I Quit Sugar: What happens when you inevitably* screw up.

Before I began the IQS programme, I had afternoon tea booked with a friend for a couple of months down the line. It actually fell in week seven of the programme – around the time a certain amount of sugar, or at least sweetness, creeps back in, but before you’ve really completed the programme.

Now, I know you’re thinking “well, that’ll have been the screw up, then”. But actually it wasn’t. I found myself pleasantly and comfortably controlled on the day – except it wasn’t a case of control but just calmly allowing my body to decide what it was comfortable with. I ate scones, but with a little scrape of jam because more than that didn’t taste that good anymore. I ate half each of three little pastries but then I just felt like I was done. I had half my glass of prosecco because it was too hot to drink any more.

I’ve got to say, I felt pretty smug. It was like everything everyone says about moderation had totally clicked but, more than that, I had gone in with the attitude that I wasn’t going to be restrained or say “I shouldn’t”. I was going to go in and have exactly what I wanted. And by giving myself full permission to do that, I didn’t feel the need to overindulge.

Flushed by my success, I went back to normal eating the following day. And then work book club hit, and suddenly wine and orange juice and crisps and sweet popcorn and fizzy cola bottles and jelly beans were all within a foot of me. And for the first time in weeks they seemed appealing. And I went for it. Spectacularly.

Within the hour, the following symptoms appeared:

  • Itchy, hot skin
  • Jitters / shakes (not the visible kind)
  • Headache

Overnight, I experienced:

  • Poor sleep
  • Anxious thoughts (you know, the 3am type. At 3am.)

The morning I felt:

  • Bloated and rough with a skin flare up.

 

Now, there might of course be other reasons for some of these. While I had very little wine, alcohol does have an effect on sleep so that could be a contributing factor. We’ve had a bit of familial upheaval recently with schools and whatnot – not negative, but stressful. It might or might not be related to things that happen to women on a lunar basis. Hell, there could well be a psychosomatic element. But it seemed thoroughly too coincidental by half that all these symptoms appeared suddenly, en masse, on the night after I chose to gorge on something I’ve been avoiding for weeks.

I do wonder how it is I fell into the trap in the first place – trying to be sociable? Lady cravings? Overconfidence in my new found ability to say no? – but from discussing it with one of my friends it seems she did the same: ate sugar, felt bad, regretted it, got back on the wagon. Lather, rinse, repeat until the message sinks in. And certainly Sarah Wilson talks a lot about ‘lapsing’ (which, as she says, is not a lapse but just an experiment to see if you really want to continue eating sugar). After my experience, I’m not in a hurry to repeat my test, and I’ve been ‘crowding out’ with fats and veggies today to try and stave off the inevitable sugar hangover cravings.

I present this not really as evidence of anything expect my own experience, so do take from it what you will. It’s convinced me to get back on track, but then I’m the only person I have to convince…

*By which I mean when I inevitably screw up. Your mileage may vary, and your engine may be better tuned. But if you were all that brilliant, you wouldn’t be reading about quittin’ sugar, cos you’d have done it already so ha! Now we’re rubbish human together. Group hug!

I Quit Sugar: a few questions and misconceptions addressed

It was nice to get a little flurry of comments after my last post, in which I explained my having hopped aboard the I Quit Sugar bandwagon. A few comments and questions came out of that that I thought I would address for anyone considering taking part but feeling scared to*.

1. I can’t give up carbs!

Great, you don’t have to! I’ve eaten bread, pasta, noodles, rice (and rice crackers) and sundry other carbs throughout. While watching sugar will naturally reduce the amount of carbs you have overall, fructose is the only thing you’re really watching for. If you have had an indulgent day and want to get yourself back on track it can be helpful to also cut out grains for a day. Plus many of the carb-based recipes that are included are GF or paleo or reduced grain, because this also reduces sugars and increases fats. But it’s primarily not a low-carb diet.

