The art of good health

(image © David Shrigley)

Art helps us access and express parts of ourselves that are often unavailable to other forms of human interaction. It flies below the radar, delivering nourishment for our soul and returning with stories from the unconscious […] Making and consuming art lifts our spirits and keeps us sane.
Grayson Perry

While a large proportion of my physical and mental health is sustained through time spent running, swimming, practicing yoga and going to the gym, there is another element of my general wellbeing that is nourished through the arts. Whether it is in the hours spent wandering around an art gallery or lost in a book, at a life drawing class or choir practice, the moments when I engage with the art world bring me a sense of total peace, joy, presence and fulfilment.

Over the past year I have found myself thinking more and more about the positive role that the arts can play in our mental and physical health. To this end, last summer I set up a life drawing course at work. With funding support from our staff Wellbeing Committee, the group was established with the primary goal of taking colleagues away from their desks and into a creative space where they could engage in the moment through a practice distinct in pace and style from their everyday job. In these classes the process of drawing – being creative and present, looking, seeing and recreating shapes and forms – served as a meditative and mindful process, with the success of the class being measured as much by the feelings and reflections of the participants, as by the results of charcoal on paper.

This class is, of course, only a tiny fraction of a much wider and ever-growing movement from within the the arts and cultural heritage sector to consider the role that the sector can play within the field of health and wellbeing.

the arts can reconstruct you
© David Shrigley

In 2014 an All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing was launched to discuss developments and policy in the field of arts and health. Two years later, the group published an almost 200 page report entitled Creative Health: The Arts for Health and Wellbeing in which they assert that:

More and more people now appreciate that arts and culture can play a valuable part in helping tackle some of the most challenging social and health conditions. Active participation in the visual and performing arts, music and dance can help people facing a lonely old age, depression, or mental illness; it can maintain levels of independence and curiosity and […] it can bring great joy and so improve the quality of life for those engaged.

This paper offers a formal acknowledgement of a shift within the sector surrounding the question of who arts and heritage spaces are for and how they can serve audiences beyond the traditional academic and curatorial visitors. Within the gallery world there are signs that institutions are increasingly keen to schedule health and wellbeing initiatives into their programming. Manchester Art Gallery, for example, have a whole of section of their programme dedicated to wellness, with events to encourage visitors to engage with arts mindfully and wellbeing tours of their galleries.

These, and other initiatives hosted within both arts, care and clinical settings, are designed to be expressive, restorative, educational and therapeutic, working preventively, to enhance recovery, or to improve the quality of life for people with long-term or terminal conditions. Here the arts can play an important role in giving patients a greater sense of self; as Eva Okwonga notes in Creative Health:

Artistic self expression gives participants an identity beyond illness.

Programming around dementia is also increasing, as Nicci Gerrard highlighted in her Guardian article last year, pointing to projects including the Wellcome Foundation’s Dementia Research projectManchester Camerata’s Music in Mind, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s Music for a While and the Alzheimer’s Society’s Singing for the Brain. As Gerrard observes:

Dementia is an area where the arts can radically enhance quality of life by finding a common language and by focusing on everyday, in-the-moment creativity.

This is a sentiment shared by Lord Howarth of Newport, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group, who stated that:

The arts have a vital role to play for people with dementia. Research demonstrates that visual arts, music, dance, digital creativity and other cultural activities can help to delay the onset of dementia and diminish its severity.

the arts can help you see
© David Shrigley

Meanwhile, organisations such as the National Alliance for Arts, Health and Wellbeing, the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing and London Arts in Health Forum, have been brought to the fore in recent years, at their hearts the belief that:

By supplementing medicine and care, the arts can improve the health of people who experience mental or physical health problems. Engaging in the arts can promote prevention of disease and build wellbeing.

Working in the arts and cultural heritage sector myself, with a passion for art and an interest in health and wellness, this movement fills me with so much hope and excitement. The growing possibility that through the arts – be they visual, practical, musical, theatrical or literary – we can work together to promote health, happiness and wellbeing and that we can help people through times of distress, illness and trauma, has to be a positive thing.

I want to finish with this quote from Nicci Gerrard:

Art can be medicine, for body and soul.



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?

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

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

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.

