I have two green thumbs

My parents are both very proficient, yet very different, gardeners in their own right. Dad is all about neat straight rows, planting by the moon, side dressing, and crop rotation. Mum‘s veggie garden, on the other hand, consists of irregular-shaped round-edged raised beds scattered with Oamaru stone chips (the filings from the sculptures she taps into relief with a tomahawk) and dotted with marigolds and poppies, with the odd giant silver beet plant that’s been intentionally left to go to seed. Straight lines and curved edges: maybe that’s why they didn’t work out as a couple.

My garden contains certain elements from each parent – the cherry tomatoes are evenly spaced, de-lateraled and wound carefully around the baling twine that ties them to tall bamboo stakes. The coriander and spinach are planted in neat diagonal rows, but the self-seeded sunflowers which are remnants from last year’s gardener have come up in random spots, which doesn’t bother me at all.

I’ve made a haphazard trellis for my sugar snap and snow peas to climb up: it’s a bit wonky and trailed with little scraps of string which I’ve attached to try and guide my little babies in the right direction. One of my zucchinis is looking awesome, but the other, only half a metre away, looks like it would be happier pulled out and thrown over the bank, which is probably where it will end up soon. This is good, because then I’ll have more room for basil, sweet and Thai – I love basil.

I also scattered marigold seeds from a small brown envelope that I’d been carrying around with me for the last two years, given to me by a friend. I wasn’t sure if they’d still be any good but a few have come up, again in random places. I made a tripod of bamboo and wound string around it for my Lebanese cucumbers, and I have sweet peas growing in pots on the verandah; the first flower opened today and the smell is amazing. I love how peas send out their little tendrils, reaching blindly for something to grasp on to, and how, once found, they cling on for dear life, wrapping those tendrils up into tight little ringlets.

I also have a very hot chili plant (a rocoto) in a pot on the verandah. It survived travelling by car from Auckland to Nelson, and the four subsequent house moves since then. There was another, even hotter chili but it didn’t quite make it. After waking up in the middle of the night with my hands on fire from the vapours released by dropping the freshly chopped pieces into the pan hours before, I have to admit, it was probably for the best. I love chilies, but even I have limits. The rocoto is manageable as long as I don’t use more than a quarter in a meal for one. They’re so juicy that flecks of fire water sometimes try to jump into my eyes when I cut them – I’ll have to remember to either stand well back or wear sunnies when this season’s ones ripen.

I was watching a short clip on YouTube the other night. It was of a guy (a proponent of the ‘primal’ diet) showing how quick and easy it is to make a delicious and nutritious salad for lunch. He opened his refrigerator and pulled out a myriad of Tupperware containers filled with pre-washed and pre-chopped salad ingredients, threw it all together with some leftover meat (for the protein factor of course) and voila! What the hell is primal about that? If you didn’t hunt or raise the meat yourself, the least you could do is grow your own veggies and pick them fresh for each meal.

There is something infinitely rewarding, calming and satisfying about growing your own food. I’m grateful that gardening is in my blood, and much of what I do is either instinct or intuition rather than acquired knowledge – I own one gardening book, which I’m yet to read. Usually I just give the plant what I think it needs; what I would need if I was that plant. If that fails I ask Dad.

Even in the crummiest places I’ve lived, even in the shadiest corners of Dunedin, I’ve pretty much always managed to put a few plants in the ground. I can’t wait to get to a place where I know I’ll be staying for a good while, then I can make a real garden, one that I know I won’t have to walk away from. One more move should do it.

What kind of car do you drive?

I like to liken my body to a sports car; a Lamborghini or a Ferrari perhaps. It’s aerodynamic, easy on the eye and performs well (most of the time), but it also requires a fair amount of maintenance and upkeep. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I do feel like the old Mitsubishi Delica van I used to have: the battery would almost go flat just starting the engine, and it was embarrassingly gutless on hills. The problem with that van was that it ran on the wrong fuel – LPG – but petrol or diesel probably would’ve been better.

