How to curb cravings for good.

Regardless of where you sit at the table of nutritional ambiguity, one thing we can all unanimously agree on is processed junk food will not assist any weight-loss effort. This should come as no surprise although I'm sure if you search hard enough you'll find a diet which involves only drinking processed meal supplements. Oh, wait...

Now you've tried what must be the dullest, most unpalatable 'weight-loss' fad EVER and hold all such practices in total disdain, the time has arrived to apply common sense and cut out the crap. But how? 

Food vices are weird and wonderful. At school, I had a mild addiction to the Cadbury Boost Bar, a hyper-sweet confectionery containing no less than 51g of sugar. On arriving home from school one day, Mum presented me with an industrial size box of these borderline psychotic sweets. 2-hours and 5 bars later I vowed never to eat another. All was not lost though, I made a reasonable margin on the surplus stock to the eager Year 6's at school. To this day, I could count the number of Boosts I've had since on 1 hand. This experience taught me 2 things; consuming 5 Boosts in 2 hours morphs a shy, gangly child into a wild banshee and that bulk purchases can not only save you money but also make it. 

We could infer that this may be a way to crack cravings? 'Flooding' is a technique used by therapists to help people overcome phobias.  Suddenly exposing yourself to the very thing you are afraid of with hope this will 'break' the phobia and rationalise it. The difficulty in taking this approach with cravings is most people have more than one. Having a 'sweet tooth' could cover a plethora of foods and I'd guess there would be considerable weight gain before the cravings are curbed. 'Flooding with Chicken Nuggets' sounds more like a challenge on a game show hosted by Noel Edmonds than a legitimate technique for ending a craving.

Looking at smokers, the latest 'best' advice is to go cold-turkey (with additional help from talking therapy and/or drugs), and practically, this makes sense. Tapering off an addictive substance is notoriously difficult. Despite gradually reducing your intake of the addictive substance, you continue to feed the addiction and simply require less of the bad thing. 

I find craving and addictions fascinating. Most of the food-related stories written by tabloid papers simply aim to tell us what we should or should not eat (which changes weekly), without addressing how. The fact that most of the people I work with have a self-confessed addiction and understand what constitutes healthy eating tells me that the basic knowledge usually exists, but actually making the change is the hard part.

I enjoy keeping at the sharp end of lifestyle intervention research as this information underpins my work and ultimately the success of the people I help. The important part is this: the science simply makes the picture clearer; it provides depth, detail and colour. Each person is unique and with their own problems. And the reality is a lot of this stuff is much simpler than we are initially led to believe. I teach more 'how' instead of 'what'. And this is probably why you are reading this on my website and not in the Daily Mail.

It isn't uncommon for people to confuse hunger and cravings. There is no doubt that the two are linked, but the mechanisms are subtly different. When energy intake from food is drastically cut, as in a severe calorie reduction diet (c.1200 calories/day), hunger (eventually) reduces accordingly. The notion that not eating anything means you will feel hungry and induce cravings is incorrect. Cravings will slowly subside due to the fact they have been removed (though virtue of the diet) but weight-loss will quickly grind to a halt as your metabolism adjusts to the new, low energy intake. Hunger is a normal hormonal response. It can be manipulated and indeed controlled by eating a diet of real food (but that is for another post). Cravings are different. If you remove sugar from your life, eventually you will no longer crave it. There is an element of perseverance here. Prolonged very-low-calorie-diets (VLCD) that are bound by a rule-book or assigned a colour are neither helpful nor healthy. They will no doubt lead to an initial small weight-loss and feeling of victory but sustainability is unrealistic and likely to result in an almighty binge at (insert fast-food outlet). 

If you've arrived here ready to act on your cravings the good news is you're 9/10th's of the way there.  The next stage is to equip yourself with the information so you can go forward with the battle already won. 

6 simple steps to take you from contemplation to action.

Step 1: Correctly identify your addiction. 

Oreo's? Pringles? Cookies? Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. Write a list of the foods you feel you are addicted to. Be honest and thorough. Can these be grouped into a category? Sweet food in packets? Fast food from takeaways? Chocolate bars? Baked goods? Most people crave foods that hit what manufacturers call the 'Bliss Point'. A chemically attained blend of sugar and fat which lights the brain up, makes you feel great (for all of 3 minutes) followed by a wave of guilt and eventual weight gain. 

Step 2: Remove all these food from your environment:

Begin with your home. Strip it bare and take it to a food bank or bin it (or sell it). Don't hide it or take it to work; remove it from your life. Then get it out of your workplace. Don't sit near the biscuit tin in the staff room. Don't keep 'emergency supplies' in your drawer. If possible, take only your lunch to work and no money. 

Step 3: Tell people what you are doing and justify it.

