‘Inspir-age-ional’ Women: Janey Meets Kale & Cocoa

It was Autumn when we discovered the fabulous Annabel and Susan, who together make up Kale and Cocoa – a brilliant, warm and inviting healthy ageing blog that we adore.

We were thrilled to catch up with them and get the lowdown on what it takes to launch a successful blog, balancing family and business and working as a partnership; if you’ve ever wanted your own blog, these are the women to watch!

susan and annabel

Hi Annabel and Susan – we love your site! First off, can you tell us how you met?

We met – in classic Mummy Blogger style – when two of our daughters attended nursery together. Lots of things bonded us together, in addition to motherhood: a love of books, a passion for cooking and a desire not to age as our parents and grandparents had done.

We had both seen our forebears suffer age-related degenerative diseases and were determined to reduce our risk of going the same way.

Did you both always cook?

We both love to cook – and have families to feed! When we were in our twenties, Annabel was a finalist in the Elle Magazine Cook of the Year competition and Susan published two cookery books – A Survival Guide to the Student Kitchen (still in print – and Editor Kirsty owns it!) and Fun Food, Gourmet Games (with Johnny McCune).

We find cooking inspiring, energising and creative – and strongly believe that home-cooked is best.

nuts

Where did the interest in late-in-life nutrition come from?

Susan: For me, it grew out of a personal tragedy. My mum was diagnosed with severe dementia while I was in my mid-30s, and I spent more than 12 years caring for her, until she died in late 2015. So for all those years I juggled a full-time job, a growing family (my younger daughter was a new-born when my mum was diagnosed) and my responsibilities as a carer. It was hell.

What made it even more poignant was that as a teenager, I’d watched my mum care for her mother, who also had dementia. With two daughters of my own, I couldn’t bear the thought of them going through the same thing. And then I came across a stat that has (I hope) changed my life:  A healthy lifestyle at 50 can reduce the risk of dementia by up to 90%.  Suddenly I felt so positive: there was something I could do to possibly prevent my family story playing out in the next generation as well.

Annabel: A similar story for me, but with an added personal health twist. My grandfather died of cancer within months of retiring, and I decided I didn’t want that to happen to me.  Then my grandmother was diagnosed with dementia.

She lived for another 20 years while my mother cared for her, but during that time she did little but watch daytime TV.  I realised it wasn’t living longer that was important but having a full and healthy life (we use the term healthspan).  At the same time, I was diagnosed with a chronic, incurable disease (Inflammatory Bowel Disease) and realised I needed to pay more attention to my own health. Blogging kept me on track.

When did you decide to work together on the site?

In Spring 2014 I wasn’t working, Annabel wanted to make use of her photography and writing skills and we both wanted the opportunity to write and think more about how to age healthily. The blog started as an outlet for us really. We never envisaged it would grow in the way that it has!

soybean

Where did the idea for a site based on ‘food as medicine’ for older people come from?

Susan:  I was reading so much about healthy ageing – it sort of became my therapy when things were really tough with my mum – and I wanted to share what I was learning with other people in the same boat. I felt so uplifted and empowered by the idea that I could make a difference to how I aged, I wanted others to have that knowledge too.

Annabel: I’d always been interested in health – and particularly eating, which I love! – but when we looked online, nearly four years’ ago, there wasn’t anything aimed at our age group.  Everything was about clean living and featured beautiful glowing twenty-somethings and long complicated recipes. We were dealing with small children, teenagers, difficult husbands, elderly parents and we had no time for ourselves – these are very different pressures. We wanted to write and compose recipes for readers in the same boat as us.

Can you share with us some of your big ‘success stories’ with following a healthier diet?

Susan: The weird thing about this is that we won’t really know what success is until the very end of our lives! Actually, the most important thing I have learnt is that ageing well isn’t just about a healthy diet. Exercise, sleep and socialisation are also key. I’ve had to work really hard on my ‘sleep hygiene’, making sure that I start to wind down an hour before bedtime, keep away from sugary foods, alcohol and social media so my brain can relax!

But we’re using ourselves as guinea pigs in this whole project and since we started focussing on our health we feel (and look) better.

Annabel: Can I add that Susan looks amazing?* She looks at least ten years younger than she is.  I like to think that’s partly due to what we’ve learnt researching and blogging! For me, I’ve had a few success stories.  When I started the blog, my hair was falling out in handfuls.  It’s stopped falling out now. Secondly, my sleep has really improved.  I was a terrible sleeper but I’m sleeping better now. Thirdly, my immune system is much stronger.  I used to spend the winter with a succession of colds, coughs and sore throats. Last year, I caught one cold.  It was a revelation. Lastly, my gastroenterologist says he’s never seen my guts in such good shape!

Susan: *Annabel also looks amazing!!

A healthy lifestyle at 50 can reduce the risk of dementia by up to 90%.

When you’re not working on the site, what else do you both enjoy?

We both have full-time jobs. Susan is a TV producer and Annabel is a writer – her first novel, The Joyce Girl, was published all over the world and her second, Frieda: A Novel of Lady Chatterley, will be published in September 2018.

We do really work hard to practice what we preach and make time to exercise and relax. We’ve both got dogs and are often found tramping around our local parks and woodlands, enjoying what is called ‘forest bathing’!

It sounds mad but there is some fascinating research into what the Japanese call shinrin-yoku. This translates literally as ‘forest bathing’, which has been found to lower the heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and cut the production of stress hormones like cortisol.

