At last, I’m breathing out a bit – looking back through Mal’s camera roll I realise we haven’t had a Midlife lately for ages so let’s have a catch-up (and I warn you it’s a long pot of tea/glass of wine one). There are times when I really don’t feel like having my photograph taken but in the long run, it’s great that he snaps away when we’re out and about because it gives me a record of ordinary times that would otherwise just disappear. So here’s an end of year thank you to you Mal – without you this blog would be all words and no pictures. This Midlife lately will take us as far as the beginning of December. I’ll stop there because I know most people are too busy to read long posts at the moment so I’ll tell you about our trip away next Tuesday. I am though, going to end with my first thoughts on the Zoe programme because I know a few of you are wondering about starting it in the new year and I promised you an honest opinion.

Midlife lately – an overdue catch-up

The transition from the end of summer to December is always a bit of a blur for me and anyone else who works in retail. If we didn’t have our trips over to Newcastle these months really would just be the cliché of eat, sleep, work, repeat. I can’t decide whether I prefer the way my working life has changed since lockdown with far fewer meetings in person or not. I don’t miss the travel but I do miss the contact, especially the off-agenda conversations which are how relationships are formed and also the best way of getting to the root of the story behind the information that is presented. However I think for a lot of us it’s time to accept that this is how it will be for the remainder of our careers, work won’t go back to the way it was and so we now just have to adapt. I know that as I move into 2024 I’m thinking hard about that and whether there’s a better balance than the long hours I currently spend at my desk punctuated by the opportunities to escape that I seize with both hands when they come.

And it’s that feeling of escape that you can see here – even though it’s nothing more exciting than our first stop in Newcastle when we arrive by car and stock up on tasty treats for ourselves and mum-in-law too. We then go straight to see her and catch up on her week while she tucks into the goodies. She’s having a good run of health at the moment (touch wood). Amazingly her Alzheimers/Dementia doesn’t seem to have progressed this year so it seems that she made the right decision when she insisted that the medication was doing more harm than good. She’s forgetful of course but we notice that she never forgets the things that matter most to her. She now goes to two different day centres and has made lots of new friends, she sees them independently as well and it’s given her a spring in her step. They say that loneliness can be a big cause of decline in old age, that contact with family isn’t enough and we now wonder if the lack of friends of her own age was what was behind her sudden downturn last year.

thoughts on the Zoe Programme

Jumper; Boden suede skirt AW21; LK Bennett boots AW19

I’ve no idea why Mal took this photo – he was probably just hoping to distract me from the fact that my favourite shop was behind me.

first thoughts on the Zoe Programme

Jumper; jeans; silver boots

However much we travel I maintain that Fenwick’s is the most interesting department store in the world. You have to love the ultimate Geordie partnership that they’ve had going on this month with a gourmet Greggs pop up. (If you’re an overseas reader, Greggs is a chain of very simple pie shops that comes from Newcastle but now has McDonalds style outlets all over the UK. It’s particularly well known for its entertaining social media posts which are a daily dose of Geordie wit @GreggsOfficial. Follow it, it’ll make you smile).

Anyway back to Fenwick’s, ‘Bistro Greggs’ serves Greggs icons in a French inspired setting. So they’ve done things like replacing beef wellington with a Greggs steak bake accompanied by truffled dauphinoise potatoes and green beans with almonds…

thoughts on the Zoe Programme

…or for breakfast, Greggs Benedict – a Greggs Sausage, Bean and Cheese Melt reimagined by Fenwick chefs – all served under a silver cloche by waiters wearing Greggs aprons. Sadly we haven’t managed to try it but for me it sums up the beauty of Newcastle and the fact that you rarely notice social barriers, the whole city spins on a foundation of warmth, inclusiveness and humour.

We love the arts scene in Newcastle too, this was an Adidas Spezial retrospective with sneaker styles going back to the 60s featuring collaborations with just about every key figure in popular culture over the last 60 years. We were going on afterwards which is why I was dressed for an evening out.

