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Heart health diet advice, controversy and confusion

Heart health diet advice, controversy and confusion

Heart health – diet advice, controversy and confusion 

The interest and reporting on health has been revolutionary in driving the key messages about the importance of diet and exercise, but have the scales started to tip in the wrong direction?

The basics of good heart health have remained relatively unchanged in that eating a balanced diet and keeping active are key drivers in reducing the risk of disease. The problem is that the definition of what constitutes a ‘balanced diet’ continues to get redefined as we have become obsessed with the ‘micro’ issues and controversies surrounding this topic.  The consequence of this is that key health messages, which are based on science, have become blurred and cause confusion amongst people on what they should be eating.

The basics

We all know what a healthy diet should look like.  To keep healthy, our diet should include plenty of vegetables, lean proteins, oily fish, high-fibre foods such as beans, pulses and lentils and ‘brown’ carbohydrates over ‘white’.  Foods and drinks that are in high in sugar and saturated fat such as puddings, desserts, confectionary, soft drinks, convenience foods, pies and pastries are perfectly fine in moderation but when eaten to excess, especially in place of healthy alternatives are not good for health.

Simple right? If you follow these principles and control the amount of food you eat then there’s no doubt that you’ll be able to retain a healthy body weight, glean enough micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and protect yourself against diet-related diseases. Yet many adults still fail to achieve this.

What does the current adult UK diet look like?

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) is a rolling program that assesses the dietary intake of the UK population. This latest version of the survey is a combination of years 7 and 8 (2014/15 – 2015/16) and provides insight into the foods people eat, nutrients gleaned and adherence to public health guidance around nutrition (1).

In summary, the average adult eats too much sugar and saturated fat, not enough fruit and vegetables, too little fibre and hardly any oily fish.  Total fat intake is within the recommended guidelines and we all eat get more than enough protein in our diet.  Vitamin and mineral intakes vary with a significant percentage of some groups not getting enough from their diet.

In more detail…

  • The average fruit and vegetable intake amongst adults is 298g (similar for both men and women), which equates to less than four servings per day.  Only 31% of adults manage to achieve five-a-day, which is higher in women than men (32% versus 29%).
  • The average intake of oily fish is just 8g per day or 64g per week, which is lower than the recommended single weekly serving of 140g.
  • The average intake of ‘free sugars’ amongst adults is over 11 teaspoons per day, which is almost twice the recommended amount.
  • Adults barely manage to get more than 2/3 of their recommended intake of fibre and only 9% meet the guidance of 30g per day (only 4% of women meet this).

 

Percentage of adults with micronutrient intakes below the LRNI

Micronutrient Adults Men Women
Vitamin A 13% 16% 10%
Riboflavin (B2) 10% 6% 14%
Folate 5% 3% 6%
Iron 15% 2% 27%
Calcium 9% 2% 11%
Magnesium 13% 14% 11%
Potassium 17% 11% 23%
Iodine 12% 9% 15%
Selenium 36% 25% 47%
Zinc 8% 7% 8%

 

So, why has healthy eating got so complicated and what is influencing our inability to meet these basic principles?

For the purposes of this blog we’ll set aside the myriad reasons why people make certain foods choices.  This is hugely complex and influenced by emotion, knowledge, peer pressure, access to healthy food, cooking skills, food budget and many other factors.

Let’s focus on the things that have caused confusion around what it means to eat a balanced diet, which can impact on the food choices made by people who are motivated to make changes to their diet to maintain good health and reduce the risk of heart disease.

1.Weight loss

Much of the diet advice we’re exposed to in the media revolves around maintaining a healthy body weight, which is one of the biggest influences over your risk of disease.  Heart disease is the leading cause of premature death and is directly linked to being overweight; the conditions associated with being overweight also act as risk factors for heart disease.  The basic biology of ‘eating less and moving more’ will promote a healthy weight.  The idea that ‘not all calories are created equally’ is very sound but overplayed as within the context of basic healthy eating principles it’s really just common sense.  You know when you’re trying to eat healthily that you should be making up your daily energy (calorie) needs from foods that fit in with the basic principles of healthy eating and not compromising this by figuring out how you can tally a couple of Mars Bars into the equation by skipping meals or eating less nutritious food.

The diet industry and influence of celebrities and social media has seduced people with myriad ways to approach weight loss, which has contributed to the confusion around food choice.  Making long-term small changes to your current diet whilst watching your portion size is probably the best approach but doesn’t appeal to everyone.  Putting very extreme diets aside, there’s no right or wrong way to losing weight and some prefer to embark on a diet plan that lays out exactly what and when to eat.  Diets can be a useful way to ‘kick-start’ your weight loss goals and in some cases can provide much quicker results, but you still need to take on board that adopting long-term habit changes is the only thing that’s going to help you to keep the weight off once the diet has ended.

Attitude towards dieting is important and getting yourself in the right head space is key.  Many people refer to diets in the context of a set period of time and view the end of their diet as being the point that they can start eating ‘normally’ again. However, if your definition of ‘normal’ is reverting back to the way you ate before, then what’s the point if you’re just going to end up putting the weight back on again (classic ‘yo-yo’ dieting).

The best diet is only ever going to be the one you can stick with and forming new healthy eating habits is key to long-term success.  Diets come in many guises and this is where basic healthy eating messages can get blurred.  High protein, low carb, fasting, ketogenic and paleo are just a few examples of how people can develop false ideas around healthy eating.  These diets often label foods as being somehow ‘good’ or ‘bad’, which only adds to the confusion and in some cases can lead to guilt and a feeling of failure if they fail to lose weight or stick to the program.

There’s nothing wrong with dieting, just do your research and work out what approach fits in with your lifestyle.  Once you’ve lost the weight then try reverting back to the basic principles of healthy eating to keep the weight off, which will reduce your risk of heart disease.

2.Food controversy

There have been many books highlighted the impact of certain nutrients on health and questioned current dietary guidelines, which in relation to heart health have revolved around sugar, saturated fat and cholesterol.  I love reading these books as they provide a really interesting insight into the latest science and underline some of the wider controversies that may have shaped the way we are told to eat.  The concepts are very convincing in most cases, but the problem is that without a full understanding of the science of nutrition and research methods, it’s difficult to form an objective opinion and we have all been at a dinner party or sat in the pub with someone reciting the insights this type of literature offers.

The problem I have is that the typical person insinuated by the text is often in the extreme, which is overlooked by the reader. Let’s use carbohydrates as an example. The idea that a high-carbohydrate diet causes weight gain, diabetes and inflammation is rightly true but what defines a high-carbohydrate diet in this instance.  Whenever this is reported in the media or through books, no one actually defines this or shows you what a typical day’s food looks like for this high-carb eating person.  Take a diet of excess calories made up of sugary cereals and muffins for breakfast, washed down with a coffee laden with sugar then a huge white baguette filled with something high in sat fat for lunch and an extra-large pizza for dinner, all of which are accompanied by sugary snacks and soft drinks.  This is clearly not a healthy way to eat and if you eat this way then there’s a very good chance that you’re unhealthy in many other ways such as lacking in exercise. For the reader this is instantly translated as carbs are bad, but you can’t compare this diet with one that contains the right number of calories, forgoes snacking and includes porridge oats for breakfast, quinoa and chicken salad for lunch and then a tofu stir-fry with brown rice for dinner.  Someone following this type of diet may also make healthier lifestyle choices such as exercising regularly. I’m not going to argue the toss over carbohydrates and it’s clear that overdosing on them, especially sugar is no good for your health, but it needs to be put in perspective to be fully understood.

Saturated fat is another good example

It’s taken a while for the nation to adapt to the message that fat isn’t all that bad and research has broadened our understanding of the role this nutrient plays in the diet and its impact on heart disease.  Current advice is that we choose ‘healthy’ fats from foods such as extra virgin olive oil, oily fish, nuts and seeds, which are rich in fatty acids called monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. These fats have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease by ways such as reducing inflammation and levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol.

Saturated fat in the diet has always been sold as being bad for heart health and to be honest if you’re eating a diet that’s high in any type of fat (putting keto diets to one side) then you’re at greater risk of becoming overweight, which is a risk factor for heart disease.  The average adult still eats too much saturated fat but the impact of this on heart health has come under scrutiny.

A landmark scientific review published in the British Medical Journal found no association between saturated fat consumption and all-cause mortality, coronary heart disease, stroke or type 2 diabetes (2).  This study sparked the saturated fat debate and has further studies have contributed to a growing body of evidence that has changed the dialogue on saturated fats.

The impact this study had on the topic of saturated fat in the diet and the relevance of current dietary guidance led to the publication of a report carried out by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN). The Saturated Fats and Health report was published in May (2018) after an extensive review of data from high quality cohort studies and clinical trials (3).  Their findings strongly support the current dietary guidance of limiting saturated fat intake to no more than 10% of the total energy from the diet.  This is translated in dietary guidelines as no more than 30g per day for men and 20g per day for women.

SACN found that there were significant limitations in the available data, which may have helped to be fuel the debate on saturated fat. They also said that lowering saturated fat in the diet was needed to improve events related to heart disease.

But is this insight really of any true benefit to people when they’re choosing what to eat? 

If you’re a healthy weight and enjoy full fat Greek yoghurt, butter, cheese or other natural sources of sat fat in moderation as part of your balanced diet then this is unlikely to have any impact on the health of your heart.  However, the problem with talking about diet in terms of nutrients is that foods don’t just contain a single one.  Convenience foods, pies, pizza, pastries, sweet puddings, ice cream, cakes and chocolate contain a lot of saturated fat and are also high in calories, sugar and salt, which we know is not great for heart health. Redefining saturated fat is not straight forward and runs the risk of people thinking these foods are in some way healthy and confuses the issue of food choice, particularly that related to heart health.

3.Superfoods

Nutrition is often defined by individual foods and nutrients but it’s the overall quality of your diet that counts.   The term ‘superfood’ has been banned by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), who are the body that regulates food labelling. The regulations put upon the food and supplement industry have helped to provide transparency for consumers as well as providing more information about the nutritional and ingredient content of products.

These regulations do not apply to media coverage and as a result we’re still bombarded with new research findings, foods and nutrients portrayed as being superiorly better for our health, preventing myriad of diseases.  The irony is that many of these foods often come full circle and contribute to the ‘kill or cure’ approach to reporting in the media.