2. I could just rule out processed sugar and have natural sugars…

Yeah, at least for me, for this shiz to work, I had to nix all sources of fructose, including fruit, for the cold turkey part of the programme. Otherwise I find that the cravings are just as severe – and now that I’ve started including the odd helping of fruit here and there I notice it immediately. Sarah Wilson specifically talks about reintroducing – and not demonsing – fruit but keeping it to no more than about two portions a day. This actually chimes with general health advice to get the bulk of your five (or eight, or whatever) a day from vegetables.

3. I couldn’t give up the occasional glass of wine.

You don’t have to do that either. I’ve had a glass here and there throughout (though I’ve found my inclination to drink has taken a nosedive and I’ll just have one drink – or even half – when I do). Wine is actually low-fructose, as are some spirits provided you stick to no-sugar mixers.

I actually had my first bite of dessert the other day at a family lunch, though technically I shouldn’t have for another two weeks. It was one of my favourite kinds of things, and I took a spoonful gladly. And then, having tasted it, I didn’t want any more. I tried one other mouthful – of something else I like but rarely get to eat – and that was quite enough too. It sated my desire for sweetness and being sociable, and then I was done. And, in fact, the next day I felt a bit snacky and substantially bloated, so I wasn’t in any vast hurry to try again.

This doesn’t sound so incredible unless you consider that prior to this I had virtually no impulse control when it came to sweet treats. I texted my friend who got me on the programme with the words “IS THIS HOW NORMAL PEOPLE EAT?!”. It feels really weird to see longer gaps appearing between meals, less snacking, fewer cravings and no propensity to eat until painfully stuffed.

I’m into week six now. I look forward to regrouping at the end of week eight and sharing my thoughts, observations and tips. But so far, so amazingly freakin’ good.

*Why are we so scared of this stuff? Me included! We want to cling to our routines like they’re the only possible way to live, even when they’re hurting us. Ah, humans.

I Quit Sugar: my thoughts from the half-way point

Suddenly, I Quit Sugar is everywhere. Tube ads, articles… maybe I’m just noticing it more because I’m following the programme, but it does seem that it’s the new kid on the food fad block.

I actually didn’t come to it through any of the marketing, but through a very good friend who tried it. I wasn’t immediately convinced, but recognised that I do suffer from poor impulse control and tendencies to binge when around sugary foods – including fruit.

Still, I had questions. For example:

  • Isn’t fruit sugar good sugar, as long as you eat the whole fruit? (We all know that thing about fruit juice being high sugar without the fibre, right?)
  • Isn’t it magical thinking to claim that quitting sugar will be the answer to various health woes?
  • How is it even possible to live without sugar?
  • Isn’t it rather difficult for anyone on a restricted income to carry out this kind of diet?

So, I thought the best thing to do was read the book, and once I’d done that I was happy to try the programme. Sarah Wilson’s story is necessarily personal, but she does draw on actual research to make her case – and certainly there is something disturbing about the massive volumes of sugar we consume on a daily basis. I also have PCOS, which goes hand in hand with insulin resistance, and a close relative with Type II diabetes. So, no matter what, I needed to reduce my sugar intake, and if starting out by going (more or less) cold turkey on fructose – the only kind of sugar Wilson really sets her sights on – was the way to do it, then I was going to give it a try.

I’m now into my fifth week of an eight week programme, and in that time I’ve had no chocolate, cake, biscuits, table sugar, added-sugar drinks or sweetened processed foods. I’ve had very limited fruit intake, but substantially larger vegetable intake (and I was no salad-avoider before this). Once in a while I have looked lingeringly on a dessert and sometimes I’ve overdosed on fat instead (hellloooo, cheese!), but mostly I’ve kept to an unprocessed, whole food heavy diet. And, to be honest, it’s not been that difficult – once you step off the sugar rollercoaster, it does become easier to resist it.

