Eat Better Forever
The following is the introduction to Hugh's latest book Eat Better Forever ...
The food we eat is the most important factor influencing our health and well-being. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) a decades-long debate about diet, many. of us still feel confused, unhappy, guilty and anxious about what we eat. I want to help change that. And this book is my most focused attempt so far.
More than ever, in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s vital that everybody knows how much making good food choices can do to help us stay well. It’s not just the healthy functioning of our digestive systems that’s at stake. It’s the complex web of activities in every cell of our body – what is collectively referred to as our immune system. So, when we eat well, we don’t just function well day to day, we also fight back when viruses and bacteria come to call. We are far better at fending off challenges to our body and, when we do get ill, at recovering quickly.
I believe that a helpful book about healthy eating must not be a negative thing, with long lists of banned food and dietary restrictions. It needs to lead with a positive understanding of what the good foods are, and it needs to make it easier for us to choose, eat and enjoy muchmore of them. That’s my plan here.
I’m also going to talk about when and how we eat. That’s going to help us understand why we eat certain foods that we know we would be better off not eating; and it will help us replace them with the good stuff. We’re going to combine clearer understanding with achievable actions – and delicious recipes – so we can eat better, not just for a while, but forever.
Before we get to where we’re going, let’s look at where we are. Although we are living longer (on average 82 years in the UK), many of us spend our last 20 years or so in poor health, often with conditions which could be prevented through different lifestyles – primarily by eating better. 67% of men and 62% of women are above a healthy weight; a third of us are obese. Around 50% of adults are ‘trying to lose weight’, usually unsuccessfully. And the age at which our health starts to be negatively affected by our weight gets younger by the year. So it seems that our daily bread – and our extended life span – brings us neither health nor happiness. We have to change that.
I believe that the sheer volume of information about diet that now speeds its way backwards and forwards across the globe is actually part of the problem. The constant in-flow of data, advice and opinion that we are exposed to is often contradictory,unrealistic and unhelpful. A great deal of it, in fact, is flam, fashion and faddism. But that doesn’t mean we should give up, or dismiss it all. On the contrary, I think it’s vital to realise that in amongst the cacophony there is some very sound advice.
The last few years in particular have seen some genuinely useful advances in evidence based science around healthy eating. This is actually a very good time to mine the seemingly bottomless pit of modern dietary advice for some golden nuggets of true wisdom. Or, in other words, to size up the latest good science and summarise it clearly. That’s been my mission for the last two years, and this book is the result.
I want to stress that this is a collaborative effort. I have strong views about healthy eating, based on some pretty in-depth reading and research, but also on my experiences as a chef, writer, cook and broadcaster in the food industry for over 30 years. But I also know the value of discussing those views with people for whom understanding diet and human health is a full-time job. I’ve talked to many experts in this field, including Dr Giles Yeo, Professor Tim Spector and Professor Mark Mattson, and you’ll find them quoted in the text. I’ve also asked one of the food scientists I most admire, dietitian Dr Michelle Harvie, of the Prevent Breast Cancer Research Unit in Manchester, to read (several drafts!) of this text, and comment and challenge me along the way. Her support has hugely increased my confidence that this book really can help you change.
One problem I see looming large (and my collaborators happen to agree with me) isthat the world of diet publishing and the ‘wellness’ sector continue to orbit around ‘single-fix’ ideas. Most books offer up one big commitment you can make, one diet plan you can sign up to, one headline-grabbing concept you can market the crap out of… Some of those books may help some people, some of the time. But I think we can, and must, do better than that. And we will start doing better as soon as we stop pretending that the combined complexities of what we eat, and what our bodies do with it, can be reduced to a single mantra or one neat idea, be it Paleo, Fasting, High-fibre, Zero-sugar or whatever. They surely can’t because the variables are endlessly… well, variable. We need to take that into account. I’ve written this book quite deliberately in order to buck this ‘one big idea’ trend.
I’ve been paying attention to new – and not so new – ideas about healthy eating ever since, as an undergraduate, I took steps to reduce my student beer (and biscuit) belly. I’ve always had a taste for the ‘good things’ of life – including beer and wine, burgers and kebabs, fish and chips, and chocolate, cakes and puds. But I have also tried to steer my appetite towards things I know are good for me. I used to struggle, for instance, to enjoy certain vegetables, including tomatoes, beetroot, spinach, mushrooms and sweetcorn. But as a young adult teaching myself to cook, and then a chef learning on the job, I deliberately set out to find ‘better specimens’ of these vegetables, and ways to cook them that I could first tolerate, then enjoy.
Learning to grow food myself massively enhanced this process, and now I have a love for pretty much every fruit and vegetable under the sun. This journey has taken time, but it’s convinced me that with the right help and guidance we can all make important changes to the way we eat. We can learn to eat better. And that is so much more enduring, and important for our health and happiness, than ‘going on a diet’.
I’ve always enjoyed ‘good food’, but the meaning of that phase has evolved for me. It still means pleasure-bringing and therefore good for the soul, yes, but also good for my health, my family’s health and the health of my environment. I have never stopped trying to learn more about what good eating really means, and as a consequence my eating and drinking habits have evolved over the decades. It’s been a meandering kind of road, but I am now at a place where I’m confident that I’m making reasonable decisions about what to eat… most of the time! I still make some less good decisions – a second helping of ice cream, a packet of crisps on the train – but these days I am much more aware of them. I don’t beat myself up about my poorer choices, because I know I’m making them less often than I used to.