If you are going to stop eating crunchy-nut, you'll need to explain this and explain why. “I'll be eating omelettes for breakfast now, guys. Crunchy nut makes me fall asleep on my keyboard by 10am”.

Step 4: Go shopping.

If you are serious about kicking these craving, expect to put some work in. Simply saying it does not cut it. You'll need to invest. I recently met someone who spends £200/month on lunch. And they weren't even nice lunches. The main problem was that this worked out at 12% of their monthly income: on rubbish, fast-food lunches. If this sounds familiar, I challenge you to save your lunch receipts for a week, add them up and then spend the same amount in a supermarket (or better, a butcher, veg stall and fishmonger) and see what you get. You'll be eating rib-eye steak from a Tupperware. Winner!

Step 5: Decide what you want to replace these foods with? 

Simply cutting these foods out will leave a hole in your day. Unlike smoking, foods are required to repair the body and if you just cut meals, things will come unstuck, and quickly. Be smart and create a plan to swap. As a guide, aim to swap your addicted food for something whole and in its real form. 

Example: Unhealthy addiction: Crunchy Nut Cornflakes with milk. Replace with a healthy: 3 egg omelette and cheddar cheese. 

Step 6: Stay focused. 

Don't expect everything to be plain sailing. It's an addiction after all! You need to be prepared to be consciously replacing unhealthy foods, trying new foods and having slip ups.
Always think ahead. The most common reason for falling down are:

- When you have time off, eg: the weekend/holiday/long drive. Tip: Keep busy and take good food with you.
- With friends. Be courageous and explain what and why you are doing. There is nothing wrong with looking after yourself. 
 - Illness. If you fall ill, put only the best foods into your body. This will give you the best chance of getting better sooner. 
- Alcohol. Hangover = sofa + pizza. WRONG. Get outdoors, take a walk and eat some good, nutritious food. Don't wallow. Unhealthy behaviours drive unhealthy behaviours. Be aware of the trap. 

To be clear, if you have a specific addiction to a certain food then my advice is to go cold-turkey using the steps above. The caveat is you MUST have a plan AND support beforehand. Don't be the 'I'm starting my new diet on Monday' person. If you need a week or a month to prepare, take the week the time. The key is when you decide to do it, do it properly. Finally, I would not recommend eating 5 tubs of Haagen Dazs in an evening to crack your ice-cream addiction. Although if anyone does try this, please let me know how you get on.

Sleep, stress and body weight

Recognising the value in sleep

Don't you just love a good night's sleep? Lying down after a long day, supported by the soft sheets and springs. Relax.

Sleep is a restorative process for the brain. But how often do we find our minds spinning, unable to switch off before bedtime? Sleep duration has steadily decreased over the past century. From an average of 9hrs in 1910 to 7hrs in 1995. Hundred's of epidemiological studies have shown a strong relationship between sleep disturbance and obesity. The mechanisms are complex and but the solutions are simpler than you may think.

Stress and sleep: A vicious circle

The brain was once described to me as a muscle. If you don't use it, it gets weak and slow.  If we use our brain all day and stress all night, failing to rest it, the result is a brain that is constantly operating in a sub-optimal way. Making below-par decisions because it is constantly fatigued. The purpose of sleep is not to rest your body, but your brain. Most of us do nowhere near enough physical activity to warrant resting for 9 hours every day. But almost anyone who has a job, cares for someone or is in education, will most certainly need this rest so their BRAIN can restore itself and process the day's events. A stressful day frequently leads to a poor night's sleep (tell me something new), but what has this got to do with weight gain...?

The link between poor sleep and gradual weight gain

The body is a beautifully complex system. It is regulated tightly by a number of pathways and mechanisms that impact our mood, our weight and even our appearance. Most notable is how our hormones can adjust and react to our environment, literally changing our behaviour. Under normal circumstances, our hormones are released at certain points in the day. If this 'normal' cycle is disrupted, hormone release can become compromised and fall out of rhythm with the body's normal pattern. Take a poor nights sleep (low quality and less than 6 hours). When you wake up, you will have more Ghrelin, the hormone that makes you feel hungry and less Leptin, the hormone that makes you feel full. Under normal conditions, the body should have low Ghrelin levels in the morning and slightly raised Leptin. What this means in real terms is when you wake after a poor night's sleep, you may feel an urge to eat more than you actually need. One study showed that after sleep-deprivation, healthy young adults increased caloric intake the next day by 14% with a preference for carbohydrate-rich food.

And the idea that this 'blip' in normal routine can be remedied with an intense bout of exercise is nonsense. Ignoring the fact that very few people will even entertain the idea of a game of squash after 6 hours sleep and 10-hour shift, the best thing one could do would be to get a good nights sleep and resume a normal routine the following day.

