Whatever dieting works for you

When one hits mid-life, one is obligated to have a crisis, right? For me, I thought it was time to take a bit of interest in looking after my body, beyond just being vaguely conscious that cycling as my main mode of transport and eating whatever in moderation aren’t particularly bad lifestyle choices. It’s time to ward off the risk of spread and get into shape.

I’ve never tried this dieting lark before. Of course, one hears things about Atkins, not mixing food groups, 5:2, or whatever is today’s money-spinning fad. What little I’ve seen in print is generally along the lines of how hard it is to keep the mental discipline, and what a chore it is to keep track of calories. So typically for me, as a dieting newbie it’s time for some research.

One of my first major research findings was that there is lots of potential out there for lots of lovely numbers. Another was that I need to think about exercise as well as my diet, so that’s twice as many lovely numbers. And then there are lots of websites offering lots of lovely calculators to complete.

I typed my height and weight into one website calculator that gave me my BMI. But I’ve read that most of the England rugby team would be obese if measured by BMI, so clearly fat and muscle percentages are important too. In the absence of a skin-fold caliper (“Can you pinch an inch?” is one of those annoying ad campaigns that have bored into my brain and laid maggot eggs that hatched into meme weevils and now feed off any intellectual capacity I might once have had), I fed a body fat calculator my height, neck, waist and hips measurements… which happily also provided my waist to hip ratio. So now I know that my BMI is OK if towards the top of the green range; my fat percentage is probably too high (although the story I’m sticking to is that the measurement is too coarse); and my waist to hips ratio is ideal :-).

It’s important to be realistic about my aims, and knowing my frame size and body typewill help. So into another calculator I type my wrist circumference, and find out my frame is small. On the other hand, my elbow breadth indicates that my frame is large. This is going well. Let’s instead look at some photos of famous ectomorphs, mesomorphs and endomorphs so I know which celebrities I wannabe. Or probably the most useful suggestions were to look in the mirror periodically to check on my physique, and to take various body measurements at fortnightly intervals and be heartened if they go in the right direction.

But how to set about going in that direction? Typing my height and weight and target weight into another website gave me targets for daily calorie intake and calories expended on exercise, and hence a likely date for meeting that weight.

Time to start a spreadsheet.

I set up my sheet of fortnightly body measurements, and my sheet of daily calories and exercise. Then I set up a sheet for my first day of counting those calories.

Again, the most useful online hints are along the lines of: what are the best foodstuffs; to occasionally go over the daily intake target to keep the body guessing; to eat little and often to keep the metabolic rate up; when to exercise after eating; what to eat after exercising.

I don’t buy into the mega-bucks diet food processing industry. I don’t think of myself as a foodie, and I’m quite happy with a fairly unvarying diet, but I’m also pretty good at eating well – whole grains, fresh fruit and veg, largely home-made and very little processed food. I actually find the sight of low-calorie artificial ready meals and cakes on supermarket shelves to be pretty nauseating, wondering what processing has substituted what manufactured chemicals for what natural foodstuffs.

Hooray for food labelling! Websites and packaging give me the calories per weight of pretty much all foodstuffs, except the mystery chutney in my cupboard. My frequently used munchies are all itemised in my spreadsheet. I can calculate calories in my various stock homemade stews. All my recipes are itemised too. I can give you daily numbers for my little-and-often intakes at breakfast, elevenses, lunch, tea, dinner, and supper.

What about the lovely exercise numbers?

I don’t have a blood pressure monitor, but the last time the doc measured it it was pretty good. I found a phone app for measuring my heart rate, which is easier than taking my pulse and correlates to it well enough. From that, a heart rate calculator can tell me my maximum heart rate and my training zones for fat burning and cardio exercise.

Another website or dozen provide calculators of how many calories various activities burn. Their best advice? Do things that you enjoy and will keep up.

I’m never going to keep up going to a gym, partly because I’d have to cycle there, and partly because of the music. I like the outdoors, and would be happy to get most of my exercise from walking or at a Green Gym. I’m less interested in being rained upon in winter, or in joining the ranks of runners in public view. So, to supplement the cycling as favoured mode of transport, I decide to buy a fold-up nordic walker machine with electronic gizmo. It sits in my guest room most of the time, and I put my exercise clothes in there too. I have my playlist of mostly Mozart on my mobile. It’s easy just to step in, get changed, and go.

The electronic gizmo has a heart rate monitor, which I check against my pulse. It seems pretty accurate at rest. In flow it might be a bit less accurate, but I’ll go with it as a measurement of whether my exercise is moderate or vigorous. The gizmo also tells me how many calories I’d be burning… were I a 185lb man. Note to manufacturer guys – let’s be a little less sexist in our assumptions, hey, and provide a way of inputing minor details like, oh I don’t know, weight? I suppose I could factor it down, but instead I use a website calculation of calories based on my age, weight, number of minutes, and the moderate/vigorous axis.

