Buying ballet shoes aged 13 I was advised by a petite silver-haired lady that if I wanted to be a really good dancer I might try and lose a little weight. Leave off the butter on sandwiches, that sort of thing, she said. The idea of a stranger recommending an average-sized teenage girl go on a diet is worthy of a separate story; today, let’s concentrate on her advice.

“Leave off the butter”: that adage of the 1990s when fat was the enemy and the main job of food marketers was scribbling “low fat” on packaging. For decades, we bought skimmed milk, picked low-fat yoghurts, went sparingly with cheese. With conviction, we ditched butter for margarines made from plant-based oils and believed Boots when they told us a mini bag of pretzels was a “low fat” health-food snack.

20 years later I no longer aspire to be a ballet dancer and the situation is significantly more complex. In the media evidence accumulates that the low-fat diet has done nothing to control the world’s burgeoning waistline. Headlines read “The War on Fat is Over” and “High Fat, High Hopes”. Books and blogs on paleo, Atkins, bulletproof eating, all advocating plenty of grease, proliferate. From Glamour magazine to Good Housekeeping, health-giving recipes for oily fish, nuts and avocados are centre-spread. My son (four and a half years old), who has a predilection for butter, seems to instinctively agree. If you’ll let him (which I do on occasion), he’ll eat it in chunks direct from the dish. His favourite job when baking is greasing the tray, because he can lick off his fingers as he goes. And all the while, we wait for the mainstream healthy-eating rule book to be re-written.

Because, for all of this, fat has not yet been entirely rehabilitated to the realm of the nutritionally acceptable – especially not saturated fat. Counter headlines such as “Diets high in meat, eggs and dairy could be as harmful to health as smoking” undermine our confidence, as do recommendations on the NHS website for low fat dairy as opposed to its full fat counterpart and for a healthy breakfast smoothie made from banana, tinned mango, tinned peaches and water (little more than a glass of sugar). One of Boots’ best-selling health-food products is still the Shapers Strawberry Nougat Bar (low in fat but high in sugar); and at the other end of the food-consumer spectrum, Graze (an innovative food start-up aiming to post healthy snacks to our desks to graze on through the day) includes in their “light” snack box options such as sticky toffee pudding, made from rye flour, sugar and rapeseed oil, and dried apple rings with toffee sauce (not fatty but terribly sweet).

Widespread confusion is surely an inevitable consequence of such stark contradictions. Utterly confused myself and vaguely irritated, I decided I wanted to find out more. I read around – quite a lot and at length – but I cannot say that this has left me enlightened. My two most accurate conclusions are that a degree in biochemistry, perhaps even a PhD, would get me somewhat closer to the truth, and that science and food journalists seeking eye-catching headlines rather than solid information are a significant part of the problem.

A short summary of the few most useful ideas I gleaned (feel free to contradict):

  1. Some fats are very good for you – for your brain, heart, immune-system, general physical functioning, etc. These fats – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated – are found predominantly in fish, nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive oil and can be consumed generously. One caveat: olive oil is suitable for gentle sautéing but not deep fat frying (it’s too unstable and over the long run that might do you harm).
  2. The verdict is not as clear on saturated fats, as found in fatty meat, butter and coconut oil, but there are enough recent studies which suggest that these are not actually harmful at all (in normal amounts that is). My personal hunch based on what I’ve read is that it’s fine and nutritious but given the lack of a firm nod in either direction, you might want to avoid completely overdoing it (as with almost any food).
  3. Trans fats are the real baddies – for your heart, your health and your happiness – so much so that some countries (not Britain and the US) have banned them. In the few instances trans fats occur naturally, they are not thought to be dangerous. It’s the trans fats in partially hydrogenated fats – liquid vegetable oils heavily processed to become solid – that are the problem. Less likely to spoil, partially hydrogenated fats are used in many products with a long shelf-life, such as supermarket cakes, biscuits and sweeties. They used to be in margarines too, but most brands have significantly reduced the amount following bad press in the 1980s. Be warned if you’re often tempted by take-away: partially hydrogenated fats can withstand repeated heating without breaking down, making them ideal for frying fast food.

I am yet to find real definitive answers, particularly on saturated fats, but based on everything I’ve read with my laywoman’s understanding, here’s my advice:

  1. Eat fat and don’t count calories.
  2. Indulge in plenty of fish – especially wild salmon, mackerel and sardines.
  3. Treat yourself to a high quality extra virgin olive oil for salad dressings. Don’t waste your time with sunflower oil or rapeseed oil (too high in omega-6 – I’ll write about this another day) and be sure to skip shop-bought or restaurant salad dressings (unless it’s a fancy restaurant) because they’re invariably made from low quality oil and lots of sugar.
  4. Sauté (gentle frying of, for example, onions for a tomato sauce) on a low heat with olive oil, but replace this with butter or coconut oil if you want to fry something hotter. Use butter, ghee or coconut oil for roasting vegetables.
  5. Eggs are one of the most perfectly nutritious foods around. We’re lucky to have them, so eat them, and all of them, often.
  6. Generously daub butter on vegetables (and bread if you like to eat it).
  7. Enjoy cheese, cream (and meat if you choose), but don’t gorge.

A few simple changes

FoodLast week I suggested that improving the way you eat is about making tiny changes day by day until you arrive at a place where you feel good and happy; drastic changes, by contrast, being costly and almost impossible to adhere to over more than a few weeks.

