Take a Different Route Home

When I was a fresh-faced yoof undertaking my first proper daily commute to London, I was determined to stay wide eyed and interested in the world around me. I didn’t want to become a typical commuter, slumped in my seat on the train, head down as I tramped the city streets, never looking up.

That was 7 weeks ago.

Even in that short time, I find myself getting into bad habits. I doze on the train where initially I read ‘improving’ books. My healthy juices have been swapped for cloying lattes. I tut and sigh at anyone who gets in my way or irritates me, whereas my attitude used to be ‘at least I’ll never see that commuter again, look on the bright side’.

In an attempt to remedy my morning and evening ennui, I decided to go from a different station (Victoria instead of Charing) and ended up on a glorious walk that sliced me through Piccadilly, Mayfair and St James’s park. I enjoyed it hugely. Give it a shot, take a diversion, find something different.

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Vegan Challenge: Spaghetti and Ice Cream?

I’m in two minds about vegan ‘interpretations’ of what I could insultingly call ‘normal food’. Here are my two conflicting thoughts:

Love: t’s a very clever and fun thing to do to reimagine a dish within strict vegan limitations. If you’re an adventurous cook with a good palate, picking out flavours and textures that define a dish and applying them to something new can be fantastic. I truly believe that you don’t need to overload your cooking with oil, butter, cheese etc for it to taste good, although I do very much enjoy all those things. If you can come up with a version of something that stands alone as a delicious meal, then that’s fantastic.

Hate: But on the other hand…you set yourself up for disappointment. Veganism should be about enjoying and appreciating what good food is, as opposed to measuring it against what it’s not. Anyone who has ever tried to make a vegan macaroni cheese knows what I’m talking about. No combination of soy ‘dairy’, nutritional yeast and whole wheat pasta is EVER going to taste like proper mac and cheese, so what’s the point in imitating old recipes when you could focus on new, amazing recipes?

Anyway, I decided to set myself ANOTHER challenge and try to make a meal that borrowed some elements of my favourite foods, but wasn’t a pale, soggy imitation of them. I settled on courgette spaghetti with pesto, followed by banana and raspberry ice cream for my supper. Because I’m being extremely strict with myself, I’ve banned pasta from my diet for these two weeks. You have no idea what this is doing to me. I’m an absolute pasta fiend. It must be my Mediterranean heritage or something, but I’d happily eat it twice, three times a day. But eating that much pasta, plus a load of cheese and butter, is not doing me any favours, and is zapping away my energy. Courgette spaghetti seemed like a good way of creating the effect of pasta, along with a similar texture. By lightly pan-frying it in a little oil and garlic, then combining with pesto, I got a lot of my favourite bits of the pasta experience with none of the unhealthy downsides.

Courgette Spaghetti

2 medium sized courgettes
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and chopped finely
2 tsp olive oil
Salt and pepper

I shaved the courgettes with a julienne grater, and set them aside on paper towels to absorb some of the water. I lightly salted them, because otherwise courgette can be a little flavourless. I then heated the garlic on a moderate heat with the oil – I used lots of garlic because I love it so much. I lightly pan fried them until they’d absorbed the flavours without going to soft. I seasoned to taste. If I’d been doing this dish without the pesto, I’d have used a little nutmeg, or some cayenne, or red chilli to add another flavour.

Lemon & Basil Pesto

1 cup fresh basil
1 big clove of garlic (more if you’re a garlic fiend like me)
3/4 tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 tbsp cashew nuts
1 tbsp lemon juice
1/2 tbsp lemon zest
1/4 tsp sea salt

Quite frankly, you can do whatever you like with the pesto. I’ve used cashews because I had cashews, but pine nuts would be a more ‘traditional’ pesto taste. You can omit the lemon, use sage instead of basil, use almonds, use Parmesan…anything you like. I’d say just judge this one by eye/taste. If it’s dry, use more oil, if it’s dull, use more lemon. Essentially, just plonk all your ingredients in the food processor and whiz them up until you’re happy. I then tossed my courgette spaghetti in the pesto, and served it with a side of tomato salad.

