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Could sleep deprivation contribute to weight gain??

Could sleep deprivation contribute to weight gain??

Sleep is a key pillar of good health

Sleep is becoming more widely recognised as one of the key pillars of good health alongside diet and exercise.  Diet and exercise are directly linked to our ability to maintain a healthy body weight, but it may be that sleep also has a role to play.

How well are we sleeping?

The optimum number of hours of sleep is thought to be just under eight, but research carried out by the Royal Society for Public Health has shown that most people manage less than seven (1).

Over the course of a week this deficit equates to a whole night’s sleep, and research by The Sleep Council has shown that 33 per cent of people only manage 5–6 hours, while 7 per cent get less than 5 hours (2).

“Sleep derivation causes fatigue and can impact on our ability to perform daily tasks as we struggle with attention, concentration, creativity, insight, memory and decision making” 

How is diet linked to sleep, disease and weight gain?

Research has suggested that poor sleep may increase the risk of diabetes, elevated blood pressure, poor mental health and even our ability to maintain a healthy body weight (3).

“A lack of sleep may increase your energy intake by 300 calories per day”

It has also been shown that if you continually lose sleep at night then this may affect your ability to lose weight. 

Studies carried out by Loughborough University found that those who habitually sleep for less than six hours each night tended to have a higher BMI than those who managed to get the recommended eight nightly hours (4).

Sleep deprivation may affect our hormones that regulate appetite

Research has suggested that a lack of sleep may impact on the hormones leptin and ghrelin which control appetite. 

Leptin sends signals to the brain to help inhibit hunger while ghrelin is released by the stomach to stimulate appetite.  The research, which is not yet definitive, suggests that a lack of sleep reduces leptin and increases ghrelin (5).

This hormonal effect may explain the correlation between obesity and sleep deprivation highlighted by certain studies.

Insulin and sleep

Insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar, may also be affected by sleep.  This hormone also promotes the storage of fat and as such it has been suggested that higher levels may impact on weight gain.  Research has suggested that sleep deprivation may increase the release of insulin as well as another hormone called cortisol which has also been associated with fat storage in the body (6).

There may also be a simpler explanation

Sleep deprivation causes fatigue and tiredness which can impact on our motivation to exercise and stick to healthy eating habits.

Sleep deprivation can also lower mood and could contribute to depression and anxiety both of which may lead to comfort eating and weight gain.

Adolescents are at particular risk if depression as a result of sleep deprivation which is compounded by the overuse of electrical equipment at night and the psychological effects of social media (7).

“A prolonged lack of sleep can eventually filter into our emotions and relationships”

Avoid quick energy fixes

Trying to overcome the fatigue associated with sleep deprivation may also affect eating patterns as well as the temptation to rely on ‘pick-me-ups’ during the day such as sugar laden energy drinks or sweet snacks. These may not only promote weight gain but could further inhibit your ability to sleep well at night.

How does being overweight affect our ability to sleep?

Being overweight can affect our ability to sleep in a couple of ways.  Sleep apnoea is a condition that affects breathing during the night which can disrupt sleep. If this is an issue, then make sure you sleep on your side to help open up the airways.

Indigestion is another problem that interrupts sleep and is more common in people who are overweight. Heartburn is a common symptom of indigestion as stomach acid rises into the oesophagus and throat.

Try eating a light low-fat meal a few hours before bed and include a good source of protein as this help the gall bladder to produce more bile acids that aid digestion.

The power of herbs to help with sleep

If you want to help promote sleep, then try herbal drinks. There are many herbs associated with relaxing the body and easing anxiety, which is a leading cause of sleep deprivation. 

Herbs such as chamomile, passionflower and lavender are good but the most potent is valerian root.  Look for herbal teas with a high percentage of valerian root for maximum effect.

References

  1. https://www.rsph.org.uk/uploads/assets/uploaded/a565b58a-67d1-4491-ab9112ca414f7ee4.pdf
  2. https://www.sleepcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/The-Great-British-Bedtime-Report.pdf
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2845795/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29526681
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC535701/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16227462
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26141007

Food For Thought podcast with Rhiannon Lambert

Food For Thought podcast with Rhiannon Lambert

How foods and sleep can change your life

My chat with Nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert on her podcast Food For Thought is now available.

It was great chatting with Rhiannon who I have known for quite a while now.  We talk about the importance of sleep and in particular the role of diet.

Here is just one of the questions I was asked…

With two-thirds of adults in the UK failing to get the recommended quality and quantity of sleep, could our nutrition be more as effective than getting an early night?

Interesting question….  The first point to make here is that there are many factors that impact on our ability to sleep well both in terms of the number of hours we get and equally as important, the quality of sleep.  As we both say when it comes to many areas of health, there is no one size fits all and this mantra can be applied to sleep.

Modern lifestyle

Our modern lifestyle is fast paced, and this is not just work related as everyone is affected by the pressure, we put ourselves under to be and be seen as achieving and this looks different for every individual whether it involves work goals or doing the best for your family.

Anxiety

The reasons for not sleeping are common amongst all groups and include things like anxiety which could be linked to lifestyle or other behavioural habits associated with overuse of modern technology.

Addressing diet

I would say that addressing your diet can help you to sleep but you also need to address behaviours and the environment you sleep in.  In my new book, I use these three pillars (BED) as a way of helping people to really think about how they can tackle their sleep issues and form their own personal sleep ritual.

Foods that harm and foods that heal sleep

When it comes to diet, it’s about looking at the foods and drinks that both help and hinder sleep as well as also looking at your eating behaviour and pattern of eating which also play a role.  This may link to micronutrient deficiencies, food and drinks that stimulate our bodies or the effect of food on digestion which can all keep us awake in some way.

Diet plays a role but is just a contributory factor that should be considered alongside other things as part of addressing and understanding the bigger picture as to why you’re unable to sleep.

There is also another angle here in that sleep deprivation can cause depression, anxiety and fatigue which can lead to erratic eating patterns and impact on the food choices we make which may exacerbate the issue of sleep deprivation.

You can listen to the podcast here.

The Art of Sleeping

The Art of Sleeping

New book!

This month on the 14th (November) sees the release of my new book called The Art of Sleeping.  This little book explains the concept of sleep, why we need sleep, the consequences of sleep deprivation and advice on how we can tackle our lack of sleep.

My expertise is nutrition but this is only a small section of this new book which has been written as a result of personal interest and experience.

Here I explain more…..

Why have I ventured from nutrition into sleep?

When I started out in the world of nutrition, we had only just established the 5-a-day guidance.  I clearly remember my tutor at the time saying that when she trained, vegetables were considered to be a decorative part of the meal as we focused more on protein and starchy carbs for good health.

Fast forward more than 15 years and our understanding of health/nutrition has radically evolved thanks to the advances in research.  As a result of this we are establishing a more comprehensive understanding that in order to maintain good health and a life free of disease many other factors play a role which goes way beyond the basic message of eating well and keeping active.

Mental health 

Mental health is now a major public health issue and sleep is regarded as being a key pillar to achieving optimal health. The greatest revelation that interests me and is likely to influence how we talk about health in the future is how all of these factors are so closely interlinked. This will inevitably make the delivery of messaging to the public a little more complicated.

Optimal wellness

I have never slept well and even though I eat well and lead a very active lifestyle I have become very aware of the impact that sleeping badly could be having on my health.  There is a fine balance to achieving optimal wellness, but the Achilles’ heal for many people, including myself, is sleep.

Burning the candle at both ends

Many of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves to achieve our goals whilst also being viewed as competent and successful in what we do, but the one thing that is often compromised is sleep. 

Burning the candle at both ends as we work hard, train hard and play hard has resulted in an increase in anxiety and behavioural traits (mostly an over-reliance on technology and social media). This all affects our ability to sleep.

Too much time dwelling and not enough action

After looking at the research, speaking to experts and other people that have issues with sleep it became clear that not only do we not get enough sleep, but we spend more time dwelling on the issue rather than taking action.  This is also an area of our health that is difficult to control as we all have the power to dictate whether we get up and go to the gym or choose to eat a quinoa salad over a burger, but sleep is a little trickier to get a grip on.

Why did I write this book?

Given all of this insight and my personal experience, I decided to write a book on sleep.  I’m not a sleep expert in terms of the psychologists and researchers that investigate the science on this topic.  However, I am a trained health professional that understands how to read and interpret the research. 

I hope I can also relate to readers as genuinely being someone that has personal experience of what it feels like to sleep for just 4 hours every night burdened by your thoughts that repeat over and again on a continual loop.

The personal sleep ritual

The crux of this book is about establishing a sleep ritual that is personal to you.  As with everything to do with health, one size does not fit all as we all lead very different lives.  Whilst similarities do exist, we all have our own way of dealing with things.

Change the narrative around sleep

Once I changed my daily narrative around sleep (“I slept so badly last night”, “I’m so tired”) and took action, I started to sleep much better.  It sounds simple, but it’s not in some cases and there are those who suffer greatly with insomnia that may need to seek help professionally.