Here’s what I’ve found so far:

  • The book and programme themselves are actually very non-specific. Apart from stating things to avoid (and the real cold turkey phase doesn’t hit until about week 3), there are no meal plans. There’s no insistence on what you should eat, but shedloads of recipes that could help. I feel much closer to following a Health at Every Size type approach, because I’m choosing my food mainly based on what tastes good and appeals to me.
  • Some of the suggestions I have simply ignored. I don’t judge anyone who wants to follow Wilson’s advice to beat sugar cravings with a spoonful of coconut oil straight from the jar, but I can’t say I find any delight in the thought of downing something the consistency of petroleum jelly. I like some coconut milk based meals but I’m not that big a fan, so I’ve had to adapt. I simply cannot stomach porridge made with 125ml of coconut milk and use less than half of that per bowl of pumpkin porridge, upping the pumpkin content instead. It means I’m full for a bit less long, but I actually couldn’t finish the first bowl when I made it to the recipe. I also leave off the toasted coconut flakes – too much!
  • There are times when the science gets woolly and that annoys me and makes me question the overall methodology; while it’s true that there might well be some physical symptoms that reflect the adjustment from one diet to another (I’ve experienced some myself), suggesting that this is ‘toxins leaving the body’ sounds, frankly, a bit woo for my liking. On one occasion where I had a meal out and likely ate some sugary sauces, I did find my digestive system reacting negatively.
  • I have lost some weight, presumably because when you replace sugar with fats you feel full faster and therefore eat less overall. Out of curiosity, I’ve been on and off tracking what I ate, and my caloric intake is definitely lower than usual even though I’ve been making no effort to restrict it, or even looking at how many calories anything contains.
  • Over time, sugary foods start to look less appealing. Some restaurant desserts were harder to resist because they’re so beautifully made and really nice chocolate and / or ice cream will probably never stop being appealing, at least to me. But when you’ve committed to low sugar, breaking that promise to yourself means you feel like it had better be worth it – and be the best confection you can get your hands on.
  • It IS expensive – the fact that I reference unprocessed whole foods and restaurant meals should indicate that. I reject the term ‘clean eating’ on several counts; firstly, when a phrase means something different to each person who uses it, it means nothing to anyone, and secondly the implication that anyone not eating like me is ‘dirty’ is pretty obnoxious. There are times when this programme seems as exclusive as so-called ‘clean eating’. No, it’s not impossible to follow on a lower budget, and the slow cooker book in particular will help with batch cooking and family meals. Still, it would be a lot more effort – effort I can’t imagine it would always be a priority to make. So I recognise that to be able to carry this out is a pretty privileged activity.

I still don’t have the answers to all my questions. I’m now more or less convinced that fruit intake is fine provided it’s kept to two small servings per day, but that fructose in general does have strange body effects (I’ve always wondered, for example, why bananas are supposed to be filling when they make me ravenously hungry, and the high fructose content does explain that). I recognise that yes, it is tricky to do this on a restricted income but no, it’s not impossible to keep sugar intake to a reasonable level all other things being equal. The jury is still very much out on the health conditions; while diet clearly can impact, and help prevent, various conditions, I think it’s unquestionably risky to claim that giving up or eating a particular foodstuff is going to be the Solution To All Health Woes. So I choose to continue taking that particular claim with a large pinch of salt.

It will be interesting to see what happens after the eight weeks, and whether the habit really is broken for life – particularly as Wilson does advocate testing yourself afterwards by trying out sugary foods. I can but report back in a few weeks…

Sugar Free Almond Milk Chai

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A double batch with loads of tea – a little too much, actually, but it makes a striking photo!

…of sorts, anyway.

There are lots of good reasons to enjoy chai – a spiced, milky tea – but too often you get the Starbucks-type version, which is an ultra-sweet syrup added to hot milk. Making your own is a relaxing ritual, and absolutely worth it, if for no other reason than to find a way to use up some of those bottles of spices bought for other recipes but rapidly losing their freshness and gathering dust in a cupboard or rack somewhere.

Now I’m the first to admit the version below is lacking in authenticity in a big way; not only does it use almond milk, but the mix of spices was more dictated by what I like and happened to have in the house than by attachment to any particular tradition. So please see this as an experiment more than a recipe.

This makes a generous mugful; I have also made double the amount and kept it in a small insulated flask to sip through the afternoon. And please note that sugar free means fructose free – so it’s I Quit Sugar suitable, but does contain an optional sweetener in the form of rice malt syrup.

