Monday, 29 June 2015

On the benefits of exercise

The likelihood of me dropping any weight this week is pretty low.  It's been a hectic week (we're moving house soon – if you've been through this pain, then you will understand) so food has very much been a secondary consideration.  In fact, we're having to work through the food left in the kitchen to avoid having to drag it to a different city.  Makes for some bizarre dinner combinations.

I've still tried to keep an eye on my exercise though, but there is no doubt that exercise alone is just not enough to lose weight.  A good workout can burn a few hundred calories but, as you learn quickly when you are on a diet, a few hundred calories is not that much food at all.  Some people take the approach that exercise isn't really worth the effort then.  This fails to take into account the other benefits of keeping fit.  It improves your overall health; it makes you feel better physically and mentally; it helps you sleep.  Increased muscle mass can increase metabolism too, which does help with the burning of calories.  Perhaps most significant is the growing bank of evidence showing just how much damage sitting down does to our health. Eating well will cause quicker weight loss than exercise, but you really need both for a healthy body and mind.

On that note, I've been thinking about the type of exercise I've been doing since starting this diet and what has worked best for me.  Here is my top 5:

5) Spinning.  This was very fashionable for a while, and I can see why.  The sessions are only about forty minutes long, burn a load of calories, and can be adapted for people at all levels of fitness. However, it was about the hardest exercise I've ever done.  I felt awful by the end and could barely keep up with the class.  Maybe I was arrogant at the start, trying to match the resistance levels of the more experienced people around me, but I was close to done after 25 minutes.  And I did not go back.  So there is definitely a value to these classes but it was not for me.  Julie Murray has collected some videos on Pinterest if you want to get a feel for it.

4) Kettlercise.  Kettlercise is an exercise class that uses kettlebells.  I had my first go at this only yesterday but I think I could really get hooked. My arms felt a bit limp afterwards and my abs are really sore today, but it was clearly a solid and effective workout in just half an hour.  As with the spinning, it is hard work for the beginner.  Some of the moves require more coordination than I have at 9 a.m. on a Sunday and I just cannot do burpees.  I did taekwondo for a couple of years when I was a teenager and burpees became my biggest nemesis.  You cannot ask me to combine burpees with weights training, at least not without the expectation of serious injury/embarrassment. However, I modified the exercise to make it work for me and came away pleased with my first effort.  Any resistance training is particularly good for those trying to lose weight, so I would definitely recommend giving this a go.


3) The gym.  A general session in the gym is still one of my preferred ways to exercise.  With the combination of resistance and cardio equipment, you can change up your routine as much as you want or need to.  You can focus on arms one day, legs the next, cardio after that, and so on, ensuring that your whole body is getting in on the action.  I kickstarted my weight loss by getting a personalised workout plan (a free part of my membership, thankfully, but probably worth paying for if you're serious about your fitness) and it gave me focus and made it easier to judge how much progress I was making.  My only issue with the gym is that it can be easy to coast.  At least with a class you have someone pushing you and the pressure of other people exercising around you.  In the gym, there is more anonymity and less accountability.  The best way to ensure you're exercising well is to plan your session before you go: that way, you know what you're working towards and you're less likely to try and fob yourself off.

2) Swimming.  I used to swim a lot but, like a lot of people, I felt awkward about going when I was at my heaviest.  That's stupid.  For a start, no one cares what you look like at the swimming pool. Everyone else is as acutely aware of their cellulite as you are of your own, so they're not looking to judge.  Secondly, swimming is amazing for those looking to lose weight, especially if you have issues with your joints.  The water carries much of the weight, making it low impact but highly effective as a cardio workout.  I try to knock out a kilometre when I go now, usually favouring breaststroke, but there are some octogenarians who do about twice as much as me in the same length of time.  It's a suitable exercise for most people and another great full-body workout.  The Speedo website is worth a look if you want to learn more about technique and the benefits of swimming.


1) Walking.  This is where I've done the most work over recent months.  I don't drive so I walk an awful lot anyway, but keeping an eye on your step count and trying to incorporate a weekly long walk outdoors into your routine is a fantastic, low stress way to exercise.  You can do it with friends, family and/or pets, and can make it part of a wider activity like going for a picnic or something. Out of all of the types of exercise out there, it is the easiest one to factor into your daily life and the one that feels the least like work.  Obviously, ambling around in your PJs doesn't really count, so try to walk quickly enough to be a little bit out of breath.  You want to be able to keep up a conversation but there needs to be some effort too. 10,000 steps a day is the recommended amount for maintaining health; if you can get closer to 14-15,000, you're well on the way to better health.

