What’s the point? Five healthy foods to avoid.

fish and chipsI was chatting to one of the excellent nurses who’s helping me with my cardiac rehab. We were talking about diet and in general I find it easy enough to follow a cardiac friendly diet: lots of fruit and veg and no sat fat. I’ve done this single-mindedly for a couple of months now and my cholesterol and all the other blood lipids are at healthy levels. What I was interested in knowing was how often I could wander off piste. ‘For example,’ I said ‘How often can I eat fish and chips’. She didn’t hesitate. “Never’ she replied.

The big problem is the accumulation of trans fats in the batter because these are formed during the cooking process and build up as the cooking oil is re-used. So if the batter’s the problem why not eat fish and chips without the batter? But since the batter is the very essence of the dish what’s the point?

That got me thinking. How often do we get dietary advice which might make for healthier eating but takes away the enjoyment? You might as well not bother and stick to food which is fundamentally healthy. Here’s my list of the five foods I’d prefer to avoid if the alternative was taking a healthy option

1 fish & chips without the batter.

I grew up with fish and chips. You could get a portion for a shilling, that’s 5p in today’s money, or simply get a bag of chips for threepence. The latter we’d order with scratchings, bits of batter collected in the bottom of the fryer, and eat them out of the bag as we walked home. Of course in those days the cooking medium was animal fat but nobody worried about that. The attraction was the crispy batter which crunched when you eat it and revealed succulent white cod when you broke through to the fish.

It’s the cooking oil that’s the problem. Potatoes and cod are fundamentally good foods so if you could ensure that the cooking oil was only used once maybe you’d be OK.

This might of course suggest that tempura might be equally bad or that it’s maybe an acceptable alternative. The recipes talk of a ‘light’ batter and it being ‘lightly fried’. Trouble is although there are multiple sushi bars in Cambridge I don’t know of anywhere specialising in tempura.

I’ve enjoyed fish and chips throughout my life and around the world and I always enjoy it with an excess of HP sauce. The best might have come from Petrov Bros in Littleport which won a national prize. Most recently I’ve been looked after by George Tse at the Histon Fryer. I wonder if I’ll have the courage to return.

2 low/zero fat dairy products

Sadly dairy is full of sat fat. Cheese seems just about the worst foodstuff if you’ve got a cholesterol problem and although soft cheese is not so bad it’s only in comparison with hard cheese. It’s pretty bad compared with everything else.

Problem is of course that cheese is so good to eat and it’s moreish. There are so many varieties so there’s always something new to try.

Yoghurt is similar. I remember when the UK producers were on a race to the bottom to sell the cheapest product and it was disgusting. Then Muller came along and reminded us what full fat yoghurt tasted like. Anything else is a pale substitute.

There are lots of low/zero fat dairy products available but they’re not the same. The point of cheeses and yoghurts is the fatiness so if you take that out of the product what have you got left? It’s just not worth the effort.

Surprisingly there are a couple of exceptions. Semi-skimmed milk is fine, although the fully skimmed is little better than milk flavoured water, and I’ve taken to eating zero fat Greek yoghurt and that seems to work. Although to be fair I’ve never tried full fat Greek yoghurt and if I did it might change my mind.

3 eggs without the yolks

I’ve heard about this one but it seems that it actually swings both ways. There are people who are or claim to be allergic to the albumen in the white and others who want to avoid the cholesterol in the yolk. I guess people of a cardiac disposition fall into the latter category but ‘what’s the point?’.

Firstly it seems that the cholesterol in eggs is good cholesterol, I suppose it’s of the HDL kind, which is why the advice on eating eggs has turned some 180 degrees so that now its encouraged.

But secondly part of the attraction of eating good food is the visual impact and it’s the yellow of the yolk that enhances the attraction of egg dishes. Can you really imagine eating white scrambled eggs or a white omelette? Without a yolk there’s no satisfying yellow flow when you puncture the yolks of fried and poached eggs and where do you dunk your soldiers when you’re eating boiled eggs cooked just right to give you a firm white and a runny yolk?

4 decaf

Some foods are defined by their active ingredients which are what gives them their essence. They might be sweet or salty, have a characteristic colour (see above) or a particular aroma. And so it is with coffee. Caffeine defines it, it makes a drink that sharpens your senses and defines your day. After all where would we be without our morning coffee or an espresso to shut down our appetites after lunch?

People say that too much caffeine makes it difficult to sleep or, early in the day, that it makes you ‘hyper’. Exactly. That’s the point and it’s easy to address such problems. Simply be a little more selective about when and how much coffee you drink. Switching to decaf negates the reason for drinking it in the first place

5 alcohol free wine

You might say that this is just another example of a food defined by its active ingredient and what it does for the consumer. In the case of wine it’s alcohol and it makes you drunk. But that’s not why most people drink wine. Some do of course but for many the motivation is its complex taste complemented by the sense of well-being engendered by, well, the alcohol.

Unlike coffee wine has almost infinite variety and that’s the issue. There really is no alcohol free wine option equivalent to decaf because there’s no way to replicate this variety whilst at the same time preserving the complexity of each wine’s taste.

Wine is of course a great opportunity to practice pretentious behaviour but there is a point to it. You match a wine to your food or your mood or your budget. That’s not how it works with alcohol free options. There aren’t any, options that is. Alcohol free wine is a generic, you might as well order an orange juice or a glass of water. It doesn’t add value to the meal.

The argument is less strong when it comes to alcohol free or low alcohol beer. People tend to a favorite beer and if there’s an alcohol free version then by all means drink it. I remember drinking Clausthaler when I was in hospital in Switzerland and that was a perfectly acceptable alternative to a full strength pilsner.

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