There is a lot of information about sleep out there! What I hope to achieve with this book is to share useful insight and structure the relevant information in a way that helps you to put the basics into practice so you can create a consistency in the way you tackle sleep rather than freaking out and counting sheep.

The BED method

The acronym is BED, which stands for Behaviour, Environment and Diet.  Much of this is common sense but if it was that easy, we would all be sleeping well, right!  

In simple terms I hope to help readers to understand the basic concepts of sleep and then complete their own sleep diary to offer insight into their own sleep landscape. 

From here it’s about taking what is pertinent to you whether that means decluttering your bedroom, investing in new bedding, taking a bath before bedtime or investing in a dietary supplement to help you to sleep better.

Have I always struggled with sleep?

I consider myself to be very healthy, but sleep has always been my enemy. 

Surviving on very little sleep

The body is an amazing thing that adapts to survive but our strong will and determination to cope can only override the natural balance of things for so long. I have gone for months at a time in the past surviving on as little as 4 hours sleep a night.  Luckily, I work for myself at home which made using coffee and napping an easily accessible way of functioning on little sleep.

Nodding off

Nodding off has always been the issue for me.  Most frustrating are those moments when you finally get to sleep but then wake up feeling ‘refreshed’ only to realise it is just a little past midnight which is never a good feeling.

How did my poor sleep pattern occur?

Not sure where this developed but I spent many years working unsociable nights in bars, restaurants and clubs. I was also getting up early to study or work a day job that inevitably fought against my circadian rhythm.  I’m also not one to complain and would much rather ‘push on’ to achieve my long-term goals.

Anxiety

Like many people that struggle to sleep, anxiety has also contributed at times.  Opting to work freelance comes with a degree of anxiety but the upsides to this way of life have always outweighed any of the negatives for me. 

Like many non-sleepers I also had to battle with the anxiety that occurs at 2am when you’re still awake daunted by the prospect of having to get up at 6am to complete a day jam packed with meetings and deadlines.

Visualisation and meditation

I have learnt useful ways to deal with anxiety when it rears its ugly head such as breathing and visualisation which I touch on in the book. 

Try not to shun these techniques as ‘hocus pocus’ as they really do help if you dedicate a little time to practicing them and include them in your personal sleep ritual if you have to. 

Phone apps can also help with meditation/breathing/visualisation. Aside from this, and I’m a big fan, podcasts and audio books are also useful ways to help you to settle the mind and promote sleep.

Taking control 

I sleep much better now which is only after I took control of my sleep habits and established my own personal sleep ritual.  I still have my moments of poor sleep but understanding what it is that is causing this and knowing what to do to tackle it helps me to get back on track pretty quickly.

What disturbs my sleep the most? 

Again, everyone is different but mostly my issue is nodding off which is usually the result of an overactive mind. If things are totally manic with work and the flat gets untidy and cluttered this also prevents me from sleeping well.

I do wake occasionally through the night which is a real bummer as trying to get back to sleep in the early hours of the morning also creates anxiety about how little sleep you are going to get before you have to get up and perform your daily tasks.

What is the link to food and nutrition? 

The link between diet and sleep does exist but other factors can compound the issue. 

Food and drinks that harm sleep

What you eat and drink can keep you awake, and the culprits are normally stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol, but sugar can also play a role.  Eating too close to bedtime or indulging in very rich foods can also make it difficult for some people to get to sleep as they impact on digestion and may exacerbate heartburn and reflux.

Supplements

Supplements may help some people such as magnesium, but this is often in those that do not get enough from their diet. 

I often take valerian before bed, which is a traditional herbal remedy to help with mild anxiety, and also used to help aid sleep.

What’s my go-to for sleep? 

We’re all different, but this is my personal take on the topic.

Nothing induces a good night sleep more than the state of my bedroom.  I am naturally quite a messy person, but my bedroom has to offer the perfect sleep oasis. 

Fresh bed linen  

I invest in really good quality bedding that is crisp and white and quite anally I wash and make the bed fresh twice a week as nothing feels better than getting into a freshly made bed.  

I would always recommend that you spend as much as you can on good bed linen even if that means just having one set.  I always buy mine in the sales and choose a nice high thread count cotton that is breathable and hypoallergenic.

Lavender

I use lavender bed sprays and burn a candle before going to sleep.  My favourite pillow spray is Deep Sleep by the company This Works. My go to for lavender candles is Diptyque but another fave if I’m not feeling quite so flush is True Grace.  

Bedroom lights

It’s not to everyone’s taste but I have a string of red lights (chilli lights actually!) on the headrest of my bed that provide enough light for me to read but do not upset the production of melatonin (the sleep hormone).

Keep your room free of clutter

I keep my bedroom clutter-free and make sure everything is put away and set my clothes out for the following day as even this in the past has provided a mental distraction preventing me from getting to sleep.

I also keep the window open all year round, as I would rather have a cold room and snuggle into the duvet to get cosy.  This may sound weird, but my partner and I also have separate duvets as the weight of a whole duvet to wrap myself into helps me to sleep.

What’s my one sleep tip you must do no fail? 

Aside from bedroom hygiene I would say that you shouldn’t torture yourself rolling about for hours in bed if you can’t sleep.  I know when it’s game over, so I just get up, make myself a warm drink and sit in the living room with the lights dimmed low.  Often what keeps me awake is thinking about work. 

Jot things down

Positively, some of the best ideas come about at this time so I either jot my thoughts down in a workbook (never the laptop or phone! – blue light does you no good and the temptation to check emails and social media is not great either) or I read until I feel sleepy and ready to get back to bed.

Believe me, this really is the best way to tackle this issue as again it’s about taking action! It can feel weird being up out of bed in the dead of the night but why spend 4 hours rolling around when you could strategically spend 1 hour using the techniques you have established work for you to help you to get back to sleep.

I can’t guarantee sleep as disrupted sleep can come in waves.  What I can assure you of is that by reverting and sticking to your established sleep ritual you will have a much better chance of tackling the issue head on rather than putting up with it and looking for short-term coping mechanisms.

You can listen to me chatting to Rhiannon Lambert about sleep on her Food for Thought Podcast here

Join Cancer Research UK in giving up sugar for February

Join Cancer Research UK in giving up sugar for February

Addicted to sugar? Learn more about how you can ditch the sweet stuff!

Sugar is the villain in the world of nutrition and most significantly those added to foods, which are referred to as being ‘free’.  We all eat too much of it and it’s supposedly more addictive than class A drugs.  So, what’s the deal with sugar and how can we start to cut it out of our diet?

This month we’ve been challenged by Cancer Research UK to ditch the white stuff in the name of charity but why is it so bad for our health, how much are we eating and how can we reduce it?

What are free sugars?

Free sugars are considered to be the ‘bad guys’ and have been defined by Public Health England as all added sugars in any form which include (1):

  • All sugars naturally present in fruit and vegetable juices, purées and pastes
  • All sugars in drinks
  • All sweeteners including table sugar, honey, barley malt, maple syrup, coconut nectar, palm sugar, agave nectar, date sugar and brown rice syrup

Other sugars found naturally in foods such as whole fruits, cereals and dairy foods (not flavoured milks) are not as damaging to health.  Blood glucose levels are less affected by the sugars in these foods as their fibre, fat and protein content slows down its release into the bloodstream.  Foods containing these sugars are also much more nutritious and contain many other nutrients which are beneficial to health.

How much free sugar should we be eating?

Sugar is high on the health agenda with both the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) urging us to reduce free sugars to just 5% of our daily calorie intake.  Guidance from Public Health England is to limit free sugar intake to no more than 30g (6 tsp) per day.

How much free sugar are we eating in the UK?

Findings from the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey (2018) have shown that most of us consume too much free sugar (2).  The greatest contributors come from the sweeteners we add to food and drinks, soft drinks and then the usual suspects of confectionary and other sweet treats.

Sugar and heart disease

The relationship between sugar and heart disease has been widely researched and a recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that a high-sugar diet was associated with a greater risk of dying from the condition.  Researchers not only found a strong association between sugar intake and heart disease but that the higher your intake of sugar the greater your risk of disease (3).

It’s not fully clear how sugar and heart disease are related but several indirect pathways have been implicated. The liver converts excess sugar into fat and when overloaded this may increase the likelihood of fatty liver disease, which contributes to diabetes risk (a key factor in the aetiology of heart disease).  Other risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure and inflammation have also been associated with diets high in sugar (3)

Sugar and cancer?

Sugar is often talked about with respect to cancer but according to Cancer Research UK, there’s no direct link between the two.  Saying that, the two may be indirectly associated with one another, which has more to do with the impact of obesity.  An unhealthy diet, which may include an excess of sugar in the diet has the potential to cause weight gain and evidence from research has shown that being overweight or obese can increase the risk of many different types of cancer including breast, bowel, oesophageal and pancreatic (4).

Beyond smoking, obesity is one of the greatest preventable risk factors in the development of cancer.  It’s been predicted that by 2035 almost three quarters of the UK population will be overweight or obese, which may cause a further 670,000 new cases of cancer over the next 20 years.

