The Writer’s Diet
With apologies to my fellow scribes, I really don’t know many British writers who are fit. (I mean healthy, not fanciable.) We sit hunched over screens for a living. We consider time spent exercising to be time wasted. We’re trapped indoors for around six months of the year (at least). If we work at home, there are biscuits available day and night. Our job is to think and write it down, not climb stairs.
When I first started writing at home I stopped working out and put on several kilos in a month. Then I started thinking about my nutrition in a sensible, non-diety, School-Of-The-Bleeding-Obvious way. Here are some conclusions.
1. Know Your Enemy.
That’s it, there, all golden and crumbly. The reason why it tastes so good is because the fat makes it lighter and the sugar makes it tastier. You think you’ve limited your intake, but later your system wants payback for the energy it expended and now you’re sleepy. The biscuit is the footsoldier to the fridge, and the fridge is your real enemy. It sits near your office, just a waddle away, and is full of wonder (and some unloved broccolli in the crisper which is going strangely yellow). Limit snacks to two a day. Drink tea and coffee, maybe decaf it after 5pm, but use semi-skimmed milk. Not totally skimmed or almond milk or coconut milk because they’re actually disgusting no matter what it says on the carton, and they ruin tea.
2. Beware of Portion Distortion.
Writers eat at home a lot. We’re not bankers. Nobody invites us to Nobu. Pete Ayrton, my publisher at Serpent’s Tail, used to take me to an Albanian snack bar and even then he never stumped up for more than a coffee. So a few simple rules: Always set a table for yourself. Don’t ‘pre-eat’ as you prepare, picking at food. If you’re eating standing up, that’s pre-eating. Never eat standing up. Buy one smaller ‘work plate’. This is what you have lunch on. Have you ever noticed how people don’t like to leave food in restaurants? We’re pigs – we’ll eat whatever we’ve been given. So give yourself less. Weirdly, there’s no satisfaction difference between two biscuits and one.
3. Make sure you can see your screen clearly.
Fitness isn’t just about getting fat. I developed frozen shoulders because I hadn’t had an eye test. It turned out I was unwittingly hunching my neck as I peered at the screen, trapping nerves. New glasses and a massage sorted that out. Lower your screen’s brightness. Use eye drops because your blink-rate falls away when you stare at a terminal all day. I got an RSI from using my mouse so much, so I switched to a track-pad. Get up and walk around every 20 minutes. C’mon, you already know this.
4. Now, the hard part.
Say goodbye to those round things in your fridge. They’re called ‘potatoes’ and you will never see them again. Likewise those boxes; they’re called Ready Meals and you just got a divorce. The upside is you’ll never be disappointed by Liver & Bacon In A Box again. You probably won’t cut out bread completely (I’d rather be dead than have no toast) but you might think before you eat and use fewer slices. Buy an actual book about salads – most writers don’t have a clue how to make a real salad. Even if you swerve them at every opportunity, you’ll be amazed how many cool variations there are. Turkish ones and Vietnamese ones are especially amazing. And not a stick of broccoli in sight.
At this point you need another book, not on diet but nutrition. I recommend this one. The hatefully slender lady on the cover is actually very smart, even though you can tell she has never foraged for crumbs at the back of a cake tin or eaten an entire Haagen Dazs pot in one go while watching ‘Pretty Woman’. And she has a forest in her kitchen as opposed to a packet of Jaffa Cakes and a jumbo bag of Cheesy Wotsits. This is one of her diet dishes, just below. It’s bloody huge. And it makes you lose weight. How does it work? What do you care, do you ask how your phone works? No, so just do it. Think of Ms Godbold as the Harry Potter of food. She makes fat disappear. Her recipes are easy, inexpensive and really, really delicious.
5. Now the really hard part.
I’m going to suggest you reduce your alcohol intake. Don’t cut it completely, because you’d be denying yourself the chance to be part of a fine literary tradition; the strawberry-nosed alcoholic writer is a much-loved figure. Kingsley Amis always looked as if he was about to explode, and his son’s going the same way. You can have several No Alcohol days at a time if you just reorder your diary so that you don’t simple drift into bad habits. Group your booze nights to leave abstinent weekdays. A lot of this is just about thinking first, and that’s what you’re good at, remember?