300ml unsweetened almond milk
1 heaped tablespoon black tea (I favour Darjeeling)
6 cardamom pods
3 whole cloves
1 star anise
3 whole peppercorns
1-2 cinnamon sticks
A dash of ground ginger, or a small knob of fresh, grated
A dash of grated nutmeg (fresh is nice, but not essential)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (powder if you want to be completely fructose free, but it is just a trace)
Up to 1 tsp rice malt syrup, optional (to taste)

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I do like the odd dash of cinnamon over the top, too… (And do you love the Spaceship Earth-reminiscent mug?)

Don’t be tempted to overdo the tea to get a darker colour – it will stew and add bitterness, as I found out when I got a bit too enthusiastic….

1. Warm the milk on the hob to just below simmering point. Bringing it to this point first prevents the tea from stewing later.
2. Add the tea and flavourings, and keep at a very gentle simmer for a couple of minutes. Take off the heat and allow to sit for another minute so it completely brews without boiling.
3. Strain and sip.

In my more experimental phases, I’ve been known to throw in a teaspoon or so of milky ooling tea to add a buttery caramel note, but that’s definitely an unorthodox mix of cultures…

Cooking with Pinterest (oh, and Tom Aikens…)

Baked Scallops with Sauce Vierge. We went a little overboard on the tarragon, but it was still delicious.

Baked Scallops with Sauce Vierge. We went a little overboard on the tarragon, but it was still delicious.

God bless Vikki Morgan‘s busy schedule, and her generosity in sharing her invitations to cool events.

When Pinterest extended an offer to join Tom Aikens (no big deal! *stricken face*) at Atelier des Chefs and learn to cook three beautiful seafood dishes, Tiff Jones and I grabbed the opportunity to go in Vikki’s place, and were warmly welcomed by the lovely Lizzie and the team for a most awesome evening.

With bubbly and Chablis making the rounds, we quickly relaxed and got into groups of five – ours included the wonderful Botanical Baker, Urvashi Roe, whom I’ve been following online for a long while now – dividing our tasks and trying to cook along and follow Tom’s instructions. His reputation for being frenetically active well-earned, he dashed in to save us from ourselves – seasoning and stirring here, tasting and plating there and occasionally indulgently (kindly) shaking his head at our less than perfect skills.

We made three dishes – salmon with pickled beetroots, baked scallops and sea bass with a delightful citrussy, herby pea shoot salad – and sat down to eat and drink as a group afterwards. The setting is great, and I think I’ll be back before long for one of ADC’s courses (especially as I discovered they weren’t nearly as expensive as I thought they would be; I have my eye on sushi, knife skills and vegetarian classes).

A personal highlight of the evening for me was discovering I’m not completely terrible at thinly slicing fish (a skill Casper will be delighted with, if only he can sample the results). But really what we took away from it was exactly – I think – what the team hoped we did; that is, that cooking fish and seafood respectfully with fresh herbs and lovely dressings and sauces can make for beautiful light meals.

If more inspiration is needed, the Pinterest team would undoubtedly want me to remind you (and they’d be right) that Pinterest is absolutely heaving with recipes, food photography and cooking tips – and you can of course search by ingredient and recipe now. I’m certainly going to be revisiting and reinvigorating my own boards, and you should join me. You’ll find other pins there from the night, for a start.

Thanks to Pinterest for a fab evening, which the team has blogged about here, Mr A himself for his precious time and expert advice, Tiff for her awesome company and Vikki for the opportunity to attend.

Disneyland Paris: tips for visiting with guests with disabilities

We were privileged recently to have our second trip to Disneyland Paris within a year, and this time we had family with us that included someone in a wheelchair.

Now, just as all people are different, all disabilities are different – and two wheelchair users will not have the same needs as each other. However, I do now have a few tips for navigating the parks and transport when accounting for a chair.

I’ve written this from the perspective of someone who has attended with a guest with reduced mobility; some of this applies across multiple other needs but there’s definitely more to be discovered, so this really is only intended as a useful starting point.

Five Tips for Guests with Special Needs

Before arriving:

1. Check the online guides for info. Although the DLP website can have its navigation issues, there is a section devoted to guests with additional needs. You can download accessibility guides here, which include a chart of rides and attractions which do / don’t require transfer from a wheelchair (off the top of my head, all shows are non-transfer, and It’s a Small World and Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast both have modified vehicles which don’t require a transfer).

