It was the anchovy dreams that did it. I am a big fan anyway, but after almost a week on a spartan "detox" regime, it was the strong, salty little fish that I really craved – not red meat, not alcohol – just to bring a splash of flavour into my animal-protein-free world.
While I enjoy my food and drink, I also want to stay healthy and strive for a balanced diet: plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, oily fish, not too much red meat and I try to moderate my alcohol consumption. But, like many other people, festive overindulgence leaves me feeling jaded. And while I don't think I'm overweight, my body mass index says officially, I am, just. Perhaps I could lose a few pounds?
So, I decided that in addition to an alcohol-free January to give my liver a break, I would also try, for one week at least, to give all my body a rest. I would go for total "detox" – an ill-defined word that seems to be bandied about by every self-styled diet guru and happily taken up by the makers of everything from bottled water to scented candles – supposed to create a "new you". I would see what life is like without meat, fish or caffeine.
And also I'll ditch wheat or dairy products, which are regularly deemed "problematic", because barely a day goes past without some celebrity confessing they are now intolerant or allergic to this or that food, that nothing white or brown ever passes their lips, or that they've embarked on a new detox regime, consisting entirely of hot water, but with as much lemon as they want.
What can life be like for such people? And why does everyone else seem to follow their lead, despite the scepticism of many dieticians and experts, such as Dr Andrew Wadge, chief scientist of the Government's Food Standards Agency, who in the past has urged people to "dump the detox nonsense" and rely upon the body – particularly the liver – to sort itself out, with the help of a decent diet of home-cooked food, plenty of water and exercise.
I suspect he's right. But, fortified with a "last meal" of pheasant and ham pie, roast potatoes and a half of a bottle of red wine, I prepared for my week of denial and detox to find out for myself. Here's how it went.
A breakfast of orange juice, gluten-free organic museli with soya milk, and caffeine-free rooibos (or redbush) tea. Lunch is sprout and chestnut soup (which makes the most of the remaining seasonal leftovers), plus a few oatcakes, fruit and decaffeinated coffee. Later, desperately hungry after the theatre, I discover that my normal late night restaurant choices – tapas or pizza – have been banned. We find a Turkish place. Although I can't eat any lovely flat bread with dips, the falafel and an aubergine and couscous dish do just fine.
Wake up feeling guilty because I remembered couscous stems from wheat and is therefore banned under my regime. The list of what I can't eat seems to grow longer. Breakfast is more museli, which frankly tastes like sawdust, plus green tea. Lunch is gluten-free bread – it claims to be ciabatta, but looks and tastes nothing like it – with humous and salad. In fact, its more sawdust. And taste-free. My belief that, for real food in such circumstances, you need culinary cultures which place vegetables, pulses and grains at the centre of their table, is confirmed when a friend cooks kootu sambar – yellow lentils and vegetables – for me. It's everyday Indian comfort food and very good, but now I realise where the "lentils and brown rice" jibe comes in. Not so appetising is the gluten-free naan.
Abandon sawdust museli in favour of fresh fruit and redbush tea. I'm not getting any withdrawal symptoms from a lack of caffeine, which suggests I'm not dependent. So I can't see any reason not to return eventually to my daily routine of no more than about three cups each of tea and coffee, simply because I like the taste of them. More than two days in and my body should now, in theory, be ridding itself of all those nasty toxins which are supposed to be accumulating in my system. Do I feel healthier? Not really. Is my coat shiny, hair glossy? Nope.
In the evening, my two teenage sons are here for dinner. Since I've banned white foods from my diet, I can't eat the baked gnocchi I've cooked, so, I eat gluten-free pasta, made from rice flour. Another taste-free zone, incapable of being cooked al dente and it turns to mush. I lust for anchovies in the tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese on top. In fact, throughout my week, its these kind of deep-flavoured foods I miss most, rather than slabs of red meat or fish. At night, I dream of Gentleman's Relish on proper muffins and spaghetti à la puttescana.
