Give me this at least

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This.

If I could make a bargain with the universe over what I was allowed to eat without causing an eczema flare-up, I wouldn’t ask for much.

It turns out, if I don’t eat butter I eat a lot less bread, and if I eat a lot less bread I eat a lot less cheese. I miss it, but most of it isn’t a deal breaker. The vast quantities of mature cheddar I used to get through were just gluttony.

It also turns out that the only thing I really miss about milk is the tiny amount I put in a morning cup of tea. I like to drink. Just one. Cup. Of. Tea. Per day. I’m not your typical British person (or teacher) in that respect. I don’t even like it in the afternoon, unless there’s a Fortnum and Mason Dundee cake in the vicinity.

So I will set wheat bread* aside. And I will forego butter. And I will put oat or almond milk on my cereal and peanut butter on my glutard toast.

But if I could have the following, please, universe:

  • Mozzarella (*on pizza, yes, made with wheat flour), no more than once a week;
  • Parmesan (with glutard pasta or in soup);
  • A tiny drizzle of milk in a single mug of tea, once per day.

That’s it. I’ll stir oat cream into my soups and try not to think about cheese on toast, and I’ll drive to Woburn Sands for glutard fish and chips, if I could just have a carbonara occasionally, and a Saturday pizza made with my own hands, and a mug of Yorkshire tea.

Is that too much to ask?

(Eczema is substantially reduced – currently getting by with aloe vera gel and a nightly Benadril.)

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The Boy in the Bread Bubble

LN_870160_BP_11Surveying the trolley after doing the grocery shopping last night, I realised that – for someone who is supposed not to be eating wheat anymore – I still have way too much invested in beautiful bread.

It’s the stuff of life!

The big Waitrose in MK does a sliced (and toaster-shaped) sourdough from the Bertinet Bakery that is possibly the best bread I’ve ever tasted. It puts the “sour” in sourdough. At £3.50 a large loaf, it’s not so preposterously expensive that you pass it over. After all, a standard gluey white sliced loaf is over a quid these days.

In addition to that beauty, I was unable to resist the opening offer on Waitrose’s sourdough crumpets, and there was a nice filone pugliese that crusted up beautifully in the oven as an accompaniment to tomato soup.

Meanwhile, because I’ve been playing fast and loose with the gluten consumption lately* (I’m not coeliac, but have developed otherwise unexplainable eczema in my middle age), I’ve got itchy patches springing up at the top of my left leg and the bottom of my right.

Medical tests were so inconclusive that I can’t even say for sure that my eczema is caused by gluten, except that it clears up on its own if I don’t eat it. And, yes, that could all be the placebo effect, but that’s the problem with the human mind. This whole business kicked off with insomnia, which the doctor – not wanting to give me sleeping pills long-term – tried to treat with antidepressants (Sertraline), and which then triggered the eczema.

My latest symptom is that my eyes won’t stop watering. Especially first thing in the morning, they’re streaming all the time. It kind of clears up once I’m at work, but I don’t know if that’s because I’m away from the environment that triggers the tears, or simply because I’m at work and otherwise distracted. Because the thing is, the itching from the eczema also tended not to bother me (much) during the busy working day.

So: either I’m a mess of symptoms which are all stress-related; or I’ve developed allergies – in my 50s – to a variety of substances. Is it gluten? Is it the pillow? The mattress? The cat? Dust? Meanwhile, I’m still sleeping really badly. I get that sleeping pills are addictive and that no responsible doctor would keep prescribing them, but if I’d stuck with them, maybe none of this would have happened.

Pass the butter.

*We had visitors last week, so I was cooking for nine, which meant that doing a special glutard meal would have been a pain in the arse.

Detox yer box

grapefruitwaterWhen people talk about detoxing, they’re usually referring to the idea of cleaning out your system by abstaining from something for a period of time, or by only eating one genre of food for a weekend or so. So a weekend drinking nothing but fruit juice, for example, or a (first two weeks of) January without alcohol.

Well, I’m here to tell you…

When I was investigating possible causes of my eczema (now confirmed by biopsy as such), I came across a reference to the idea that gluten intolerance might cause such a rash. Huh. So I gave up the gluten for two days. Ha ha! Classic detoxing.

