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Cooking during lockdown helped Carnoustie self-confessed foodie deal with Crohn’s Disease diagnosis

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As a report on lockdown eating habits shows a huge increase in home cooking, Brian Stormont spoke to people who have swapped takeaways for meals made from scratch, including a Crohn’s disease sufferer who found cooking during lockdown gave her health a boost.

The latest report from Food Standards Scotland (FSS) has revealed the impact that home cooking and Covid-19 had on food and drink retail purchasing in Scotland between January and July 2020.

The FSS data confirmed that we bought more ingredients for home cooking, including sweet and savoury cooking ingredients, canned goods, dried pasta, rice and pulses during lockdown.

This directly corresponds with results from the recently published FSS Covid-19 tracker which showed that in May, 40% of people reported cooking from scratch more often compared to before lockdown.

Encouragingly, 29% also reported eating healthy meals more often which aligns with the increased amount of vegetables we bought over lockdown.

However, the data showed that we also bought more biscuits, confectionery and crisps during this time.

This was also supported by results from the Covid-19 tracker which showed that in May, 44% of people reported snacking on cakes, biscuits, confectionery and savoury snacks more often than before lockdown.

Crohn’s, Cooking and Me

Debbie Hamilton.

Having been diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, Debbie Hamilton was already trying to change her eating habits when the first coronavirus lockdown came into effect.

Someone who was a dedicated food lover of all dishes and cuisines, Debbie, 45, was already on a mission to find out what she could and couldn’t enjoy when Covid struck.

And the mum of two from Carnoustie in Angus discovered that lockdown gave her a helpful spur as she battled her way back to a better way of living – and eating.

“I always loved cooking but it kind of went on the back burner after I was diagnosed so I have probably had a slightly different journey than other people,” she said.

“I was diagnosed in June 2019 as I had had a couple of years getting progressively more and more unwell. The doctors thought it was a couple of things initially, but I wasn’t getting any better. After a period of time in hospital, I was eventually diagnosed.

“When I was feeling particularly unwell I was having what they know as ‘flare-ups’. Basically when your body is in flare anything you eat causes extreme abdominal pain, sickness and it causes you to lose weight as your body isn’t taking on any nutrition from the food that you eat.”

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After the shock of the initial diagnosis, Debbie, who is mum to son, Rhyan, 22, and daughter, Sophie, 15, was crushed when the self-confessed foodie found out what was going to be included in her diet.

“When I was diagnosed I was given a diet sheet and it was just bland food – white fish, white chicken, rice, mashed potato, white bread, all that boring stuff. I have always been a bit of a food geek, I like going to restaurants and I like watching cooking programmes, It just took all that love away from me, it was frightening,” she revealed.

“I basically lived on baked cod every teatime, I would have a plain chicken sandwich, just sliced chicken, and a bowl of Rice Krispies for lunch and that was me for about four months solid. Anytime I did try to have something that ventured out of that it caused me a lot of pain and I just stopped cooking. I wasn’t really dealing with the diagnosis very well, I struggled with it.

“It was probably a good six months before I started trying to introduce more foods in and it all tied in with me beginning to feel better. I am on two types of medication and one takes up to four months before it is really in your system so it was a while before I felt well enough to introduce more foods into my diet but I wasn’t really cooking as I was before.

Tonight’s tea – prawn, garlic and chilli linguini. It was quick and super easy and full of flavour. Recipe and method in the comments. 💕

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“I was eating more and more processed foods and I was suffering from a mental block where I didn’t want to go back to cooking because Crohn’s had taken that enjoyment away from me. I was kind of starting to introduce foods, but it was probably more junk food and my diet was worse than it had ever been.

“Certain things would cause me pain and there is something in processed foods that is a trigger for me so as I was introducing stuff there were things I was told to avoid like peas, beans and sweetcorn because they had a shell or skins on them which are hard to digest. Tomato soup is another one I try to avoid as much as I can, even though I love tomatoes.”

Debbie with her husband, Gregor.

Sharing ideas

Getting the green light from the medics that she could be more adventurous, Debbie got her confidence back – and her husband, Gregor, encouraged her to share some of her lockdown cooking ideas via a Facebook page Crohn’s, Cooking and Me.

“I am quite lucky there are a lot of foods I can tolerate, but I know a lot of people with Crohn’s can’t tolerate much. As I started cooking I very quickly realised that home cooking was suiting me better,” she said.

“I started to introduce more organic produce, like leafy vegetables, which I had initially been told to avoid like the plague. I found I was able to tolerate them really well so I set up my Facebook page.

“When we went into lockdown I was feeling a little low and my husband, Gregor, said I should set it up because cooking had then become a focus. I would work in the morning and then do some baking in the afternoon. I was making everything from scratch again, there was nothing processed going in and I tolerated that really well.

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“Gregor initially said set up the page and I said ‘No, people will be saying who does she think she is?’, but he said there are people there you can maybe help who are maybe not wanting to eat or don’t know what to eat.

“I had that bit more time on my hands and the lockdown fuelled it more. I am definitely feeling better. It has taken me a long time to get there. My diets and stress levels are key factors for me, so eating well and keeping my stress levels down is key, which is difficult in a lockdown or pandemic situation.

“Lockdown certainly fuelled time for me to investigate it further and spend more time on it and make me realise that going back to home cooking is massive for me. There is so much food I wouldn’t have even touched 12 months ago, but being able to have the time to plan it out and slowly reintroduce things back into my diet to see how I managed them was great. It has been important for me as I move forward.”

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A day at a time

Now being in a much better position health-wise, Debbie doesn’t have a specific message for anyone who is struggling like she was, other than to be patient and you will get back to enjoying some of the foods you love.

