Updated: Feb 28, 2020
Diets promise us the holy grail of easy weight loss, a perfect figure and general utopia-like happiness. But let’s face it, they never really have long-term benefits and are often too hard to maintain.
So here we are, well and truly clear of January, with all its resolutions that we swear to stick to. Some of us may well be adhering to our promises with the staying power of Gorilla Glue but most of us have probably already abandoned the new sports kit sitting in the laundry basket or the spiraliser inching its way towards the back of the cupboard. However, as always, the biggest resolution failures are generally diets. Which one did you pick? Atkins? Elimination? 5:2? Maybe it’s time to ditch the diet and choose healthy moderation.
Fun fact (stick with me, here): Egypt has the highest percentage of obese adults in the world.(1) The majority of these are middle-aged people born in the late 1970s (the height of the “bread riots” and food shortages that occurred under Anwar Sadat). Studies have shown that if a woman is severely malnourished in the womb, or during her first two years of life, her metabolism will change permanently. She will store spare calories as fat - an insurance against future hard times. The body remembers being starved in the womb and is prone to compulsive eating. This (on a more minor scale) is reflective of what we are doing to our bodies when we severely restrict our food intake.
Studies show that the vast majority of people who lose weight on a diet regain all the weight lost. In fact 60% of them gain more than when they started.(2)
Any diet that is hypocaloric makes the brain think that you are starving; the hormone that is responsible for helping you to feel full (leptin) drops and the hormone that makes you feel hungry (ghrelin) increases. This is your body trying to survive its ‘starvation’. It doesn’t know that there isn’t a famine, that a dictator doesn’t have any bread for it and that you are restricting your food intake on purpose. Your body will fight to store calories and fat, just in case you are faced with a prolonged period without food.
There is also a psychological element: this ‘starvation mode’ triggers the release of higher levels of cortisol - the stress hormone - which can lead to stress eating, as it drives the reward system in your brain.(3) Already the see-saw effect is happening and that’s during the diet! Compound that with stress about sticking to the diet and you can see the vicious circle we enter.
Remember, you decided to go on this diet to lose a certain amount of weight. You’ve been super-disciplined about it. One, two, three months pass and finally you tip the scales at your goal weight. Awesome!!! Now you can go back to normal. But of course it’s not that simple: your calorie and fat intake levels will shoot back up, along with your weight.
So how do we get out of this yo-yo cycle?
The NHS recommends that men consume around 2,500 calories a day (10,500 kilojoules) and women around 2,000 calories a day (8,400 kilojoules). If you want to lose weight you need to burn more calories than you eat and vice versa. This is where a healthy lifestyle, rather than a restrictive short-term diet can help with long term weight management. Not to mention delivering more general health benefits.
So we know that most diets suggest you severely restrict your calorie intake and even get rid of entire food groups. But in the long term it is not recommended that one eliminates macronutrients, for example carbs or fat. As a result, when you return your diet to normal, the reintroduction of these foods or food groups often leads to greater weight gain.
A healthy, balanced diet allows you to eat both carbs and fats. In fact, they are essential. But it helps to understand how they work:
Carbohydrates’ main function in the diet is to provide energy. They are broken down by the body into glucogen (sugar) to be turned into fuel. By removing them from your diet, not only will you lose many nutrients but you will also lose the body’s main source of energy, which will reduce your energy level and impair your ability to go about your daily life, let alone exercise. By leaving this entire food group out of your diet, your body could try to compensate by storing fat to make up for the lack of fuel.
We have all heard talk about good and bad carbs. So what is the difference between them? Carbohydrates can be described as follows:
Complex carbohydrates (GOOD): foods high in fibre and starch taking longer to digest before creating glucose for energy. They contain important vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. These provide the slow-release energy for the body. Whole grains, beans, quinoa, legumes, oats, and brown rice are excellent sources of healthy complex carbs.
Simple carbohydrates (GOOD AND BAD!): foods containing natural sugars easily digested by the body and providing fast energy. Fruits, some vegetables, milk and milk products are rich sources of simple carbs. They contain essential nutrients, fibre and protein and act more like complex carbohydrates when digested. Simple carbs are also found in high levels in processed and refined foods like fizzy drinks, white sugar and pastries. These are your ‘bad’ carbs and should be avoided, or at least consumed sparingly.
