Food. It’s brilliant, isn’t it? Sometimes too brilliant.
I’ve never really understood food though, beyond what types taste nice (biscuits, crisps) and what types aren’t actually food at all (crocodiles, washing machines). The upshot of this is that I’ve never been a particularly skinny bloke. Not proper fat either, but certainly more Chris Moyles than Usain Bolt. I’ve always tried to pretend that I was reasonably sensible with what I ate (for instance I knew that fudge for breakfast was only for special occasions) but in reality I was piling on the pounds with no sign of anything happening to change that.
And then in late 2010 I started running, and everything did change.
Umm… except it didn’t.
A year of transforming myself from deluded couch potato into a sleek(ish) powerful (not really) running machine had changed absolutely nothing. Don’t get me wrong; I felt great both physically and mentally, and the sense of achievement was reward enough. But as great as I felt, my scales (on the rare occasion I got them out) told me, in no uncertain terms, to stop lying to it about all this running that I was supposedly doing, and to just have another tasty pie instead. I didn’t get it – everyone talks about running being a great way of losing weight, and yet no matter how much mileage I clocked up my stomach refused to take any notice.
Now, I know that some of you may be thinking “ah, but you were probably losing fat and gaining muscle, which is heavier than fat. And also, why do you keep writing about wombles so much?”
But the thing is, my scales know about all that stuff*. They not only tell me my weight, but also my BMI, muscle composition, water percentage, inside leg measurement and whether I’d look good with a ponytail. I think there’s a button on there somewhere that guesses the name of your favourite fictional pirate too. RoboScales™ laughs at my hopes of muscle vs fat, and instead points to my neatly calculated body fat content (just under 27% and hardly budging all year) and my visceral fat level (15% and not budging at all). Visceral fat was the one I was most bothered about, as it represents the fatty build-up around your internal organs. The nasty fat, not the happy, jolly, buy-you-a-hat-and-take-you-to-the-pictures fat. It wasn’t fair; I was a bloody runner now – I shouldn’t be faced with this stubborn “15” staring at me every time I stepped on my scales. Surely that was for the people grafted to their armchairs watching daytime TV, the legions who queue up outside Greggs every morning while theatrically rubbing their tummies and licking their lips. So I did what any other sensible person would do. I ran faster, I ran further and I ran harder. And when that didn’t work I just stopped weighing myself.
But this story would be a bit depressing without a happy ending…
I wish there was some fantastic revelation that I could share with you all. A shiny, magical epiphany in which a ghostly apparition of Jim Fixx*** appeared before me in a dream and explained that although, yes, houmous was technically a healthy snack, eating it with a shovel sort of negated any benefit. But, as is often the case, the truth was a lot more mundane, and involved considerably fewer spectral athletes spouting chickpea-based wisdom. The lovely Mrs Plod had downloaded an app that calculates your daily calories and factors in any exercise you’ve done that day. She was taking great pleasure in working out, for instance, how many hobnobs you could eat to balance out fifteen minutes of intensive colouring-in. Because we share an iTunes account, the app soon popped up unbidden**** on my phone. Never one to look a gift-app in the mouth (and once I’d got bored of idly calculating my sprint:macaroon ratio) I started to have a proper play around with the thing. I was shocked to see how all the supposedly healthy-ish stuff I’d been chucking down my throat added up, to the point where a typical sandwich-based lunch weighed in at over a thousand calories. I don’t have much of a knack for forward planning, so writing out a proper diet in advance was never going to be an option, but in the days that followed I used the app to maintain a food diary. It became clear very quickly that a lot of my problem was portion control, combined with “stealth” calories sneaking in under my radar and ruining my chances of featuring on the cover of the Marie Claire swimsuit special any time soon.
I was learning more and more about the food I was eating, and one of the things I quickly learned was that eating sensibly didn’t have to mean going hungry. Before too long I adopted the complex culinary strategy of chucking stuff in a Tupperware container until I couldn’t fit any more in, and then calling it “lunch”. Mornings now see me merrily chopping up peppers, mushrooms, beetroot, tomatoes, olives, spinach, fresh ginger, carrots, pork pie. Okay, maybe not the last one so much. And then once I’ve built up a veggy foundation, I throw a little protein into the mix, in the form of chicken, quinoa, mackerel, cheese (feta or cottage, not string), tuna or similar. Nom nom, and indeed, nom. Bread, chocolate and crisps made way for fruit, nuts and light yoghurt. Yes, I know I’m starting to sound like a diet bore, but I’m enjoying it. So there. Breakfast follows a similarly sensible theme, with a slightly more relaxed approach to evening meal (just so I don’t drive Mrs Plod too mad with my latest thing).
So is it working? In a word, yes. As well as feeling much healthier, I’m starting to see the weight drop off, including that pesky 15 finally dropping to 14 (with hopefully more to come). On top of that, I’m finding my runs faster and easier (nearly a minute off my 5k PB!), which I guess has as much to do with my new structured approach to training as it does with my discovery of the fact that toblerone isn’t one of the four main food groups. To be honest, the reason it’s going so well is because it doesn’t feel like a diet. I’m enjoying learning more about the stuff I put on my plate, but not half as much as I enjoy pretending I’m the new Hogwarts potions master while throwing ingredients into my latest lunch pot.
I’d still do terrible things for a low-calorie houmous though.