Lunch is home-made spinach soup and more sawdust bread and houmous. I'm largely working from home this week when it's much easier working to plan such a careful diet – particularly if, like Madonna or Gwyneth Paltrow, you have a chef to prepare your macrobiotic meals, all of which take considerable time to prepare. I took a swing around some sandwich shops this morning and, while there are many low-fat or salad-type takeaway options, there is almost nothing substantial I could eat under my current strict regime if I was out and about. Even making a salad for lunch myself is problematic, since to make a substantial meal, most include some kind of animal-derived protein or stuff I've banned. A bowl of leaves is just not enough for me. I can just about get by on soup at lunchtime, but the bitterly cold weather requires filling, comfort food in the evenings. I begin to ache for meaty casseroles, roast chicken and home-made fish pie. As recommended, I'm eating lots of fresh fruit and snacks and drinking plenty of juices – both bought and home made – and around two litres of water a day, but I normally do that anyway; I'm not a puddings, sweets or fizzy drinks person. In the evening, Leo, my 17-year-old son, fresh from swimming training, devours two large tuna steaks, while I look on enviously, trying to eat my mushroom stroganoff and wild rice. A growing teenager could not survive on my diet.
By now, both my energy levels and appetite seem to have diminished and, unusually, I struggle to finish my meals. Tonight's vegetable curry seems one lentil too many. Is this because I've denied myself the daily pleasure of an almost limitless range of possibilities available to a modern foodie? Perhaps its the absence of wine from my diet – I miss the sheer pleasure of choosing what I'm going to drink and what I eat with it, as much as the effect of alcohol itself. Without a glass or three, I'm livelier in the evenings, but edgy, getting to bed later and sleeping poorly. Perhaps we really do need a drink to relax us after the day's trials and tribulations.
Depressed at another day of sawdust and lentil stew. Once you take animal protein, wheat and dairy produce out of your diet, for a main meal, you are mostly left with, wherever you are in the culinary world, variations of a theme: some kind of vegetable stew or bake, with or without pulses and whole grains or pasta. Which become pretty boring and stodgy if eaten every day. Look at vegan websites for recipe inspiration, but scrambled tofu, "bacon" and "cheese" substitutes and bean casseroles do nothing for me. Discover that the loaf of gluten-free bread I've been using to make toast contains egg, which, if I was on a strict vegan diet, I'd have to avoid as well. I am revived with a palate-invigorating vegetarian phad thai, the Thai dish authentically made with rice noodles, although without fish sauce, unfortunately.
Feel brighter – perhaps because it is my last day of denial. I celebrate with a brunch of buckwheat pancakes – not made from true wheat – maple syrup and bananas. In the evening, I cook a splendid roast chicken for everyone else and turlu-turlu for myself, a spiced Turkish ratatouille with chickpeas, eaten with more brown rice. A perfect side dish or main course vegetarian dish, but without its normal accompaniments of yoghurt and flatbread, it's not quite as satisfying. I console myself that, tomorrow, I have all that leftover chicken to look forward to ...
Did it work?
On the plus side, I've learned to look very closely at the labels of foods and that I could probably up the vegetable content of my diet. And I've lost a couple of pounds, almost certainly due to a lack of alcohol and proper bread and pasta, which I'll bear in mind in the future. That's about it.
Otherwise, I felt increasingly physically low as the week went on, eating a diet difficult to maintain in most normal domestic or social settings and generally uninspiring for the enthusiastic cook. And because of a slight back strain, I wasn't able to go to the gym this week – if I had, my body's demand for carbohydrates and filling foods would have been even higher.
While understanding those who suffer for genuine intolerances, allergies or who decline animal products on ethical grounds, contrary to the claims made by the detox brigade, I didn't feel somehow suddenly cleansed or energised by this regime. Which didn't surprise the dieticians I spoke to afterwards.
Jackie Lowdon, of the British Dietetic Association says: "We know such regimes can have harmful effects when growing teenage girls go on crash diets or give up milk, which they need for calcium. People see these diet regimes as a lifestyle choice – rather than an exclusively healthy one – allowing them to identify with certain celebrities, who have a lot to answer for."
And Catherine Collins, the principal dietician at St George's Hospital in London, says that ironically, any extra antioxidants I picked up from more vegetables probably only compensated for those lost through less tea, coffee and red wine.
She says: "There is no real hard scientific evidence that the foods often portrayed as 'devil foods', like coffee or wheat and dairy products, are actually harmful in a balanced diet for a normal person. White rice is not as good as whole grains, but then we are not entirely reliant upon it for our nutrition.''
People who buy diet and detox guides wanted to be sold something sexy to validate their choice and money, rather than a sensible message of balanced diets and regular exercise, she said. "And some rather self-obsessed people enjoy the idea they can't cope with wheat or dairy – it give them an air of 'specialness','' adds Collins.
"Detox is a myth put about by self-appointed nutrition experts and perpetuated by those with commercial interests, all ignorant of the basic physiology of the body – which is detoxifying itself naturally all the time.''Reuse content