Growing up as a working-class kid in the North in the Sixties, food was incredibly limited. It wasn’t like today, where everyone has groaning cupboards of unused goods; we had just enough food to get through each week. Meals were plain and boring, but everything was wholesome and home-cooked.
Food changed a lot in the Seventies, with a lot more processed foods becoming available. In 1979 I turned 18 and by then was a bit of a hippy. I was 10 years out of date; this was when punk was really big and I was just getting into Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead. It was around then that I started to think differently about food. By 1982, I was living in the North of Scotland in a sort of croft with my partner, Dawn. Two years later, we decided to stop eating meat because we used to see all the cattle taken away to the slaughterhouse and we were growing a lot of our own food anyway. That’s where the adventure into vegetarianism, wholefoods and healthy eating started.
People didn’t really get us and I was considered a bit of a freak for my diet. But then in the mid-Eighties, copying American guidelines, the British government’s healthy-eating advice changed and it started encouraging people to base their diets on carbohydrates rather than protein and fat. By the early Nineties, the whole “five-a-day” thing came into play and diets that included a lot less animal and saturated fat and even vegetarianism became the default healthy-eating advice. With things such as salmonella in eggs, BSE in beef and the rest of it, the diet we’d chosen based on wholegrains, lentils, pulses, fruit and veg, and all that other groovy stuff, made us seem like we’d been ahead of the curve.
We were very smug about our lifestyle, which we thought was both healthy and morally correct. But after about six or seven years of being vegetarian, we both started to get slowly and progressively more ill.
The first thing was I started to develop what was later defined as irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS. It began as a vague digestive discomfort but within a couple of years had developed into a situation where whenever I ate anything my gut would stick out and it felt like there was a lead weight in it. Then everything that’s inside you would leave your body at high pace and great speed with tremendous frequency. Basically the loo becomes your best friend.
By 1998, it was absolutely chronic. I went to doctors but nobody had a clue what to do about it. I was tested for things such as Crohn’s disease and to see whether I was allergic to anything (I did food exclusions of one sort or another for years), all of which came back negative. But not one doctor suggested it might be my diet. As well as my condition getting worse, I was actually putting on weight – despite the IBS – and I became clinically obese. I’m 5ft 10in and at one point I was 15 stone: quite an achievement on a wholefood, low-fat, (and by this point) vegan diet. On top of that I had one of the highest cholesterol levels that the doctor who took it had seen – 9.2 – and in 2001 they put me on statins.
I would take food diaries to the doctor, who would tell me everything was fantastic, and congratulate me on not eating butter, cream and cholesterol. When I asked doctors whether I should change my diet, they told me no. But clearly my diet was destroying my health. Dawn was developing very depressive moods and suffering mood swings. I was also experiencing a lot of headaches, which occurred pretty much every day. I was also knackered and would have to have a sleep in the afternoon. I was just falling apart. By the time I got to 40 I felt 60.
It sounds amazing that you would put up with this for as long as we did. But managing all those things just became a way of life. Then one day Dawn suggested that perhaps it wasn’t what we were eating that was making us feel that way but what we were not eating.
I felt upset to leave veganism behind and took some convincing. In the end, I thought I might as well give it a go. The first thing I ate as part of my new diet was ox liver, so I really threw myself in at the deep end. My mate said that it was like going from using no drugs to crack cocaine, but I wanted to test myself. I was a bit squeamish because you can’t pretend a liver is anything other than part of an animal. It freaked me out a bit but I got through it. The second thing I ate that day was a rare steak. That was when I had a transformative experience. It felt like my body was immediately telling me that was what I was supposed to be eating. It sounds really naff but that’s the nearest I can sum it up as. It was quite a profound thing, really. After 24 hours, I never had another IBS episode again. It went overnight.
After 17 years of having something you get used to it, you just think it’s always going to be with you, and then, suddenly, it’s not. I stopped filling my entire meals with carbohydrates – wheat, rice and potatoes – and introduced all meats, butter, cream, lard and goose fat. But it was pure food, nothing processed. And I thrived on it.
I dropped three and a half stone within the first six months. And it wasn’t just weight; what was really freaky about it was that I dropped loads of body fat, going from 28 per cent to 13-14 per cent. In fact, the entire composition of my body changed so I went from being apple-shaped to triangular. And this wasn’t doing a new fitness regime, it was just a change in diet. Even my cholesterol has gone down (on a high-fat animal diet full of cholesterol!) and is now 5.1. I stopped taking statins three years ago.
My new diet went against all the health advice at the time, which was pretty much eat less meat, fewer animal products, and eat more fruit, vegetables and wholegrain carbohydrates, but I’d never felt better. I started to write the book because I thought I couldn’t have been the only person whose back had been broken on this wheel of healthy eating. At first I thought maybe I was the freaky one with the weird body that works differently but once I started doing some research I found there were thousands of people with similar experiences.
Having done so much research on different people’s experiences and with nutritionists, I came away with the idea that trying to administer a one-size-fits-all healthy-eating policy is ludicrous because we’re all so different. And we should question the Government’s recommendations, because history shows it has got its advice wrong before, and it can also be influenced by lobbying groups.
We arrive at this point with a whole different history of food behind us and the history of genetics and lifestyle, and we’re all affected by our individual stories. Have a think about what you’re putting into yourself because we are, undoubtedly, what we eat. Yes, my diet is important but the really shocking thing, and the thing that I really wanted to explore in the book, is how we’ve been fed this healthy-eating orthodoxy for 30 years and many of us have got sicker as a result. That’s the real scandal of it.
Interview by Gillian Orr
‘The Meat Fix: How a Lifetime of Healthy Eating Nearly Killed Me’ by John Nicholson is out now and published by Biteback; RRP £8.99Reuse content