This January, join Dietitian Clare as she helps us replace that “New Year New You” philosophy with healthy eating made easy. And delves into the science around dieting.
No fad detoxes, no ‘helpful’ juice cleanses and no, ‘I did a triathlon before 8am’ punishment.
For many of us, the beginning of January is the time we reflect on the year that’s passed and make resolutions for the year ahead. Planning to make positive changes is no bad thing, but when we focus on the way we eat and how our body looks, there can be many problems and pitfalls.
So many diets start with good intentions but end up in finger-wagging and guilt trips.
If you’ve ever wondered what healthy eating means to us here at Mindful Chef, the next few weeks are for you. (Along with tools and tips for real people living real lives!).
Keep reading for Clare’s top 10 tips on:
- Why we should stop dieting once and for all
- The role of calorie-tracking apps, superfoods and supplements. Should we be taking multi-vits every day?
- How to approach Veganuary healthily and why we could all do with reducing our meat consumption
- And finally the hunger-fullness scale (yep, re-learning to recognise when we’re full)
Because January wouldn’t be complete without some insider knowledge on how to eat to feel your best.
1. What’s a healthy body?
Weight, health and attractiveness for many are inextricably linked together. From the beauty ideals portrayed by the media and celebrity culture, to the government messages related to weight, there’s a tremendous amount of pressure for our bodies to conform to these narrow stereotypes around what a healthy attractive body “should” look like.
We’re led to believe that it’s our lifestyle choices and willpower (or lack thereof) to stick to a healthy diet that determine the size of our bodies when in fact it’s attributable to a very complex combination of genetic, social, physiological and environmental factors. Weight and Body Mass Index (a measurement looking at our weight in relation to our height ) are often used as a means to determine the health of our bodies when they’re not a reliable indicator. They give no information around what is actually happening in our body at a given time, whereas, for example, a blood test provides precise information. They also give no indication of body composition, the amounts of muscle and fat mass or fluid within our body.
The World Health Organisation defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. A healthy body can come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes and within our attempts to achieve (or maintain) a healthy body, we need to also be mindful of the social, mental and emotional impacts on our well being.
2. Why diet is a dirty word
Dieting in all its guises (detox, restrictions, clean eating, cleanses, resets) has many detrimental impacts on our mental, emotional, social and physical well being. Dieting in itself makes it more likely that we will gain weight in the long term, making them not only damaging but utterly futile!
A frequently cited example of the issues related to food restriction through dieting was seen in The Minnesota Starvation Experiment, in which a researcher called Ansel Keys conducted an experiment with 36 active young men who began the experiment on a diet of 3200 Kcal.
Energy content of the diet was then halved, and researchers observed:
- Metabolic rate decreased by 40%
- Stealing food and binging behaviours
- Food fixation (to the extent that one participant wrote a cookbook during the experiment!)
- Behaviour changes – including depression and irritability
The side-effects when we diet:
- Metabolic rate decreases to conserve energy – This is part of our evolutionary mechanisms to survive during periods of food insecurity. Our body is working to defend our energy stores (fat). As fat mass decreases neurological changes take place that increase appetite. We also experience changes to our muscular, neural and endocrine systems that make us more efficient in terms of energy use, we, therefore, use less energy to do the same amount of work.
- Overeating and bingeing on food – Food restriction leads to a build up of hormones and neurotransmitters that have a very strong appetite stimulating effect. These build up throughout the day, and inevitably we succumb to the biological need to eat.
- Food obsession – Constantly thinking about food.
- Undermining our individual signals of hunger and fullness – This can potentially lead to us not eating enough or eating too much.
- Rebound weight gain – Weight may even increase to above your original weight. There is a significant amount of scientific evidence demonstrating that weight regain post dieting is very common. A meta analysis (very high-quality study) of 29 weight loss studies (Anderson et al 2017) revealed that on average participants regained 77% of the weight they have lost within 5 years. These findings are based on studies where participants have had significant support, the reality of weight regain when you are attempting to diet without this is likely to be even higher. A panel of experts convened by the National Institutes of Health determined that “one third to two-thirds of the weight is regained within one year [after weight loss], and almost all is regained within five years. A further study looked at the success of commercial weight loss programs and found that 60% of people were unable to meet a weight loss goal of 5%.
The diet cycle (adapted from Aphramor LA 2017)
- Desire to be thin
- Restrictive diet
- Diet mentality
- Initial weight loss
- Hunger and cravings
- Blow out
- Guilt and anxiety
- Weight regain
Being trapped in this dieting cycle, involving initial weight loss and regain repeatedly, as we try different diets and methods of weight loss has been shown to be very damaging to our physical health, as well as our psychological well being.
Weight repeatedly decreasing and then being regained has been associated with increased inflammation, which in turn is known to increase risk for many diseases. Weight Cycling has been shown to be associated with conditions such as hypertension, insulin resistance and dyslipidemia. Research also indicates that repeated weight fluctuation is associated with poorer cardiovascular health and increased risk of osteoporaoortic fractures.
