The Calorie Fallacy

How do you decide what to eat?

Since the introduction of calories as a measure of food energy content, we’ve become obsessed with them. The government’s official messages at the moment mention nothing else.  However in spite of its popularity, calorific content is a poor basis for making food choices.

A huge and powerful industry makes and aggressively markets low-calorie food products. The BBC showed some years ago in ‘The Big Fat Truth about Low Fat Food’, that these products are not good for your health.

Instead of thinking primarily about calories, I ask the people on my Nutrition Coaching courses to focus on the goodness in foods. Some foods provide nutrients and improve your health. These include fresh meat, fish, eggs, cheese, fruit, veg and natural fats. Good food gives you essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and enzymes.

Other foods are bad for you and your body has to work really hard to deal with them by using up lots of your vitamins, minerals and enzymes and most of your energy too. They leave you with compromised health and feeling exhausted. These include processed foods, biscuits, crisps, donuts, snack bars, fizzy pop, flavoured water and ready meals.

Bad food contains refined sugar, salt, damaged fats, artificial sweeteners and additives. Often processed foods are chemically altered to increase the appeal to your taste buds. They override your body’s ways of knowing when you’ve had enough and you can just carry on eating more and more.

So stop worrying about calories and think about goodness. Ignore the marketing hype which results in low-fat and low-calorie foods being labelled as healthy even if they’re not. Think instead how food can build your health or harm you.

Top tip – eat real food!

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It’s a (Plastic) Wrap!

A spotlight is shining on today’s ubiquitous plastic food packaging. The main motivator is plastic waste in the oceans (think harrowing images from Blue Planet II). A very good reason for change. Another, you might not have thought about, is the effect the packaging has on your health.

Obviously, fast food isn’t good for you – but neither are its wrappers and packages. They contain chemicals to repel oil, grease and water (perfluoroalkyls) which may be linked to infertility, thyroid disease, immune system depression and cancer.

Other plastics (eg BPA, bisphenol A), often used in drinks bottles and as tin can linings, contain synthetic oestrogens which may affect fertility and hormone sensitive cancers.

It was thought that the chemicals would not migrate into the food – but they do (especially if heated). It was assumed that the chemicals would not be processed by your body – but they are. In addition to the toxins in the foods themselves, packaging contributes to your overall burden and these chemicals can be detected in almost everyone.

What about disposable coffee cups? So new, so trendy, so unnecessary! A firm in Kendal has pioneered a recycling process to separate the plastic from the paper. The reality is that only a tiny percentage of the 2.5 billion cups a year

Lovely in a real cup (yes, this really is the size a cappuccino should be -it’s in Italy)

thrown away in Britain get recycled. Why leave the office to buy drinks from shops when you can have a jar of coffee or box of tea bags in the cupboard and make your own in a nice mug? You’ll save ~£600 a year per weekday cup.

Real food tends to have less packaging and is usually cooked in pans, not microwaved in plastic. So for superior nutrition and plastic avoidance, real food’s a winner.

Top tip – Join the crusade against plastic-wrapped food

Quote of the Month

The very inconvenient truth that nobody wants to talk about is that to resolve the obesity crisis, we need to eat less food. And we need to particularly eat less unhealthy food which generally comes in a packet and has a logo on it and is generally owned by a very large multinational corporation.

Dan Parker

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In a dramatic change of direction, ex-advertising executive (promoting the likes of Coca Cola and McDonalds), Dan is a founder and Chief Executive of Living Loud which aims to help people live longer, healthier and happier lives by overcoming, preventing and managing lifestyle illness.  Here’s a piece he wrote comparing the food industry to tobacco and a great article about snacking.

 

Temptation Time

I love Christmas, but not the way it’s been turned into an excuse for weeks of over consumption. How did that happen? Money of course. Promotions start earlier each year – was it September this time? Each of us chooses the degree to which we throw ourselves in. Perhaps you don’t want seasonal excess to wreck your body (and bank balance) completely and decide to partake in moderation. Even if you favour the ‘bring it on’ approach, leaving damage repair for January, you might be supporting a friend who’d rather be more restrained.

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So here are some tips for resisting temptation:

1. Develop an automatic response. Immediately say, “No, thank you”, before you can engage your brain. That feels easy. The moment passes quickly. Gazing at cake/chocolate/crisps and pondering whether or not you fancy some, means you’ll almost certainly have some. If you gaze and ponder and then say, “No” it will take will power and feel like a big sacrifice.