Sciencey bit, simplified

So, you made it through a stressful day. After a measly 6 hours sleep, your foggy brain gets you through another working day and ready for bed, guilty for not going to squash. Again. The environment inside your body is now all over the place. Cortisol, the stress hormone, is on the up. Cortisol stimulates insulin (storage hormone) release which in turn increases blood sugar levels. High blood-sugar levels during sleep mean your body is running on glucose (sugar) and not fat.

Completing the circle: How poor sleep can lead to weight gain

A poor night's sleep can lead to feeling stressed and creates an environment inside our bodies that denies fat-burning, due to elevated stress hormone (cortisol). Instead of burning fat, your body uses its most readily available store of sugar (either by making it or by you providing it via a meal). When you feel tired and stress, you are less likely to spend time preparing a meal that is nutritious. Instead, you'll reach for the most readily available meal that is likely processed and unlikely to satisfy you. We know refined, high carbohydrate foods are the source of gradual weight-gain and these are the exact foods you're likely to seek out when tired and stressed. These foods will cause big fluctuations in your blood sugar levels (sleep/awake/buzzing/sleepy etc.) throughout the day resulting in reduced productivity, capacity to make clear decisions and a general feeling of malaise. Unless steps are taken to break the cycle (see below) then the cycle continues, day after day, week after week.

Weight gain doesn't happen overnight. It is a long process that is a product of small, seemingly insignificant behaviours that contribute to a gradual shift towards insulin resistance, inability to access fat as a fuel and uncontrolled hunger. Don't be fooled into thinking 'willpower' will be enough to make you lose weight. It won't. Millions have tried and failed. Tackle the root cause, regain control of your sleep, learn to control stress and recognise that hunger doesn't always mean 'eat'.

Solutions to reduce stress

I am not an expert on how to reduce stress. But I am someone who doesn't get stressed very easily and I understand how to perform well under pressure. Try and identify areas in your life where the stress is originating; your job, financial situation, family. Speak with loved ones. Be open and honest with your feelings. Make a plan to change something by the end of the month. Socialise more. Take walks as often as you can. Explore positive ways to 'vent' (negatives would be excessive alcohol, smoking. Positives would be a walk, visiting relatives, calling an old friend). Try thinking differently about your situation, consider the good bits.

Change how you talk about your day

I stumbled across an enlightening TED talk 3-days ago. Alison Ledgerwood flawlessly presents a new way of thinking about your day. Deceptively simple but wonderfully powerful, this will be 10-minutes well spent:

How to make your bedroom somewhere you want to sleep:

  • Keep it tidy (thanks, Mum).
  • Keep it cool (17-19 Celsius is optimal). 
  • Consider changing your duvet during summer months to a lower tog.
  • Use an eye mask, ear plugs and blackout blinds if you work night shifts.
  • Have a good book or magazine on the go.
  • Use an alarm clock to save having your mobile in the room.
  • Start to wind down 2 hours before bed. Reduce screen usage, finish eating and drinking and prepare for the next day.
  • If you share a bed with someone, go to bed together.

The 7 Habits of Healthy People

Habits = a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.

Healthy = in a good physical or mental condition.

There are a good deal more than 7 healthy habits. This short post distils them down to the 7 I feel matter the most.

  1. They move – healthy people enjoy moving. They are happier and, paradoxically, tend to have more energy than sedentary people.

  2. They eat real food – although many people disagree on what constitutes a healthy diet, one thing we can agree on is highly processed junk or fake food does not support your health.

  3. They sleep well – in order to be at your best, rest and recovery is key. This happens best when you're in bed getting high quality sleep.

  4. They drink alcohol in moderation – enjoying alcohol in moderation is socially supportive and can (according to some studies) be healthier than being teetotal.

  5. They enjoy being outdoors – wildlife and nature form a fundamental part of our development as children. Maintaining this exposure as adults is vital.

  6. They have supportive families – when a crisis hits, a supportive family will be able to offer assistance and aid in all areas of life.

  7. They enjoy a challenge – challenges provide opportunities for us to test ourselves and demonstrate our abilities. They may also highlight weakness, allowing us to learn and grow stronger.

 

Leproult R & Van Cauter E. 2010, Role of Sleep and Sleep Loss in Hormonal Release and Metabolism, vol 17, pp 11–21

Gardner, B & Wardle 2011 ‘The Role of Health Behaviour’ in A Steptoe (ed) Health Psychology Lee, I-Min, et al (2012)

‘Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy’, The Lancet, 380, 9838, pp 219-229

Food, responsibility and health – A Journey.

Below is a short story about carbs, some history and a personal experiment. If you find that boring, scroll to the bottom for the tips. If not, I hope it adds something to your day.