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic, going out outfits

Hush biker jacket 2016; Satin shirt (gifted Aw23); Wide leg jeans; Hush boots 2017

And this was the morning after, it was the beginning of November and still not chilly enough for a coat – hard to imagine now.

first thoughts on the Zoe Programme

Jumper (gifted AW23); Me+Em flared jeans SS22; Trainers – Nike Air Max 95 (limited edition, sold out)

We’ve moved on about three weeks here. If I can time meetings well, I travel down to London by train from the West and back up the East coast just to avoid the hell of taking two Avanti trains in a week, LNER is so much more efficient. Mal drives over and then walks up to meet me at the station; I was on the very last train back here and thrilled to have arrived. I won’t go on about the beauty of Newcastle’s station again, you’ve heard it all before but you can’t beat the approach across the Tyne and my heart lifts when I see our apartment through the train window.

thoughts on the Zoe Programme

Baukjen blazer (Aw22); Duffy navy cashmere jumper (AW19); Navy trousers; Trainers

There was a new exhibition that we wanted to see at the Baltic Gallery which is quite literally on our doorstep so we popped out for a lunch break – very different to my muddy dog walking lunch breaks at home. One thing I’m really noticing, especially in my trips down to London, is the gradual return of skinny jeans so I’ve dug mine out this season and I’m wearing them now and again just for a change of pace. You remember how easy they are on very wet days, tucked into boots and worn with a long coat like this.

Nikki Garnett Midlifechic winter style

Hush coat (AW18); H&M jumper (AW16); Hush skinny jeans (AW17); Boots (gifted Aw23); M&S bag (AW19)

And this was our first Christmas event, a party at the Biscuit Factory which is the UK’s largest independent commercial art gallery and always a bit of a dangerous stop off for us because we end up falling in love with something. If you’re looking for a great piece of art it’s worth visiting Newcastle just for this.

first thoughts on the Zoe Programme

Hush biker jacket 2016; Black seam detail shirt (gifted AW23); barrel jeans; silver boots

We went straight on from there to see Craig Charles at Wylam Brewery, it’s the third time we’ve seen him and it’s hard to get the euphoria of a funk and soul crowd over in a photo but here you go.

thoughts on the Zoe Programme

Heading out for brunch and a bit of Christmas shopping here. It already seems to have been colder than the last few winters and my coats are getting more wear. This is from last year but I hardly wore it at all, this season I’ve had it on so much that it’s already at the dry cleaners – it’s a while since I’ve had anything dry cleaned so I felt a bit startled by the cost – £15.95! And the upkeep is probably why a cream coat has a feeling of luxury about it.

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic, winter style

John Lewis coat (SW22); Boden black turtle neck (AW22); Boden silver mini (AW22); black LK Bennett boots (AW18)

I remember telling you about the ‘Lost In Music’ concert that I’d been persuaded into that night. Some of you will probably have seen it because it’s been touring the UK, it’s basically a tribute band playing 70s hits. I don’t think anyone loves 70s disco as much as I do but I just can’t quite get into tribute bands, the performance was faultless but just not the same as seeing the original artists, it was a bit like being at one of those holiday resorts where they put entertainment on. That’s just me though, everyone else loved it and we had a good time, immersing ourselves in Newcastle’s roaring festive spirits afterwards until the early hours. As I mentioned in last week’s post, there was such a difference between the two evenings. At the Craig Charles event when I was wearing black we didn’t meet anyone new but on this evening, everyone we were with decided to use me as their social magnet because people just kept stopping us to ask about my jumpsuit.

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic, style over 50

Jumpsuit (SS20); Gold sandals; Navy fur jacket (gifted AW23)

It was a sofa Sunday the next day other than popping out for lunch.

