Festive food choices

candle celebration champagne christmas
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It’s the last weekend before Christmas, and I’m doing okay. I’m exercising, and I’m happy with what I’m eating. I’m not going to say I’m ‘being good’, because I believe phrases like that are a huge part of the problem. Food is food, it should not be given moral value. Expressions such as being good, being naughty, deserving a treat, when applied to food, all serve to complicate and confuse the act of eating, so that it becomes something other than nourishing and fuelling our bodies. The same goes for giving food as a reward, particularly during childhood. Eat your greens (lovely delicious vegetables) and you can have pudding, do well in your spelling test and you can have some sweets; statements like this reinforce the idea that certain foods are special. Certain foods are for the deserving. Certain foods have a value beyond how well they nourish your body. And, strangely, these foods are often the least nutritionally valuable.

And this time of year, there is an awful lot of tasty, rich, delicious food around. Food that is highly palatable, full of calories, fat, salt and/or sugar. And, above all, food that is special. I’ve worked hard this year establishing new attitudes and routines around food. I don’t want to let these routines go, but I also won’t want to miss out on Christmas. I realise that I’ve been conditioned over the years to think that some sort of letting go and indulging is necessary to the enjoyment of Christmas. There is also the social expectation that we should join in with overeating – as if everyone else’s enjoyment depends on what we eat.

And so, I question myself: can I enjoy Christmas if I decide to stick to my eating plan? Will I even be able to stick to my plan? Am I strong enough? I worry; am I just afraid of letting go? If I don’t stay strong over Christmas, will I descend back into an uncontrollable cycle of overeating and weight gain?

What I need to remember is, of course, that food is just food. I’ve found over the past year that I can eat whatever I want and lose weight – because I have learnt to want different things. I will trust myself to want the right things over Christmas. And if I want to eat a bit more on Christmas day, that’s fine too.

In the past, Christmas day has started with shortbread, chocolate, and a glass of something alcoholic. The eating carried on all day, so that by the time Christmas dinner was ready, I couldn’t face it. By bedtime, I would feel sick, irritable, and wiped out. If you ask me, that doesn’t sound like fun. This year, I’m making different choices. Christmas day will begin with a parkrun. I plan to make intelligent food choices that make me feel nourished physically, mentally and emotionally. I plan to enjoy my day.

I don’t want to be a misery over Christmas. I want to enjoy a special meal with my family. But I also intend to be in control of my own choices. I’m not eating to please anyone else. I’m also absolutely not going to feel guilty if I decide to eat a little more than I usually do.

Whatever you decide to eat over Christmas, it’s your choice. Enjoy, and remember, it’s just food. You’re not being naughty, you’re not being good. You’re just eating, that’s all.

Merry Christmas and a have happy, healthy, New Year.

Winter solstice blues

abstract background blur botanical
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At my first parkrun, someone said to me ‘if you can keep running through winter, by the spring you’ll be flying’. Easy enough in theory. With winter solstice in less than a week, short gloomy days, dark mornings and evenings, inhospitable weather, and the temptations of the festive season on the horizon, it’s easy to let things slip.

Yesterday I wimped out of parkrun. The weather outside was truly frightful; heavy icy rain and wind. As my regular parkrun is on the coast, there would be no shelter. Feeling slightly (very slightly) off colour, and tired, I could not face it. Even so, I am fortunate enough to have a treadmill at home, so I had a good treadmill running session. I turned the pace up a bit more than usual and felt quite good about my run. But then guilt crept in. I kept checking into Facebook to look at photos of real, more determined, less pathetic runners who actually made the effort to run despite the ghastly weather. I felt annoyed at my own lack of commitment.

This morning I awoke to a calm and bright day. A beautiful morning for a run. Did this make me cheerful? No. I was annoyed that this weather didn’t arrive yesterday. I’m following NHS England’s Couch to 5K programme – https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/exercise/couch-to-5k-week-by-week/?tabname=couch-to-5k.  On this plan, it’s important to have rest days between runs to avoid injury. I’m now on week seven, which involves runs of 25 minutes at a time. This is a big deal for me, having struggled to run for sixty seconds in the beginning. It’s going well, but I don’t want to take any chances. Having done a long treadmill session yesterday, I needed to have a rest from running today.

So, as an alternative to running, I chose to use a You Tube workout video, to work some different muscle groups. This was fine, but by the end I was tired of being cooped up indoors. And my dog, Archie, was also getting very impatient for his morning walk.