No effect, so I went back to the wheat and carried on (literally) scratching my head as to the cause of me having to scratch my head.

But the doctor who performed the biopsy suggested that giving up gluten needed to happen over several weeks, and I later found a website which mentioned that it could take up to six months for any positive effects of giving up gluten to be felt.

Six months. Not six days, or a weekend, or even a whole January.

In the event, it took precisely 5 weeks for my near-constant itching to diminish and disappear, once I gave up gluten. And, six weeks into the experiment, I’ve been advised to continue it for another six weeks before cautiously reintroducing gluten-containing foods to see if the rash comes back.

In short, if you want to detoxify your body of Substance X, you have to detoxify it for an extended period of time before every last molecule of X leaves your system. This is most clear in the case of drug addiction. Giving up cigarettes for a day or two is easy. Giving them up forever is much harder, because the cravings can be present for weeks, or months. So juice purges or whatever dietary fad you’re following aren’t really achieving anything. As to what’s really going on inside, there’s an argument that says your liver, which is designed to naturally detox your body – that being its function – is working at peak efficiency when it is given something to work with. In other words, drinking (alcohol) moderately is better for you than not drinking at all.

Breakfast at Teffany’s?

gf-pizz-1I’ve been (trying to be) gluten free (GF) for four weeks now, and I’ve spent three weekends in a row experimenting with various ingredients to make baked goods and other things. I’ve also raided the supermarket shelves for GF items with mixed success.

Although some of the seeded breads are okay in small quantities, and as long as you toast them, I’ve been struggling to find something that hits the spot when it comes to spreading butter on it. I’ve thrown away one failed so-called bread and found that most of the shop-bought stuff has to be heavily adulterated to make it palatable. I tried a Warburton’s sliced brown loaf, for example, which I could only eat in the form of an egg/bacon sandwich or crisped up in olive oil as croutons, or smothered in (GF) welsh rarebit.

gf-cook-1This weekend it was the turn of Teff flour. Sainsbury’s sell a tiny (125g) pot of it in their GF section (Doves brand), which is barely enough to use in a single recipe. So I ordered some of this stuff, and used it this weekend to make the following:

  • Chocolate chip cookies
  • Pizza base
  • Crumpets/pikelets

I used the Doves teff flour last weekend to make the same cookies, but their recipe had water in it, which was bizarre. As with so many of these things, a lot of recipes and pre-packaged goods try to take into account multiple dietary needs. In this case, I guess they were avoiding egg as well as gluten. Well, this weekend, I made the recipe with an egg instead of 4 tbsp of water, and it was much better. The cookies held their shape well and were less crumbly. Teff flour (even this “wholegrain white”) has something of the texture of wholemeal wheat bread flour, so everything I make with it reminds me of some of the vegetarian recipes I’ve followed, which always include wholemeal flour when they could just as easily include white or sauce flour. So the cookies are pretty good, like standard cookies made with wholemeal, which makes me wonder about making digestive biscuits.

For the pizza base, I used 125g teff topped up to 150g with cornmeal for added crunch. The dough was very soft (softer than a cookie dough, looser than pastry) and nothing like traditional dough. So you have to push it into a tin by hand. I lined the tin with baking parchment because I’ve learned the hard way that gluten free stuff tends to stick more. After about two hours, I topped the base with the usual pizza toppings, and I baked it in a hot oven for about 15 minutes. The result was much better than my previous attempts (and those I’d bought in supermarkets). A crunchy crust that was quite palatable – you could convince yourself that you were eating a regular pizza made with wholemeal flour.

Onto the crumpets. Last weekend, I tried crumpets with Doves GF flour, but they ended up stodgy, without the right kind of texture. Disappointing, because Warburton’s GF crumpets are among the few bread products I’ve tried that are okay (if expensive, which is why I wanted to make my own). So I made the same recipe again, but swapping out half of the flour for teff. I also tweaked it by adding a bit more salt, more bicarbonate of soda and a hair more yeast. This time, the batter fermented very well, and the resulting crumpets taste good and have a good, aerated texture. In colour, they look yellower than regular crumpets.

