My food history # 12: Critical events and life catastrophes …

In the 1980s and 1990s, life was skipping along …

Then came the dark events – life catastrophes

As well as significant milestones and some major disruptions, over fifteen years from 1998 to 2013,  I lived through several crises and some distressing catastrophes. A crisis, whilst painful, tends to be a temporary situation or turning point (1), whereas a catastrophe is a complete upheaval (2). Both are demanding and stressful. A crisis becomes a priority, demanding attention above all else until resolved and normal life returns. Examples include an acute illness or injury in yourself or a family member, or a period of financial uncertainty. In contrast a catastrophe spans a longer period, can be utterly despairing with intense negative feelings of sadness, anger, fear and turmoil. There is no normal life to return to. Normal is gone. Two of the catastrophes I lived through were our business premises burning down with subsequent relocation and financial distress (2009-2011) and the sudden collapse of my marriage (late 2011).

The stress scale

In 1967 psychologists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe developed a stress rating scale (SRS) that correlated with the risk of developing illness (3). The higher the rating, the higher the risk of illness. Death of a spouse comes in highest at 100, divorce 73, personal injury 53 and so on down to vacation 13 (Australians call them holidays) and Christmas 12. With a score of 150 in a single year there is a moderate risk of illness. Over 300 is high risk. Late 2013 I scored myself. In the year of the fire I scored >500. In the year my marriage collapsed I scored > 450. In 2013 still struggling with emotional, financial and practical ramifications of the end of my marriage, I scored > 400.

I gained weight

In the eight months after the business fire I gained eight kilograms and another two the year my marriage collapsed. After that my weight stabilized at a higher weight but I could not lose the weight I had gained. When I look back I can see I had eaten differently during those years of distress. I was eating out more, consuming more full-milk lattés, grabbing rotisseried chicken, eating more sandwiches and less rice/pasta/ potatoes, having more nuts (‘healthy’ foods to eat on the run), and cooking quick easy stir-fries over slow-cooked casseroles. I said ‘why not’ rather than ‘no, thank you’ more often to cake and ice-cream, although not all that often. I drank more alcohol. I did less exercise. My sleep pattern had lost its rhythm. I was, after-all, dealing with a crisis (then another, then another) so I was not paying much attention. However, on the surface, I was still eating within what is considered a healthy eating pattern: fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes; moderate intake of other foods; no fast-food or ultra-processed foods.

I became frustrated that I could not lose this gained weight.

How did I gain so much weight?

Late in 2013, I sat down and did the numbers on my weight gain. It shocked me how little extra I needed to eat to gain weight. I had gained 20 kilograms in 40 years. That is only half a kilogram a year. Over my lifetime, that translated to ~600,000 excess kilojoules or 30,000 kilojoules per kilogram (4), or barely an extra 41 kilojoules (10 calories) per day. That is negligible, only ~ 7 g of lean chicken or 20 mls milk or 1/10 slice bread extra per day … not exactly what you would call binge-eating.

Even in the period of rapid weight gain, the eight kilograms of gain in eight months translated to ~240,000 kilojoules. This was only an extra 1000 kilojoules per day, easily slipped down with an extra 40 g serve of nuts or two skinny-milk lattés (1½ full-fat milk) or 30 ml oil or two double-shots of vodka (5). Under stress, it was easy to justify having one of these additions each day, or spread out over the week, rather than my usual ‘once in a while’. Some of those food-pattern changes were because I was time-poor (I grabbed nuts, cooked stir-fries); I wanted to connect with people (chats over lattés); or I needed to relax (alcohol). It was so easy to have these few extras without seeming as if I was eating much more or different foods or grossly unhealthy foods.

Facing the facts

Regardless of why things were happening, I had to face facts …

Even though the ‘little bit more’ than normal (under stress) was not that much more than my normal ‘healthy’ diet, the effects (in rapid weight gain) were profound.

I was creeping up to the level of obesity and concerned this may have health effects.

I was still experiencing high stress levels.

I was reaching a turning point, it was not only my life that was in crisis, I was in crisis.

I went to see my doctor

Some blood tests by my doctor revealed my cholesterol level was higher than previous levels that had, until a decade before, been remarkably low for 22 years. I went away from that visit determined to get my cholesterol levels under control. I turned to dietary advice as promoted on the website of the Australian Heart Foundation (6). Remarkably within ten weeks my total cholesterol had dropped 25% and my LDL plummeted 31% (7). Whilst I could not exactly be sure which foods had an effect, either foods I began eating more of (oats, barley, beans, lentils) exerting a cholesterol-lowering benefit, or foods I began restricting (red meat, dairy) no longer having cholesterol-raising effects, I felt quite sure about one thing – changing my diet made a difference.