As for my cycling, Cycle Streets tells me how many calories I burn for each bike journey. I have to assume a cruising speed, but the timings suggested are pretty close to my out-turn and take account of incline, so I’ll go with their suggestions too and ignore the inevitable discrepancy with other websites.

Then I might add in a bit of walking, resistance workout, housework, concert singing, gardening, and other significant activities. All the numbers for calories burnt per minute are available online. The variety is good, to prevent the body from getting used to a routine. There are even side-benefits; the hated-but-now-more-desirable lawnmowing is particularly good exercise, and my garden is looking more kempt than usual.

I added a graph to that sheet of daily calories and exercise, and hey presto! Here it is.


The point of all of this is that it’s important for each person to find out what really works for them. I have found out what works for me, and because I’m a data geek, what works for me are data collection and spreadsheets. I enjoy weighing and calculating, typing the data in, and planning how to massage my meals and exercise the rest of the day to meet my targets. When I think about food now, I think less of its epicurean desirability than how it will affect the figures on my spreadsheet. As a result, except when I’m out and it would be socially frowned upon to whip out the kitchen scales, it’s been pretty easy to regulate my calorie intake. Exercise is a bit harder, because it requires finding the time, but the numbers have helped my motivation there too.

I’m never going to, say, sign up to Weight Watchers. But I know that other people will find it easier if they have someone they have to share numbers with, who will keep them on the straight-waisted and narrow-hipped. It might be helpful to keep going in a group with mutual support, or not helpful if they see that group as sitting in judgement on their progress or lack of it. You may be able to tell I’ve never been to Weight Watchers and have no idea how it is organised!

What works for a person just might not be that obvious. It might not be widely pushed by the media (graphs don’t sell magazines quite as well as slebs). Maybe a song-writer could get into exercise by writing songs with beats to target heart rates or stride frequency and testing them. I bet those Weight Watcher devotees who moan about calorie counting would find it hard to imagine my approach. But take another look at my graph; you can just about see that I’ve had to change my daily exercise target as my weight has gone down. And my fortnightly body measurements tell me my hips have shrunk two inches. I may have stumbled upon my approach, but it’s looking good so far!


Municipal-planting-rowan jelly

There’s a rowan tree planted beside the bus stop on Grecian Way, and this autumn it’s laden with bright red berries.

In the spirit of my wamble with forager Mark Lane, I nipped out on Thursday to cut a few sprays of berries. There’s something about suburbia that makes me feel slightly guilty whenever I do anything more exotic in public than mowing my front lawn or walking or cycling to get somewhere. Certainly, the dog-walker gave me strange looks as I jumped to grab branches and snipped away with my secateurs. But it’s not in anyone’s garden, I was taking a very small fraction of the berries, and the rest will only fall down and make a mess on the pavement. So it’s probable I should feel eccentric*, but why feel guilty?

Anyway, way back in the time, my uncle gave me a book on Wild Food, which includes recipes for rowan wine and rowan jelly. The jelly offers more instant rewards, and a chance for a case-control study of the impact on taste and clarity of the addition of apple.

First things first, the interweb-thingy suggested ‘denaturing’ the berries by freezing them. So I did, even though boiling them to a mush might be thought to have enough of an effect. Here they are, just out of the freezer; only 300g, but it took me not much more than a minute to pick them, and there’s enough for my experiment.


And here are the finished products. I started off with the same total weights of fruit and volume of water, so it’s odd that I got more than twice as much from the rowan-apple mix. I tipped the rowan-apple mush on top of the rowan mush in the jelly bag, so a bit more wouldn’t have been a surprise, but twice as much? I think the rowan-solo is slightly clearer, but the taste is pretty astringent, and adding the apple makes a milder jelly. I think I’ll try them both with plain scones and clotted cream, and with lamb.

One further note. It would be better to take berries from trees that are not by the side of a road. The concern is that run-off from the road – oil and general toxic yuk – gets taken up by the roots and concentrated in the fruit. Grecian Way isn’t very busy, but there are a few buses. So if I ever make any more, I’ll pick the berries on Dartmoor.

* On the other hand, is it possible to feel eccentric, given that I’m at the centre of my zone of perception, or can I only be eccentric from others’ perspectives?


Woodwater plants

The house martins were gathering and sporting on the wing, prior to departure for warmer climes, and Mark Lane from Wilderness Guide kindly popped over to retrace my June footsteps in Woodwater Lane, and see what plants we could find in September.