I decided to head out for a long walk to make the most of the morning. I toyed with the idea of driving to one of our favourite walking spots; maybe Kilve beach (where Bryan Adams famously recorded the music video for Everything I Do, I Do it for You – check it out https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppuWCTnTQRA), or the lovely woods at Ramscombe on the Quantock Hills. But getting in a car to walk a dog seems a bit wasteful. So, we headed off on the route of my favourite neighbourhood run, from my village to the tiny hamlets of Shurton and Burton, about a mile away, and back again.

By the time we set out, the sun had disappeared, and the sky was grey. But the weather was calm and mild, an absolute gift in December. As I walked up the lane towards Shurton I remembered the walks we did in the summer. It was a hot summer, and we had to walk late in the evening to protect Archie’s paws. The good weather went on and on, and I enjoyed being outdoors and gradually becoming more active. That seems a long time ago now. But the winter has a charm of its own; even on a grey day. As we strolled along I watched a wren pop in and out of a hawthorn hedgerow. Somewhere a crow cawed, breaking the winter silence. All was calm.

I realised that, when I run, I don’t always notice these things. I listen to music, and I focus intently (as a new runner who is trying very hard) on what I am doing. I always enjoy the beauty of the countryside, but the tiny details are sometimes overlooked. Today, I took my time. I stopped and chatted to walkers and fellow dog owners. I drank in details of the environment around me. I relaxed, unwound and enjoyed a moment of calm in the middle of the frantic festive build-up.

This weekend, my plans had to adapt to the weather. I still managed to find time for exercise, and time to enjoy being outside. We still have months of winter ahead of us. There will be all sorts of weather; bad days and good days. The trick is to make the most of the good, and not beat ourselves up over the bad. We can’t control the seasons or the weather. My plan now is to work with the weather, to be adaptable, and appreciate moments of beauty.

air atmosphere blue blue sky
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Journey into weight loss

blue tape measuring on clear glass square weighing scale
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A couple of weeks ago I passed a milestone; I reached the half way point in my weight loss journey. Of course, at this stage, it might not be quite half way point – or it might be a bit more. As I approach that magical goal of Target Weight, I may decide that I need to adjust my plans. I picked a weight that is smack bang in the middle of the healthy weight zone for my height. At the start I needed to lose a mighty 10 stone 6 pounds to reach this goal. So, on losing 5 stone 3 pounds, I considered myself to be halfway there. I also considered myself to be doing quite nicely, thank you.

I’ve now lost 5 stone 6 pounds. It feels great. All my clothes are getting too big; I can buy smaller sizes. I get compliments. And I feel healthier. That’s the most important thing for me.

This actually all began a few years ago. After almost a lifetime of yo-yo dieting, I’d given up, and decided to let what would happen, happen. Hence, 10 stone plus of surplus weight. I toyed with the idea of losing some weight, without conviction. Then, one day, when on a training course in a nice hotel, I fell victim to the ubiquitous hotel bathroom mirror. How and why do hotels feel it necessary to place such large mirrors in bathrooms, and in such a way that you just can’t escape the view? So, after showering, while trying to look the other way, I caught sight of myself in all my fatty naked glory. Such a sight. But what shocked me was my own reaction. I felt disgust at myself, yes. But beneath that disgust was something else, a sort of satisfied self-loathing; a little voice saying ‘yes aren’t you revolting, and that’s all you deserve to be’. I caught myself being pleased that I hated myself.

So when I got home from my course I made changes. I signed up to a calorie counting app, Myfitnesspal, and began logging everything I ate or drank. I took it slow and steady, and it took me about two years to lose 4 stone 9 pounds. I didn’t really exercise, but I was active and on my feet all day. And I believed I’d changed my attitude towards food. But then disaster, didn’t exactly strike, it just sort of slipped in. A stressful job, sleep deprivation, tiredness, feeling low and craving, craving, craving, all played their part; over the next year I put back all but one stone of what I had lost.

Which beings us up to January this year. Still a stone lighter than my heaviest weight, but feeling unhealthy, sluggish, tired and, once more, disgusted with myself.

On January 2nd 2018 I began logging my food and drink once more. A new job was on the horizon, I had turned 50, it was time to make changes. I may have been helped in part by the fact that, from January to April, I repeatedly caught colds, tonsillitis (several times) and the flu. My immune system seemed to have gone on holiday. As a result, my appetite was low, and I didn’t each much at all. I began losing weight pretty fast. I have read somewhere that it takes 30 days to establish new habits. My new habits were firmly embedded by the time I started to recover from my bout of seasonal ailments. Feeling so unwell had also scared me. Then routine blood tests, related to my wimpy immune system, suggested a slightly raised blood sugar level. I began exercising more. Nothing too strenuous to begin, as I felt utterly exhausted. But I didn’t just want to weigh less; I wanted to be healthy.

