In the last 10 years, a theory that had somehow held up unsupported for nearly half a century has been rejected by several comprehensive evidence reviews, even as it staggers on, zombie-like, in our dietary guidelines and medical advice.
April was a chilly old month but now the days are longer, the leaves are out and you might notice your energy levels rising and the urge to get moving. Combined with good diet, regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for your health. It boosts your metabolism and your mood, keeps everything flowing round your body, makes you strong and supple and keeps your heart healthy. However, it’s a minor player for weight loss (20%) compared to how you eat and drink (80%).
Energy balance (calories in vs calories out) has been heavily promoted by the food industry to keep the spotlight off their products. Coca-cola even funded a ‘science’ website (rumbled and disbanded) to falsely blame obesity on consumers’ sloth when it was their drinks’ fault all along. It’s a concept that’s resulted in thousands of people pounding treadmills week after
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week hoping to get slim. Aerobic exercise tends to increase appetite and people reach for the quick hit of a sweet snack/drink. “I’ve run so I’ll eat cake!” The truth is you can’t outrun a bad diet.
Simply reckoning calories doesn’t work because they don’t all have the same effect. What matters is the type of food you eat and the hormones your body makes in response. Every time you eat something sweet, you produce insulin. Insulin makes you store fat. And it stops your stored fat being released. This is the opposite of what you want.
Try strength training (sadly discouraged by some slimming clubs) followed by protein based snacks like cheese or a whey shake. You’ll increase muscle which burns calories even at rest, you’ll lose fat and you’ll gain the more svelte figure you want. HIIT (High intensity interval training) is great too. Check with your doctor that it’s OK for you to do something this strenuous and remember to take rest days if you do these types of exercise. With plenty of variety you’ll gain strength, stamina and flexibility.
So eat well to manage your weight and do some sort of movement every day for your health.
Statistics say thatby now 59% of you will have failed to keep your New Year Resolutions. Well done to the 41% who are succeeding!
Common resolutions were to eat more healthily (22%), drink less alcohol (17%) and learn new things (12%). Losing weight came in at only 9%. Curious then that 48% of the population went on a diet.
The media were overflowing with diet ideas during January. Weight loss related TV programmes filled the evenings; everything from paleo, to 5/2 intermittent fasting to sleeping longer. Leaving aside their quirkier features (like drinking lots of champagne), diets that cut out nutrition left the volunteers feeling terrible. The plans that worked best cut out processed food and drink. I loved an idea one of the participants had – when she saw cakes or sweet things, she pretended they were just cardboard displays so she couldn’t eat them!
Most standard diets work by counting calories (or equivalent points). The deprivation usually gives some quick weight loss but also causes an increase in the production of hunger hormones. So what’s the chance of long-term success? 5%. 95% failure is not a good return on your misery. Don’t blame yourself; regaining weight is a natural famine-recovery response, caused by the diet.
My favourite show was ITV’s Sugar Free Farm. There, away from the temptations of the modern world, a group of celebrities ate fresh-cooked, organic, free-range food (plenty of it) but no sugar. They worked each day in the fresh air. Most of them lost weight, 3 of them around a stone in 15 days. Best of all, they felt fabulous. So for healthy weight loss, ditch sugar, cook your own meals from fresh ingredients and let your excess weight melt away.
Top tip – Don’t be a failure statistic, learn to eat well.
As a child I loved those ‘Dot to Dot’ puzzles and recently noticed books for grown-ups too.
It’s a bit like that interpreting the messages your body sends you about food and drink. The most blatant, like indigestion, demand your attention. You can easily join the dots and avoid trigger foods. When I twigged that white wine = headache, I stopped drinking it. Other messages are more subtle, like aches in your joints or bad skin if you eat too little fat or the wrong type of fat. You might miss them when you’re busy getting on with your life.
