A good influence?

Like many health and wellness bloggers I try to surround myself with positive and inspirational people and media, not only to stay abreast of the latest fitness and diet trends to report back on here, but also to keep me motivated, optimistic and to try to help mould me into the best version of myself (or a slightly better version at least!).

Occasionally I find that something I read, hear in a podcast, or glimpse on social media resonates with me in a much more profound way than the usual interesting, but less effecting, information. While so often the latter type of nuggets will have an instant impact, their effects are, more often than not, only short-lived – a magazine article that pushes me out of the door do a workout, or an Instagram picture that drives me to make a healthier meal choice. However, on the occasions that I read or hear something which has a deeper influence, I find it seeps into my subconscious in a way that goes on to shape the way I think, behave and interact with others well beyond the initial point of impact.

This was of course the case when I switched from a vegetarian to a vegan lifestyle some ten years ago now after learning more about the dairy industry and realising the effects that dairy products had on my body. Once I was equipped with this knowledge the fact of veganism seemed an obvious conclusion.

In recent weeks I had my eyes opened again in this regard as I listened to an interview with Kip Anderson and Keegan Kuhn, makers of the documentary film Cowspiracy. While this documentary had been on my radar, I hadn’t prioritised watching it as I had thought it would just be a case of preaching to the converted. However, what the interview revealed was how little I actually knew about the detrimental effects of animal agriculture on the environment and why grass-fed meat is not the often vaunted ‘sustainable’ solution that many meat eaters claim. Again, equipped with the knowledge that the animal agriculture industry is responsible for more of the ‘human-produced’ greenhouse gasses than all means of transport combined, or that whole ecosystems are disrupted by the land requirements for grazing cattle, and that this is the leading cause of species extinction, habitat destruction and wildlife culling, reaffirmed in my mind my lifestyle choices and made me want to share the message with others (with almost evangelical zeal!).

My attitude to exercise has also taken a positive turn in recent months and this was further solidified by a excerpt in Adharanand Finn’s new book,The Way of the Runner, which I read this week.

After a series of hip issues and my decision not to run the marathon this year I had felt my relationship with running sour somewhat. However, once the pressure of training for an event was removed, and I was able to let my body recover without the anxiety of missed training sessions, I found that I was able to reconnect with the real reason I go out running: just because.

Finn voiced these sentiments perfectly in his book:

I know some people run to loose weight, to get fit, or maybe they’re running to raise money for a charity. But for me…these are just by-products. Running itself has its own raison d’être…[W]e run to connect with something in ourselves, something buried deep down beneath all the worldly layers of identity and responsibility. Running, in its simplicity, its pure brutality, peels away these layers, revealing the raw human underneath…[I]f we push on, running harder, further deeper into the wildness of it all, away from the world and the structure of our lives…we begin to float…Our minds begin to clear and we begin to feel strangely detached, and yet at the same time connected, connected to ourselves…

In this modern world we need excuses…The world is set up to cater for the rational, logical mind, which needs to see tangible reasons and benefits behind any effort. We need to dangle the carrot of marathons and best times in front of ourselves to justify this strange habit of getting up, running around outside, coming back having not actually gone anywhere…And this, on some superficial level motivates me to run. But really, deep down, I know it’s just a front. What I really want to do is get away from all of the structure, the complexity and chaos of my constructed life, and to connect with the simple human that lies buried under everything else.

I don’t doubt that this is a message that will resonate with many other runners.

Finally, with my daily practice of yoga and discovery of the wider mindfulness and meditation movement, I can feel another shift taking place. Partly responsible for this greater sense of connectedness and peace with myself is my recent discovery of Rich Roll. Roll’s podcast is full of interviews with inspirational ‘paradigm breakers’ in different fields from business, music, fitness, meditation, sleep and nutrition, and his unapologetic approach to health, wellness and veganism (the tagline to his bio is ‘a life transformed by plants’), have all served to motivate me to feel more at peace and proud of my lifestyle choices, while also compelling me to strive for more in work, exercise, wellness and diet.

You need only to listen to his interviews with Ariana Huffington, John Joseph, Light Watkins, Jedidiah Jenkins, Mishka Shubaly, or indeed any of the other motivational interviewees he has had on the show to realise what an incredible resource this is.

There are some really powerful lessons to be learned: Roll is a recovering alcoholic turned ultra-athlete and he is pretty frank that to make a change in any element of your life you already know what to do:

There is no secret bullet or life-hack that is going to help you to accomplish what you want to do, it’s simply a case of stopping what you doing and switching to take the actions that will move you closer to your goal. It’s tough to hear because people want to hear that there is an easier, softer way. The short-cut is to make that goal your absolute one priority and do anything you can to achieve it.