After two batches of four, I was a bit fed up of the crumpets sticking to the rings (hard to get out because they were so hot), so I just cooked the rest of the batter as pikelets, which was perfect. In the future, I’ll not bother with the rings and I’ll just make batches of pikelets. These are great when warmed in the toaster and spread with butter. Nirvana!

gf-cook-1-1Other successes over the past couple of weeks:

  • Cake au jambon – a French style savory cake made with a jar of green olives and some bacon or ham. Works perfectly well with GF flour, and because it’s an enriched dough, it’s fairly indistinguishable from the original.
  • GF naan bread – while not as puffed up as regular naans, these were pretty good really, and went down well with a chicken curry.
  • GF dumplings – these were nothing like dumplings, but fairly close in nature to scones, or what the Americans call biscuits. We had something similar at school, and they called it beef cobbler.

gf-cook-2After all this, I think I can go forward, though I’m still obviously hoping that my possible gluten intolerance is not a thing, and I can go back to eating wheat. In terms of my eczema, the itching continues, four weeks into the experiment.

Biking to Work

aid1493229-728px-Align-Your-Hips-Step-2-Version-2In all the years I worked at the old place, I summoned the courage to cycle in just once. It was a 19-mile journey, which I managed at a respectable 15 mph. But I put the bike on the roof of the car to get home, and I never did it again.

Tuesday is Strava’s global bike to work day, but I won’t be participating because it looks like it’ll be raining, and I’m not up for that. But I have, already, cycled into my new place of employment twice. It’s (depending on the route) 9-11 miles, so an easier ride, and because I no longer share a ride with the rest of my family, I cycled home both times too.

My first attempt was a couple of weeks ago. Forecast had been fairly decent, though it did change on the day, and it was much colder and cloudier than I’d originally been hoping. In fact, it was so cold first thing in the morning that I had to wear the full winter gloves, three layers, and my phone’s battery was nearly flat when I arrived. That was not just temperature-related, but because I was using Google to follow the recommended cycling route on the back lanes.

How did it go? Pros: I was on a post-exercise high all day at work, and in such a good mood that some students (clearly sensitive to my moods) actually commented on how cheerful I was. I also broke the duck: dealt with the colossal faff of making sure I had everything I needed, including a pair of shoes in the cupboard at work and an emergency shirt in case I was disgracefully sweaty. As far as the latter, I wasn’t (because: cold), and the regular, non-cycling merino roll neck sweater I wore was perfectly suitable – with the bonus feature that it was something I have been wearing to work on a regular basis, anyway.

It’s ironic that I went for this jumper, considering the quantity of specialist cycling gear I own. But all the cycling gear, even in XL configurations tends to look a bit tight around my wok belly, so while I like wearing it on a loop ride, I didn’t want to be walking around all day looking like that. I did wear my Rapha commuting trousers, but I’m still skeptical about them. Although I ordered my standard waist size, they’re a lot tighter than all the other trousers I wear in that size, and they’re not terrific for riding my road bike. Sure, they’d work for an upright commuter bike on flat roads, but they’re not really suitable for drop-bar riding.

My top layer was my Chapeau jacket, which came into its own in the cold air, and looked acceptable enough that a colleague expressed disappointment that I wasn’t wearing lycra, because they’d wanted to poke fun.

But I might wear lycra in the future, and just change into a pair of trousers at work.

Cons: I found it hard. I hate first-thing exercise, preferring to ride in the afternoon, and in warmer weather. The restricted movement of the trousers made me uncomfortable, and my feet were freezing. The biggest problem (apart from my own weight) was the weight of my backpack, containing my laptop and some sustenance, as well as all the bits and pieces I usually carry in my jacket pocket. I guess with the best will in the world the backpack added 3-4 kg in weight, and it puts additional pressure on your neck and shoulders, lower back, hips etc.

Cycling home was just about okay. My legs were tired (and teaching means I’m on my feet most of the day, so it’s not as if I was resting), and I had a couple of gumption moments on the steeper inclines. But I got there.