There’s nothing wrong with reading about current research, which is often fascinating, but you need to keep perspective. Blueberries, grapes, red wine and pomegranates may contain compounds that could help to prevent heart disease but including them in your diet doesn’t mean you won’t get heart disease, especially if your overall diet is poor and you make unhealthy lifestyle choices such as not exercising or smoking.

The basic principles of healthy eating have been proven to help reduce the risk of heart disease and diets such as the Mediterranean have been shown to be the ‘gold standard’.  Reading about the next best diet or superfood is hugely interesting but there’s no quick-fix solution to eating and living well, yet many people view these as some sort of panacea.  The controversy is interesting but the outcome in terms of what we are advised to eat doesn’t really stray far from basic healthy eating principles.  The real challenge is finding a way to change your habits and making the right diet and lifestyle choices that will see you through to long-term good health and this includes reducing the risk of heart disease.

 

References

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
  2. https://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h3978
  3. https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/saturated-fats-and-health-draft-sacn-report
The blokes guide to going vegan

The blokes guide to going vegan

The blokes guide to going vegan

Veganism is on the rise and research commissioned by the vegan society in 2016 showed that the number of vegans in the UK has increased by 360% over the last 10 years as a record number of people are choosing to avoid food derived from animals. Over 500,000 people aged 15 or over (more than one per cent of the population) have adopted this plant-based way of eating, making this one of the fasted growing lifestyle movements according to the Vegan Society.  Most vegans live in urban areas, with a quarter residing in London. A Mintel survey carried out in 2017 found that 11% of Britons had tried to follow a vegan diet at some point (1), whilst a previous report found that 33% of Brits had tried eating less meat to be healthier (2).

Vegan men

It wasn’t that long ago that Formula One superhero Lewis Hamilton said he was planning to go vegan full-time in an attempt to function at his healthiest and avoid damaging the planet.  “I stopped eating red meat two years ago”, he told the BBC.  Continuing, he said, “I think it’s the right direction and by letting people who are following me know, maybe that will encourage a couple of people to do the same thing”.  Other male vegan sports people include the footballers, Jermain Defoe and Dean Howell, and even heavyweights such as the British boxer David Hayes have made the switch to this plant-based way of eating. Hollywood celebrities have also followed suit with actors and musicians such as Jared Leto, Chris Martin, Woody Harrelson and Casey Affleck all reported to follow a vegan way of eating.

It still stands that more women are vegan but 37% are still made up of men (3) and the increase awareness of health and body weight amongst men may equally be driven these days by celebrity influence as it has always been amongst women. Recent research has suggested that even men who don’t like meat, find it upsets their digestion, or have been asked by a doctor to reduce consumption, still find it difficult to choose the vegetarian or vegan option when in public with other men.

Vegans in the UK

The growing trend towards veganism is reflected in the demand for meat-free food, which has increased by over 900% with this way of eating predicted by some sources to be one of the biggest food trends in 2018 (4,5).  Food industry insight provided by Foodable Labs reported that in 2018, fifty one percent of chefs in the US added vegan items to their menus.  The same report suggests that this rise is in part due to the influence of social media food and health bloggers as it showed a 79% increase in photos tagged as being vegan (6).

High street food outlets have recognised the increase and responded by offering more vegan options and certain branches of Pret are now solely offering vegetarian and vegan food. Dietary food labelling (including dairy and eggs) has also made it easier for vegans to choose their food when looking for something to eat on the High Street, although some restaurant options are still limited.

Benefits of veganism

Whilst some people choose to go vegan for ethical reasons (environmental damage from methane gases and deforestation, water scarcity and land degradation), others see this is a great way to improve their health and rightly so.  Research shows that non-meat eaters have healthier lifestyles compared to a typical omnivore diet. Plus, a well-balanced vegan diet is more likely to contain a greater quantity of fibre-rich wholegrain foods and pulses. It’s also been shown that vegans are more likely to exceed the daily recommended fruit and vegetable intake, which means gleaning a greater quantity of certain key vitamins and phytonutrients that help to protect the body from disease (7).

Studies also show associations between meat-free eating and a lower incidence of obesity (8), heart disease (9), high blood pressure (10), type 2 diabetes (11) and digestive disorders such as constipation (12).  Lifestyle habits do play a key role here and this doesn’t mean that following a vegan diet will definitely prevent you from developing these conditions.

Anecdotally, people who have gone vegan report better energy levels and overall wellness, but this could in part be to do with the fact that vegans have been shown to be healthier in general, more likely to exercise and less likely to smoke (13).

Men going vegan

Going vegan may pose challenges to certain men especially those programmed towards a ‘meat and two veg’ way of eating.  The vegan diet can be quite calorie restrictive, which means careful planning for men trying to maintain their body weight.  Men following a demanding fitness regime will also need to adjust their thinking towards how they source their increased requirement for protein. Certain nutrients are also more important for men’s health such as zinc, which is typically found in meat and seafood but easy to source from plant foods once you know which ones to include in your diet.

There’s absolutely no reason why anyone can’t glean everything they need on a vegan diet. The issue of nutrient sufficiency has nothing to do with the food and is more a case of people understanding what foods they should be including in their diet and how to incorporate them. Following a vegan diet does take a little more thought and planning, especially when you first start out, but once you begin to understand what this diet looks like in terms of food, then it’s no different to any other way of eating and the same basic principles of healthy eating apply.

What to expect and how to start

Firstly, you may find yourself feeling hungrier once you switch to a vegan diet, so you may need to be prepared to include a couple of snacks during the day and think about including certain more nutrient dense foods.  Switching to eating solely plants means you may be eating a larger volume of food but fewer calories so choosing the right foods to supply you with enough energy is key.

It’s essential to include foods such as nut butters, avocados, oils, nuts and seeds to your diet to maintain adequate energy levels. Try and make your meals up of a protein (see below), grain, and healthy fats (nut, seed, oil, tahini, avocado, nut or seed). Explore dressings and sauces to accompany your meals. If you do get hungry then fill the gap with dips (bean or veggie based), nuts, seeds, soya yoghurt with toppings, smoothies (try adding oats for extra protein) or breads (topped with nut butter, avocado or banana).

Secondly, there’s likely to be a greater burden on cooking and preparing meals so work out your go-to meals to make things a little easier.  This might be a tofu or vegan Quorn stir-fry or one pot dishes such as a bean-based chilli that can be batch cooked and frozen for future meals.

Thirdly, you may experience bloating and gas when you make the switch to eating more beans, pulses and other high fibre foods. This will pass as your body adapts to this way of eating.

You may want to ease yourself in gently to veganism by starting with eliminating animal flesh then after a few weeks cutting out eggs and dairy.

Nutrients you may want to focus on as you begin vegan eating

A balanced diet is bedrock to good nutrition but if you’re used to eating animal foods as the main component of your diet then you may want to consider how you source certain nutrients in your diet.

Protein

There’s a current obsession with protein and whilst the richest sources are found in animal foods, there’s no reason you can’t get everything you need from plants. The trick is to include a source of vegan protein with every meal.  The richest sources are tofu, beans, lentils, pulses and vegan Quorn but other sources include quinoa, nuts, nut butters and seeds.  You will also glean a little protein from foods such as breads, pasta and rice.  The idea of pairing proteins is outdated so just mix and match them across the day to get a good intake of all the amino acids that make up this macronutrient.

Zinc

Zinc is an important part of many enzymes and has a role to play in immunity, processing carbohydrates, fats and proteins from foods and wound healing. The recommended daily intake for zinc is set higher for men as it plays a key role in maintaining prostate health, testosterone levels and overall reproductive health.

There’s a suggestion that vegans may fall short of this mineral in their diet but there are plenty of plant foods containing zinc. There’s also the issue of absorption, which is thought to be less from plant sources so just being mindful to include plenty of zinc-rich foods in your diet such as spinach, nuts, seeds, cocoa powder, mushrooms, beans, breads and cereal products will do the trick.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is mostly found in foods of animal origin so vegans should try to include fortified products such as plant milks and breakfast cereals in the diet. Yeast extract is one of the few vegan-friendly natural sources of vitamin B12. Contrary to popular belief, spirulina and other algae products are not reliable sources of this vitamin

Iron

Low intakes of iron can lead to tiredness, fatigue and low mood as this mineral is required to make red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body. The type of iron found in meat is more easily absorbed by the body than plant-based sources, but you can increase the uptake by partnering them with a source of vitamin C such as serving fruit juice with your breakfast cereals or combining red peppers with pulses, beans and lentils. Avoiding tea with meals can also help maximise the absorption of iron from your food. Good sources include pulses, nuts, seeds, fortified breakfast cereals, tofu, tempeh, dark green leafy vegetables, dried fruit, molasses and dried spices.

Calcium

Calcium is essential for the good health of your bones and is also required for proper muscle and nerve function. Although dairy is often (falsely) thought to be one of the only sources of this mineral, you can glean more than enough from foods such as tofu, almonds, dark green leafy vegetables, sesame seeds, tahini and fortified plant-milks. Try eating two or three servings of calcium-rich foods on a daily basis.

Omega 3

Omega 3 fatty acids cannot be made in the body. The two most important are called eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexeanoic acid (DHA), which are predominantly found in oily fish.  Another type of Omega 3 called alphalinolenic acid (ALA) can be found in foods such as dark green leafy vegetables, quinoa, walnuts and chia seed oil.  This Omega 3 fatty acid is converted to EPA and DHA in the body, but the conversion rate is poor, so you may want to consider supplementing your diet with a vegan Omega 3 supplement (sourced from algae).

Store cupboard essentials for all vegans

  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Nut butters
  • Oils (extra virgin olive, rapeseed, sesame, chia)
  • Soy (tofu, miso, tempeh)
  • Fortified plant milks
  • Yeast extract
  • Dried spices
  • Cocoa powder
  • Quinoa
  • Canned beans, pulses and lentils
  • Tahini
  • Avocado
  • Hummus
  • Dried fruit
  • Wholegrains (oats, barley, brown rice, spelt)
  • Wholemeal pasta and breads
  • Vegan Quorn
  • Yeast extract
  • Fortified cereals

There’s no reason why anyone can’t get everything they need from a vegan diet.  Certain nutrients such as zinc are particularly important for men and they may also need to consider their overall energy and protein intake if they are trying to gain or maintain body weight alongside a heavy training regime.  They key is planning and understanding how to create quick and easy vegan meals to reduce the burden of cooking.  Supplements such as a multivitamin and mineral or omega 3 may be worth investing in as you begin the transition to vegan eating to insure you are getting everything your body needs.