The podcast makes me think about life in a holistic sense: in an interview with Jason Garner, Garner highlighted the problem of compartmentalising different aspects of our lives and how ‘we talk about work life balance as if work isn’t part of our life’, something which really struck a chord with me. In another episode our engagement with social media was brought into question and the focus was placed on the importance of ‘being’ rather than ‘appearing to be’, a shift that would serve many of us.

At it’s essence is the message that life, success and happiness is all about perspective – two people can have the same experience and perceive it totally differently, so what you have to ask is how much responsibility are you prepared to take for your mindset and approach to life?

I will finish with a Viktor Frankl quote that I particularly like, which Roll cited in an episode I was listening to this week:

Between stillness and response there is a space and in that space is our power to choose our response and in our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Happy inspiring.

 

 

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Eat less, move more: How public nudity and Ben Greenfield have changed my views on diet and exercise

There is something more than a little unnerving about standing in nothing but your knickers and a pair of high heels, surrounded by mirrors and faced by a total stranger. It is a scenario that forces you to take a serious look at your body. Seeing yourself practically naked from every angle is rather a revealing experience, in more ways than one.

So how was it that I found myself in this position, on more than one occasion, last week? The answer is far less salacious than you may imagine: I was in fact wedding dress shopping.

This was an experience that I’d been both looking forward to and dreading in equal measures. There is a certain amount of pressure in trying on a dress that is ten times more expensive than anything that you’ve previously even contemplated taking off the hanger, and which you hope will make the man of your dreams fall even more madly in love with you, while simultaneously wowing all other onlookers.

I’ve joked here before about ‘shredding for the wedding’ but suddenly, stood there, naked but for a thong and some killer heels, and faced by some truly beautiful dresses, I really wanted my body to be the absolute best version of itself when I put them on.

For me this ideal version doesn’t mean skeletal or skinny, but strong and toned. A body with powerful glutes and legs that can run marathons, with toned arms that can climb walls and power me through the pool and with a solid core that can carry me through my asanas and hold me in an array of yoga poses.

So, how to get this mythical body in just six months?

shredding for the weddingFortunately marathon training means that I’m getting plenty of cardio exercise in. Less fortunate is that fact that a lot of my sessions are long and slow – moderate and low intensity training, which has been shown to be linked to an increase in appetite and in compensatory eating after training (curses). So to supplement my long runs I’m putting in a couple of high intensity session each week, combining a Kayla Itsines workout with speed intervals on the bike.

In a recent episode of the Ben Greenfield fitness podcast (my new podcasting addiction) Greenfield cited a study that suggested short-term high intensity, intermittent training could assist in increased fat loss, when compared to moderate intensity, continuous exercise. The test subjects undertook 15 x 60 second bouts of cycling followed by 30 seconds of recovery three times a week for a six week period. The result was a significant decrease in fat mass (up to 12lb), while their diet remained constant.

What Greenfield also noted was that with high intensity training you don’t get the same increase in appetite as with the low intensity alternative. One of the proposed mechanisms for this is that with high intensity training you produce a lot of lactic acid and this can not only shut down your appetite but it can also be converted into glucose, via a process called the Cori cycle, which then provides more energy for your body, preventing a spike in appetite. So more HIIT for me.

In the same podcast Greenfield gave a run down of his top five tips for diet and nutrition, which I found incredibly useful and which really made me reflect on my current diet.

The first thing to note is that calories in and calories out are not independent variables, i.e. the amount and type of calories you eat can impact on the amount of calories you expend and different foods have different metabolic effects on your body, even if they contain approximately the same number of calories.

The example given in the podcast is of a test with two sandwiches – one ‘whole food’ sandwich of multigrain bread and cheese and one ‘processed food’ sandwich, made with white bread and a cheese spread – both with a similar micro-nutrient content (i.e. the same amount of carbs, protein and calories). The results showed that the postprandial metabolic rate of the people who ate the ‘whole food’ sandwich was almost twice that of those who ate the ‘processed food’ sandwich, with 137 calories being expended in digestion in the first instance and only 73 calories in the second. This is in part due to the high fibre content of the first sandwich,which requires more energy to process. Protein is also a good example of a foodstuff which takes a lot of energy to digest. In fact it uses more energy than either fats and carbohydrates, making it a potentially good source of calories.

It is also important to note that not everyone responds to calories equally. For example, insulin resistant individuals tend to respond better to a lower carbohydrate and higher fat diet, while insulin sensitive people can thrive on a higher carb diet. Your body fat and muscle percentage can also impact on how your body stores carbohydrates. The more muscle you have the more likely the carbohydrates will be stored as glycogen, whereas the less muscle you have the more likely it is that the carbohydrates you eat will be processed by the liver and stored as fat – a good reason to get into the gym and start pumping iron!