Exactly how being overweight or obese causes cells to become cancerous is not yet fully understood but is thought to be triggered by chemical signals released from excess body fat. We need some fat for the body to function properly, but excess may be harmful as it releases hormones and growth-promoting signals in the body, which encourage inflammation and influence how often our cells divide. These changes in cell division are thought to be one of the most likely reasons why carrying excess fat increases the risk of cancer (5).

How to start cutting free sugars out of your diet

Food surveys have shown we all eat too much of the white stuff and yet most of us find it impossible to cut it out of our diet.  Ditching free sugars for good is probably an unrealistic goal for the majority of people, but this current campaign led by Cancer Research UK offers an opportunity to kick-start new eating habits and explore ways to reduce them from your diet.

Top tips to tackling sugar in your diet

Try and make simple changes to your diet that involve cutting down on the amount of free sugars you consume.  The tips below can help you to reduce the amount of free sugars in your diet and beat the cravings that act as a key barrier to change.

Understand sugar on the label

Many of the foods typically high in free sugars are obvious to spot, but a significant amount of those we consume are hidden in salad dressings, condiments, breakfast cereals, soups, cook-in-sauces and ready meals.

The front of pack labelling highlights the amount of sugar in a food product so opt for green or amber traffic lights. This labelling can be misleading as it represents all the sugars so also refer to the ingredient list.  To identify free sugars, look for anything that ends in ‘ose’ (sucrose, glucose, fructose) as well as any healthier sounding alternatives, such as raw sugar, barley malt, maple syrup, coconut nectar, palm sugar, agave nectar, date sugar and brown rice syrup.  These are all classed as free sugars.

Switch to sweet snacks lower in free-sugars

To reduce the amount of free sugar you add to food you can opt for dried fruits or homemade compotes.  If you’re looking for something sweet to snack on, then try fresh or dried fruits alone or topped onto plain yoghurt.  You can also control the amount of sugar you add to homemade fruit breads, which can be topped with nut butters.

Include plenty of protein in your diet

Protein helps to keep you feeling full and can lessen the desire to snack between meals.  Structure your meals by teaming proteins with healthy fats (olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds), fibre (wholegrains) and plenty of vegetables.  If you need to snack between meals then something protein-based such as boiled eggs, pulse-based dips (hummus) or lean meat proteins are a great option.

Get a little spicy!

Sweet spices such as ground ginger, allspice, nutmeg and cinnamon can make a great substitute for sugar.  These spices can be added to hot beverages and smoothies or sprinkled over porridge and yoghurt in place of sweeteners such as sugar or honey.

Ditch sugary drinks

Soft drinks are one of the biggest contributors to sugar in the diet and even so-called health drinks can be loaded with sugar in one of its many forms.  Try flavouring sparkling water with fruits, vegetables and herbs such as lemons, limes, strawberries, mint, cucumber, rosemary, fresh ginger and basil. Herbal teas are also lovely when brewed, chilled and sweetened with a little honey.

Keep occupied

Research shows that the desire for something sweet after you have eaten is more likely to stem from habits formed during childhood as opposed to anything more biological (6). Evenings are the downfall of most people when it comes to snacking, so the first step is to keep sweet treats out of the house.  The next step is to find ways to occupy your time such as going out for a walk, doing something around the house or having a nice bath with a good book rather than flopping in front of the TV with a family pack of minstrels.  There’s some truth in the saying, “Idle hands make for the devil’s work”.

Gum

Research findings are mixed but have shown that chewing gum may help overcome sweet cravings in some people (7). Make sure you opt for sugar-free varieties!

Learn to chill

We’re more likely to seek out sweet treats and comfort foods when under stress.  Try to adopt other ways to manage your stress rather than relying on food. Magnesium helps to relax the body and can be found in foods such as nuts, seeds and even a little high-cocoa dark chocolate, which is also rich in the compounds phenylethylamine that acts as mild mood booster.

Try chromium

This mineral has been shown to help manage blood glucose (sugar) as part of something called the glucose tolerance factor (GTF).  This factor increases the effectiveness of insulin, which is a hormone that helps to control blood sugar levels by transporting glucose into cells.  Chromium also helps the body to process the carbohydrates, fats and proteins in the foods we eat.  Whilst not conclusive, research has suggested that chromium supplements may help with cravings (8) and anecdotally, some people find these a useful way to reduce sugar cravings by taking with meals.

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29587886
  2. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24493081
  4. https://scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org/2017/05/15/sugar-and-cancer-what-you-need-to-know/
  5. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/obesity/obesity-fact-sheet
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2531152/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17118491
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16184071
Can you cure a hangover?

Can you cure a hangover?

Can you cure a hangover?

So, it’s that time of year again when all good intentions go to pot as we succumb to the excitement of the festive season and even the most ardent ambassadors of sobriety get swept up in the moment.  This time of year is synonymous with overindulgence and to be honest, why not enjoy yourself.  However, the fun times can come at a cost as we are left nursing the effects of a hangover the following day. For those with a more engaging social diary the whirlwind of events can start to take their toll as the festive season unfolds and heavy drinking over a long period can cause problems further down the line.

Research shows that we tend to drink more during the festive season and according to a survey commissioned by Cancer Research UK, young adults consume an average of 63 units in the run up to Christmas, which is the equivalent of 30 glasses of wine or 22 pints of beer.  As well as causing hangovers, this excess of booze can also affect our waistlines as these units contribute an extra 4000 calories (1).

What is a hangover?

The effects of drinking too much include headaches, dehydration, nausea and stomach ache as well as that non-descript feeling of anxiety experienced by some people and the lack of good quality sleep.  Alcohol is broken down in the liver and produces a compound called acetaldehyde, which is responsible for the unwanted side-effects of alcohol consumption. These effects become worse as you drink more, which leads to greater the build-up of acetaldehyde.

Whats the cure?

Everyone has their own take on the ultimate hangover cure but according to a large systematic review published by the British Medical Journal, researchers concluded that there was no convincing evidence for any conventional or complimentary interventions to prevent or treat them (2).  However, getting the basics right such as keeping hydrated, eating before drinking and choosing or avoiding certain foods and drinks may go some way to ease your pain.

Never drink on an empty stomach

Drinking on an empty stomach can be a recipe for disaster as this allows alcohol to be absorbed into the bloodstream more quickly.  According to the survey carried out by Cancer Research UK, a third of Brits aged 25-34-year olds said they skipped a meal to account for the extra calories (1).   The approach of avoiding food is seriously misguided as it not only increases the effect of alcohol but makes you more likely to nibble on bar snacks, buffets or visit the kebab house on the way home by stimulating the appetite.

Try to eat something before you go out even if it’s a sandwich on the way to the pub and choose something substantial with a good source of protein and healthy fats such as tuna sandwich, which will have more impact than a light salad.

Avoid dark coloured drinks

Dark coloured drinks such as brown spirits and red wine are rich in compounds called congeners.  These are impurities produced during the fermentation process, which add to the taste, aroma and appearance of dark coloured drinks.  The higher the concentration of congeners the more intense the hangover is likely to be the following day.

Hydrate!!!!

Few of us appreciate the impact of dehydration on the body, which can leave you feeling lightheaded, tired, confused and irritable. The body can survive for some time without food but not without water, which is why the effects of dehydration are felt more quickly.  Dehydration is a key driver for hangovers, especially as alcohol inhibits the production of anti-diuretic hormone, which is used by the body to re-absorb water.  Falling ill from drinking and vomiting only adds to the impact of dehydration.

To keep hydrated throughout the evening, alternate your alcoholic drinks with water and increase the length of your drinks with soda water or low-calorie mixers.  Drink plenty of fluids before bed and the following day and adding in electrolyte sachets can help to rebalance your system and replace nutrients commonly depleted by alcohol such as magnesium, potassium, calcium and B vitamins.

Avoid the greasy fry-up

The greasy fry-up is ubiquitous with hangovers but can actually leave you feeling much worse.   Fatty foods such as fried eggs, fried bread, sausages and bacon can put a strain on your digestive system as they take longer to break down and may encourage indigestion as well as leaving you feeling sluggish during the day.

Try something lighter such as boiled, poached or scrambled eggs on toast.  Eggs are nutritional powerhouses and contain a good source of the amino acid cysteine, which helps the liver to breakdown acetaldehyde.  Low blood sugar also contributes to the hungover feeling so team your breakfast with a glass of fresh fruit juice as a natural source of sugar as well as vitamin  C.

Think twice before reaching for the coffee

Coffee is a great pick-me-up but caffeine can leave you feeling jittery and upset sensitive tummies. Not everyone is as sensitive to the effects of caffeine so it’s a matter of personal choice.  Herbal teas are a good way to hydrate and ingredients such as ginger can help with nausea as well as providing an invigorating zingy flavour.  Ginger can be enjoyed as a tea by adding 1-2 tsp of ginger powder, ½ a lemon and 2 tsp of honey to a teapot, topping with hot water and leaving to brew for five minutes before serving.  The addition of a little honey can provide a gentle way to rebalance blood sugar levels.