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic, Winter style

Me+Em leather jacket bought from Vinted; mock neck jumper sold out (other colours here); wide leg jeans; Boden boots (AW21); M&S bag (AW19)

We had yet another night out ahead but a quieter one this time with just the two of us going to see Sophie Ellis-Bextor. So I dug into my sequin box again, slightly worried I’d be a bit overdressed but I wasn’t, in fact I felt quite drab next to some of the gay guys who were there and had gone all out. It was another fun evening where we chatted to lots of different people and my goodness Sophie E-B is a brilliant performer. In terms of spectacle it was the best of the weekend, don’t miss her if you have the chance to see her.

first thoughts on the Zoe Programme

Free People sequin shirt (AW21); Sequin trousers (AW20); Gold sandals; Navy fur jacket (gifted AW23)

Back in our quiet West coast life here, this was the weekend when we set the scene for Christmas at home. The boys had been making ‘witty’ remarks about our need to start being responsible parents again so this picture was just to prove that we were on the case… until our trip away… but I’ll save that for Tuesday.

Midlifechic relaxed winter chic

Hush coat (AW18); Boden jumper (AW19); Jeans; Boots (gifted AW23); Neck warmer

First thoughts on the Zoe Programme

This is one of those moments where as I start to type, I’m not sure what will come out. I started the Zoe programme with the various blood sugar, blood fat and microbiome tests in mid-October. It was about two weeks until the results came back telling me that I had good blood sugar responses, good blood fat clearing levels and a good microbiome. I was particularly surprised when they assessed my diet as good too because while I had the blood sugar monitor on I hit it with all kinds of things, just to see how my body reacted but I suppose that we do generally cook from scratch and eat well. Of course my initial reaction was a sense of satisfaction – after all who doesn’t like to be told that they’re good? But that was quite quickly followed by a feeling of disappointment – I’d been hoping for a silver bullet from the Zoe programme, an obvious issue that I could work on that would have the magic side-effect of helping me to feel even better in myself and also lose a few pounds.

However, there is scope for me to drive my results from good to excellent and so I’ve been following the food suggestions for about five weeks. You’re given a list of foods that score highly (up to 100) for you, they are your own personal gut boosters (hazelnuts, peas, spinach and raspberries for me amongst other things I already love). You also have a list of gut suppressors which can score as little as zero and are to be avoided – goodbye Geordie bangers, (sausages score 5) along with bacon, rice, sweets and any kind of cream – amongst other things I love! So, with all of the personalised information in mind, you log everything you eat in the app to get a daily score with dietary improvements suggested on a weekly basis. There are also daily lessons to follow on the app but they’re very, very basic, in fact they most often feel patronising.

The biggest lessons I’ve taken from it are the easy changes you can make to carbs without forgoing that type of tummy filling food completely. So I’ve swapped out rice (even brown rice scores badly for me) for Merchant Gourmet’s Glorious Grains and I actually much prefer it. I’ve changed pasta over to red lentil pasta and can’t tell the difference. And I add beans to just about every meal. It takes a while for your digestive tract to adjust so you feel bloated and uncomfortable for a few weeks but then there came a day when I looked in the mirror and could see I had my face back. Over the summer it had been replaced by a puffy, round version of me. I’ve only lost 4lbs but my clothes are fitting much better and my sugar cravings have been subdued although I know they’ll always be there.

The Zoe programme is easy to follow when you’re at home cooking for yourself and it does make you feel better. The problem comes when you eat out. You can aim for healthy choices but you feel bad when you put them into the app and it still gives you a low score because it isn’t homemade – and that ruins your meal out, especially when you’ve forgone something you’d really have enjoyed. The low score then pulls down the rest of your week’s performance. And that’s what I don’t like about it – the inflexibility of the gamification and the way that makes you feel. It’s especially infuriating that it takes no account of the amount of activity you expend which feels extremely unscientific for a programme like this.