Moreover, that there is no ‘one size fits all’ method of dieting and your genetics and ancestry may have a role to play in how your body responds to food. For example, the gene that code for salivary amylase production, the AMY1A gene, can vary from person to person. The more salivary amylase you produce in response to carbohydrates the less likely those carbohydrates are to spike your blood glucose and the better your body is able to deal with them. The result may be that you are able to eat carbohydrates without excess weight gain versus someone without this genetic variation, who would be better suited to a lower carbohydrate diet. Similarly, there is something called the lactase persistence gene, which is an adaptation resulting in lactase being continued to be produced into adulthood, allowing you to continue to process milk even as an adult. This would mean that you would be able to better metabolise dairy products without digestive irritation. Having the MTHFR mutation means that you are someone who would need to take in a lot of folate into your diet. This is found in a lot of green leafy vegetables, lentils, and beans and so you might find that you are naturally drawn to a plant-based diet. The list goes on but you get the picture – just because a particular diet worked really well for a friend or colleague doesn’t mean that it will work in the same way for you.

Greenfield also flagged the importance of recognising the roles of both digestibility and nutrient density of foods. Nutrient dense foods may not always be easy to process by the body and may require fermenting, soaking, or cooking before eating to ensure that you are able to absorb all of the goodness found within them. Quinoa, for example, requires soaking, rinsing and cooking before it can be eaten, soy products are better eaten once fermented, and sourdough bread is more easily digested than unfermented alternatives. On the flip-side, some foods are very digestible but have minimal nutrient density, for example, sugars can be broken down easily by the body but offers little in the way of a nutritional reward.

Another interesting insight, and one that I suspect I am guilty of, is that in general we are eating too much and too often. Greenfield suggests that you should aim to eat two to three meals a day – breakfast sometimes, lunch and dinner. He noted that grazing, even on healthy snacks – nuts, seeds, energy bars, trail mix, dark chocolate etc. – results in the calories mounting up.

There is actually very little evidence that grazing or snacking plays a role in elevating your metabolism, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that restrictive eating and intermittent fasting can increase fat oxidation. So a few less handfuls of nuts between meals for me then!

Overall I know that I’m lucky that I have a healthy body, that I love exercise and that I’m drawn to healthier food choices. I think it is so important to be compassionate to yourself (a trait that I’ve perhaps lacked in in the past), and I have no plans to punish my body into shape. But I know with a little bit more mindfulness around my eating, and variety of exercises I can drop a few pounds, gain a bit of muscle definition and hopefully look (almost) as good as the wedding dress I bought!

Periodic problems? How your monthly cycle can impact on your diet, mood and training regime

So, your training is going well, you feel motivated, powerful and positive. You are eating clean, fuelling your workouts without any cravings for junk food and you are feeling pretty good about your body. And then you wake up one morning and all you want to do is curl up under the duvet and eat your bodyweight in carbs. The outfits you usually love suddenly look just awful and everything seems to make you cry. You just don’t understand what’s happened and then, around a week later later the penny drops, as your period starts.

Sound familiar?

Everyone reacts differently around the time of their period and the changes in the hormones in our bodies may have a miscellany of effects, but the general sluggishness, desire to eat and emotional mood swings associated with the second half of the menstrual cycle seem to be quite common.

I was reading a little bit about these effects this week and about some tips for cyclical exercising and eating and wanted to share them with you here.

Firstly, why the sudden desire to eat so much?

In an article written for The American Dietetic Association, Jane Kirby noted that when we ovulate the body actually does require an extra boost in calories. Referencing a study from the University of British Columbia, she observed that women tend to eat differently during the second half of their cycles if they have ovulated that month, increasing their caloric intake by between 260 and 500 calories a day. Meanwhile, those women who did not ovulate, including those on birth control pills, found that their caloric intake remained relatively constant.

The researchers found that binge eating was common in the pre-menstrual, or luteal phase, when there was an increase progesterone production. While oestrogen, which was highest just before ovulation in the follicular phase, served to counter the cravings and act as an appetite suppressant.

Interestingly, this process of eating more during the pre-menstrual phase and appetite suppression during the follicular phase was also found to occur in non-human studies, suggesting that biological (not just cultural) factors contribute to female eating behaviour during the time of their period.

While you may be burning more energy during this phase of your cycle, it is important to note that your body is only burning between 100 and 300 additional calories – not the 500 you may want to guzzle in comforting treats.

However, taking a cyclical approach to your diet may help assuage the cravings and guilt associated with overeating. Accepting that you may need to take in an extra 150 calorie snack each day for the week before your period is a good start.

