16 September 2009

The super-food diet

Can a month-long diet consisting only of "super foods" actually make you healthier? Simon Hemelryk was about to find out.

Can a month-long diet consisting only of "super foods" actually make you healthier? SIMON HEMELRYK from READER'S DIGEST was about to find out.

There comes a time in a man’s life when he must put away the fancies of youth. The late nights spent consuming red wine and mayonnaise sandwiches while watching videos of skydiving accidents on YouTube. The Dominos Mighty Meaty pizzas ordered instead of cooking because there’s a particularly gripping episode of Kitchen Nightmares you want to watch.

I’d often been told that unhealthy eating would catch up with me eventually. But I was young and slim. I would never feel wheezy after running to the train station, have a wobbly belly or make that “Ooofffahhhh” sound old people make when they get up from a chair. And yet I reached my mid-30s and it all started to happen.

Faced with impending mortality, I needed a quick-fix solution. In his 2004 documentary Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock consumed nothing but McDonald’s food for a month with disastrous effects on his health. What about a month of doing almost exactly the opposite?

Would eating nothing but food that newspapers, marketers and TV experts have described as “super foods” – rich in vitamins and minerals, with extra powers including reducing the signs of ageing, preventing cancer and lowering blood pressure – see an extra-ordinary turnaround in my wellbeing and provide a blueprint for a healthier future?

To find out, I made a list of around 25 super foods (including tofu, tomatoes, pomegranate and spinach) that I would eat – designed, I hoped, to cover a variety of benefits and provide a balanced diet. Then I had a series of tests to assess my current health.

My diet looked good – on paper
First up was a fitness test at my local gym.

I play local cricket to a consistently low standard, but my last visit as a guest to such an establishment involved me doing two half-hearted lengths of the swimming pool before sitting in the sauna for an hour.

An effervescent blonde instructor called Laura sized me up. At 183cm and 76kg, I think I’m quite lithe, but her assessment was that I could do “with a little work around the shoulders”.

I performed adequately in the running, stepping and jumping tests and my resting pulse of 81 was OK. But Laura measured the size of my chest, biceps and triceps and concluded that, though there wasn’t much fat on me, there was even less muscle.

“Oily fish and tofu are high in protein and are both on my diet, so that’ll sort me out,” I said.

“Well, that’s good,” she smiled with the unintentional patronisation of the truly athletic.

I had to keep a weeklong food diary for the next test, a full assessment of my diet with Catherine Collins, a hospital-based dietician. On paper, my intake didn’t seem that bad. Perhaps one too many triple-decker cheese-and-tomato sandwiches of the kind awarded to Scooby-Doo for confronting a ghost/janitor, but there was fish in there, peas, onions, semi-skimmed milk and yoghurt.

Catherine’s appraisal was less positive. Fifty-eight percent of the weight of my total food intake was alcohol. The fact that it was mainly organic beer didn’t make much difference, apparently. I also ate too much saturated fat, my cholesterol was around the upper safe limit of 5.2 and I didn’t have enough fruit and vegetables. This surprised me as I ate several apples a week.

“People tend to focus on the one or two good things they eat and forget about everything else,” said Catherine. “Your health is fine now, but you’ll be vulnerable to hypertension and high blood pressure in your 50s.”

Catherine’s only caution about my new, predominantly plant-based, super-food diet was that it could be low in iron and salt. “You could get a little light-headed. Or your body might adapt quite well and you may not see many changes at all.”

A trip to a health-food shop revealed that super foods may boost your health, but the benefits come at a price. A bottle of concentrated cherry juice (kills free radicals and boosts collagen, according to reports) was £9.99 (R130), whole almonds (lower cholesterol) were £4.99 (R65) and a box of quinoa (a rice-like grain packed with iron, magnesium and protein) was £2.29 (R30). After a trip to the supermarket for vegetables and fish, I had spent just under £90 (R1200) on a week’s food. Normally, I spend about £50(R650), including takeaway lunches.

Mmmm… can I still quit?
The diet started badly. I wasn’t allowed bread, so my first breakfast consisted of an apple and a banana (great source of potassium), washed down with some blood-pressure-lowering beetroot juice – which I was alarmed to discover tastes of beetroot.

