As I approach old age (or perhaps I’m already there, with grey hair and all) it is becoming increasingly difficult to win the battle of the bulge. I think, rather unkindly I know, that Peter surrendered to it some time ago, however I’ve decided not to go down without a fight, “There will be no white flag above MY door”.
There comes a point in everyone’s life when they start to expand around the waist. For some, it’s an eternal battle that just becomes harder-fought with age. For others, it is the first unpleasant realisation that you can no longer eat what you like without spilling over your jeans.
Worryingly, experts now understand that the fat that collects around the abdomen has dangerous implications for our health – raising blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and increasing your risk of diabetes, Alzheimer’s and even some cancers. It’s far more sinister than fat elsewhere in the body.
“Middle-aged spread” is weight gain that tends to appear as we move into our thirties, forties and beyond. And it’s usually obvious as extra fat around the belly.
Most of us move less as we get older and our energy intake from food and drinks tends to remain unchanged. (In fact in some middle-aged people the amount of snack foods actually increases, says Gill. “We tend to eat as a distraction or a pastime rather than for hunger,” he says.)
With that in mind, I persuaded Peter to attend a series of “weight loss & wellness” workshops with me at the Apple Café in Howick. They are run by the enthusiastic owner of the café, Tanya (who is a dietician) and Estelle (who describes herself as a soul coach). It’s a 12 week course, with workshops every Saturday afternoon, much to Peter’s dismay because of all the t.v. sport he misses.
Tanya and Estelle work from the assumption that when people start gaining weight, it is an indication that something is out of kilter in their lives – to quote them “it’s not what you eat, but what’s eating you that requires the real attention.” And as the workshops have progressed, slowly but surely what’s eating us has been revealed. What I’ve realised is that I’ve been so preoccupied with my irritations having to share my space with someone who no longer leaves the house every day to go work, that I haven’t acknowledged just how difficult Peter has found the transition into semi-retirement. I read a newspaper article the other day on a study done in the UK that shows that retirement can be bad for your health. The study cites increased financial stress and decreased social interaction as major causes of depression in retirees. What it didn’t mention was the sense of being dispensable that comes with retirement. It’s almost as if your work is done and you are no longer of any use to anyone.
When one finds meaning and purpose through one’s work (as both Peter and I did) it becomes quite difficult to maintain one’s self-esteem when the work is no longer there. And when you have low self-esteem, you begin to think that everyone else underrates you as well. It’s a vicious cycle.
When my job as a full-time mother came to an unceremonious and abrupt end (I would have liked, at least, an award for outstanding long service) I must admit I did have a bit of a wobbly. I moved to the farm to lick my wounds and recover my equilibrium. And I thought that I had got my act together pretty good. Then Peter joined me here and suddenly I started to resent all the things I had previously enjoyed doing when I was on my own. Because he had time on his hands, I expected him to share my load. He, on the other hand, felt that he needed to have time to relax. And it has been quite interesting to understand how this tension is reflected in our eating habits.
Being the caretaker of a family gave me a timetable, it defined my routine, especially concerning mealtimes. My days usually started with me thinking about what I was going to feed the buggers (breakfast, school lunches, afternoon tea, and dinner). I would then spend an inordinate amount of time grocery shopping to make sure that our fridge and pantry were always brimming with food. And I’m ashamed at how much was wasted. Initially, when I was on my own, I revelled in the fact that my time was now my own. I could eat what and when I wanted and I no longer had to worry about keeping the pantry stocked. Often I would skip meals and then eat a huge plate of food in the evening because I was ravenous. I would eat in bed while I was watching telly because I could. When Peter moved here, it really pissed me off that food became yet another thing for me to worry about, again. I started to avoid meals in protest against the assumption that it was my job to prepare them, and we both began to raid the fridge and pantry at odd times throughout the day to find stuff to snack on. Peter was living on bread, fruit and biltong (not the most suitable diet for a diabetic) and I was surviving on endless cups of tea, cake and biscuits.
It couldn’t have come at a better time that we popped into the Apple Café one day for a deliciously healthy lunch and met Tanya, who told us about the workshops. I hate to think what direction our physical and mental health would have gone in if we had continued to use food to avoid dealing with our “retirement” issues.
We’ve started eating three meals a day again and have been sharing the preparation of the meals. I’m learning to listen to my body and to eat when I’m hungry and we both have been making an effort not to use food as a means of dealing with emotions. Being fed, either nestled at our mother’s breast or being nursed in loving arms and guzzling on a bottle, is one of the first, most tangible experiences we have of being loved. I can remember the look of utter contentment and bliss that both of my babies used to get after gorging themselves on milk. And even though real food must surely be tastier, babies resist the move from breast / bottle, and no wonder; it is the first stage in separation, a sign of things to come.
And I’ve begun to think that it is this feeling of connection and being nurtured that we are looking for when we eat, and drink. Food is so much more than nourishment. We use food and alcohol to comfort ourselves when we’re feeling down, as well as when we’re happy; we use it to make friends, to woo, and to celebrate social occasions. We are constantly bombarded with food related issues; beautiful cookbooks abound, there are designated foodie t.v. channels, news about diets, and I’m sure there are more food blogs than any other. It’s quite hard to maintain a happy balance between healthy eating and being food obsessed but I’m hoping that, if we manage to deal with the issues of feeling dispensable and start enjoying our retirement more, we will start taking more pleasure in our meals together. It all boils down (so to speak) to being more mindful and paying attention, goddammit.
That said, there are times when one just has to go with the flow. I was reminded of the poem “Warning – When I am an old woman I shall wear purple” when Peter and I visited the Royal Agricultural Show in Sleepy Hollow (Pietermaritzburg) on an exceptionally hot winter’s day, earlier this week. I was suffering a bit from the after effects of the previous night’s wine tasting experience (if only I hadn’t had the Port with the cheese board). We made a beeline for the food hall and tasted all the samples on offer (olives, cheeses, cured meats, curry). We eventually succumbed to temptation and bought the most delicious, greasy chilli bites and samoosas, and a regmaker (rɛxˌmɑːkə: Afrikaans, a drink taken to relieve the symptoms of a hangover) for me in the form of a pint of Robson’s East Coast Ale which I quaffed down with gusto. Not good for the waistline but excellent for flagging spirits.
Here are some random photos of an autumnal Midlands.