Not only does dieting put our physical health at risk, but has huge impacts on our social and psychological well being. Disordered eating, low self-esteem, poor body image, emotional distress, food phobias and anxiety are all impacts of restrictions related to diets.
Diets can be framed as lifestyle, however, if they include any of the following they are some form of diet
- Food rules, or foods to be avoided or excluded
- Cheat days or cheat foods
- Being told what, how much or when to eat
- Counting Kcal or points
- Tracking activity and food intake
3. Can’t I detox instead?
A detox is essentially another term for a diet! In fact, we actually do not need to detox! Our body has numerous sophisticated systems that work to remove toxins. This involves the liver, the lungs, the gut, the skin and kidneys. There’s currently no substantive scientific evidence to support the idea that a detox diet is necessary or beneficial. Although as previously discussed there is significant evidence around the potential for harm of dieting in all forms.
4. What about Food tracking apps?
Monitoring our food and activity intake has never been easier, there’s a huge market in activity measuring devices and apps giving us lots of data around the nutrient and energy content of thousands of foods. These tools can be helpful in learning more about your lifestyle habits. But they can also be associated with dieting and restriction and more worryingly are linked with eating disorder behaviours.
Worryingly, they’re completely unregulated, raising concern around safe usage. It’s also very hard to sustain their usage over a long period of time. My recommendation would be to focus more on your internal sensations especially of hunger, fullness, thirst and fatigue. An app or device isn’t as closely attuned as your body and internal sensations are to your own individual needs, it can’t predict the fluctuations in appetite and fatigue that we all naturally experience. As children, we are very attuned to these sensations but as we grow older we tend to have learnt to override and ignore them, especially if we have tried numerous diets.
5. Are superfoods really super?
Generally, when nutrition or health claims are being made, there are legislative criteria in place that the food must meet to be able to make a claim. For example, to claim a product is low in fat it must contain no more than 3g of fat per 100g (for solids). But that’s not the case for the term “superfood”, it’s a marketing term that can be applied to any and all foods. Many of the foods touted as superfoods are extremely expensive with little science, if any, to substantiate the associated wellness claims. My advice is to focus more on balanced eating, rich in accessible plant based and seasonal ingredients and eating the foods you enjoy, that leave you feeling well and satisfied.
6. What about supplements?
The market for supplements is huge in the UK, the quick and easy appeal of popping a pill to meet your micronutrient needs seems the perfect solution for our hectic lifestyles. But in spite of numerous anecdotal and unregulated reviews, you read on the internet supporting supplements, there’s little meaningful scientific evidence to link vitamin, mineral or herbal supplements with health benefits.
In fact, excessive intake of some vitamin supplements, particularly fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) that are stored on the body have the potential to be harmful and cause toxicity. Furthermore, a supplement tablet does not provide the same benefit as consuming your nutrients as part of your meal, in which nutrients work together, in many complex chemical reactions through the body.
Where possible always aim to get your nutrients as part of what you are eating, only consider supplementing if you need to restrict your diet, have a specific medical condition or have increased needs that you might struggle to meet through diet alone.
Supplements to consider taking:
- Vitamin D (for all of us) – Poor sun exposure in the UK during the winter means we are at risk of deficiency. Its difficult to get enough vitamin D from our diet alone, so the recommendations are to take a 10 microgram supplement throughout the winter months.
- Vitamin B12 (if you are vegan) – Vitamin B12 is found predominantly in foods from animal sources. If you are vegan, using a B12 supplement along with fortified plant-based foods helps you have adequate amounts.
- Folic Acid (if you are trying to conceive or pregnant) – To reduce the risk of neural tube defects in pregnancy
- Probiotics (if you have IBS) – May be beneficial if you have IBS and are taking antibiotics.
Supplements to avoid:
- Fat Burning or Slimming tablets – These can be extremely dangerous to health (and aren’t available legally), especially those containing DDNP or DMMA
7. Is Veganuary a good place to start?
Including more unrefined plant-based foods in our diet is great! I encourage everybody to eat more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains as part of their balanced diet. If a vegan diet is too difficult, an alternative that is perhaps more manageable and sustainable is to include more meals based around plant foods rather than having rigid rules around what you are and are not allowing yourself to eat. There are always 8 nutritionally balanced vegan recipes on the Mindful Chef menu every week, so consider adding some of these to your order.
Balanced eating is still important when having vegan meals, consider including plant-based sources of protein such as tofu, tempeh, beans, and pulses (lentils, blackbeans, butter beans chickpeas, edamame), nuts and seeds.
8. What’s the best way to eat?
We have established that ditching diets and detoxes is a great idea for our mental and physical health in 2022, but what is the best way to be eating moving forward?
Understanding Hunger and Fullness
Understanding the mechanisms within our body that control hunger and fullness is a far better alternative than using apps to tell us when and what to eat.