Mark also gave me some tips on triangulation, or plant identification through three pieces of evidence from: smell, leaf, flower, season, family (shared characteristics) and habitat. And here are a couple of helpful websites:

Fifty Findings

  1. Darwin’s barberry – small purple fruits can be made into jam, end-July
  2. Quinces – won’t go soft; showing signs of turning red; wait til November to pick
  3. Ash
  4. Field maple
  5. Willow – non-native, by look of bark
  6. Nipplewort – lobed leaves, spring greens; so named as cure for cracked nipples, though uncertain re how to prepare and apply
  7. Garlic mustard or Jack in the hedge – spring greens
  8. Has characteristics of euphorbia
  9. Umbellifer – currently plant is too small to distinguish between cow parsley or chervil
  10. Mint family, possibly red dead nettle – square stem, edible but pungent
  11. Possibly same again, although flower purple not red

Mark lives, works and teaches tracking and foraging. They require different ways of looking. Foraging entails focusing on small areas, and alertness to details of particular plants. The wide view is lost. Tracking requires an alertness to the wide view, to the edges of perception, to divergences from normal. I asked Mark about a birdsong – is that a hedge sparrow? But he listens not to identify, but for signs of alarm, and the ‘sparrow’ song was more a demarcation of territory.

  1. Elm – leaf rough like cat’s tongue, lobes of different size; wood doesn’t rot, difficult to split; crossed strains are more resilient to dutch elm disease, and there are huge specimens at County Hall
  2. Oak – particular tree has a few galls and fewer acorns (try Dunsford Gardens instead); acorns are nutritious, and can be made into e.g. coffee and bread flour, though the tannins need leaching
  3. Holly – pig fodder, or tea; dense wood, good for carving; partners oak – ‘king oak’ victorious at summer solstice but then declines and ‘king holly’ victorious at winter solstice; bad luck to cut tree down
  4. Ribwort plantain – named for ribs in leaves; also broad-leaf variety; edible in spring, becomes fibrous; high tannin, anti-histamine (better for nettle stings than dock), anti-inflammatory so good for wounds; seeds can be ground and used as thickener
  5. Hazel – roofing spars, bow drills, charcoal; milk from early nuts
  6. Beech – third best firewood after oak and ash; mast edible and source of oil
  7. Hawthorn – good firewood but also bad luck to cut down; berries used to make fruit leather or Turkish delight; lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular function
  8. Willow herb
  9. Field maple again
  10. Wych elm, 80 years or more – bigger leaves than elm, fluff in leaf joins; more resilient to dutch elm disease
  11. Bird cherry, not wild – weird Latin
  12. Dogwood – distinctive veins in leaves, which produce latex; straight stems used for skewers and arrows; good artists’ charcoal
  13. Spindle – smooth wood so no splinters and good for spindles, hence name; also known as ‘snake wood’ for the bark; wood good for artists’ charcoal; fruit is bright orange and poisonous
  14. Groundsel or ragwort – poisonous
  15. Pink? Pimpernel? – looks like scarlet pimpernel
  16. Hawkbit or catsear – similar to dandelion
  17. Cinque foil – not edible
  18. Yarrow – tea, medicines, wounds; contains beta thujone, ‘active ingredient’ in wormwood, absinthe
  19. Prunus – garden escapee; damsons in wild will degenerate and become smaller and more bitter
  20. Ash – keys are edible, e.g. pickle; buit as I’m allergic, probably best not…
  21. Privet – poisonous
  22. Wood avens or Herb bennet – roots can be used instead of cloves; roots and leaves for tea; leaves have 3+2 lobes; small yellow flower + burrs
  23. Laurel – crushed leaves smell of almond, i.e. cyanide; wood has nice creamy and red grain, used for bowls
  24. Is this privet?
  25. Or is that privet?

Mark’s immense knowledge of wild plants and their uses was giving out as we encountered suburbia!

  1. Cotoneaster family
  2. Box, variegated garden variety – used to make boxes; compare with privet, leaves are smaller, glossier and 3D-er
  3. Garlic mustard seed pods
  4. Honeysuckle – simple leaves (compare clematis); flower edible and good for sore throats
  5. Herb robert – red stem; neither herb nor edible
  6. Sloes
  7. Viburnum – looks like bay from a distance
  8. Black bindweed – seeds black, three-lobed and edible; at first glance looked like Russian vine to me
  9. Compass plant – in lettuce family, lactates and produces latex, hence Lactuca; leaf has spiny central vein
  10. Snow berry – inedible, ornamental
  11. Yellow fumitory
  12. Pendulous sedge – edible heads; plus lots of other grasses we didn’t really look at
  13. Vetch
  14. Orange hawkbit in my garden

And photos of most of them. Not very good ones, as they were mainly taken in a hurry as aide memoires. Here’s spindle…

Green Lanes

Green lanes typically follow a ridge, have deep banks, and are typically rich in biodiversity with established hedgerows and old trees. The part of Woodwater Lane we explored has the feel of times of yore, almost enclosed in greenery.