Avoid energy drinks

Don’t be tempted by energy drinks as they are often high in sugar.  Some brands contain as much as 45g or 9 tsp of sugar per 500ml can, which will cause a serious sugar rush followed by a major crash, especially if drunk on an empty stomach.  These drinks, even if sugar- free are also loaded with high amounts of caffeine and other stimulants that can leave you feeling jittery and increase bowel spasms, especially in sensitive hungover guts.

Artichoke supplements may help

This supplement stimulates bile production and can help to relieve bloating and other symptoms of indigestion associated with alcohol consumption.  If you know you have a hectic month of over-indulgence ahead of you then try taking this supplement daily.

Foods that may help to promote good liver function

Certain foods may encourage greater bile flow through the liver, which helps to remove toxins more efficiently.   These include bitter and dark green vegetables (rocket, cabbage, kale and cabbage) and  globe artichokes.  Beetroot has also been traditionally associated with liver health by way of a plant compound called betaine.  All vegetables are hugely beneficial to health so the message here is just to eat more of them in general!!

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but the reality is that there is no miracle cure when it comes to hangovers and how rough you feel is largely dependent on how much you have drunk.  Whilst there are plenty of useful tips such as those above to help you feel a little less shabby the following day, it’s important to always drink sensibly.

 

References 

  1. Cancer Research UK Dryathlon 
  2. https://www.bmj.com/content/331/7531/1515

 

Time saving mealtime tips for carers

Time saving mealtime tips for carers

Time saving mealtime tips for carers 

I’m hugely passionate about the health and welfare of older people and continue to provide training to care homes and carers about the importance of nutrition.  This passion extends to the heath of carers and whilst I know there’s always so much going on when it comes to caring for older people, you should never overlook the importance of diet and nutrition.  This applies to yourself as well as those you care for.

Food has the power to do so much more than just nourish the body

Aside from the physical benefits of eating well, mealtimes are often the only opportunity many older people get to interact with someone and is a way for those with dementia to navigate their day. Food has a unique way of stimulating thoughts of the past and certain dishes/foods have the wonderful ability of conjuring up an association with occasions during the year such as strawberries for Wimbledon, pumpkins for Halloween, mithai for Diwali and sprouts for Christmas.  Amidst the current wellness landscape, I hope we never lose these associations between culture and food as they’re so much more important than the latest protein powder or green juice!

Carers in the UK

My hat goes off to carers in the UK and so should yours.  Aside from the huge commitment and impact it has on their health and wellbeing the economic contribution is estimated at £132 billion each year according to research carried out by the charity organisation Carers UK.

There’s no carer stereotype, but it can be defined as anyone (child or adult) who looks after a family member, partner or friend because they need help as a result of illness, frailty, disability, mental health problem or an addiction, and is not paid for their work.  There are around 7 million carers in the UK equating to one in ten people and this figure is predicted to rise by 3.4 million people over the next 15 years (1).

I’m focusing on those that care for older people and the majority of these carers in the UK are women, many of whom are considered to be part of the ‘sandwich generation’ caring for children and older parents at the same time (2).

I will write another blog on the impact of caring on health and the little attention they pay to their own self-care, which puts them at risk of both physical and mental health issues.

Financing the cost of care

The impact of caring can take its toll on those that still have to work at the same time, which is estimated to be one in eight carers.  Many carers have to sacrifice employment to fulfil their caring responsibilities, which can add to stress and financial commitments with surveys showing that 53% of carers have had to borrow money as a result of their caring role with 61% borrowing from friends or relatives and 41% having to use overdrafts.  It’s also been shown that 60% of carers have had to use all of their savings, whilst 23% have had to re-mortgage their homes or downsize to smaller properties to cover the costs (3).

The older carer

Another group of carers often not considered by those with little knowledge of this environment are those who are older themselves.  Research shows that 65% of carers aged 60-94 years themselves have long-term health problems and that 68% of such carers say that their caring role has had an adverse effect on their health with a third saying they have cancelled treatment or an operation because of their responsibilities (4).

Why is diet so important for older people being cared for?

The food we eat provides the energy and nutrients that the body needs to maintain good health.  Good nutrition is particularly important as we get older as it helps to support the immune system (which protects against infection) and offers nutrients that help with many other areas of health.

Nutrient deficiencies are not common in the general population but can occur in this age group and can lead to fatigue and low mood, and many other symptoms that can impact on day-to-day wellness.  Malnutrition is common in older people, especially those with dementia and this can not only make life more difficult for those that you care for but also for carers that have the added burden of dealing with the symptoms as a result.

We absorb nutrients less efficiently as we age and medication as well as lifestyle can also impact on this. There are also many other things that carers may have to consider when helping older people to eat well such as dentition or the changes brought about by dementia that affect all of the senses and the desire to eat.

Mealtimes are just one of the responsibilities of carers and aside from cooking food can be a lengthy process if they have to put time into helping someone to eat.  For those also supporting a family, it doesn’t take a maths genius to see how much time needs to be committed to mealtimes, especially if the person your caring for needs a lot of support.

Time management is essential and even more so to insure carers are taking time out for themselves, which many fails to do.  Mealtimes don’t have to feel like a burden and there are shortcuts that you can take to reduce the time spent in the kitchen without having to sacrifice good nutrition.

Get the basics right first

To insure every meal counts nutritionally you just need to get the basics right.  Meals should include a good source of protein (meat, fish, Quorn, tofu, beans, pulses, cheese), source of carbohydrates (pasta, bread, potatoes, rice or other grain) and plenty of vegetables, whilst bursting with flavour to encourage appetite.  This doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated as you can create some very simple meals using this principle, whilst making the most of time-saving preparation techniques and quick-fix foods.

Useful tips

I have put together this list of tips but there are probably many more that you already use and I would love to hear from you to share these ideas.

Breakfast smoothies 

Smoothies are a great way to provide a very quick breakfast or snack if you’re feeling rushed for time.  Use any milk as a base and throw in fruits (frozen or fresh), spinach and oats then sweeten with a little honey.  You can also prepare single smoothie packs in individual sandwich bags and keep them in the freezer to save a little more time. This is a great option if you’re trying to deal with malnutrition as you can easily whack up the calories by adding other ingredients such as oils, tofu or protein powders.

Batch cooking 

Cooking in batches once or twice a week is a great time saver.  Dishes such as stews, curries, casseroles, hearty soups and other one-pot dishes are perfectly suited to this and can be packaged individually and stored in the freezer.  Try adding in plenty of veggies to your dishes (frozen is fine) or pulses (canned) to maximise the nutritional content.  You can also add foods such as chicken livers to batch cooked meals to boost their nutritional content.  You can buy ready cooked grains in ambient pouches that can be microwaved to save time boiling grains.

Lunch platters

Mealtimes can be made up of lots of small food items, which can be taken straight from the fridge to create a lunch or supper platter.  Dips, vegetable sticks, chopped fruits, pitta breads, cooked meats, samosas, dim sum, sushi, scotch eggs, hard boiled eggs, cheese and biscuits are just a few examples and if stocked up can offer a meal in minutes.

Healthy ready meals 

You don’t have to be a slave to the stove when preparing meals and there are plenty of healthy ready-meals available that can be microwaved in minutes to provide a quick meal option. Foods such as fish pie, cottage pie or beef stew always go down well and can be teamed with a serving or two of frozen veggies such as carrots or peas to help boost the nutritional content of the meal.

Learn a repertoire of simple five-minute-meals 

Creating a quick repertoire of nutritious quick meals can be a great standby when you’re struggling with what to cook.  Eggs are perfect (omelettes or scrambled) as is wholemeal toast topped with canned fish or baked beans, pasta with canned tuna tomato sauce, soup with wholemeal toast and grilled salmon fillet with ready-made mashed potato.  Try teaming each dish with vegetables by either serving them as a side or adding them into the dish.

Nourishing soups 

Soups are a great way to cook up a meal in a flash and when served with wholemeal bread provide a good balanced meal.  Try and boost their nutrition potential by adding in canned pulses, lentils or other frozen vegetables before cooking.  Soups can be low in calories so try drizzling with a little olive oil after cooking or topping with parmesan shavings.

Make use of canned and jarred foods 

There’s nothing wrong with canned and jarred foods as they can be hugely nutritious and essential time-savers.  Canned tuna is a great protein booster and jarred sauces can be a life saver and reduce the time required to batch cook.  You can add fresh or frozen vegetables to these foods to boost their nutritional content.  A simple Bolognese sauce takes little more than mince, tomato sauce and some chopped vegetables to create a nutritionally balanced meal.

Create a list of weekly essentials

Take some time to get a grip on the foods that you use on a weekly basis to create healthy meals. If you have the essentials in stock, then you will never get caught short.

Keep snacks in stock

There will be times when you need snacks, which may be needed to help someone in your care to gain weight or for those moments when someone’s appetite is not strong enough to face a whole meal.  Foods such as cold meats, yoghurts and cheese are useful to keep in the fridge as are sweeter foods such as custard and fruits like bananas.

Don’t waste the left-overs

It’s amazing what you can create from leftovers and these can save a lot of time the following day when preparing meals.  Sunday roast leftovers can easily be whipped up into a nutritious hash the following day and spaghetti bolognese tastes great when re-fried.