Of course, there are lots of other exercises you could try, but this is what seems to be working for me at the moment.  I'm pretty sure the physical effort of moving house is also going to help, but the calorie burn is a bit harder to quantify there.

So, with no expectation of anything at all, let's get on those scales.

As of 29 June 2015, I weigh 11 stone (69.9 kg).

Ooh, better than expected!  And I'm well on course to be under 11 stone for my first July weigh-in.  Must be those kettlebells!

Friday, 26 June 2015

Justine Pattison's Chilli Beef Stir-Fry

OCD Panic Rating: 2/5
Handwashes: 4

I promised that I would make something from this book, originally planning to try the Caribbean lamb stew.  However, with my husband away on business, I wanted something that was easier to cook for one.  It was also way too hot yesterday to make something that involves lots of ingredients and long hours in the oven.  By contrast, this stir-fry takes about fifteen minutes from beginning to end and involves buying little more than some beef.  Sold.

When hubby makes this, he tends to do it with rice, but I hate cooking rice.  It just congeals into a sticky mess or overflows and leaves the top of the oven covered in gloop.  Noodles always make a fantastic accompaniment to a stir-fry, are difficult to ruin, and I have a load in the cupboard.  It was an easy decision.  

The key to this recipe is definitely preparing everything in advance.  Once you've started cooking,  the meal is ready to go within about ten minutes, so you just don't have time to start washing and chopping.  I boiled the kettle to have the noodle water ready, chopped the veg and put together the sauce before even turning on the hob.  I don't have a massive amount of work surface space in my kitchen but I managed to Tetris it in such a way as to make it work.  (The handwashes came from handling the beef, by the way – I needed to use half in the recipe and put half in the freezer, and am apparently incapable of doing this without utter stress)

The blur of ten minute activity was roughly: cook the beef, put to one side, cook the pepper, add the garlic and bits, put the noodles on, add the beef and sauce into the pan, cook until sticky and yum.  I mixed it together until it looked like this:



The noodles refused to unclump but I was ok with that.  And it tasted really good.  Very hot though.  The sauce has mirin, soy sauce, chilli flakes, white wine vinegar and ketchup and is surprisingly fiery but with a satisfying sweetness to it.  I think the way the sauce reduces down and clings to the meat helps to intensify the flavour.  With the noodles, the whole meal comes to about 350-400 calories max, making it a fantastic alternative to a takeaway stir-fry.  I didn't add as much veg as I could've done, but it could be bulked out without adding too many calories with some slivers of carrot, broccoli, or beansprouts.  I thought I loved this cookery book before; now I know I do.

Key Points:
  • Prepare in advance.  Really you should prepare your ingredients in advance of cooking any recipe but it is especially important with these speedy eats.  
  • Leave the preprepared sauces at the supermarket.  The sauce with this was much tastier and deeper than any supermarket sauce you could buy, and it was also much healthier.  Add the core Asian ingredients (mirin, fish sauce, soy sauce, etc.) to your cupboard staples and you'll wonder how you ever did without them.
Win Rating: 5/5. 

Monday, 22 June 2015

Moderation is boring...but effective

I've been pretty good this week.  Good step count, reasonable gym time and, crucially, plenty of calories saved each day.  Has it worked?

As of 22 June 2015, I weigh 11 stone 1 (70.3 kg).

It was only ever going to be a minor change, but this loss of two pounds puts me back to where I was before I gained last week.  Gotta be happy with that and it's certainly a step back in the right direction.  I'm much more comfortable with my weight now so I don't particularly want to lose more than 1-2 pounds in a week.  It just makes it too easy to put it back on.

Things I'm pleased with: 1) discovering boiled eggs with asparagus for breakfast; 2) a 1600-calorie limit still factors in enough room for occasional cake; 3) more home cooking.

Things I'm less pleased with: 1) the sugar cravings have come back with a vengeance; 2) the 1600-calorie limit actually makes it difficult to build up much of a calorie deficit; 3) you have to exercise waaay long to burn anything off.

The Leggera Sloppy Giuseppe
The Leggera Sloppy Giuseppe
Ultimately, there's no novelty to being on a diet anymore and it's getting hard work so I'm moaning.  Apologies - it really is pathetic.