But let’s boil it down to the simplest form: choose natural, unrefined, unprocessed carbs where you can. Fruit and vegetables, wholegrains and legumes are good carbs. Avoid processed and refined foods (what I call the yellow foods - pastries, fries, pizza), anything that looks like a person has heavily interfered with it! And a word of caution about the fancy fat-free yoghurts and their ilk which are sold to us as a healthy eating choice. They are stuffed full of invert syrup for what the food industry calls ‘mouth feel’. Invert syrup is sugar refined to its nth degree and you would be better off eating a few pots of the full fat stuff during the week than a pot a day of the fat-free variants. The sugar levels in them turn into really bad carbs!
Just like carbs there are good fats and bad fats. Your body needs fat for certain functions, for example, some vitamins (A, D and E) need the presence of fat to be dissolved and absorbed into the bloodstream. The NHS recommends that about 30% of our diet should consist of fats but not more than 11% of saturated fat. So again, let’s break it down:
Trans fats (AVOID): These are the types of fat that are solid at room temperature such as butter, shortening or dripping. But also hydrogenated vegetable oil. Sadly, processed foods such as cookies, pastries, pizza, deep fried foods are all high in trans fats. This is going to contribute heavily to weight gain and be detrimental to your health in terms of heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
Saturated fats (BAD) : These are generally found in high fat meat products and dairy. Fatty cuts of beef or lamb, dark chicken, whole milk, ice cream, cheese and coconut oil should be eaten sparingly. Again these will contribute to LDL cholesterol levels and heart disease.
Monounsaturated fats (GOOD): These can help reduce the risk of heart disease and lower cholesterol. They are found in avocado, nuts and vegetable oils.
Polyunsaturated fats (GOOD): These are essential fats, as the body can’t make them and derives them from foods. One of these fats is Omega-3 fatty acid which can be found in oily fish such as mackerel and salmon and in lower quantities in flaxseeds and walnuts. These can help lower blood pressure and the risk of heart attacks. You can also find Omega-6 fatty acids in seeds, such as sunflower and pumpkin as well as tofu and corn oil.
You can see from this why cutting fat out altogether is a bad plan when dieting.
The other stuff to do is obvious; take everything in moderation. Have a biscuit, not a packet. But don’t say no. Have a slice of pizza, not a whole pie. But don’t say no. Remember that pesky cortisol? Denying yourself something you want creates stress about not having it, making you want to binge. Have a little bit. Satisfy the craving. Moderately.
Make sensible swaps if you can. If you have a sweet tooth, try soft dried figs instead of chocolate. If you love chips, try switching to sweet potato ‘fries’ baked in the oven. Add as much colour to your diet as possible from the beautiful array of fruits and veggies we can so easily get our hands on nowadays. Try to switch red meat for white. Try to switch some white meat for oily fish. And don’t skip breakfast! It won’t help you lose weight, it just makes your body think it’s starving. Go back to the beginning if you forgot why that’s bad...
Drink lots of water. Many people confuse thirst for hunger. If you drink the recommended two litres of water a day, then there will be less room in your tummy for food! Easy win. Not to mention flushing out all the toxins hanging around in your system and helping to keep your skin hydrated.
And finally, move more. The World Health Organisation recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week. This isn’t just for weight management, but also for cardio-vascular efficiency, avoidance of diabetes and blood pressure control, to name a few.
I know that not everyone is the sporty type and that the gym can genuinely feel like the seventh circle of hell, so start small. I bet money that you are taking the bus three or four stops on a regular basis. Get off a stop or two early and walk. Then walk briskly. Then walk the whole route. It’s easy money in terms of calories burned. If you have a dog, don’t just throw the ball for them to run after, run with them. Find someone like me, who will come to your home to train you at whatever level is appropriate for you. Whether it is Pilates or PT, give it a go. Or if that is out of the question, there are loads of exercise apps that will take you through workouts. Think Jane Fonda on VHS for the 2020s, play on your phone or tablet, cast to your smart TV and don’t forget your leg warmers!
Small increments suddenly start adding up and oddly, you will find yourself naturally starting to exercise more. You will see the physical effects of a truly healthy, moderate diet plus good exercise in your changing shape and weight. But don’t obsess about how you look, obsess about how you feel. Do you have more energy? Are you sleeping better? Do you feel just a little bit proud of yourself that you have made really positive changes?
Ditch the diet, get off the scales and make good lifestyle choices. I am here if you need a hand!
Here are some really good recipes to slide into your new routine for a little bit of tasty inspiration: