Lifestyle: Food&Drinks

Feel What You Eat, Don’t Eat What You Feel

Dragana Brown is Beige’s new food and health writer. Alex Hopkins caught up with her to talk about the importance of listening to your body and why she thinks diets don’t work.

Dragana Brown has texted me before our meeting, telling me how I should recognise her: “I’ll be the one with blond curls and radiating heart.” I spot her immediately, sitting outside Costa Coffee on Old Compton street, the afternoon sun illuminating her hair. Prefering an independent outlet, we stroll down the road to Maison Bertaux, London’s oldest patisserie and a Soho institution.

Brown orders a peppermint tea, while I opt for my usual Americano – black, no sugar – as we settle down to talk about all things food and health.

“I’ve always been described as a fussy eater, but I don’t think I am,” says Brown, who looks a good 10 years younger than her 50 years, with enviably clear skin and a trim figure. “When I arrived in London I had a number of health issues and my eating habits just changed and grew from there.”

Brown, who comes from the former Yugoslavia, has worked in the food and nutrition industry for almost 30 years. Shortly after moving to London, in the 1980s, she started working at a restauarant in Mayfair. Here she met and became good friends with Boy George. Until the early 1990s the pair ran a highly successful alternative health centre together, incorporating a macrobiotic restaurant, in Kensington High Street. Many of her staff, and customers, were vegans and vegetarians.

“They were not really a healthy or happy bunch,” she admits. “They were very hardcore and I think their eating choices came from the head, rather than the body. My philosophy is all about listening to the body.”

Brown explains that she didn’t eat meat for nearly 20 years, not for any moral reason, but simply because she didn’t feel like it.

“After a while I realised I had done what a number of raw food eaters do – branded myself as a vegetarian. I think the danger here is that we narrow things down and don’t explore other opportunities.”

She began to experiment with what she ate and, over time, deepened her sensitivity to food.

“Boy George and I have had some very philosophical discussions about food. We both noticed that when we go to a petrol station we double check that we put the right kind of fuel into the car, and yet with the body, people so rarely do this. It is also a machine. If you put the wrong petrol in an engine the car will scream and so will the body, but we continue doing this….why?”

About five years ago Brown found that her awareness of what she consumed had increased. This was a gentle process and wasn’t about instigating a strict regime.

“I simply paid attention to the foods that didn’t agree with me. It began as a series of exercises. What would happen, for example, if I cut out Gluten? The result was my energy levels shot up.

“People often ask me if somehting is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for you. I don’t think in those terms. There’s no such thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – it’s a question of whether a particular food is supportive of your body. Do you wake up early feeling great? Are your moods lovely and level? That’s how you measure it.”

There’s a serene quality to Brown. Her voice is soft and gently persuasive, yet she avoids any type of judgment. Her pragmatic approach to food is the antithesis of the intensity I have encountered in some other nutritionists and strict proponents of the latest health fads. I’m curious to know what she thinks of the thousands of different diets that exist today.

“I personally don’t believe in diets. I don’t think they work – we’re not designed to eat like that. Something may work for one person, but not for another. One size does not fit all. It’s about recognising when your body rejects a certain food – it is up the individual. The World Health Organisation may say tomatoes are a healthy food, but if they don’t agree with your body, which is unqiue, then you’d be a lunatic to keep eating them.”

Swigging back my Americano I feel the familiar buzz of the caffeine. It keeps the nervous energy flowing and the tiredness at bay. Fatigue, I suggest, is probably the chief reason I drift away from healthier foods. Surely the occasional fish and chips is harmless – if that’s what my body is telling me I want?

“A friend said to me ‘feel what you eat, don’t eat what you feel.’ So, when we’re tired of course we go for something that is going to boost us, but what we have to do is track back and start paying attention to what it is that gets us to that level of tiredness and look at addressing that.”

Isn’t the main issue that we’re all being pushed to work harder and longer? Society seems to be driven by anxiety and often overwheming pressure.

“Absolutely. Look at the way work is imposed upon us. Everything is for profit and about greed. We have totally forgotten that we’re talking about human beings. Human beings are the players here.

“But we can make a different choice and start turning the wheel the other way round. I always used to be a pusher, a driver, always in fifth gear. Everything about what we eat is related to psychology – how our choices are driven by what we are feeling. This is what we have to look at and what fascinates me.”

You can read more from Dragana Brown in the autumn issue of Beige, out this September. Check out our website for regular tips and recipes.

Words: Alex Hopkins

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