Is it possible to diet when you’re a food writer?
By acting food lifestyle editor Lottie Covell
Dieting and working on the delicious. food team are two things that don’t mix well. As I’m sure you can imagine, there’s a never-ending amount of food being cooked, tested and tasted – some of it fantastic, some of it needing some changes to make the recipe better. But we have to taste everything, even on days when we’re not cooking, samples are being delivered to taste or we’re doing taste tests, and if we’re not eating we’re thinking and writing about food. Put it this way: it’s hard not to get excited when a giant focaccia comes out of the oven or a triple-layered chocolate ice cream cake is taken out the freezer… And of course it’s my job to taste things and make sure the recipes I’m working on are as good as they can possibly be.
I wanted to see if it was possible to go on a diet for two weeks and still do the day job properly. But which diet to pick? I was involved in testing a few of the recipes from Tom Kerridge’s new book, The Dopamine Diet: My Low-carb, Stay-happy Way To Lose Weight (Absolute Press, £20), which we featured in our out-now March issue. After all the hype around Tom’s impressive 11-stone weight loss, I decided that would be a good eating plan to test.
What does the dopamine diet entail?
It excludes almost all carbs and processed food. You’re allowed minimal sugar and absolutely no alcohol. Although this sounds like a long list of banned foods, the eating plan still allows you to have full-fat dairy, meat, fish and plenty of fruit and veg. In many ways it’s just a healthy diet, minus the carbs (that’s a big minus as I love them so much). The premise of the diet is to eat foods that stimulate levels of dopamine, known as the ‘pleasure chemical’, in the body. The science behind it is complicated, but the idea, in its simplest form, is that eating certain kinds of food helps to promote happiness, concentration and stave off hunger; too little dopamine can lead to overeating. Dopamine levels can become low when we eat too much of certain foods such as sugar, caffeine and alcohol. Tom’s book suggested giving up all carbohydrate, but apparently oatmeal is good from a dopamine point of view, so I did have porridge on some days. 80% dark chocolate is also good, so I allowed myself a few squares of that as well.
The first couple of days where surprisingly easygoing, although there were a few dishes I couldn’t eat in the test kitchen. I had to ask other people to be my taste-testers, which wasn’t ideal. I found it strange not trying my own recipes and going with what the team suggested or described. It was especially hard with a cake recipe I was working on as the taste helps me to judge whether I’ve used the right amount of raising agent or (for example) cinnamon. Trusting other people’s tastebuds was a new one for me.
By day five I was craving satisfying carbohydrates. I didn’t miss sugar as much – it was the carbs. On top of that, I’d eaten an omelette for breakfast three days running. I missed the satisfying, comforting fullness that bread and pasta bring you… That was the hardest thing for me. Followed closely by wine!
On day six I was meeting up with a friend, who’d booked a table at a restaurant called Made in Italy. Not surprisingly, it’s known for pizza, not salad. Managing to stand strong and resist the pizza was tricky – especially as I felt starving. I held off that evening, but the next night was my first breaking point… My mum took me for dinner and waved a bottle of chilled white wine under my nose. It took all of five minutes for ‘Umm, no thanks’ to become ‘Well, maybe one then.’
Feeling slightly less smug, I returned to my no-carb regime the next day. In total I followed it for two weeks, with a few accidental blips along the way – as well as a few that weren’t so accidental.
Tom’s book has lots of great recipes in it, especially if you have friends over for dinner, but on a day-to-day basis I found it easier to make simple salads than follow the recipes – although I had to be a bit creative to keep things interesting in the absence of carbs. You do need to be organised, too, and think ahead to make sure you have the right ingredients in the house.
I have to say that within four days of starting the diet, having had very little sugar or carbohydrate, I felt much better and my stomach never felt overly full or bloated. But I was hungry. Like most diets, socialising is hard. Not drinking is achievable once you get your head around it, but no carbs as well…? Your friends judge you! (Or mine did anyway.)
With a job like mine, it would be almost impossible to stick to a diet like this on a long-term basis. Luckily, I don’t need to lose weight, but I can see how, if you stuck at this regime, you would shed pounds in a way that’s more manageable than many diets – as Tom Kerridge has proved. It’s not a quick fix, but then that’s a good thing.
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