Going cold turkey: can Britain beat the booze?

This week, Chief Medical Officer for England, Sally Davies, announced new, tougher guidelines for recommended alcohol consumption in Britain based on evidence that drinking, even in moderation, increases our chance of cancer. Her advice is clear, cut back on the booze or risk the consequences. So can Britain kick its alcohol habit, just like that?

The issue is a complex one. Britain has a reputation for its booze culture that spans continents, and a social dependence on alcohol as part of our Anglo-Saxon DNA. The Great British Pub represents the beating heart of our communities, with the unique potential to unite groups of strangers, friends, families and co-workers irrespective of age, sex, race or gender. Our economy also reaps the rewards, with pub culture, as of 2014, injecting £21 billion a year into the national GDP.

But that’s where the romance ends. According to the latest figures released in 2014, our nation’s alcohol dependence costs the NHS in excess of £3.5 billion each year, a figure that is rising along with alcohol-related illnesses such as liver disease and cirrhosis. This 31st December, like many before it, 48 alcohol-related arrests were carried out on London’s streets alone with the associated anti-social behaviour putting unprecedented strain on our already sorely stretched public services. It’s clear that our dependence is a problem on a national scale, seeping through every strata of society, with claims that drink rather than fees is the biggest problem facing British universities today.

Introducing revised alcohol consumption guidelines will do little to change the habits of a lifetime, when our drinking bears the most resemblance to any recognisable British ‘culture’ we have. Our healthcare providers have an obligation to inform us of the risks associated with drinking but we need tougher, alternative measures to curb the habit and relieve the strain on both our health and our social services. Before we can go cold turkey, a wider shift in mentality needs to take place, which won’t be popular. Implementing minimum pricing per unit should be a priority and further deterrence measures should follow, including increased advertising regulation. A pro-health stance has to be adopted by our government if we’re to tackle the problem, although there is a clear conflict of interest at play here. David Cameron, since first announcing his support for minimum pricing per unit measures in 2012, has flip-flopped on the issue, amid increasing pressures and aggressive lobbying from the global alcohol producers.

Until public health is prioritised over the economic power of the alcohol industry, change will be hard to come by. Britain is in the grip of addiction and guidelines alone won’t be enough to tackle the problem.

 

Distorted mirror: why the media is failing to reflect today’s women.

Last month, I looked at  anti-ageing adverts and the implications of their dangerous inference that ageing is a solely women’s issue. Sexism in advertising is rife and sadly, anti-ageing ads are just the tip of the iceberg.

Advertisers’ sustained misrepresentation of women reaches as far as the eye can see, an undeniably cult example of which has to be the Victoria’s Secret fashion show. For weeks in the run up, the media examine the models in forensic detail, offering up tips on how to achieve that model figure with the perfect Angel arse. A mere cursory glance at the comments below any such articles crudely exposes the impact of this scrutiny on women’s own self-perception, with the hashtags ‘bodygoals’, ‘thinspiration’ and ‘thighgap’ gaining ever-increasing popularity in 2015. The VS catwalk is socially-accepted sexism in its purest form, a multi-million dollar publicity stunt born out of the objectification of women’s bodies perpetuating a dangerous myth: that one single body type alone equates to beauty and success.

Caroline Nokes, Tory MP and chair for the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image, has hit headlines in the past weeks as she picks up the baton from many campaigners before her on the age-old size debate in the fashion industry. It’s been a contentious subject since the ‘90s and despite increasingly vocal warnings against emaciation as an aspiration, there has been little to no change in the advertising arena. Nokes rightly defends the importance of realistic representations of women in our media stating, “If someone can come forward and offer an explanation of why a size six woman is too large to model clothes when the average woman in this country is a size 16, then I am very happy to hear it”.

Nokes herself has been criticised as an ‘obesity-enabler’ and, ironically, her position as chair of the committee has put her own size under media scrutiny, making the importance of what she’s doing all the more stark. Portrayals of women in the media need to be inclusive and truly representative of their diversity. That should include young, tall and slim women, but it should also include the 99% of other body types, ages and demographics that are sorely underrepresented.

Advertisers change when consumer habits force them to but when consumers are presented with so few alternative examples, how can they flex their purchasing power? Advertisers need to recognise that their rhetoric is harmful and wake up to a growing discontent for media misrepresentation, although I fear they’ll be loathe to do so without a legislative nudge.

