Monday, 1 June 2009

Pros and Cons of Brown Rice

At my cousin Gaby’s wedding, only eighteen months ago, I sat next to a man named Hardress. How could I forget a name like that? As we all helped ourselves to insalata tricolore, various pastas, roast, stuffed porchetta and pannacotta, Hardress decanted brown rice, lentils and boiled leeks from a tupperware lunch-box.

“What’s that all about?” I asked him. Hardress was not ashamed of his frugal fare. “I’ve had cancer” he replied. “But I’ve cured it with a macrobiotic diet.” He told me about his former life as an 18 stone bon-vivant, entertaining friends with seven course feasts and quaffing fine wines. He spoke enthusiastically about his macrobiotic practitioner who prescribed a diet specifically for Hardress’ body type. It was a diet that allows only local foods in season, high in grains, pulses and vegetables with absolutely no sugar, meat, wheat or dairy. “Don’t you get bored eating that?” I ask tactlessly. “Not at all” he replies with equanimity, “I love it.”

Several months later my friend Poppy, who is something of a cheerleader for all things alternative-health-and-beauty related lent me a book called Unexpected Recoveries by Tom Monte. It is a wonderful book that not only explains why and how our diet is absolutely integral to our health and happiness but also takes us on a journey through illness and death. The book describes a process of acceptance and ultimately, freedom.

I began to experiment with my own DIY version of such a diet. I guess you could call it ‘Macrobiotic-Lite’. I ate brown rice, amaranth or quinoa on a daily basis. I substituted almond milk for cow’s milk on my muesli. I bought organic vegetables. I cut out sugar. But I’m also a great believer in the middle way, so I didn’t become a prisoner of my eating plan. I would still go out for a Chinese or a curry with my friends.

Then we learned that Gaby had cancer. This was no early stage take a couple of asprin and a few months of chemotherapy type of cancer. It was an aggressive, all consuming horror that they called ‘unknown primary tumour’. In other words “we haven’t got a clue what it is.” By the time they discovered it this unknown primary tumour had spread throughout Gaby’s body, taking hold in her liver, lungs and bones. It had eaten away part of one of the vertebrae in her spine. That meant that she had to wear a very uncomfortable head brace all the time to prevent her neck from breaking.

I read Unexpected Recoveries aloud to Gab. She was already under the care of the same macrobiotic practitioner that had such success with Hardress. Because of the advanced nature of Gaby’s illness he had put her on an extremely restricted diet that seemed to consist almost entirely of brown rice. A few vegetables were allowed but hardly any seasonings, no fruit and no salad. Gaby’s husband Mikele prepared the meals in special macrobiotic methods that involved cooking one thing on top of another and no stirring.

Gaby dutifully ate up her brown rice, chewing each mouthful forty times. She sipped her twig tea. Gaby has always been such a good girl and never a complainer but it became obvious after a while the whole thing was quite burdensome and, finally, it seemed to be a source of some misery. Gab soldiered on nonetheless. She really did her best but there simply was no remedy, conventional, alternative, physical or spiritual that was a match for that horrible unknown primary tumour. It simply overwhelmed her and in October, only three months after the cancer was diagnosed, Gaby died. I sometimes think that she would have been as well off to have had a few slices of chocolate cake and a glass of wine to cheer herself up. But that’s all very easy to say with hindsight.

Ironically, whilst I was in Italy with Gaby I fell right off the wagon myself, noshing on pizza and pasta and guzzling buckets of coffee. I have now resolved to resume my healthy path and henceforth only the purest of the pure shall pass my lips.


I telephone to Roberta, a friend-of-a-friend who is a naturopath. She encourages me in my resolve to abstain from sugar, meat, wheat and dairy. Here is my basic understanding of the SP, possibly somewhat muddled. Sugar, it seems, is pure cancer food. Meat is slow to digest and so one’s liver uses up all it’s resources in trying to deal with toxins released by the rotting meat when it would be better deployed bolstering one’s immune system. I’m not sure exactly what the problem is with wheat except that it is generally held to be a bad thing and all right-thinking alternative people are against it. Milk, I understand, is pumped full of hormones such as oestrogen. Since many breast cancers have oestrogen receptors it makes sense to me to steer clear of milk and milk products.

Roberta also suggests that I buy a juice extractor. “That’s exactly what I’m going to do,” I exclaim. “I’m going to John Lewis tomorrow.” However, Roberta soon puts me right on that misguided plan. The juice extractors on sale in John Lewis are not the thing at all. “What you need,” says Roberta “is a masticating juice extractor. It’s the only way to really break down the fibre of the vegetables and release all the enzymes and nutrients.” “OK” I reply, “where do I get one and how much does it cost?” Roberta explains that the best one is called The Champion. It is available on the internet for a mere £300. “Surely the one in John Lewis will do the trick?” I protest. Roberta adopts a stern tone, “If there is one thing that you should buy, it is this. You will find the money somehow.”