2. Have a mindset that bad foods/drinks are nothing to do with you – they’re other people’s problems. Let your eyes slide over them as irrelevant. Then seek out some real food.

3. Focus on other things. Have a conversation, look at your surroundings, dance, take your attention onto anything you can’t put in your mouth.

4. Be prepared. Find out what might be on offer at any ‘Do’ you attend. Drink some water and eat something good before going out. Have emergency supplies with you (eg nuts or some cheese) in case everything is processed or sugary. Keep supplies at work too, ready for the inevitable appearance of mince pies and chocolates.

Have a look at this hilarious video of children resisting temptation in the famous marshmallow test.

Top tip – Temptation’s coming, so be ready but most of all have a very Merry Christmas.

Quote of the month

The school holidays are almost upon us and there’ll be lots of time to do fun things – hopefully in the sunshine.  Here are some words from the wise about the types of foods we commonly regards as treats.

Treat treats as treatsIce lolly

Michael Pollan

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Don’t treat your mouth like an amusement park

Joe Cross

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Every time someone calls junk a treat, please correct them. We will never make progress until people see eating cr@p as anything but a treat

Zoe Harcombe

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4f/Junk_Food.JPG

 

Sugar Tax

I was delighted to see the sugar tax announced in the budget. Official acknowledgement of the problem is a welcome step in the right direction. Manufacturers love sugar; every one of the 10 thousand taste buds in your tongue and palate, has special receptors for sweetness so it’s very ‘moreish’ (addictive). They wont want to lose their huge profits so they’ll do everything they can to convince us to keep buying. Hopefully a higher price will push people towards water instead.

What happens when we consume sugar? Sucrose is a 2 part molecule made of glucose and fructose. 80% of the glucose part will be distributed round your body to be used for energy. If your body isn’t using energy, insulin mops up the glucose to store it as fat. The other 20% goes to your liver to be safely stored as glycogen. 100% of the fructose goes to your liver, the only organ that can process it, where it will mostly be turned into fat. When you eat whole fruit, the fibre changes the way the fructose is metabolised. So glucose without exercise is a problem but fructose without fibre is worse.

 

Fake food

That’s why I’m disappointed that fruit juice drinks are exempt from the tax. Bought juice doesn’t contain as much goodness as you’d hope but has loads of fructose (one glass might = four fruits).

StrawberriesEating a couple of Kiwipieces of whole fruit a day is fine.

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Might we see increased use of artificial sweeteners? People mistakenly believe that low-cal drinks help weight loss but they don’t. When we eat sugar, our brain recognises the sweet taste and our body gets ready to store fat. When we eat artificial sweeteners, our body expects sugar and gets ready to store fat. When the sugar doesn’t arrive, our brain is confused and we get cravings to eat something. So we take in more food and we mess up the delicate signalling system our body uses to tell us when to stop eating.

For more on the science and the history of how we ended up consuming so much sweet stuff, watch Robert Lustig’s Sugar, The Bitter Truth on YouTube.

Still from video 'Sugar, The Bitter Truth' Robert Lustig

Still from video ‘Sugar, The Bitter Truth’ Robert Lustig (the lbs refer to the weight gain from drinking one daily for a year).

Top tip: Drink water instead of sweet drinks.

Perceptions of Normality

At every point in history, people perceive the things they do as normal, including what they eat. Socially, we have evolved to fit in with what everybody does. In these modern times, we also align our behaviour to the images and messages with which the media constantly bombard us.

Some years ago, there was a successfulCornetto advertising campaign to convince people that sugar was an aid to dieting – “eat a biscuit before lunch or an ice cream”! It seems ridiculous to us now but people bought into it then. The current trend is fat avoidance which we’ll no doubt look back on with disbelief. The sad truth is that experts in marketing can change what we think so that we’ll change what we buy.

Bowl of cerealBreakfast cereal arrived in the UK in 1900 and gained popularity in 1930 but even as recently as the 1950s and 60s, breakfast would have been cooked eggs, fish or meat. Ready meals were limited to Vesta chicken supreme with boil in the bag rice which I recall with misery cooking on a primus stove while camping but would never have eaten at home. Takeaways meant fish and chips carried home wrapped in newspaper. Nowadays people think it’s normal to order by ‘phone and have any variety of fast food delivered to their door.