Disclaimer: Moving to a low-carbohydrate higher-fat (LCHF) lifestyle requires commitment and understanding. You can do this by reading extensively and taking the necessary steps to implement it in a sustainable way, ideally with support. I'd always recommend consulting with your GP before making any dramatic changes to your lifestyle.

The current UK dietary guidelines recommend the majority (50%) of your caloric intake should come from carbohydrates; starch (260g) and sugar (90g). I don't support this notion and I am not alone. The evidence for these guidelines is less than underwhelming. If one takes a step back and looks at the latest figures, the UK population are in-fact following the advice of a high carbohydrate, low-fat diet; and gaining weight rapidly. I believe the messages are wrong, the advice a majority of health professionals have given and still do give is wrong. The 'people' are not to blame. The information given needs better evidence and a consensus between those delivering it.

Around 3 years ago I came across an article by Marika Sboros, a South African journalist, on 'Banting' (consciously limiting carbohydrates). It summarised recent research by Professor Tim Noakes, the eminent Exercise Physiologist, on the latest nutritional guidelines. Noakes, known for challenging mainstream thinking (and being right), had been researching the role of carbohydrate in the diet and had established that it was in fact, not necessary. This struck me. I'd learnt of Noakes' work as a student and held him in very high regard. I'd cited his papers in assignments and followed his nutritional advice to fuel my own sporting endeavours. Yet here, Noakes seemed to have back-tracked. His hands were in the air, apologetic, remorseful. In a brave, controversial move, he had publicly challenged the dogma and denounced our recommended Western-Diet.

When someone who is responsible for progressing an entire field of science comes forward and admits they were wrong, people notice. For me, it was confusing. Everything I was taught as a student was being challenged. If this had been any other scientist, I would have probably rubbished it as another sensationalist article aiming to put a 'sciency' spin on another fad-diet. Thankfully, I didn't. I decided to dig deeper. It didn't take long before the pieces of this big jigsaw puzzle began to come together.

I came across Dr. John Yudkin, the British physiologist, who in 1972 released the book 'Pure, White and Deadly' which shed light on the link between sugar, heart disease and obesity. Yudkin was the arch nemesis of Dr. Ancel Keys, the Amercian Physiologist responsible for the diet-heart hypothesis and key influencer/designer of the 1977 US-dietary guidelines we still follow today. Keys was critical in pushing the message that saturated fat, and therefore all fat was the cause of heart-disease, hence the emergence of low-fat diets. I discovered William Banting, the British Undertaker from the 1800's who promoted the idea of limiting carbohydrates, particularly those of 'starchy and sugary nature' as an aid to weight-loss. The term Banting or 'to-bant' was derived from his surname and refers to his method of weight-loss via a restriction in dietary carbohydrate. The more I looked, the more I uncovered. (Banting's thinking came from his doctor who had made his own realisations during a presentation from Clause Bernard, the respected French Physiologist). This was a tool that had been used for well over 100 years, hypothesised in the 1800's and fundamental to nutritional science. Why hadn't I learnt of these pioneers before? This wasn't another socially engineered, well-marketed celebrity diet. This was research started over a century ago by an Undertaker in London, lost in the World Wars and subsequently hidden by research trials conducted in the US throughout the 70's, to be finally reignited by an established, A1 rated scientist from Cape Town. My head began to fill with questions. The more I read, the clearer things became. The evidence was mounting. It became increasingly difficult to trust what I thought I knew.

Months passed. I read the little available research from the past 5 years I could find on low-carbohydrate living and eventually, curiosity won over. Out went the cereal boxes, pasta, potatoes, rice and bread. In came the butter, nuts, green veg (by the tonne) and fish. Equipped with the necessary knowledge, I committed fully to the Banting way of living. Initially, I felt great. I noticed my sleep improve and I almost had to remind myself to eat. And then it hit me. Like a brick to face. 40 minutes into an hour-long run. My body felt like there was no blood in it, totally empty. My hearing became muffled and my jaw stiff. I'd been in this situation before but usually after an all out effort, racing in the heat of doing a maximal fitness test. Not on an easy run round the block. After 15 minutes sat at the bus stop I collected myself, walked home and proceeded to eat an unfathomable quantity of food. Something was obviously wrong with my approach. If this so called no sugar, low carbohydrate way of living was the route to ultimate health, I needed to find a way to make it compatible with exercise.

The next 6 months involved several self-experiments, gravely attempting to combine the LCHF protocol with endurance training. The purpose was simple, I wanted to see if I could perform better on a diet that undermined the cornerstone of endurance performance nutrition. Eventually, I settled on a method that not only made me capable of a morning 2.5h+ run in the hills without breakfast or any food, but also allowed me to remain mentally sharp and productive without needing to constantly feed myself. I felt awesome. My body fat dropped 3.5%, whilst maintaining a comparable level of exercise (although significantly more sitting day-to-day). All whilst drastically increasing my fat intake.