Find ways to make sweet foods more healthy

In some instances the person your caring for may develop a sweet tooth, which is common in those with dementia.  If something sweet is the only way to get someone to eat then think of ways to add a little extra nutrition to the food your preparing.  Chopped fruit is good on custard and ice-cream, whilst fruit-based puddings made using fresh fruit such as pies and crumbles contain the benefits of the fruit and switching traditional crumble for something oat-based is good.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to helping an older person in your care to eat well.  Providing those in your care with a healthy nutritious diet is important but you also have to do the best you can within the moment in time.  Don’t make mealtimes stressful and try to use the tips above to take the strain off this area of your responsibilities. It goes without saying to figure out the foods that the person your caring for likes to eat as this can be a game-changer when their appetite is compromised.

My only final note is that carers don’t forget the importance of self-care and this means taking time out for yourself to eat and live well.  It can be difficult to see the woods for the trees with such responsibility but I for one think you are all amazing.

x

References

  1. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20160109213406/http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171766_300039.pdf
  2. https://www.carersuk.org/for-professionals/policy/expert-comment/4604-sandwich-generation-concern-is-growing
  3. https://www.carersuk.org/for-professionals/policy/policy-library/caring-family-finances-inquiry
  4. https://www.carersuk.org/for-professionals/policy/policy-library/in-sickness-and-in-health

 

A dietary approach to prostate health

A dietary approach to prostate health

A dietary approach to prostate health

The awareness of men’s health has become more visible in recent years with the help and awareness driven by organisations such as the Movember Foundation, which have made the topic more accessible with their brilliant approach that resonates perfectly with men of all ages.

Prostate health

There are numerous health issues related to men, which encompass both mental and physical health and include conditions such as infertility, impotence, depression, overweight and those related to the prostate. Despite the raised awareness, many men still find it difficult or embarrassing to seek help and this is heavily influenced by social stigma, which is a key consideration in the promotion of men’s heath as it creates a barrier to men seeking help and advice.

Prostate health is unique to men and is typically correlated with age given that conditions associated with it mostly affect male baby boomers (aged 54-74 years) and Gen X (aged 39-53 years).  Diet and lifestyle have a key role to play in prostate and many other areas of health and establishing good habits from an earlier age will pave the way to better health in the long-term.

What is the prostate?

The prostate is a small gland about the size of a walnut, which surrounds the tube (urethra) responsible for carrying urine out of the body and also secretes fluid that nourishes and protects sperm.

Common prostate health complaints include benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) or enlarged prostate.  The prostate gland naturally continues to grow with age but can cause troublesome symptoms in men with BPH, which make it difficult to urinate and empty the bladder.  Other prostate heath conditions include prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate, which can occur from the age of 30) and prostate cancer, which incurs more than 40,000 newly diagnosed cases every year in the UK making it the most common form of cancer amongst men.

Symptoms of both BPH and prostate cancer are similar given they are both related to an enlarged prostate and include:

  • Frequent urination
  • Weak or interrupted urine flow or the need to strain to empty the bladder
  • The urge to urinate frequently at night
  • Blood in the urine
  • Blood in the seminal fluid

Prostate cancer

Prostate cancer is a big health issue amongst men but is slow to develop meaning symptoms may not occur for many years until the prostate is large enough to affect urination.  An enlarged prostate does not mean you have cancer, but the symptoms shouldn’t be ignored.  The causes of prostate cancer are largely unknown, but the risk is increased beyond the age of fifty and for reasons as yet unclear the disease appears to be more common in men of African-Caribbean or African descent.  There also seems to be a slight increased risk in men with a family history of prostate cancer.

A reliable method of screening for prostate cancer is yet unavailable and early detection relies on vigilance about symptoms and regular check-ups with your GP.  A blood test called prostatic-specific antigen (PSA) test is available but is not specific to prostate cancer and PSA levels can be raised as a result of other non-cancerous conditions.  If you have raised PSA levels, then you may be offered an MRI scan to help further diagnose the risk of cancer.

Men’s attitudes to health

Research has shown how men are less likely to engage and react to healthcare information or recall the warning signs of cancer when compared to women (1,2). The cultural script of men has imprinted a definition of masculinity characterised by a need to be tough, brave, strong and self-reliant, which can influence their attitudes towards seeking help and overall self-care. Phrases such as ‘man up’ are now common place in our lingo used by men and women alike and are a good example of how this characterisation of men continues to be enforced.

Boys from an early age are often led to believe that if they don’t exhibit these characteristics of the ‘traditional’ male then they will in some way lose their status and respect as men, which contributes to many of the issues surrounding men’s health.  Kids story books and animated movies are riddled with such characterisations of princes and superheroes relied upon to save the day, which is often (rightly) fiercely protested against by women seeking equality but is less considered as to the impact on young men and the contribution to social stigma putting pressure on men to behave in a certain way.

The importance of diet on health

Research convincingly shows that people who eat a healthy diet are more likely to live longer and have a reduced risk of disease, but the link between diet, food and specific health conditions is often less clear.  It’s the overall diet that has the greatest impact on health but in the case of prostate health there are some studies to suggest that certain foods and nutrients may be particularly beneficial.  Most of these benefits can be achieved by eating a healthy balanced diet but introducing certain foods may be worth paying some consideration to.

How can diet help with prostate health?

I don’t want to sound boring, but you have to get the basics right first.  The modern dialogue around nutrition is overly focused on individual nutrients and foods, whilst the nature of the current wellness landscape gives more credence to the latest fads and diet trends over the basic principles of healthy eating.  Focusing on eating a balanced diet can help insure micronutrient intake and also help you to maintaining a healthy body weight, which is one of the best things you can do to reduce your risk of ill health.  This is particularly relevant to prostate cancer as findings from the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) have shown a strong association between being overweight or obese and the risk of developing the disease (3).

Start with the basics

Start by eating three meals daily and cutting out snacks unless you really need to include them.  Pile the veggies high, limit your intake of red meat, switch to ‘brown’ carbs and wholegrains, choose healthy fats (olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds), cut back on sugar, watch your salt intake and serve small portions of food to help manage your weight.

Eat more salmon

Oily fish such as salmon are the richest source of omega 3 fatty acids, which we need to obtain from the diet.  Intake of oily fish in the UK is low with very few people including this food in their diet.  Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to help reduce inflammation in the body, which may help to relieve the symptoms of BPH.  Salmon fillets can be marinated to make them more interesting or added to dishes such as fish pie, curry and salads.

Get more fibre in your diet

High-fibre foods include fruits (fresh and dried), vegetables, wholegrains, nuts, seeds, beans, pulses and lentils. According to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey only 13% of men meet the recommended dietary guidance of 30g per day and this is most likely due to choosing refined carbohydrates, not eating enough vegetables and ignoring foods such as beans and pulses (4).  Dietary fibre can help to reduce the risk of constipation, which can put pressure on the bladder and worsen symptoms of BPH.  Eating more fruits and vegetables is probably the easiest and most effective change you can make to your diet to significantly improve your health.  Many foods in this group contain a good source of vitamin C, which is also thought to help relieve the symptoms associated with BPH (5). Most of us get more than enough vitamin C in our diet but foods such as berries, peppers, citrus fruits, broccoli and cauliflower are good sources.

Cut down on fizzy drinks, alcohol, caffeine and artificial sweeteners

You should try and avoid drinking anything up to two hours before bedtime to lessen the need to use the bathroom during the night. Fizzy drinks, alcohol, caffeine and artificial sweeteners can all irritate the bladder and worsen the symptoms of BPH so you should try limiting your intake of these types of drinks.

Eat foods rich in beta-sitosterol

Foods rich in a plant substance called beta-sitosterol have been shown to reduce the symptoms of BPH including urinary flow and volume and may help to lessen the effects of inflammation and prostate growth. Foods rich in beta-sitosterol include seeds, extra virgin olive oil, avocado, nuts, raw cacao and fresh coriander.

Include soy foods as part of your diet

There’s a little research to suggest that phytoestrogens (plant compounds that mimic the effect of the hormone oestrogen) found in soy called isoflavones may help to relive the symptoms of BPH.  Soy isoflavones can be found in foods such as tofu, soya milk, soya yoghurt, miso, tamari, edamame beans and tempeh.  These foods have also been shown to help reduce cholesterol, making them a healthy addition to the diet and are a great alternative to animal protein for those looking to go meat-free. Swapping dairy products for soy is the simplest way to start including it in your diet.

Soy is one of the most controversial foods and you may have heard of the research linking it to the growth of ‘man boobs’.  Firstly, the effect of plant oestrogens on hormonal balance is weak and secondly, the research involved the consumption of unrealistically huge amounts of soy milk every day.

Eat plenty of foods rich in zinc

This mineral is very important for men, who have a higher daily requirement than women.  Zinc is essential for male reproductive health, which includes proper prostate function.  Research has suggested that men suffering with BPH and prostate cancer may have lower levels of zinc, but this is not considered a risk factor for either condition.  You can get plenty of zinc in your diet by eating foods such as shellfish, meat, pulses, beans, wholegrains, nuts, seeds and eggs.

