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Lee Child's 'write diet' is not necessarily the right diet

Judith Wills / 27 December 2019

Diet expert Judith Wills looks at Lee Child's claim that staying hungry helps him write, but it certainly isn't the best diet for most people.

Small sandwiches
If you have a small appetite it's important to make sure the little food you're eating is nutritionally valuable

We don’t read much about the dangers of being underweight anymore. Now nearly two-thirds of the UK population is officially overweight or obese, it is the lean amongst us who are rarely mentioned. Yes, we hear a lot about people with eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, but actually simply being naturally skinny is rarely talked about.

A mere million adults in the UK are underweight – that is, with a body mass index of less than 18. And, let’s face it, a lot of these people are quietly envied by those of us who try hard to get, or stay, a healthy weight (BMI 18.5 -24.9). We don’t really consider that being truly slim could possibly be unhealthy – but the line between slim and thin enough to endanger health is remarkably fine.

And while many very slim people are indeed naturally slim, or perhaps are sportspeople, such as longer distance runners who use up thousands of daily calories in their training, or require a slim body to be successful in their profession – e.g. ballet, there are many others who stay ultraslim for other reasons.

For example, Lee Child, the best-selling author of the Jack Reacher books, who was recently interviewed for The Times. He is 6ft 4 ins, and in the interview he freely admitted that he weighs a mere “nine stone-something…” which would give him a BMI of between 16 and 17 – clinically underweight.

The reason appears to be twofold – “I just don’t enjoy eating – I never have. I don’t each much at all.” And not eating, he says, helps him write. “It helps to stay hungry.” He also smokes up to a pack of cigarettes a day when he’s writing for similar reasons. But he says he isn’t ill, and he isn’t worried.

It is true that large meals, particularly starchy ones, do tend to produce ‘brain fog’ partly because the oxygen and blood running around your body is diverted to the digestive system to deal with the food. ‘Little and often’ is probably the way to go if you want to stay alert but also not too skinny.

Child quotes a typical day’s diet for him as a chocolate croissant for breakfast, a small sandwich for lunch and a chicken leg for dinner. So not only does he eat very little – but what he does eat doesn’t add up in any way to a healthy diet. Second mantra – if you’re not going to eat a lot, make it nutritious when you do!

When you don’t eat much, it’s vital that every morsel you eat gives your body some benefit. Yes, he needs the calories (around 350) his chocolate croissant will provide but the nutrients it gives are minimal (and it’s super-high in ‘brain fog’ carbs, too!). A chicken leg – okay, but where’s the veg? No fruit all day… I could go on.

But mostly, we equate someone slim with good, rather than bad health and sometimes we even feel envious of their good luck. Recent research at Cambridge University found that the claim some people are naturally slim because of their genes actually can be true and is one reason of several why some of us can eat a lot more than others and never put on weight. But photos of Child from around ten years ago show him full of face and probably at least two stones heavier than he is now so this is probably not the case for him.

However, when we get older, it seems there is advantage in not being too thin. There are several research studies carried out over the past 20 years that show that once you hit 70 or so, if you are slightly overweight (in the BMI range 26 – 28) then you are likely to live longer than people who are underweight, obese or even within the designated ‘healthy’ range.

If that’s true, then those of us who are underweight (and that, I hasten to add, does not include me) and heading to 70 or already there, could do worse than indulge in a little more food.

Nice, eh? Unless of course your name happens to be Mr L. Child. All I need is his iron willpower, and/or his genes, and/or his dodgy appetite and/or his thirst for work, and I too could perhaps find ‘staying hungry’ no bother at all.

But not for the festive season, of course. And maybe not even for January. Sometimes, ‘slim’ and ‘healthy’ really are not the same thing. And just, well – how sad if you don’t enjoy your food.

Anyone agree?

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