Part of the successful adjustment was my persistence to keep trying new things until something worked. A majority the success was down to to the book 'The Art and Science of Low-Carbohydrate Performance'. The authors, Jeff Volek & Stephen Phinney were responsible for the initial groundbreaking work in understanding and formulating a sound structure for athletes looking to exploit the benefits of Low-Carbohydrate performance. They have released numerous texts and are regarded as true authorities in the field of nutritional science.

Side note: The goal here was to see if I could use my own fat stores as fuel for exercise at a higher intensity instead of relying on external feeding (gels, flapjack etc.). This is a state known as nutritional ketosis (not be confused with ketoacidosis, a dangerous build-up of ketones in the body). The loss in fat was not expected, at least not to this degree. I don't attribute the loss of body fat to an increase in exercise for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was doing a lot less (sat at a PC instead of walking around all day on a 6 month travelling trip) throughout the day despite my slight (around an extra 90 minute a week) increase in exercise. Secondly, I don't support the simplistic model of 'calories in calories out' or 'a calorie is a calorie'. Weight-loss is complex and follows a hormonal model which few can be bothered to learn about. I don't want people to use my experiment as proof. I am an individual, as are you. It's an example of how a slim person can still lose fat mass by eating more fat and less carbohydrate whilst following sound advice. There are thousands of people doing the same under medical supervision to help manage numerous complex metabolic conditions. Anyone looking to go down the same route should seek professional support.

In 2016, I was fortunate to attend a lecture in Skipton, organised by Dr. Verner Wheelock. The speakers (Marika Sboros, Dr. David Unwin & Dr. Trudi Deakin) were all advocates of a low-carbohydrate lifestyle. The venue had even managed to convince their chef to prepare 10 low-carb dishes for the attendees (I promise this wasn't the only reason I went). Marika Sboros gave an interesting insight into the legal trial Prof. Tim Noakes had been involved in relating to a tweet he had sent discussing nutrition and the risks health professionals take when they challenge the status-quo. Dr. Trudi Deakin explained how her post-doctoral research had led her to helping type-2 diabetics manage their condition with diet alone, empowering them to regain control of their condition. Finally, Dr. David Unwin gave the audience a unique look at how as a G.P, he had successfully reduced patient's medications and in some instances removed all medications by using a low-carbohydrate approach.

The mist was starting to clear. A weight-loss idea applicable to mainstream population had arguably spawned from an overweight undertaker in the 1800's. It had laid dormant in Western society until 1972 when Dr. Yudkin stoked the nutritional fire, igniting a fierce battle with Dr. Ancel Keys the American physiologist (who's nutritional research was funded by the sugar industry. Although incidentally Keys conducted a number of excellent studies, the results of which were covered up so as not to contradict the research he had performed for the sugar industry. These studies were discovered recently and make fascinating reading, see: Minnesota Starvation Experiment). Key's ultimately 'won' this battle with Yudkin and the demonisation of fat was forever more. It wasn't until Prof. Noakes in the 00's (can I say naughties?) once again shed light on this idea; it isn't fat that makes us fat, it's sugar.

I was fortunate to get an opportunity to speak with Dr. Unwin after the talk, eager to learn more from a man brave enough to go against the grain and think outside the box. David explained the depth of this movement within the Medical Profession and how in-fact the NICE guidelines support an individualised approach, in the treatment of type 2 diabetes.

One of Dr Unwin's papers of particular interest can be viewed here where he explains how viewing starches (potatoes, bananas, rice) as 'healthy' carbohydrates is something of a misnomer. The body does not differentiate between these foods and table sugar, it receives a signal to release a certain amount of insulin based upon the glycaemic load of the food eaten. We can see below, in the table taken from Dr. Unwin's research published in the Journal of Insulin Resistance, that a small (150g) bowl of boiled basmati rice has the equivalent impact on blood sugar as 10.1 teaspoons of sugar! We'd expect this perhaps from a Mars bar, but rice?! It's very telling information and particularly helpful for those looking to lose weight.

Taken from - 'It is the glycaemic response to, not the carbohydrate content of food that matters in diabetes and obesity: The glycaemic index revisited.' -David Unwin, David Haslam, Geoffrey Livesey

Doctors used to prescribe smoking. Society then started to realise that smoking can give you cancer, and now smoking is widely held as one of the most damaging things for your health. This didn't happen overnight. It took time. There were those smokers who didn't believe it. There were even campaigns to try and bury evidence. Scientists were paid to keep quiet and manipulate results. It wasn't until recently that tobacco companies stopped sponsoring sports events (they've now turned to junk food companies). Change can take a long time. But, and it’s a big BUT, you can be ahead of the curve. You can and should take steps to regain control of your health. We cannot rely on guidelines that have been written using flawed, conflicted and frankly dangerous research. We all have a responsibility for our own health. Science is evolving faster than ever before. Aside of the aforementioned figureheads leading the fight to a nation of healthier people are numerous charities and organisation. The Public Health Collaboration (PHC) is a charity promoting real food and healthy eating. It's run voluntarily by Doctors and directed by Sam Feltham, a Personal Trainer & Health Activist from London. The PHC website is an excellent place to start if you're looking to better inform yourself on how to start a low-carbohydrate lifestyle.