For me to run like a sports car, it’s essential that I treat myself as if I am. I don’t work properly if I don’t give myself good fuel; it’s as simple as that. As an example, here’s my lunch from the other day. The salmon and mushrooms came from the supermarket, the avocado from a nearby orchard, and the miner’s lettuce from my front door. I love miner’s lettuce! It’s the super star of spring – fresh and sweet and juicy and crunchy all at once. And pretty too, I love the way the flowers grow up through the middle of the leaf. I’ve squeezed some lemon juice on top, freshly picked from my mum’s tree next door. I raid her garden on a regular basis and invariably return with an assortment of fresh greens.

I’m constantly experimenting with my diet, finding out what works well and what doesn’t. I know which types fuel make me feel like a shitty old van: wheat and sugar. I know if I eat these I’ll feel about as aerodynamic and energetic as a brick. I also know that sometimes I’ll feel like a brick even when I eat well. Those are the times to rest up and take it easy. And sometimes, occasionally, I can eat chocolate and ice cream and feel great. I don’t beat myself up about this either, I enjoy it for what it is: a treat. I guess even a sports car needs an ice cream every now and then.

What kind of car do you drive?

Grow your internal garden

This blog post is about the importance of good gut bacteria. I will be writing about actual gardening later, but not today. For me, the learning on this topic happened alongside my learning on the evils of sugar.

It all began with an ear infection almost two years ago. When the blocked ear that I’d been ignoring and hoped would go away became a sharp stabbing pain that felt like a needle in my brain, I went to the doctor and was prescribed a course of antibiotics. All things considered, my health has been mostly good throughout my life, and I can’t remember when I last took antibiotics prior to this; maybe never. I didn’t take any probiotics with the antibiotics; I didn’t know how important this was back then. The antibiotics cleared up the ear infection pretty smartly, but left me feeling absolutely exhausted like never before.

Looking back, I’d guess that years of drinking too much alcohol and eating too much sugar had gradually compromised my ratio of good gut bacteria to the not-so-good. This set the stage for the antibiotics to come in and completely wipe out what little there was left of the good stuff, allowing Candida albicans to take over.

Candida is a yeast and like any other yeast, it feeds on sugar. I need to stress here that candida is in all of us, and is meant to be, it’s only when we have too much of it that it becomes a problem. My friend Josie used the analogy of a garden, where candida is a weed – dock or dandelion maybe – that exists on the periphery and goes about its business but doesn’t take over the cultivated plants, which are the whole reason the garden was created in the first place. The garden is filled with nutritious and delicious morsels just waiting to fill our tummies and to colonise our digestive systems with good gut flora. Everything is in balance. However, over time the garden gets neglected and the dock and dandelion start to infiltrate, sending their tap roots deep into the soil and taking hold.

So too with candida: if allowed to take over, its long branch-like structures can penetrate the gut wall and migrate to other parts of the body, including the brain. Molecules of food can also cross this barrier, which they’re not supposed to do –  ever heard of leaky gut syndrome or irritable bowel syndrome?

Some of the symptoms I had when my candida was really bad included brain fog – I’d find myself staring vacantly into space, concentration and mental clarity were at an all-time low. My muscles and joints ached and my recovery after exercise took longer than normal. I also suffered from vertigo – things would be swirling and undulating around me, things that shouldn’t be moving at all, things like buildings and pavements. Chronic fatigue and sugar cravings were also happening.

It’s a tricky one because the symptoms I’ve just described could also be attributed to other things: a sleep-deprived parent could have brain fog, someone who doesn’t stretch or drink enough water could have aching joints and muscles, and anyone who’s addicted to sugar will crave it. I had an underlying sense that something wasn’t quite right with my health, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was. It certainly wasn’t life threatening, but it was affecting the quality of my day-to-day life.

