Making a Break Part 1 - Nutrition
I worry about the responsibilities of parenthood. I am aware that a lot of things I just overthink, and that I'd do a pretty decent job even if I didn't spend so much time weighing up the pros and cons of every little decision, but, you know, we are who we are.
One of the things I worry about is the attitude that I am passing on to Ethan (and later Erica) concerning health and the relationship we have with our bodies. Growing up I didn't have a great relationship with my body and with fitness. I felt like team sport at school wasn't my thing, tied up as it was with social groups. And I tended to overeat when food was available (I was the one going up for 2nds, and 3rds, and...), whether I was hungry or not, because there wasn't much at home. I am keen not to pass on my own issues to my children. So we do things a little differently.
We try to go organic, where price allows, we focus on cooking from scratch and on quality ingredients so that I know what goes into everything. We eat a lot of vegetables (or in Ethan's case a lot of the 5 vegetables he'll let on his plate!). We have wholegrain pasta and bread (much to Ethan's disgust!), butter, not margarine, and most of the cakes and snacks we have I've baked.
And I don't just do these things, we talk about the elements of a balanced diet, the macro nutrients we need in each meal, and what food is good for the different needs of our bodies. Ethan knows that fibre helps you poo, that protein builds muscle, and that wholegrain carbohydrates give you energy over a long time. He knows that too much sugar isn't good for you, that broccoli has iron in it which is good for healthy blood, and that the calcium in cheese (which he loves!) will give him strong bones and teeth.
But this is the latest step in a long road for me, I didn't always know this stuff, and I wasn't always interested in it. Knowledge about food and nutrition until I was 25 was limited to Food Technology classes at school (traffic light sandwiches and baked apples, anyone?!). I grew up in the 80s with a fairly standard diet of processed foods, white bread and tuna pasta bake. It took identifying what was causing my IBS symptoms for me to start exploring cooking from scratch and how different foods affected me in different ways. I'm the sort of person who wants to know everything, and my interests are broad, so once I dipped my toe in the field, I wanted to find out more and more. I have a ridiculous collection of recipe books, most of them with long introductions on the benefits of different foods, or how to incorporate more veg into your diet.
So, for those of you who listened to my visit to the #projectbodyconfident podcast, you'll know that I spent some of lockdown talking to members of my family about their relationships with health and fitness. I had conversations with my Mum and my Gran, as well as with a friend's daughter. I was curious what the different generations had been through in terms of their relationships with food, nutrition, exercise and body image, and where we have ended up. I was also interested in how transgenerational patterns can be broken to move towards a healthier way of using and understanding our bodies.
Food has changed a lot since my Gran was young. There was still rationing into her teens, so dieting wasn't a thing. In her words "there wasn't a chance of anyone getting fat!" Portions were smaller and food was obviously a lot more "traditional". The emphasis on your body just wasn't there, and she reckons that she didn't start thinking about her body until it started to stop doing things. There was a more traditional understanding of what people's bodies needed too, what work involved and what men and women should eat. We used to laugh at family gatherings; often when there were lots of people over for dinner there would be two desserts, one year apple pie and strawberry pavlova, and the men were expected to eat the apple pie as they "had more physical jobs". My Uncle was a teacher and Mark worked in an office designing gearboxes on a computer!
By the time I was born the 80s had brought its focus on convenience and processed food. A lot of people considered that boil in the bag fish (aarrggh, the leeching plastic!) and Fray Bentos pies were the height of convenience and therefore quality. We had margarine at home, and low fat everything, which we know now was full of sugar. I remember my mum constantly being on some fad diet. Not that she was any different from those women around her. It felt like an era of cottage cheese on crackers, and I remember nearly always having ryvita in the house. My Mum remembers that, by the time she hit her 20s, people had started to exercise for health. Leisure time was more of a thing: as she put it previously "People had been too busy and knackered with housework and walking to the shops"!