3 Tips for You

1. The first step towards lowering your intake of sugar is stop adding it to food and drinks like tea and coffee. Secondly, avoid hidden sugar in fruit juices, cereals and ready meals. Third, start reading labels. Don't be too concerned with the 'traffic' light system, (the food industry had a big hand in designing this). Look on the back at 'carbohydrates'. Aim for less than 5g per 100g for total carbohydrates.

2. If you are looking to replace starchy carbohydrates with fats, these are a good place to start:

  • Butter

  • Full-fat cream

  • Olive oil

  • Meat (including the fat)

  • Fatty fish

  • Bacon

  • Eggs

  • Coconut oil.

3. If in doubt, eat real unprocessed food.

 

Further reading -

Diabetes and Obesity -

http://insulinresistance.org/index.php/jir/article/view/8/9

Sport -

https://www.thenoakesfoundation.org/nutrition-network/the-lchf-diet-for-elite-athletes-in-high-intensity-sport

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Science-Low-Carbohydrate-Performance/dp/0983490716

Health -

https://phcuk.org/

http://www.diabetes.co.uk/

Exercise & Health

The reason we are advised by health professionals to exercise, is that those who exercise tend to be healthier, and less likely to develop a serious illness. It certainly isn't a case of 'the more exercise I do, the healthier I am', but about finding a balance; the optimal amount for you. Doing too much exercise is just as unhealthy as doing zero exercise. If you have a physical job, you're less likely to need to spend as much time focusing on how to fit exercise in to your day. If you sit on an office chair all day, you'll need to get smart on how to move more.

Recommendations

The recommendations for adults currently stand at 2.5 hours per week of 'moderate aerobic exercise', think jogging or a steady bike ride AND two strength training sessions that work your major muscle groups (squats, burpees, press-ups). This 2.5 hours is also advertised as 150 minutes or previously 5x30 minutes. Alternatively, 3x10 minutes each day of more 'vigorous' activity can make up your daily 30 minute dose. So, if you walk or ride to work and find time to do a bodyweight workout at home a couple of times each week, then top work!

Starting Exercise for the First-Time.

For those who are not part of a team sport or club, deciding what type of exercise to do can be tricky. Firstly, there's the case of fitting it in. Then you need to decide when to start. Only once you've started do you realise you have no idea what you're doing! This is the classic journey of the new gym-goer. So if this is you, or you're contemplating starting exercise, here are some things to consider:

  • Don't spend £100's on new kit. If you've got a pair of trainers, you're good to go.

  • Speak to friends and try to join them for a taster session.

  • Try a few things out to decide what you enjoy.

  • Once you know what you enjoy, try and spend 20 minutes doing that activity but break it into 4 blocks of 5 minutes. Between each block, rest for a minute. This might be a round of badminton, lengths of the pool or jogging.

  • Aim for 20 minutes, twice a week to begin with, working your way up to 3, then 4 over the space of a couple of months.

  • Appreciate that if you haven't previously exercised, or have taken more then 3 months off, you'll need to gradually increase the number of sessions you do each week. The number one reason for people skipping exercise is a new injury or illness from taking up exercise too quickly. Don't be a statistic!

  • Understand that exercise is not a substitute for leading an active a lifestyle. Walk every day. Try and commute to work. Stand wherever possible. Our environment is designed to make life as easy as possible. Unfortunately, easy doesn't equal healthy. Be smart and find ways to incorporate movement into daily activities.

Physical Activity

I feel there are some key messages that should be offered to those looking to improve their quality of life through an increase in exercise (planned) and physical activity (lifestyle). Walking is an easily accessible, low-skill form of movement that we should all aim to do more of. The latest 'bare-minimum' figure is 7000 steps (45 minutes) each day, with 14,000 steps seeming to be optimal for health. Don't underestimate walking. When you're walking you're not sitting, so it's a double-whammy. Take the stairs wherever possible. Park in the first space you see in the supermarket and use a basket for an added upper-body workout. Get off the bus a stop early or even try walking your route once a week. Build physical activity into your life. It doesn't have to rule it, be time-consuming or unattainable. Look at your day; find little pockets to add some movement in. Find ways to make it fun. So the next time you say, 'I'm busy' or, 'I don't have the time', ask if you really need to spend 10 minutes on Instagram in the morning? Or could you do 10 minutes of exercise in your living room? In today's world, you have to make a conscious effort to move; it needs bumping up the priority list.

