prawns, for example. Shepherd’s/cottage pies with lots of veg in the mix to make the meat go further. We’re slowly learning how to use lentils and pulses well – so they add to the meal rather than dominating it.
  • We’re careful about when we buy meat – we cook a roast on the days when we have company, or know we will use it all through the following days, or have the time to cook something from the leftovers and put a dish in the freezer. Never throw away meat, and only throw away vegetables if you really have to.
  • We check through the freezer regularly to make sure we eat the things we have put in there, rather than having a yearly (or less frequent) sort out, when spoiled food ends up in the bin.

We’ve also bought a pressure cooker, and think this will work well for us.

pressure cooker

It’s a bit of an investment – the one we bought cost close to £100, but it reduces the cooking time by up to 60%. This means it also reduces the amount we spend on fuel by 60%, and this should come into its own when we get to the colder weather and stews becoming appealing again. I wonder how long it will be before we have saved £100 in gas bills? Stews are easy to cook in the pressure cooker, and they are another great way to use cheaper cuts of meat, and to increase the veg: meat ratio without anyone noticing. We’ve also invested in a couple of recipe books focusing on stews from around the world, so the choice is much more exciting than the word sounds. The plan is to cook up a good quantity and freeze enough for a couple of meals. Then we’ll only need to reheat to enjoy – saving time and minimising energy costs.

Stew really is a word that needs reinventing. Suggestions anyone?

I remember pressure cookers from the old days – terrifying things hissing away threateningly on the cooker. I always felt that the cook was taking their lives in their hands every time they turned the thing on. Not so with the modern incarnations, which are quiet and feel much safer – although you do of course have to read and follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully, and there is a little trial and error initially in getting the timings right, as you get to know the equipment. 

We had considered getting a slow cooker for many of the same reasons, but decided this wouldn’t work for us. We are not quite organised enough to get everything we need ready for a meal long enough in advance of wanting to eat. The pressure cooker means we can be spontaneous and cook something pretty quickly when we are ready to eat. 

I haven’t unpicked the costs involved in all these decisions, as I haven’t been using the pressure cooker for very long. My feeling is that we are managing to reduce our basic food bills, so it is less of a burden to afford celebration meals for a treat. We shall see how all this works out, but it’s definitely food for thought!

 

 

What makes your day?

Isn’t life sweet when you’re a simple soul? These are some of the little things that have really pleased me in the last few days.

1. Torrential rain.

Rain

Photographed from our window, it’s a sensory experience: the sound, the way the temperature drops and the change it the light. I love walking in a downpour too, but only if I’m on my way home to a shower and dry clothes!

2. Practically perfect pizza.

pizza

Here it is, almost ready. Just a bit more browning on top and crisping up underneath. Especially pleasing as I made the dough by hand, and it was my most successful yet. Light and fluffy inside, crispy on the crust. Maybe a touch more salt for perfection. The garlic butter and parmesan rolls I made with the left over dough were fab too.

3. Bees!

lavender bees

Just love them! So single minded, and they never bother you if you don’t bother them. I was pleased with the photo too, as a quick snap, and just a bit blurry as they can’t be persuaded to sit still and pose.

4. A perfect English summer day.

myddleton house

We were at Myddleton House in Enfield (North London). A great place for people who like plants, kitchen gardens, old walls and stone work and lovely sunny days. I could have pointed the camera almost anywhere and liked the results. And …

5 Grass snakes

grass snake

This one was hunting at Myddleton House. We’d just walked past a pond, and I’d said the conditions were great for snake spotting – and there he (she) was! Head down a hole, and plainly engaged in swallowing something. After several minutes he (she) popped his (her) head out, with just the back legs of a frog still moving a little and sticking out between his (her) jaws. But the speed as he (she, but I’m getting bored with this now!) shot away through the plants and into a hollow log had to be seen to be believed. Poor frog, but what a treat to see. We felt just a little bit like David Attenborough as we snapped away.

What’s your top five from the last three or four days?