Outside option – the benefits of the great outdoors

Dovedale run
Dovedale run

It was as I was sitting outside in the park on a rather chilly Wednesday lunchtime, eating a salad while wrapped up a jacket and scarf, that I was inspired to write this post. You see, I have inherited from my mum an overpowering belief that being outdoors is inherently good for you. As a child this ethos saw us sitting on a beach, even in torrential rain, or going out on a country walk, even when it was blowing a gale. And now, the idea of a full day without fresh air (no matter how chilly), or sunlight (no matter how veiled by clouds), just doesn’t sit well with me.

But as I snuggled under my coat, looking up at some rather ominous clouds, I did start to wonder how well founded my beliefs in the advantages of being outside actually are. And, as my colleagues slouch off to the dining room at lunchtime while I brave the questionable British summertime in the park, I started questioning whether I am really doing myself good?

I’ve done a little digging and it seems that there are indeed many benefits to getting yourself outside; and while of course correlation doesn’t always equate to causation, there are enough indicators to suggest that spending time in nature can help both your mental and physical health.

According to a study from the University of Michigan for example, there appears to be a link between time spent outside and greater positivity levels, as well as lower levels of stress and depression. A study from Glasgow University, similarly showed that people who walked, biked, or ran outside had a lower risk of poor mental health than those who worked-out indoors.

If lower stress levels and better mental health wasn’t enough, research conducted at the University of Essex also showed that the perception of effort among cyclists working-out outside was lower than that of those training indoors, (a fact that anyone who has tried to run over 5km on a treadmill will attest to). Moreover, it appeared that those who exercised outside were more eager to return for a future workout than those who chose to stay in the gym.

photo 1 (6)According to another study, interactions with nature also allow your brain a break from the over-stimulation of everyday life – from  your eternally re-filling inbox to the constant hum of social media. Moreover, this break from artificial light and digital stimulation can also have a restorative effect on your attention levels.  A study comparing concentration levels among children with ADHD who played outside, versus those who played inside, indicated that those who spent more time in green, outdoor spaces reported fewer symptoms of ADHD, even when the exact same activities were compared.

There is also evidence to suggest that  taking a stroll in the park can also increase your creativity, and while walking anywhere, be it through the woods or through a city centre, is deemed beneficial in this regard, it appears that the most novel ideas are associated with time spent in green spaces.

Getting outside for as little as 20 minutes can also wake you up just as much as one cup of coffee, something to keep in mind when overcoming the afternoon slump in the office.

Also interestingly, there appears to be a link between time spent outdoors and immunity levels. Researchers at Tokyo’s Nippon Medical School found that women who spent six hours in the woods over the course of two days had increased levels of white blood cells and that this boost lasted at least seven days afterwards.

Sunlight is also essential for vitamin D absorption, helping to defend against osteoporosis.

While all of these factors point towards the benefits of getting outside, the buzz of being out in the fresh air, feeling the sun, wind and rain, laying on the grass or walking in the woods, is reason enough for me to spend time in the great outdoors.

On running and writing

imageRegular visitors to the site may have noticed that I’ve been doing a little blog housekeeping of late.

I’ve refreshed the layout and organised my posts to make it easier to view them thematically, whether you are interested in Running, Yoga, SwimmingClimbing, Recipes and Nutrition, Marathon Training, Mind and Body, or Guest Posts. This menu is available on the sidebar of the desktop site or at the bottom of posts on mobile.

I’m always looking for ways to improve the content and accessibility of the site, so comments are very welcome.

ClimbingIt’s so nice (and it still surprises me) to hear when people have read posts, and it’s also useful to hear what kind of posts are most interesting or helpful to you, (as well as those that aren’t!)

I’m also on the lookout for guest posts, so if you have taken up a new sport, discovered a great recipe, learned how to fit in exercise with children or while pregnant, have overcome an injury, or have achieved a new goal that you want to share, just let me know.

During this refresh process I’ve been going back through old posts and it’s like reading back over an old diary. My first post was back in February 2014 and I wonder how many miles I’ve run since then.

SwimmingWriting has not only helped to keep a record of the training I’ve done, the new sports that I’ve tried, and the research and books that I’ve read on health, fitness and nutrition, but it has also encouraged me to read and learn more than I would perhaps have done otherwise.

Whether it is the benefits of training your brain to allow you to push yourself further on a run, the impact of sex on your workout, or the health fallacies perpetuated by bad data, I’ve discovered so much while writing this blog.

Through the experience of training for a variety of events I’ve learned about exercising with injury, supplementing with protein and resisting temptation.

I’ve run in towns and cities including New York, Chicago, Paris, Frankfurt, Stratford and Edinburgh; I’ve climbed in Font talked climbing in Slovenia.