What’s really normal? For millions of years we were hunter gatherers eating only meat and low-glycemic index plants. Farming started around 10,000 years ago increasing consumption of grains. Intensive farming, processed food and chemical additives burgeoned after WWII. This is the blink of an eye in human history. We have not evolved to the modern diet; our bodies still want natural meat, fish and veg.

Top tip: Eat real food – that’s what’s normal for humans.

Avoid Weight Gain this Christmas

Weight gain seems inevitable at this time of year but if you don’t want to start 2016 fat, tired and ill, how can you minimise the damage?steak salad

Eat as much natural, realS/W Ver: 85.83.E7P food as possible. Buy fresh meat, fish and vegetables and fill yourself with good home cooked meals. Bake your own Christmas cake (nice with a slice of Wensleydale and some almonds) and mince pies using butter and reducing the sugar content.  Make salad dressings, dips and healthy treats (ask me for my no-cook chocolate, seed and nut recipe). Doing a bit of something in the kitchen can be great fun if the family gets stuck in too.

My breakfast green smoothie prior to whizzing

My breakfast green smoothie prior to whizzing

The right breakfast can set you up for the day. Include some protein and fat eg nutty muesli with natural yoghurt, poached egg on toast, home made porridge (not sachets/pots) with flaked almonds and cream or a low-sweetness smoothie (mine is based on avocado and coconut milk).

The worst choices are cereal, toast with jam, fruit juices/smoothies and chocolate which will have you on a blood-sugar roller-coaster for the rest of the day, and craving for more bad things.

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Water

Have a healthy snack before going out and drink plenty of water before and during parties. You’ll be less likely to drink too much alcohol or over-eat. Sugar and vegetable oil are in almost all processed ‘party’ food and will cause weight gain. Soft drinks are sugary and, surprisingly, “diet” drinks also increase weight.

NutsHide biscuits, chocolates, cake, crisps and alcohol in cupboards and leave bowls of nuts, veg sticks and dips in plain sight. Treat treats as treats. Enjoy them but don’t make a meal of them. If you try to abstain and you’re more likely to have a blow-out. Ditch the diet ‘on it, off it’ mentality and allow yourself to have a little. Accept that there will be naughty goodies everywhere you go; you will eat some, and so will I!

Top tip – Eat well and have a Merry Christmas

Vive La France

Did you know that French kids don’t get fat? They have the lowest levels of childhood obesity in the developed world and it’s the only place where it isn’t rising. Children aren’t educated about nutrition and taught to be anxious about food, they are taught the joy of food and learn to love it.

At 2013 July Brendas 6home, the family eats together so children develop a taste for real food, not fake ‘children’s food’. Kids don’t snack randomly but learn to wait. Parents don’t use food as bribes or rewards for good behaviour – it’s for pleasure and nourishment.

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The French rarely buy ready meals or takeaways. Instead, they spend more than we do on real food, revelling in copious amounts of butter, cheese and cream. They consistently have the highest levels of saturated fat intake in Europe and the lowest levels of heart disease. It’s termed the French Paradox; how do they get away with it? But actually there is no paradox. Research, including a review last year by Cambridge University of 72 studies, reveals an “absolute lack of evidence that consuming saturated fat leads to heart disease“. Yet the old school dietitians still cling to the notion and only last month, Nigella Lawson was vilified in the paper for using coconut oil in her new cookery book. But the French aren’t doing something mysterious to cheat the death that their diet deserves; their diet does them good. They look at the British eating processed sugar and oil and think we’re mad.

The French government helps too, with tough policies designed to prevent commercial interests damaging the health of its children. Tax on fizzy drinks (Jamie Oliver is campaigning to introduce the same here), health warnings on TV ads for snack foods, incentives for fruit and vegetable producers, no hormone treatment of animals, no vending machines in schools, water only to drink with the children’s 4-course, freshly-prepared school lunches for which they have a 2 hour break! Sounds good to me.


Top tip: Like the French, learn to love real food.

(I wrote this month’s piece a few weeks ago and decided to post it as intended in spite of the recent terrible events.  It seems appropriate to celebrate the French at this time.)

Food on TV

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.

Top tip – eat like Montalbano