To avoid bloating and water retention, choose non-salty snacks. Increase foods rich in vitamin B6 by adding more beans, nuts, legumes, and fortified bread and cereals to your diet. Also aim to increase your zinc levels from nuts and whole grains and magnesium, found in legumes, nuts, whole grains, and vegetables for some guilt-free satiety.

Why does every outfit look wrong?

In her research at Michigan State University, Dr Kelly Klump discovered that the hormonal shift that causes changes in appetite during the menstrual cycle, also impacts on our body image.

In a recent issue of the ‘International Journal of Eating Disorders’ she and her associates examined changes across the menstrual cycle in two independent samples of women and found a direct effect of sex hormones on both appetite and body image. The researchers found that both binge eating and body dissatisfaction peaked during the pre-menstrual phase, when there was increased progesterone production.

Klump suggests that as progesterone leads to overeating, this in turn triggers body dissatisfaction. In addition, progesterone is thought to contributes to pre-menstrual anxiety, which can also make women feel more critical of their bodies.

And all of this is not helped by the bloated feeling which comes as increased estrogen levels cause your kidneys to redistribute water flow, and retain water.

In a vicious cycle, women feeling negatively towards their bodies may turn to emotional or comfort eating, resulting in a heightened sense of self-consciousness and self-loathing.

It is important to recognise when this cycle is beginning and to counter it by staving off hunger with healthy snacks and by keeping your mood positive with exercise.

Be reassured, these changes in emotions are totally normal and erratic mood swings don’t necessarily indicate abnormal hormone levels. In fact, the circulating levels of hormones in your body are likely to be totally normal but some researchers believe that the way we process them can vary, meaning symptoms can vary from woman to woman and from cycle to cycle.

Not in the mood to exercise?

All of the oestrogen and progesterone in your system in the pre-menstrual phase may also have a negative impact on your desire to exercise. During this time you tend to be less tolerant of heat because elevated progesterone levels delay your sweat response, the result of which is your body takes longer to expel excess warmth, not great if you are sweating away on a treadmill. You may also feel sluggish, since your metabolism shifts to use fat, rather than carbohydrate, as its primary energy source, and fatty acids are slower to release energy.

However, while you may not feel like running as fast or lifting as heavy weights, your body is still capable of handing its usual workload. Hormonal fluctuations don’t impact endurance, so even when your hormones are at their peak, your performance doesn’t have to suffer.

That said, if you’re really particularly rotten, this is the time of the month to give yourself a break without feeling too bad about it. Go for an easy run instead of doing intervals and skip tricky yoga poses and opt for relaxing ones.

The good news is, that while you may be suffering from cravings and negative body image before your period, the hormonal changes once your period starts can give you a boost in pain tolerance and muscle recovery.

Your oestrogen and progesterone level drop, and while this is only a subtle hormonal shift, Stacy Sims, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at Stanford University and a leading researcher on the impact of menstruation on athletic performance, believes it’s enough that it could make you feel more powerful during exercise.

Her research shows that during this low-hormone phase, women also recover faster. She suggests that this may be due to the fact that the body ‘isn’t preoccupied with preparing for a possible pregnancy. Your baseline is reset into a more relaxed mode, so these other systems operate optimally.’

So give yourself the flexibility to push hard when you’re feeling good and to back off when you’re not.

And remember, within five minutes of cardiovascular exercise, you tend to feel happier Once you get moving, your brain releases serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine which make you feel good. So, even if you don’t feel like doing anything, just going for a walk can make you happier and it may just be enough to distract you from the unhealthy snack you were craving.

10 Strategies to slim down

nut butter
Nut butter

Although I workout on a daily basis and eat a vegan diet, I’ve come to accept that I have a body type which picks up weight quite easily. While I’m lucky in that I love exercise and favour dates and nuts over chocolate and cakes, these foods also come with their own fair share of calories, and it’s just as easy to find yourself overeating these ‘healthier’ options as it is to gorge on out-and-out bad foods. Avocados, nut butters, seeds, hummus, brown rice and rye bread are amongst my favourites, and all are staples for health-food bloggers, but these are all calorie dense foods, and it’s easy to find that adding them to your diet on a regular basis can lead to weight gain.

After a summer season of being a bit lax with my diet, this week I’ve taken the proverbial bull by the horns and have been looking for strategies to get back in shape. With the next stint of marathon training on the ever-nearing horizon, I want to make sure that I’m not carrying any excess weight with me on those long runs.

Having done a bit of reading I wanted to share the following 10 slimming secrets with you. While in truth the best secret is to eat less and move more, I think that these are all great strategies to add to your arsenal of healthy living.

