Sunday 24 September 2017

Health Freak: My endless quest for the holy grail

I am a fad-diet obsessive, says Emily Hourican, who has made a hobby of her lifelong quest for the key to perfect health. It's not enough to simply diet any more, and the diet that promises weight loss alone is over, she says. Today's diets with a a capital D, must do so much more, and, as she approaches her prime, she is determined to find the perfect regime to make her fitter, faster and stronger than ever before. Photography by Kip Carroll

Emily Hourican: Fad-diet obsessive. Photo: Kip Carroll
Emily Hourican: Fad-diet obsessive. Photo: Kip Carroll
Age is having a bit of a moment right now: 80-year-old writer Joan Didion modelling for Celine

We all need a hobby, something to get us out of bed in the morning and bouncing through the day. Something to occupy our idle minds on trains and while waiting for friends.

Some people play golf or tennis, or read their way through the Booker long list. For me, it's health, and, in particular, the optimising thereof. I'm sure this makes me an occasionally boring dinner companion. It definitely makes me a nightmare to go on holiday with, as I can't seem to resist sharing the results of my wide reading: "Did you know there is basically as much sugar in juice as in fizzy drinks?" Or, "Shouldn't you be making your own almond milk rather than guzzling so much dairy?"

I dearly love all of this stuff. Superfoods, extreme diets, never mixing dairy and meat, never eating refined sugar, or eating after 6pm, ancient grains rediscovered -the entire industry, essentially. I call it the 'vitality' industry because of how much it concentrates on this claim, as opposed to anything more specific and demonstrable. No matter how wacky the product, I will give it a fair hearing. "After all," I say to myself judiciously, "cider vinegar was once considered something for hippies and freaks. Why, even goji berries were once viewed with suspicion!"

I don't actually try most of the stuff I read about - I'm not that nuts, or financially reckless - but every once in a while something comes along that I find both persuasive, and possible, and I give it a go. Mainlining turmeric was one; drinking coffee with butter and coconut oil was another. Both were great fun (although the coffee and butter one may have left me with a slight cholesterol problem, but I consider that a small price to pay for the deliciousness of it; like drinking liquidised coconut buns every morning), but neither has led to the kind of never-ending energy and wellbeing that I was promised.

Nothing ever does. That's the sad truth. There is an initial bounce, during which I think: "Yes! This is it! The Holy Grail of Perfect Health!" This then subsides gradually, until, within a few weeks, I find that I feel very much as usual. Luckily, I'm not really dependent on this stuff. My health is excellent, in general I feel great, and when I don't, it is usually easily explained by circumstances (cold coming on, bad day at work). In fact, I pursue this stuff in a resignedly quixotic kind of way; I constantly chase the rainbow of perfect health, moving on each time I conclude that I am, once more, standing beside a pot of fool's gold. As such, I am the perfect person to report back from the frontline of the new diets.

Now, if you haven't been on a diet these last few months, then you are either the most body-confident person ever, or Gwyneth Paltrow, whose life is basically what the rest of us would call a diet, but for her is simply 'conscious eating', and, as such, a never-ending life choice.

The question is, what kind of diet? Because that is going to say an awful lot about you. If you are sticking with the old-fashioned sort - eat less bread and cake, maybe a bit more veg, and no snacking on Kit Kats - then, I'm afraid, you are missing a major trick. You are aiming solely for weight loss, and as such you are short-changing yourself, settling for shockingly little, and generally underachieving. Sorry, but someone needs to tell you, in case you haven't worked out what the recent flurry of activity in the diet market actually means.

Because there are now two tiers of diets. There are diets, and then there are Diets, with capital letters and bells on. These Diets promise so much more than weight loss (weight loss, these days, is for the unambitious, and as such rather declasse. Again, sorry, but someone had to tell you). For those who really want to 'get something' out of their diets, there is now vitality, longevity, youthfulness and generally pumped-up performance to be had. It's not about losing weight, it's about being better than ever: more productive, more energetic, more brilliant, pure and perfect. The very best that you can be. And then some.

Doing the old type of straightforward diet is now like buying a car and, on being asked whether you want heated seats and inbuilt GPS for no extra cost, saying, "Oh no, just something that'll get me from A to B, please." By which I mean fine, really, but also largely unthinkable in our modern world, in which everything doubles up as something else. The beautiful new sofa that has secret storage compartments; the pair of tights that also contour the silhouette; the protein shake that will help build muscle, cut carb cravings, and deliver a complete amino-acid profile.

It may be a time thing. Who, now, has time to keep each strand of life separate? Or can afford single-function items? Very few of us. The rest need to multi-task and multi-purpose; everything that we do and consume a kind of Heath Robinson contraption with a whole range of elements and outcomes.

So what are the Diets hotly trending at the moment? Well, there's ReWilding, a general lifestyle trend for getting back to nature and a more primitive way of living, including (but by no means limited to) sleeping without a pillow, going to bed as soon as it gets dark, cooking and eating outside - preferably over an open fire - and squatting rather than sitting to go to the loo, even if that means crouching over your toilet, feet on the seat.