Over time, better nourished, and benefiting from a more active lifestyle, I felt better and better, and the weight started to melt away.

This, for me, is the most important thing; I’m not, absolutely not, on a diet. I have changed the way I eat to better suit my nutritional needs. I use the app not just to count calorie intake, but also to ensure I’m getting enough essential nutrients and a good balance of macro-nutrients. I exercise my body more effectively. I look for balance. Because I’m not ‘on a diet’, I also won’t be going ‘off my diet’ when I reach my target weight. I also don’t ‘take days off’. I’m not perfect. I do sometimes eat more than I need on a particular day, but then it evens out over time.

And the one thing that I believe will make the difference this time around is exercise. Yes, you can cut weight by reducing calorie intake alone. But add exercise to the mix and, not only do you burn more calories, but your entire body and mind benefits. Before, when suffering from stress, I might turn to chocolate. Now, when stressed (and just lately I’ve been extremely stressed), I turn to exercise.

My weight loss is a journey. The destination may be a specific target weight, or a certain dress size. Or it may be reaching a certain level of fitness. It might be reducing my blood pressure; it certainly needs to be reducing my blood sugar. But one thing it absolutely cannot be (and I’ve made this mistake so many times) is a return journey.


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My first winter run



December 1st

The first day of winter, and the day when excited children begin peeling open advent calendars for the big Christmas countdown. I lie in bed listening to torrential rain drum down. We’ve had a week of stormy weather, flooded roads and fallen trees. My daily commute across the gorgeous Quantock Hills has been challenging. But the weekend is here now, and it’s time for my first ever winter run.

I lie and listen to the rain. I’m shattered, and weepy. A super stressful Friday led to an agitated night and I need more sleep. The rhythm of the rain is a lullaby. I feel drowsy. But it’s Saturday morning; parkrun day. I want to run. I need to run. I need to give all those stress hormones somewhere to go. The rain beats down.  I haul myself out of bed. If I don’t do this, I know, I am going to feel a lot worse. So, I get up, get ready, and take off to Minehead for parkrun.

There’s a bit of rain as I drive along the West Somerset coast, but nothing significant. Anyway, I tell myself, I like running in rain, it’s cooling. Yet, as I arrive at parkrun, the clouds are beginning to break apart. The air feels mild, warm even. The sun starts to shine.

We set off, sun shimmering on the waves as I look out towards Minehead harbour. A parkrun regular jogs alongside me for support, and we chat.

‘It’s so pretty’ I say. Not very profound. But inside I’m thinking – look at me – running and talking at the same time!


I’m now on week five of couch to 5k – today I need to run for five minutes at a time. When my app tells me that there’s only sixty seconds left to run, I’m relieved, happy. I grin. Yet just a few weeks ago, sixty seconds was more than I could manage. The app only takes me halfway round the course, so I reset it and let it play again. I know this isn’t recommended, but I listen to my body, and I know I can do this.

We run, jog, and walk up and down the promenade, dodging puddles, holiday makers (even in December) and windblown sand. We also dodge other runners, smiling, cheering and encouraging each other as we pass. And one by one, in our own time, we make it to the finish.

My first winter run was not what I was expecting. I cross the finishing line pink, hot and sweaty.

I manage a personal best of just over 41 minutes. But for me, the true personal best is being able to run for longer each week. And the real triumph, the absolute steal, is how I feel at the end. From stressed, exhausted, and weepy to utterly elated – in just over 41 minutes.

I don’t mean to be simplistic – my problems are still with me and so is my stress. But knowing that I can achieve some clarity and make myself feel better through exercise helps give me mental as well as physical strength.







Me? A runner?

The Fledgling Runner

Me? A runner?

The funny thing about running is that it can change your mind-set. I have, for fifty-one years, seen myself as a non-runner. Now I want to run, and I’m becoming a little obsessed.

Not that I was always inactive – as a child I was constantly (as children were in the ’70s) ‘on the go’. We played outside all day long throughout the school holidays, after school and at weekends. We played in a large group, all ages together, and felt safe to go off and explore. There were no mobile phones, and our parents didn’t always know where we were. Of course bad things still happened then, but the world felt safer.