1. Think satisfied, not stuffed
We’ve all done it: you’re eating the last few mouthfuls of a meal and start to feel that bit too full, but you are enjoying it so much you decide to power through. And it’s ok. Well, that is, until you stop.

The reality is there is nothing very satisfying about overeating, just a bloated stomach and that pang of guilt that you should have stopped sooner.

According to Jill Fleming, author of ‘Thin People Don’t Clean Their Plates’, on a scale of 1 to 10, slimmer people tend to stop eating at around a 6 or 7 on the fullness scale. Fleming suggests that people who eat beyond this level may be confusing the sensation of fullness with that of satisfaction, whereas in reality you can be satisfied without being stuffed. There is also the chance that you are clearing your plate simply out of habit and, although full, you find yourself finishing what’s in front of you without thinking.

So what’s the alternative? In her article ‘8 Secrets of the Naturally Slim’, Megan McMorris recommends stopping about halfway through your next meal and rating your level of fullness. Do this again when you have about five bites left, with the aim of increasing your awareness of how satisfied you feel during a meal. You may still clear your plate but you won’t be mindlessly eating.

2. Eat more?

Fruit
Fruity snacks

This week I was asking a PT friend of mine about strategies to help shed some extra pounds and, perhaps surprisingly, he recommended eating more. But not more of just anything, he suggested filling up on foods with a high water content―fruits, vegetables, water-based soups and stews, and cooked whole grains― foods that are low in calories but satiating. Eating these foods regularly keeps your metabolism ticking over without the accompanying calorie hit.

Eat more whole fruits (not juices), aiming for two or three servings each day. Another tip is to start a meal with a low calorie soup or salad, this may just lead to you eating up to 12% fewer calories for the rest of the meal.

3. Size matters
Thinking about portion size is also important, and it can be easy to keep track of what you are eating without being obsessive: buying a single serving’s worth of food, eating portion-controlled meals, and using smaller plates are all good strategies.

Eating little and often also helps to keep portion sizes down as you never get too hungry and over-eat.

In an ongoing study by the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR), more than 5,000 people were able to keep off the weight they’ve lost long-term by eating five small meals a day, rather than three larger meals.

4. Don’t get emotional
Avoid emotional eating. Recognise if you are eating as a result of an emotion that isn’t just plain hunger. Weight loss expert Kara Gallagher suggests adding the word ‘halt’ to your vocabulary. Not just a command to stop chomping through that bowl of nicecream, this is an acronym that stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired—the four most common triggers for emotional eating. If you’re truly hungry, eat a balanced snack to tide yourself over until your next meal. But if you’re angry, lonely, or tired, seek an alternative calorie-free solution to your emotional needs.

5. Prioritise
Sometimes you need to put yourself first, recommends Anne Fletcher, dietician and the author of ‘Thin for Life’. Working in an obesity clinic she saw many women who spent their whole lives giving to others, but to the point that they were no longer looking after themselves. Prioritise eating well, exercising regularly, and reducing your stress levels where possible. These are not only factors conducive to staying slim but also to giving yourself value and enabling you to be the best version of yourself that you can be.

Taking time out to go for a run shouldn’t induce guilt; exercise and a healthy diet is valuable in empowering you and enabling you to present a better version of yourself to others.

6. Limit your options
While variety in your diet is a good thing to some extent, especially if it means multi-coloured fruit and vegetables on your plate, too much variety can backfire. Studies have shown that too many tastes and textures may encourage you to over-eat – I often find this is the case with meze or tapas, where there are lots of delicious options available. In fact research shows that the more types of food we have, the more we tend to eat. This is related to ‘sensory-specific satiety’, meaning that while our appetites may be satisfied after eating a plate of pasta, for example, they are suddenly reignited when there is talk of pudding.

The solution is to try to eat as consistently as possible when it comes to your major meals—oats at breakfast, a salad at lunch, soup in the evening, for example. It’s okay to add falafel to the salad one day and tofu the next, but by sticking to a loosely prescribed meal schedule, you limit the opportunities to overindulge.

7. Fidget
While exercising is important, fidgeting can also contribute to keeping you trim.

In a study at the Endocrine Research Unit of the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, it was revealed that on average, slimmer women were on their feet an extra two and a half hours each day more than their less trim counterparts. The slimmer subjects were also found to walk and fidget more each day too.

Endocrinologist and lead author of the study, James Levine, observed ‘if the obese subjects took on the day-to-day activity levels of the lean volunteers, they could burn through about 350 calories more a day without working out. Over a year, this alone could result in a weight loss of approximately 30 pounds, if calorie intake remained the same.’