Banana & Raspberry Ice Cream

2 frozen bananas
1 cup frozen raspberries

This is insultingly easy. I peeled some bananas, put them in a freezer bag, and froze them at lunch. At dinner time, I simply blended them in my food processor with a cup of frozen raspberries, and BINGO – a creamy, pretty looking, perfectly textured ‘ice cream’. You could also use a little vanilla if you like. I feel like I’m really late to this whole frozen banana party, but they are SO GOOD. I mean, this? This blew my mind. It tasted exactly like proper ice cream. And I’ve been known to make ice cream featuring clotted cream and white chocolate. I will seriously keep on eating this even if I stop being vegan. The last time I made one was when I got inspired because of Arrested Development…

So that was my supper!

Vegan Challenge: Day One

Don’t worry guys, I’m not going to post every day! But I thought it’d be interesting to do some key days – like the very first. So here’s a round up of day one (yesterday)…

Breakfast

As I said in my original post, I’ve eaten vegan for some substantial periods before, so wasn’t totally freaked out, and I didn’t go out and buy heaps of new, faintly disgusting food. But breakfast proved a real issue. I wanted something filling but healthy. I Googled ‘vegan breakfasts’ to no avail. Things seemed to mostly fall into the camp of: 1. I’ve gone out and bought a ton of vegan meat substitutes and crammed them into a sandwich, or 2. Screw the meat substitutes, I’m going to overcompensate by making a ridiculously unhealthy sounding breakfast that actually looks like pudding.

Seriously. Within minutes I had pages of BREAKFAST CAKES at my fingertips, and even a flipping COBBLER. Look here. While I’m sure these are probably healthier than an actual normal cake, and while I can often be wholeheartedly in favour of cakes at breakfast, I’m trying to eat well here. How about, you know, some actual veg? Or fruit? Anything?? What’s the point in me eating vegan if I’m just going to eat ‘blueberry waffles with lemon icing’ for brekkers. No, ta. Also, ‘tofu scramble’? Save me, Jebus! So I had a big dilemma. I was going to do porridge with cinnamon and fresh apple, but we had no apple (fun anecdote, you can use it if you want. Ahem). Instead, I opted for porridge with fresh raspberries on top, and cinnamon. It wasn’t imaginative, but thankfully it also wasn’t a CAKE.

Snacks

Part of my plan was to try and eat 5-6 small meals a day, which I was mega excited about. Actually working out what to eat for snack food was a little harder. On a normal day, I’d probably have some toast, and over the weekend I got into the bad habit of having baklava. As I said, I haven’t actually bothered going shopping yet, so I’m stuck with what I’ve got in the house. For my morning snack, I opted for carrot sticks with a squeeze of lemon, walnuts, and olives. This is scintillating stuff, eh? By the time I’d planned to eat my afternoon snack, I found I wasn’t remotely hungry. It was insane. I felt like I’d had more than enough food, so I just had a pear and cut my losses.

Lunch

I unashamedly love Gwyneth Paltrow and proudly have her cookbook. It’s a beautiful thing, and the recipes I’ve made so far are delicious. It also isn’t like the vegan recipes I tend to complain about, all nice and fresh ingredients as opposed to some overprocessed lumps of glutinous tofu. Sorry for hating on the tofu, I’ve had some that I’ve liked in the past, but on the whole it can be a bit grim. Anywho, I opted for Gwyneth’s ‘Tortilla Soup’, because anything with chilli, tomato, garlic and lime in it is always going to be a winner for me. It was nice and easy to make, and smelled delicious while I was cooking it. I made enough to conserve some for tomorrow lunch, so saved myself a bit of time as well.

Dinner

I decided to do a couple of recipes I learnt when I did a detox cookery class last year, as they’re tried and tested. Courgettes in chermoula marinade, and baked sweet potatoes with spices. For some reason, I feel like I shouldn’t be having olive oil, but I have to use SOME otherwise I’ll die. Well, I won’t die, but I’ll be bored, and it’ll be nearly impossible to cook anything. I used coconut oil for my sweet potatoes (not much, a little goes a long way), and part olive oil part warm water for my chermoula marinade. Chermoula is so yummy, a combination of coriander and lemon, lime, garlic, chilli, paprika, cumin…so so good. I had it with some peas and tomato sauce, using the leftover plum tomatoes from lunch. My sweet potatoes were delish, I used cinnamon, paprika, cloves, and garlic to flavour them, and they were the perfect balance of sweet and spicy.

