Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Sweet Temptation

‘The only thing I can’t resist is temptation,’ wrote Oscar Wilde. Standing in front of the display of cakes and pastries at Torelli’s - my local café - I am sorely tempted. There are butter croissants, pains aux chocolats, frangipanis, pains aux raisins, flapjacks, fairy cakes, jam doughnuts, apple and apricot Danishes, a carrot cake, and a soft cheesecake on a delicious biscuit base. Can I resist?

A voice inside me says, “Don’t succumb!”, but immediately another counters with, “Why not? Just one with your coffee. What difference will that make? Start your diet tomorrow. You didn’t eat any yesterday and you didn’t have a big lunch today. You deserve one!” As I stand in line waiting to be served, I am amazed at how imaginative and insistent this part of me is as it tries to persuade me. “Your coffee will taste better if you eat something sweet with it. Besides, you’ll be supporting your local café and helping to pay the salaries of the baristas who count on your custom. You wouldn’t want to let them down, would you? It will make them happy if you buy one.”

There is an air of desperation about this Sweet Tooth self - almost as if it is afraid of what will happen if I don’t indulge. I can feel the muscles in my stomach tense. Will I give in…..?

I grew up in a home where there was always a ready supply of homemade cakes and tarts. My mother loved to bake and no teatime was complete without something deliciously sweet on the table - a Victoria sponge cake, strawberry jam tarts, a coffee cake or a fruit cake. And then there were the desserts that rounded off the main meal of the day - rhubarb crumble with custard, lemon meringue pie, sherry trifle with cream, bread and butter pudding…. It was my mother’s way of expressing her love, and so long as she continued to provide I felt nurtured and safe. Whether through her influence or because of a genetic predisposition, Sweet Tooth has exerted a strong influence on my food choices throughout my life.

I have noticed that whenever my normal desire for cakes, pastries and biscuits increases it’s a sign that parts of me are feeling anxious or vulnerable. Rather than consciously dealing with whatever it is that’s causing these feelings to arise, Sweet Tooth has me head for the nearest patisserie or put a couple of extra boxes of chocolate biscuits in my basket at the supermarket. The sweetness acts as a palliative, a kind of self-nurturing that provides a measure of comfort and a temporary relief from my inner disquiet.

In the past few months, since my partner left for an eight-month stay in his home country of Thailand, my consumption has risen significantly. Of course, he and I are in regular communication via phone, email, Skype and text, but that does not satisfy my need for physical connection and intimacy. I miss him and in an effort to mask the feelings of loneliness and emptiness Sweet Tooth has made a daily ritual of the trip to Torelli’s and its ‘irresistible temptations’.

In the last week, however, something has changed. Results back from a regular medical check up found that my cholesterol levels are much too high. A consultation with my doctor and an in-depth discussion of my eating habits with a nutritionist pointed to an irrefutable conclusion: I have to give up cakes, pastries and biscuits. Family history makes it imperative - my mother died of a stroke and my father of a heart attack. It is obvious that my health and longevity depend on my ability to change my diet.

So now there is a new voice in my head, a voice I am calling my Aware Eater. He is there all the time, looking over my shoulder, advising me what to eat and what not. He takes his rules from the nutritionist: cut down on fats, especially saturated fatty acids; and as for hydrogenated fats and trans fatty acids, they are out completely! He has me read ingredient and nutrition labels on everything I buy and if I transgress, his friend, my Inner Critic, gives me an earful!

As I stand wavering in front of the display in Torelli’s it is his voice that is telling me not to succumb, tightening my stomach in resistance. “But if you don’t eat something,” says Sweet Tooth, “you’ll be overcome with longing for your partner.” “Eat the chocolate croissant and you’ll die young,” comes the repost from Aware Eater. I feel stuck between a rock and a hard place. These selves are at war in me!

Realising that whichever decision I make I am going to upset one of them, I take a deep breath. Time to place my order. “Hi John,” says my favourite barista, Camillo, “Your usual large coffee and a pastry?” “Just the coffee today thanks,” I reply, “I found out that I have high cholesterol. I have to change my diet, so I’ve decided it is just one pastry a week from now on.”

As I sit and drink my coffee I congratulate myself on being able to stand between Sweet Tooth and Aware Eater and make a conscious choice. I realise that apart from giving me knowledge that may well prolong my life, the gift that high cholesterol offers me is an invitation to take more care of my feelings around my partner’s absence and nurture my younger selves in more healthy ways.

Is it my imagination or does this coffee taste more delicious that usual?