However, there is no substitute for a structured workout. Dietician and author of ’10 Habits That Mess Up a Woman’s Diet’, Elizabeth Somer, observed that ‘Ninety percent of people who maintain their weight are exercising in a way that’s the equivalent of walking four miles a day.’ She recommends some yoga and light weights in the morning and some form of aerobic exercise later in the day.

Regular workouts also make you more aware of your body, observes psychologist, Stephen Gullo, ‘you’re less likely to eat the chocolate cake that you know will take hours to burn off on the treadmill.’

Studies have also shown that people tend to overestimate how active they really are, with most people actually spending 16 to 20 hours a day sitting. Wearing a fitness can help to keep track of your sedentary moments.

Try combining at least 30 minutes of structured exercise each day with a variety of healthy habits, such as walking to work, taking lunchtime strolls, standing on the train and pottering around the house rather than sitting on the sofa.

8. Don’t skip meals
Even if you just have some fruit, or carrot batons, try not to skip meals. It’s not about dropping everything to eat the minute your stomach rumbles, but don’t let yourself get too hungry as this is when you are more likely to lose control. Being ravenous makes you much less likely to control impulses to overeat.

9. Resist temptation
Researchers have found that one of the biggest predictor of weight gain among women was their level of disinhibition, or unrestrained behaviour, with women with low disinhibition i.e. a finely tuned sense of restraint, having the lowest body mass index.

Self restraint is like a muscle that you can build over time. Prepare for moments when your disinhibition is likely to be higher—at a party or out to dinner with a large group of friends, or when you’re stressed or tired.

Creating good habits can also help to take the pressure of your need to continually exercise self-restraint. If you always eat a salad at lunch, or always start the day with a yoga workout then doing so becomes less of a decision and more of an auto response.

10. Sleep tight

sleeping cat kitten
Sleepy kitten

There is a widely recognised link between getting more sleep and a smaller waistline. On average, research suggests that slimmer people tend to sleep two hours more each week when compared with overweight people. The theory is that a lack of sleep is linked to lower levels of appetite-suppressing hormones like leptin and higher levels of the appetite-boosting ghrelin.

Tempted? How gender may impact our ability to resist temptation

This week I’ve been reading about temptation; in particular, how gender impacts on our propensity to be tempted by food and, as a result, how it can influence our weight loss goals.

I started to think about this while reading about the ways in which gender can affect how our bodies process various chemicals – caffeine, alcohol, medications etc. Variants including body mass, height, muscle to adipose tissue ratios and hormones all influence the ways that we process these chemicals, and with some medications this can lead variance in the efficacy and the side effects (for more on this watch this TED talk by Alyson McGregor). While even taking the contraceptive pill can influence how we metabolise caffeine.

But how does gender impact on how we respond to food? Are differentials contingent on metabolic and digestive reactions alone or can differing successes between men and women in the weight-loss steaks be attributed to something else?

While considering this I encountered a rather interesting study from Brookhaven National Laboratory, which looked at the ways in which our brains respond in the presence of food.

In the study, 23 healthy male and female volunteers were instructed to fast for a 17 hour period. During this time, they were interviewed about their favourite foods and asked to rank them on a scale of 1 to 10. The researchers then selected one food for each subject, the only requirement being that it scored 7 or above in desirability. When the 17 hours were up, the volunteers were injected with a nuclear tracer, placed in a brain-imaging PET scanner and presented with a food they craved – being forced to smell, hear about the preparation of and even taste a morsel of the food stuff on a cotton wool ball.

When faced by this multi-sensory stimuli, the brains of the fasted volunteers started responding. Appetite and hunger are processed in a number of regions of the brain — most notably the orbital frontal cortex, which is linked to self-control; the striatum, which is linked to motivation; the hippocampus, which is linked to memory; and the amygdala, which is linked to emotions and decision making.

The subjects were then asked to think about something other than food for the next 40 minutes, though they were required to keep their eyes open and look at the food before them.

The PET scans appeared to show that both sexes were actually able to lower the overall sensation of hunger; in most cases the brain was able to grow partially habituated to an empty stomach over time, and with a degree of willpower and distraction, the volunteers were able to hasten this process of desensitisation.

However, the discrepancy came with what men and women thought about during this time. It appeared that while the men were able to stop thinking about food, successfully suppressing, if only temporarily, the conscious desire to eat, the women continued to experience emotional cravings even if their hunger subsided.

Although it is unclear what is behind this difference, it is suggested that hormones and their action on the amygdala may play a significant role. When the amygdala acts up it is incredibly difficult to bring it back under control – demonstrable in anxiety conditions like phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorders, which are linked back to this part of the brain. The study suggests however, that men had some success in disciplining their amygdala, while women were less able to do this. However, it takes a lot of inhibition to control the amygdala, which is why even the most resolute dieters — both male and female — so often fail.

