I start the year with a cautionary tale.
I am a professional glutton. As a travel writer and serial reviewer of restaurants, I over-eat for a living. And it’s no penance: I love to eat, and most of all I love to eat well, in fine restaurants with starched napery and long and interesting wine lists.
There is one obvious downside to this sybaritic existence: the never-ending struggle between gustatory pleasure and an expanding waistline. I have often promised myself that this year I will only eat half of what is put in front of me, or that only the smallest of glasses of wine, judiciously sipped, will accompany my restaurant meals.
But it never seems to work out that way.
There’s an element of professional pride in all this. Denial in the face of abundance seems akin to dereliction of duty. I’m paid to evaluate plenty, and as a reviewer there is no inspiration to be found in a dessert skipped or an amuse bouche untasted. There have nevertheless been times – as I guzzled my way manfully from foie gras to bavarois – when I wondered if all this over-indulgence is entirely good for me, and if there might, at some stage, be a reckoning.
This month it came to pass. Instead of enjoying New Year’s Eve in the company of an attentive maître d’, I spent it as a guest of the equally diligent National Health Service. I was admitted to hospital on 31st December with horrible abdominal pains caused by diverticulitis, a condition associated with ageing, physical inactivity, lack of dietary fibre, obesity and – oddly – the use of ibuprofen. A sobering list, not least because I am relatively fit and active, visit the gym regularly and haven’t relinquished control of my waistline without a fight.
Diverticular disease is extremely common, but if the condition is mundane the pain certainly wasn’t. The treatment was pure torment. For the first few days I was ‘nil by mouth’ – allowed only sips of water. Repenting of all those four- and five-course dinners yet an epicure to the last, I craved soup – and not just any soup. Miso figured highly in my fevered imaginings, as did the delicious clear broth I had enjoyed with my Hainanese chicken rice in Singapore. When it came, the hospital’s soup was rather less flavoursome, but after two and a half days of fasting it seemed like a feast.
With diagnosis came an answer to the riddle of why I always felt full, even when I felt hungry. After four nights in hospital on intravenous antibiotics my weight problem began to melt away like so much snow in summer. I lost more than 6kg in a week, making the Accident & Emergency diet an unpleasant but undeniably effective one.
If there’s a moral to my story it’s simply this: don’t ignore symptoms, even if you feel a bit silly going to your doctor with something as vague as ‘feeling bloated’.
And if you’re a food writer or restaurant critic, be kind to your digestive system. It’s one of the tools of your trade; you won’t get another. Slow down, savour your food; chew. And along with the truffles and petits fours, try to pop something healthy into your mouth now and then.