In December 1929, during a wild storm, my mother was born. By the time she was eleven, the country was at war and food rationing had been introduced. She told me that during wartime, she was permanently hungry. Even though the family kept chickens and goats and grew vegetables, things such as butter were almost non-existent – two ounces per person per week.
Nanna, her mother, worked tirelessly, trying to feed her family from the supplies they grew and reared themselves with the additional rations, reduced because they kept chickens. She would make tiny amounts of butter from the creamy top of the milk in their milk ration, she would bottle fruit and vegetables, and they would store apples for the winter. Mum was lucky to live in the countryside of Sussex, where food could be grown and reared but still, she longed for the better things of life.
When I was born in 1955 rationing had not long ended. Mum fed us those things that she had missed during her youth, things she grew up to understand were good for us. Butter was one of her loves, still is at the age of 91. She would pop a knob into her mouth and groan with delight. Similarly double cream, which went into many special occasion dishes, sweet and savoury, such as porc a la creme, syllabub or lemon flan – a mixture of cream lemon and condensed milk on a base of digestive biscuits. I remember her labouring over vichyssoise and prawn vols au vents for guests and making sausage rolls and egg sandwiches for our birthday parties, the eggs mixed not with mayonnaise as we do now, but with softened butter.
Food at mealtimes was the main subject of conversation, as Mum tried new recipes or brought out old favourites: steak and kidney pie with mash and cauliflower in bechamel sauce, spaghetti cheese (never macaroni for some reason) served with mash and a large knob of butter. As I write this my mouth is watering. You can see how I grew up a foodie with a love of all the wrong things.
I was not always fat, though.
Up until the age of five or six I looked like this and refused food unless it was chicken – which at that time was a luxury, and/or mashed potatoes. My mother worried about my diet and tried to persuade me to eat more and varied, but look at the picture. I think I looked perfectly well nourished.
Meanwhile, at school, lunchtimes were a source of anxiety. I remember when I was very small being late for afternoon classes because a dinner lady had stood over me forcing me to eat some ghastly gristly stew before I could leave the table. Each morning I had to be dragged, weeping into school, and I bet it was because of those lunches. A teacher told my mother I was a different child in the afternoon.
My mum worrying, and this aversion to certain foods might well have been the beginning of my food disorder.
Sometime in the early sixties, I, like most of my contemporaries, underwent a tonsillectomy and following it, began to eat. My mum was so relieved I was finally accepting vegetables and polishing off huge platefuls of her offerings that she and my dad failed to notice that I was gaining weight.
‘We suddenly realised we had a fat child,’ she told me.
‘So, what did you do about it?’ I asked recently, in preparation for writing this.
She paused before saying, a little hesitantly, ‘We tried to stop you eating but we didn’t know much about diet back then.’
It turns out that there was information about calorie counting in the ’60s as you can read in this blog post: https://www.joe.co.uk/fitness-health/accurate-1960-diet-book-210704 but I doubt it was as well-known as Doctor Spock’s advice on rearing children. Diet and nutrition were yet to be part of popular culture.
So, by the age of eight, I was chubby. Not that I was aware of it then. But by the time I reached Grammar School and began to notice boys, I was very aware. Not only that, but I thought girls who were the same size as I, were slimmer. I had somehow developed a distorted body image. I suppose that is how anorexia begins, but there was no danger of that for me.
My mum helped me with my first diet. She bought these ghastly things called Energin Crisp Rolls. They looked like a puffy bread roll, but when you bit into them, they collapsed into chewy cardboard. The only way to get them down was with a thick layer of butter. I had these instead of bread.
On this first diet, I ate gammon slices instead of bacon, did without potatoes, rice and pasta and took yoghurt in my school lunch instead of cake or biscuit. Looking back, it was quite a low carb diet, although we didn’t know it.
I lost the weight.
As a vain teen, I kept that weight off for, I suppose, two to three years, but as soon as I settled, young, into a co-habiting relationship, I began to cook, and to gain weight.
So to my first questions: Did having my tonsils out, cause my first weight gain and did it cause a hormonal response or metabolic change?
There are several studies on this subject, some with quite small cohorts of children but the consensus is, YES, many children experience an unexpected increase in their weight, especially if they were aged six or younger- as was I – when they had their tonsils (possibly with adenoids) removed.
There could be several reasons for this:
- Reduction of calories burned at night because of breathing becoming easier
- Reduction of calories burned during the day for the same reason
- Increase in eating due to reduction in throat pain
The result of obesity is the production of many inflammatory factors by the body’s fatty cells including Leptin, a regulator of appetite.
In a healthy body, when leptin is produced by those fatty cells, it tells the brain how much fat it has stored. The more fat, the more leptin and, in theory, the lower the appetite, and vice versa. But it seems that this system can go wrong, and this is called leptin resistance.
Significantly higher leptin levels were found in some children after the removal of their tonsils, and those levels were still higher 1 year after surgery. It is thought that higher levels might be due to leptin resistance in these patients.
Relating this to myself, I wonder if my lack of eating before my operation was because my Leptin levels were working. The reason I didn’t want to eat was probably because I had an impared sense of smell and taste, so texture was important. Then, I developed leptin resistance as a result of the operation, plus, I could taste and smell the food I was being given. This contributed to my weight gain, especially when fed huge portions of what is now considered to be unhealthy food.
But that can’t be all there is to it, because I don’t only eat when I am hungry. I eat more food when it tastes good. Sometimes, if I am enjoying something a lot, I will be thinking, I’m going to have more of this, after a couple of mouthfulls. I have an emotional attachment to food. I love the ‘orgasm’ of eating something I crave. Also, there is the matter of habit, and association. I will eat dinner at dinner time, even if I have not eaten lunch until 3pm. I associate certain foods with places. There was a pub in Sheep Country, where Hubby-1 and I would call after we had shut our delicatessen shop (more food). I would always choose the same drink and bag of Bombay mix. I would only have this combination at this time in this pub. Weird or what? Holidays for me are all about the food: tapas in Spain, Bouillabaisse in France, trying new local dishes is exciting! If I could go to India, it would definitely be for the curry, more than the Taj Mahal.
Added to this is the body’s process of using its fat up. In my case, my body, possibly because I have subjected it to so many diets over the years, seems to have become sensitive to carbohydrate. But that is an investigation for my next post.
- A systematic review of adenotonsillectomy as a risk factor for childhood obesity
- Weight gain after adenotonsillectomy is more common in young children
- The Association Between ENT Diseases and Obesity in Pediatric Population: A Systemic Review of Current Knowledge
- Leptin and ghrelin levels in children before and after adenoidectomy or adenotonsillectomy
- Changes in body composition and growth pattern after adenotonsillectomy in prepubertal children