Friday, 14 May 2010

Entering the Arena of the Unwell

I am beginning to wonder whether I should rename this blog by re-inverting 'Pay' and 'Live' to their original order. I seem to be blogging more about eating the wrong things than about eating the right things.

I have just returned from a 13-day business trip to Asia. It did not start well. We were upgraded to business class, whereupon I consumed everything possible during the 10-hour flight. They even had a 'snack box' which we were free to access without asking. This is not good news for someone like me.

When I got back on Thursday I would have killed ten men and crawled a thousand miles over scorpions and broken glass for a tin of sardines and a piece of broccoli.


Sometimes I am a victim of my own curiosity. I use it to justify breaking my own rules. A few days into the trip I wondered: what if just carried on doing what I wanted?

I had a total of four long haul flights, replete with drinks trolleys and endless trays of food. I would be staying for 12 nights in premium hotels, all expenses paid, fully geared to the avaricious, caffeine-addicted, alcohol-swilling business traveller. What if I just did what that big guy I always seem to end up sitting next to does - eat and drink everything that's put in front of me?

It's difficult not to think of Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me exploits.

Seriously though - I really didn't do this because I wanted something to blog about. I have a long to-do list of constructive blog topics I want to tackle, not to mention Nutshell Video Part 3. If anything, the idea that I might blog about the trip started to become a disincentive: after while there were just too much material - too many photos of multiple buffet trips and vast cake selections.

But it has to come out. The composition graph in any case betrays the truth, and some explanation would be needed.

In Singapore I started on the beer. I was travelling with a colleague who has a beer instinct. He's like Mrs M - he can smell it from 1000 yards and seems impervious to regular consumption. It was easier to drink what he drank, when he drank it. After a while, I seemed to develop the same capacity, if not greater, and he seemed to be drinking what I drank, when I drank it.

Carb Merry-Go-Round

For the first couple of days I tried to match my gluttony with exercise. I figured I'd punish myself with the carb-exercise merry-go-round and see where that got me. The morning after the flights I'd done a punishing round robin of weights in the gym to combat the snack box effect. The following day after a whopping plate of seafood of noodles topped off with a couple of chocolate bars, I instigated an hour-long run round the botanical gardens.

Running with a hangover doesn't feel great, and of course it makes you hungry. I would normally have fasted after a night like that, but the added hunger and my new do as others do protocol dictated I joined my colleague for lunch; but of course he hadn't raided the chocolate in his mini-bar the night before.

Buffet Fever

Then came the buffets. This, it seems, is how conferences operate. Buffets are my favourite way to eat and my worst nightmare; and for the 10 days that followed, it was buffets all the way: breakfast bars so vast there should have been travelators to get you around the dining room. Fruit, cereal, pastries, muffins, omelet bars, curries, Chinese food, Indian food, Thai food, cheese, biscuits, cold meats, hot meats, salads, smoked fish, shellfish, breads of the world, vegetables, local delicacies, boiled eggs, poached eggs, scrambled eggs; I could go on - but the photos tell the story. Mostly taken with my Blackberry so please excuse the quality.

Oh, those buffets...

In coffee breaks, fruit, cakes, donuts and biscuits were tantalisingly positioned by the coffee (see the last few photos.) At lunch, guess what? Buffet time.

Often, it was difficult to tell the difference between the breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets. In India, I found myself eating curried eggs with curried vegetables for breakfast. Four hours later, on top of coffee and donuts, I would peruse the same part of the dining room, greeted by the same tantalising aromas as I collected my second place of lunch buffet food. I must have had at least 10 curries over the course of 5 days.

Delhi Belly

Oddly, I didn't get 'Delhi Belly' in India. I made no effort to avoid meat or fish, as more cautious people do when they visit India - yet did not fall prey to bathroom dashes. My theory is this: any problems of that kind were cancelled out by the barrage of binding starch I consumed as I rampaged through the cakes.

As the trip progressed, I felt progressively worse. Who'd have thought.

Fading Guilt

Yet at the same time, a funny thing happened. I started to get used to it. The guilt started to fade. It seemed I had crossed over to the other side, where it was normal to feel crappy most of the time.

In the morning I would have a coffee, then felt better. I would skip breakfast to allow the previous night's gluttony to digest and contine to drink coffee through the morning. Then, made ravenous by increasingly wayward insulin levels, I hit the lunch buffet. The photos show most of my food during the trip.

My meals...

Then, in the evening, we'd start punishing the beers straight after the day's work, partly to relax after the stress, but also to bring us down off the caffeine. Hotels don't serve weak coffee.

Health Tools

Whilst I was letting it all go in the food and drink department, I continued to use the tools at my disposal to try to maintain a minimum level of health. I still didn't want to get ill. I wanted to beat the system.

As I've mentioned before, there is some evidence cold showers benefit the immune system - and they certainly make you feel better at the time. Since a cold shower is so quick and easy, it's one of my favourite health tools. In the UK the cold shower is coooooold - which is good; in India, when I really needed it, there was a problem: it was hard to determine the hot tap from cold.