IMG_0213I’ve had good days and really bad ones and I’ve learned how to stay motivated from the most inspiring of runners including Murakami and Jurek.

So I wanted to re-surface a selection of some of my old posts, which I’d almost forgotten writing and which I hope you have a minute or so to enjoy here.

Happy reading!

Salad days

vegan salad

After last week’s proclamation of a health kick, and with a few good salads under my belt, the healthy eating started in earnest this week.

I’m working towards little targets, the first being our holiday in September, which gives me seven weeks (and counting!) of being good to my body.

I’m not reviewing improvement in terms of weight or body measurements, which are more aesthetic than functional indicators, but rather, by how I feel in myself and by my running performance.

In terms of the latter, I’m building my weekly mileage back up in anticipation of the Windsor half marathon, also in September. I want to get back to doing one long-ish (over 9 mile) run a week and have committed to going to running club every Tuesday. This is, of course, on top of my usual running regime. I would also like at least one Park Run PB before the holiday, (so fingers crossed).

When it comes to how my body feels, I’m sure I’m not alone in going through periods of feeling stodgy and heavy, when being over-tired, stressed or dehydrated leads to over-eating and when too many carbs results in general lethargy.

Aubergine, avocado, quinoa and pine nut salad
Aubergine, avocado, quinoa and pine nut salad

Taking steer from Chris McDougall in his book ‘Natural Born Heroes’, I’m now focusing on eating a low sugar, low GI diet. McDougall looks at how simple carbs impact insulin release, leading to the post-sugar energy crash and hunger pangs, which may later develop into inefficient sugar breakdown and eventual insulin resistance.

In contrast to the idea of carb loading before events to improve running performance, he instead looks at how the body can be forced to use energy-dense fat as fuel, allowing you to run harder and further without the sugar crash that comes from a high-carb fuelled workout.

To encourage your body to use fat rather than sugar, McDougall suggests a diet high in protein and good fats. For him, this was meat, cheese, egg, fish and nut heavy. For me, as a vegan, it means plenty of vegetables, quinoa, lentils, nuts and tofu. I’m not cutting out fruit, soya and pulses as McDougall advocates, as I’m not in a position to fill up on animal products as he was, but I am cutting down on fruit juices and dried fruit, which are sugar traps masquerading as healthy options, and of course stripping back on carbohydrate rich foods.

Protein shake
Protein power!

I have found that alternating porridge with a protein shake made with a scoop of Sun Warrior protein, a handful of frozen berries or mango, half a frozen banana, water with a dash of soya, almond or coconut milk and occasionally some additional flax seeds or peanut butter, really helps me to feel lighter in the morning and holds off the mid-morning hunger pangs.

Doing 20-40 minutes of yoga each morning before breakfast also really helps to get my system going first thing and actually makes me feel less tired (and less likely to want a morning snack) even though I have to get up earlier to fit it in.

Basil, tomato, olive and avocado lunch salad
Basil, tomato, olive and avocado lunch salad

For lunches, I’m making salads with all of my favourite things to prevent any temptation from Pret or Itsu. I usually use a base of rocket or spinach (although yesterday I was out of leaves so I used a handful of basil from my basil plant, which was totally delicious!), then add cherry tomatoes, cucumber and pepper, some protein either from tofu, nuts, quinoa or beans, some healthy fats from avocado, artichokes, hummus, seeds, olives or sun-dried tomatoes, a steamed green such as asparagus or broccoli and maybe some aubergine, mushroom or courgette cooked with some Harissa or chipotle paste.

I’m keeping a record of my #saladdays on Instagram and would love you the share your salad ideas and pictures with me to keep me motivated.

In the afternoon, following McDougall’s fat and protein rich diet recommendations, I am now guiltlessly snacking on raw nuts, which are my favourite treats!

Then evenings are again salads, soups and other veggie-heavy dishes such as stir fries, vegetable chilli, spiralised courgette and vegetarian Bolognese, butternut squash tagines or vegetable curries.

Go nuts! mixed nuts
Go nuts!

R has also read an article which recommends regular fast days or cutting down to 500 calories a day. This means that we are aiming to skip supper a day or so a week. There are various health benefits associated with fasting days and I would direct you to Bojan Kostevski’s article on this.

So, having written this post as a means of holding myself to account, I look forward to hearing about your healthy eating resolutions and any good recipe recommendations to keep me on track!

Happy healthy eating!