When in Rome. Or not, if you are me.
I’m in Rome for a short break. Until a year ago, I’d have planned all my meals, looked up all the blogs, asked all my foodie friends and have organised my eating down to the last mouthful. I’d probably have had booked a little fine dining, interspersed with a few up-and-coming modern eateries and the odd traditional trattoria.
These days, what with C not eating any dairy or wheat and me trying not to get to the point where I am again half fat, half person, I am more restrained. Out goes the tasting menu of old. Out goes the pasta. Out goes the gelato. And C is really not very good with dairy or wheat. I’ll spare you the full deets but we aren’t talking cod wellness or “mindful eating” à la Ella and the like. And truthfully, it feels like a relief, not having to worry about restaurant FOMO. And as ever, I overdid it, to the point that I needed a complete break.
I’ve been altering my diet for a year or so now and have, I think, found a way of eating that seems to be sustainable and keeps me at a size I like. I’ve written more about it elsewhere. For those who want the quick read, it’s protein, fat, legumes, dairy, vegetables but not very starchy ones, 90% chocolate and moderate alcohol consumption and mostly dry champagne. I will sometimes stray when a good Gewürztraminer is put in front of me.
This way of eating is easier than it looks, especially if you know your way round a kitchen. I have adapted a lot of recipes to make them compliant with the régime and I don’t ever go hungry. I make sure I always have enough food in the house to eat well. Manilife Deep Roast peanut butter is my closest friend. A tablespoon of the mouthsticking paste is a thing of beauty and deals with any cravings. So does hoummus, though I don’t have a favourite brand. I even make my own and this is a failsafe recipe
Please buy it; you will not be disappointed. Likewise this yogurt. It is a thing of joy.
In the pursuit of this way of eating, I am, I know, fairly rigid. I do have the odd crust of bread and when I go out to other people’s houses I eat what they cook. I would prefer to be able to ask them to cook to the regime but there are some people who would be offended. For myself, I couldn’t care less if someone wants to eat certain things when they come to me and I quite like the challenge of making something they would really like. There are others who would say that my desire to control my intake to this degree means I have “issues” around food. The word orthorexic has been bandied about. People do love a label. I’ve been thinking about that and whether that is true and if it is, whether it matters.
When I was doing the food reviews, I was obsessed with food and restaurants. I read all the restaurant reviews. I knew the latest goss. I felt like I had to be on top of the whole thing, otherwise my cred as a lawyer with the temerity to write about restaurants might be brought into question. I actually loved it. I ate out many, many times in a week and made it part of my day job. I measured myself against those who did more than me and were more successful at it. I cooked at the weekends, I grew a lot of my own food and I had no self-control around cookbooks. I spent a fucking fortune on food.
It’s not like it was a new thing for me, the food obsession, but there is no doubt that it served as an excellent displacement activity whilst I was coming to terms with various personal issues. It also became a habit and a challenge to do it well and I do so love a challenge. But it was not sustainable.
I still think about food quite a lot of the time but it is simpler, as there are things I won’t eat anymore on anything like a regular basis. I do eat out, but like a normal person. I go to places I actually like rather than ones on a list.
I have eaten a tasting menu once in the last 12 months. It was the truffle menu at Hélène Darroze at The Connaught. I did enjoy it and the contrast between that and my usual daily diet was stark. I even let myself have the truffle mascarpone dessert which, let me tell you, is a thing of magnificence.
I also felt that I’d gone off the rails for a few weeks and wanted to keep eating the sort of food I’d eaten that evening. So I craved sugary things. I wanted more bread. I was more hangry in the following couple of weeks.
I accept that this may all be in my head but I don’t think so. When you effectively cut out sugar and everything similar, meaning honey, agave and other sweeteners, real or fake, the cravings stop after a few weeks, or at least they did for me. There has been much written about sugar and its effect on brain chemistry. My own experience is that it is easier not to have it. I struggle with maintaining a moderate relationship with food and that is something I do not know how to change.
I am not interested in the whole “wellness” brigade and I do not want to get involved in the Deliciously Ella disordered eating debate. I am very wary of telling anyone else how to eat. I know that “clean eating” however you wish to characterise it, is often seen as the gateway drug to anorexia and eating disorders. I do not have a perfect lifestyle and I am not a role model for anyone.