Thoughts

Today wasn’t hard. At all. I spent more time in the kitchen than I usually would, but I love taking time to prepare food. Even after just a day, I feel really good (psychosomatic!), and feel like the food I ate was just much more delicious than a lot of things I’d usually have. For this vegan diet, I’m cutting out so many things that I’d usually lazily rely on for ‘comfort’ or texture like cheese or butter. Instead I’m working really hard on flavours, using more garlic and spices to make sure everything tastes as good as possible. I do miss cheese though. Sob. But weirdly, I felt more full than I have in ages – quite a feat considering I had a five course meal on Saturday and a three course meal on Sunday. I already feel much more energetic and focussed. We’ll see if that continues…

How advertising destroyed my health

Or, why I needed a detox. Or, how healthier living is changing my life.

Now, before you read on thinking this is going to be some screaming polemic on the advertising industry, and the combination of junk food advertising and skinny models being shoved down our bloated throats, it isn’t. This is about how working in an ad agency turned me from a relatively healthy girl to something of a wreck in just six months. I’ve talked about advertising, because that’s what I worked in, but this could apply to any desk-based, stress-heavy office job.

The office environment attacked me in a fair few ways, pretty comprehensively, despite the fact that I was only there for a mere 6 months. I’m not one to talk about my health, because up until this year, I’d never had any problems. Maybe I’m allergic to work? Or just offices? Anyway. Here’s how and what got ruined, and the pitfalls of office life. Read on, Macduff:

My immune system – always pretty healthy and quick to fend off a cold, I found myself in an office full of people, with either heating or air conditioning depositing our germs all over the place. Ironically enough, I didn’t take one sick day while I was there, but the minute I stopped, I had a three month cold. Lovely. It was like my body had stored up every single bug that every single person had carried, and kindly gifted me with them in succession. Like an advent calendar with flu behind the doors instead of chocolate.

My tastebuds – I’ve always been someone who could take or leave chocolate. By that I mean that I don’t really like the stuff that much, but I end up eating it because…well, isn’t that what women do? Social conditioning at its best, folks. For a couple of months I was fine. I avoided sugar. Then one day, a charity tuck box appeared. It took me a few weeks to cave. One morning, I was faced with a long, heavy day. I needed something to get me through, so I bought a chocolate bar for a boost (not an actual Boost, they’re yucky.) The day after next, I did it again. Soon, I was eating 2-3 chocolate bars a day, because I now felt deprived if I didn’t have one. My blood sugar level became a rollercoaster.

My energy levels – If you’ve worked in an office, you’ll know that it’s nearly impossible to resist the lure of the tea or coffee run. Because we had a moderately sized team all sitting together, someone would ALWAYS be getting a caffeine based drink. I always felt too embarrassed to ask someone to pop a herbal tea bag in some hot water for me, and also, I just wanted the kick. Because I’d drink a cup, perk up, flag, and need another. On and on. Cup after cup, all day long. Not good if you want Zadies, either. (That’s my name for white teeth.)

My back – it’s a common problem. Dodgy chairs + hunched over a computer all day = back pain. For the first time in my life, my beautifully straight dancer’s posture deserted me, and I started to hunch.

My willpower – I like baking. I like the look of cakes, I like the act of making cakes. But I don’t actually really care too much about eating them. Weird, huh? Before the office job, I’d bake every couple of weekends or on special occasions, and eat a bit, but not a lot. Suddenly, in the office, it was somebody’s birthday EVERY SINGLE DAY. Or their leaving do. Or it was a charity baking sale. Or it was just Friday afternoon. And you know what? The cakes were delicious, and I really didn’t want to be the kind of dick who went ‘no, I think I’ll leave your beautifully crafted cake, baked with loving care, and I’ll just stick with my low-glycaemic seeds and agave nectar’. No one wants to be that person.

My sleep patterns – Gosh, who would have guessed that bucketloads of sugar and caffeine combined with a stressful job would make me restless at night?! But it was worse, and weirder, than just having to count an awful lot of sheep. For the first time ever, I became anxious when I went to bed. Racing thoughts, heat beating fast, all the rest of it. I would wake up in the night and be instantly wide awake, but groggy in the mornings. I was thinking the strangest, worst kind of thoughts, and worried about everything. Embarrassingly and bizarrely, I became unable to sleep with the light off, for the first time since I was a child. Almost every night felt like I was having a mini panic attack. Hmm, healthy.