She added: “I felt that this was going to take over my life and it doesn’t, you just need to take it a day at a time and you will get there, you do get there and don’t focus too far ahead in the future. I only think of things a day at a time or a week in advance – don’t think of things any further than that because it can be overwhelming.”

And Debbie is really enjoying getting many of the foods she loves back in her diet.

“Shellfish was one thing I was told was hard to digest, but I just love seafood and shellfish, prawns and things like that and I knew I would miss that. However, I have no issue with that at all which is great,” she said.

“Red meat was a thing I was also told to avoid, but I can tolerate that quite well, although it depends on how it’s cooked. I was told to avoid salads, which I love, but I have had no issues. I tolerate most foods now which is really important for me because I love food.”

The butcher, the grocer and his slow cooker

Blair Bowman

Whisky consultant and author Blair Bowman made some important discoveries during his lockdown cooking – his butcher, grocer and his slow cooker.

Buying the very best local produce meant he was able to create some fantastic meals in his slow cooker – a much-underused appliance in his kitchen.

And as we continue living in lockdown, Blair’s new-found skills are keeping him busy in the kitchen.

“In lockdown one, at the start of it, I didn’t feel comfortable going into supermarkets so I started using our local butcher for the first time and he was doing free deliveries because we lived in the area. I also started using our local greengrocers which I had never used before lockdown,” he said.

“That was where it kind of started and that opened things up for me. I thought I can do slow cooking.

“We had a slow cooker but hadn’t really used it much and started to slow cook things like brisket because I could get brisket from the butcher. Slow-cooked ribs was another favourite and it was during the summer months that I really got into slow cooking in a big way, trying out making some great meals.”

Blair’s eight-hour slow-cooked whisky glazed barbecue ribs.

Cooking from scratch

And planning his meals proved so enjoyable that he then started to try out dishes he had not previously cooked from scratch before.

Blair, who is a former student of Aberdeen University, added: “I would plan out the meals the night before then get up really early, at like 7 in the morning, to put the slow cooker on and I really got into that.

“More recently, in the latest lockdown I have got into things I was never really into before, making lots of things from scratch, like curries. I made a green Thai curry and a red Thai curry for the very first time from scratch.

“I have been planning all the various ingredients I need, grounding the spices, toasting the spices and just finding it a really relaxing and enjoyable thing to do. It is something to look forward to as there isn’t a great deal to look forward to at the moment.

“It’s really fun planning out a meal, making sure I have all the right bits and then I can relax and listen to podcasts while I am cooking and learn something new while I am cooking too. Because the days are so similar at the moment it is nice to have something that will take up a few hours of my time.”

Slow cooked soy and ginger beef ramen.

So will the cooking he did during lockdown and making proper home-cooked dishes continue when the world returns to some sort of normality pre-Covid-19?

“Definitely,” said Blair, whose family hail from Deeside. “Before this, I did enjoy cooking but it was always kind of squeezed in alongside all the other busy aspects of life. It would only really be on the weekend when I would have the capacity of time and say I will do a full roast dinner.

“But in the middle of the week it was always quick meals or something I could knock up quickly or easily and it’s definitely something that I would love to continue.

“I will continue to use our local butcher and greengrocer which I never really used before lockdown and I now know that they can supply just as high quality, if not better quality, than I can get in a supermarket.

“Even the eggs that they are getting from a local farmer, everything is just a nicer quality and you are supporting a local, independent business which is a nice thing to do.”

Blair’s haggis nachos.

Healthier lifestyle

Blair, 30, also believes that he is healthier as a result of making these changes to his lifestyle and cooking more during lockdown.

“I definitely think I am healthier and I am not getting takeaways and fast food. I did a bit of that at the start of lockdown as it was the convenient thing to do, but I realised that there was not as much pleasure in that and making your own food tasted better,” he added.

“If you have spent 12 hours slow cooking something, the anticipation of it and the build-up of the smells in the house, you can get really excited about it. It sounds a bit sad to get excited about cooking but I really do enjoy the looking forward to planning a meal, preparing all the bits and looking forward to enjoying it rather than eating it all passively.”

The wonder of fresh summer fruits and the amazing things you can create without wasting anything has also proved a delicious learning curve.

“In the summer there were amazing strawberries and berries we were getting from the greengrocers which were better than anything we had tasted,” Blair said.

“We were also making a lot of soups and stocks and being able to get these off-cuts from the butcher was great. They have all these amazing bones and marrows that you can just chuck in a pot and leave it to cook and you have a stock to use for all these incredible meals and you are not wasting anything and it tastes better as well.”

Blair’s slow-cooked beef brisket

Diet in focus

FSS’s chief executive, Geoff Ogle, said that improvements in people’s eating habits and diets, in general, were most welcome, but that good work needs to continue:

He said: “Scotland’s battle with overweight and obesity has been brought into sharp focus by the pandemic, as poor diet is a contributory factor to increased risk of poorer health outcomes from COVID-19. This is in addition to the well-established links between poor diet, obesity and coronary heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke and some cancers.

“The increase in vegetable and home cooking ingredients purchased is encouraging, with people reporting that they were cooking more from scratch.

“We need both government and industry to build on these encouraging findings.”

The results of the study also showed that that shoppers bought 44% more food and drink from shops and supermarkets in the week before the national lockdown in March 2020, compared to March 2019.

People in Scotland made fewer trips to stores during lockdown compared to 2019 as we spent more time at home.

And overall during lockdown, people in Scotland shopped for food less often and bought more from discounters, smaller retailers and convenience stores than over the same period in 2019.

Read more about cooking during lockdown

How we’ve fallen in love with food again in lockdown and the lessons we can learn around waste

‘I feel incredibly lucky to eat the way I eat’: Top Fife-born catering chef Barry Bryson on life amid a pandemic