As far as food is concerned, ReWilding is a bit of a mish-mash of the raw foods and paleo trends - eating more wild foods, such as unusual berries, seaweed, acorns, even insects (grasshoppers and dragonflies are both popular among serious ReWilders).

Then there's the Nordic Diet, otherwise known as 'Eat Like A Viking To Lose Weight And Lower Blood Pressure'. It's the 'and' that says everything in that sentence - that trumpets the fact that this isn't just a diet, it's a Diet. The staples here are whole grains, plants, fresh fish, small amounts of meat - there is nothing particularly new there, and obviously those are all healthy suggestions. What brings it in line with the new world of Diets is the catchy name, the implicit claims to being something ancient, tried-and-tested, and of course the highly specific benefits that go beyond weight loss - apparent improvements in blood-lipid profile and insulin sensitivity, and lower blood pressure.

There is the Eat Fat Diet, whereby instead of cutting fat out of your diet, you increase consumption of it (only the healthy mono- and polyunsaturated varieties of course); the Raw Diet, focusing on eating uncooked and unprocessed foods, mainly fruits, vegetables, seaweed, sprouted seeds, wholegrains, beans and nuts; and the Fruitarian Diet, which includes vegetables, nuts and seeds, but no animal products or grains.

Look hard and it seems pretty clear that the diets themselves aren't particularly new. Some that have lingered on the fringes of wackiness among aura healers and barefoot warriors, have entered the mainstream, others are amalgamations or 2.0 versions of themselves. What's new is the shift in emphasis, from being thinner, to being healthier.

Just as we have seen the medicalisation of the obesity debate, we are seeing the medicalisation of the response to it. About five years ago, being overweight became, not just personally unfortunate, but a major social problem - recently, a UK weight-loss 'expert' tried to start something called 'Warn A Friend They're Fat Day' in order to tackle the obesity problem. Nice, eh? With friends like that, no one needs to bother being their own worst enemy any more.

The strain on the health service has become such a big thing, the time-bomb of countries such as Ireland, where obesity is now running at well beyond European levels - 50.9pc of Irish women over the age of 20, and 66pc of Irish men, are now overweight or obese - that it is no longer a private matter. It's a resources matter, a health service matter. And we want more, we want diets that don't just offer weight loss. The ones gaining traction offer the enhanced package: weight loss with insulin, glucose and cholesterol benefits. Better vitality, mood and hair.

And because of that, they can target a far wider audience than just the overweight - plenty wide an audience as that now is. And they can do it in the full knowledge that no one will gainsay them. In a society as obsessed as ours with unrealistically thin body shapes, pitching weight loss at anyone who isn't conspicuously overweight is a dubious practice, whereas pitching better health and longevity, even if weight loss is one by-product, is perfectly responsible. You could call it a crafty piece of marketing, except that the need for some kind of profound shift in the way we address our health is clearly overdue.

Along with an increasingly overweight population, we will soon face into an ageing population - by 2021, there will be an extra 200,000 people over the age of 65, with only an extra 100,000 school children. Don't even look at the projections for 2046. Old people put nearly as much strain on health services as overweight people. If ever there was a moment to try and create a nation of health warriors - a kind of buffer zone inhabited by the lean, the fit, those with desirable cholesterol and turbo-charged with free-radical-fighting superfoods - this is it.

Some might find this daunting - the throwing back of responsibility for health squarely on to each individual, the expectation that the responsible amongst us will prep for our own futures by starting the drive to become superman today.

Not me though. For me, this is the perfect alignment of inclination with expectation. Really, I have been preparing for it much of my life; I am clearly the target audience for these new Diets, and a most receptive one at that. I am a total sucker for anything that promises a new and better me. I have never knowingly passed up the kind of article that screams: 'How I changed what I ate for breakfast and reversed the ageing process.' Even: 'How I turbo-charged my life by eating beetles.'

And so, as I approach the years that unkind folk might call 'middle age' but to the rest of us are simply the prime, I am determined to be superwoman: stronger, fitter, faster than I ever have been. Probably that sounds grander than it is - we're not talking Olympic standards here. I have never been particularly fast or strong, nor, without ever having been particularly unfit, have I ever been spectacularly fit. Normal, is about how I would characterise it. A good base to start from. And what I'm starting is a double-whammy of diet and exercise that promises desirable, demonstrable results.

Having read about the 5:2 diet for a couple of years now, and the science around the idea of intermittent fasting that goes with it, I finally took the step from sideline to showtime, joining a 12-week programme put together by The Well at the Beacon Clinic, to start testing the benefits of 5:2 eating and High-Intensity Training (HIT) exercise. The 5:2 is blessedly simple in concept - eat normally (and by normally I mean the kind of generally healthy eating we all try and aspire to, without going nuts about it) for five days a week, then restrict calories to 500 (600 for men) for two days a week.

And that's it basically. Nothing particularly complicated, no need to keep charts or sprout things. You don't even count calories much (it doesn't take long to work out what constitutes 500 calories, because it really isn't very much). No need to expend mental energy wondering, "If I don't have any potatoes later, maybe I can have half that slice of cake now", because it's really quite simple. On a fast day, you can't have anything except breakfast and dinner. No bit of this, half of that, thin slice of t'other. On those days, you just put food out of your mind, which isn't that hard when you know you can get up the next day and have a bacon sandwich if you want.