And then I did it again this recent Thursday. It was warmer (only just, in the morning), so I was able to wear regular gloves and my feet didn’t get cold. I also took a more direct route, on a busier road. The thing about the back roads route was that it was (a) two miles longer; and (b) involved a full mile on the A43 dual carriageway. The more direct route (on the A422) does involve a lot of impatient and dangerous cars/trucks (but the speed limit is 50, and at most people were waiting, what, 5-10 seconds to overtake – many of them too closely).

Cycling in was okay. The merino roll neck was slightly too warm once I was at work (my room gets hot on sunny days) and the backpack was still too heavy, but I managed, if slowly. I didn’t feel quite so much of a post-exercise high, and I still found the preparation (shifting stuff from jacket to backpack etc.) a big faff. For the route home, I took off a layer (the jumper) and took it easy, but I did stop about half way to put a bit of extra air into my back tyre. This was mainly through concern that the weight of the backpack was compromising it, especially over bumps and unavoidable potholes. So that added 5 minutes to the journey.

Then a thing happened. The following morning, reaching forward with a slight twisting motion to pull my right sock on, my lower back went into spasm. 24 hours later, I’m still in pain (not so much), and I think the real problem is with my hip, which is out of alignment. Now, I’ve had problems with my hips for years, and one of the reasons I cycle rather than run is that I need low-impact exercise. But clearly the combination of cycling and wearing a backpack has put my left hip out of alignment.

I was in extreme pain on Friday. I shouldn’t have gone to work, but I had classes I needed to see, and I knew that a day at home would be just as painful. The fact that I kept moving all day probably helped. But the pain was so bad I couldn’t pull the zips up on my boots until lunchtime, and even this morning, I had to sit down to pull on my trousers, and I’ve not risked trying to put socks on.

So I’m still keen to ride to work, but what do I do about my MacBook? I could leave it at work – but that would mean being without it at home for two nights, and if I wanted to ride to work, say, twice a week, I’d be without my laptop (either at home or at work) for most of the week, unless I risked carrying it in one direction or another.

So this is annoying, particularly as the backpack was quite expensive. Dammit.

 

Thumbnail sketches

  1. IMG_7012For the past couple of years I’ve been suffering (although that’s a strong term for what is an inconvenient irritation at most) from a permanently split thumbnail.
  2. Of all the signs of encroaching old age that one might fear (creaking joints, high blood pressure, spreading waistline), grooved fingernails seems like something trivial, but when one of the grooves is so deep that the nail just splits and stays split, it’s a pain in the arse.
  3. The doctor was no help when I mentioned it (on an unrelated visit) some time ago. Just shrugged in a don’t bother me with your cosmetic problems kind of way. Then again, Doctors hate it when you try to get a two-for-one visit, don’t they?
  4. I have never looked after my nails properly. Never had a manicure, never looked after the cuticles, and often suffered from hangnails and the like.
  5. The grooves, I thought, might be caused by something like lack of iron, but I really don’t think I’m anaemic. So it was probably age or something, but why does age punish me with a split nail?
  6. Keeping it short stops you from catching in on random objects and splitting it even more, but when you forget, it can literally be anything: pulling on a glove, opening the car door, pottering in the kitchen or garden.
  7. It’s a nail of two halves.
  8. I’ve tried all kinds of products. A cosmetic groove filler, plus a supposedly nail strengthening varnish, plus a nail strengthening liquid, for example. I’ve tried products for brittle nails, damaged nails, and even nail fungus. Nothing seems to work.
  9. (My conclusion with the nail products thing is that they are mostly nonsense, though I will admit my nails seemed less brittle and flaky after all this treatment.)
  10. The last time I caught the slightly-too-long nail on something and split it badly was so severe (and quite painful) that even now, weeks/months later, my nail has what looks like ingrained dirt trapped underneath it. It might be oil, or the black stuff I painted on the garage roof the other week, or dried blood, or, you know, dirt.
  11. I finally read something that seemed to make sense, which indicated that the cause of this kind of thing is trauma to the nail matrix (maybe I hit it with a hammer or whacked it in a door), as well as dehydration of the nail or cuticle.
  12. The same article indicated that the last thing you want to do with splitting nails is use nail strengthening solutions. Oh.
  13. IMG_7006So I’m trying on last time with a range of products to moisturise and feed and repair. I have a range of Nailtiques products in a sampler set (£30!), which includes moisturiser for cuticles, nail bed, hands, (feet), a protein to paint on, and a nail oil (which seems a bit like Olbas oil).
  14. Nails grow at 3mm per month, it says here, so I’m guessing I need to keep this up for three, four months to see if anything good happens – in the meantime, keeping my nail as short as possible to avoid catching it on stuff.
  15. This is my life now.

