I was living the foodie dream, or so I thought. I was in my twenties with a lifestyle of client lunches, extravagant dinners out and hangover-busting breakfasts. Yet at 28 I was clinically obese.
I was 15 stone and only 5ft 5in. I didn't wear it well. "How on earth am I going to fit into a nice dress?" was my second response when my partner proposed. In addition, I wanted a wedding album that flaunted, not haunted me. However, we still had our twentysomething priorities, so booked the holiday first. Alain Ducasse's newest outpost had recently opened in Mauritius and we lost weight together in readiness
I was three-and-a-half stone lighter when I got married in May 2003 but, in eating terms, not any brighter. I had lost weight for the wrong reasons and was miserable after the self-deprivation of a quick-fix diet. I had stopped entertaining or going out and ceased to enjoy what I cooked.
Denying myself what I cherished only made matters worse. Four years later, with two pregnancies under my ever-expanding belt, a sudden realisation rocked me – I would not be able to cope with two children under three. I got scared. I had to be there for my family. At a whopping, post-partum 15-and-a-half-stone, I was sciatica-ravaged and exhausted, so I resolved to attain and keep an optimal BMI at the earliest healthy opportunity.
This is my dilemma. I love food, but I needed to find a way to live healthily. Could I have my cake, eat it and still get into the jeans of my dreams? I wanted a sustainable lifestyle shift that supported the passion for real food that still slumbered within me. I had spent 15 years eating myself into this state, and by falling into the trappings of gourmandise (pompous restaurants and expense accounts), I had become estranged from my first love, good honest grub. I knew it would take a long-term commitment to find my way back from this mess (and mass).
I tried alone at first, believing that breastfeeding would make the pounds fall away. After losing half a stone, but then hitting a stubborn plateau, I decided I needed a support network.
I joined Weight Watchers in July 2007 because it offered all-in-the-same-boat, experience-sharing meetings and a common sense regime (eat anything, but count the points) that encouraged me to lose weight at a healthy pace.
It promised to be realistic and compatible with the two luxuries I would never be able to give up – drinks with the girls and feasts with the family.
The first lesson I learned was portion control. The Weight Watchers principle was, and is, based upon food tracking, where you annotate everything that goes into your mouth. That was a challenge in itself, as I have been known to inhale a chocolate éclair before my brain evens registers the fact that I've picked up my fork. Maybe not just one. Eureka! I had often eaten the right foods, just too much. I observed that if I cooked large amounts of food, I would fill my large plates and eat everything thereon. I kidded myself that if I batch-cooked it would save time and money. Out would come my beloved 4.7 litre Le Creuset and I would believe I was cooking enough to give us ALL four meals. In reality, I was making the family attempt an Everest of bolognese and the copious cauldron rarely stretched beyond two dinners. To my shame, I was over-feeding my children.
I decided to change tack – figuratively and literally – so I re-evaluated the kitchenalia that I hanker for and hoard.
Certain cooking gadgets lent themselves better to portion control. My slow cooker held a much smaller cooking vessel that would free my hands after 15 minutes of preparation in the morning and sensibly feed a family of four. I explored the high-heat equipment that used less fat – such as my electric steamer and wok – and learned how to use them to their full potential. I even smoke my own chorizo and kielbasa in the wok now.
Once I had dug out my electric plancha (a metal grill plate typical to Spain), I could offer my customary hospitality without anyone being aware that I was trying to avoid a blow-out; and the ensuing self-recrimination. I was able to spoil my friends and indulge my fondness for communal eating while we all sat around the kitchen table searing salmon, prawns and Aberdeen Angus.
A major breakthrough came when I unearthed a forgotten trove of ramekins and small terrines. Through forcing myself to sit down and savour my food each time I ate, rather than eating on the run, I discovered that while a first bite of any dish was ecstasy and the second and third exquisite, subsequent mouthfuls became extraneous. I couldn't really taste the food once I'd had my initial hit.
Conveniently, a ramekin full of unctuous pommes dauphinoise gave me the richness I desired in a controllable portion and the ability to freeze it for flash-heating when the occasion demanded.
