Food and me: a love-hate relationship

‘I never learned what it was to eat normally: I was always on a diet or eating too much’

Dr Paula Gilvarry: I had the incentive of wanting to be healthier, lessen the risk of a recurrence of the heart arrhythmia, and reduce the amount of medication I was on. Over the course of a year I lost 70 pounds

Dr Paula Gilvarry: I had the incentive of wanting to be healthier, lessen the risk of a recurrence of the heart arrhythmia, and reduce the amount of medication I was on. Over the course of a year I lost 70 pounds

 

I have always loved food. From the time I was weaned I would gobble up everything I was given. Mind you, my mum was a very good cook, and in the 1950s and 1960s all our food was home-grown and home-cooked. I used to watch her from under the kitchen table as she prepared delicious meals, tarts and queen cakes for us.

November is Food Month in The Irish Times. You will find food-related content in all of our sections, plus reader events, competitions and lots of exclusive content at irishtimes.com/foodmonth
November is Food Month in The Irish Times. You will find food-related content in all of our sections, plus reader events, competitions and lots of exclusive content at irishtimes.com/foodmonth

I then graduated to licking the cake bowl, rolling the ends of dough into snails and little men whenever I got the chance. At 11 I could cook a fry, make a brown stew and bake a Swiss roll.

At university I shared a house where four of us would take turns to cook a dinner every evening. You had to turn out a dinner and a sweet that was good, tasty and economic.

As a junior doctor I hated weekends on call where the choice was either stodgy canteen food or rasher and cheese sandwiches, the usual contents of the doctors’ residence (Res) fridge, so I regularly brought my own ingredients and cooked in the Res room. All good so far? It seems so, but there was another side to all of this.

From a very early age I learned that food was a consolation and a reward. A cut knee was treated with a dab of mercurochrome and a sweet. Pocket money on a Saturday meant a trip to the sweet shop and an afternoon spent reading that week’s choice of library books and scoffing the sweets.

This became the pattern as I grew up too. As I came into my teens I used sweets and chocolate to console myself when sad, worried or confused. The tuck box that my mum regularly sent me at boarding school would set off a binge of eating cake and sweets.

At 16 I went on my first diet. Twiggy was the naturally slim supermodel that everyone looked up to in the 1960s, and I have a curvy figure that I hated at the time. I wanted to look like her so I starved myself and lost up to seven pounds a week. Of course, though, the pounds go straight back on once you start eating normally again.

Dr Paula Gilvarry with her husband Damien Brennan.
Dr Paula Gilvarry with her husband Damien Brennan.

Pattern

This has been the pattern throughout my life. Eat too much – gain weight. Diet – lose weight; and then put the weight back on again. I did every diet in the world. I never learned what it was to eat normally: I was always on a diet or eating too much.

Learning to eat normally has been the most difficult part of maintaining my weight. I gained several stone during each of my two pregnancies and gained more afterwards as I suffered with postnatal depression. I didn’t know I had it at the time - I just felt awful and dragged myself around, using sweet food to console myself. I binged but I never made myself sick or took laxatives.

Years followed of Unislim, WeightWatchers, high-fibre, low-fat, Atkins, and countless other diets. I would lose one to two stone, but once I started eating normally I always gained the weight back.

Then I discovered VLC (very low calorie) diets where you consume 600 calories a day in the form of high-protein drinks. What actually happens is that you go into a state of ketosis; your body is in starvation mode and begins to consume fat stores. You don’t feel hungry and the weight falls off, but once you start eating normally again the weight piles on and more. (There is a maintenance programme to follow but I never did it.) I did this diet a few times, in different variations, and from a start weight of eight stone at 25, I was eventually 17 stone at 56.

I gave up then and just ate what I wanted: my weight stayed at 17 stone until I was 60. When I retired I actually lost seven pounds just by changing from a desk job to getting active through cooking and running the Yeats Experience with my husband.

Heart arrhythmia

At this stage I had health issues: arthritis in my knees, a dodgy back, high blood pressure and cholesterol, and then I developed a heart arrhythmia (an irregular heartbeat called atrial fibrillation that if left untreated can lead to heart attack or stroke.) It was only then that I started on a diet that addressed the combined physiological and psychological reasons for weight gain – the what and the why you eat.