Exercise for weight-loss

First off, when we say weight-loss, we mean fat-loss. Not many people are trying to loose muscle mass. Exercise can aid fat-loss, however if you're sole aim is to loose fat you'll need to examine your eating-habits a little more closely. Many people have studied the effect of exercise on weight-loss. Some people would even have you believe you can eat all you want and, so long as you exercise enough, you'll loose weight! If you've tried this, I don't need to tell you this doesn't work. Your motivation to exercise should be from the standpoint of, 'I care about my health and I want to do something to look after myself '. We all know what the behaviours of slim, healthy people are. They do stuff. They eat good food. They're busy. They have fun. Want to join them? Just copy.

How many-a-day?

As an adult, you'll make around 35,000 subconscious decisions each day. Interestingly, only 226 of those decisions are about what you do, or do not, eat. When I first leant this statistic, I thought the numbers were wrong. I mean, I think about food all the time. It's hard not to. In a world of targeted marketing, our cookies are read, filtered and interpreted quicker than we can eat them. Aside of making your surprise gift less of a 'surprise' for your significant other, you'll be receiving subliminal messages on how to live and what to buy every time your phone is unlocked.

What is particularly interesting about these food decisions is they invariably go against what most of us know to be best for us. We know an apple is better for us than a Mars Bar, yet we choose the more expensive, less nutritious Mars Bar anyway.

In 1996, some fascinating behavioural research was taking place in California under the eminent Brian Wansink. Amongst other things, researchers were observing the habits of both slim and heavy people to try and identify possible reasons as to why some people chose the Mars bar, and others the apple. It wasn't long before some interesting differences were identified; slim people spent significantly less time in environments that encouraged poor nutritional choices. It wasn't a case of increased willpower or higher motivation. Instead, controlling their environment protected them from even having to contemplate a poor nutritional decision in the first place. In his book, Slim by Design, Wansink summaries his 25 years of research in one sentence; 'Becoming slim by design works better than becoming slim by willpower.' In real terms, this means it is easier to put the biscuit tin in the cupboard than to try and resist eating another biscuit. In essence, create an environment, in your home/workplace/school, that mirrors the behaviours you want to exhibit.

The approach Dr Wansink is advocating makes a lot of sense. We see it at play in other areas of daily life all the time. Example; you have a piece of work to submit. You get home from work and sit down on the sofa with your laptop. After 20 minutes, you flick the TV on to check you're not missing anything. 30 minutes later you turn it off, realising you're wasting precious time. Solution: change your environment - move to a room without a TV. It's a case of applying the same model to your eating environments. Have a look at your environment now. Is it conducive to a healthy lifestyle?

I don't read the Metro often. Mostly because it contains articles I am forbidden to write about on my blog (see previous post). However, I thought it would be interesting to have a nosy and see what was the latest food to be taken hostage. The headline that caught my eye was in fact not singling out a particular cancer-causing food but instead, an authoritative recommendation to eat '10 a day' directly from scientists at Imperial College London. Now, unless you've been living under a rock then you will have heard of 5-a-day; the public health initiative to encourage us to eat more fruit and vegetables. Queue the confusion. How many of each? Do potatoes count? What is a portion? Do men and women have the same portion size? So. Many. Questions. Despite the confusion that messages like this elicit, the aim was very simple – to increase consumption of fruit and vegetables. However, before we jump in and start eating 800g (10x80g portions) of nature's home-grown medicine, let's take a little look at the study behind the numbers.

The researchers began by using data obtained from 95 different studies, via food questionnaires. This is a particularly inaccurate way of gathering information on people's eating habits as they rely on people recalling (and being truthful about) what they ate for a 24-h period. The data gathered was then analysed to search for associations between the number of portions of fruit and vegetables a person ate and their risk of developing cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer. This part is important. The average Brit consumes 4 portions of fruit and veg each day. Only 30% of us consume 5 or more each day. The data does not extend to the point where people reported eating 10 or 15 portions a day so the researchers have extended the line of best fit through outliers in the data, essentially estimating what would happen if someone did eat 10 portions a day. This means they have created a line of best fit on data that has been averaged, with bonus points for estimating missing data! It goes further. Although this study has a strong method (a systematic review of meta-analyses), it's impossible to detract from the fact they have blatantly assumed the association (more fruit and veg is more protective) is causal. To highlight why associations do not prove causation, I've included a graph;

You get the idea...

Why is this important? It's important because, based on data that is notoriously unreliable (food questionnaires and human memory), researchers have created a headline that will grab attention. We started at 5, then 7 and now 10-a day, why not just say, 'the more fruit and vegetables you eat, the less likely you are to die'? As obesity researcher, Dr Zoe Harcombe highlights, '...fruit and veg intake is a marker of health not the maker of a healthy person'. The last thing we need is to encourage people to eat even more food based upon a flimsy association from recall data.