 

  1. https://store.mintel.com/uk-meat-free-foods-market-report
  2. https://store.mintel.com/healthy-lifestyles-uk-october-2016
  3. https://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/migrations/en-uk/files/Assets/Docs/Polls/vegan-society-poll-2016-topline.pdf
  4. https://www.just-eat.ie/blog/plant-based-diet-2018/
  5. https://foodrevolution.org/blog/vegan-statistics-global/
  6. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/vegan-dishes-chefs-restaurant-menus-added-2018-veganism-trend-us-a8511526.html
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26707634
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26138004
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24636393
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5466938/
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21983060
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10466166
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23583444

 

Can the food you eat really ‘boost’ your immune system?

Can the food you eat really ‘boost’ your immune system?

Can you really ‘boost’ your immune system?

As much as I love basking in the sun, I actually love the Winter.  Cosy nights in, wrapping up in Winter woollies and the celebrations of Halloween, bonfire night, Christmas and New Year are all something to enjoy.  What I don’t relish is the prospect of Winter bugs and no matter how healthy you are, they always manage to creep their way in.

As the colder months approach, it becomes more important to eat and live well to support a healthy immune system, which helps to protect us against infections.  Even the best of us are up against it during the Winter and the challenges these months present can hamper good diet and lifestyle practices.  Comfort eating, and the influence of dark mornings and early evenings offer the perfect excuse to lapse on our healthy diet and exercise regimes.

The immunity ‘boost’ conundrum 

As Winter approaches, so comes the advice on how we can ‘boost’ our immune system to ward off infectious bugs.  The idea that you can ‘boost’ your immune system is a little misleading.  This concept conjures up a false expectation of ‘supercharging’ your immune system and in some way making it invincible to anything that attempts to challenge it. The reality is that immunity involves a system and not a single entity. There are many cells of the immune system that have to respond to many different types of microbes. Pinpointing the specific cells and defining to what degree they should be increased is hugely complex and a question that’s yet unanswered by science.

Given the intricacies of the immune response, the science behind the impact of diet and lifestyle on immunity is not definitive, but research is continuing to evolve and it’s clear that maintaining a healthy lifestyle is a key part of keeping your immune system strong and healthy.

Why do we need our immune system?

You couldn’t survive without an efficient immune system, which is made up of special cells, proteins, tissues and organs that defend the body against infectious organisms and other foreign invaders through a series of processes referred to as the immune response.

Foreign invaders in the body are referred to as antigens. These are toxins or other foreign substances that induce an immune response in the body, especially the production of antibodies. One example of an antigen is the common cold virus. What makes the immune system truly remarkable is that once it has encountered an antigen, antibodies are hard coded to fight this invader should it try to attack the body again.

Can the quality of your diet help to maintain a healthy immune system?

The simple answer is yes. Exactly how diet is linked to immunity is not fully understood but is an area of research that continues to evolve.  Scientists acknowledge that malnourished people are more vulnerable to infectious diseases, which helps to illustrate the importance of diet on immunity.

Maintaining a healthy balanced diet is key and there are many micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) required to maintain the normal functioning of the immune system.  If your diet is compromised in any way through dieting or illness for example, then you may not be eating enough food or the right quality of food that allows you to glean the nutrients required to support your immune system.

Findings from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) have shown that amongst certain groups of the population, intakes of certain vitamins and minerals that support immunity are lacking in the diet (1).  Vitamin D plays a key role in immunity and during the Winter months a significant percentage of people have been shown to have low levels of this nutrient, given the lack of sunshine, which is the main supplier.  Minerals such as selenium, iron and zinc also play an important role in immunity and have been shown to be lacking the diet of some people as have intakes of vitamin A.  This doesn’t necessarily mean your immune system will be compromised but that attention should be paid to eating the right foods to support healthy immunity.

Foods that can support your immune system

Diet is defined by food and not nutrients.  Eating a balanced diet consisting of whole foods such as vegetables, wholegrains, lean proteins and healthy fats, will support your immune system. However, for the purposes of this blog I’m going to lay out some of the foods that contain specific nutrients that support good immunity.

Vitamin A

Orange and green fruits and vegetables contain a pigment called beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body. Vitamin A plays an important role in maintaining a healthy immune system (2).  This nutrient helps to maintain the integrity of the mucosal cells of the gastrointestinal tract, eye and respiratory system that function as a first line of defence to infection, forming a barrier between from the environment outside the body.  Vitamin A is also important for the normal function of immune cells and the production of antibodies that respond to infections.

Iron, selenium and zinc

All of these minerals are required for the production of antibodies, which are cells of the immune system that fight infection (3, 4, 5). Findings from the NDNS survey have shown that 27% of adult women and 54% of teenage girls do not get enough iron from their diet and partnered with menstrual blood loss, this puts them at particular risk of deficiency.  Selenium intakes are also low with 38% of adults being shown to have inadequate intakes. Zinc is also lacking the diet, with 8% of adults and 17% of teenagers shown to have inadequate intakes of this mineral (1).

You can maintain good intakes of iron by eating foods such as meat, poultry, oily fish and eggs.  Plant foods such as beans, pulses, dark green vegetables and dried spices are also a good source and you can increase the uptake of iron from these foods by partnering with foods rich in vitamin C.   Selenium is found in Brazil nuts, oily fish and wholegrain foods such as brown pasta, rice and bread. Levels of selenium do vary depending on where the food has been grown and the quality of the soil. Zinc is found in meat, shellfish, eggs, beans, pulses, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and cheese.

Vitamin C

This vitamin is the one people most associate with immunity and the common cold, which is backed up by some research suggesting its effectiveness at reducing the risk and length of infection (6).  Research has shown how several cells of the immune system accumulate vitamin C and requires this vitamin to perform their task, especially T cells and phagocytes.

Most people get more than enough vitamin C in their diet, but appetite can lesson if you do get ill, which may impact on your intake. You can keep your levels topped up by eating foods such as red peppers, citrus fruits, berries, broccoli and potatoes. Vitamin C is water soluble and easily destroyed so try not to overcook vegetables and avoid soaking before cooking.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D has been shown to play an important role in the immune system by increasing the antimicrobial effect of white blood cells that fight infection (7). Low levels of vitamin D can suppress the immune system, putting you at a greater risk of viral infections. Research involving more than 19,000 people found that those with the lowest levels of vitamin D were 36% more likely to develop a common cold than those with higher levels (8).

Findings from the NDNS have shown that 30-40% of all age groups are classed as being deficient in vitamin D due to the lack of sunshine (1). Public Health England recommends everyone takes a supplement providing 10mcg of vitamin D during the Autumn and Winter.

Gut bacteria also play a role

Over 70% of immune cells are located in the gut so it makes that a relationship exists between the two. We’re beginning to understand that it’s quality and not quantity that’s key to gut health and the diversity of microbes in your gut is referred to as your microbiome.

Probiotics are bacteria that have been shown to have a positive health benefit.  Well researched strains include those from the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium family.  Live yoghurt is the most well-known probiotic food and contains strains such as Lactobacillus Acidophilus and Lactobacillus Casei. Fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir and miso also contain strains of bacteria that can support good gut health.

Probiotic supplements offer a way of delivering large doses of specific bacteria to the gut and may be beneficial in the prevention of upper respiratory tract infections (URTI) such as the common cold (9). The effect of probiotics on the immune system has been widely researched and certain strains have been shown to promote the production of antibodies. The same strains have also been shown to stimulate the activity of immune cells such as natural killer cells and T-lymphocytes, which help regulate immune responses.   A Cochrane Review showed that probiotics were better than a placebo in reducing the incidence and duration of a URTI (10).

Choose a supplement that contains both Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains in a dose of at least 10 billion bacteria per serving.

Mushrooms are interesting too

The overall quality of your diet is more beneficial than focusing on any single food or nutrient, but mushrooms do appear to be interesting when it comes to immunity.  Not only are they one of the few foods to contain a natural source of vitamin D, but they also contain beta-glucan polysaccharides that have been shown by some studies to modulate the immune system (11).  Chinese medicine has long considered mushrooms to be medicinal and especially varieties such as shiitake.

Immunity is a hugely complex system that involves many different cells that work together to fight foreign invaders in the body.  Your diet is known to have a role to play although exactly how is yet fully understood.  Eating a balanced diet is no doubt helpful and there are certain nutrients that play a key role in maintaining the proper function of your immune system. Diet shouldn’t be defined by nutrients as food is what matters but understanding the nutrients that support your immune system help to support the importance of a balanced diet made up of a wide variety of foods.

 

References 

  1. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11375434
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3173740/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3723386/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3724376/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23440782
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3166406/
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19237723
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3560336/
  10. https://www.cochranelibrary.com/cdsr/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD006895.pub3/abstract
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4684115/

 

How to tackle indigestion and heartburn

How to tackle indigestion and heartburn

Struggling with indigestion and heartburn?

Indigestion is a common problem that’s often viewed as a niggle and something to put up with rather than complain about or put the effort in to treat. We have all experienced indigestion at some point and there are many reasons why it occurs but if you feel this type of discomfort regularly after eating then it can become a real hindrance on day-to-day life and your overall feeling of wellness.  Even though numerous reasons for indigestion exist, there are many simple changes you can make to your diet and lifestyle to avoid it.

What is indigestion and heartburn?

Although they share the same type of triggers, they’re not the same as indigestion is the condition of which heartburn is a symptom. Indigestion is characterised by a feeling of discomfort in the upper abdomen, which occurs after you’ve eaten, causing symptoms such as bloating, excess wind, belching and nausea.

Heartburn is characterised by a burning sensation in your chest and throat as excess stomach acid makes its way up the oesophagus, which is also referred to as ‘reflux’.  If heartburn occurs regularly throughout the week then you may be diagnosed with a condition called gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD.

Who is more at risk of indigestion and heartburn?

Anyone can experience indigestion and most of us have encountered it during the festive season as we overindulge in rich food and a few too many glasses of vino.  Common diet and lifestyle factors that encourage indigestion include:

  • Overeating
  • Eating too quickly
  • Medication – aspirin, antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).
  • Stress
  • Eating ‘on-the-go’
  • Smoking
  • Excess alcohol
  • Excess coffee
  • Health conditions – cholecystitis (inflammation in the gall bladder), gastritis (inflammation in the stomach), stomach ulcers
  • Spicy foods

Heartburn shares a similar set of triggers but is particularly common in people carrying too much weight or pregnant women, where the pressure put upon the abdomen forces fluids back up the oesophagus.