It worked. I had the incentive of wanting to be healthier, lessen the risk of a recurrence of the heart arrhythmia, and reduce the amount of medication I was on. Over the course of a year I lost 70 pounds (five stone).

I am now 12 stone. I have a BMI of 31, which is still in the overweight range but, at my age, if I lose any more weight I will look haggard. I no longer need medication for my blood pressure or my cholesterol. I continue to take heartbeat regulation medicine, but having lost so much weight the chance of a recurrence of a heart arrhythmia is low.

I finally discovered the right way to eat, the reasons I over-ate and, most importantly, how to maintain my weight loss. Anyone who has gone this road will know that keeping the weight off is the hardest task of all.

Doctor on a Diet by Dr Paula Gilvarry, published by Gill Books, is priced at €19.99.

I had to learn what it is to eat normally, how to watch portion size, how to recognise the triggers that could cause me to over-eat, and how to find other ways of consoling or rewarding myself apart from eating.

I realise that it will take time for new habits to be embedded in my mind and for me to learn to manage the triggers that caused me to over-eat in the past. I keep a daily food dairy; I use a smaller dinner plate. I eat slowly, and I stop to think before I decide whether to have a dessert or piece of cake.

Fresh food

I make healthy food choices. I cook fresh food; rarely, if ever, eat processed food, and watch my intake of wine.

I am feeling very good about myself.

I have learned that if I give my body the right foods then it will respond by wanting more of them. (The bacteria in your gut connect with your brain through the vagus nerve and if by eating correctly you have the correct balance of healthy bacteria in your gut, those bacteria will signal to your brain to produce the hormone that controls your appetite.)

Eating highly processed food is bad for us; it ruins our gut, plays havoc with our blood sugar, causes weight gain and contributes to many health problems. As Bill Gates said: “Make food your medicine or medicine will become your food.”

I still have plenty of slips but now I do not feel guilty. I work out why it happened, and I try to learn from this.

I am finally learning to have a healthy relationship with food.

DUCK BREASTS with ORANGE and GINGER SAUCE

Duck meat can be very dry if you cook it without the skin and fat, so I remove them after cooking. The trick to getting the skin really crisp is to leave it uncovered in the fridge overnight, then put it under an electric fan (if you have one); otherwise leave it in the fridge until ready to cook. Score the skin and fat before cooking. (serves two or more)

Duck breasts with orange and ginger sauce.
Duck breasts with orange and ginger sauce.

Ingredients
– 2 x 175g duck breasts;
– juice of 1 large orange or 100ml good-quality orange juice;
– 1 tsp ginger purée;
– 2 tsp plum sauce or plum conserve ;
– 1 ripe plum, stoned and halved;
– wilted pak choi, to serve;
– boiled basmati rice or udon noodles, to serve

1) Heat a heavy-based non-stick frying pan on a very high heat until smoking hot. Don’t add any oil to the pan.

2) Using a sharp knife, score the skin and fat on the duck breasts. Add to the pan, skin side down, and cook for 5 minutes without moving them so that they brown well. Working very carefully (wear oven gloves), frequently pour the excess fat into a dish. Once the skin is golden brown, turn the breasts over and sear the other side for 5 minutes, until browned.

3) Transfer the duck to a rack set in a baking tray or roasting tin. Put the tray in the oven and cook for 10 minutes for medium rare or 15 minutes for well done. Allow the meat to rest for 10 minutes before carving.

4) To make the sauce, wipe out the pan, add the orange juice and ginger and bring to the boil. Allow it to bubble down to reduce, then stir in the plum sauce or conserve.

5) Add the halved plums to the pan you cooked the sauce in, cut side down. Cook over a medium-high heat for a few minutes without touching them, until they’re nicely caramelised.

6) To serve, carve the duck into thin slices and drizzle the sauce over each portion. Serve with a caramelised plum half, lightly wilted pak choi and basmati rice or udon noodles.

Tip: You can find plum sauce in Asian markets. Use any leftover duck to fill an omelette wrap (page 46) for lunch the next day.

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