I have developed an approach to eating and living that is working well for me. I’m lighter, healthier, fitter and less anxious than I have been for years. I sleep better and I cope with stress better too. So, I want to share that approach with you. But I am emphatically not about to tell you that if you simply do what I’ve done, you’ll become a new person and all your problems will be solved. It’s crazy to suggest one size fits all when it comes introduction to health, or even that one ‘size’ is enough. Tackling several different things, in whichever ways are achievable for you, has got to be the way forward. And it also helps avoid the shameful spectre of ‘failure’ that haunts every One Big Idea approach. If you entrust all your healthy eating eggs to one ideological basket, so to speak, you’ve only got to drop it once to feel like you’ve totally messed up. If you’re spinning a few different plates, on the other hand, it’s not such a big deal if you take your eye off one of them sometimes.
So, you won’t find one single doctrine that sums up my approach. Rather I have a cluster of useful and entirely complementary pathways – seven of them, as it happens.
This manageable bundle of helpful facts about food and health, and the range of sensible, reasonable actions that follow from them, will have different importance for different people. That’s the beauty of them: they can be organised into a set of personal priorities that you can keep coming back to and progressing, bit by bit. To me, that reflects real life. It’s achievable. And it doesn’t leave a scary amount hanging on a single endpoint: ‘success’, ‘smashing your target’ or somehow transforming into a ‘new you’.
Each of my 7 chapters is built around a simple imperative, be it ‘Reduce Refined Carbs’ or ‘Go with Your Gut’: all things you can easily take on board that will make a genuine difference to your health. I’ve looked at the latest evidence and thinking on each idea and offered up my personal interpretation of them, and even a few of my personal struggles. We all have issues, at times, with food and drink. I’ve tried to make talking about them acceptable, interesting, even amusing (without ever forgetting this is a serious business). The idea is to help you know more, think more and understand more about food and the good and bad it can do us. And, in order to help you make some useful choices and health-supporting plans, there’s a simple summary of ‘action points’ at the end of each chapter.
To complement all this talking, I have, of course, included a raft of healthy recipes – simple ideas (often very simple) for brilliant breakfasts, healthy lunchboxes, satisfying suppers and lovely treats. If you’ve read any of my more recent books, you’ll recognise some common themes: lots of veg and fruit, plenty of whole grains, nuts and seeds, as few processed foods as possible, a smattering of fish, and not much meat. I have avoided obscure or expensive ingredients, and if you find something you consider a bit ‘unusual’ (spelt, flaxseed, farro) it’s because I think it should be less so…
I’ve kept these recipes as straightforward as I can, but I have dared to assume that you are prepared to do at least a little bit of cooking. I have to be frank and say that if you aren’t, then eating healthily is not impossible but certainly harder – and probably more expensive too. If you’re kitchen-shy, please don’t be put off by this. You have nothing to lose by giving a recipe a go. You may very well surprise yourself…
This is not a weight-loss manual – though it can certainly help you lose weight (without counting calories) in a way that is healthy and, crucially, sustainable. If that’s your goal, then my 7 Ways to Lose Weight on pages 188–197 will explain how you can use the book for that. I am writing for anyone who wants to eat healthily, regardless of their current weight. Our Body Mass Index (BMI) is a significant health-marker – but we must look beyond the scales when we think about our health.
Most of the book is about eating and drinking. But it would be foolish to take these out of the context of all the non-food-related decisions we make daily that can affect our health for good or ill – decisions about the way we manage activity, sleep and stress, for example. So, on pages 198–208, you’ll find a summary of the other things you can do that will enhance and magnify the benefits of eating better.
Another thing we have to do, unfortunately, is take the modern food environment as we find it – i.e. in a far from ideal state. We must learn to navigate and largely avoid the endless exhortations to eat and drink industrially processed foods that are not good for us. I want to change the environment in which these foods are so ubiquitous, so normalised – and I’m using other platforms, including television, to try to do so.
Government and industry must be held to account when it comes to processed ingredients, junk food advertising, too much sugar and salt in foods. There are, at last, some signs of positive action but we can’t afford to wait for them before we make changes ourselves.
For now, it’s up to us to make the right choices; and that, in a nutshell, is what this book will help you to do. There are far too many factors affecting our health in a negative way; but there is also a raft of things we can do to redress the balance: steps you can start taking now that, consolidated into new habits, become an effective force.
Even when the food industry is pitted against us, we are not powerless. To make healthy choices, we need science – but we don’t need rocket science. Existing and emerging knowledge, common sense and, I think, a little righteous anger, are already pointing us in the right direction.
I’ve got a pretty good handle now on the things we need to do to be healthy. There’s nothing impenetrable about them; they just had to be gleaned and sorted from among the misinformation, the marketing and the mumbo-jumbo. These seven simple insights are the backbone of this book. Take a few of them on board and you’ll be heading in the right direction. Pay attention to all seven of them – accumulatively, over time, as it suits you – and you will soon be eating better and feeling better. And not just for a while, or for as long as it takes to shed a few pounds, but for the rest of your life.