Red fruits and vegetables

Red fruits and vegetables are rich in the antioxidant phytonutrient lycopene.  Tomatoes are the richest source, especially when cooked or processed but other foods include red peppers, pink grapefruit and watermelon.  Lycopene has long been associated with reducing the risk of prostate cancer but updated findings from the WCRF have downgraded the evidence to support this link from ‘strong’ to ‘no conclusion possible’ in light of the current available research (3).  Lycopene may still be beneficial for prostate health and these new findings don’t mean that it’s suddenly redundant, but only that the new research has made it more difficult to establish a link to prostate cancer.

A healthy balanced diet is important for all areas of health, which includes that of the prostate.  Focusing on food and managing your weight are significant ways to help promote good prostate health and the sooner you adopt healthy eating habits the better.  All men over fifty should be vigilant about recognising the signs of prostate cancer and seek regular check-ups with their GP as a habitual part of their lifestyle.

For more advice on prostate cancer visit the NHS website here.

For more information on mens health and diet try reading these blogs

An in-depth look at the current state of men’s health in the UK 

The blokes guide to going vegan 

Cooking for prostate health

How easy is it to get your 10-a-day?

Quorn, cauliflower and sultana curry recipe 

Super green stir-fry with smoked tofu recipe 

 

References 

  1. https://jech.bmj.com/content/61/12/1086
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2790705/
  3. https://www.wcrf.org/dietandcancer/prostate-cancer
  4. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19716283
What’s the best way to lose weight?

What’s the best way to lose weight?

What’s the best way to diet and lose weight?

During my many years working as a nutritionist I’ve always shied away from the topic of weight loss mostly because I think it’s a hugely complex topic, which requires input from many disciplines and a unique skill set held by dietitians and nutritionists who specialise in this area.

I can tell someone what and how much to eat and devise menu plans and shopping lists to fit in with their lifestyle and food budget, which in some cases has been successful. However, on the whole my experience of helping people to lose weight has been frustrating and enlightened me to the realisation that, ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’.  I know that if a client has me at their disposal to follow them around each day and cook every meal then i’ll get great results, but the reality is that when they leave, the onus is on them to make healthy food choices.

Motivation 

Losing weight takes a huge amount of motivation and commitment and the factors influencing food choice are hugely complex.  It drives me absolutely bloody bonkers when I hear people say that losing weight is simple and just a case of eating less and moving more.  This ignorance comes from a complete lack of understanding amongst those that have never had an issue with their weight.  The problem is that being overweight is very visible and conjures up an unfair image of indulgence or greed as well as being associated with many other social stigmas and unfortunately society often has very little appreciation for the wider issues involved.

Mindset

Mindset is a major component of losing weight and the psychological issues involved are becoming more apparent as being a key factor in compliance and long-term weight maintenance.  One very relevant factor in the aetiology of weight loss is the link between food and mood, which often manifests as an emotional crutch, hampering efforts to lose weight.  Some people put all their faith and commitment into diet plans to the point at which falling off the wagon represents a huge failure impacting on their ability to stick to the programme and sometimes results in binge eating and reverting back to old ways of eating.  Tackling the psychological effects of food is something that needs to be addressed if this is getting in your way of losing weight.

Decision to lose weight 

When it comes to losing weight, there are those that just want to shift a few pounds and others with a much greater amount of weight to lose to improve their health.  In my experience it can be more challenging to shift the last few pounds and those with less weight to lose tend to get drawn to the abundance of diet fads. Unfortunately, for many people, the decision to lose weight is often made as a result of a health diagnosis that puts things into perspective but the positive here is that it’s never too late to reap the benefits. Many of the risks associated with being overweight can have a major impact on someone’s lifespan but just as damaging is the effect on long-term wellness and the number of years living with poor health.  Being overweight or obese can mean living with joint pain, difficulty sleeping, tiredness, breathlessness and psychosocial issues such as depression, low self-esteem and feeling isolated, all of which make it more difficult to drum up the motivation to lose weight.  On top of this, many of the conditions that often accompany being overweight or obese involve medication, which can have unwanted side-effects and become a day-to-day burden.

No hard and fast rule 

There’s no hard and fast rule to losing weight and one size certainly doesn’t fit all.  The key to long-term success has little to do with the speed at which you lose weight, but the habit changes made along the way, which often dictate the chances of keeping the weight off.

Weight loss is a minefield and there are some brilliant nutritionists and dietitians out there that can offer support and guidance.  The support provided by weight loss groups such as Weight Watchers has also been shown to be a key factor in success, but if this isn’t your thing then approaching weight loss with a friend or work colleagues can have a similar impact.  You can of course embark on a weight loss regime on your own but it’s important to do this in the right way and not get sucked into the hype around new diet fads.

Media confusion 

Ignore what you read in the media as this can often cause confusion.  Advice such as that telling you to cut out carbs, shun counting calories, eat loads of protein or avoid eating at certain times is fine in the context of certain methods of weight loss but these messages are good examples of our current obsession of defining diet and health by individual foods and nutrients.  The negative impact of such messaging is that it has the potential to cause false ideas around healthy eating and labelling foods as somehow being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ can detract away from the basic principles of eating well. Focusing on certain nutrients and positioning them as a key driver for weight gain also causes confusion, blurring the basics of healthy eating and making it seem more complicated.

Carbohydrates 

Carbohydrates are one of the best examples of how we have become overly focused on individual nutrients and foods groups.  The messaging around carbohydrates and health has become very negative and for some are viewed as being at the root of weight gain and disease.  A diet high in carbohydrates can cause weight gain, diabetes and inflammation but it needs to be put into context to be fully understood.  Whilst people attribute a diet high in carbohydrates to poor health, few actually define what this looks like, which has led to people taking the issue out of context.

If your daily diet includes over-sized portions of sugary cereals and muffins for breakfast, 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, soft drinks and hot beverages doused with sugar, then this is clearly not a healthy way to eat and goes against the basic principles of healthy eating.  If you eat like this, then there’s also a very good chance that you’re unhealthy in many other ways such as lacking in exercise. However, this cannot be compared to a diet that includes a sensible portion of porridge oats for breakfast, quinoa and chicken salad for lunch and then a tofu stir-fry with brown rice for dinner, whilst also avoiding snacks and sugary drinks.  These two diet examples both include carbohydrates and one is clearly healthier that the other but without putting this nutrient in the right context, people develop false ideas and the confusion around what foods they should be eating continues to grow.

Small changes 

Taking a small changes approach is a good way to start.  Rather than becoming overwhelmed and trying to make dramatic changes to the way you eat, start by looking at your current diet and thinking about how you can adapt this to make it healthier.  The basics of healthy eating still apply to weight loss in that you need to cut down on the number of calories you eat and insure that these calories come from nutritious foods that will help to keep you feeling full and reduce your risk of disease (lean proteins, healthy fats, vegetables and fibre-rich wholegrains).

These are just a few ideas of some of the changes you might think about making:

  • Switch to low fat milk and dairy products
  • Choose lower fat meats
  • Avoid snacking or choose healthy snacks
  • Use a smaller plate to control your portion size
  • Make take-away food a treat and reserve to one night of the week (try making healthy choices)
  • Reduce your alcohol intake and avoid binge drinking
  • Gradually reduce your sugar intake in hot beverages and switch to low sugar food products and diet soda
  • Limit fruit juice and smoothies to one-a-day
  • Increase your intake of vegetables
  • Switch to ‘brown carbs’ such as wholemeal pasta and bread, and wholegrain rice
  • Work out your meal combinations in handfuls i.e. one handful of protein, one handful of ‘brown’ carb and unlimited veggies
  • Check food labels; the reality is that many people don’t cook from scratch so choose foods that are labelled as green or amber on the front-of-pack

The accumulation of many small changes can have a big impact on your food intake and weight loss. Every small change also represents a change in eating behaviour that can have a greater impact in the long-term.

Diets

Diets are another approach and can provide a kick-start that some people need to achieve their weight loss goals.  Diets are appealing because they offer a starting point and end goal as well as providing a set of rules to follow. The fact that you are told what, how much and when to eat also adds to their charm. Embarking on a diet can provide motivation, which is amplified by the availability of apps that can help to monitor and track your progress.

Putting very extreme diets aside, there is no single diet that can be said to be superior over another no matter what their marketing says.  The most successful diet is only going to be the one that you stick with and this is influenced by the way you live your life.  There are a multitude of diets out there, which will all tell you they are the best but just because your best friend or a certain celebrity lost lots of weight doesn’t mean you will.  Do your research and figure out what diet will work best for you.  If you know you can’t live without carbs then don’t try following a ketogenic diet (low carb).  If you struggle with energy levels across the day because of a very busy work schedule, then fasting two days of the week may not be realistic.  If your job involves long working hours and late nights entertaining clients then fasting for 16 hours could mean eating your first meal at 3pm, which is clearly not going to work.  If the diet becomes a chore then your chances of sticking to it are less likely.

