Free Yourself From Counting

Do you track what you eat? Wear a fitness watch? Like a long streak? Lots of us love a good graph but it can be dangerous too. Achieving measures and collecting data can be addictive – to your detriment.

Calories

When I help people learn to eat well, one of the things that surprises them is the lack of counting. It’s all about nutrients, pleasure, satisfaction and health, caring for yourself with real food, with not a calorie in sight. Calories are all very well as a physics measure of energy but they tell you nothing about biology or how your body uses different types of foods in different ways. Counting them tends to drive people towards bad food choices.

Most diets are based on calorie restriction, even if they disguise that by using measures like points. So dieters head for lower calorie foods and manufactured food-like products. Often these are low in fat, so valuable nutrients are lost.

Natural fats like butter, lard, dripping, olive oil and coconut oil are useful to the body.

  • We need fat soluble vitamins.
  • We don’t absorb minerals as well without fats.
  • Fats boost our metabolic rate so we burn more energy. Depression of metabolism caused by calorie restriction is one of the key reasons that dieters stall/plateau and then regain weight.
  • And fats add flavour which is why low-fat and fat-free products have to be loaded with sugar, sweeteners and flavouring chemicals.

The supermarket section labelled as healthy contains many products that are bad for you.

Food Apps

Pausing midway through a film to boil the kettle, I caught a few minutes of a BBC3 programme about eating disorders. A girl was saying that having put on weight as a student boozing and eating kebabs she started using a food-tracking app. I suppose the same thing happens with these apps as other types of scrolling, addiction to likes and other built-in artificial rewards. It’s all designed to keep you doing the next thing, and the next, making it hard to control or to stop. The girl became obsessed with her food app and lost so much weight her periods stopped and a year later they still haven’t restarted, although thankfully she’s eating again.

Exercise Apps

The same day I had been speaking to someone who had read that the fitness apps, exercise trackers and watches that people wear has made them over-exercise at times when their bodies really wanted to rest and this has exacerbated chronic post viral fatigue (including long-covid).

Like so many things that ‘everybody knows’ the 10,000 steps a day has no science behind it at all. It was marketing by a Japanese company that manufactures pedometers. Yes, it’s good to walk. No, it is not good to feel forced to do a certain number of steps each day, regardless of how you feel. And there are better types of exercise that get neglected because apps reward you for consecutive days of doing the same thing. Research shows aerobic exercise on its own reduces your all-cause mortality by 16% and strength training one its own reduces it by 21%, whereas if you do both, you reduce your all-cause mortality by 29%.

Not only that but exercising every day can be counter productive. The benefits come during the recovery phase, so you need days off or to change the part of the body you work on. Here’s a study showing muscle weakness caused by 3 days of consecutive exercise.

When I was competing internationally (and also had a very demanding full-time job) I kept records, even created a visual monthly training records chart to identify training patterns leading to better performance.

I certainly trained at times when it would have been better not to – even when injured, which caused me damage as well as pain (more fool me).

The morning of writing this blog post I slept in. Weirdly, even though I work for myself, I still feel guilty about things like that, such are the expectations on us to work hard all the time. But truthfully, with plenty of time to prepare for someone coming later in the morning, it wasn’t a problem. No need to crack the whip.

It’s a part of human nature to push ourselves to do more and now it’s been made worse by tech.

Time to take back control of our lives and not be told what to do and when to do it. Ditch the apps sometimes – at a weekend or for a week or a month or forever.

Time to listen to our bodies, be kind, recognise that we change day to day and sometimes rest is good.

Be Free From Counting

I help people to change their relationship with food so that they are not trapped in a prison made of numbers. Your body’s needs won’t be the same every day or in every situation. There’s no need to be trapped in a rigid ‘on it – off it’ diet mentality. Rather than fighting against yourself with miserable, strict denial you can listen to your body and provide nutrition in a caring, flexible way.

Top tip: Set yourself free from the tyranny of counting.

Keep Calm and Soothe Your Immune System

Christmas is only days away but due to the restrictions it won’t be the merry one we know and love. I’d be grateful for any ideas on how to hold a large family party on Zoom!

We’re coming to the end of the worst year most of us have ever experienced. A world-wide annus horribilis. And it’s taken its toll.

In the summer I spoke to someone who does thermography scans. She has noticed that all the scans this year shown people’s immune systems were over-stimulated. She thinks it’s a result of all the anxiety.

What can we do?

Your nervous system has two parts.

  • One part responds to threats using fight, flight or freeze.

  • The other part deals with rest, repair and digestion.

We need both in balance.

The threat response part is only supposed to work in short bursts -followed by recovery. This hasn’t changed from ancient days when we had to run from danger.