Home again, home again

English: A Burger King bacon cheeseburger.

Got back from France the day before the new school term. Boy, that was a long holiday.

We arrived back home around three in the afternoon after a 12-hour drive, punctuated with fast food at the Burger King in the Eurotunnel terminal (what happened to Quick?). Within an hour, I was out on the bike for a blast of fresh air and a change of pace. Having expressed concerns, in my previous post, about my lack of leg-strength and stamina, I’ve been interested to see how I performed on my familiar routes.

First observation (it has to be said): British roads (Buckinghamshire British roads) are stupidly uneven and bumpy. Every road is as bad as the worst stretches of road I encountered in France, where exposed tarmac had melted in the hot sun and bits of it had been dragged up by fat car tyres. Most of the roads I was on in France were in good condition, allowing me at least an extra 4 km/h of basic speed.

It always feels windy round here, but I guess that’s only like climbing hills. I was obviously tired that first afternoon after a long drive in the car, so it wasn’t really a fair test. I rode just over 21 km and it took me 55 minutes. I got one Strava Personal Record and one 3rd best time. The PR was on a 3km stretch that goes downhill to a shallow valley and then uphill again. The worst gradient is about 4% for a few tens of metres, which was nothing compared to what I’ve been riding on. I’m now ranked 62/109 on that stretch,  which seems about right. I’m 50. Hopefully, if I was 20 years younger or whatever, I’d be further up the list. On the “3rd best time” stretch, I’m 245/489, a slightly higher ranking because it’s a mostly downhill bit, and I like going downhill, especially on a gentle gradient.

My second trip out since I got back was after work on Thursday, fitting in with my normal pattern of rides, along the same route. This time, I did it in about 52 minutes and got 2 Strava PRs. The first was on the same 3km stretch, and the second was on another little climb, which is called on Strava The Col de Wicken. Again, it’s about 4%, flattening out to 2%, and it’s only about 700 metres, which is laughable compared to the half of the Ballon d’Alsace I managed, with a gradient of 7-10% for ten times further. I’m 139th out of 250 on that bit, which again seems about right.

So I’m doing a little better than before the holiday, but not much. These still feel like hills. Disappointingly, I didn’t lose any weight over the summer, in spite of riding a total distance of around 900km since the beginning of July, including 9km of “elevation gain” and over 40 hours in the saddle. On the other hand, I did only gain a kg (which I’ve since lost), in spite of all the alcohol, snacks, biscuits, cheese, and other French goodies I was stuffing in my face.

So we’ll call it even.

That last mile and the old man overtake

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After the brief summer in March, I was unable to get out on the bike much between May and August because of the rain, and because of being away. I haven’t quite reached the stage of taking my bike to France with me, because of not being in the same location for the whole time. Maybe next year.

This year, I really didn’t get out much before the summer holiday began, never got to the stage where I started to feel fitter and able to push harder. So it felt like starting from scratch when we got back from France, but I have managed to do quite well, getting out almost every day (apart from days when I was sort-of-fasting or it really was chucking it with rain). I’ve even – gulp – stopped worrying too much about the wind, which was always a feeble excuse for not going out.

For about three weeks, I’ve been doing about 60-70 miles a week (good for me), and I’ve shed a couple of kilos, which has been like getting a new, much more expensive, bike. There’s just that bit less inertia when you’re going up hill, but it is noticeable.

So I’m 49, still carrying too much weight for a good power-weight ratio, and I’ve been struggling with not so much the strength in my legs as the aching of my hips, back, and feet. I *think* I’ve sorted the foot pain problem by swapping from Shimano shoes to Specialized, and the back pain is not forcing me to stop halfway round anymore. Slowly getting better, then, but I still have a gumption trap on the last mile of my circuit(s).