In looking at this whole area, I came across the term “Orthorexia Nervosa”. A doctor, Steven Bratman coined the term. It’s used to describe an interest in healthy eating which becomes so obsessive it turns into an eating disorder. It’s not a recognised medical diagnosis under the DSM but I think that there are quite a few people who would recognise the symptoms.
This is his test for you, by way of a series of statements:
(1) I spend so much of my life thinking about, choosing and preparing healthy food that it interferes with other dimensions of my life, such as love, creativity, family, friendship, work and school.
(2) When I eat any food I regard to be unhealthy, I feel anxious, guilty, impure, unclean and/or defiled; even to be near such foods disturbs me, and I feel judgmental of others who eat such foods.
(3) My personal sense of peace, happiness, joy, safety and self-esteem is excessively dependent on the purity and rightness of what I eat.
(4) Sometimes I would like to relax my self-imposed “good food” rules for a special occasion, such as a wedding or a meal with family or friends, but I find that I cannot. (Note: If you have a medical condition in which it is unsafe for you to make ANY exception to your diet, then this item does not apply.)
(5) Over time, I have steadily eliminated more foods and expanded my list of food rules in an attempt to maintain or enhance health benefits; sometimes, I may take an existing food theory and add to it with beliefs of my own.
(6) Following my theory of healthy eating has caused me to lose more weight than most people would say is good for me, or has caused other signs of malnutrition such as hair loss, loss of menstruation or skin problems.
Apparently, if you answer yes to any of these, you may be developing orthorexia nervosa. So, looking at these and being unflinchingly honest, I would say that the following apply to me.
Number 2: If I eat any food I regard to be unhealthy, I do feel anxious. “You think that if you eat a piece of cake you’ll wake up tomorrow and be four sizes bigger” says my sister. There is a grain of truth in what she says and an element of the slippery slope in my attitude towards certain foods. I don’t feel judgmental of others who eat such foods, but I do feel judgmental of those who eat those foods then complain about being overweight. So shoot me.
Number 3: I do think that quite a lot of my self-esteem is bound up in being able to control my size. It’s not the purity of what I eat, so much as the ability to restrict my intake in a way which will maintain my weight loss. And I do not count calories ever and I eat full fat everything and I eat nuts and oils and dark chocolate with abandon. It’s not entirely a health thing, although health is a very large part of it. It’s a health/control/appearance thing.
Number 5: I may be guilty of the taking of an existing food theory and adding to it scenario. I’ve pretty much cut out sugar and starchy carbs and quite a lot of grains too. I’ve also got quite involved in the whole gut health thing and have fermented foods, kefir, live yogurt and other probiotics regularly.
On this showing, I don’t think I’m quite orthorexic but I probably do need to watch myself a bit. I think it’s more a function of a slightly all or nothing personality. If I’m going to do something, I will tend to do it wholeheartedly.
The challenge is keeping on track. Do not think that it is easy to walk past these beauties when I am ordering coffee. It is not.
I can taste them without eating them. The crunch. The layers of buttery, flaky pastry. The lemony custard. There is no point in telling me that one won’t make a difference to my weight. I know that. I really do. It’s that I will want another. Then another. Then it will be the “I’m on holiday, it won’t hurt to have one” or the “I deserve” or the “life’s too short” argument. and before we know it I will be in that restaurant, eating the artisan sourdough, then the pasta with truffles, then the rosemary potatoes and then the tiramisu and then my clothes won’t fit me and I will start getting annoyed with myself and so it goes.
I have been there before. I know how it ends. I’ve lost weight big-time three times in my life and the longest I kept it off was three years. That was doing low carb. It really works for me.
The truth is I don’t have a lot of control around certain types of food and I can’t easily have a little bit of what I fancy. I’ve already tried, like yesterday, when I had a little gelato as they brought it to the table as a sorry for late service. Hoovered up, before I had a chance to say cheese. I do not have an easy-going relationship with what I eat. Never have had and never will.
There is only the one way. I have to fill myself up with what I regard to be the right stuff and tell myself that it isn’t that bad and actually, truly, it isn’t. And because the proof is in the no pudding, here are a few things I’ve been eating over the last few days. See, whilst you can’t have everything, you can have quite a lot. So no, I’m not orthorexic but I am someone who has to be quite controlled around what I eat. Not to the point of utter rigidity, but so that I am fairly consistent around 90% of the time. I’m hoping that this time I have cracked it. I’ll let you know.