2. Plan for transportation options. If you’re driving to DLP, parking for guests with additional needs is in the parking lot for the Disneyland Hotel (the big pink confection that sits over the Disneyland Park gates). You emerge right by the entrance, and you’ll be given a four-digit code to exit the car park when you’re ready. If you’re at a resort hotel and want to use the buses, there are two options. There are not ‘kneeling’ buses, but if they’re aware that there is a guest boarding in a chair the driver can pull right up to the curb to allow easy transfer (they likely won’t otherwise). Alternatively, there is an adapted minibus, and the concierge staff at the hotel and Guest Services in the park can arrange this for you, though it means a bit more inconvenience. As my family joined us there by car, that’s what the member of the group with restricted mobility used – so I can’t comment on the bus options, but all Cast Members were very keen to advise on services.

3. Be aware of distances. This one is more a warning for those whose role it will be to push anyone in a manual wheelchair. Surfaces are mostly wide and level, and there are few inclines, but distances mean it can be hard work. There are ways to help make things easier (eg, don’t go through the castle each time, but zip around past Bella Notte gelateria / Small World on the right to get to Fantasyland without having to huff uphill), but you will need a certain amount of stamina, particularly if heading back and forth between parks.

On arrival:

4. Pick up your green pass from Guest Services. When you arrive in the Disneyland Park, head straight to Guest Services near the arches under the railway station. Present your proof of disability status (the standard UK blue badge is fine) and you’ll be given a green pass which you’ll need to use any of the accessible entrances / adapted ride vehicles. Additional note: If you stay in a resort hotel, you’ll also get a modified hotel ID (the thing that means you’ll get in for Extra Magic Hours etc). It will have a sticker which indicates your status, and means you don’t have to pick a particular time for breakfast but can go when you’re ready. This also applies to up to another four people in your party. Because our bookings were linked, even though we stayed an extra two days, we had a modified ID for the duration of our visit.

5. Make appointments at non-transfer rides. Rides which have adapted vehicles, such as It’s a Small World need pre-booking to ride. You’ll go to a separate entrance (in fact, for IASW, it’s the exit), and they’ll sign you up for the next available slot, so you can come back there just before your time. A ramp is lowered, and you can wheel your chair straight in, plus there’s room for several additional guests. For Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast you queue at a special side entrance near the shop until the adapted car is ready to come back around (it’s an Omnimover type ride). You then head straight to the boarding area, the conveyor belt is stopped and you can wheel on to the car, with a guest next to you. It is quite a tight fit on BLLB, but should accommodate a variety of chairs.  We didn’t attempt any transfer rides, but I know from past experience that Cast Members will do things like stop conveyor belts, or slightly delay vehicle departure, to allow a smooth and stress-free transition.

Disney Parks in general are set up to accommodate a wide variety of needs, and Cast Members are usually very helpful. Accessible rooms are available in the resort hotels with suitable bathrooms etc, too. The best place you can start with any questions is giving the team a call – most issues can be resolved with enough prior warning.

Happy travelling!

(No disclaimer needed – it was a family holiday, not a free trip.)

Alex’s Arty #100forChildsi

My first sketch for the #100forChildsi challenge. Yes, i did it very quickly.

My first sketch for the challenge. Yes, i did it very quickly.

The short version of this story, without the biographical waffle, is here. It’s the most important bit, and I’d love it if you would read it and consider donating. 

It’s a funny thing, but I didn’t realise until very recently how much I wanted to be an artist.

I have always wanted to be a writer. It’s my favourite part of my job, I go to Urban Writers Retreats, I read lots and I think about writing a lot. But, if I’m really honest, other than professionally – and here on this blog – I don’t do that much of it. I find it hard to write except in specific ways and spaces. It’s not something I find easy to do scribbling down a few ideas by hand; I need a laptop, a lack of diversions, a focus.

Writing will always be my first love. But it’s not really the form of creativity I employ most of the time. What I do – what, I’ve only just recently come to realise, I’ve always done – is draw.

