Monday, March 3, 2014

Improving the odds

I recently sided with Lucy Kellaway on the importance of traditional social conventions and rituals in relation to eating and drinking, and mentioned in passing that I had reverted to drinking ordinary tea made in a pot rather than tea-bag tea.

That piece may have given a slightly misleading picture of my views because, though I certainly do feel – and no doubt will continue to feel – an emotional attachment to the rituals of eating and drinking, I must confess that my basic approach to food is more utilitarian than aesthetic.

I certainly share Kellaway's view that food itself, no matter how good, is "curiously forgettable" and that most of the real pleasure comes from the anticipation and the ritual.

Furthermore I see the current cultural obsession with food and the taste of food as being symptomatic of real cultural decline.

But my personal approach to food is in practice more closely linked to hypochondriacal tendencies than to conservative ones. When I was in my twenties a doctor asked me if I had read Three Men in a Boat. He was thinking of the (once) well-known passage describing how one of the characters leafs through a medical dictionary and finds he has symptoms that match virtually every disease in the book.

My usual way of dealing with perceived symptoms is to tweak my diet and hope they go away. I'll resist the temptation to give details of my current symptoms beyond saying that they are not painful or debilitating, just vaguely suggestive (as my symptoms invariably are) of very dark possibilities.

Of course, dark possibilities crystallize into dark realities for all of us in time; the trick (and it is a trick) is to keep that inevitable reckoning out of sight (and so out of mind) for as long as possible.

Part of this is psychological game-playing but the most important part relates to real choices impinging on general health.

And food choices, along with decisions relating to sleep and exercise, etc., give us – within the limits set by our respective genomes and other factors beyond our control – the ability to maximize (or minimize) our chances of longevity and well-being. We can alter the odds considerably, in fact. And this, to my mind at least, is hugely significant.

Maintaining traditional habits and patterns of eating and drinking is all very well. But the simple truth is that any such habits and customs – however appealing – will get short shrift from me if they stand in the way of my latest dietary prescriptions.*

* Just to give a sense of where I am at the moment... No alcohol, no sugar, no white flour, minimal caffeine (and no caffeine late in the day). Staples include: anchovies; lettuce mix; various fruits and vegetables; yogurt; heavy grainy bread; cheese; tahini; peanut butter; yeast extract; brewer's yeast; pea soup (with ham) and other types of soup. That's the bare bones of the 'what'; I may elaborate on the 'why' – on my rationale – another time. (The concept of glycemic load is important; and recently I decided to increase my intake of purines...)