If it's your sweet tooth that needs to be sated, revise some favourite recipes. If you eat what you adore, there's no need to feel deprived. For me, adapting my best dishes was more successful than trawling through diet cookbooks. I bought loads but, honestly, I never even tried one recipe. The emphasis on low fat over flavour was anathema to the gastronomic thrill-seeker in me. Instead, a lemon drizzle loaf was made-over into an old-fashioned biscuit de Savoie au citron and with its 25g of butter, became refined enough for tea at today's Savoy. Don't be alarmed by the fact that it will shrink in the centre once baked – that is how it's is meant to look. After all, who doesn't want to be slimmer around the middle? Served with a blackberry coulis, it's given body and a colourful tenacity.
To really see my progress, I had been filling and carrying shopping bags with a weight equivalent to that which I had lost.
A year into my regime, I had ditched the bags and was picking up my four-year-old instead. I had lost 43 pounds thus far and was having fun doing it, which spurred me on.
Meal planning became an effective tool to help me gain control over how much I bought, cooked and eventually ate. It encouraged me to look forward to my meals and, therefore, enjoy them more; it also made me reassess how I shopped. I had deluded myself that shopping daily meant that I was sourcing the freshest ingredients. Between you and me, I was an over-consumer. Shopping only from a list, online, enabled me to avoid the tantalising sales promotions on junk I didn't really want to eat. Instead, I stuck to high-quality produce and cuts of meat, and forced myself to buy only as much as we needed. I would stocktake on a Sunday night to ascertain what we already had to contribute to the coming week and I was always surprised by the amount of food languishing in the freezer and larder, just waiting to be used. From there, I would plan our meals and settle down in front of some Sunday evening viewing with my beloved Ocado app. That way there was no increase in budget because I was still buying our favourite foods, ensuring they were humane and sustainable, but in much smaller quantities. Adopted on a global scale, think how much longer our dwindling food resources would last.
For midweek top-ups, the international supermarkets became my friends. With their cornucopia of fresh herbs and exotic fruit and vegetables, I was less likely to transgress into the realms of discounted convenience comestibles. Indeed, if I did fall prey to some freshly-baked baklava or sweet Chinese steamed buns, I would hear the words of my fat-fighting buddy, Isabelle, resounding in my ears: "Have what you like, but just have one."
It was allowed. It was all part of my food journey. By 16 December 2009, two and a half years into my new lifestyle, I had lost five stone. Today, I am epicurean but replete and have maintained this weight loss for 18 months. I do not attempt to proselytise, for I have experienced and dealt with minor fluctuations due to high days, holidays, hormones and hapless ankle injuries. However, I am a born-again food lover. My re-education has deepened my love for cooking and engendered a new respect for the food that, previously, I took for granted. Later this year when Isabelle and I celebrate another year at our respective goals, we hope to taste Aggi Sverrisson's New Nordic cuisine at Texture, one of an emerging trend of restaurants offering Michelin standards without the riskof a coronary.
I hope there's no dress code: I may wear my Ralph Lauren bootcuts.
Essential guidelines for weight-conscious foodies
Be mindful. Be in the moment when preparing and eating food. If your brain is pleasured, it won't crave things.
Buddy up. Foodies can be prone to excess. Cook, eat and share together for some balance.
No effort is too small. Every walk will boost your metabolism.
Do snack. The perception of deprivation does not sit well with the food-lover.
Grow your own. You'll pay agronomical prices, not astronomical ones, for your organic butternut squash.
Have a healthy day before a hedonistic day. It's easier to shed a couple of pounds when looking forward to an event or holiday, than to undo any damage when you get back.
Create a mnemonic. My mental tickboxes during a busy day were – and are:
Water. (I tell my children that it's good to wash your insides, too.)
Avoid bread. (My personal weakness.)
Track what you eat. (Not for ever; until you know what you really eat.)
Exercise (I'm afraid so. It was crucial)
Forgive yourself. (You ate it – move on.)
Allow time to plan. (Especially if you are facing a hectic week.)
Eat lots of fibre. (You know why.)
Leave it at one. (All food is wonderful. Savour it.)