No Smoke May

A man goes to see his Doctor. ‘Doctor,’ he says, ‘I have given up sex and masturbation, high cholesterol foods, bad fats, alcohol and cigarettes. I eat smaller quantities and I go to the gym twice a day, every day. Will I live longer?’ ‘No, you won’t live longer’ says the Doctor, ‘It will only seem like it.’

I was thinking about this story while I read a BBC article last week.

As part of its public service role, the BBC has set out to remind the British population that we are a fat. We are growing, and we are growing too fast. We are grown-ups who have grown too much. As a nation, we are gross and enormous.

I thought that fat shaming was inappropriate behaviour, but the BBC haven’t listened. They have been full on and to prove their words they have written a little online app, so anyone can measure where they are on the overweight scale.

Green results are for those in the right weight band, Orange for the overweight and Red for the obese. I know I could do to lose a pound or two and was ready for Orange, hopefully with a Green tint at the edges.

I input my height, age and current weight into the app and it was at that point I learnt that the BBC isn’t just into humiliating the population they can be very personal.

Just Orange, and nearly Red the BBC said. You are close to being medically obese. I shouted back at the app that my clothes still fit, and the mid-fifties double chin has gone but the BBC stood firm, no doubt showing off a strong 6-pack. They didn’t listen, and the colours wouldn’t change.

I am overweight, but I am not obese. ‘Big boned’, my mother said. ‘Muscle weighs more,’ a friend said, but there was really no excuse. I need to lose some weight.

BMI is the best the medical profession has for large-scale, rule of thumb measurement of over-weight. It doesn’t work for top class athletes, such as rugby players or weightlifters who have very low body fat and a lot of muscle, but it works for 99% of the population, and that includes me. I wasn’t prepared for my results.

To get into the ‘Green’ category I had to lose 15 kg. or just under 16% of my body weight. I prefer the percentage rather than the absolute as it seems far more achievable.

With the Mighty Bertie now 16 months old, my list of reasons to live for a long time is literally growing every day. I am also determined that Sasha and I have a long and healthy life together. It all means that I must do something.

My problem is that much of what a doctor would want me to abstain from has already gone. I drink alcohol very rarely. I had a couple of glasses of champagne with Ben and Hannah at their wedding and with Sasha when I was last in Kiev. But that is it for this year.

With FODMAP, no gluten and voluntary vegetarianism my food is already restricted. I suppose the peanuts could go but there is little else.

The only thing I can give up that will help me lose weight is smoking. It’s not a very complicated argument. The less I smoke the better I will feel in the gym which means I will run further, burn more calories, and lose more weight. It should be a virtuous circle.  Running will become easier, the expended calorie count will rise and the weight will fall.

The best way to make a commitment is to make that commitment public. Don’t hide and whisper it. Shout it out and then at best you get support from friends and at worst, abuse as you fail. So here I go.

This is Smoke-Free May. I am going to give up smoking.

I live in the hope I will lose weight. 0.1 kg is only 3.5274 oz. That doesn’t seem very much. I weighed it out in dry lentil beans. It is nothing.

I know that if I concentrate very hard and my running is committed I can shed 3.5274 oz every day. And that means in the month of May I can lose 3.1 kg or nearly 7llbs or half a stone. I am a grown-up who is determined not to grow anymore.

I will go to the gym and run and run the best I can and see if it gets easier. And when I run I can waste away the time doing the arithmetic of losing different average amounts each day in May. There is no end of amusement ahead of me or as the doctor said ‘No, you won’t live longer. It will only seem like it.’

The Seven Virtues#2: Abstinence

Humility, kindness, patience, or diligence, are characteristics I can admire. Chastity was never going to be a personally achievable objective. But abstinence and abstinence from food, what is that all about? Time to find out.  As gluttony is the sin so abstinence is its corresponding virtue.

Abstinence is well founded in the Abrahamic faiths and so deeply embedded in our culture.

Roman Catholics fast during Lent, other occasional specific religious holidays and for one hour just before receiving the Eucharistic.  In Islam, there is a month of fasting during the daylight hours of Ramadan. I have lived in Dubai during many celebrations of Ramadan and understand just how strictly it is followed.

There are major and minor fast days as part of the Jewish year.  The two major fasts, Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, last just over twenty-four hours. This fast is absolute and the faster may not eat food, drink, brush his teeth, comb his hair, or take a bath. Minor fasts differ in their duration and no food or drink is taken from dawn until nightfall.

In all the religions the purpose of fasting is not to suffer, but to guard against impure thoughts, deeds, and words. Fasting is accompanied by increased prayer and in particular, almsgiving. Giving to charity is one of the five pillars of Islam and paying Zakat during Ramadan is required of every adult Muslim man or woman who possesses a wealth of a certain minimum amount.

But for those of us living in a far more secular world, we have updated our conformance to abstinence and become obsessed by our own self-esteem and self-image. These have become the driver of our eating habits.

We are asked to be ‘beach ready’, the models in our adverts are invariably thin. We have a perception of ideal body shape which we share through advertising and social media.

These new norms have caused us to develop a strange relationship with our food. Of course, we eat too much, and the range and choice are excessive, particularly when you think about world poverty. However, we don’t think of third world malnutrition when abstaining from food; which we do a lot of the time.

The first world is on a continuous diet.

It was in 2004 that a BBC survey showed that more than one in four adults in the UK are trying to lose weight “most of the time”.  The poll estimates that this means 13 million people are effectively on a permanent diet.  Almost two in five (37%) women were dieting most of the time, compared to around just one in six (18%) of men.  The research found that although people were conscious of the need to eat well for the sake of their health, many were dieting to look good.

And it’s got no better, and by 2014 the Daily Mail reported: A record-breaking two out of three women tried to lose weight in the past year – and more men than ever are trying to slim down, figures have shown. This means that last year a total of 29million Britons decided to exercise or diet to ward off problems associated with weight gain.

If it’s not dieting, then we modify and manipulate our diets. Over half a million people in the UK are on a vegan diet and January this year was labelled Veganuary encouraging even more to try a plant-based diet.

There is a diet for everyone and it seems everyone is on a self-inflicted weight loss course.

I am not writing from any position of strength or moral righteousness.

I can control some of my ever-increasing list of ailments with a very restrictive diet. My diabetes is helped with a stricter control of carbohydrates and sugars than I would like, although I do have the orange coloured phial of insulin for the days when my control is less than hoped.

My stomach problems have all but disappeared but only by removing all gluten and most of the other fodmaps. I am supposed to be reintroducing them one-by-one on an exclusion diet, but I really can’t face 2 or 3 days of stomach ache, just so I can spread Marmite on to a slice of stodgy gluten-free bread.

Did I say that by choice I am also a vegetarian?

I have become a moral abstainer, and, I admit, I gloat just a little as I decline a slice of pizza. I may quote doctor’s instruction, but I am happy to see my abstinence reflected on the scales. A point made more poignant as this is Eating Disorder Week.

Food is the essential fuel of our lives but the pressure not to eat and deny ourselves, is pervasive.

In the Abrahamic faiths abstinence and denial strengthen more than the body. The original virtue of abstinence was more than a historical diet but a wider penance embracing the soul. Full denial that harms the body was seen as much a sin as gluttony. More importantly, all the faiths associate giving as an essential side dish to fasting.

Of all the virtues, abstinence is the one most widely embraced, but that doesn’t make any of us virtuous. In our modern culture of self-denial, the single-mindedly focused is on ‘me’.

As always there is a meaningful lesson in our history.