I'll end on a positive though.  I had to attend a work lunch at a Pizza Express restaurant and thought that I was inevitably going to blow my diet for the day.  Turns out that their leggera options are great for eating out guilt-free.  I had a leggera Sloppy Giuseppe, which is the Sloppy Giuseppe topping on a thin base with a hole in the centre filled with salad.  Factor in a tasty raspberry sorbet for about 100 calories and I came away having eaten two courses for about 650 calories max.  The service was appallingly slow, for the sake of honesty, but it's worth a look if you want to eat out less sinfully.

I've got plenty of time to drop the two pounds needed to get properly under 11 stone.  I've had to be a bit of a food bore to get back to this point but I'm definitely back on track.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Hairy Bikers' Tuna Penne Bake

OCD Panic Rating: 2/5
Handwashes: 3

One of the foundations of the Hairy Bikers' Diet Club is limiting the easy calories that come with large portions of rice, pasta, potatoes and the like. As someone who would happily eat pasta morning, noon and night without complaint, such limited portions have left me with a bit of a craving, so this recipe really leapt out at me. Containing more calories than many of my recent dinners (yes, I'm being extra good again), the thought of some pasta indulgence made it seem worth it.

The preparation was pretty easy. Cook some pasta, chop some veg for a tomato-based sauce, throw in some tuna and olives for flavour, and bung in the oven with a smattering of low-fat cheese. Simple.

And there weren't many problems. Most of the handwashes came from handling the mushrooms. They are number five on my list of horror foods after all. Cleaning the dirt off them set my teeth on edge, but I felt better knowing that they were to be baked for fifteen minutes. Also had a minor panic when I thought that the baking tin was too small to hold the mixture I was pouring at unstoppable speed. It just about fit, although there was definitely some escaped penne to mop up afterwards.

Coming out of the oven, it looked appetising-ish:


The low-fat cheese doesn't melt in the same satisfying way as regular cheese but it still looked like a good meal when served up with some salad:


So many carbs!

Because it has more veg and less cheese than your average pasta bake, it doesn't have quite the oozy joy of the traditional version. But for someone who's been stingy with carbs lately, just being faced with a plateful of pasta was happiness enough. It'll never replace the high-cal recipe. However, for those minding their meals, it makes a reasonable replacement.

Key Points:
  • Check the size of your baking tin before getting into a panic.
  • Most low-cal versions of things are as good as the original.  This does not hold true for cheese.

Win Rating: 4/5.

Monday, 15 June 2015

The inevitable has happened...

...As of 15 June 2015, I weigh 11 stone 3 (71.8 kg).

That's an increase of 2 pounds.

It would be stupid to be surprised.  I spent two days this week living it up in Manchester, had a massive takeaway to celebrate my husband coming back from a conference, then ate a load of free yummies at the BBC Good Food Show.  I was very, very naughty.

But I hold my hands up and acknowledge my failures and am resolved to still be under 11 stone by the end of the month.  The stupid thing is that I've been eating loads despite the fact it's made me feel worse.  After a couple of months with no IBS symptoms, I've had problems again this week.  My skin's not been great.  I've felt more sluggish and have certainly struggled more with my workouts than previously.  I've even been continuing to eat when I've been full, the sort of compulsive eating that I'd hoped was behind me.

It's an important reminder that food issues don't just go away; they have to be continuously guarded against.   If, by the end of the week, I'm back to 11 stone 1 then it will show that a bad week doesn't have to be the death of your diet.  "Everything in moderation, including moderation" is not a bad mantra to live by.  It means that you don't have to always deny yourself life's pleasures, as long as you don't let them become a burden on your health.

 So this week's plan is simple: more cooking and exercise, and less eating out. Yep, simple...

Saturday, 13 June 2015

The BBC Good Food Show Summer

I went to the winter version of the BBC Good Food Show last year on something of a whim; when they advertised tickets for the summer show just a few weeks later, I bought tickets straight away.  I had the best time sampling food, watching James Martin in the Supertheatre, buying all the chocolate.  I just couldn't wait to do it all again.

Today was the big day, and it was worth the wait, although it was not as impressive a show as the November one had been.  I think this might be a seasonal issue. With the winter show, there are a lot of confectioners and such who obviously want to tap into the Christmas market.  As a summer show, there were far fewer sweet or novelty things on offer, with more space given over to infused oils, spice stalls, and wine.  This summer show was also paired with the BBC's big gardening event, so there was some space given over to flowery bits and pieces.  This was included in the ticket price (and I had a bit of a look around simply because my mum wanted to) but it meant that there was slightly less room for food than there seemed to be in November.  