6. Cull your cupboards & bite the Bullet.
Have a look at all the stuff you don’t use and chuck all the really low-quality things. A big, simple change you can make is switch to buying fewer items of higher quality, so you pay more but buy less. It works out about the same in cost. Give up anything pre-cooked. If I can do it in King’s Cross, home of the 24-hour kebab and not a health food bar in sight, you can. I went into Tesco and asked them to spatchcock a chicken and they laughed in my face. There’s no fish shop anywhere near, so we use Marky Market, a bloke with a van who goes to Billingsgate. Compare a fishmonger mackerel with a Tesco mackerel. You’ll suddenly realise that the latter is like chewing a dog-toy. If you can bear to, buy a Nutri-Bullet. Yes, I know it seems faddish, except it’s really not. Why don’t you like using a blender? Because they’re boring buggers to clean and there’s tons of stuff you can’t put in them. With this you bung in anything short of foxgloves* and pebbles, and there’s nothing to rinse except the cup you drank from. Therefore it gets used in my gaff every day.
*Where we get the poison digitalis from.
7. Do 10,000 steps.
Every day. It doesn’t take long. If you’re going to spend so much time sitting down writing a novel, you need a walk. You like books, don’t you? So walk to your nearest bookshop, or get a bus half a mile away from it. Today it’s sleeting out and I went for a walk. It was miserable and I got soaked, and I had to walk past where a kid got stabbed to death on a bike last week, but afterwards I felt like I’d been walked, like a sad, smelly dog. You can download an app to buzz you when your steps are up. It actually works.
8. Eat three meals a day
Yes, eat more. Eggs for breakfast, noodles for lunch, roast chicken for dinner, then you won’t snack. You need protein, not sugar. You won’t ever feel hungry, either, but there’s one downside; no more dessert, although you can bake your own without sugar. I just ate a tub of non-dairy, non-sugar ice cream and it was actually better than Ben & Jerry’s (it cost as much, unfortunately). Health food shops have some faddy rubbish stuff and some great tasty ideas in them. Yes, I know quinoa is trendy but actually it’s unbelievably delicious because you toast it before you boil it, like popcorn. It takes no time at all to substitute for Uncle Ben’s. Unfortunately the demand for it has been so great that they’re flogging off half of S. America to grow it. A dilemma for liberals there.
9. Make an Excel spreadsheet
Why do men diet more easily than women? (They do, I read it in the D Mail so it must be true *coughs*) It’s because women are emotional eaters. They come out with fantastic statements like ‘I didn’t lose weight this week because it was my daughter’s birthday’. To a man, this sentence has no meaning. That’s because the two facts in it don’t correlate, but to a woman they do. Ladies are like cats, utterly inscrutable. Men are like dogs. They’ll either eat it or hump it. Draw up a spreadsheet. Think of it as your work performance. You wouldn’t want to underperform at work, so why do it at home? Weigh yourself naked every Monday morning for six weeks. If the number goes down, you’re doing something right. If it goes up, give yourself a written warning and threaten yourself with redundancy.
10. Keep it steady
Look, I like beer. I don’t like dessert. I love toast & marmalade. I eat well, I use the book above and I work out a bit. You could actually go mad and hire a trainer occasionally. I do, and some days I hate him so much that I think about hiding behind the sofa until he’s stopped ringing the doorbell. The night before he’s booked to come over, I don’t have a beer. Is that such a cripplingly awful price to pay? TS Elliot was once asked what he had sacrificed for his art. He replied; ‘I have fairly often not gone to parties.’ That’s all. Soon you’ll look at the spreadsheet and notice how nice it is to sit at an actual table for lunch, and find you can pick things up from the floor without making an ‘oof’ noise. If you get this right people will stop believing you’re a writer, because you don’t conform to their idea of one. You don’t want to end up like Martin Amis, do you? You want to look like a healthy person. Yes, that’s me on a selfie stick, possibly the second-most embarrassing thing you can do alone at home with the blinds undrawn. I’m 82 kilos and I am a writer. QED.