If you’re reading this and thinking that you too might have too much candida floating around your body, here’s a really simple test you can do. Very first thing in the morning, before having anything to eat or drink, or brushing your teeth, work some saliva into your mouth and spit it into a glass full of water. Leave it for at least half an hour then come back and have a look. If it’s still floating on top of the water, you’re in the clear. If there are tendrils of saliva dangling in the water, or if your saliva has sunk to the bottom of the glass, sorry but it’s not good news. The first time I did the spit test I didn’t have to wait half an hour for the verdict – my saliva immediately started drifting down through the water and within a minute or two it had all sunk to the bottom and looked white and powdery. Damn.

The only way to get your candida back in check is to starve it of sugar. Initially, I didn’t think there was all that much sugar in my diet, but when I had a closer look there was actually quite a lot. Lots of fruit, lots of honey, maple syrup, I added sugar to my coffee, I treated myself to dried fruit or lollies about once a week. It was certainly enough to feed the beast. One of the (many) annoying things about candida is that once you start starving it the symptoms actually get worse. The candida starts to die and as it does so it releases toxins, it really sucks. One of the symptoms of die-off is irrational anger, so be warned. Just add it to your arsenal of chronic fatigue, brain fog, and general aches and pains.

Going into this, a life without sugar seemed, to me, like a life that wasn’t worth living. I thought to myself “I’ll just do it until I get better, then I’ll go back to my old way of eating”. So that’s what I did. I was fastidiously healthy all week – no sugar, lots of cruciferous vegetables, sprouts, fermented foods, cider vinegar… Then the weekend would roll around and I wouldn’t be able to sustain it. I’d drink alcohol, which is a big no-no (candida loves it) then in the aftermath of the drinking I’d make poor food choices: chocolate, lollies, ice cream… All my good work was undone. So let me tell you, from personal experience, it won’t work if you only do it sometimes, it has to be 100 %, or you may as well not bother with it at all. Let me also tell you, the rewards are well worth the effort. Do you want to live a life where you feel a bit below average all of the time, or are you willing to deal with some potentially full-on shit in order to get to a really good place?

So, if you’re serious about getting your overgrown garden back in order, yes you have to pull out the weeds, but you also have to put the good stuff back in. Taking a probiotic supplement can definitely help, but take an enteric one so that the bacteria will be released into your intestines, not your stomach where your hydrochloric acid will destroy most of it. The brand I use is called Reuteri. You also want to eat lots of foods that naturally contain probiotics rather than just relying on a pill. Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts) are your friends, as are fermented foods – sauerkraut really helped for me.

Eating all these alkalising vegetables will also help bring your pH back to where it should be. Sugar acidifies your body (as does coffee, alcohol, grains, dairy and meat) but your body really loves to be just slightly alkaline, and will draw alkalising minerals out of your bones if it has to, in order to keep things the way they’re meant to be. Your body will also hold onto fat and use it to insulate your cells from your blood, which will become increasingly acidic if you eat too much crap and not enough good stuff. I read about this in Dr Libby Weaver’s book The Real Food Chef.

For me, the journey to health is just that – it’s a journey not a destination (I know that this is a cliché but it’s so true!). I don’t think I’ll ever get to a place where I can say health has been achieved and then rest on my laurels because of all the work I put in way back when. It doesn’t work like that. A functional and bountiful garden requires constant maintenance; you can’t just pull the weeds out once and expect them never to return. Nor can you throw some seedlings in the ground and come back in a month or two expecting to find them flourishing. Is it worth the effort? Absolutely. Right, I’m off to eat some sauerkraut.

How I Eat

I don’t eat wheat or sugar. Just pause for a moment and think about all the things this cuts out. No bread, no pasta, no cakes, biscuits, crackers, baked goods, sweet treats and other processed, refined crap. I’m not one of those people who replaces what they can’t have with a far inferior substitute, like a vegetarian who can’t eat a sausage made of meat so they eat one made of soy. If you don’t want to eat meat, why would you eat something that looks like meat but isn’t? Sorry, but I just don’t get it.

