Exercise on prescription

Judith Wills / 30 May 2014

Diet and wellbeing blogger Judith Wills takes a critical look at a new Government programme to help people lose weight.

I often wonder who advises the Government – specifically the Department of Health – on what constitutes a good, workable and beneficial idea to help our population to long-term good health and slimness while at the same time saving them (the Department of Health) loads of money and hospital beds.

I wonder that even more this week, as I couldn't fail to note the headlines screaming that both overweight and obese people are to be sent on free slimming club courses to lose some weight.

I'm all for self-help – I know exercise class and gym prescriptions may already be given to patients by doctors who realise that sometimes exercise is a better cure for an ill than a pack of pills.

And it has been established for some decades that slimming clubs do have a very good success rate in helping people to lose weight, and have a higher rate of long term weight maintenance success when you compare their member results with people who slim by other means.

And GPs have actually been quietly referring needy patients to these clubs on the NHS for several years now. Since 2007, the NHS has handed over more than £4 million to WeightWatchers, for example, to help their patients lose weight.

But I will be surprised if this latest Government scheme does turn out to be the perfect answer to the UK's fat problem. I don't enjoy being a Jonah, but -

One - when you consider that two-thirds of our adult population of around 50 million actually falls into the 'overweight or obese' category now, that means we are looking at approximately 33 million people who could qualify for free attendance at a slimming club. Currently, around two million people go to WeightWatchers every year. Add in the other big slimming clubs – Slimming World and Rosemary Conley – and you've still got current attendance of approximately 5 million. So it's going to be breathe in and lose weight fast if the clubs are going to fit in another 28 million or so...

Two – the Department of Health scheme appears to be a 12-week programme. For a great many of the overweight/obese people in Britain, this will be nowhere near long enough for them to shed their surplus fat at a healthy rate (1-2lbs a week is the ideal max) so the temptation may be to shed it faster. And/or once the 12 weeks are up, will they continue to attend?

Three – there is no provision for ensuring that people will attend in the first place. As a WeightWatchers spokesperson said last year, “People generally join WeightWatchers because something has triggered them to say, 'Right that's it – time to change'. Deciding to walk through the door seems to come from some sort of seminal moment: a new job, new partner, some sort of goal that people want to get to – a wedding, a holiday.”

In other words, as has long been known, just because your doctor says you ought to lose weight, that doesn't mean you will want to or be able to – it's not enough motivation. So the Department of Health may simply be wasting a great deal of money on places at clubs that aren't taken up.

If the Government can find solutions to these potential problems then I look forward to seeing the results and truly hope the scheme works.

But I do have a suspicion that they may be heading for another washout. Find me the office where the advisers sit and I'll be there to tell them what I think. That the only certain way to get the 33 million losing weight and keeping it off for good is to make all the surplus and nutrient-poor food somehow disappear from the shops, the shelves, from our lives. What we can't get we can't eat. And/or, to make sure every single fat person has a seminal moment to motivate them just about all the time.

Now on to John Barrowman, fine man, actor, quoted this week, “I'm not in as good a shape as I have been in the past, I've let myself slack off lately.” And when asked what he weighs, “I don't know what I weigh at the moment.”

Translation – “I'm fat and I know exactly what I weigh at the moment – but no way am I telling a journalist.”

Ate last night

I finally got around to making another saag aloo to go with a chicken curry and remembered to take a photo of it, so here it is. It makes a nice change from rice with the curry and has lots of healthful ingredients in it, as well as being quite delicious – but you will need some kind of blender/chopper. Leftovers will keep in the fridge for a couple of days at least.

Saag aloo recipe

Serves 4

  • 800g potatoes, e.g. Maris Piper
  • 1 medium onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 ripe tomatoes, quartered
  • Good 2 handfuls (½ average bunch) fresh coriander including stalks
  • 1 heaped tablespoon curry paste (I used Patak's madras but you might prefer balti)
  • 5 large cloves garlic, peeled
  • 3 tbsp groundnut or light olive oil
  • 200g fresh spinach leaves
  • 1 fresh red chilli, finely sliced
  • 1 dessertspoonful cumin seeds
  • Natural yogurt to serve

Chop the potatoes into pieces about the same size as you would make for roasting (you can leave the skin on if you like for more fibre), and boil them in lightly salted water until just cooked, drain thoroughly and drive off moisture by placing pan back on the turned-off hob. Reserve.

Meanwhile, put the onion, tomatoes, coriander stalks and half the leaves, two of the garlic cloves and the curry paste into an electric chopper/grinder or even a blender until you have a slightly rough paste.

Heat half the groundnut oil in a medium nonstick frying pan and add the dried potatoes and cook for a few minutes over high heat, turning frequently, until they are somewhat browned. Stir in the tomatoey paste, turn the heat down to medium and cook for around 10 minutes, stirring now and then. Towards the end, stir in the spinach leaves until wilted.

While this is cooking, make a garnish by combining the remaining oil with the chilli, the rest of the garlic, finely chopped, and the cumin seeds. Stir it all around. (If you can remember to make this a bit earlier in the day it benefits.)

Serve the saag aloo with the chilli garnish and coriander leaves sprinkled on top, and with the yogurt on the side.

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