This year our threat response has been in action big-time, for months. We feel that we’ve been under threat this whole year.

Fear of the virus; fear of lockdown consequences like job losses, business closures, home losses, inability to pay bills, uncertainty over the future; stress from being physically cut off from those we love and who support us emotionally; stress from being shut in with those who abuse us; stress from children being out of school and all the exam chaos; stress from losing trust in the government and its actions; grief for the loss of friends, family and the things that enrich our lives like sports clubs, choirs, restaurants and theatres; misery for not having anything to look forward to and no end in sight.

The list is endless and the fall-out is only just beginning to emerge.

It’s no good pretending that everything is fine.

It isn’t.

All is not well.

And it’s right to acknowledge how you feel at each moment in time.

It’s also good to do things, even little things, that help in any way.

Here are some ideas:

When we get stressed, our breathing changes. Fortunately this works both ways so deliberately changing our breathing can make us become calmer. By using the link between your breathing and your nervous system you allow your body to do some resting, digesting, healing.

Here’s a nice breathing exercise (it’s part of a talk on the body-mind connection from the Public Health Collaboration Virtual Conference).  Start at 28minutes 30 seconds to hear the explanation then do it for a few minutes a few times a day, perhaps even more slowly than Joe’s description.  Try it just before you eat so you get maximum nutrition from your food.

Chronic stress increases the hormone cortisol. That makes us hungry so some of us have put on weight. When my Father was dying in the spring, I wanted to eat all the time. I called it my ‘grief gut’. You can get back to proper appetite balance by calming down (as well as ditching junk and eating real food of course).

You will have some personal favourite activities that get you into a relaxed state. You’ll know when you’ve found what’s right for you – time will cease to exist, you’ll feel in the zone, you’ll be so absorbed you won’t notice anything going on around you.

I’m a fan of mindfulness, which is all about noticing how things are, moment by moment, without trying to change them (see this little mindfulness video).

Most people feel good doing yoga or T’ai Chi. It’s necessary to be fully engaged in balance and movement when you stand on one leg – or you fall over!

TV can veg us out but often doesn’t calm us; it’s too passive and lots of programmes feature people being unkind or shouting which will trigger your subconscious defences even more. Try Slow TV, listen to the birds in your garden or mellow out with a nature video – here’s one of a woodland stream (with no birdsong – videos with birds are available!).

The right music works magic too. If you’re up-tight, your brain might reject gentle music, so start with something quite fast, easing it down gradually.

Visually relaxing activities include jigsaws, art and needlework. Stick a bird feeder on your window for delightfully entertaining action to watch.

Getting physical with exercise, gardening, walking the dog or even cleaning the house might work for you. (Take care not to do too much; extreme exercise is like another threat and depresses your immune system.) Gentle stretching helps release muscle tension. Mindful walking in nature gives you physical, mental and visual calming in one.

Waft away and be relaxed by scent – in the bath, as an aromatherapy massage or in a diffuser (always use essential oils, not factory-made perfumes).

Losing yourself in a good book can take you to another place entirely.

Being creative in the kitchen engages all the senses and you get to eat something wonderful at the end!

Top tip: Ramp up whatever calms you.

I wish you a peaceful, if far from normal, Christmas.

Quote of the Month

He noticed walking down the street that people weren’t smiling.  You’ll see the same thing here, even though we have everything – a roof over our heads, food on the table, clothes, technology.

During the holidays this year, smile and make a note every day of something you are thankful for – or better still, three things.

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And get outside – even if you just sit in your own garden or visit the local park; anywhere with trees and plants to cheer you.

Exercise, Health and a Bit of Balance

May was National Walking Month so hopefully you’ve enjoyed taking the occasional stroll in the lovely weather.

Moving your body every day is a good thing. It’s only a minor factor for weight loss but crucial when it comes to health. For many conditions it’s better than any medicine, even having value in preventing and treating cancer. However, in common with many other good things, more is not always better and too much can hurt you.

I’ll just back up and do a detour to deal with the weight loss thing in case you fell straight off your chair. Food is the main factor for weight loss – not exercise. Weight training and high intensity interval training are best. If you’re one of the 1000s pounding the treadmill every day watching the calories tick, you need to know that aerobic exercise is the worst for weight loss. It generally burns very little and makes you quite a bit hungrier. Even if energy balance worked at all (which it doesn’t), the way diet clubs teach it is very misleading as Zoe Harcombe explains here. The energy you burn, above what you always burn at rest, does not cancel out that bun and a latte in the gym cafe. As Dr Aseem Malhotra says, you can’t outrun a bad diet. What matters for weight is the type of food. Some you’ll burn, some you’ll store. Different foods affect different hormones. But I write about that most of the time so I’ll get off my soapbox and end my diversion. Oh, but while I still have one foot on my soapbox, energy drinks are terrible, especially for children, and no one should drink them. More on drinks next month.