Weight maintenance 

Whatever the outcome of your diet, you need to consider how you are going to take things forward once you have managed to lose weight.  It’s not uncommon for the end of a diet to signify an opportunity to revert back to old eating habits but what’s the point in dieting if this is the case. This all goes back to the benefits of developing new eating habits that will help you to maintain a healthy weight. A diet worth its weight in gold is the one that teaches you ways to eat that encourage healthy eating habits.

Many diets talk about other health benefits such as increased energy levels, reduction in certain diseases or glowing skin, but you should keep your eye on the prize and these are all potential benefits of losing weight and not specific to that diet per se.

I have no answer to the question of what the best way is to lose weight as it is dependent on the individual.  Losing weight is not simple and there are many factors that can impact on someone’s ability to do so and keep the weight off.  What I can tell you is that finding a method that fits in with your lifestyle and encourages you to develop new habits around food choice is more likely to result in long-term success and that tackling the wider issues such as the psychologically around food may be hugely beneficial in some cases.

National curry week 2018 – health benefits of curry

National curry week 2018 – health benefits of curry

National curry week 2018

Curry is a word that typically conjures up an image of late-night dining following one too many beers after work on a Friday night or an unhealthy take-away food, but I’m going to put myself out there as saying this reputation is poorly misplaced.

Any food within a particular context could be deemed as being unhealthy but if you break down the components of curry and remove the beers and comfort eating aspect then what you’re left with is actually very healthy.

The origins of curry

The UK has adopted curry as a ‘national dish’ with thousands of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi restaurants creating British-Asian meals we’ve all become familiar with such as chicken tikka masala, Balti and vindaloo.  The word ‘curry’ was invented by the British when they ruled India and adapted from the Tamil word ‘kari’, meaning sauce.  This word has now become an umbrella term to describe dishes that have originated from the Indian subcontinent, but is a definition reserved for the British.

India consists of 28 states with most of these having their own regional cuisines, few of which include the word ‘curry’.  The curry powder we have been accustomed to wouldn’t feature in your typical Indian kitchen and is a British creation, which was developed by Indian spice merchants.  The closest Indian comparison is a blend called garam masala that tends to be used towards the end of cooking.

Traditional dishes originating or inspired by Indian cuisine are characterised by the extensive use of spices, which define the unique flavour of this cuisine.  Indian cooking also includes many plant foods such as vegetables, pulses and lentils that are also thought to have a multitude of positive health benefits.

Variety is key

India is one of many countries whose mealtimes are a sharing affair, which involves a number of different dishes mostly cooked from scratch. This way of eating not only illustrates the positive impact of eating together and sharing mealtimes but also includes eating a wide variety of foods offering a broad spectrum of nutrients.  It’s a fair argument that such cultures dedicate a lot of time to preparing meals and often have an inherited knowledge of recipes and cooking, which is very different to our time-stretched culture that has become over reliant on quick-fix meals and snacking.  However, drawing inspiration from such cultural dining practices may help to improve the way we tend to eat in the Western world.

The health benefits of spices

Many spices are used in Indian cuisine and also feature as a key component of Ayurvedic medicine, which is one of the oldest of traditional medicine systems originating from India thousands of years ago.  Spices are commonly defined as an aromatic part of a tropical plant, which includes roots, barks, flowers and seeds, most of which are Asian in origin. Advances in scientific research has helped to identify and explain some of the benefits associated with spices and how they may contribute to health and the reduction of disease risk.

Spices fight Inflammation

Inflammation is essential to life and is the body’s natural response to injury or infection.  The flip side is that inflammation can have a harmful effect and research has shown that factors such as obesity, smoking, stress and a sedentary lifestyle can promote inflammation to the point at which is contributes to a variety of diseases (1)

Acute inflammation is characterised by redness, swelling, pain and heat, which is a protective response designed to heal the body and restore normal tissue function.  Chronic inflammation can begin in the same way but morph into a state that lingers over a long period of time, failing to respond to the immune systems attempts to eliminate the problem. This low-level inflammation can also occur even when there is no injury or disease.  When the immune system becomes uncontrolled in this way, white blood cells can attack healthy tissues and organs, setting up chronic inflammatory processes that are thought to play a key part in many diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, cancer and even Alzheimer’s.

Alongside maintaining a healthy body weight and making healthy lifestyle choices, diet is thought to have a role to play in helping to reduce inflammation.  Research has shown that spices possess anti-inflammatory properties and whilst the findings are mixed, they’re still promising and suggest a benefit to including these foods in your diet.

Spices act as antioxidants 

Spices along with fruits and vegetables are a key source of natural antioxidants in the diet.  These antioxidants help to reduce oxidative stress in the body, which is caused by a high concentration of free radicals in cells and tissues induced by a number of factors such as excess exposure to UV, stress, polluted food, smoking and adverse environmental conditions. If the body becomes overwhelmed with free radicals and is unable to regulate them it can alter lipids, proteins and DNA, potentially triggering disease.

It’s worth pointing out here that free radicals are a natural by-product of metabolism, which is defined as the chemical processes that occur within the body such as those involved in converting food into energy.  Free radicals are essential to life as the body’s ability to turn food into chemical energy relies on a chain reaction of free radicals, which are also a crucial part of the immune system, which help to attack pathogens (foreign invaders).

The term ‘antioxidant’ is somewhat overused in the health arena and whilst achieving a balance between free radicals and antioxidant intake is key, they shouldn’t be be viewed as a panacea to good health.  Many foods contain nutrients that act as antioxidants and whilst eating plenty of these foods such as spices may help to protect against the damage caused by excess free radicals that can build up in the body, it’s important to make lifestyle changes such as losing weight, stopping smoking, drinking less, managing stress and spending less time in the sun rather than relying solely on such foods and supplements to counteract the impact of these lifestyle habits.

The antioxidant activity of spices is related to their chemical composition, mostly the presence of polyphenolic and other biologically active compounds.  The primary antioxidants and biologically active compounds in spices include flavonoids, phenolic acids, lignans, essential oils and alkaloids (2, 3).  These all behave in different ways such as flavonoids have the ability to scavenge free radicals and form complexes with catalytic metal ions that render them inactive (4).

A source of minerals

All spices are a source of minerals such as potassium, iron, magnesium, calcium and zinc.  Amongst all the minerals in spices, iron exists in the greatest concentration.  This mineral is essential for the production of healthy red blood cells and is the most common nutrient deficiency worldwide.  Food surveys have shown that more than 27% of women in the UK have inadequate intakes of iron in their diet and low levels are compounded by monthly menstrual blood losses (5).  Including spices in your diet can be a really useful way to boost your intake of minerals such as iron.

Reducing salt in your diet

Spices enhance the flavour of food and can help to reduce the amount of salt used in cooking, which is good for people with high blood pressure.  Adding spices to food is also a good way to ‘tantalise the taste buds’ and there are many ways to include these in our cooking in the place of salt.

Interesting ways to include more Indian spices into your diet

  • Add turmeric to scrambled egg
  • Add curry powder to boiled rice
  • Use spices to create rubs and marinades for meats
  • Spices such as cumin and ground coriander work well in salad dressings
  • Try adding curry powder or garam masala to traditional homecooked dishes such as shepherd’s pie for an Indian twist
  • Spice up a jar of tomato cook-in-sauce with Indian spices that could include garam masala, curry powder, mustard seeds, turmeric or fresh curry leaves.
  • Try making homemade cashew nut milk with turmeric (great served hot or cold). Add 100g of raw cashew nuts, 1 tsp of turmeric powder, 1 tsp of ground cinnamon and 2 tsp of honey to a high-powered blender with 500ml of water then blitz until smooth.  You can loosen the consistency by adding more water if you like.
  • Add curry powder or garam masala to basic vegetable soup recipe or even shop-bought fresh soups for an Indian twist.

Plant-based eating

There are many benefits associated with eating more plant-based foods.  As a nation we do not eat enough fruits and vegetables with only a third of people managing to meet the five-a-day guidance (5).  Plant foods also provide a rich source of fibre that has been shown to help with good digestion and reduce the risk of heart disease, colorectal cancer, diabetes and help with weight loss.  In the UK it has been shown that less than 10% of adults achieve the recommended daily intake of 30g per day (5).

Anecdotally, many people find vegetables boring to eat and often say that they don’t enjoy the flavour.  In my experience of cooking with people, I have found that with a little inspiration, even the most disliked vegetables can be reinvented with the use of spices and become something completely different.  Spices can also be used to add an Indian twist to vegetarian dishes.

Indian spices are always a great way to spice food and these are just a few ways to turn a plain old vegetable or vegetarian dish into something that’s irresistibly delicious:

  • Rub cauliflower with curry paste and roast in the oven.
  • Combine a 400g can of chickpeas (drained) with 1 tbsp of garam masala or curry powder and roast in the oven at 180C for 30 minutes.
  • Stir-fry okra with chopped red onion, ginger and cherry tomatoes, and fresh curry leaves.
  • Fry mustard seeds and crushed coriander seeds in a pan with a little oil until they begin to pop. Take them off the heat and stir through blanched green beans with a little oil.
  • I’m always looking for ways to make cooking tofu more enjoyable and found that it lends itself well to Indian cuisine and is a great alternative to paneer. I also discovered recently that you can bake tofu, which gives it a firm meaty texture.  You need to choose extra firm varieties and it can be marinated before or after cooking.
  • Learn to make a basic dhal recipe such as this one from mine and Lily’s cookbook

Healthy curry food swaps

There’s no doubt that many of us choose to eat curry on a night out or as take-away on a night in, but it doesn’t need to be a calorie laden affair.

