Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Red Velvet Brownies, National Arthritis Week and Time for Tea

The fourth ever National Arthritis Week is just around the corner. From the 12-18th the various charities, support groups and professional organisations around the UK will all be doing their bit to raise awareness about arthritis.

Obviously I'm biased but I think it's a great idea. Arthritis affects 1 in 5 people in the UK but remains something of an unglamorous cause. Osteoarthritis is on the increase as life expectancy increases and rates of overweight and obesity rise. The daily pain of living with the condition causes immense suffering yet, too often people are told it is just something they have to put up with or an inevitable part of growing older. 

Similarly auto-immune arthritis is poorly understood: I still get told I'm too young for it or have I tried emu oil/cutting out peppers/doing yoga. There are some amazing new treatments around now and some exciting breakthroughs being made but auto-immune arthritis can still affect everything you do and not just your joints. When I was pregnant I was actually amazed by how few medical professionals understood the condition or the medications and I often felt like I was having to teach them - which isn't something you particularly want to do when you are a mess of raging hormones!

I'll post a bit about all the different awareness raising activity going on but I wanted to start by blogging about Arthritis Care's Time for Tea campaign. They basically want you to get together, have a natter, gobble some cake and raise some money for the work they doing supporting people with arthritis. I remember phoning Arthritis Care's Helpline before I was first diagnosed - I was confused, in pain and slightly at my wit's end. The lovely lady I spoke to gave me some information and basically told me to refuse to leave the GPs until I got referred! Thanks to that advice I got seen by an excellent team and started on proper treatment. So, to show my gratitude, I'm holding my own Time for Tea party and serving these brownies.

It's the easiest brownie recipe ever! There is no melting of chocolate, cracking of eggs or beating butter, which makes it a doddle to make even on a flare-day. Simply stir all the ingredients together and bake for an impressive and delicious red velvet brownie.

Instead of measuring the milk and oil out in a jug, you can pour weigh them directly into the mixing bowl: 1ml of milk is the same as 1g. I’ve not specified the amount of food colouring as I have found red food dyes differ massively - I suggest you add a few drops and give the mixture a stir and then add more as necessary. You want a good strong red colour as the intensity fades in the oven.

You could also make a raffle prize to raise money for ‘Time for Tea’ by mixing all the dry ingredients for these brownies together in a nice jar. Tie a ribbon around the jar and add a label with instructions to add oil, milk and bake.


220g plain flour
150g caster sugar
1 tablespoon cocoa
1tsp salt
200ml milk (you could use almond milk for a vegan cake)
75ml sunflower or rapeseed oil 
1.5tsp baking powder
150g chocolate chips or buttons 
Red food colouring 

Makes 16 brownies

Put the flour, sugar, salt, cocoa and baking powder in a large mixing bowl. Stir the dry ingredients together a few times and then pour in the oil, milk and food colouring. Give everything a good mix and then finally stir in the chocolate chips.

Pout the mixture into a greased 20x20cm baking tin and cook for 25-30 minutes or until the top is shiny and slightly cracked. Remove from the oven and let the brownies cool in the tin for 20 minutes before slicing.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Can following the Paleo diet help arthritis?

The 'Paleo' diet (short for paleolithic) is in the headlines a lot at the moment but it's not entirely new; there have been various similar diets around since the 1970s with names like the 'caveman' diet (always makes me think of Fred Flintstone) and the stone-age diet. Followers of the Paleo diet believe that we should stick to the diet of our ancestors pre-agriculture so plenty of meat, vegetables and fruit but no grains, legumes or dairy. They argue that the diet of our distant ancestors is the one that we are genetically optimised for.

I've lost count of the number of Paleo auto-immune protocols that I have read on the internet purporting to cure arthritis. Usually I try to be fairly open-minded about different dietary approaches but I think a lot of the information available about the Paleo diet is entirely misleading and irresponsible. For a start, the whole premise of the diet is that diseases like rheumatoid arthritis didn't exist in the Paleolithic era because they are diseases of affluence and linked to the consumption of grains, legumes and dairy. However, it is more likely that conditions like arthritis didn't exist simply because life expectancy was so short that acute infections, other humans, accidents or predators got to you before any chronic diseases had the chance to develop. Secondly, there if a lot of mixed evidence on what was actually eaten during the paleolithic period by our ancestors. Hunter gatherers were likely to be a lot more nutritionally flexible than the Paleo diet implies - when you exist hand-to-mouth you eat what is available. Your average cave man wouldn't have had the luxury of turning down available food sources in order to pop to WholeFoods. Equally, our ancestors diet would have evolved and varied over the 3.4 million years of the paleolithic period. It wouldn't have been set in stone (if you will excuse the terrible pun). In fact, recent research suggests that grains may well have been consumed by them. Moreover, if the consumption of grains and dairy is so unhealthy it is unlikely that we would have successfully evolved to consume them in our diets. Humans are endlessly adaptable and a wide range of different dietary patterns are followed successfully by different populations around the world.

For people with arthritis, foods like wholegrains, beans and dairy are an extremely important and useful part of the diet. They provide essential nutrients that help mitigate and protect against some of the effects of the disease. Although there is little robust research on the effects of diet on arthritis, most studies that have been conducted have concluded that a vegetarian diet or a Mediterranean diet may be most beneficial and several longitudinal studies have suggested that high consumption of red meat (as on the Paleo diet) may increase a person's risk of rheumatoid arthritis. A Cochrane Review (the gold standard of evidence in health interventions) suggested that any dietary intervention that involves cutting out food groups (like the Paleo diet) should be approached with caution by people with rheumatoid arthritis due to the risk of deficiencies and malnutrition.