As far as food is concerned, even though it tells you that you should just be aiming for progress not perfection it plays on your mind, especially if you have perfectionist tendencies like I do and an inclination to beat yourself up if you’re not achieving high scores. There are independent Facebook groups that run alongside it and on one of them, somebody today summed up what I’ve been thinking:

Hello lovely Zoe folk.
I’ve emailed Zoe and requested that my membership is cancelled at the soonest date possible. I am a nutritional biochemist (but it’s 24 years since I graduated and science has moved on) and the Zoe programme is bang on in so many ways. It’s brilliant. I’ve learned so much – a calorie is not just a calorie, we’re all individuals, eat more fibre (especially in bean form), avoid processed foods, eat less meat and more plants and fast overnight. All of these things are fab.
What I don’t like is the gamification of the app and the messaging around ‘bad foods’. Whilst Zoe says that no food is banned, it’s a bit like a playing a computer game that says ‘fail if you like’. That’s not what people are in for.
I wish that the Zoe programme was available for free for people with poor resources that are vulnerable as it would be life-changing. If we could find a way to make fresh food available and more affordable for all and make UPFs ‘unaffordable’ by comparison we’d be laughing.
I had an eating disorder in my teenaged years and became an Eating Disorders Counsellor. EDs are a bit like any addiction, in that you’re never cured and the Zoe programme has triggered so many issues and some of the chats on here have had me in tears.
I know it’s ‘not’ a weight loss diet but so many posts on here are focused on weight. It’s unhealthy to be obese (and I mean that you have excess weight that prevents you living life AND that is supported by stats – high BP etc). Women’s health (90% of us here) is so complex. If you have health issues that you feel that Zoe should solve but hasn’t, do get checked out.
And finally, you are all here, you’re brilliant. The Zoe programme is an ‘experiment’, it’s fantastic – but don’t let it rule your life.
Eat Beans!

So you find me at the midpoint – I signed up for four months and there are another two months to go. It may just be that I’m having a midway dip in enthusiasm so I’ll keep on with it and give you another summary at the end. However I already know that with the lifestyle we lead, it wouldn’t be worth signing up for a year. I think it’s a programme that will work in a different way for everyone. If you rely heavily on ready meals or takeaways and have never really paid much attention to nutrition then it will be mind blowing. If you’re based at home and cook for yourself for about 90% of the time then there’s no doubt that you could follow it and feel really well.

For me though I suspect it will be a case of taking what I can from it and applying some common sense. Really the way that I ate before we had a mad year of travel was the Zoe way, although perhaps with the exception of lots of beans. However it’s reassuring to know that I was on the right track and that my body’s food processing capability seems to parallel that. Christmas will be a challenge but I’m aiming for balance and will probably indulge less than usual – but not completely. Life is short and sharing food and wine with friends and family is probably the simplest and yet biggest pleasure there is. And that basically brings us back to the 80:20 way of living. As well as eating lots more beans!

I hope you have some fun ahead this weekend. I’m meeting up with my oldest friend tomorrow, we’ve known each other since we were Brownies and I haven’t seen her since lockdown so we have a lot to catch up on! And at last the boys start arriving this weekend – the eldest on Sunday, just in time for the village carol service which probably isn’t how he’d planned it but I’m sure he’ll endure our singing one more time.

The middle one will roll up at some point on Tuesday and we have breaking news on that front. He’s just surprised us by announcing that he’s coming home not just for Christmas but for the foreseeable. It’s been harder than he thought to cover his costs in Newcastle and save up to go travelling at the same time so he’s going to see what he can do back here in the land of free board and lodgings instead. As I’m sure you can imagine, Mal will be spending some of the weekend lying down in a darkened room!

He’ll be followed by the youngest fresh from the apparently still hot Spanish sunshine on Thursday. We’ll all be together for a whole week and I feel so excited about it. So as well as seeing my old friend, tomorrow is a ‘putting the tree up and doing the first huge batch of baking’ day. It really is starting to feel like Christmas. I wish you the happiest of festive weekends – I hope each and everyone of you feels at least three little glimmers of Christmas spirit. I’ll be back on Tuesday with my last post for 2023. See you then.

Disclosure: ‘Midlife lately – and first thoughts on the Zoe Programme’ is not a sponsored post

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