I have two psychological hang-ups relating to food and diet, and I can easily trace their origins to my father’s participation in my upbringing.
The first is not only a love of – even a reverence for – food, but a belief that food is love. The importance of food in Chinese culture may be a cliche, but it’s no less true for being one. In Cantonese, people ask one another "have you eaten yet?" in the same way as we ask "what’s up?" or "how’s it going?”, and then there’s this popular aphorism of Prince Philip’s:
“If it has got four legs and it is not a chair, if it has got two wings and it flies but is not an aeroplane, and if it swims and it is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it.”
When I left home at the age of seventeen, Dad gave me a rice cooker, a wok and some recipes, but my passion for food took hold much earlier, in childhood. Typically for a Chinese man of his generation, Dad worked long hours: fourteen hours a day, six days a week. I missed him, and his weekly days off on which he prepared what seemed to me then to be vast banquets, were occasions for childish excitement comparable to Christmas. Also typically for a Chinese man of his generation, Dad was not effusive or demonstrative. Of course, Dad’s devotion to his family was expressed in the fact that he worked so hard to provide for us, but I had no appreciation of that as a child. And so I found his love and affection in the food he cooked for us: in the effort and care that was put into the meals; in the way he would put the best pieces of meat or fish into our bowls rather than his own; in how damned good they tasted.
Food as love is a belief I have inherited, or perhaps just inferred, from my Dad. Unless I’m working away from Glasgow, I cook every single day, but rarely for other people. If I cook for someone, it’s because I care about them very much (or maybe, in some shallower instances, because I want to impress them). And by "cook for someone" I don’t mean "I was going to heat up some of this stew, do you want some too?" or "feel free to have some of the soup I made earlier" but rather "I’m going to prepare and cook a meal for you and I to sit down and eat together." I can’t expect everyone to understand what it means for me to do that, of course: romantic partners in the past have been baffled by my anger when they arrived late for dinner, or been irritated by how much I interest I took in their diets.
This brings me to my second neurosis, an unusually enthusiastic and occasionally angsty concern with the nutritional or health-giving value of my diet. As a child, I wasn’t allowed to go and play after dinner until I had eaten an apple and drunk what seemed to me as a child to be a huge glass of water (I have since I was a teenager had a particular compulsion about staying hydrated, and remember thinking it irrational and unjust that we weren’t allowed to drink water in class in secondary school). This compulsiveness may seem incompatible with the fact that I regularly abuse my body variously with alcohol, cigarettes and, until recently, by indulging my sweet tooth, but perhaps it (along with exercise) was borne of these abuses: knowing that I do these things, I feel I must exercise, eat well and try my best to sleep well.
A few months ago, I read an article in The Guardian (it’s a running joke among my friends how many of our conversations begin with this line) about Dr Robert Lustig, the man at the forefront of the anti-sugar movement in America. In it, he makes the alarming claim that sugar is as harmful to our bodies as tobacco and cocaine. In further reading about the subject, I kept coming across the paleo diet. When I sought the advice of friends and colleagues who I knew subscribed to it, they were unanimous in proclaiming its benefits. The diet is based around the food our ancestors ate tens of thousands of years ago, before the advent of agriculture, and permits meat, fruit and veg, fish, nuts and seeds. This means that coffee, booze, grains, legumes, starches, dairy and any kind of processed food are all out. There are variations of the diet that permit some of these food groups, but bread, pasta, rice, couscous and potatoes (except the sweet variety) are out.
I’ve been following the paleo diet for three months now. I’m not particularly strict about it: legumes and some dairy still form a (now smaller) part of my diet, my meat isn’t necessarily grass-fed, I treat myself to the occasional dessert or pizza, and nobody is ever taking beer away from me. When I go to a restaurant or a friend’s house for food, I’m no more picky than I used to be. Some friends and family members have expressed alarm that someone like me, who has spent his whole life underweight, should go on a diet. I wouldn’t be surprised if, since adopting this "lifestyle" (as many of its adherents prefer to think of it), my daily intake of calories and fat has increased substantially, but that’s part of the point: fat doesn’t make you fat; sugar makes you fat. In any case, I stress to them that this is not about losing weight or about body image – although if you are keen to lose weight, a paleo diet will show dramatic results very quickly – but about general good health. And after only a couple of weeks, I felt the benefits. My energy levels are much more constant than they used to be: I get out of bed earlier, more easily, and don’t feel tired after meals; indigestion and acid reflux are things of the past; bowel movements are, to use a respectfully vague adjective, better. I’ve enjoyed an excitement I haven’t felt for a long time at going into the kitchen to cook and knowing that I’m forced to be creative. The downside is that I’m almost always a little hungry, but nuts and fruit are never far away to snack on. The other principal drawback is that this diet is expensive, cutting out all the cheap staples such as rice and pasta in favour of more meat, fish and vegetables.
While I know that there are many challenges to the anthropological and evolutionary bases of the paleo diet, and that nutritionists continue to disagree on what constitutes the healthiest diet, the benefits of the paleo diet have for me been tangible, and I recommend it to anyone.
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