As a child, I doodled incessantly. My rough book and homework diary were covered in sketches and lettering, particularly the recurrent themes of skirts and dresses, shoes and boots and mirror writing. I drew a lot of eyes with dense, spiky eyelashes; bottles were another favourite so I could shade in the curves and give them a little bit of three-dimensional depth. My art teacher – ah, wonderful Mrs Aplin – told me it was a shame I didn’t continue on to GCSE art, and I assumed this was because she was kind and tactful. It occurs to me now she might have meant it, but it’s rather too late to ask. When we could choose a number of subjects for free general study at A Level, I was right back in the art room, making theatre masks (one was unspeakably awful, like some sort of horror movie sex doll) and then hastily changing track to ink and watercolour, where I was merely a bit crap, and sometimes okay. I remember once doing quite an involved pencil copy of the cover of a magazine and realising that – albeit in a lumpen, potato-y kind of way – it was recognisably similar to the source material. (The cover shot in question was of Jan de Bont; that stayed with me because of the infamous scalping story). And this really has been the essence of my life in art: everything’s always looked more or less how it was meant to, kind of – but not exactly.

And so gradually, I began to wish that I was “good at drawing”. That I was some miraculous talent who could seamlessly translate what was in my head onto paper. Who could have a gift for a dash of colour here, a smear of white there, which would just so render the shape, lighting or depth I wanted. I was drawn to deceptively simple, cartoonish sketching – since my favourite artists range from Edward Hopper and Francis Bacon to Mary Blair and Oliver Jeffers, I’ve never been about photorealistic, perfect portraiture, but about colourful, sometimes impressionistic, worlds. I wanted to be able to swish a pencil across a page and instantly create an understanding of the form I was going for in someone else’s mind. But, I wasn’t born with the talent, so…

So, yes, for a relatively smart person, I can be pretty stupid, huh? Of course there are natural talents, but as a very smart lady, Stacey Conway of AXES, once reminded me about her own musical abilities, it takes a shitload of hard work to turn the seedling of talent into the blossom of good art. And I wasn’t really doing that hard work. Or at least, I didn’t think I was, except for maybe that time I doodled – while listening! I always listen – through that meeting, and when I bought acrylics and created Moomin pictures for Ramona, and when for several nights in a row Ash would sit with me and challenge me to draw various animals in minute-long pencil sketches, or every single time I mapped out any project, content calendar or presentation in diagrams and sketches, or all those times I said “I can’t explain this, let me draw it for you”. I’d been practising all along. Just not regularly enough or in a focussed enough way to make it really come together.

Late last year, I decided to carry a notebook and some fineliners around with me all the time. At least once a week or so – alright, maybe once a fortnight – I’d sketch something, and while I was on holiday a week or so ago I spent two days at the V&A, one of them mostly devoted to sketching. I’ve become semi-serious about getting better, thinking of characters to develop, and even planning a stop-motion animation that will involve painting and crocheting some sets. But I’m used to having big ideas and then distracting myself away from completing them.

And then, #100forChildsi happened. I was challenged to get sponsorship to fulfil a life’s wish. And I felt pretty embarrassed, because the kinds of life’s wishes that Child’s i grants – well, God it makes my droning about lack of talent extraordinarily pathetic. These are children who for one reason or another have been abandoned, and found themselves in emergency care. And Child’s i works on the principle that children are better off in homes than institutions, and where possible they’re best off with their families. And so it reunites family members and helps children avoid orphanages. Now that’s what I call fulfilling a life’s wish.

Next to that, my lack of commitment to something I enjoy is pretty ridiculous. So I’ve joined the #100forChildsi team to raise £100 by doing a drawing or sketch or painting every day for 100 days and snapping the results for Instagram (or at least bits of them – I reserve the right to edit down the really rubbish stuff!). And I’m asking family, friends or generous strangers to encourage me by helping the extremely deserving charity, which is pretty tiny and punches well above its weight. Your money will be put to good use. My JustGiving page is here, and you can see what the rest of us have pledged to do on the team page. You can also find out more about it there, and maybe join us. Everyone is welcome, bucket list in hand.

Now, best get moving so that I have enough time to do my next sketch tomorrow…