It seems that when we walk among trees (particularly ever-green trees like pine and fir) we inhale phytoncides, essential oils found in wood, plants and some fruit and vegetables. Japanese researchers have found that phytoncides have a marked effect on immunity, while other studies found that people were better rested and had lower levels of stress, anger and depression after a walk in the woods.

Annabel takes her family on huge hiking holidays twice a year and plays a lot of table tennis, one of the best sports for the prevention of dementia, according to experts, see our post here.

And of course, we spend a lot of time cooking and reading!

What advice do you give to women looking to use their diet to feel healthier and have more energy?

Be good to your gut: the health of our microbiome has an incredible impact on our health. Enormous strides have been made in this area of research in recent years: five years ago almost no one talked about gut health, now it has gone mainstream.

Supporting a healthy, diverse flora in our gut has been linked to a reduced risk of dementia, cancer, arthritis and other inflammatory diseases. Our gut is critical to a well-functioning immune system and an increasing body of research links it to our mental health as well.

The gut really is our second brain: when gut microbiota doesn’t function at peak capacity, it can result in inflammatory responses that may affect the nervous system and brain function. So, essentially, a healthy gut is a happy gut. Eating a wide range of minimally processed foods, whole grains, vegetables and fruit, supports our gut function.

We’ve also added live probiotic yoghurt and fermented foods to our diets: kefir (a fermented yoghurt drink), sauerkraut and kimchi (spicy Korean vegetables) are all staples for us now. These products are packed with friendly bacteria – our own microbiomes are always looking for new chums to hang out with and thrive on a regular delivery of probiotics.

The fermentation process produces these probiotics and tasty food too. Most traditional diets from around the world include fermented foods – like miso from Japan and Sauerkraut from Eastern Europe – which have been revered for centuries for their health-giving properties.

Refined sugar can upset the delicate gut flora, which we don’t want. We both feel that reducing our sugar intake has had a huge impact on our energy levels. Refined sugar has no nutritional value – other than calories – and causes spikes in insulin levels which leave us all depleted. Avoid!

nuts

Can you share some examples of foods that support particular challenges for mature women – such as menopause, bone density or memory?

We read hundreds of reports about nutrition and healthy ageing and find much of the advice is contradictory. But the foods we eat pretty much every day are:

Blackberries and blueberries (frozen at this time of year)

Green leafy vegetables – we called the blog ‘kale’ for a reason

Nuts – we’re nuts about nuts and eat every variety

Pulses – an unbeatable source of fibre  and protein

Whole grains – endlessly versatile, packed with fibre and vitamins and keep us feeling full

Kefir or yoghurt – for the gut and to increase bone density

Soybeans, miso, soya milk, tofu.  There’s a reason Japanese women don’t have hot flushes and nutritionists suggest it may be their soy consumption

It’s really critical that mature women get enough vitamin D – One in two British women over the age of 50 is now thought to be harbouring Osteoporosis.

Research has linked Vitamin D deficiency to obesity, dementia, colorectal cancer, multiple sclerosis, asthma, heart disease, high blood pressure, poor immunity, SAD, depression and bone ageing. Sadly, very few foods contain Vitamin D:  Oily fish, egg yolk, mushrooms (Portobello or Maitake contain the most) and fortified foods (such as bread and cereal where Vitamin D is added during processing).

Foods containing Vitamin D and calcium are the golden ticket as the two work together to strengthen bones.  Tinned oily fish that include bones should be top of every older woman’s shopping list. Annabel and I love tinned sardines on toast for lunch – very cheap too!

Can you share your favourite recipes with us?

Our favourites on the blog are the ones that that whole family enjoys – getting children to follow the Kale & Cocoa diet can be a challenge on occasion!

Some favourites include our Italian Bean Stew (we both cook this nearly every week!), our Quinoa and Walnut Chilli and our Almond Dipping Sauce (very popular with our followers too and it goes with everything).

You’ve just announced your first book – congratulations! When do you anticipate it being published?

Thank you so much – we are very excited! The book is based on the blog but will have a different format, and will be packed with top tips for healthy ageing – all based on the latest scientific research.

It’s called “The Age-Well Project” and will be published by Piatkus in Spring 2019.

It’s really critical that mature women get enough vitamin D – One in two British women over the age of 50 is now thought to be harbouring Osteoporosis.

What advice would you give to a 50-year-old woman looking to push her career forward?

Just go for it – at this stage, what have you got to lose? Do make sure your skills are up to date though and think about what you’ll need to know when you get up and running.

Before we started www.kaleandcocoa.com Annabel had done a photography course and I had been working on a BBC Current Affairs programme that involved lots of multi-platform interactivity. I made sure I learnt as much as I could from the (very young!) social media whizz kids around me, so I could put it into practice when we started the blog.

Be forthright. I never imagined that I would get a literary agent and a book deal at 50+ but we believe in what we are doing, had the confidence to put ourselves out there and it worked.

Whatever you are doing, think about your ‘brand’ – what are you selling, and who to? Why are people going to want to hire you? Be very clear on your USP: we know there are lots of healthy lifestyle blogs out there but most of them are aimed at younger people who want to get the ‘glow’.

We’re very clear that we’re more concerned with reducing our risk of dementia, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other age-related degenerative diseases, based on the latest scientific research.  The glow is an afterthought (but a very nice one!).

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