Bloating is a symptom of indigestion, but it’s important not to confuse heartburn with bloating.  Common treatments for bloating include herbs and spices such as mint, fennel seed and caraway seed.  These are often used in teas to help with bloating after eating as they relax the valve that connects the stomach and oesophagus.  This effect helps to release excess gas but if the issue is heartburn then it will make matters worse as fluids find their way up the oesophagus more easily.

Losing weight will help with heartburn and by following a healthy diet you can help to ease indigestion.  Addressing other diet and lifestyle factors will help to combat indigestion, which in turn will also help to reduce the risk of heartburn.

Start by changing the way you eat

Eating habits can be just as important as the food and drink you include in your diet when it comes to tackling indigestion.   Start by making changes to the way you eat.

  • Serve smaller portions of food in a single sitting and eat little and often if this helps.
  • Avoid eating large meals immediately before you go to bed as lying down will only make digestion more difficult as well as encouraging heartburn.
  • Don’t rush your food as this can encourage more air to enter the stomach and encourage bloating.
  • Chew your food slowly to allow the enzymes that aid digestion to be stimulated.
  • Avoid eating ‘on-the-hoof’.
  • Make the time to sit down with your meal and focus on the job in hand. Distractions and stress can cause indigestion; eat at the table rather than in front of your computer whilst you’re frantically trying to meet a deadline.
  • Try not to skip meals or go for long periods of time without eating as this can encourage bloating, especially if you suddenly eat a large meal.

Now look at what you’re eating and drinking

If changing the way you eat has made little difference, then take a look at the food and drink in your diet.  You can keep a diary for a few days to track your diet and jotting down how you felt after eating will help you identify culprit food and drinks.  I get that this takes quite a bit of motivation and to be honest, in the context of your overall diet and eating habits, it may be that a certain food affects your digestion one day but not the next.

What you may identify is the effect of a potential food intolerance. Lactose (found in dairy foods) and gluten (found in grains such as wheat) are common food intolerances that can cause bloating and other symptoms of indigestion.  A very stressful lifestyle can also encourage the development of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which causes digestive upset.  If you suspect either of these things to be causing the issue, then you can seek the advice of a dietitian.

Diet strategies

There are plenty of diet strategies that you can follow, which have been shown to help with indigestion and heartburn.

  • Try to follow a low-fat diet as high-fat (rich) foods such as full fat dairy, fatty cuts of meat or rich puddings and sauces can take longer to digest and leave the stomach, causing more stomach acid to be produced and increasing the risk of heartburn.
  • Make you meals from a good balance of starchy foods, vegetables and lean protein (protein helps to stimulate the gall bladder to produce more bile that aids digestion).
  • Include oily fish in your diet each week as they contain omega 3 fatty acids that may help to tackle inflammation in the gut wall, which contributes to indigestion.
  • Try to avoid raw vegetables initially to see if this helps with indigestion as they can be difficult to digest.
  • Beans, pulses and lentils are very high in fibre and can cause bloating, especially if you’re not used to eating. Introduce these foods into your diet slowly and make sure you drink plenty of water to allow the fibre to swell and do its job.
  • You may want to try and cut back on ‘windy’ vegetables such as cauliflower, broccoli, kale and Brussels sprouts to help with bloating associated with indigestion.
  • Other foods that have been shown to trigger heartburn specifically include citrus fruits, spicy foods and caffeinated drinks, which can all increase the production of stomach acid.

Don’t underestimate the effects of stress

Stress has become a common side-effect of our modern way of living and the ripple effect on health has been shown to reach many areas of health.  Stress not only impacts on mental health but encourages inflammation in the body, which is now understood to be a key risk factor for many diseases.  Stress is also a key factor in the development of irritable bowel syndrome (1).

It may seem obvious that trying to eat when you’re highly stressed is likely to cause digestive complaints and studies have shown that people with GERD report stress as something that exacerbates the condition (2,3). However, whether the effect of stress is due to excess stomach acid is up for debate as many scientists are of the opinion that GERD makes people more sensitive to smaller amounts of acid in the oesophagus (4,5).

Stress can also lead to erratic eating patterns that may cause indigestion.  Diet and lifestyle choices can also be affected by stress and choosing unhealthy foods, gaining weight, smoking and drinking excessively can all lead to indigestion. Sleep is also affected by stress and can lead to low mood and a lack of motivation to follow a healthy diet.

Try to address your stress by practicing breathing or relaxation techniques such as meditation.  There are many apps available that can help you to do this.

Can you still drink alcohol?

Alcohol is known to contribute to indigestion, especially heartburn, but it does affect people differently and you may not necessarily need to give up your favourite tipple completely.  Start by cutting alcohol out completely to see how you feel then introduce it back in slowly as you may find your heartburn is not affected by the odd glass of vino.  Avoid mixing your booze with fizzy drinks as this can encourage bloating and don’t drink too close to bedtime as lying flat can encourage reflux.

There are so many different reasons why you may suffer with indigestion and heartburn.  As a ‘one-off’, indigestion may be anticipated as a result of over-indulgence, but if it persists then there are plenty of ways you can tackle the issue by making simple changes to your diet and lifestyle.

 

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4202343/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19961344
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25832928
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8420248
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18206149

 

More fuss over fat but is focusing on individual foods and nutrients the real issue?

More fuss over fat but is focusing on individual foods and nutrients the real issue?

More fuss over fat!

The world of nutrition is fickle taking little for a food to go from friend to foe and  recent headlines have done just that as coconut oil puts fat back in the firing line.  During a recent presentation given by Dr Karin Michels of Harvard University she described coconut oil as “pure poison” continuing to say that it was “one of the worst foods you can eat” (1).  These comments were made in reference to the fact that the type of fat found in coconut oil, mostly saturated fat, raises levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease.

Dr. Michels received a fair amount of media attention from her comments but set in the right context of her presentation these were part of a wider opinion of the health food industry, questioning the marketing and attitudes towards so called ‘superfoods’.  During her presentation, Dr. Michels deemed them “unnecessary” and pointed out that we can get the same nutritional benefits from everyday foods such as carrots.

I agree.  We can all get sucked in by the hype and this recent story in the press does give rise to important issues surrounding the marketing of foods and how they’re perceived by consumers.  However, the fact that coconut oil became the focus of the headline illustrates how our current approach to health and nutrition has become more focused on individual foods and nutrients rather than overall diet quality.

What is a balanced diet?

A balanced diet includes plenty of vegetables alongside lean proteins, high-fibre starchy foods (brown rice, oats, wholemeal bread and pasta, wholegrains) and healthy fats (olive oil, oily fish, nuts, seeds). Within the context of this diet there’s plenty of room for the odd sweet treat and if you want to add in a few ‘on-trend’ foods then that’s cool too but you should focus on getting the basics right first

Is fat that bad?

It was over 50 years ago that fat became a key focus of public health, mostly in relation to its impact on heart health.  Heart health is the leading cause of premature death and in the decades that followed, nutrition advice was defined by the message that we should all be following a low-fat diet.  In response to this we all turned to choosing margarine, sunflower oil and ‘low fat’ foods to keep our health in check.  Fast forward to the present day and sugar has become a greater health concern. Findings from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2) have revealed that the average intake of fat amongst adults is within the recommended guidelines but that our intake of sugar is twice the recommended amount. It also became quickly apparent that many of the popular ‘low-fat’ foods people were choosing to eat were in fact high in sugar.

It’s taken a while for the nation to adapt to the message that fat isn’t all that bad and research has broadened our understanding of the role this nutrient plays in the diet and its impact on disease.  Studies have shown that certain fats such as monounsaturated (MUFA’s) and polyunsaturated (PUFA’s) are better for our health, especially with respect to heart disease (3)(4).  Foods rich in these fats include extra virgin olive oil, oily fish, nuts and seeds, which are key components of the Mediterranean diet, considered by many to be the ‘gold standard’ (5).

Fat is just one component of the diet and any type should be eaten in moderation as they’re the most calorific component of the diet. Putting ketogenic diets (high fat, low carb) to one side, a diet high in fat has the potential to cause overweight, which in itself a risk factor for many diet related diseases.

Saturated fat

The average adult still eats too much saturated fat but the impact of this on heart health has come under scrutiny.  A landmark scientific review published in the British Medical Journal found no association between saturated fat consumption and all-cause mortality, coronary heart disease, stroke or type 2 diabetes (6).  This study sparked the saturated fat debate and further studies have contributed to a growing body of evidence that has changed the dialogue on saturated fats.

The impact this study had on the topic of saturated fat in the diet and the relevance of current dietary guidance led to the publication of a report carried out by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN). The Saturated Fats and Health report was published in May (2018) after an extensive review of data from high quality cohort studies and clinical trials (7). Their findings strongly support the current dietary guidance of limiting saturated fat intake to no more than 10% of the total energy from the diet.  This is translated in dietary guidelines as no more than 30g per day for men and 20g per day for women.

SACN found that there were significant limitations in the available data, which may have helped to be fuel the debate on saturated fat. They also said that lowering saturated fat in the diet was needed to improve serum lipid profiles and events related to cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease.

Fat intake in the UK

The latest NDNS survey (2) showed that the average daily total fat intake in adults is 33.2% of total energy, which is below the guidance of 35%.  It was also shown that the average daily intake of saturated fat in adults is 11.9% of total energy, which is above the 10% guidance. The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition also agreed that we should be choosing foods rich in ‘healthier fats’ such as nuts, seeds, olive oil and avocados over those containing high amounts of saturated fat.  Given total fat intake in the UK is within the guidance it was suggested that the focus should still be on reducing saturated fat to achieve a better balance of fats in the diet.

So, what does all of this actually look like in practice?

I get that this issue needed to be resolved in order to support the current recommendations about saturated fat intake, but in practice it’s not that complicated.  I’m a fan of whole foods and I choose to eat full fat Greek yoghurt over low fat, spread butter on my toast, and enjoy the odd bit of cheese, but they make up a small part of my diet.  According to the NDNS, they make up 27% of the nation’s diet (2).