 

OK, where were we? Exercise and Health.

I always ask people on my courses to listen to their bodies. It isn’t something we’re used to doing. Life is all one mad charge forwards regardless of how we feel. We’re driven by external expectations, work, family, social norms. If our bodies complain, the usual reaction is to take over-the-counter drugs to silence the messages.

Most of us recognise that too much work is a bad thing but surely any amount of exercise is good.

If you feel generally snoozy and sluggish, it could be a sign that you need to move more.

France 2009

If you are very tired and exercise doesn’t energise you, it could be a sign that your body needs some recovery. We often underestimate the importance of rest. It can seem a bit soft to take a nap or a day off. When I was on the Great Britain Field Archery team I remember hearing that the commitment to rest is as important as the commitment to train hard.

Shame I didn’t take more notice at the time!

I used to have a stressful job and I used exercise as an antidote. The more stressed I got, the more desperately I exercised. Adding to the burden, I didn’t know then about eating right for your metabolic type. My diet was full of sugar but lacking the fat that I needed. And there were toxins in the low-fat products I ate. I believed the adverts saying they were better for me; how wrong can you be? I got more and more run down and relied too much on cortisol and adrenalin to keep me going. I dragged myself out of bed each day feeling like death and forced myself onwards. You can scrape the bottom of the barrel of your resources for so long but the end result for me was a hole in the barrel. I suffered total exhaustion and chronic fatigue. I was incapacitated for a year and half.

I’m not the only one to fall into the excess exercise trap. Sometimes the consequences are more severe than I suffered and can appear suddenly. I was saddened by the death of a Cumbrian chef at this year’s London Marathon. Here’s a piece about the dangers of over-doing it and how extreme sport scars your heart.

Nowadays I prefer a bit of balance and self care to punishing my body with gruelling regimes.

What do you think counts as exercise? Have you realised it doesn’t have to be done in a special place (eg a gym) or for a certain period of time (eg an hour)? Actually your body is designed for continuous movement and you can include lots of things you might not have counted before. Vacuuming, washing the car, playing with the kids, digging the garden, dancing, walking the dog, doing a few squats while the kettle boils, reaching up to hang out the washing.

I’m a fan of Dr Mercola’s NO dump (developed by Zach Bush). I love Michael Mosely’s book on Fast Exercise – here’s a little HIIT video. And have a listen to this podcast on primal play Dr Chatterjee and Darryl.

Dr Chaterjee’s book The Four Pillar Plan talks about movement snacking and Dr Joan Vernikos explains the need for non-exercise movement throughout the day regardless of whether you do ‘exercise sessions’. Just standing up from your chair every 20 minutes lets your body engage with gravity and brings many health, strength and weight benefits.

Do you take your health for granted? I used to but not any more. Having experienced life without it, health is really important to me now and that’s why I don’t compromise on food, exercise and rest. I don’t want to ever go back to that misery.

Good health is a lot about self care. It’s about getting some exercise every day, but not so much that you burn yourself out. It’s about nourishing your body with good food, but not sticking so rigidly to a dietary regime that it prevents you from living a rich, happy life. It’s about deep sleep, rest and fun. It’s about balance.

Top tips: Real food is good. Exercise is good. Rest is good. Balance is good.

Quote of the Month – May Q3

The benefits of exercise are unbelievable but if you have to exercise to keep your weight down your diet is wrong

Professor Timothy Noakes

May is National Walking Month and this week is Mental Health Awareness Week. Luckily walking is good for your mental health!

Take advantage of the unbelievable benefits of exercise by fitting a bit of walking into your day.

My husband had a great idea for me to do a 20 minute walk to work – even though I work from home!

 

Quote of the Month – May Q2

The right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little, not too much, is the safest way to health.

Hippocrates 2,500 years ago

L0014825 Portrait of Hippocrates from Linden, Magni Hippocratis…1665
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
images@wellcome.ac.uk
http://wellcomeimages.org
Portrait of Hippocrates.
Magni Hippocratis…
Van der Linden, J.A. editor
Published: 1665
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Food, Exercise and Weight Loss

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

Pexels creative commons

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.

Top tip: Move and eat well.

Join the Dots

As a child I loved those ‘Dot to Dot’ puzzles and recently noticed books for grown-ups too.

imag0913-2 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.

p1010452Breakfast 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.

Top tip – Start noticing how food affects you.