I was buoyed by this, feeling empowered I could have control over my health by the foods I ate. I decided to re-focus on this aspect. Instead of focusing on or worrying about my weight, I would instead focus on …


This is a series of posts on my food history from my childhood up until 2013.

This is a series of posts on my food history from my childhood up until 2013.
My food history # 1 – My childhood diet – Late 1950s, early 1960s
My food history # 2 – Mid 1960s – First nutrition lessons
My food history # 3 – Late 1960s – Times are a-changing
My food history # 4 – Critical moments – my father
My food history # 5 – Fit 1970s – fibre – fruit – free of sugar
My food history # 6 – 1980s – Critical moments – a health scare – hypertension
My food history # 7 (part 1) – 1980s – Food Sensitivities – shattered ideals of healthy food
My food history # 7 (part 2) – 1980s – Food sensitivities – proving the culprit foods
My food history # 7 (part 3) – 1980s – Food sensitivities – hypertension & biogenic amines
My food history # 8 – The 1980s Healthy Eating Pyramid
My food history # 9 – The 1990s Nutrition studies – low GI – lipoproteins
My food history # 10 – 1990s combining ‘friendly’ with ‘healthy’ – a bland yet healthy diet
My food history # 11 – The 2000s – slow ticking time bombs
My food history # 12 – Critical events and life catastrophes

Disclaimer: Nothing in this article or on this website should be taken as medical or dietary advice. Anyone reading any information provided within should seek advice from their own medical practitioner for any issue, disease, illness or health-related problem they may have. Always seek your own advice from a medical practitioner or dietitian before changing your own diet.


Notes and references:

(1) Crisis 1. a. the turning point of a disease for better or worse, b. an intensely painful attack of a disease;  2. a turning point in the course of anything; decisive or crucial time, stage, or event 3. a time of great danger or trouble, often one which threatens to result in unpleasant consequences. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition. 2010. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

(2) Catastrophe: 1. a momentous tragic event ranging from extreme misfortune to utter overthrow or ruin. Miriam-Webster Dictionary 2. An unexpected event that causes great suffering or damage. Collins English Dictionary.

(3) Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale

(4) Kilojoules in gaining and losing Body weight as fat. 

Body fat: Nutrition textbooks give figures of 1 kg of pure body fat = 37,000 kilojoules (1g fat = 37 kilojoules). However adipose tissue is not just fat and contains some water and other substances so overall 1 kg of body fat translates to approximately 30,000 KJ.
Summarised from Pge 141, Understanding Nutrition. 2nd edition. Eleanor Whitney. Sharon Rolfes. Tim Crowe. David Cameron-Smith. Adam Walsh. Cengage Learning Australia. 2014.

Losing body fat: Losing 1 kg body fat is not a simple matter of reversal of this above equation and the formula for weight loss is much more complex.
Hall, Kevin & Sacks, Gary & Chandramohan, Dhruva & Chow, Carson & Wang, Yun-Hsin & L Gortmaker, Steven & A Swinburn, Boyd. (2011). Quantification of the effect of energy imbalance on bodyweight. Lancet. 378. 826-37. 10.1016/S0140-6736(11)60812-X.

(5) Kilojoule content of foods I have rounded these for simplification.
41 KJ in each of these foods = one of: Lean chicken (7g); Milk reduced fat (20ml); Oil (1.2g); Nuts (1.7g); Vodka (5ml); Bread (1/10 slice);
1000 KJ food = one of low-fat milk (2 glasses); full-fat milk (1½ glasses); oil (30 ml); cashews (40g); Vodka (120 ml ie 4 serves); bread (2½ slices); chicken (170g);
Source Nuttab. Food Standards Australia.

(6) The (Australian) Heart Foundation (AHF) is a charity dedicated to fighting heart disease. On their website in September 2013 dietary advice I read was: To lower LDL: eat foods high in soluble fibre (oats, beans, legumes, apples, pears, barley); eat fish two serves a week and omega-3 fatty acids; eat nuts; reduce consumption of saturated fats and trans fats. To raise raise HDL: become more physically active, lose weight, choose healthier fats (mono-unsaturated and omega 3 fats), eat fish and nuts, drink alcohol in moderation.

(7) The various blood components a doctor may test for and why are described here.

(8) Image courtesy[africa]/



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