Sometimes it’s easy to see that diet and lifestyle go together with other people’s health and well-being but not to make any connection between what you eat and how you feel yourself. I suffered unnecessarily for years feeling tired and miserable and carrying excess weight without any inkling that the diet I thought healthy was actually doing me harm.
Breakfast and lunch have a big impact on your day so it’s useful to learn what your body thinks of them. Experiment a bit – porridge, protein smoothies, full English. What time of the morning do you start thinking about having a snack? Ideally it’s better not to be snacking. Is your breakfast so good you don’t need to eat again for 4 or 5 hours? My favourite green smoothie lasts me for 6h.
Try different lunches to find out how alert you are in the afternoon. Do you feel better after a salad than a sandwich? If you have a hot lunch, are you sharper when you leave out potatoes and pastry? Once you join the dots you can adapt your routine, feel better and enjoy life more.
If you want to weigh less, you’ll notice that encouragement to go on a diet can be found everywhere – TV, magazines, banners, endless adverts for food products. Here’s a reminder of why dieting is only a good idea if you’re intent on eventually weighing more after a short-term loss.
The people who say, “Eat less, exercise more” will tell you diets must work because of the law of thermodynamics. Energy in equals energy out. As a scientist I know the law is true and very useful for engines in a stable state. As a nutrition coach I know that it’s not useful as an approach to weight loss. Your body is not an engine in a stable state, it’s wonderfully responsive and designed to keep you alive in times of food shortage. It will hang onto all the fat it can, but break down lean tissue and shut down your metabolism to eke out the little food it’s getting. Have you ever heard that a pound of fat contains about 3500kCal, so you can lose a pound of fat a week by reducing your calorie intake by 500 kCal a day? No. When you restrict your energy intake you end up with less energy. That doesn’t feel good.
Way back in 1917, an experiment showed that calorie controlled diets have this weight loss / weight gain effect. It isn’t your fault – the diet does it. Later experiments confirmed the result and the diet industry has been cashing in on the cycle ever since. Deprivation will almost always (98%) lead to you weighing more in the long term. Jon Gabriel was on the dieting roller coaster gaining more each time until he reached almost 30st and realised he had try something different. He decided to concentrate on nourishing his body and lost nearly 16st without dieting. You can read his story here. Now he’s one of the world’s nutrition heros. Check out this delicious ‘pizza’.
Perhaps it’s because of my professional interest, perhaps it’s because I love food, but I tend to notice the things (good and bad) that people eat on TV. I’m not thinking of cookery programmes which, curiously, I don’t watch. I’m thinking of people eating food incidental to the main theme. Take Gogglebox where families sit in front the TV scoffing biscuits, crisps and other processed, health-robbing snacks and drinks.
Then there’s The Big Bang Theory where an American guy with a brain the size of a planet tucks into takeaways most nights and whose standard order when eating out is a burger washed down with a famous fizzy beverage. He claims to know everything; doesn’t he realise how bad for him all this is?
My favourite in Inspector Montalbano. This Italian detective series is full of grand buildings, fast cars, beautiful scenery and fabulous food. We see the hero relishing dishes at restaurants, enjoying what his housekeeper makes and cooking for himself. He loves to eat and won’t hold a conversation when there’s food on the table. His eyes roll with frustration if the telephone rings when he’s just sat down. He totally celebrates the delights of good food.
Between the programmes come adverts. Of the edible products being promoted, I would advise against eating all but a tiny percentage. The pictures look wonderful – they know we eat with our eyes. To convince you of their natural goodness, they conveniently skip over the gulf between the healthy delicious dish you would enjoy if you made it yourself using fresh ingredients, and their finished product.
Dr Mercola has done a handy table of the characteristics of real food vs processed food products. If you want to be shocked to your core by what happens to processed food, read Joanna Blythman’s Swallow This.