I don't remember my mum talking much about food, in terms of what we should and shouldn't eat. We had no money growing up and so if food was there, you ate it, and if you didn't like it, you ate it, or you'd go hungry. We ate a lot of starchy, carby, cheap meals and I can empathise with a young mum desperately trying to fill up two growing girls, and later a boy who appeared to need at least a loaf of bread for breakfast! This is why I hold no truck with the commentators who say that eating healthily is cheaper than buying lots of processed rubbish and so all poor people should be skinny and living on homemade vegetable soup... Carbs are an easy and cheap way to fill up hungry children with limited palates (especially as all the buy-one-get-one-free deals seem to be packaged, processed carbs and sugar). And planning and preparing balanced meals from scratch requires education, time and energy (physical as well as gas and electricity), all of which are often in short supply amongst those being judged. Life is never as easy as the Daily Mail makes out.
However, in my current, more comfortable bubble, information about food and nutrition is much easier to come by now that it was in either my Mum or my Gran's generations. Even when I first started thinking about nutrition, 10 years ago, my primary source of information was the Runner's World magazine that Mark subscribed too. It was seen as a niche and specialist thing to concern yourself with, only necessary if you were training for a marathon, or some other body-punishing event. Nowadays, Instagram is full of nutritional advice. Not all of it is spot on, but if you're even the slightest bit interested you can find healthy recipes on Pinterest, nutritionists to follow on Facebook, Joe Wicks cooking on Youtube, and Jamie Oliver pushing the importance of vegetables on your TV. Fat is no longer considered the enemy - that role is left for sugar, and the focus is on whole, unprocessed foods. The ease which drew a lot of my Mum's generation to ready meals is generally not seen as a fair trade-off for the unpronounceable ingredients listed on the back of the packets. Talking to my friend's daughter, and one of the games teachers at her school, nutrition is a frequently mentioned topic, with posters up in the dining hall encouraging healthy eating, and publishing of menus so that parents can ensure a balanced and healthy diet is being achieved. Having spent quite a lot of time in secondary schools in the last few years, I know that the food technology curriculum has moved on from designing sandwich packaging. What constitutes a healthy plate is being taught, as is the nutritional make up of different foods alongside actual cooking skills. The government, too, has its very successful "5 a day" message (even though we know now that we should be aiming for 7 or even more portions of fruit and veg) which has made its way into the national psyche. When my Gran was growing up, much fruit was either rationed or impossible to come across, and for my Mum she encouraged us to have one piece of fruit a day, and this wasn't solely down to finances but general wisdom at the time. Messages have changed for the better as our understanding of how food interacts with our bodies increases. I hope that all this means people growing up today will be armed with the information and skills to fuel their bodies healthily, and to decipher the way their bodies react to different nutrients. I am eternally optimistic, but I like to think that we are a long way from cabbage soup diets and cutting out whole food groups in order to get the results we think we need.
That's another thing. Although for my Gran, dieting wasn't part of the picture, for many women in my Mum's generation and for me 10-15 years ago, food was often seen as the enemy, or a tool to make your body look a certain way - thinner, basically. Food was a necessary evil - Kate Moss' "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels". But, with our greater understanding of how food works, we seem to have come to a healthier relationship with it. And a more realistic and varied attitude towards how we look. The strong not skinny movement meant that we needed to consider how to fuel our bodies well for the hard work we were doing in the gym, you can't lift on rice cakes. And the more varied body types get seen in the media, the less people (especially children and teenagers) grow up thinking that they have to look a particular way, and therefore eat as little as possible to get there. Food is not something you have to punish yourself for eating.
I think that's the other thing I want to pass on to my children. Alongside the "food as fuel" information that I will give them, I want to encourage them to enjoy food as a celebration, as a social activity, as a method of exploring the world around them. In every society that there has ever been, celebrations have centred around food - feasts after the hunt, the breaking of bread in the Christian Church, Easter family gatherings, Christmas dinners, bringing in the harvest, brunch with friends after a long absence. Food is a leveller, and sharing it encourages friendship and community. Munching on a cracker of cottage cheese is not going to cut it when we are finally allowed to get back to some sort of normal after the pandemic. We'll need roast lamb and spring vegetables, nachos with guacamole and salsa, a moist carrot cake with a large coffee as we catch up with those we have missed so much.
Right, that's made me properly hungry! I'm off to peruse the recipe pages for something tasty to snack on!