Female empowerment has come a long way since the ‘50’s – all the more reason to stamp out the out-dated, cultural misogyny in our advertising.

Shakshuka: the ultimate brunch

In our household, Sundays are all about a lie-in, a great cup of coffee whilst reading the papers, and a brunch hearty enough to set you up until supper. Shakshuka has to be one of my all time favourites for its versatility, sunshine flavours and crowd-pleaser status. When I make this spicy, I like to serve it with thinly sliced avocado; its mild creaminess becomes the perfect compliment to the chilli heat burning in the background. For brunch, serve with a French stick or great hunks of ciabatta to mop up that delicious slick of sauce. For a light dinner, serve with a zingy green salad.

This recipe serves 2, but can easily serve more. I normally count at least 2 eggs per person, depending on the appetites of your guests. You can also be reasonably flexible with quantities of ingredients adding a tin of tomatoes if you need to feed a larger group. This recipe also lends itself extremely well to fridge clearing so don’t be scared to throw in half a pepper or some parsley.

Ultimate Brunch Shakshuka

Ingredients:

4 eggs (or 6 if you’re hungry)

1 can of chopped tomatoes

½ a chorizo sausage (this can be spicy or mild, depending on preference. It can also be left out altogether if you want to make this recipe vegetarian)

1 bunch of coriander finely chopped (stalks and leaves)

1 large red chilli (depending on its heat, remove the seeds according to preference)

1 tsp sweet smoked paprika (you can also use regular paprika for a milder flavour)

2 cloves of garlic

Olive oil

Salt

Start by chopping the chorizo into 1cm thick semi-circles and place in a hot pan (preferably cast-iron), stirring regularly. Once the sausage starts to ooze its orange oil, add the finely crushed garlic cloves and gently fry them with a little extra olive oil if needed, being careful not to burn them. Next add 1tsp of the paprika, a small handful of the finely chopped coriander stalks and the finely chopped chilli and give everything a good stir.

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Shakshuka – Preparation

Now throw in the tinned tomatoes and their refilled tin of water into the flavourful mix in the pan. Add a large pinch of salt and leave to simmer until the sauce has reduced slightly and the oils start to amalgamate with the tomatoes, around the 15 minutes mark.

Next comes the fun part. Work out your spacing for the eggs and make 4 (or 6 if you’re hungry) holes in the sauce to crack your eggs into. Crack these carefully in a circle and then turn the heat down low. If you have a lid big enough, now’s the time to cover the pan to allow the eggs to cook on the top.

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Shakshuka – the eggs are in

I enjoy my Shakshuka with runny yolks but by all means cook the dish for longer if you prefer them solid. The eggs cook deceptively quickly on the bottom so keep checking that your yolks are still runny from about the 5-minute mark. You’ll know they’re ready when the white on top is fully opaque but there is still a fair bit of wobble in the yellow.

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Shakshuka – the eggs are cooking

Garnish with the remaining coriander leaves, and extra chilli for those wanting a real kick. Serve from the centre of the table, straight from the skillet so that your diners can marvel at your handiwork and enjoy!

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Shakshuka – The ultimate brunch

Fair Tuesday, Cyber Monday’s conscious cousin

For anyone who’s done so much as opened their browser this week, they’ll have noticed something’s up in the retail world. It is of course that time of year again for the inaugural Cyber Weekend, and those who work in retail will tell you, it’s mayhem. Last year saw record numbers of online sales, and total carnage on the high street, with frantic shoppers literally fighting each other for the best deals.

This year, across the four day period from Black Friday to Cyber Monday,  spend is expected to peak at £2.2 billion from online sales alone but what does this mean for those in the background? Factory owners are put under ever-increasing pressure from foreign retail giants to keep up with demand, driving their workforce hard, often in poorly-paid, unsafe conditions. The retail industry is built on the eager, plentiful workforces grown out of the developing  world and when prices are driven down in the West, the factories feel the squeeze. It is this very price deflation that has led to some of the worst tragedies in our industrialised era, including the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013, indirectly a product of our consumerism.