Apart from the occasional meander, probably around a property like Ludwell Lane around Mushroom Farm, the green lanes in this part of town tend to run parallel to the river. Mark told me of a mysterious green lane, supposedly starting at a gate on Barrack Road next to the Territorial Army, and running to County Hall. From the Google Maps satellite view, the eastern half is marked by a line of trees and runs next to Gras Lawn, but it’s not easy to make out the western half, and none of it appears on the 1801 OS map of Exeter.


Smash and grab

I cycled to the dog-walkers’ field above Ludwell Valley Park. I found blackberries. I picked blackberries. I cycled home. I made blackberry water ice.


Summer fruits

I was away from Exeter for a couple of weeks, and when I returned (though I returned) I remained absent. It was several days before I remembered it was ‘high summer’ and there was free fruit to be had in Ludwell Valley Park and along the suburban margins.

Or there should have been, but the cherry trees were bare, and the brambles tight-fisted. There were few red berries, and even fewer black, and those few were acid and anhydrous on the tongue. I picked a pound or so nevertheless, and will try jam. In amongst the brambles and nettles I came across a surprise raspberry cane, just reachable keeping the stomach drawn tight over the barbed wire.

There’s a solitary quince tree on the business park side of Ludwell, which I must visit soon. Quinces are coming in the municipal planting between the playground and Woodwater Lane, though short-commons and still hard green. The trees above may also produce an unusual fruit come autumn, but for the time being, the boomerang remains hidden, caught in their upper branches.

Ludwell does seem to have a reasonable crop of hazelnuts, not yet ripe but some already hard to crack between the teeth and producing tiny milky nuts nestled in white rind. There’s a fine line to be drawn between allowing them to come to ripeness, and allowing the grey squirrels to snaffle them all.

Maybe that’s where the cherries have all gone – to the canny neighbours who keep watch over ‘their’ trees. And the quinces could go the same way. And I’m glad of it. There aren’t enough people engaging with the seasons, and natural gluts and famines, instead of the false bounty of supermarket shelves.


Food #BAD11

I am a Bad Person and forgot to blog yesterday for Blog Action Day. But hopefully better late than never.

“Since 2007, Blog Action Day has focused bloggers around the world to blog about one important global topic on the same day. Past topics have included water, climate change and poverty. This year, Blog Action Day will be held on 16 October [oops!], which coincides with World Food Day, so naturally the 2011 theme is FOOD.”

So… food… an emotive subject for many. And as grain has become a commodity in modern times, and the market is controlled by just four companies, and many people don’t have access to even the most basic of human subsistence, very political too.

But I want to jot down some random thoughts around the L of the LOAF principles: Local, Animal friendly, Organic, Fairtrade.

When confronted by a bewildering array of choices – indeed a paralysing array, more politics – how do you apply these principles. For me, local trumps organic. The food mileage involved in bringing organic apples from the US or honey from Brazil is outrageous. So is the wastage of all those apples left unpicked and to rot on the ground in public spaces or private gardens.

So three cheers for Oxgrow, and their Edible Cartography project (see pic); for Abingdon Carbon Cutters and the Apple Day they held on Saturday; for all the farmers markets, farm shops and PYOs in Oxfordshire; and for people who grow their own food in gardens or allotments.

For a year until late-September, I was living alongside the Anglican Benedictine community at Mucknell Abbey near Worcester. The community moved into their new eco-monastery in November 2010, and one of the areas I was involved in was setting up the kitchen garden. It was so satisfying to see the seedlings I had planted growing, and to eat the results of my labour. And we had tomatos that tasted like tomatos, and courgettes that were sweet, and plentiful beans, chard, peppers, spinach, carrots, squash, and so on and so on. I miss it at the moment, but have been enthused for growing my own in the future. You can’t get more local than that!


I lived in Exeter before I moved to Mucknell. There are gazillions of amazing projects around local food in and around the city. Here are a few:

  • Real Food Store – shop selling local food, cafe and bakery in the city centre
  • Love Local Food – van bringing local food to the local communities
  • ECI Harvest [now closed] – encouringes people to grow food in their local community
  • Shillingford Organics – organic veg farm and veg box scheme … and hosting …
  • Exeter Growers Co-operative – involving people in the production of their own food
  • West Town Farm – organic grass-fed beef, education visits, and meat box scheme … and hosting …
  • OrganicARTS – promoting the arts and rural issues