Although this study only used a small sample it is an interesting insight into how we respond to and think about food. In the next post, I’ll be looking at some ways to tackle temptation, but for now, happy resisting!

Thinking of going vegan? It’s not all quinoa and kale.

Asparagus couscous with chickpeas and almonds
Asparagus couscous with chickpeas and almonds

Last weekend R’s mum gave me an article written by journalist Anna Magee, who decided to challenge herself by going vegan for 60 days. Fighting past her perception of vegans as ‘anaemic-looking, sandal-wearing hippies’ she switched from her largely meat-based Paleo diet to a vegan alternative, with some interesting, and largely positive results.

Social stigma

At first, however, she encountered the enviable social backlash of announcing her switch to veganism – the snide remarks, the teasing from her partner and the passive-aggressive swipes about diet from her friends.

This is certainly something that a lot of vegans encounter and something that (unfortunately) you find you just have to get used to. That ‘people get defensive of their meat eating’, as Jasmijn de Boo, CEO of the Vegan Society remarks, is rather an understatement. As soon as people discover that you are a vegan, they will often tell you that ‘eating meat is natural’ (with a complete disregard for all of the other ‘unnatural’ things that we all do), or worry (totally unnecessarily) on your behalf about your protein and iron levels – macro-nutritional concerns that I’m sure they don’t harbour for their friends with more unhealthy, but more meat-based diets. They tend to be the ones who linger on the ‘food issue’, while we would be happy to move on to more interesting and less contentious points of conversation, because what perhaps a lot of people don’t realise, is that by not eating animal products I’m not judging, trying to save, preach to, or convert anyone, I’m just not eating animal products. It’s as simple as that.

Eating out

Roasted vegetable salad
Roasted vegetable salad

Magee also struggled with eating out in restaurants at first – accepting pea soup while her pals chomped through sausage and mash – a struggle that other new vegans often find.

There are a few trade secret in this regard:

  1. Choose your country wisely

When deciding on the type of cuisine you fancy go Italian, Turkish, Indian, Thai or Vietnamese. Italians tend use simple recipes made from the absolute best ingredients and they make everything from scratch, so they won’t bat an eye if you ask for a salad minus the cheese with some additional artichokes or avo, a cheese-free pizza, or an egg-free tomato-based pasta. Turkish or Greek mezze offer heaps of hummus, falafel, vine leaves, aubergine dishes and vegan-friendly salads, while non-creamy veggie curries are menu staples in Indian restaurants (just check that they don’t use ghee to cook up the veggies and avoid naan which contain yoghurt). Thai and Vietnamese dishes are diary-free as a rule and as long as you check for egg and fish sauce there are plenty of veggie options to be had.

  1. Eat off the menu

If a restaurant is half decent the chef will be making everything from scratch anyway so look at what’s on the menu, pick out the ingredients you like and create your own dish. You would be amazed at how accommodating most restaurants are when you just ask.

  1. The allergy card

If you’re unsure whether something is safe to eat, ask for the allergy card. Most places have these now and since eggs and dairy are allergens it’s  easy to see if something is vegan (assuming you don’t need a card to tell you something contains meat or fish!).

Muscle recovery

muscle recovery
Muscle recovery

So what physical changes did Magee see as a result of her vegan switch?

Prior to the change in her diet, Magee had been reporting slow recovery from injury and muscle fatigue, but she found that after six weeks she claimed to feel ‘fantastic’ with less fatigue and muscle pain post-exercise. Dr Chidi Ngwaba, from the advisory board of the European Society of Lifestyle Medicine, noted that this could have been down to the reduction of meat protein in her diet, which ‘can lead to a build-up of waste products such as uric acid and lactic acid in the muscles’, leading to muscular soreness and slower recovery rates.

Slim fats?

Despite devouring heaps of vegetable fats from avos, coconut oil and nut butters she actually lost 6kg over an eight week period, felt ‘lighter’ and her visceral fat dropped over a point. This is because research suggests that unsaturated fats, found in plant-based foods, don’t appear to accumulate in visceral fat. Moreover, dieticians report that ‘eating more plants and fibre and reducing our consumption of meat, not only leads to weight loss but also reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes hypothyroidism, high blood pressure and certain cancers, especially breast, prostate and bowel’. You also find that when you first go vegan and are still sussing out what you can and can’t eat you just tend to eat less in general. But don’t assume that going vegan is an easy way to lose weight – calories are calories and the laws of eat and burn still apply, so that vegan cake isn’t going to help you lose that pot belly!