So what about Fair Tuesday? Fair Tuesday is all about conscious consumerism and making a positive impact with your purchasing power. It’s not about tightening your purse strings or boycotting the high street but it is about making ethical choices that give back to communities instead of exploiting them. Fair Tuesday sends a powerful message to those retail giants that are still unable to guarantee the principles of fair trade for their workers and who continue to exploit those who have no other choice but to accept the job given to them.

It’s important we stand up for those who don’t have the platform to stand up for themselves so here, I’ve rounded up my top 3 ethical and environmentally-conscious fashion retailers to support on this Fair Tuesday:

  1. People Tree

People Tree has been a pioneer of sustainable and ethical fashion since its inception in the early 2000s. The geometric prints found on their dresses and skirts this season is very in.

2. Victoria Road

Victoria Road’s innovative designs are sourced from around the world and made by skilled, artisan, female workers in safe and fair working conditions. Their jewellery collection is stunning and there’s 40% off until Fair Tuesday.

3. MATT & NAT

MATT & NAT (MAT(T)ERIAL + NATURE) specialise in bags made from vegan and recycled materials. They are working to bring all of their factories up to SA8000 standard, which ensures quality work conditions for all. Their bags are classic and affordable and offer an eco option to their leather-producing competitors.

When did ageing become a women’s issue?

I’m just going to come right out and say it: anti-ageing ads are bullshit. Did no one let those advertising execs know that this isn’t the ‘50s? You’d be forgiven for thinking not.

Earlier this week, I tuned in for my weekly fix of my favourite series. The ads were playing, and an actress was promoting a brand of anti-wrinkle cream. Her opening line was for us ‘ladies’ to ‘listen up!’, as she described the new ‘secret’ in beauty.

There was nothing unusual about the advert; in fact it was archetypal in its predictability, the same format that has been running since I can remember, with the same underlying, culturally-ingrained misogyny that the beauty industry thrives upon. Spoiler alert, the main takeaway was that youth is beautiful, hence women who show their age are not. And clearly, if you’re not beautiful, you’re not important. Did I get that right?

But when and how did ageing become a women’s issue? At my last check, the ageing process is indiscriminate to sex, so how did it become a battle that solely women are not only expected to fight but also win? Who decided that a woman’s age was intrinsically linked to her worth?

By no means is this a new concern. On the contrary, anti-ageing products have been around for decades and the industry as a whole has weathered high profile scrutiny throughout its history. In 2009, Olay was reprimanded for photoshopping one of its models and Nivea’s advert was outright banned in 2013 for misleading consumers as to the benefits of its anti-wrinkle creams. In spite of this, the industry is booming, expected to be worth a mind-boggling $345.8 billion by 2018. But the issue runs much deeper than consumerism. It’s time we as a society retired our youth-obsession and start championing age for what it is; knowledge, wisdom, expertise and so much more.

A woman’s value doesn’t expire after the age of 35 and our media has a responsibility to reflect that.

Orthorexia, the disease disguised as a virtue.

I was diagnosed with endometriosis this year. The subsequent surgery was unexpected and I came out the other side of the ordeal completely destabilised. The shock was exacerbated by the ill-informed GP who broke the news that I’d almost certainly have difficulty conceiving, a notion that at 24 is incomprehensible. Wanting to regain some control over my life and health, my only real option, learned from previous episodes of soul-searching, was to hit google hard.

Like millions of other young men and women, I found infinite advice on diet relating to my condition imploring the benefits of pathologically restricting your diet to include only ‘healthy’ food. I decided to cut out meat and dairy for a while to see how this would help my symptoms. The feeling that I was actively taking back control of my health provoked such a self-righteous high that I found it dangerously easy to up the ante. Gluten had to go, along with refined carbohydrates. They had too much of a bad rap. Next was sugar, that most obvious of villains, until finally I whittled down my diet to the purest of pure, cleanest of clean: an organic, plant-based, gluten, refined-carbohydrate and sugar-free diet.

Four months on and things weren’t looking so virtuous. What had started out with the very best of intentions after months of poor health no longer seemed so healthy. Feeling anxious that nothing was ‘safe’ to eat and almost bankrupting myself on anything labelled a ‘superfood’, I realised that I was developing symptoms of Orthorexia Nervosa, and knew I had to make a change. But how did I get so sucked in and end up so far from my original intention of promoting better health?