  • Rather than ordering a meal solely for yourself, opt for sharing and choose plenty of plant-based options such as lentils and vegetables
  • Try choosing tomato-based curries over those laden with cream or coconut milk, which can be high in saturated fat
  • Try choosing oven cooked (tandoor) meats such as chicken and teaming them with vegetable dishes
  • Ditch the breads such as chapatti and naan

The true health benefits of curry are often overshadowed by the reputation this type of food has acquired.  The use of spices and plant-based foods are at the root of the health benefits associated with this the of cuisine.

Try this healthy vegetarian curry recipe, which not only provides many of the health benefits associated with South Asian cuisine but tastes bloody great!

 

Butternut, lentil and coconut curry

Serves 4 (very generously)

Ingredients

1 butternut squash

2 low-sodium vegetable stock cubes

1 tbsp coconut or groundnut oil

2 large onions, peeled and finely chopped

3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

Large thumb-sized piece of ginger, peeled and grated

1 red chilli, finely chopped

400g can coconut milk

1/2 tsp of sea salt

250g red lentils

2 tsp turmeric

Pinch of black pepper

2 large handfuls of spinach

1 large lime, juiced

2 large handfuls of coriander, finely chopped

 

Method

  1. Peel the squash, halve and remove the seeds then cut into 1 inch chunks.
  2. Dissolve the stock cubes in 1000ml of boiling water.
  3. Heat the oil in a large saucepan set over a medium heat.
  4. Add the onions, garlic, ginger and chilli then fry gently for about 5 minutes until the ingredients are soft.
  5. Turn up the heat and add the squash, stock and coconut milk to the pan and bring to the boil. Check the curry for seasoning and add salt. Reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and place the lid on the pan then cook for 10 minutes.
  6. Remove the lid and add the lentils, turmeric and black pepper then simmer for a further 15-20 minutes over a medium heat until the squash and lentils are tender. Add a little more water of the curry starts to dry out.
  7. Take the curry off the heat and stir through the spinach, lime juice and coriander. The curry should be a thick consistency but add more water if needed.
  8. Serve in large bowls.

 

References

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22226987
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27881064
  3. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2225411016302024
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5618098/
  5. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ndns-results-from-years-7-and-8-combined
Does veganism fully live up to its reputation as a healthier and more environmentally friendly way of eating?

Does veganism fully live up to its reputation as a healthier and more environmentally friendly way of eating?

Does veganism fully live up to its reputation as a healthier and more environmentally friendly way of eating?

Even though I’m not a vegan, I try to adopt this way of eating a few days of the week.  Just to be clear, I’m pro-vegan and have always supported and recognised the health benefits of eating this way.  This blog is in no way about slating the vegan diet but an objective way for me to raise my concerns about the direction in which this way of eating seems to be heading.  I also want to talk about the topic of environment; whilst this is a key driver for many people adopting this way of eating the issues involved may not be that clear cut and there may be factors that some people have not considered. This is an opinion piece so feel free to get in touch with your views on the topic.

The benefits of plant-based eating

The common perceived persona of someone following a vegan diet is that they’re health conscious and dedicated to eating well, whilst being concerned about animal welfare and environmental issues.  Once stereotyped as sandal wearing hippies, the image of modern vegans has been redefined, which has been helped along by celebrities and sports people alike.

Research shows that a well-balanced vegan diet is more likely to contain a higher concentration of key nutrients including vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytonutrients.  It has also been shown that plant-based diets may reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and digestive issues such as constipation. People who follow a plant-based diet also tend to adopt healthier lifestyle choices by exercising more, drinking less and not smoking.

One of the well versed concerns over veganism that drives me mad is that you cannot glean all the essential nutrients required for good health by cutting out meat, dairy and other animal products.  This concern is misplaced as it’s not the vegan diet that’s at fault here but how an individual’s diet is constructed.

Going vegan doesn’t necessarily equate to healthy eating

The lack of access to prepared vegan foods can be a barrier for people trying to stick with this diet, which has historically required a little more thought and preparation.  Whilst the common perception of veganism is that it’s a very healthy way of eating reserved for those dedicated to living a healthy lifestyle, this diet doesn’t exclude sugar, refined carbohydrates and fried foods, which have the potential to cause weight gain and increase the risk of disease.

Vegans are a healthier bunch all-round and typically make healthier food choices as well as leading healthier lifestyles but could the rise in popularity of this diet become it’s Achilles heel?

As veganism becomes more popular so has access to foods appropriate for this diet.  The positive here is that vegans have more access to ready-prepared foods that help to take the pressure off meal planning.  The downside is that innovation has given rise to the vegan junk-food revolution.  Trend reports over the recent years have predicted a rise in vegan junk food, which has the potential to even the playing field with respect to unhealthy eating between plant-based and omnivore diets.

Meat alternatives such as seitan and jack fruit (has a similar texture to pulled pork) are now being used to create kebabs, burgers, pies, tacos and even ‘fish and chips’, which are potentially no less healthy than their meat counterparts.  The food industry has also reacted to the popularity of veganism by producing a wealth of snacks, which are often high in sugar, salt and saturated fats.  Whilst these foods may make veganism more accessible, it does little to retain the reputation of this diet as being superiorly healthy.

Veganism and the environment

Concerns over the environment have always been a valid reason for many people to go vegan.  I have always used this as one of the key reasons to go vegan or eat this way a few days of the week when I write about this diet but reading around the topic recently got me thinking more deeply.

Seasonality can cause challenges to vegan eating as foods may become more limited during certain months. It’s all well and good eating a plant-based diet but if you’re eating tomatoes and other summer vegetables all year round then this will ramp up the carbon footprint of your shopping basket.

Meat production is undoubtedly one of the most damaging environmental factors given the release of methane gases and use of water involved in farming, but the production of plant foods also needs some consideration.  Like omnivores, many of us now expect to be able to access certain foods all year round, but the foods we choose to put in our weekly shopping baskets can take their toll on food mileage.  Vegan foods high in protein such as beans, pulses and lentils are mostly imported from Brazil, Canada and the US, whilst other popular vegetables used extensively in vegan cuisine such as avocados are flown in from Kenya and Mexico.

According to the Vegan Society, the UK has growing conditions that are suitable to producing plant proteins such as beans and pulses for direct human consumption, but it currently assigns only 16 per cent of its agricultural land to growingsuch crops, most of which are used to feed farmed animals.

The demand for on-trend vegan foods also impacts on the country from which they’re sourced.  The popularity of foods such as quinoa has driven their price so high that they’ve become unaffordable to those relying on them in their country of origin.  Social media has helped to drive the popularity of vegan eating and you will struggle to find a single vegan Instagram profile that doesn’t include an avocado.  I use this fruit as an example because they take their toll on the environment by requiring more water to cultivate than any other crop and the demand for this food has even led to extensive deforestation to farm more of them in countries such as Mexico.  The issue of plastic also exists no matter what diet you follow given its excess use in food packaging.

Finding a balance between locally sourced and imported foods

Whilst veganism is at its core healthy, it’s not exempt from many of the environmental concerns of any other diet. Sourcing local food and following the seasons harvest is a good way to reduce your carbon footprint but there also needs to be a balance to insure the welfare of the farmers, whose livelihood relies on exports of their food.  UK producers of foods such as quinoa, lentils and pulses are on the rise but including some imported foods as well as locally sourced can help to support all food producers globally.

I think what I’m getting at here in this blog is that whilst veganism may have a reputation for being healthy and helping to protect the environment, it’s not that clear cut.  The evolution of vegan junk food is set to continue and has the potential to threaten the health of vegans, although the impact may not be that great given the attitudes of most vegans towards health. It may be that the effect of these foods sees a rise in new vegans that find it easier to follow this type of diet with the availability of such convenience foods.  This new breed of vegan may also be defined by a very different health profile to their predecessors.  Putting meat to one side, there are also many other environmental considerations vegans share with omnivores, which need to be equally taken account of.

Whether you’re vegan or omnivore the basic principles of healthy eating still apply and the quality of your diet relies on the food choices you make whilst the responsibility to protect the environment is an issue that should be considered by everyone and not taken for granted just because you choose to follow a plant-based diet.

 

If you liked this blog and are interested in the topic of veganism then have a read of these:

Thinking of going dairy free?

The blokes guide to going vegan

Are you and your daughters lacking iron in the diet?

Foods high in zinc

Quorn, cauliflower and sultana curry recipe 

Supergreen stir-fry with smoked tofu recipe

Raw salad with black garlic dressing recipe

Nutty couscous and veggie salad recipe 

Edamame bean salad recipe