I choose not to eat other foods that are high in saturated fat on a regular basis.  These foods include pies, pizza, pastries, sweet puddings, ice cream, cakes and chocolate, which are also high in calories, salt and refined carbohydrates such as sugar.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to get that none of these foods are ever going to be considered as healthy, but eating them in moderation, within the context of a balanced diet is fine.  The problem with redefining saturated fat is that it can easily cause confusion and if taken out of context may only contribute to unhealthy food choices that increase the risk of weight gain and disease.

What about coconut oil?

Coconut oil is sourced from the meat of mature coconuts and is mostly made up of saturated fatty acids.  Whilst saturated fat is considered to be something we should be cutting down on in the diet, those found in coconut oil are different in structure and called medium chain fatty acids (MCFA’s) as opposed to the long chain variety found in food like cheese and fatty cuts of meat. It’s these MUFA’s and in particular, lauric acid, which are thought to be at the root of the many health benefits associated with coconut oil.

Medium Chain Fatty Acids are more easily digested and directed to the liver (bypassing the gut), where they’re converted into energy rather than being stored as fat. Research has suggested that coconut oil can increase levels of HDL (bad) cholesterol as well as possessing anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antifungal properties. Coconut oil is also commonly touted as supporting weight loss, but the evidence isn’t strong enough to back this claim.

The popularity of coconut oil

It’s easy to get seduced by food and health trends given the attention and interest they generate in the media and especially when accompanied by a flurry of health benefits.  The research questioning saturated fat and heart health has helped to position coconut oil as a healthy food.  Coconut oil has also made its way into the mainstream like other foods trends that came before it such as quinoa and green juices.  The popularity of coconut oil has been helped by its promotion amongst healthy eating chefs, social media and the ‘clean eating’ revolution.  Evidence of its popularity is reflected in sales, which have grown four-fold since 2014 with predicted sales this year thought to hit £24 million.

Whilst popular, the science surrounding coconut oil doesn’t tally with its associated health benefits, and the effect of coconut oil on heart health is still not clear, which has contributed its controversy.

What oil should you be using on a daily basis?

Whilst polyunsaturated fats such as sunflower oil have always been considered to be the best choice of cooking oil, some have questioned the impact they have on our omega 6 intake, which in excess can impact on inflammation.  Extra virgin olive oil is popular and even more so since becoming more widely available and cheaper to buy.  Speciality oils such as those from nuts and seeds have also become more widely available but not as popular given the fact that many people are unsure how to use them.

In my opinion, extra virgin olive oil is still the best choice.  Time and again, large studies have highlighted the close relationship between the Mediterranean diet and cardiovascular disease (5).  Extra virgin olive oil, which is a major component of this diet, has been shown to be very relevant in lowering the incidence of heart disease and stroke. The majority of fatty acids found in extra virgin olive oil are monounsaturated that have been proven to increase HDL (good) cholesterol and lower LDL (bad) cholesterol.  Compounds found in extra virgin olive oil such as a polyphenol called oleocanthal have been shown to help reduce inflammation (8), which is thought to be a risk factor for many diseases including heart disease.

Given the evidence to support the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil, it only goes to prove the power of marketing that someone would choose any other oil over this one, especially one that is wrapped in controversy.

There are many other oils on the market that offer unique flavours that can be incorporated into cooking such as nut and seed varieties (these work well in dressings and drizzling). Despite the fuss over coconut oil, likening it to poison is a bit harsh and only adds to the ‘kill or cure’ culture surrounding foods in relation to diet and health. Used in moderation, coconut oil can add a unique flavour to dishes that works particularly well with Asian and Indian cuisines.

And what about Superfoods?

Most of us have ‘wised up’ to the notion of ‘superfoods’ and understand that this is nothing more than a marketing ploy, but the word has still become commonplace and seen as a descriptor for foods that may be particularly nutritious.  The idea that one food is more nutritious than another or focusing on a single food or nutrient to protect your health is never a good idea as it’s the overall diet that counts.  Marketing foods as such is of course misleading and food labelling and health claims legislation has helped to create some degree of transparency.

It’s the overall quality of your diet that counts

The National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2) has shown that many people are not eating the right foods to meet their dietary needs.  Only a third of people in the UK manage to eat 5-a-day and very few eat oily fish on a weekly basis.  The average adult is also eating twice the recommended amount of added sugar, too much saturated fat and less than 10% are meeting the guidance for fibre.

Nutrition research tends to look at the effects of individual components of the diet, but it’s worth keeping in mind that people eat food and not nutrients.  Don’t assume that a single food or nutrient is going to be a panacea or antidote to an unhealthy lifestyle, ‘superfood’ or not.  These false expectations are completely redundant as it’s the overall quality of your diet that is going to have the most significant impact on your health.

And the debate on fat?

As far as the debate on fat is concerned, the consensus still seems to be that we should be eating less saturated fat in our diet, whilst focusing on foods that contain PUFA’s and MUFA’s.  Regardless of this, the debate on fat is just one of many in the world of nutrition that all raise important issues.  The downside is that they have the potential to cause further confusion amongst people as to what foods they should be eating, particularly as the science is often not clearly understood or the outcomes are taken out of context or misrepresented in the media.  The wider issue is still how to get people to make better choices to improve the quality of their overall diet and part of this is making food the focus and not nutrients.

 

References 

  1. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/health-fitness/nutrition/diet/now-coconut-oil-poison-fat-should-using-cooking/
  2. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4198773/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20351774
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20810976
  6. https://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h3978
  7. https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/saturated-fats-and-health-draft-sacn-report
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21443487

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cooking With Soul – Soul Sisters Fitness & Rob Hobson Nutrition

Cooking With Soul – Soul Sisters Fitness & Rob Hobson Nutrition

Cooking With Soul

I’m very excited to be collaborating with my buddies on this new venture.  Sisters, Alex and Maddie are the talented, fun and inspirational duo behind Soul Sisters Fitness.  The girls are top of their game in the world of wellness and run the Adidas female fitness studio on Brick Lane, London, where all the classes are FREE.

Diet and fitness has evolved into something that some people may view as being unachievable, but the bottom line is that it shouldn’t be a chore and with the right attitude, anything’s possible.  Diet and fitness should be fun and there’s something for everyone.  Without wanting to sound ‘preachy’, we all have our own journey and the key to developing and sticking with good diet and fitness habits is found within the right inspiration and a little bit of expert knowledge.  It’s naive to think it’s that simple and we get that (we certainly don’t get it right ourselves all the time!), but let us show you how to approach diet and fitness uninhibited, with a focus on confidence, fun and positive energy.

Time to inject more excitement into the wellness industry 

Alex, Maddie and I want to inject more excitement into the wellness industry with cheesy grins, high energy and a general ethos of ‘keeping it real’ rather than worrying about balancing your macros, overdosing on protein or other ways of trying to micro-manage your diet and fitness.  If you complicate your diet and fitness too much then you’re more likely to lose the fun element.  That’s when you start to set unrealistic goals. That’s when you start to put too much pressure on yourself.  That’s when it can all become a bit of a chore and when you risk losing the long-term routine and consistency of diet and fitness, which is essential for long-term health. That’s the most important thing right?  Your health is your wealth.

Common barriers to diet and fitness

Do you need to splash your cash on so called ‘Superfoods’ to be healthy?
Do you need to be an expert chef to cook healthy food?
Do you need to dedicate hours in the kitchen to prepare healthy food?
Do you need fancy gym gear or an expensive gym membership to exercise?

The answer to all these questions is ‘HELL NO’ (although the Soul Sisters do love a snazzy outfit!)

 

Cooking With Soul is a weekly YouTube feature and we’ll show you how to cook delicious, nutritious and sometimes a little bit fancy, healthy food.  We want to make the most of foods that can save a few quid and create dishes that anyone can prepare in a flash.

Cooking With Soul will explore all areas of health and fitness.  As a qualified and registered nutritionist, and qualified PT’s, we’ll use our 30 years of combined experience as experts in the industry to share insight and answer the questions we commonly get asked in our line of work, and of course, bring it back to the kitchen!

Just a few examples include:

What’s veganism and can I get enough protein on this diet?
How can I get more iron in my diet?
How much protein do I actually need and should I be drinking shakes?
What’s the best way to lose weight?
What are the best foods for women’s health?
What’s the best way to ‘bulk up’?
What fats should I be cooking with?
What’s the deal with snacking?
Can my diet help with sleep?
What’s inflammation?
Do I need to go dairy-free?
How can I reduce my sugar intake?
Why am I always bloated?
Are carbs bad?

Got a question that you want answered? Get in touch and we’ll make a video for you!

We’re also planning a new concept of supper clubs throughout London where you’ll train with the girls and then get fed by me.  Any level of fitness and no fancy gym gear required, but I will make you all eat my food! Just bring a smile and we’ll take care of the rest!

Fancy a corporate supper club with me and the girls to improve the health of your workforce?  Get in touch!

You can contact me through the website or at rob@robhobson.co.uk
You can also contact me or the Soul Sisters via Instagram:

Soul Sisters Fitness

Rob Hobson Nutritionist

Here’s a quick snapshot of our first video..

 

You can access the full video at our YouTube pages (Cooking With Soul page to come)

Soul Sisters Fitness

Rob Hobson Nutritionist

Come and get involved.  Start Cooking With Soul!

Rob, Alex and Maddie x

The benefits of gut health go beyond digestion

The benefits of gut health go beyond digestion

The important role of the gut

Diet, exercise and sleep are key to good health and the prevention of disease.  The health of your gut is inextricably linked to the quality of your diet, which impacts on digestion. Besides this, research is beginning to identify how your gut may also be linked to immunity, sleep, mental health (stress, depression) and obesity, all of which can affect your health in a multitude of ways (1).

The initiative, ‘Love Your Gut Week’, starts on the 17thSeptember (2018) and highlights the importance of our digestive system to good health.

What is the microbiome?

The term ‘microbiome’ refers to the collection of around 100 trillion microbes that live in and on our body, most of which are found in the gut.  An army of microbes (including bacteria) colonise the body even before we’re born to form a protective barrier that defends against foreign invaders harmful to our health.

Your microbiome is unique like a fingerprint

Your microbiome is unique like a fingerprint reacting to the world both around and within you.  The microbes you cultivate make up the unique diversity of your microbiome. The bacteria in your gut help maintain the efficiency of your digestive system.  These bacteria also help to synthesise vitamin D, K, B12, folic acid and thiamine as well as assisting in the digestion of polyphenol compounds shown to protect the body against disease.  Gut bacteria also produce short chain fatty acids that supply energy to the cells of your colon and have been shown to play a key role in the maintenance of health and prevention of disease (2).