I was heartbroken to watch a four year old girl having 8 rotten teeth surgically removed on Channel 4’s Junk Food Kids – Who’s to Blame? Also featured were a boy with fatty liver disease and an obese 13y old girl whose parents wanted her to have gastric band surgery in preference to improving the family’s diet. For all of these, typical fare at home was ready meals, takeaways,jacket potatoes with baked beans, piles of pasta, pizza, crisps, chocolate and sweet drinks – all guaranteed to pile weight on and rot teeth. The social media backlash accused parents of child abuse for letting their kids eat so badly but the parents were at their wits end. To them processed, sugary diets were normal and they didn’t know what to do to make them better.
Nutrition experts have campaigned many times for governmental control on sugar use by food and drink manufacturers. The government declined arguing that consumers can choose. Can they really? Manufacturers spend huge sums on advertising – and it works. Junk food is cheap, easy, quick and everyone eats it don’t they? Parents are left with a battle on their hands, parental discipline isn’t fashionable and a third of our children are overweight, many with bad teeth, both of which are entirely preventable.
What can we do? It seems the government isn’t going to help us and the manufacturers won’t so we need to support each other in raising awareness so that drinking water and eating real food become normal again. A dentist near where I live has created a Sugar Shock poster showing the amount of sugar in different drinks. It’s brilliant! I had no idea that flavoured milk is worst of all. A local cafe has a lovely Michael Pollen quote on their wall ‘don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognise as food’. What can you do to help spread the message?
Top tip – for the sake of the children, lets help get each other back into real food
How did you get on with your New Year Resolutions? It’s common for people to start January by joining gyms and going on diets only to bail out by the middle of February. Why do we set resolutions? Possibly because we fear deep down that bad eating habits and inactivity are setting us up for a miserable existence of aches, pains, ailments and early death. That’s not a cheery thought so most of the time we sweep it under the carpet. No matter how we feel, we say breezily, ‘Oh I’m fine.’ But something about the arrival of a new year enables us to look at our lives and gives us a desire to make them better.
Change isn’t easy. New Year style change – switching overnight from a life of take-aways slumped in front of the TV to daily running and plates of lettuce leaves, is almost impossible. If we make things too difficult, we set ourselves up for failure before we begin.
The change equation states that to generate enough impetus to start making a change we need three things. 1) dissatisfaction with how things are, 2) a clear vision of the future, 3) some practical first steps. As a coach, I can help you to face up to reality (number 1) and to explore what you want instead (number 2). For the practical steps (number 3), I won’t put you on a diet because diets don’t help you long term and your body needs more than lettuce!
My Eat for a Better Life course includes gradual improvements. Squeeze out bad things by cramming in more good things. Each time you drink some water or have a bit of salad with your lunch, you can feel good about yourself for building better habits.
I’ve seen a lot of adverts for diets lately; they’re designed to take advantage of the New Year motivation boost and the frustrations of having over-done things at Christmas (again). If you’ve ever lost weight on a diet, chances are you put it back on again later (possibly with a bit extra as well). Some people blame themselves for this, thinking that it’s a lack of self discipline. It isn’t true. Some believe that overweight people eat too much. That is sometimes the case but often that isn’t true either.
We’re told that all we need to do is eat less and exercise more. It sounds so plausible. As a scientist, I’m familiar with the law of energy conservation (energy in = energy out). When applied to the human body it’s more subtle and one key factor is the variability of the ‘energy out’ part of the equation. The body has a clever way of slowing down your metabolism to protect you against starvation when food is in short supply. Restrict the energy that goes in (e.g. go on a diet) and your body won’t carry on merrily burning the same amount of fuel as before, it will batten down the hatches and store everything it can.
Foods are not all the same and calories are not all equal. Some foods lead to fat storage, others boost the metabolism and promote fat burning. Limiting intake of bad foods is helpful. Limiting intake of good foods can lead to deficiencies of nutrients critical to good health. Rather than eating less of the same, many people would actually be better off if they focussed less on the amount but ate differently, ate better, ate well.