Why my grandparents ate buckets of sugar and stayed thin

I’ve been trying to lay off the puddings a bit in January.

But I made the mistake of watching some old cookery shows on cable TV the other day.

My sweet tooth was buzzing as I watched Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall perform his culinary art with homemade marshmallows.

Often the man from River Cottage employs fruit, berries and unlikely bits of pig to conjure up the perfect and healthy dessert.

This time he used beetroot juice to make the marshmallow pink…… genius.

It’s this kind of cooking that I admire – someone who can give me the food I love, but also looks after my waistline as well.

At this time of the year, I yearn for those steamed comfort puddings of my childhood. Suet puddings rammed with jam, cooked in muslin bags that my Gramp used to liken to my Nan’s’ knicker leg!

Piling onto the many calories in the pudding was homemade custard and a dollop of clotted cream on top.

How on earth did I avoid becoming a barrel by the time I was ten?

In fact, come to think of it my Nan and Gramp were always stick thin, despite fatty gravies, buttered mashed potatoes and sugary puddings – how did they manage that?

Well, Nan & Gramp lived in an age when they had to walk or cycle to work – she in a warehouse packing cloth, he in the docks chucking sacks about all day. Hard physical labour……. huge amounts of energy needed to be consumed just to get through the day.

Even I at the time would spend my days running around the place, playing 3-hour long games of football or endless games of fox and hounds. There were no X-Boxes, Facebook or YouTube back then, and TV only worked in the evening!

Unfortunately, our modern life is more sedentary.

Sure, there are still jobs and pastimes that require a huge physical exertion, but these are in the minority now.

We are office workers, bent over computers or drivers behind a steering wheel; we are shop workers sat at tills or call centre operators thanking callers for waiting.

It is fair to say that our calorie consumption is so much lower than that of previous generations – even our houses are centrally heated, so we don’t use our energy to keep warm (I am going to write more about this very issue in Friday’s letter, so look out for that!)

Most people now must actively pursue ways to……… well, keep active.

We go to gyms, attend classes or run round roads just to stay in trim. But as we get older that becomes a less palatable idea.

But, this is a time of real danger. New research has shown that a lack of exercise, or, more importantly, an increase in bodyweight is directly linked to an increase in chronic pain levels.

A link between pain and the fuller figure are closely associated

Scientists in America have found that those with a higher body mass were twice as likely to suffer from chronic pain. In fact, the study says, ‘Individuals with abdominal obesity were estimated to have a 70% increased likelihood of having pain’.

Surprisingly, they found that the reasons for such levels of pain were independent of osteoarthritis, neuropathies and inflammatory conditions. This means that these problems were as likely in both the heavier built and those who have less meat on them than a butcher’s pencil.

The pain then was as a direct result of the increase in body weight, with factors such as depression, anxiety, hormonal imbalance and metabolic disturbance being linked to pain mechanisms and ultimately pain linked to cardiovascular disease and even cancers.

There’s also stuff happening inside your body that links obesity to pain. For example, changes in the gut microbiome and a sneaky thing called low-grade neuroinflammation. It’s like a quiet fire inside your body that can ramp up the pain.

So, if you’re dealing with chronic pain and you’re also overweight, tackling both together is the way to go.

Studies have shown that when people focus on losing weight as part of their pain management plan, they tend to do better. It’s like hitting two birds with one stone – you reduce the physical load on your body, and you might also dial down the internal inflammation.

Nuts and bananas make a filling sweet option

If you’re on a January diet and you get a sweet tooth, here are a few slightly healthier versions of naughty desserts to try:

  • A pecan pie is packed with antioxidants that help lower the risk of heart disease, and plant sterols which lower bad cholesterol. Mix pecan nuts with a few teaspoons of molasses, some maple syrup, 3 eggs and a little melted butter – then place in a pasty case and bake.
  • Make a banana cake by mixing 2 mashed bananas, 2 tablespoons of Manuka honey, 2 eggs, a few chopped nuts (pecan, hazelnut or walnuts) and a little melted butter. Then add it to some baking powder and baking soda. Bake in a hot oven and eat with natural yoghurt.

Who knows you might even be tempted to break out an old suet pudding recipe of your own every now and again, just to celebrate – if you’ve still got access to a clean knicker leg that is.