What can impact on the ‘health’ of your microbiome?

 Diet and lifestyle choices can impact on the diversity of bacteria found in your gut.  The ‘typical’ Western diet is characterised by an overconsumption of foods high in ‘added sugars’ and ‘bad’ fats. The impact of overeating and a lack of exercise has led to an overweight nation although the complexities of weight management are not as simple as calories in and calories out.

Being overweight is a risk factor for many diseases and the physiological effects it triggers such as inflammation are now widely recognised as being a contributory factor.  It’s often suggested that a diet overloaded with sugar and ‘bad’ fats encourages the growth of bad bacteria, but these effects don’t seem to be that clear cut. Another more straightforward explanation is that people who eat an unhealthy diet are less likely to eat the foods that support an environment that allows good bacteria to thrive such as vegetables, wholegrains and other high-fibre foods.

Five strategies to support the health of your microbiome

Whilst the overall quality of your diet can impact on the health of your gut, certain foods have been shown to be particularly beneficial in supporting the diversity of bacteria that live there.  Lifestyle factors and the use of medication have also been shown to impact on your microbiome.

1. Don’t underestimate the effects of stress

Stress is fast becoming a common side-effect of our modern lifestyle.  We all experience stress, sometimes on a daily basis, but the effects are usually short lived.  Problems can arise when stress becomes chronic, not only impacting on mental health but triggering inflammation within the body (3).  Stress can also increase the demand for certain nutrients such as the B vitamins and magnesium as well as influencing food choices that can result in a failure of the diet to provide everything the body needs.

Feeling ‘butterflies’ in your stomach or nausea are common symptoms of stress and illustrate how the brain is closely linked to the gut.  Sadness, happiness and anger are a few examples of the emotions that can affect the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, which is sensitive to such emotions.  In some cases, psychology combines with physical factors to cause pain and bowel symptoms that characterise conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (4).  Psychosocial factors such as stress can influence the actual physiology of the gut, affecting movement and contractions of the GI tract, increasing inflammation and even making you more perceptible to infection (5).

The link between the gut and brain is referred to as the gut-brain axis and the association with gut bacteria is a new area of research.  Studies are beginning to unveil the potential impact this relationship between the gut and brain has on the microbiome.  Mental health is just one area of research and stress has been shown to alter the diversity of gut bacteria (6). These changes also appear to be amplified when stress is more severe or prolonged. In this regard, the concept of psychobiotics is being developed and refined to find ways of targeting the microbiota to help with mental health outcomes

Don’t dismiss the impact stress has on the body.  Addressing your mental health is just as important as the food you eat, exercise you take and sleep you get, all of which are intertwined.  Try exploring techniques such as meditation that has been proven to help with stress. There are many apps available that can help to teach you this practice.

2. Eat prebiotic foods in your diet

Certain fibres in foods are indigestible and commonly referred to as prebiotics.  Gut bacteria feed of these fibres, helping them to flourish and process by which they break them down (fermentation), produces short chain fatty acids.

The different types are prebiotic foods include:

  • Onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus and bananas contain inulin and fructooligosaccharides that act as prebiotics.
  • Oats and barley contain beta-glucans that act as prebiotics.
  • Starchy foods such as pasta, rice and potatoes form resistant starches (resistant to digestive enzymes) once they’ve been cooked and then cooled. Resistant starches act as prebiotics.

3. Watch your medication

Many people rely on the long-term use of medication to help manage the symptoms of their health condition. Aspirin and ibuprofen are types of Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDS) commonly used to treat inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, but these drugs have been shown to reduce levels of good bacteria in the gut (7).

Other medications such as antibiotics are prescribed as a short course to support the body’s ability to fight infection.  These drugs are not a friend of gut bacteria as they can wipe out swathes of both good and bad.  In certain cases, such as severe bacterial infections, they’re required to help the body recover but are of no use in fighting viral infections such as colds or flu.

Using probiotics alongside certain medications such as NSAIDS or after a course of antibiotics can help to re-balance your microbiome.

Another interesting issue surrounding antibiotics is their extensive use in the farming of food animals.  The issue is a topic of debate but eating less meat and choosing better quality meat may not only be better for your health but reduce the transmission of antibiotics through the food chain.

4. Include probiotic foods in your diet

Strains of bacteria that have been shown to have a positive health benefit are referred to as probiotics.  Bacteria from the Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium family are some of the most widely researched strains.  One of the most common probiotic foods is live yoghurt, which contains strains such as Lactobacillus Acidophilus and Lactobacillus Casei.  These strains are also found in yoghurt ‘shot’ drinks that have become very popular. When you’re choosing live yoghurt or yoghurt products try opting for those that are low in sugar.

Fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir and miso also contain strains of bacteria that can support good gut health. These foods are now widely available in most supermarkets.

5. Take a probiotic supplement

Probiotic supplements offer a way of delivering large doses of specific bacteria to the gut.  Stick to preparations that contain well researched strains such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium in a dose of at least 10 billion bacteria per serving.  To help with their transit to the gut, avoid taking with hot food and drinks or alcohol that can destroy them.

As the research linking gut bacteria to health and disease outcomes evolves, so does the potential role of probiotics supplements.  Their use and efficacy have recently come under scrutiny, but there’s still plenty of good quality research that points towards their beneficial role in health.

Prevention and treatment of diarrhoea

Bacterial strains such as Lactobacillus Rhamnosus and Lactobacillus Casei have been widely researched for their ability to prevent and reduce the severity of diarrhoea.  Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that taking probiotics helped reduce the risk of diarrhoea associated with antibiotic use by 42% (8).  Further research published in the Lancet showed that probiotics helped to reduce the risk of travellers’ diarrhoea by 8% and from all other causes in adults by 26% (9).

Immunity

The cells found in the gut are thought to make up almost 70% of the entire immune system, so it makes sense that it’s inextricably linked to immunity.  Research has shown how probiotic supplements containing certain strains can promote the production of antibodies. The same strains have also been shown to stimulate the activity of immune cells such as natural killer cells and T-lymphocytes that help to regulate immune responses.

Research has shown how probiotic supplements may prove beneficial for upper respiratory tract infections such as colds, coughs and flu. Research published in the British Medical Journal found that children who regularly took probiotics (Lactobacillus GG) had 19% fewer infectious diseases over three months compared with those that didn’t (10).

Obesity

This is new area of research and the question of whether obesity is linked to gut bacteria is not yet answered.  Data suggests that the composition of bacteria in the gut differs between people who are obese and those that are lean (11).  It’s also been shown that the typical Western-style diet rich in fat and refined carbohydrates may even increase the strains of bacteria linked to obesity (12).  Research has provided several potential reasons why the diversity of bacteria in the gut may be linked to obesity.  Certain bacteria are involved in the digestion of carbohydrates and fats (13), whilst others have the potential to increase inflammation in the body (14). Other may impact on the production of hormones that influence appetite (15).

Whilst in its early stage, this research highlights the future potential for probiotic supplements as part of personalised nutrition guidance to help in the fight against obesity.

Essential steps to good gut health

The bacteria in your gut play a role in health that’s essential to life.  New research not only helps to confirm this but is exploring the many benefits that go beyond digestion. Diet and lifestyle can both influence the diversity of bacteria in your gut and this can have a negative impact on your health.  Following a healthy balanced diet will help to maintain the health of your gut and the bacteria that reside in it as will addressing lifestyle factors such as stress. Research into the use of probiotic supplements is ever evolving but they can provide a useful way to help maintain the balance of bacteria in your gut.

Healthy gut plan

  1. Maintain a balanced diet and try to avoid foods high in sugar and ‘bad’ fats.
  2. Eat wide variety of plant-foods such as vegetables, nuts, seeds and wholegrains that are high in fibre and support efficient digestion.
  3. Include prebiotic foods in your diet – onions, garlic, bananas, oats, barley.
  4. Include probiotic foods in your diet – live yoghurt, kimchi, kefir and miso.
  5. Use relaxation techniques to address the issue of stress.
  6. Factor the use of medication into your diet and the effect on gut bacteria.
  7. Take a probiotic supplement that includes strains such as Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium in a dose of at least 10 billion bacteria.

 

References

  1. https://www.bmj.com/content/361/bmj.k2179
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24388214
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3341031/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4202343/
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15740474
  6. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352289515300370
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26482265
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22570464
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16728323
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11387176
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27648960
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28199845
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15505215
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23985870
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27616451/

 

 

 

Are you a sleep hijacker?

Are you a sleep hijacker?

What is sleep?

Sleep is defined as, “A condition of body and mind which typically recurs for several hours every night, in which the nervous system is inactive, the eyes closed, the postural muscles relaxed, and consciousness practically suspended”.  Modern times are defined by a fast paced and more stressed society, addicted to social media and a level of communication that commands a 24/7 availability. The side-effects of this environment are that many of us find it more difficult to relax, diet has been jeopardized and we have even come up with the phrase ‘FOMO’, which is the fear of missing out.

The cumulative effects of this shift in society has had a huge impact on our ability to relax and sleep, which is also compounded by many other factors traditionally thought of as getting in the way of our time spent in slumber.

The sleep cycle

During sleep your heart rate drops, body temperature falls and complex changes occur in the brain. The first stage of sleep is non-rapid eye movement, which occurs in three stages that become progressively deeper. Stage one and two are light sleep from which we can easily be roused from. The third stage is deeper and we are less likely to be roused from but may feel disorientated if woken. Stage four is known as rapid eye movement sleep, which is the point that dreaming occurs. Each cycle lasts around 90 minutes and all four are needed to wake up feeling rested.

Sleep is controlled mostly by your circadian rhythm, which is your in-built body clock and a 24-hour cycle that regulates both biological and physiological processes. It anticipates environmental changes allowing the body to adapt and is largely influenced by light. When you are in sync you will naturally wake at the same time every day, which explains those weird moments when you wake just before the alarm goes off. After being awake for around 15 hours the pressure to sleep becomes greater as tiredness set in and with the onset of darkness the circadian rhythm drops to the lowest levels to help maintain sleep.