Over the past 5 years, the health food industry has boomed, and the 22 million posts on Instagram bearing the hashtag ‘eatclean’ show this isn’t just a fad being adopted by East London hipsters. Sales of organic produce are up 4% year on year, totalling £1.86bn in 2014, according to the Organic Soil Association. Contributing to this explosion is the rise and rise of the well-being blogger set. Arguably the poster girl for clean eating, Ella Woodward of Deliciously Ella fame has shared her own experience of managing chronic illness through a gluten-free, vegan diet. And she’s not alone. The Hemsley sisters, Anna Jones and Madeleine Shaw, among others, all advocate variations of vegan, gluten-free or alkaline diets in order to achieve better health. But can any kind of restrictive eating really be healthy?

Penned as the ‘Disease Disguised as a Virtue’, incidences of Orthorexia, an obsession with consuming ‘healthy’ foods, are growing. Deanne Jade, founder of the National Centre for Eating Disorders believes the issue is on the rise as “modern society has lost its way with food…it’s everywhere, from the people who think it’s normal if their friends stop eating entire food groups, to the trainers in the gym who [promote] certain foods to enhance performance”.

So why the quest for ultimate health, and why now? The rise of Orthorexia speaks to me of a wider issue. Our growing distrust of the grocery sector and its lack of regulation, perpetuated by episodes such as the horsemeat scandal in 2013, has created a heightened consumer awareness of what we are eating. Instant access to information in our digital age makes everyone a nutritionist and contradictory marketing messaging means there is no coherent rhetoric on what makes for a healthy diet. It’s hard to know what to put in our mouths and the well-being bloggers cater to a public looking for answers.

I have a lot of admiration for Ella Woodward and her remarkable success story. These women are undoubtedly positive role models in some respects, putting an emphasis on freshly prepared food, healthy body image and championing a movement of people who are questioning the status quo. I also feel it’s important to mention that many sufferers of inflammatory diseases such as MS or arthritis have found that gluten and dairy free diets may ease their symptoms.

For me, I’ve learnt that any diet that becomes restrictive doesn’t improve my health. Nutrition therapist Sondra Kronber outlines the danger clearly, “If you cut something out it’s hard for the compulsive brain to add it back in…that’s the way it is with most eating disorders, it starts out with a choice.”. My concern with Orthorexia is its virtuous guise. The ‘clean eating’ recipe books that dominate Amazon’s top 100 paint a picture of ultimate wellbeing, carefully choreographed by PR and brand teams. Consumers need to be aware of the impact any drastic change in lifestyle can induce both mentally and physically before overhauling their diets, parting with their money and potentially putting themselves in harm’s way.

What I’m wearing this week: kilts

I don’t tend to write fashion posts as I recognise that I’m no guru. However, it’s rare for me to feel that I am truly well-dressed which creates a pathological need to document it when it happens, hence the pictures on my phone, and this column. I know what you’re thinking, I can practically hear you rolling your eyes (is that a thing?), but I can assure you, this isn’t me being self-deprecating. My military-timed, 17 minute weekday morning routine doesn’t really allow for adventurous wardrobe experimentation and the times I’ve allowed it, well, let’s just say I’ve been likened to Charlie Chaplin in the past, on more than one occasion.

I’m really into kilts at the moment. This one is from American Apparel, where I rarely shop due to this but also quite like supporting because of this. It’s all very confusing. In any case, I like the cut and what is fashion if not turning a blind eye to the suffering of others. More on that in another post.

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A kilt can suit most purposes. Wear it like the scots with a sporran and no pants, short and 80s with leather accessories or contrasting with another bold print as I do here. The latter tends to be my chosen look but the joy of the kilt is its versatility which is not only timeless but transcends the generations. Under 20? You can wear a kilt. Over 60? There’s a kilt out there for you too.

Here, I team my kilt with a grey, cashmere knit, black tights and leopard boots, which is the combination I hoped to immortalise in writing this post. Team with trainers (I choose Converse but you don’t have to), t-shirt and sheepskin-lined denim jacket for a more casual pairing or with a black polo neck and knee high boots for a more sophisticated affair. However you wear it – relish in your good style. Reassure yourself – you really can’t go wrong in a kilt.