Having said all that,  there are some positive aspects to the Paleo diet. the Paleo diet's insistence that we avoid all processed food and increase our consumption of vegetables and fish is a healthy habit for anyone, including those of us with arthritis. But, if you are looking for a great healthy diet for your arthritis, you don't need to look to the Stone Age to find it!

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Arthritis Friendly Recipe: Quick Berry Crumble

We're very lucky that we live by a bramble strewn park full of blackberries, so for the last few weeks the toddler and I have been picking our afternoon snack and coming home with berry-stained mouths and purple hands. We've picked so many that I've had to begin coming up with alternative uses for all of the blackberries we've scavenged - one of which is this easy crumble. It's barely a recipe - I can put this together even on days when my arthritis is as miserable as the weather and there is nothing quite like tucking into a wholesome, comforting home-cooked crumble.

This recipe is healthier than many traditional crumbles. Rapeseed oil replaces butter and keeps things light and crisp. It's high omega 3 content means it is good for your joints too. All dark coloured berries are a wonderful source of anti inflammatory anti-oxidants. The deep pigments that stain your hands and mouth are a phytochemical called anthocyanin.

Feel free to use whatever berries you have to hand. Frozen fruit works well too - simply defrost it before cooking and bear in mind that it may take slightly less time in the oven as the frozen fruit breaks down quicker. 


250g berries (I used blueberries and blackberries)
1tbsp golden caster sugar (no need to use if your berries are very sweet)
60g porridge oats
10g chopped nuts (or you can use seeds etc)
25g runny honey
1 tblsp rapeseed oil (I used Cooks&Co butter flavoured)
1/2tsp cinnamon (optional)

Makes 1 small crumble or 2 generous individual portions

Preheat your oven to 180C/375F. 

Place the berries in your baking dish and sprinkle over the sugar, if using.

In a small bowl, mix together your porridge oats, nuts, honey, oil and cinnamon until every thing is evenly mixed. Sprinkle this mixture over the berries and then pop the whole dish in the oven. Bake for 30-35 minutes or until the fruit is bubbling and the crumble is golden.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Arthritis Gadget Review: Peta Easi-Grip Knives

I have some shiny new kitchen kit to review today - the Peta UK Easi Grip knife range. If you have not come across Peta before (and not, they aren't that PETA - read their hilarious 'who we're not' page), they are a lovely company who design and make products to make living with a disability easier. I was sent a selection of their knives to review.

What are they supposed to do?

I tested the bread knife, carving knife and all-purpose knife.The knives are designed to make chopping easier in the kitchen. They have wide, non-slip soft grips and an angled handle to help keep the wrist and hand joints in a comfortable position. 

Do they work?

Yes. I'm really impressed by the knives. The thing I was actually most worried about was how sharp the blades would be. If you have ever been at one of my talks, you will know the first thing I say is 'a safe knife is a sharp knife'; a blunt knife makes it harder to cut and requires more pressure. So many knives I try are just not sharp enough to cut with but all three of these knives worked well. I was especially impressed with how the bread knife cut good slices of a crusty loaf.

The grip is comfortable to hold and doesn't add too much weight to the knife. I found it very good for my thumb joints. The knives were also easy to clean. 

My only caveats would be that if you had very bad elbow arthritis (rather than wrist or finger problems) then you might find the knives trickier to use because the grip requires more of the motion to come from there. Also they are a pain to store because of the large handles, although the company do sell a good magnetic rack for them. Finally, I couldn't actually get into my knives at first because I couldn't remove the plastic blade cover without requesting my husband's help. A small niggle but it did cause me several aggravating minutes of cursing - like my toddler when she wants to get into a cupboard but can't!

I was sent the knives free to review but they retail for a reasonable £11.95 each and you can buy them direct from Peta here.

Overall verdict? A 
There are so many supposedly arthritis-friendly kitchen gadgets on the market but very few that you really do feel have been designed and tested by people with a proper understanding of the challenges of cooking with arthritis. With these knives I really did feel like they were made to help with the frustrations of arthritis - not add to them.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Arthritis Friendly Recipe: Sweet Potato Caramel Muffins

These yummy sweet potato muffins are like a cross between a very good sticky toffee pudding and a carrot cake. The dark brown sugar and sweet potato combine to create a lovely gooey caramelly crumb without needing to use as much refined sugar or fat as a regular muffin. I won't lie - grating sweet potato when you have arthritis is not easy. I either get my husband or the food processor to do it! The recipe also uses yoghurt - I actually like them best made with soy yoghurt but you can use any yoghurt except the greek kind (which would make them too dense and fudgy - unless you'd like them like that). You could even use a toffee flavoured yoghurt if you liked but this will add a lot of sugar.

Despite my mixed views on coconut oil and arthritis, I do find it works well in cakey things. Because its a solid fat at room temperature it gives a particularly crisp outer crumb and moist centre to baked goods. I leave it up to you as to whether you want to use it or not...


150g grated sweet potato 
200g wholemeal flour (or you could use gluten-free)
100g low fat natural yoghurt (you can use dairy free yoghurt too - I used soy yoghurt)
2 medium eggs
30g ground almonds
75g dark brown soft sugar
2 tablespoons rapeseed oil or coconut oil
1tsp baking powder
1tsp caramel flavouring (optional)

Makes 12 muffins

Mix the wet ingredients (yoghurt, eggs, oil) together in a jug. 

Put the flour, ground almonds, sugar and baking powder in a large mixing bowl and stir together. Then pour in the wet ingredients and stir until everything has just come together. The batter will seem a little thick but this is a good thing because the sweet potatoes will release moisture as they cook.

Spoon the mixture into a well greased 12 hole muffin tin. Bake for 20 mins at 180C/375F or until they are well-risen and golden. Allow the muffins to cool in the tin for 10 minutes before you attempt to turn them out.


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