The way I viewed food – I’ve never been a conventional ‘dieter’. I can’t stand the concept of ‘good food’ and ‘bad food’, as this just makes your life difficult and stressful, and you are reduced to near tears on being faced with dessert. Suddenly, I was surrounded by people always on a diet, always convinced that carbs were bad, and telling me so. It was alarming. I felt hyper aware of what I was eating everyday, and the attitude rubbed off on me. Periods of eating barely anything were followed by binges on all the ‘bad food’, because the people who were on diets always knew they were doomed to fail, that was just how it worked.

My liver – Even in this time of austerity, the image of the boozy ad agency still remained true. Post-uni, I’d virtually stopped drinking, and my body was resetting itself from all of that indulgence. Suddenly, we were drinking with alarming frequency, and I still had the attitude of the recent student: if it’s free, eat it/drink it/take it, because you don’t know when you’ll get the chance again. We even had a drinking game that revolved around hiding a fish (look, we worked long old hours, no wonder we went a bit silly.) Essentially, if you didn’t find the fish, you did a shot. No matter what time of day. I loved that game. And I was bloody terrible at it. Many mornings I’d be having a shot of some foul foreign paint stripper, or just a spot of Jagermeister. Boozed up lunches, parties and after work drinks ensued, even G&T’s in the boardroom on one particularly marvellous Wednesday. I loved it, but my body didn’t. I’m sorry, liver.

My stress levels – It was a stressful job anyway, and one that I wasn’t actually very well suited to. Cue insane amounts of worry, fear, and anxiety over my performance. To that cocktail, please also add the sugar, crisps, caffeine, and….well, actual cocktails. I often felt on the verge of tears, I never stopped feeling exhausted, and my brain wouldn’t ever turn off. I wasn’t taking any care of myself.

My fitness levels – And lastly, sheer laziness. Of course I could have gone for a run on my lunchbreak, or the gym before/after work. But I hate getting sweaty during a working day, and by the time I got home I was still too hyped up from the day to feel like doing anything other than watching TV. So that’s exactly what I did. I made excuses, and did bugger all. That was probably one of the worst decisions I made of the lot.

The worst thing is reading this back and knowing I could have prevented most of this, and you can prevent it too if you find yourself in this position. I should have been stronger, resisted the chocolate bars, and eaten seeds and dried fruit, or dark chocolate. I shouldn’t have listened to the eternal chorus of the dieters, and just brought in what I wanted to eat, and not been sucked into complaining about my thighs as a bonding method.

The cake thing is pretty difficult to navigate, but I’d say the rule is: if somebody’s made it, have some. Just take a small bit, and deal with it. If someone has just purchased something from a supermarket, forget it. Tesco won’t be offended by your eschewing of their brownies. I promise. For the caffeine issue, just either say ‘no, thanks’, or get up and make it yourself. Your colleagues will love you, you’ll get a tiny bit of leg exercise, and you can just make yourself a herbal tea. Done.

Pack your own lunchbox every day, full of exciting salads and grains, and change it up so you don’t get bored having the same thing constantly. Forewarned is forearmed – bringing in your own food and planning for your meals in advance means less likelihood of you ending up in Marks, crushed between a pensioner and a mother with a ginormous pushchair, forced to grab a 600 calorie sandwich.

Force yourself to exercise. As Nike say, just do it. It’s taken me 5 months to put myself back together because of the toll unhealthy living during this job took on me. I just drifted for a while, my eating habits broken, my fitness level at rock bottom. In the last month, I’ve made better food choices, given up caffeine, more or less completely given up sugar, and started exercising. I’m working twice the hours I worked at that office on many more projects, so my workload has become infinitely more stressful, and yet I feel incredible. The changes in my eating and exercising have made me able to cope with anything. I’m more focussed and driven, and I’ve got boundless energy without having any caffeine.

I was totally wrecked, exhausted, unhappy, unfit, and unmotivated not too long ago. Had I visited any GP, they’d have wanted to plonk me straight away on anti-depressants, and I probably would have been tempted to take them. Thanks to cleaner living, I sleep well, I wake up early with no alarm, I work my ass off and have the energy to plough through 16 hour working days with no problems. I am calmer, happier, more confident, and free of the panicky spells and long dark nights of worry that characterised six months of my life. If I can inspire just one person to make a few easy choices that will make them feel better, I’ll be happy. I’m going to be writing a series of blogs on eating well, and working out, so keep reading if you want to, and feel free to ask me any questions.

It’s another very long blog from me, but I wanted to give people a context for why I’m making changes in my lifestyle.

Snogs (frozen yogurts that is),

Amelia xx