There is evidence to show that it can be perfectly natural to sleep for around four hours then wake and fall asleep again for a few more hours putting question to the perception that you need 8 hours uninterrupted sleep to wake up feeling refreshed. Problems may occur of you wake after four hours and fail to fall back to sleep, which is the case for people suffering with insomnia. Anxiety related to the inability to fall back to sleep can only further lead to sleep deprivation so rather than lie in bed staring at the ceiling it may be better to get up, make a warming drink and sit quietly in the dimmest of light, maybe reading or writing down ideas, stresses or problems to help clear the mind and get you ready to fall back to sleep.

Society of non-sleepers

We are a society that typically does not get enough sleep. The idea of rest and sleep is sometimes viewed as unimportant as people seek appraisal and worth by burning the candles at both ends to appear capable and carve out the time required to achieve their goals. Admitting to feeling tired is sometimes viewed as a sign of weakness but in the long-term, strength and endurance come from the ability to switch off and allow yourself to recoup, which will ultimately help you to achieve both short and long-term goals, whilst retaining your good health.

How much sleep do Brits actually get?

A recent survey commissioned by Healthspan UK showed that 43% of Brits are tired because they can’t sleep. Our lack of sleep is evidenced by further research. According to research carried out by the Royal Society for Public Health, Britons are under-sleeping by an hour every night, which equates to a whole night’s sleep over the course of the week. The optimum number of hours’ sleep is thought to be just under eight, whilst the survey of 2000 adults found the average time we spend asleep is less than seven hours.

Further research by The Sleep Council found that 74% of Brits sleep less than 7 hours per night, whilst 12% say they get less than 5 hours nightly. This survey also showed that for 61% of Brits, between 5-7 hours is considered the norm with 30% getting poor sleep most nights. The top reasons for a poor night’s sleep appear to be stress and worry (around 50%), partner disturbance such as snoring (25%) and noise (20%) with more than one in ten blaming their sleep depravity on an uncomfortable bed.

The health benefits and downsides of sleep

Whilst asleep, your brain processes information, muscles and joints recovery from constant use during the day, production of growth hormone is increased and protein is replenished in all parts of the body. Poor sleep impacts on mood, concentration and alertness and the effects of long-term sleep deprivation have been linked to several serious health conditions including heart disease, diabetes and stroke.

Research shows that a lack of sleep may also be a major risk factor for obesity alongside physical activity and overeating. Research carried out by the university of Leeds showed that people who lack sleep or have poor quality sleep were more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI) and an increased risk of becoming overweight or obese. Not getting enough sleep is thought to create imbalances in the hormones that regulate appetite and how the body breaks down and utilizes nutrients for energy. These hormones include leptin (appetite regulation), ghrelin (appetite stimulant) and insulin (blood sugar regulation). The impact of these hormones on appetite and the fact that being overweight can result in low energy and lessen the motivation for physical activity may have the potential to lay the foundations for obesity.

Are you hijacking a good night’s sleep?

There are clearly many reasons why people can’t get a good night’s sleep and for many of us we just carry on regardless, waking up complaining of being tired and failing to tackle the issue head on hoping it’s just a passing phase. The reality is that we are just burying our head in the sand and as with any other health conditions, things are not likely to improve until you find a way to break the cycle.

Understanding the many things we do that unwittingly hijack a good night’s sleep is key to getting to the root of the problem and unlocking the path to a blissful, regenerative slumber. Instead of getting on with day to day life with a slightly ‘hungover’ feeling, addressing the issues head on is the best approach.

Keep a sleep diary

It may seem like quite a bit of effort given the many other things we have to get on with in our day-to-day lives but keeping track of your pattern of sleep and the factors that may be keeping you awake by using a sleep diary is a useful tool to identify the reasons and patterns of behaviour and lifestyle that could be getting in the way. The British Sleep Council have produced a morning and evening sleep diary that is worth completing for at least one week to help you to do this. Once written down it is surprising how even the simplest and most obvious of reasons for a lack of sleep are easily overlooked.

Eight sleep hijacks that could be keeping you awake

These are some of the main factors that may need to be addressed. You can use these topics to create your own personal sleep ritual, which can be a useful way to re-set your body clock and promote sleep.

Worry and stress

We have all been kept awake by the many factors that cause worry and stress in our lives. Money problems, relationship issues and work stresses can have you sitting up all night as your brain whizzes in a cycle though different situations and scenarios to come up with solutions.

A useful habit to get into is to download your thoughts at the end of the day. Keep a pen and paper next to your bed and before you go to sleep, write down your thought and worries, create a to-do list for the following day or jot down solutions and ideas that relate to work. If you get up during night, rather than twiddling your thumbs spinning ideas around your head then get up, make a warming drink and sit quietly in dim light and jot down your thoughts to get them out of your head.

For some people that can’t sleep, even the slightest worries can have a major impact such as whether you have locked all the windows and doors or whether you have turned off the oven or switched off the hob. In this case, developing a personal sleep ritual can help. Work through the same pattern of checking before you go to bed. Lock the front door, check the windows are locked and that the cooker is switched off. It doesn’t take much for the smallest of worries to escalate in your mind when you’re finding it difficult to nod off.

Diet and eating patterns

What and when you eat can have a major impact on your ability to sleep. Eating too late or indulging in a rich or spicy meal can keep you awake. These foods take a long while to digest and the after effects of indigestion and heartburn are not going to set you up well for a good quality sleep.

The amino acid tryptophan has been linked to inducing a soporific state that may help you to relax before you sleep. Tryptophan is required to make melatonin in the brain, which is the hormone that controls your sleep/wake cycle. Foods rich in this amino acid include poultry, tofu and dairy foods but you need to team them with low to medium glyaemic carbohydrates (rice, potatoes, pasta and bread) for maximum effect, which puts some truth to the old wife’s tale of milk with honey. Aim to eat your evening meal earlier (up to 4 hours before bed) as the effects of digestion can push your body’s core temperature upwards, which may disrupt sleep.

Some nutrients specifically have been associated with sleep and relaxation. There is a research to suggest that both calcium and magnesium may be linked to poor sleep. Magnesium found in green vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and wholegrains is involved in muscle relaxation and low intakes have been shown to make it harder to stay asleep. Calcium found in dairy foods, soy, beans and green vegetables, helps the brain to use tryptophan to make melatonin and low levels have also been shown to make it more difficult to nod off.

Vitamin B6 may be useful too. Oily fish are a rich source of this vitamin that is also required by the body to make melatonin. Most people get enough vitamin B6 but the effects of stress can deplete the body of this nutrient and disrupt sleep.

Alcohol and caffeine

Tea, coffee and energy drinks contain caffeine that helps to stimulate the nervous system and make you more alert, which is great if you need a pick-me-up (although energy drinks should be avoided given their high sugar content). Dosing up on caffeine during the day can affect your ability to sleep later on in the evening. Try limiting your intake of caffeine to the morning and switch to decaffeinated options such as herbal teas (chamomile and valerian are considered to help with relaxation).

Alcohol is a double-edged sword when it comes to sleep. Whilst a little may help to induce slumber, even in small amounts it can cause fragmented sleep patterns. Alcohol has been shown to exacerbate insomnia and impairs the restorative part of sleep called rapid eye movement. Alcohol also inhibits your anti-diuretic hormone that tells the kidneys how much water to conserve and can have you getting up through the night to use the bathroom.

Mattress and bedding

The findings from the Sleep Council Survey showed that 26% of Brits sleep in an uncomfortable bed and that 27% of people questioned have a mattress that is more than seven years old. Mattresses age can deteriorate by as much as 70% within ten years of use so past seven years you should consider replacing especially if you find it uncomfortable. It’s important to try your mattress before buying as the right level of comfort is down to individual preference.

Changing your bedding regularly is a must to help with sleep as nothing is more relaxing than sinking into freshly laundered bed linen. Certain fibres such as silk provide a breathable barrier between you and the surrounding temperature, which can help you to keep cool and whilst silk bedding is somewhat of a luxury, a single pillowcase may be a useful aid to help you to sleep.

Bedroom environment

Your bedroom should be considered to be a ‘sleep oasis’, reserved purely for slumber, whist being inviting, relaxing and welcoming. Your bedroom should be dark once the lights are switched off because the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin is very light-sensitive and may not be optimally produced if it is not so. Check for ‘light leaks’ and take action by fixing curtains or installing black out blinds, turning off anything that emits and LED light such as phones and clocks and make sure that if your door is open during the night then all other lights around the house are switched off.

Maintaining the right temperature can also help with sleep as a room that is too hot may prevent your core temperature from going down, which is essential for switching on the sleep mechanism within the body. Your body temperature falls to its lowest level around 3-4 hours after falling asleep so keeping your bedroom temperature cool may help keep you asleep. A warm bedroom can also dehydrate you and this may have you waking up to get a glass of water.

A cluttered bedroom can be an energy drainer. Psychologically, you know it’s there even if you choose to ignore it and it can leave you questioning why you haven’t dealt with it. Clearing clutter means organization and can help you to achieve peace of mind, which helps with restful sleep.

Blue light

Exposure to light stimulates a nerve pathway from the retina in the eye to an area in the brain called the hypothalamus, where a special centre called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) initiates signals to other parts of the brain that control hormones, body temperature and other functions that play a role in making us feel sleepy or wide awake.

We live in a technological world but the type of light that is emitted from phones, TV’s, computers, tablets and other gadgets called blue light can disrupt your ability to sleep. Research has shown that light from these sources for up to two hours before bed can significantly suppress the production of melatonin causing sleep disturbances. A study from the Lighting Research Centre in New York showed that two hours of exposure to this light before sleeping caused a 22% suppression in melatonin production.

Digital devices can also stimulate the brain and add to worry and stress as you receive and read emails, texts or social media relating to work or personal issues. Try initiating a digital detox as part of your sleep ritual, tuning out and switching off communications at least two hours before bed.

Chilling out

There are many ways to relax before bed that include stretching, guided imagery and breathing, which can be done with the help of meditation apps designed to help you to sleep. Breathing exercises are the simplest way to induce relaxation and centre the mind. Close your eyes and become aware of your breathing as you feel the air enter and leave your nose and mouth. Visualize the flow of air as it passes through your mouth, airways, down into your belly, and back out again. Survey your body for any tension, and as you exhale, feel the tension leave that part of your body. Visualize your breath reaching your forehead, your neck, your shoulders, your arms… and then releasing the tension as you exhale. If your mind wanders to another worry or thought, let it go and gently redirect your attention back to your breath.