We have many processes working within us to maintain our internal environment, known as homeostasis. This is essential for our survival. Our body temperature, the amount of glucose in our blood, our blood volume, the amount of fat we store and our body weight are all regulated by complicated hormonal and homeostatic processes.
Similarly, hunger and fullness are carefully monitored and controlled by mechanisms within the body. Hormonal fluctuations related to the digestion and absorption of nutrients, and neurological signals from sensory receptors in the stomach relay messages to the brain to tell us when we need to eat and when to stop. As children we tend to be very attuned to these natural signals and studies have shown that when young children are given an opportunity to eat to appetite, from a variety of foods, they are instinctively able to eat to match their energy requirements. However, through our development into adulthood, we start to ignore and override these sensations, particularly if we are trying to lose weight through dieting.
9. The Hunger and Fullness Scale
Think of hunger on a scale of 0 to 10.
0 is where you are as hungry as you can possibly imagine and 10 is extremely full (Christmas dinner). We are all individuals and where we feel comfortable will vary for us all. Some people are happier around 3 or 4, others closer to 10.
Use this scale to describe the physical sensations and emotions that you might experience at different stages of feeling hungry and full. This isn’t about being judgemental, more a tool to help you observe these feelings and start to connect with how your body feels before and after eating.
You will see the same descriptive words appear in a number of places throughout the scale.
For those who have lost touch with their body’s cues for hunger and satiation, using a scale like this can be really helpful. It’s a simple way to check in with yourself.
A good general rule is to aim to stay between 4-7 on the scale.
How to use
I recommend that once you get to around 4 it’s a good idea to start thinking about what you would like to eat for your next meal, so by the time you reach 3 you are ready to eat. Waiting till you get to 1-2 on the scale is not a great idea, we don’t feel well when we are that hungry and generally don’t tend to make the best food choices. Similarly, once you get to around 7 on your scale of fullness it’s indicative that you’re satisfied and eating more may lead to physical discomfort.
It is an important part of feeling well. We don’t all feel hungry at the same time. Some people find breakfast challenging, whereas others feel it’s a great way to start their day. It’s good to get into the habit of eating 3 meals a day, not necessarily at set times.
Don’t miss meals
I want to discourage you from missing meals or falling low on the hunger scale. When you become very hungry, you eat much more quickly, frequently eating past comfortable fullness. You are biologically driven to pick foods high in fat and sugar, such as junk foods and candy. Fat because it contains large amounts of energy in small quantities and sugar because it provides energy very quickly. Although these foods in the short term satisfy your craving, you often end up feeling sluggish and unwell afterwards.
10. Eat in a way that is sustainable, balanced and enjoyable
As discussed previously in December’s piece, balanced eating is the key to feeling well and having the energy we need.
Generally speaking, eating meals that contain fibre, protein, fat and carbohydrate will be satisfying, filling and balanced. Choosing meals containing unrefined carbohydrates and fibre is more preferable as energy is slowly released into our bloodstream, which is countered by the hormone insulin also being more slowly released. This means we tend to feel satisfied for longer and have the energy we need.
Conversely, if we eat a very sugary meal, or a meal very high in refined carbohydrates we are likely to experience a peak in our blood glucose levels, which will be countered by our system being flooded with large amounts of insulin (to reduce our blood glucose levels quickly). This can leave us feeling unwell, sluggish and lethargic and end up stimulating appetite.
That’s not to say we can never eat refined carbohydrates or sugary food, but when we do or if we eat them in large amounts they aren’t going to leave us feeling our best.
Move away of feelings of guilt or shame around food
It’s important to stop labelling foods as good or bad and think more about the foods we want to eat and how they make us feel after we have eaten them.
If you have previously dieted or missed meals, feeling guilty and ashamed after eating can be a very common issue. In view of the complexities that some experience related to this, I would recommend getting additional advice from a registered dietitian to help support you to move out of the dieting cycle and enjoy all foods.
Eat your meals in a mindful way
Your eating environment has an important role in eating mindfully and maximising the enjoyment of your meal. Do you tend to eat in front of the TV, on the couch with a magazine, or at your desk whilst answering emails? These distractions take your focus off your meal and make it easier to eat more than you need.
Having a designated area for sitting and eating with minimal distractions is key. Turn off the TV, put your smartphone/ laptop and projects away and find a calm space, ideally with a table and chairs, be it in your home or office to focus on your meal.
Also think about your position and posture whilst eating, Sitting upright means that gravity aids the digestive process and makes indigestion and discomfort after meals less likely!
Take time to eat
Our busy lives often mean we grab a meal to go or fit it in whilst multitasking. Setting aside times to eat throughout the day, enables you to fully appreciate your meal, enhances digestion and increases your feeling of wellbeing after eating.
Chew your food well and savour the flavours rather than rushing and gulping down your meal.
Also aid digestion further by taking a further 15 minutes after eating to relax, as being immediately active after eating means that your blood supply is diverted away from the digestive system to other muscles, hindering digestion.
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