Now, I don't mean to give the impression that it is easy to stick to. It's not. Five hundred calories is damn all, little enough to send me into a tailspin of misery on the first day I tried it. Actually, it was a bit like having flu - I felt shaky, miserable, convinced I had forgotten something crucial, and desperately in need of hot toast with lots of butter.

The people at The Well, under whose careful eye I was conducting this experiment into myself, promised me it would get easier. They were right, it did. A great deal easier, although never actually easy. I discovered to my surprise that it is possible to function like a normal person on 500 calories. To have meetings and make decisions, to cook food for other people and watch them eat it (I got weirdly into baking for the kids on my fast days. Proximity to delicious things seemed important, even if I couldn't actually have them), even go for a run and socialise. I have always regarded hunger as something to be avoided - have you noticed how, with kids, if they start behaving badly or having a meltdown, someone will always say: "I think he must be hungry" as an explanation and mitigation? And so we all grow up with this idea that being hungry is a terrible thing, something that will lead us to irrational displays of emotion and injudicious behaviour. "Oh God, I'm hungry," we think in horror, cramming a banana or a chocolate bar into ourselves in panic.

In fact, being hungry for short, controlled bursts, is perfectly fine. Even beneficial - if the science is to be believed and there is a growing, persuasive body of it, suggesting it might help fend off cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer's. Obviously you will lose weight if you restrict calories - by around 3,000/3,600 overall in a week - but the fasting itself is apparently good, sending the body into something called repair and rejuvenation mode, particularly where insulin and human growth hormone are concerned.

Along with the fasting I tried high-intensity exercise, HIT, which essentially means that instead of running steadily for 40 minutes three times a week, which I have been doing for a few years now, I began doing shorter, faster runs: a five-minute warm-up, followed by a series of 30-second all-out, bust-a-gut, uphill sprints, interspersed with a minute rest time. In total, about 15 minutes. This, I was told, would boost my base metabolic rate and encourage lean muscle gain. The idea that I could actually get fitter by doing less exercise is one of the most counter-intuitive things I have ever heard - and like so much counter-intuitive stuff (such as drinking more water helps prevent water retention, or putting a nominal value on something helps shift it faster than if it's 'free') turned out to be perfectly accurate.

After 12 weeks of this, I went back for a full analysis, a recap as it were, of the benefits of my self-sacrifice (and yes, the chance to talk obsessively about myself and my every minute response was a very pleasant by-product of the programme). This was pretty gratifying. All the quantifiable stuff - things that can be weighed, measured, scanned and tested - showed good results. I weigh less by about half a kilogram, but in fact I lost 2.5kg of fat, and gained just over 2kg of lean muscle. That, at my age, is pretty damn good. I'm not exactly Paula Radcliffe or a racehorse yet, but, hey, I'm on the way.

So do I actually feel better? Hard to say. I feel delighted, because I reckon I'm fitter. I can run faster - still not actually fast, let's not get carried away here, but faster - and my stomach is distinctly flatter. I think if I were to put in all the complicated variables of my life at the moment - including the fact of February, incipient teenagers at home, a broken dishwasher and badly-growing-out haircut - into a clever machine that could analyse the findings, it would conclude that I feel better than I would if I had those 2.5kg of fat still distributed about my person, and no extra lean muscle.

I also believe that I am heading into the magnificent years of my prime from a better starting position. In a way, this is a gathering of the forces before the next phase of life, a retuning of the engine so as to give optimum performance on the next leg of the journey. And it's well worth doing.

We should all expect better for longer these days. We don't need to tell ourselves that life begins at 40, the way our parents used to, oh-so-hopefully, because obviously it doesn't. But, crucially, neither does it end at 50, or 60, or 70.

Age is having a moment right now - 80-year-old Joan Didion photographed by Juergen Teller, modelling for Celine; Charlotte Rampling, aged 68, fabulous in Broadchurch and that Nars cosmetics campaign; Helen Mirren, 69, the face of L'Oreal. All this ties in perfectly with the new era of bells-on-Diets; its about being healthy, lean, vital and stylish well into your latter years, not giving up, getting pudgy round the middle, wearing comfort slacks and allowing your blood-glucose levels to soar dangerously.

I am a profound believer in both the effort and the outcome. And so, I will keep up the HIT, and move from 5:2 to 6:1 (ie, restrict calories for just one day a week, which feels like a picnic at the moment but will undoubtedly become a chore), and hope to stay there.

I will try not to get discouraged by the fact that I am battling impossible odds. You see, unlike getting a degree or my driver's licence, there is nothing from my 12 weeks that I can frame, keep or take home with me, only the commitment to continued effort, the challenge of constant endeavour.

After all, you're only as good as your last fast day or high-intensity workout. It's a question of trying to see the beauty in that.

For more on the 5:2 diet and HIT,

see thewell.ie

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