But it was still well worth the effort.  I could have fed myself happily on little morsels of bread dipped in various infused oils alone.  Rapeseed oil seems to be the big thing, to the point that James Martin used it in his show in the Supertheatre, and there were some with dill, rosemary and chilli that were delicious.  I did find a stall where I was going to make some purchases at the end of the day, then I lost the stall and ended up not buying any oil.  Such is life.

Fudge was the confection of choice at the show.  There were some selling conventional flavours in blocks; others had it pre-boxed up and ready to go; there was even alcoholic fudge in wine and beer glasses, like this one from The Original Chocolate Dream Co.:


I bought it for my husband as a gift, but I have a feeling it could by the sickliest thing ever.  (Side bar: he says it's quite nice actually)

I didn't buy a huge amount in the end, although I did come home with an onion bhajee scotch egg (sorry, I didn't write down who from - I was in a frenzy of gluttony by this point) and some of the nicest macaroons ever:



The products from this stall were all gluten-free as well, so definitely worth a look if you have a wheat intolerance.  

One of my favourite things about these shows are the freebies.  Here's a selection of bits and pieces I accumulated on my travels (editor's note: some of this came out of the Good Food Show goody bag that costs £4, but you make the money back on the magazines alone):


The jar of spice-looking stuff is actually umami seasoning, which I was really pleased to pick up.  There was a stall selling umami dressing and it was, honest to God, one of the worst things I've ever put in my mouth.  Sorry guys, but no.  The seasoning, however, should add meaty, savoury depth to dishes without making my tongue sad.  Another megawin was an entire packet of Lotus biscuits (those little ones you often get with a cup of coffee).  I'm so addicted to these things that I fear they won't last the weekend.

At the end of the day, you can pick up another goody bag, free this time:



Not quite the haul that I got last time but, as a freebie, I'm certainly not going to complain.

Another highlight was seeing a demo from Michael Caines, who comes across as a thoroughly nice chap and an utter workaholic.  How he has time to run a kitchen, do all his charity work, and cook for the Williams team (plus family, other projects, etc.) is utterly beyond me.  I've seen him on TV a few times but had never realised that one of his hands is a prosthetic.  To see a man skin and cut a fillet of salmon, chop and prepare a salad, and put together a lovely balsamic dressing all one-handed really did put my knife skills and general kitchen competency to shame.  After the butter-drenched heart attack served up by James Martin, it was also nice to see a chef put together something that looked so healthy and fresh.  I'm gonna have to search out some of his recipes to see if he is my new chef crush.

Overall, it was a great day out and I have come back with a happy tummy and a few things that I look forward to trying.  I'm glad that I've got tickets to the Christmas show as it perhaps has a better range of stalls and more naughty nibbles than this more restrained summer variation, but I would not want to dissuade anyone from having a look around.  The ticket that I had wasn't even £15, so you've made your money back just by eating free samples.

But maybe steer clear of the umami...

Monday, 8 June 2015

Another week, another pound lost

I know I seem to be claiming more bad food days than good at the moment but the weight still keeps dropping off.

As of Monday June 8th, I weigh 11 stone 1 (70.3 kg).

According to my food diary, I've eaten pretty much exactly the same number of calories as I have burnt, so the weight loss comes, once again, from the unfortunate source of being ill.  Honestly, aside from working in a school or hospital, there can't be many places worse than a public library for the spread of illness, particularly with the kind of building mine is housed in.  A gastric bug has been doing the rounds, really hitting a few of my colleagues.  Thankfully, I seem to have a milder version, where food is passing through me incredibly quickly but without as much of the fever and pain.  I had 24 hours where it was really bad, but it's been more of an inconvenience otherwise.

Aside from that, my week has gone how I expected.  I've done a decent amount of resistance work, which is building up my muscle and increasing my metabolism.  I'm cooking for one for a week which has meant more naughty meals out, but I'm on holiday from work and consider it a reasonable expense, both financially and, um, calorifically.

This week could be a struggle.  A couple of days away from home and a trip to the BBC Good Food Show.  I'll be doing well to break even.  I'm so much happier with how I look and feel (aside from the gastric bug, obvs) that I can cope with a couple of naughty weeks.  I know that it won't be difficult for me to get back on track.

