I was getting fed up of my wife repeatedly waking me in the night to get me to stop snoring. She was pretty fed up too.
And she thought sometimes I seemed to stop breathing. After trying all sorts of snoring aids, and recording my snoring patterns on a phone app – wow my snores were enormous – I finally went to my GP. A night wearing lots of electrodes produced a diagnosis of “obstructive sleep apnoea”. The nurse consultant explained that the soft tissue in my throat was collapsing when I slept, blocking my airway. Then my sleeping brain got the message there wasn’t oxygen coming in, so it partly woke me up, resulting in a loud snore. This was happening 30 times an hour on average! So I was not getting a night of proper deep sleep. This began to explain why for years I have been both stressed and sleepy – and I thought this was all about my work, going to bed late and getting up early !
The nurse gave me a little pump, with a hose like a vacuum cleaner and a face mask to wear at night. It blows air constantly down my windpipe, to keep it open. This was weird, having a hose strapped to your face, like an elephant’s trunk, not being able to get comfy or curl up around my wife. And if I tried breathing through my mouth I’d find a rush of air coming out instead! The nurse said “Learn to love your machine – you will take it to bed with you for ever.”
Gradually I got used to it. I went to a conference for sleep apnoea patients, and got a better mask that was much less restrictive (a Dreamwear for CPAP– it’s fantastic). I joined a Facebook self-help group, with 8,000 people on it from all over the world, giving each other encouragement and swapping tips, and making jokes about becoming Darth Vadar at night, or asking how to tell their new lover after a few dates. This was wonderful, not feeling alone.
Using the machine meant I got a proper night’s sleep – no more apnoeas waking me up, no more snoring, so no poking from my wife waking me up: and she got a proper night’s sleep too. Brilliant. We both felt much better. I didn’t feel cloudy in the head in the morning, or like falling asleep on the train or in the evenings, my mood was better, and those times when I couldn’t think of a word or recall someone’s name just disappeared.
But was I going to wear this thing on my face for the rest of my life – I am hoping for another 30 years, please. The nurse said some people lose a lot of weight, and it reduces the problem, sometimes completely. How much weight, I asked. Go for 10% and see how that goes.
I didn’t even know how much I weighed. And I wasn’t going to use stones and pounds – how could I do percentages of Imperial measures?! I knew I’d put on some weight over the years – my tummy was bulging a bit, but not like a beer belly, and photos of me showed a big double chin I never used to have. We didn’t trust our scales, so I got some free on the Freecycle website, from a couple who’d not been satisfied with the brightness of the numbers.
So, how to get down from 100.7kg to 90.7kg – just at the boundary of being overweight for my height?
A good friend recommended Slimming World’s approach: cut out fat, but don’t bother too much about sugar. Seemed a good place to start.
For the first time ever, I started reading the packets in the supermarket. It’s quite confusing. And how outrageous when packets give you the fat content for half a pizza, or one sixth of a packet of something. I settled on how many grams of fat per portion. I can keep that pretty clear in my head, and recognise a low and a high amount. Don’t expect me to work in percentages of a typical person’s recommended intake – too complicated.
For a while I made a little spreadsheet, and as I put away the shopping I’d record the fat and sugar content of each portion. It was quiet revealing: 34g of fat in one of my favourite pizzas, but 17g for my other favourite – aha! And my lifelong favourite biscuits – Fox’s bran biscuits – turned out to have almost as much fat in them as the cheese slices I was putting on them for a little late night snack!! Alright, sometimes quite a big late night snack.
My strategy was this: don’t cut out something completely – swap it for something you really like but is low in fat. No feeling hungry, no ridiculous fads, and let yourself have nice meals too. Aim for a gradual weight loss, nothing sudden, and plot out the target reduction over six months, and track it each week on a spreadsheet graph, to see the pattern (I do like a good spreadsheet). And weigh myself once or twice a week first thing in the morning while naked, after having a good pee – that brings it down a bit and keeps things consistent.
I went public about this (no, not about having a pee), and my daughters and some friends pointed out a few things I had swapped to were low in fat but very high in sugar (oops!), so I had to swap them again. And I occasionally reported back to my friend, for a bit of gentle peer pressure, as we were both trying to lose weight. One of my daughters also gave me advice: don’t just make a plan for what you will do right; also make little plans for what you will do when you hit a situation which is a problem, or get tempted – then you’ll know what to do. Good advice.
So did it work?