At the risk of repeating myself – I’ve written about such ideas elsewhere on this blog – and of doing too much dogmatic finger-wagging, I thought a convenient seven-point summary might provide a useful, gentle and not overtly corrective prod. Continue reading

More than just detox January

Roast cauliflower
We painted, the children and I, last Sunday afternoon, newspapers spread out on the kitchen floor, fingers and old clothes smeared with those lurid colours of children’s paint boxes which nothing really ever is. In such moments, as idly swirl abstract patterns on my own piece of paper, I often think about how tempting it is for adults to take charge with children; to tell them what to paint, which colours to paint it, what adult-assumed detail to add. Adults do it with adults too: why else would most work performance reviews be really just a barrage of minor corrections equivalent to the adult suggesting the child add a nose to their gloriously noseless, pink, three-legged robot. The result? We become skilled in doing what we are told, but we don’t feel terribly satisfied doing it. Experience tells us that a real understanding of the basics followed by the odd helpful nudge is far better.

I joined Instagram in December: to see what all the noise was about and with the woolly hopes of promoting this blog. I could not resist following a few foodie gurus, so now it’s January and my phone is flooded with wheatgrass smoothies, braised kale and turmeric-infused chickpeas. I am not complaining – the images are beautiful and the ideas interesting – but there is something in amongst those many shades of green that reminds me of the children and their paintings. Continue reading

Beige food and I

Beige shades

As a child I had an aversion to brown wallpaper – the result, I think, of moving aged 4 1/2 into a new house previously owned by an elderly couple. It was the mid-eighties and everything was brown – some lighter, some darker, but still brown and to my mind oppressive and stuffy. As an adult, I have a similar aversion, but this time it’s beige not brown and food not furnishings. Loyal readers may recall my casual reference to this in last week’s post about Christmas parties. When my other half, loyally reading it, enquired, ‘What’s so wrong with beige food?”, I realised that to save this point – potentially central to my “food philosophy” – from the bottomless pit of obscure blog references, it required elaboration.

Let’s be clear. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with beige food. Indeed, some beige foods are entirely necessary: brown rice, quinoa, potatoes, oats, buckwheat, millet, and for the carnivorously inclined, chicken and turkey … all nutritious and useful.  So with what am I taking issue? Two things.  Continue reading

Advent and the Art of Indulgence

christmas tree drawings

Forget John Lewis’ penguin, a new seasonal madness has gripped the nation – well, the nation’s health food bloggers at least. Wherever you turn, you are earnestly called to sprinkle your porridge with wheatgrass, add turmeric to your tea and slather your face with coconut oil. Advent is a feast of supplements, a sort of religious devotion to external and internal perfection, presented as your only hope of hanging up your Christmas stocking muffin-top free.

At this juncture, it is interesting to look at the ingredients in Asda’s Rich Fruit Mince Pies (12.5p per pie) – a mouth-watering mixture to be washed down with cheap sparkling wine at many a Christmas party …

Sugar, Apple, Glucose Syrup, Currants, Sultanas, Raisins, Glucose-fructose Syrup, Vegetable Oil, Orange Peel, Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil, Preservatives (Acetic Acid, Sodium Metabisulphite, Potassium Sorbate, Sulphur Dioxide), Malt Extract (From Barley), Lemon Peel, Invert Sugar Syrup, Apricot, Mixed Spice, Sugar Syrup, Dextrose, Citric Acid, Gelling Agent (Pectin), Acidity Regulator (Sodium Citrates), Natural Flavouring, Wheat Flour, Vegetable Oil, Glucose Syrup, Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil, Sugar, Dextrose, Salt, Raising Agents (Diphosphates, Sodium Bicarbonate), Preservative (Potassium Sorbate). Continue reading

Lunch at Silo

(1) Doug door

Founder and Head Chef Douglas McMaster opening Silo’s door


Light the fireworks and pop the champagne: Of Slender Means returns. The inspiration that broke my six-month social media hiatus? Lunch at Silo – Brighton’s newest and hottest lunch spot.

Apart from a visit to a raw food cafe in San Francisco (the place of dreams) in 2009, I am not sure I have ever left a restaurant feeling so wonderfully light and so resoundingly happy to have spent my money there. In both concept and execution, Silo – which describes its food as “pre-industrial” and itself as the first zero-waste restaurant – is a dining miracle. The simplicity, sustainability, and creativity permeating its ethos are so close to the ambitions of this blog (though Silo founder and head chef Douglas McMaster – former BBC Young Chef of the Year, with St John and Noma on his CV – admittedly has the upper hand in culinary talents and compost systems … ) I felt the restaurant had almost been created for me. Just reading the menu on Silo’s website had my mouth watering – freshly caught fish, fermented brown rice risotto, beetroot juice, seaweed salsa … Continue reading


Peaches 2When a child throws himself on the floor and wails because he cannot have what he wishes for, we wrinkle up our noses and mutter to ourselves disapprovingly, “spoilt brat”. This is no compliment; look up “to spoil” in the dictionary and you’ll find “to diminish or impair the quality or character by excessive indulgence.” But why the lesson in language?

Cast your eye over your Facebook feed until you find that frequently used post-birthday refrain, “Thanks everyone, I had a lovely day and feel well and truly spoilt”. In being spoilt, it seems, we feel loved and cherished. The act of spoiling is something to be celebrated – and it’s this new, positive use of the word, which I believe is so revealing about our relationship with food. Continue reading