Another key area this study fails to recognise is other habits will also contribute to your risk of developing a nasty disease, or not. If it is this simple, then we might as well go out and feed 10 portions of fruit and vegetables each day to someone who smokes 20 cigarettes a day, drinks 8 pints and barely moves, transforming them in a pillar of health! As Dr Harcombe highlights, fruit and vegetables are a marker of a person's health. You cannot isolate these things and draw wild conclusions. We know that those who eat more fruit and vegetables are more likely to be female, in non-manual jobs and degree-educated. Those who eat less fruit and veg tend to be male, particularly inactive, drink more alcohol and smoke. Lifestyle is an all-encompassing, multi-factorial beast.

Let's turn our attention back to the curious work of Brian Wansink. His research is particularly interesting as he has worked for numerous large food corporations yet his research is aimed at changing the average person's behaviour, empowering them to make healthier choices. He was, in fact, the man to convince confectionery companies their profits would increase if they sold smaller packets all bunched together in a big bag (Fun Size) – you always tell yourself you'll just eat the one, right? An expert in human behaviour, his philosophy is this; control your environment (the layout of the kitchen, plate size, route through the supermarket) and you'll be less inclined to make choices the big food companies want you to make. I feel there is a distinct difference between this approach and that of our national guidelines which expect us to measure, weigh and count everything. Wansink's approach helps us all to make healthier choices without giving it any conscious thought – making it a more sustainable way to nudge us towards a healthier lifestyle.

What can we learn?

I don't believe that the media have an agenda to confuse us. I think they have a job to do, which is to create a headline that sells newspapers/drives online traffic. I don't blame the journalist or the paper for writing these headlines, however irresponsible they may seem. We need to accept we live in a world of big data and instant communication and take responsibility for our own health. To say that certain foods are 'health neutral', in that they neither positive or negatively impact health is not something that will create a headline. It's boring. But for a lot of foods it is true. Numerous studies (including Framingham & Women's Health Initiative) have shown that people who consume fruits and vegetables are less likely to develop certain diseases, however which fruits and vegetables are 'best' is something that is very difficult to pin down. Let's be clear, we all agree that consuming vegetables and fruits is nutritious, that is not being disputed. Going so far to say that if we all start eating 10-a-day then millions of lives will be 'saved' is just crazy.

There are a few things we do know are truly damaging to our health and do indeed increase the risk of disease. Things that scientists unanimously agree on. Smoking, intake of Sucrose and inactivity. There was a time when smoking would have been prescribed by your doctor, perhaps for stress. Scientific research has got us to a point where we now realise this to be 'unwise'. But it was a fight, tobacco companies aren't poor and neither is the sugar industry. I think the key to finding advice you can rely on is to look for the money. If the research behind the headline was sponsored by a company that sounds familiar, it may be that their agenda is a little different to yours. You want to lose weight, they want to make money – a conflict of interests.

My advice; keep eating fruit and vegetables, they are nutritious. Don't stress about trying to force 10 portions down each day. In order of priority, aim for vegetables that grow above grown followed by berries, vegetables that grow below ground and lastly fruit from trees. Avoid fruit that is in a packet (pre-cut) or highly processed (juice).

10-a-day? I say meat and two veg.

 

Books that contribute to this blog and are well worth a read:

Brian Wansink's 'Slim by Design' - https://www.amazon.co.uk/Slim-Design-Mindless-Solutions-Everyday/dp/0062136526

Zoe Harcombe's 'The Obesity Epidemic' - https://www.amazon.co.uk/Obesity-Epidemic-What-caused-stop/dp/1907797475/ref=sr_1_5?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1489960706&sr=1-5&keywords=zoe+harcombe

Welcome

“Behaviour is what a man does, not what he thinks, feels, or believes.” Emily Dickinson
 

I regard myself as curious. I suppose we are all curious about certain things, in one way or another. This blog will attempt to communicate my curiosity into useful content for you, the reader. The topics will revolve broadly around Exercise, Nutrition, Health, Brexit and Trump (the last 2 will never be mentioned again, I only include them as I've recently learned about S.E.O and hope this will make me slightly more visible on Google).

I'll attempt to follow a rough format in each post. A topic will be discussed, examples and cases explored and then a conclusion with some little nuggets of advice. Much like a GCSE physics experiment (less the expertly drawn Bunsen burner). I'm conscious that scientific papers are not everyone's go-to read so I'll refrain from referencing each blog post to death. Instead, If you'd like to know a particular source or reference and the link isn't at the bottom, then please drop me an email.

 

Josh