Lunch was quinoa, almonds, avocado and broccoli. It was filling but dry and I had an odd sense of dissatisfaction, which I realised was due to a lack of sugar. I fried some garlic, more tofu and some vegetables for dinner, which wasn’t bad, but at the cinema that evening the sugar cravings become unbearable – not helped by my wife’s insistence on munching popcorn throughout the film.

This feeling carried on for about a week. People told me I looked well, but mayonnaise and chocolate skipped across my daydreams. I didn’t feel ill, exactly, just a bit flat.

Then my wife redeemed herself: she discovered that a newspaper had described baked beans as a super food and lycopene-rich tomato sauce was fine too. Salt! Sugar!Sauces! I’d be fine now. I can eat almost anything with tomato sauce.

My mood lifted and I started to get creative in the kitchen, combining walnuts, edamame beans, mushrooms and occasional bits of fish into something approaching a tasty stir-fry. Pudding was a rota of bioactive yoghurt, apples, goji berries and raspberries. I necked delicious acai juice (“Botox in a bottle”) by the litre and, as Jane Fonda might say before looking wistfully at something unspecified off-camera, my fine lines definitely seemed reduced.

There is no such thing as super-fast food, however. Every evening, rather than my usual warm-and-serve cooking technique, I had to prepare most meals from scratch and make a packed lunch for work. This tired me out and, after my one allotted beer per day (relaxes the arteries), I was usually in bed early listening to the radio.

A major test loomed for the diet – a week at my parents-in-law’s beach apartment. Surely the s e a s i d e s h o p s wouldn’t have tofu? In fact, the local department store had the biggest vegetarian section I’d ever seen. I felt a little tetchy the whole time, though, and when my wife took some photos I couldn’t help noticing how thin I looked. Still, I’d always been a little wan and I had been running round on the beach a lot.

The last day of the diet dawned – and by now I really didn’t want to stop. My low-alcohol, veggie-stuffed menu had given me sufficient energy and I felt cleansed and virtuous.

But my gym test produced confusing results. I performed only marginally better in the various exercises – and that was probably down to practice. More worryingly, my heart rate was much the same as before and I’d lost an unnecessary 3kg – most of it in muscle. My body mass index (BMI) had fallen from 23 to 21. I had turned into a wimp.

“You’ve taken in huge amounts of protein – more than twice the government’s required nutritional intake,” explained Catherine Collins. “But, apart from the fish, it’s plant protein that doesn’t usually contain enough amino acids to be converted effectively into muscle. Tofu gets called the perfect protein, but it isn’t quite.”

On a more positive note, my cholesterol levels had fallen, my vitamin C was more than seven times the minimum healthy levels, my potassium levels were “phenomenal”, which was great for my blood pressure, and I was pumped full of pretty much every vitamin and mineral I could need. And yet… “You’ve become iron deficient, heading towards anaemia.

Spinach, say, is a very good source of iron. But, unlike the iron from meat, you need complementary foods such as wholegrains to absorb it properly. You could have started passing out at any time.”

Tick tock, tick tock
My huge daily kilojoule intake – 14,480 on average (if you’ve got to cook, you may as well do a lot) – going to bed early and drinking very little alcohol stopped me looking as bad as I could have done. But there was a non-ferrous time bomb ticking inside me.

“Anaemia can kill, can’t it?” I asked. “You’d have been in hospital before that,” said Catherine reassuringly. She added the news that, although it helped reduce my cholesterol, I was having far too high a proportion of polyunsaturates, potentially reducing my body’s ability to deal with inflammation and making me more vulnerable to heart disease and arthritis. “You’ve proved that the idea of super foods is a myth,” said Catherine. “They are useful parts of a wider diet, but that’s all.

The health-food industry tends to suggest that more of certain substances is better. You can take on as much vitamin C or calcium as you like, but the body only needs so much and will get rid of the rest.”

Very nutritious urine
So has this all been a waste of time? Not exactly. Satisfyingly, it seems that a balanced diet with not too much booze is the best option.

“Your diet needs more vegetables for the antioxidants, and opt for fish rather than sausage rolls or mayonnaise, but it gives you most of the nutrients you need,” says Catherine.

It doesn’t pay to be too fetishistic about your diet. Eat super foods by all means, but they’re not a panacea. Eat too many and you might be so full of antioxidants that you’ll never get cancer, but you’ll end up an arthritic old dodderer whose only talent is producing very nutritious urine.

[This article originally appeared in the September 2009 edition of Reader's Digest magazine. For more information, or to subscribe to the magazine, visit]

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