Well for the first three months I was bang on target – the blue line on my spreadsheet’s graph followed the target red line slowly downwards, almost exactly. Brilliant. But could I keep this up for six months, and over Christmas? Well things went a bit wild before Christmas – up it went. Fortunately I had built in some grace over Christmas into my target line. I do project management for a living, so building in some slack had been quite natural for me. (It’s not cheating: it’s planning!) Then it bounced around for a few weeks, then steadily down again, then a few leaps down, and on. Then it tailed off level for months, about 2kg short of my target. Hmm. Just keep going, and hope it moves down again after a while. It did, and settled just above my target. Good enough for me. One year, and target pretty much achieved.
Then I had a few nights when I fell asleep before putting my mask on at night, or forgot to put it on after getting up in the night for the toilet. I realised my wife wasn’t poking me and imploring me to stop snoring. So I rang the sleep clinic: Could I have another test please? The results came back: my score had fallen from 31 an hour (severe) to 8 (just above completely normal, and not worth treating). “Can we have our machine back please?” Amazing. I have beaten what was likely to be a life-long health condition which meant sleeping with a rubbery mask on my face every night. As long as I sleep on my side, I am getting no complaints about snoring, and the sleep apnoea and sleepiness seems to be finished with.
It has been almost all down to changing what I eat. I don’t do alcohol or smoking, so I couldn’t improve with those. I did increase my exercise, from almost none to regularly walking 20 minutes each way to the station most days, and climbing five floors of stairs at work, and weekly swimming during the phases when I lost the most weight.
So now for the foody details, which you’ve been waiting for:
• I swapped two large glasses of milk and a glass of orange juice with my breakfast cereal for two large glasses of chilled water – it has just the same effects: a good swig, fills me up, and it’s refreshingly cool. That has also cut down my dairy intake – so good for climate change too. I added a piece of fruit or veg to my lunch to make up for dropping the orange juice, which had quite a lot of sugar.
• I tried swapping butter for low fat spread, but it just doesn’t have the taste. So now I have butter on my occasional toast (you’ve got to live), but no butter with beans on toast etc. And chunks of bread without butter are nice, if you get really tasty fresh bread. And who needs butter on bread with soup, when you can get more flavour by dunking the bread?
• I cut out butter or any spread on my daily lunchtime sandwiches. Who would have thought that ham and tomato sandwiches without spread taste even better than ham with butter? It turns out the butter was just there for moisture!
• I switched back from hummus and other higher fat vegan sandwiches (saying sorry to my vegan daughters), and went back to my favourite honey roast ham. (When they read this, I will get suggestions for low fat vegan spreads: fine.)
• I eat more of my favourite delicious Serrano ham too (it’s like Parma ham), as it has virtually no fat when I simply remove the white fat round the edges. I know preserved meats are not great for cancer risk, but one step at a time.
• I swapped cheese and biscuits at the end of the day for savoury tomato juice (which I love and is terribly cheap), sometimes made more interesting with a sprinkle of celery salt (discovered on holiday in France), or smoked paprika (for when I fancy some paprika Pringles).
• If I want a snack to munch, I like soft dried apricots (not the hard kind), or pistachio nuts, or cashews (sadly not the over-salted roasted ones), or a handful of sultanas – a childhood favourite re-discovered – oh alright, three handfuls of sultanas! I also munch through crab sticks, or whole chestnuts. All these have replaced chocolates – especially those lovely spherical ones in the red foil, whose name I now cannot remember after a year. The secret with chocolates seems to be this: don’t buy them. And put ones you are given on a high shelf in the garage out of sight and mind. But the secret with marzipan left over from cake making is: eat it – life is too short to give up heavenly marzipan.
• I have cut out occasional snacks on the train home: no cheese and onion crisps to celebrate a good day at work; no cheesy Doritos, Pringles or Bounty bars on a bad day. Bananas are very good, and only 20p. Sometimes I carry some nuts or apricots.
• We have cut down on puddings, and eat more fruit – but I only eat fruit that I really like: grapes, bananas and little oranges, and occasionally kiwis quickly with a spoon like a boiled egg. (You may like sharp, crunchy apples, or pears, but I don’t.)
• My wife makes a whole range of fruit smoothies: refreshing, very tasty, filling, and feeling so virtuous! I have backed away from the ones with lots of kale though – just a bit is fine.
• On Saturday nights I now have my second favourite pizza, the one with half the fat.
• This is followed by a massive amount of delicious very low calorie fruit sorbet, instead of hugely fatty de luxe ice-cream. A whole tub of sorbet is very very naughty, and nice.
The point of listing my own solutions is not to persuade you to drink tomato juice, or eat crab sticks or Serrano ham. It is to encourage you to swap to things you already like, which are also low in fat and sugar.
I used to eat things I liked. Now I eat things I like.
It’s just that some of them are different.
What would you really like to eat more of?