Hormonal balance

tum
Balancing your hormones

Magee also reported regaining her sex drive and losing her PMS symptoms after going vegan. This could be down to the removal of the external oestrogens that come from dairy products and which can have a negative impact on PMS. While taking away diary can help with PSM and with hormone related skin complaints, such as acne, an increase in foods containing chlorophyll, such as kale and spinach, found in abundance in a vegan diet, can help cleanse the liver of excess oestrogen, again helping to combat hormonal symptoms such as PMS.

Glowing skin

Her folate and zinc levels were recorded as increasing during the 60 day period, contributing to brighter looking skin and increased energy levels.

B careful

However Magee did see a slight drop in her vitamin b6 and 12 and iron levels. This is not unusual in vegans and something to keep a close eye on. You can’t get b12 or 6 from vegan raw foods, so you may need to supplement or eat fortified foods – most soya milk is fortified for example.

The verdict

Logo-Vegan-Society
Go vegan?

Overall, the results experienced by Magee were positive enough to turn her into a vegan, even after her 60 day challenge had finished. She is certainly not alone in making this switch; in the last 9 years the number of vegans in the UK has doubled from 150,000 to around 300,000. You don’t have to be a vegan to go vegan, however. There is a really positive movement at the moment, of people who don’t feel that they need to define their dietary preferences but who choose to eat selectively, ethically, sustainably and healthily. Being vegan suits me and it may suit others, but what is more important is that we all eat in a mindful way, which sustains and nourishes our bodies and which doesn’t impact negatively on the world around us. This means thinking about where our food comes from and whether it is sustainable, as well as thinking about the effect that our dietary preferences have on our bodies and, in turn, what impact our bodies have on the health care system.

All in all this was a really positive and interesting article to read and it’s great to see a mind-shift from a reporter who seemingly came to the challenge with  very pre-conceived ideas about vegans and the veganism.

The truth is bitter sweet

sugar addiction
Sugar rush

‘Anything can be made dispiriting when turned into an obligation.’

Such were the words of Oliver Burkeman in his column in the Guardian Magazine this weekend.

Burkeman was actually writing in response to a recent research project on the link between sex and happiness, in which participants were asked to double their weekly volume of sex, (I’m not sure volume is the most appropriate word in this context but you get the gist), and then asked to fill out a survey on their sex lives and happiness levels. Every day. For three months. I’m sure you don’t need me to go into the flaws of this experiment, but needless to say it appeared that the obligatory doubling of sex followed by critical analysis of the activity didn’t appear to increase happiness levels.

The sentiment behind Burkeman’s article, that of obligation turning even the sweetest of pursuits sour, struck a chord with another story in the news this week: that of the latest government advice to halve our recommended daily intake of sugar.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), which advises Public Health England on nutrition, are suggesting that we reduce our sugar intake so that no more than 5% of our daily calories come from added sugar, which equates to approximately seven teaspoons. This advice also falls in line with new World Health Organisation guidelines. (Read the full report here).

At the moment, the average sugar intake in all age groups in the UK is at least twice the new recommended limit, and as such the government has decided to adopt these recommendations and will use them to develop its national strategy to tackle childhood obesity, due to launch later this year.

Professor Ian Macdonald, chair of the SACN Carbohydrates Working Group, has said:

‘the evidence is stark – too much sugar is harmful to health and we all need to cut back.

The clear and consistent link between a high-sugar diet and conditions like obesity and type 2 diabetes is the wake-up call we need to rethink our diet. Cut down on sugars, increase fibre and we’ll all have a better chance of living longer, healthier lives.’

So far so reasonable.

However something about these new guidelines troubles me and it’s this: it’s one thing setting out guidelines outlining what people should aspire to eat, and it’s quite another to actually make them follow those guidelines.

While the health arguments are compelling, will people want to change their eating patterns?

If Burkeman’s assessment of human nature is correct, the worrying answer is ‘no’. You see, by our very nature we harbour an overwhelming need for a sense of autonomy and, as Burkeman notes:

‘any given piece of advice might be excellent, yet whether the pressure is coming from you or someone else, it can curdle the whole thing.’

And unfortunately, (as you may well know from personal experience – I certainly do), it’s tempting to indulge in self-defeating activities just to feel that we are expressing our autonomy.

Will people take the new advice on sugar as it’s intended, as sound guidance to improve their health and the overall health of the nation, removing one of the many strains on the NHS? Or will it be regarded as an unwelcome interference from a ‘nanny state’ aimed at curbing our right to choose?

I’ll finish with Burkeman’s wise words on the matter:

‘There are things that matter more than the freedom to follow whims; life’s deepest fulfilment may require the capacity to stick with things, even when they feel burdensome.’