It doesn’t matter which way I go around, clockwise or anti-, because there’s always a bit of a climb at the end. If I weighed two or three kilos less, I might laugh in the face of this climb, but the combination of aches and pains and slightly wobbly legs always feels like hitting a wall. Most of the time, I seem to be going the opposite way around to most of the other cyclists I encounter, but occasionally I suffer the humiliation of an overtake – and this always happens in the last mile, when I seem to be cycling through treacle.

Coming through Leckhamsted, past the old church, my legs usually feel strong. The road begins to incline, and I’m usually feeling good. It gets steeper, I stand, and I still feel okay. But then there’s a right turn, and suddenly, I’ve got nothing left. It’s always straight after the right turn. The road’s not even that steep, but I struggle up in the granny gear, and then there’s a bit of relief followed by a left turn and it does get steeper for a minute, and by then I’m practically going backwards.

I know it’s psychological rather than physical, but it still feels real.

I don’t mind so much if someone who is obviously 25 years younger than me overtakes. That, you expect. But when a white haired old man overtakes you, you know you’re in trouble.

Thankfully, it’s only happened the once this summer. I’ve even managed to overtake a couple of people – admittedly on clunky and heavy-looking bikes, but still. Small victories.

Does exercise help weight loss?

World naked bike ride

Image via Wikipedia

No.

I’ve cycled much more this year than I did last, and I’m not noticeably slimmer. I may be fitter, of which more below, but the waistline is as it was, and – if anything – the appetite is greater.

Carbs.

I’m at least 20kg too heavy, but let’s accept that 10kg (or around 2 stones) is a more realistic weight loss target at my age. Losing 10kg would make my bike easier to ride, since the heaviest component is the engine (me). If I were to try to buy a bike that was 10kg lighter, I’d have to spend thousands of pounds. Fact! Even though my bike is only really mid-market, it’s actually pretty light. But the rider is a lump.

I’ve been monitoring my performance. The new bike brought an immediate improvement in my average riding speed – it was up two or three miles per hour immediately. But then I stalled, because there didn’t seem to be any way to get faster. I’d push myself on a ride, and then I’d be stiff and achy for a day or so. I’d ride further, with the same results. The problem is the hills. I can go down them pretty fast (faster because I’m so heavy) but then I more or less come to a full stop on the up bit. And that’s because I’m a lump. My inertia works against me.

I’ve contemplated going out for a proper all-day ride, but while the heart and lungs (and even the legs) may be willing, my hip joints and lower back are not. I’m pretty sure that the hip and back pain would be alleviated if I could lose those 10kg, but the more I ride, the hungrier I am. I could diet, but then I’d lack the energy to ride.

Earlier in the summer, I’d ride one day on one day off. I could put in three, four, rides per week, but I couldn’t go out two days in a row. Or I could do a short route (6 miles) followed by a longer (10 mile) route. But then I’d need to rest.

Then I realised where I’d been going wrong. I was trying to burn calories, and I was doing, but by draining my energy reserves, I was stopping myself from riding more often. I finally caught on to the idea of taking on some kind of energy in the form of carbohydrates, and even replacing my water with an energy drink.

I hate those isotonic drinks (garish colours, hideous taste), but since I started taking on a few extra calories before a ride and drinking more as I rode, my recovery has been quicker. I went out yesterday and I went out again today, both times on the Lillingstone Banana route that used to sap me of energy (hence the name: I used to have to stop for a banana halfway around). Instead of buying energy bars (which I have tried), I’ve taken to eating three fig rolls about half an hour before I go out. Three fig rolls is about right, and then the energy drink helps get sugar to the legs quickly.

I can feel the difference in myself. I’m not particularly faster (weight problem), but I do have more stamina. Corners that I used to turn feeling weak and wobbly, I now turn feeling strong and confident. Gumption-sapping long inclines I can now take quite easily. I’m no faster, but I don’t suffer as much. The only real suffering is when my left hip flares up or my back aches.

So I’ve hit a happy medium, where I take on carbs and calories and can go out more often and feel better about it. On the other hand, losing weight is a bust.