So I don’t eat gluten free bread, or pasta, or anything else. It’s partly because I want what I eat to be as nutritionally dense as possible (wheat doesn’t make the cut in my opinion) and partly because I have an intolerance to it. I don’t mean the kind of intolerance where I thought it sounded kinda trendy so I decided to have one, I mean the kind of intolerance where it feels like there’s a lump of toxic cement stuck in my guts that’s painful enough to make my knees wobble and my mouth fill with saliva like I’m about to spew. So I really am better off without it, and have been for about 15 years. I also think it’s part of the reason why I’ve never been overweight – grains are fed to animals to fatten them up, why would it be any different with people?

Cutting sugar out of my diet has happened more recently. I’m talking about added sugar here; I do eat fruit, which contains fructose, and I drink milk, which contains lactose, and I eat foods that contain carbohydrates (which essentially are long chains of sugar molecules). Over the last year I’ve made a huge transition from ‘I’m not even really sure why sugar’s bad for me anyway’ to ‘now that I know what sugar does, I don’t want to go anywhere near it’. If you’re interested in giving up sugar, or just want to learn more it, check out Sarah Wilson – she’s awesome. Also check out this video from Dr Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist, to learn how the body deals with sugar, and how a calorie is not a calorie is not a calorie.

So, no wheat and no sugar. What do I eat then? I eat fruit, though not too much, as our bodies can only handle the amount of fructose that’s contained in about two serves of fruit each day. I eat vegetables. A lot of them: fresh, seasonal, raw and cooked. I eat meat. I’m very lucky in that I have access to organic farm-raised beef and lamb. I love fatty meat; lamb and duck would be my all-time favourites. I eat fish – sometimes freshly caught, sometimes from the supermarket. I eat eggs – free range only. I was vegetarian for about four years during my late teens and early twenties, but forced myself to start eating meat again when I discovered that I was almost anaemic. I would never go back to being vegetarian and I wouldn’t advise anyone to go there, especially if you’re female. When I was vegetarian I ate a lot of sugar. Now, I only crave sugar if I’ve gone for too long without eating red meat, once I eat some meat the craving disappears.

I eat dairy in all shapes and sizes: milk, cheese, butter, cream, cottage cheese, yoghurt… I actually buy cream by the litre now, I don’t bother buying milk anymore. Did I mention I’m not fat? I weighed myself this morning and I was about 56 kilograms. My weight fluctuates by a few kilos either side but that’s it. Sometimes I go to the fridge and cut slivers of butter off the block and eat them – on their own. My scales tell me that I’m about 10 % fat. If you’re not familiar with body fat percentages, 10 % is pretty low, especially for a woman. I’m trying to make a point here: eating fat doesn’t make you fat. I’ll write more about this later.

I also eat nuts and seeds every day. Some of my favourites are almonds, macadamias, brazils, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and linseed. More fat. I love it! Anything from a coconut is right up my alley too: coconut water, coconut cream, coconut oil, the flesh, fresh or dried, it’s so good. I eat very few grains. Occasionally I’ll have some rice (black or brown over white) or quinoa, but it’s the exception rather than the norm.

I prepare all my own meals from scratch. I prefer it that way as it means I know exactly what’s in my food and what isn’t. I enjoy eating out occasionally, but, to be honest, the quality of what I prepare myself is better than any restaurant I know of. I love strong flavours and spices. After my first trip to Thailand at the tender age of 18 all food tasted dull and boring if it wasn’t at least a little bit spicy. I can out-spice most people I know and I grow my own chillies in order to have a ready supply. I sprinkle cayenne pepper on my fruit and nuts and yoghurt at breakfast; I know of only one other person who does this, he’s a chili fiend just like me. I use fresh ginger root in everything, yes even breakfast.

I reckon the more time and energy one puts into preparing food, the more satisfying and satiating it is. The preparation is an important part of the whole eating experience. Taking the time to savour the food is also important as it takes a while for the stomach to tell the brain that it’s full – by the time that the message has got through you may well have overeaten.

If you’re trying to lose weight, changing the way you eat is a far more powerful tool than just adding exercise. Get the eating and the exercise working well together and you’ll be on fire.