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.
I once asked a friend whether she thought I was slim and healthy because of what I ate or in spite of it. Having seen what I ate, she confessed that she thought it was the latter. She believed I was ‘naturally slim’, ‘just lucky’ and ‘got away with’ eating what she saw as lots of fattening food.
Is it true that I’m ‘just lucky’ and can eat anything? No. I can state this confidently because there have been two times in my life when I ate differently and became overweight, and I did more exercise then than now. (I’ll tell you soon what caused my weight gain.) When I changed to the way I eat now, my excess weight melted away. So I know for sure that I am in my current good shape because of my diet.
How did my friend come to have the beliefs in food that caused her to consider my food, which keeps me slim, to be fattening and her food, which keeps her fat, to be slimming?
There’s a lot of confusing information and marketing about foods which influences what we buy and how we eat. It can be hard to make sense of it all. I notice with bemusement that when it comes to slimming, overweight people often consult each other. They ignore anyone who’s slim, thinking that what they eat is irrelevant because they must just be lucky. If I wanted to take up tennis, would I go for lessons with someone who has never learned how to play? No, I’d go to someone who looked as if they knew what they were doing.
Often people turn to the diet industry, but remember that they make their money out of people who are overweight, not people who are slim. Think carefully about your information sources especially when someone wants to sell something to you. Learn the truth and eat in a way that keeps you slim and healthy.
Top tip – it’s diet, not luck that determines your weight.
When it comes to looking after ourselves, we often neglect to take the action we know would be good for us. The fates of others may or may not touch us deeply enough for us to change our ways. Human beings are not great at second-hand learning. We can see clearly in others that a poor diet leads to weight gain and health problems. We hear about people who have have regained their trim figures and vitality by eating well. And still we may stick to bad habits.
For me, it took an 18 month health problem to get serious about food and improve the way that I ate. As an international sports woman and scientist with an interest in nutrition, it’s strange that I needed such a big push. I even defended the ‘recommended’ eating style that was doing me so much harm. Now that I’m slim, healthy and energetic I find it easy to keep eating right and I wouldn’t dream of going back to my old ways.
You can choose to start eating well without going through a personal crisis. To quote Joan Vernikos, a writer on movement and health, “Why wait to be ill before you decide to be well?”
Some people are motivated to reach for a vision of what they would like to be. Other people spring into corrective action when they foresee a possible terrible future from carrying on as they are. A winning combination for change is 1) dissatisfaction with your current situation, 2) a clear idea of how you’d rather be, 3) some practical action steps to take.
As a coach, I can help you explore what you want plus your motivators, blockers and helps. I can also equip you for action with sound, practical knowledge about food.
Top tip: Don’t wait, get motivated; the time to eat well is now.
While I’m in the mood for statistics, I’ll just add one more post, this time about a report I’ve been mulling over for a while – The European Cardiovascular Disease Statistics (2008 which is the most recent edition). It makes interesting reading (if you find tables of numbers interesting).
The diet section of the report starts by stating that ‘It is universally reconised that a diet which is high in fat, salt and free sugars, and low in complex carbohydrates, fruit and vegetables increases the risk of chronic diseases – particularly CVD and cancer.’
It is true that this is universally recognised – but it is fact?
Yes, there were findings linking low vegetable consumption to health problems, but the data presented do not support the notion that fat increases disease. The countries with the highest fat intake have low rates of CVD. Leaving aside the methods by which consumption was estimated, there’s nothing in the eating habits and health of the populations to suggest that eating fat is a killer as we are so often told.
The countries with the highest saturated fat intake were France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Iceland, Belgium and Finland. France has a very low death rate from CVD. Ukraine had one of the lowest fat consumption percentages but a high rate of CVD. This does not support fat as a cause. In fact, France has had the lowest levels of CVD and the highest levels of saturated fat intake since the 1970s so that’s a solid correlation, not just an quirky blip.
Dr Briffa has written about ‘The French Paradox’ of high saturated fat intake and low rate of heart disease. As he points out it’s only puzzling if you start from a stance that considers heart disease to be caused by saturated fat. It isn’t.
What’s really puzzling?
Well, I find myself totally bemused by global messages that don’t match any of the evidence and wonder what it might take for this to change.