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Food for thought: Are Jaffa Cakes the answer?
Jim Johnson


I have a confession; I’ve done something that I have previously mocked others for. I feel like a complete hypocrite and slightly embarrassed too. My sin? I’ve recently started to think about my calorific intake. In my defence, I would like to say that I expect this current fad to be very short lived. It will only have lasted about two or three weeks in total. Thankfully, I have emerged almost unscathed from my brief encounter with an evil underworld. A place where the false gods of Slim Fast milkshake and the Go Ahead biscuit await to recruit devoted followers. The one thing this experience has taught me is the quite essential need to eat more Jaffa Cakes. Let me save you from ever having to visit that horrible place. All you need to know about dieting is this one simple fact – love Jaffa Cakes.

It all started on a cycle ride from Cambridge to London. I didn’t just decide to hop onto my bike and ride up the hard shoulder of the M11; it was an organised event. I joined hundreds of others in the 55 mile ride through the quiet country roads of Essex and Cambridgeshire. A couple of friends had cycle computers, which tell you your average speed, ride time and various other facts that give you something to think about whilst you pedal. Nothing unusual about that, but someone had one with an extra function – it worked out how many calories you were burning. By the time we’d got to Cambridge I was alarmed to find out that after about 3 or 4 hours of steady cycling this machine reckoned we had used up slightly less energy than a Mars bar would provide.

Fancy a burger?

It’s not every day that I exert as much energy as a fifty-odd mile cycle, where as it is virtually every day that I drink a few pints and perhaps eat some chocolate. Bearing in mind that I am not obese, there was an obvious imbalance in this equation. Is my body just waiting for a few more years before deciding that it’s payback time? Is middle-aged spread lurking around the corner? Or was it just that the equation was totally wrong? I had to find out and so began my quest into this nightmare world.

The reason why I hate the idea of calorie counting is that I love food. I also know that the nicest food is not always the lowest in fat. I feel sorry for people who inflict strict dietary regimes on themselves, especially when you can see that they by are by no means overweight. Do they know what they are missing or have they just forgotten? Let’s face it; the best food is never going to feature on a calorie counter’s menu planner. How good are fish and chips covered in mushy peas? Or a juicy beef burger with a slice of melted blue cheese; a crisp green salad with French salad dressing; a sweet, hot, blackberry and apple crumble drowned in custard, the list is endless. But all frowned upon by the diet police.

During my student days when watching ‘This Morning’ was compulsory, I once saw something that really got on my nerves. Their diet ‘expert’ Rosemary Conley responded to an enquiry about healthy foods by saying ‘But all food is fattening Richard’. How many impressionable people would have heard that comment and become obsessive calorie counters overnight? It sounded like the perfect argument that someone suffering from an eating disorder might employ. And all for what? Just so Rosemary could scare a few people into buying her fitness video or latest recipe book?

We are often encouraged to believe that eating is just a way of providing fuel for our bodies. Cooking is reduced to chemistry, involving the mixture of strictly controlled and weighed components – with the ultimate aim, not of creating an enjoyable meal but calculated low-cal sustenance. I can still recall the nagging voice of my home economics teacher ‘You half your fat intake by discarding the skin from a chicken’ she would say, obviously unaware that the sticky crisp, golden skin of a roasted chicken is by far the best bit.

Then of course there’s drink. If you want to diet you can forget it. You can perhaps allow yourself just the one gin and slimline tonic in the pub. Although really it would be best to avoid temptation altogether and not go to the pub in the first place. Sounds like great fun.

During my time with the enemy a friend bought me a 99p calorie counter book. I think this was more of a joke than a thoughtful gift, at least I hope so. My ‘essential guide to calories and fat content’, did however, provide some very useful information. It cleared up the confusion that had kick started my quest. The handy ‘how much energy do you burn?’ section said that cycling uses up between 240 and 600 calories per hour depending on pace and hills. During my cycle ride I had kept up a reasonable speed and there were several hills so let’s take a figure of 450 calories per hour. I cycled for just over three and half-hours which makes roughly around 1600 calories. A Mars bar provides 310, a mere fraction, case closed.

Before I burn the book to measure the amount of energy it would yield were it edible (an experiment known as caliometry, apparently) there are a few facts that may interest you. Writing or typing uses up 120 calories an hour, which means by now I’ve used up about 300 or so just doing this. I may go shopping later, which will burn a massive 240 cal/hour. Perhaps I’ll have a ‘power nap’, not because I’m lazy but to use up another 60 cal/hour. If I’ve enough energy left after that I may attempt the stairs. Not a task to be taken lightly requiring an exhausting 660 calories per hour (admittedly it only takes about 2.5 seconds to ascend the stairs in my house). If you’re feeling energetic and want to think about sport, then go for squash, you’ll burn a whopping 840 calories per hour.

As for the food section of the book, here’s a summary. A pint of Guinness has about the same amount of calories as a pint of orange juice and less fat. Jaffa cakes contain 25% less calories than chocolate digestives made by a famous, so-called ‘health shop’ and about 65% less fat. It’s all common sense really. Do a spot of exercise and don’t eat a donor kebab and chips every night and you’ll be fine.

Meanwhile all this typing has left me exhausted, I must have used well over 400 calories now. I’m off to the pub to replenish my reserves. If you’ve got time I recommend reading a few more articles on the website, you’ll use about 90 calories per hour just sitting there.

© Jim Johnson 2001

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