I’ve always been overweight. Although I don’t agree with how the “body mass index” works, because it takes no account of the shape or build of a person’s body, I’ve known for a long time I should drop a few pounds. But knowing isn’t doing. For years I half-heartedly tried to cut down on calories and failed to halt my ever-expanding waistline.
Earlier this year my attitude changed. After New Years’ it suddenly dawned on me I’d be sixty next birthday. I’m ten years older than Nigel Farage, for Christ’s sake! Shortly after this revelation sank in, I found myself halfway up the escalator at London Bridge rail station and I had to stop to take a breather. I was out of breath, dizzy, with slight pains in my chest. Other, less dramatic incidents followed, and I decided the time had come for me to tackle my excess weight. The weighing machine in the bathroom couldn’t cope with all my pounds, and at my peak I tipped in at almost one stone (14 lbs).
Around the same time, I read a blurb written by author Jon Ronson for a book by William Leith called The Hungry Years: Confessions of a Food Addict. Ronson blurbed: “This hilarious, self-lacerating memoir of a compulsive eater is a superb book … this is his crowning achievement.” I waddled straight over to the iMac and bought it.
Before Leith’s book arrived, I only had a vague idea about how obesity worked. As far as I could tell, the process of losing weight involved eating less and exercising more. The comedian Phill Jupitus summed it up when he said: “You’ve got to shit more than you eat.”
The Hungry Years is not a manual about how to lose weight. It’s more a memoir of someone addicted to food. Leith was putting on weight and simultaneously interviewing people like Dr Robert Atkins for magazine and newspaper articles. He binged on toast, spooned coffee-creamer straight into his mouth, and couldn’t pass a fast food restaurant without ordering fries.
Although I was getting tired of (and disturbed by) his accounts of repeated binges and plummeting self-esteem, I laughed as much as I squirmed. Slowly I began to realise that “Leith the Eater” was an extreme, slightly younger (isn’t everyone?), version of me. He was eventually lured to the Atkins low-carb diet and was amazed to find himself losing weight. While the pounds dropped off him, he looked into the health issues associated with a high protein diet. That was starting to look scary, too.
After reading The Hungry Years, I sat down and had a quick think. Fries were definitely out, as was toast and coffee creamer. I decided to lower my intake of processed carbohydrates and basically ignore the other stuff associated with Atkins. For example, I always start the day with an apple. I’ve done so since an Indian guru recommended it forty years ago. An apple a day may not always keep the doctor away but I’ve never spent a night in hospital or had major surgery, so it seems to work for me. Apples before breakfast are a no-no with Atkins because of the natural sugars they contain. I prefer to think of the enzymes doing me good.
After the apple, I’d have a “proper” breakfast, only without carbs. Because I’m a pescetarian, there’d be no bacon or meaty sausage, instead I’d lightly fry up the Quorn equivalent in a little olive oil, with an egg, mushrooms, and/or tomatoes. Or I might have scrambled eggs with cheese. Because there’d be no toast for it to sit on, I’d scramble two eggs instead of one. Sometimes I’d treat myself to a stinky kipper or two. All washed down with mugs of green tea.
That’d keep me going until lunchtime. I deliberately never worry about calories. My lunch might be a bag of raw almonds or cashew nuts (over 1,000 calories in itself!) or more likely a salad of home-made hummus with raw carrot, tomatoes, cucumber, olives and green salad. Quorn make some yummy Mini Savoury Eggs, which are like scotch eggs but surrounded in Quorn. They’re almost pure protein and cheap: £1.20-£1.50 for 12. Believe me, a couple of those babies, sliced in half and spread with English mustard, make a good salad even better.
For my final meal of the day, I’d stay pretty normal. Curry with rice, pasta, jacket potatoes, risotto, whatever. I’d always try and use wholegrain rice or pasta whenever possible, but aside from that, the evening meal would be pretty much what I’d have eaten before.
To complement the new diet I decided to walk more. Nothing too dramatic, just making myself aware that a shortish walk was better than a short bus journey. After four days I began to notice the difference. I’d already dropped a couple of pounds and it was staying dropped. After a month I was weighing in at zero (19 stone in real terms), and now, two months down the line, I weigh 18 stone 4lbs (256 lbs). I’ve lost a lot of weight, but I don’t feel like I’ve been dieting. I’m not tired. In fact, I feel about ten years younger; possibly even younger than Nigel “Beer and Bensons” Farage. I enjoy my walks and I’ve not felt tired or dizzy after “exercising” since all this began.
I occasionally eat a slice of cake or a chocolate bar, but not every day. As far as I can tell, these divergences have not had any noticeable effect on my weight. I think the secret is not to be obsessive and not to binge. I now realise that sandwiches and pasta for lunch kept my weight on. If I’m out and I want a cheap, tasty lunch, I buy a packed salad and a small container of supermarket hummus or a dollop of cottage cheese, mix them up with a generous splash of chilli sauce and nosh the lot. A big, filling lunch and it costs around £3.
Strangely, I don’t look a lot different to how I did when I was nearly two stone (28 lbs) heavier. I suppose it’s a question of relativity. I can feel the difference, I’m not carrying the equivalent of a sack of spuds around with me any more, my feet are half a size smaller, and my bum has definitely shrunk – which means I probably am half-assed, as many people suspected. This just tells me it wouldn’t hurt for me to lose some more weight. My new target is now 16 stone (224 lbs). Let’s see how that looks.
My Healthy Hummus Recipe
I started making my own hummus, not because it was cheaper – it costs about the same – but because it tastes better and contains higher quality ingredients than the shop-bought stuff. Here’s the recipe I think I’ve almost perfected:
I start with a food processor into which I tip a generous measure of tahini (around 150 grams), two raw chopped garlic cloves, a chopped chilli (red or green) and the juice of one lemon. I drain a large 454g can (or two small cans) of cooked chickpeas and add them, together with a good glug of olive oil (not extra virgin, that can be too over-powering). I then replace the lid and start the machine.
It’ll be slow at first and the hummus will look lumpy and plaster-like: but don’t worry. Pour in a tablespoon of cold water, then a tablespoon of olive oil (you can use extra virgin at this stage), and alternate these until suddenly, the magic happens. The humus will come alive and start to turn itself from chopped chickpeas and stuff into a smooth paste. When you like the consistency, stop adding liquid, turn off the machine and taste. Add salt, ground pepper and maybe more lemon juice until you’re happy.
Turks and Greeks like their hummus a little rough and grainy. Palestinians and Israelis prefer it smoother and slightly more pungent; me too. I also add more chopped chillies once the mixing is over. I always buy Middle Eastern tahini (ground sesame seeds) in the brown plastic containers when I can get it. Otherwise, the Greek/ Turkish version is almost as good, if a little more pricey.
Enjoy your hummus, whether you want to lose weight or not.
Up until recently, I used to finish with a YouTube video of William Leith talking about his addiction to food. It was very interesting, but since I posted it, William seems to have wiped the internet of all trace of his shame. Instead, we have to make do with a review of the book. It’s almost as good…