Research has shown that bathing or showering before bed can help you to drift off but you need to time it right. You don’t want to raise your body temperature to close to bedtime as temperature has a key role to play in regulating the circadian rhythm. The cooling down of body temperature is a signal to the body that we should be ready to sleep so interrupting this process by raising your body temperature too close to bedtime can be counterintuitive. Showering or bathing early in the evening gives your body time to cool and off and can help to trigger sleep. Try and time you shower or bath so you’re out about an hour and a half before you hit the sack as by then your body will be cool, dry and ready for sleep. Adding magnesium salts to your bath may also help as this mineral is absorbed through the skin and relaxes the muscles.

Experts consider sleep to be just as important to your health as diet and exercise. Getting the right amount and sufficient quality is necessary for the body to regenerate and repair itself and not getting enough could have serious health consequences in the long term. If you do have difficulty sleeping then it shouldn’t be ignored and identifying the factors that may be keeping you awake can help you to create your own personal sleep ritual and establish a good level of sleep hygiene that will get you back on track to a restorative and restful slumber.

Vitamin D for desire?

Vitamin D for desire?

Boosting your vitamin D during the winter months may help with libido study says… (Download PDF)

Ever wondered why the summer months leave you feeling frisky and the winter makes you feel more like settling in with a warming cup of cocoa and a box set before bed? Winter has always encouraged us to get cozy and comfort eat but could our lack of the sunshine vitamin be a reason why many of us go off sex as the nights draw in?

Diet and libido

There are many factors that can affect libido such as stress, anxiety, depression, medication, smoking, drinking, illness and being overweight.  These factors can impact on the food choices we make, which in turn can affect nutrient intake and the quality of our diet.  Some can even impact on the bodys requirement for certain nutrients or affect their absorption in the body and the joint effect of this may have an impact on your libido.

What you eat could have an effect on your sex drive – and not just by providing vitamins, minerals or aphrodisiac foods. What you eat influences your hormone balance and following a hormone-friendly diet will help. This involves obtaining the right types of essential fatty acids – such as those found in oily fish, nuts and seeds, plenty of fruit and vegetables (at least five servings per day) and as wide a variety of wholegrains as possible. Wholegrains are a rich source of B vitamins, plant hormones and the trace minerals that are vital for both a healthy sex drive and for sexual stamina

 

Nutrients that are important for sex drive  

Sexual Function Nutrient Food sources
Production of sex hormones, including testosterone and maintaining sex drive Vitamin A Liver, eggs, dairy, fish, meat, dark green leafy vegetables and orange-yellow fruits and vegetables
Magnesium Nuts, seeds, brown rice, wholegrains, eggs, cocoa, dark green leafy vegetables
Slenium Brazil nuts, broccoli, mushrooms, cabbage, onions, garlic, wholegrains, seafood
Zinc Red meat (especially offal), seafood (especially oysters), wholegrains, pulses, eggs and cheese
Production of sexual secretions and fertility Vitamin C All fruit and vegetables but especially citrus, berries, peppers, kiwi and leafy greens
Vitamin E Oily fish, fortified margarine and dairy products, liver, eggs
Production of energy, stamina and staying power, plus healthy circulation and blood vessel dilation B vitamins Yeast extracts, brown rice, wholegrain bread, seafood, poultry and meat (especially offal), pulses, nuts, eggs, dairy products, green leafy vegetables
Iron Red meat (especially offal), seafood, wheat germ, wholemeal bread, egg yolk, green vegetables, prunes and other dried fruit
Arousal and orgasm Calcium Milk, yoghurt, cheese, green vegetables, oranges, bread
Phosphorus Dairy products, yeast, soya beans, nuts, wholegrains, eggs, poultry, meat and fish

 

Vitamin D and libido

Vitamin D has been a sexy nutrient for a while now and research findings exploring its many potential health benefits seem to make the headlines on a monthly basis but could this vitamin really put the D back into desire?

Research findings have suggested that the sunshine vitamin may have a key role to play in the libido of both sexes.  A study published in the journal, Clinical Endocrinology (1) has shed further light (excuse the pun) on the possible link between vitamin D and sexual desire. The research findings have found that levels of the male sex hormone testosterone may be linked to vitamin D status and that men with adequate levels of this nutrient had more testosterone that those with lower levels.  Delving deeper, researchers also found that testosterone levels dipped during the winter and peaked during the summer, implying an association between this male hormone and vitamin D. 

Women may also be affected by the lack of sunshine during the winter as it may impact on levels of oestrogen.  A study published in the Journal of International Urology and Nephrology (2) found those with sexual dysfunction had lower blood levels of vitamin D. Further research has also suggested that low levels are linked to low arousal, lubrication, orgasm, satisfaction and pain.

 

Vitamin D and mood

Low vitamin D levels have also been associated with low mood and in particularly Seasonal Affective Disorder. Vitamin D activates the genes that release of neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin, the lack of which is linked to depression.  Low levels of testosterone have also been shown to impact on low mood and oestrogen helps to boost serotonin and other transmitters such as GABA that promote calm and happiness.  It may be that low levels of vitamin D trigger a vicious cycle of low mood and libido that impact on your sex life during the winter months.

 

Vitamin D status in the UK

Findings from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (3) have shown from blood analysis that theres evidence of low vitamin D status in 23% of adults over the year, which increases to 40% during the winter.

 

How much vitamin D do we need?

The current recommendation for vitamin D is 10mcg per day as advised by Public Health England. Many experts believe this is a minimum and in the absence of sunlight a dose of 25mcg (1000IU) may be more appropriate to maintain bone, heart, brain and immune health.  Older people may be recommended a higher dose of at least 50mcg (2000IU) as they process sunlight less efficiently through the skin and have a reduced ability to absorb vitamin D from the limited foods that contain this nutrient. 

 

Can you get enough vitamin D from your diet?

At most, its likely that you may be able to get up to 20% of your vitamin D intake from food but the rest needs to come from sunlight in the summer and supplements during the winter. Even if youre lucky enough to escape the British winter with a sunny holiday, your stores of vitamin D are not likely to last more than 4-6 weeks.

Very few foods contain vitamin D. The main source is oily fish and a little can be found naturally in eggs and mushrooms.  You can also find vitamin D in fortified foods such as breakfast cereals and margarine spreads.

 

 

Vitamin D content of foods in mcg per serving  

Food Portion size vitamin D (mcg)
Herring raw 140g 26
Sardines raw 140g 15.4
Trout raw 140g 14.8
Pilchards canned in tomato sauce 1 can 14
Kipper raw 140g 11.2
Tuna raw 140g 10.8
Salmon raw 140g 8.4
Canned salmon half a can 8
Mushrooms 100g 5
Eggs 2 eggs 1.8
Bran flakes 30g 1.3
Children’s yoghurt (petit filous) 1 pot 1.3
Flora 15g 0.75

 

Supplementing your diet

Supplementing your diet with the recommended 10mcg (400IU) is the most effective way to increases and maintain your vitamin D levels.  Increasing the dose to 25mcg (1000IU) will do you no harm and may help you to achieve optimal rather than adequate levels.  When choosing a supplement, you should opt for vitamin D3 as evidence suggests that this form is more effective at maintaining vitamin D status than vitamin D2.

 

Light therapy

If vitamin D really does impact on sex hormones and libido then another option to get your UV fix is light therapy. Scientists at the University of Siena in Italy (4) found that regular, early-morning use of a light box (such as those used to treat SAD) helped men increase testosterone levels and improved their sex life.

There are many factors that can affect libido but if ensuring your vitamin D levels has a role to play then why not try topping up with supplements, diet or explore light therapy to see if this helps to reignite the lost spark in the bedroom during the winter months.

 

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27522658
  2. https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article-abstract/102/11/4292/4096785?redirectedFrom=fulltext
  3. https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/national-diet-and-nutrition-survey
  4. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/09/160918214443.htm

 

(Download PDF)

House of FitBit hit Morocco!

House of FitBit hit Morocco!

FitBit press trip to Morocco

Could there be a better setting or fitter group of people to host, lead and inspire wellness on behalf of FitBit?  Probably not.  I was lucky enough to be invited to work with FitBit last week in Morocco as their in-house nutritionist at the ‘house of fit’.  This has to have been one of the best press trips I have worked on in ages.  Having done a few press trips in Morocco, the weather was as expected and steaming hot but the beautiful Villa Palmeraie 32 offered plenty of respite with beautiful grounds offering shade under palm trees and no more than three gorgeous pools.

 

 

The team at Fleishman Hillard Fishburn included Claire, Hannah, Harriet and Peach, and boy did they do FitBit proud with a week full of fitness, fun, great food and access to some of the best fitness and wellness experts the UK has to offer.  Aside from myself we were joined by FitBit ambassador James Stirling (trainer)  who provided a wealth of experience knowledge and inspiration. 

We were also joined by a number of influential health journalists, bloggers, influencers and trainers on the trip including Alex Crockford (trainer), Lucy Gornall (Now Magazine), Farzana Ali (Fabulous magazine), Patrick McAleenan (freelance journalist), Twice The Health (fitness bloggers), Edward Lane (Men’s Health), Oli Proudlock (fashion, fitness and lifestyle influencer) and Natalie Glaze (lifestyle blogger), Becky James (Olympic sprint cyclist) and Max Willcocks (ultra marathon runner).

 

 

The activities included sunrise and sunset yoga at the unreal Palais Namaskar, Hiit training sessions with James (my hamstrings have still not quite recovered!), trekking up the Atlas mountains, visits to the souk and suppers out at some of the coolest restaurants Marrakech has to offer including Bô Zin.

 

 

I really enjoyed cooking up a treat for the guys one evening!  The focus of the trip was heart health and the new FitBit HR allowed us all to keep a track of our heart rate across the day.  So, our candle lit supper was all about maintaining good heart health.

 

The menu included:

Grilled salmon (omega 3)

Quinoa, black and brown rice salad with orange, rocket and pistachio nuts (high fibre, magnesium, monounsaturated fats)

Chickpea, cucumber and soya yoghurt salad (high fibre, soy-isofavones, prebiotics, potassium)

Baked aubergine with moroccan tomato sauce and sumac yoghurt (high fibre, B vits)

Green beans, fresh peas and courgette with nigella and mustard seeds (potassium and fibre)

 

 

Great trip, great people, great product.  Nothing more to say but awesome!