Under 11 stone by the end of June?  That's my new goal.  It would have been unthinkable at the start of the year yet seems such a modest target now.  It really doesn't have to take much to change.

Friday, 5 June 2015

Nigella's Banana Butterscotch Muffins

OCD Panic Rating: 1/5
Handwashes: 2

As has been blatantly obvious recently, I've been on a diet and it's been working.  However, my sweet tooth is still very much in evidence and I have missed the experience of baking at the weekend.  Despite my OCD, I find it fun and relaxing.  I can't really do anything when I bake apart from maybe listen to music.  If I'm thinking about other things, looking ahead to work or play, I make silly mistakes, so it's a time when I can detach a little bit from the rest of the world.

I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands.  On Sunday, I was seeing some friends at the pub quiz and was then meeting up with my Dad the next day.  This meant I could bake, giving a few treats to friends and family to stop me munching my way through the entire batch of whatever sweet loveliness I made.  Cunning plan in place, I had a flick through a few books before settling on Nigella's muffin recipe from Nigella Express.

Now, I've had some gripes with Nigella's style of writing.  Anyone who watches The Great British Bake-Off will know that the technical challenge involves following a recipe with some crucial information missing, and Nigella's recipes can feel that way.  In this one, it just said to use 'flour'.  Um, ok, but which type?  I've done enough baking to know that the wrong kind of flour can cause all sorts of problems with cooking times, texture and flavour.  A bit of online searching was unhelpful: most websites said to use self-raising, but several famous bakeries said to use plain.  As there was bicarb and baking powder in the recipe, I went for plain, but not without fears of flat and stodgy muffins. (Amusingly, the online version of the recipe specifies plain flour - clearly I'm not the only one who queried this)

The rest of the recipe was easier to understand.  The fat comes from vegetable oil instead of butter, with banana to add moisture and flavour.  Butterscotch pieces are folded into the mixture at the end, which is then put into the cases and cooked for twenty minutes in a preheated oven.  I was still mulling over the flour issue when it came to combining the ingredients and managed to do it backwards, so I was convinced that  it was all going to be a disaster.  It wasn't.  They came out looking like muffins:




This one was lopsided.  #NoFilters, am I right?
The texture was not too close and had the right level of moisture, not too oily despite the choice of fat.  The banana flavour was stronger than the butterscotch but banana muffins are boss anyway.  The muffins got good reviews from friends and family, which was a bonus.  It's not the best muffin recipe I've ever used but it produces good results without any particularly special ingredients.  I'm always happy to find another recipe to get rid of overripe bananas too.

Key Points:

  • Pick your cookbooks with care.  When you read a recipe, you don't particularly want to have to Google it to work out exactly what it needs.
  • Concentrate.  The muffins worked despite my lack of care; plenty of bakes won't.

Win Rating: 4/5.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Normal life resumes

After 6 weeks of attempting a 1200-calorie-a-day diet, being on 1600 makes it seem like the world is a friendlier place.  I've had a couple of 1300 days and a couple of 1800 days, but it averages out ok and feels like a sustainable and pleasant way to live.  I can legitimately snack again!

And it still seems to be doing the trick:

As of 1st June, I weigh 11 stone 2 (70.8 kgs).

Woo!  I'm still losing despite having consumed an entire Papa John's medium pizza (American Hot - it was delicious).  Part of this is the cumulative effect of dieting: I only lost a pound last week so I probably had a little bit of an extra drop owing to me.  Part of it was certainly exercise: three workouts, one long walk and about 10,000 steps a day.  I did cook too, although I'm not sure how much butterscotch muffins count (recipe review to follow).

I've got a bit lazy with breakfast, which is something I need to keep an eye on.  Also, just because I've got room in my diet for cake again does not mean that I am obliged to eat it.  This is not a lesson I've learnt easily.

However, my main challenge is that I'll be cooking for one a lot over the next couple of weeks.  The temptation to eat out or rely on convenience foods will be hard to resist so I need to make a good meal plan and stick to it.  It's been a while since cooking fell solely to me, so I'm a little anxious.  It'll be an opportunity for me to really face up to my food OCD though, so challenge accepted.

Other than that, I'm pleased with the progress I'm making and confident that I can keep it going.  Everything's coming up Milhouse!