Vitamin D Disaster

About three days into the trip, disaster: I lost my vitamin D tablets. The one time my immune system needed all the help it could get, and I had no vit D. In Singapore I managed to grab 15 minutes of sun, front and back before we headed to the airport for Shanghai - this was strong sun and a good top-up. Yet for the next 4 days in Shanghai, a busy schedule and the mostly hazy sun gave no opportunity for more.

Relief came in India, where the sun beat down like a laser. On the first day I did 10 minutes per side in the morning and came away tingling. Although I was mainly indoors for the days that followed, the sun was so strong that a fair-skinned person like me could nip outside during the coffe break, roll up his sleeves, invert his face to the sky and probably absorb more rays than an hour in the insipid UK sun.

Diminishing Exercise

Exercise was always possible, and there could be no complaint about the availability of gym equipment, swimming pools or places to run, soo this was a health tool I could continue to use. I had regular sessions, but made them shorter. Partly I was worried that hitting my body with anything else would be counter productive, given the excess of bad fuel; but partly, I just didn't feel like doing more. Being unhealthy makes the idea of exercise less attractive. Mostly I did short, hard weights circuits, but I did manage some interval sprints by the river in Shanghai.

As we neared the conclusion of the trip, my evening eating got worse, and my stomach knew it. Outwardly, there was no sign anything was amiss, but inwardly I was pregnant with the accumulated bloating of 10 days of guzzling wheat-based nasties. It was uncomfortable to bend down to put my shoes on. I was getting an insight into what it meant to be infirm.

Swollen Feet and Ankles

Puttting shoes on was uncomfortable for another reason: I had swollen feet and ankles. At the end of the first flight I had noticed my Vibrams were tight. My feet were swollen. Some swift Googling revealed this to be relatively common among passengers. Yet I'd never had it this badly before, in spite of regularly travelling on flights of 8 hours. What was different this time? Was it the booze, salty food and chocolate bars?

During the trip....and after 3 days of detox.

During the trip, the swelling subsided a little between flights, but never really recovered until I was about to board the next one... and by the end of the last leg, India, they were still just as swollen when I boarded the plane for the UK.

My theory is that the busier your kidneys are dealing with other crap, the less time they have to devote to clearing out the retained water. I am sure one of you with a better understanding of this mechanism will be able to offer an informed explanation.

Cake Porn

In 2008, Mrs M and I visited America. During the trip I posted photos of cakes (see The Great Cake Porn Tour) I had admired, while documenting Mrs M's falls from grace as she found herself unable to look but not touch.

On this tour I took and ate the cake. Some of these pictures show the selections I chose my cakes from; others are of cakes I did not eat - the ones that got away.

Sadly, cake quality declined as my journey progressed.

In Singapore, the hotel deserts were superb, and I enjoyed two selected from their cabinet; but I had not yet crossed over to the other side, so at Singapore airport I did not try Buster's Weekly Cheesecake or the Boston Nut Brownie, seen about halfway along the photos.

In Shanghai, the hotel had some pretty spectacular cakes in the hotel buffet - they looked and tasted good (see meal photos, around the middle); but the shop-bought cakes were not quite as good as they looked.

Then, in India, the superb-looking cakes fell way short of the mark taste wise - they were over-sugared, over-salted and had poor consistency. Their cake-making skills appear to lag far behind their undisputable curry-making skills.

So as I reluctantly worked my way through the last-night grand finale of four cakes from the local bakery in India (see final meal photo), I couldn't help thinking about Buster's Weekly Cheesecake and the Boston Nut Brownies, the Claudia Shiffer and Catherine Zeta Jones of the cake world. Unlike what I had in front of me, it seemed likely that they would have tasted as good as they looked.

Still Not Ill

So my efforts to get ill continue to be ineffective. I waited 7 days before posting this, so I could tell you if I did succumb to the various ailments circulating in my open-plan UK office. But no. I am starting to wonder whether, like Dorian Gray, I have a picture in the attic, suffering the ravages instead of me.

When I got back, I did hit the Paleo pretty hard - real cold showers, pure food, fasting, short intense exercise (but not too much.) By day 3 my feet were fine, as you can see from the photo.

What’s frightening is how easily on the trip I'd slipped into unhealthy mode once I ‘let go’. Feeling bad is relative, and with time one adjusts expectations. When the unhealthy stuff offers regular rewards, feeling below par is not necessarily a disincentive; and of course not everyone knows how much better they could feel. Perhaps others who live like this all the time have forgotton how buch better they felt as kids, or have assumed that how they feel now is largely a consequence of age.

Either way, on this occasion I was willing to exchange feeling good all the time for a roller coaster of ups and downs because I knew there was an end to the trip: I had resigned myself to ending the hideousness at that point. I had become curious about the effects it would have, and moreover, it happened to suit the business environment I was in - by removing the need to find local supermarkets and explain special preferences to waiters, it allowed me to focus on a busy schedule.

I have another business trip in June, when I am pretty sure I will be seeking local supermarkets and explaining special preferences to waiters.

Update, 10th June 2010: Air Travel, Swollen Feet and Bad Food: New Evidence
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