At the back of our road was Elmdon Park. A land of wonder and exploration to the imaginative child, where we built dens (and sometimes camp fires) in the woods, where we rolled down hills in the summer, and sledged down them in the winter. We fished and paddled in the brook, and climbed all over the enormous fallen tree that seemed to have been there since time began. We cycled along the park paths, ignoring the ‘no cycling’ signs, trying to dodge the park keeper (or did we want him to see us so we could have a dramatic getaway?)

When we’d had enough of the park, we tracked each other through the streets of our neighbourhood, following chalked clues. I remember running then, gasping for breath, holding the stitch in my side, and yet still pounding away on the pavement with my chubby little legs as if my life depended on it. Sometimes we would take off on our bikes for an adventure. When Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre first opened, we went to visit it, cycling along the A45 Coventry Road. It was about 3 ½ miles each way, but it felt like a marathon. I remember getting a flat tyre, and having to walk back with my big brother. It was 1976, the summer of The Heatwave and ladybirds, and I was nine years old.

Then, as a teenager, I remained active. I loathed school PE, as only someone who is rubbish at team sports can loathe. Hockey left me cold, literally, as I stood in goal on frozen ground, waiting for someone or something to come near. Netball was just an exercise in extreme humiliation. And as for gymnastics – there are no words for how I felt about gymnastics. I couldn’t do any of it – not one thing. So I saw no point in it at all (even now, as primary school teacher, I struggle with teaching gymnastics – it gives me the shivers).

But out of school I swam, cycled, walked for miles, and joined in all the exercise classes that the Lycra-clad ’80s had to offer. Sometimes, I played tennis or badminton. Once, just once, I tried to jog. I went with a friend back to Elmdon park. We chose a nice level bit of grass, and planned to jog for a minute at a time, walking for a minute in-between. I seem to recall that my friend could do the running bit. But I was at a loss. Since when was a minute so long? I was fit, healthy and young (probably about seventeen). I could cycle all day, and I could swim a mile. Why could I not run even for sixty seconds? So I gave up there and then, never to try again – until now.

Now? Now I am on week four of couch to 5K (it works, it really, really does!) I’m running three days a week. I walk or use you-tube fitness videos on the days off from running. I just ran my third park run, and have signed up for a festive 5K in December. At each park run my time gets a little quicker, I feel a little better, and I can’t wait for the next time.

Against all expectation, I am a runner.


The lake at Elmdon Park, Solihull

The Fledgling Runner

Weekends. Time is precious and can quickly slip away. So I’ve decided that joining a parkrun is a good idea. Up, out and running by 9 O’Clock on a Saturday morning prevents time from slipping away unnoticed. I say this, but so far I’ve only done two park runs.

My first run came as a shock. I’ve been doing Couch to 5K on the treadmill at home, and was getting on quite nicely, into week 4. So I thought ‘I know – I’ll do a run session on a parkrun. That will be fun’. I visualised running more easily than ever before, motivated by all the other park runners jogging along beside me in the autumn sunshine. It is true that parkrun is a social and friendly organisation. No complaints there. But I was unprepared for one shocking truth.

Running in the real world is not the same as running on a treadmill. This horrifying fact is true because:

  1. The ground doesn’t roll beneath your feet outside, so propelling yourself forward takes a lot more effort.
  2. There are hills
  3. There is wind
  4. There might also be rain
  5. And slippery mud
  6. And puddles

My first attempt at real world running found me disappointed and exhausted. As I arrived at the venue, ominous black clouds formed overhead. As we set off, a flash of lightning, a peal of thunder, and the rain fell as a wall of water. I was expecting to run for alternating intervals of three minutes and five minutes, with short walks in between. I found that I could barely run for sixty seconds. Running against wind and rain, with feet slipping in mud, had not featured in my fantasy parkrun. The course was more mud than path, and more puddles than mud. All the walkers to the rear of the group mysteriously disappeared, leaving yours truly staggering, eventually, through the finishing line in last place.

But, I decided not to be disheartened or put off. It has taken me fifty years to decide that I can, against all expectations, run. I’m not giving in. So, Sunday morning, aching but determined, I set out on a run in the real world. I went back to week 2 of Couch to 5K – running for 90 seconds at a time. And yes, I should have had a rest day. But I needed to get on with this quickly, before Fear of Failure set in.

It was hard; perhaps the hardest thing ever. But I did it. I ran and walked and ran and walked and puffed and gasped my way through it. I plodded up and down hills, and round twisty corners, avoiding tractors, cars and horses. I enjoyed the autumn morning sunshine and the glorious Somerset countryside.  And I got to the end.

Exercise is good. Enjoying the challenge is even better.