My diet approach: less rigidity and more ‘real life’

A couple of comments on my Facebook page, a comment from a client that she wasn’t  ‘my perfect client’, and a post from one of my good nutritionist friends inspired me to have a bit of a think about how I approach nutrition, or the expectations that others have of my nutrition approach.

Whenever I put something out on social media, people will read from it what they will – I want them to comment and engage (why else would I put a post up?)  One of these was a comment I got after posting a recipe up on my page. Someone commented that she was very concerned that I say I follow a minimally processed diet approach, yet used a protein powder in my pancake recipe, clearly a highly processed ingredient*. She’s not wrong – protein powder is highly processed for sure, even the brands that I use and recommend others do: those that don’t have a lot of added ingredients bar the protein powder, some flavouring and stevia-based (or thaumine) sweetener . It got me thinking though. This person was annoyed that I was straying from their perception of what I advocate. If I could include protein powder in my recipes, clearly I’m not an advocate of the real food approach. How could people trust anything I say if I suggest that protein powder is okay? I wasn’t living up to her expectations of me, and she was disappointed.

It’s a tough balance: when I changed my philosophy around food I think I was a lot like other people – went too far in the extreme of finding the perfect real-food approach in an effort to ditch processed food. Legumes and all grains were off the menu (regardless of dietary tolerances, as this was the ‘perfect paleo’ way). All bread was to be avoided at all costs. Only drink red wine (less sugar) … It was 95% of what you’d call a ‘primal’ approach.

Like most people, though, I have settled in an approach to eating that is more practical to real life and, frankly, less exhausting. I have my diet non-negotiables –for me, I don’t touch diet soft drinks and chewing gum. In fact, I had a dream a few months ago that someone offered me a piece of gum and I took it. I woke up in a panicked state. This is because around 6 years ago I couldn’t go a day without having Wrigley’s Extra gum, and now I am scared that if I have it again that it would be a quick slide back into a daily habit that I couldn’t stop (even though when I gave it up it was literally like a switch had gone off in my brain and I couldn’t imagine having it again). I don’t have food allergies, so unlike other people, there isn’t anything that I must avoid or I’d be seriously compromising my health. That said, if I was eating the way I did during my Master’s degree at Otago, I couldn’t last during the day – I’d regularly have to nap in the afternoon under my desk after a diet coke and a massive ciabatta bun from Il Panificio bakery for lunch, which was backing up a large milky trim cappuccino and a dark rye sesame bun for breakfast. A carb overload and no fat or protein will do that to me (and a lot of people) – and don’t get me wrong – I LOVED it (and still would!) Just not how it makes me feel and, unfortunately, now I know too much about the long-term implications of eating such a nutrient-void diet). Huh. And I was doing a Master’s in nutrition at the time…

For everything else, though it is more about dietary principles rather than strict rigidity. Less religion and more realness. I try to avoid vegetable seed oils and artificial sweeteners that impact on blood sugar levels. However, if there is a dip that someone has brought along to a dinner party that has canola or sunflower oil as the second ingredient, I would likely have some if I thought it sounded nice, even if I wouldn’t buy it myself.  I avoid eating soy – especially products that use it as a cheap protein filler as you’ll find it in many packaged goods, though by now living in a vegetarian/vegan household, I eat organic tofu around once a week – and really enjoy it. I consume gluten when I have (for example) a date scone, or I really feel like toast. This might be once a fortnight. I drink wine. I have 3-4 alcohol free nights per week, but enjoy red wine (and coming into summer, white wine too – even though it has a higher residual sugar count). Not a lot – 1-2 glasses, and what they serve at the local bar is probably a more generous pour than we have at home. I like chocolate. I eat Quest protein bars (the varieties that don’t have sucralose as a sweetener in them – some do, some don’t) and use these as a bit of a stop gap as when training intensity ramps up (as it has over the last couple of months). I’m just hungrier in general and am not always organised. Despite their ‘organic’ label, these are about as far away from real food as you can get.

We buy white bread – the stock standard cheap loaves – as this is one of the only things that never comes home in the school lunch box during the week. If you’re wondering, I don’t think there is too much difference between white and multi-grain bread, really – it is all rubbish. I don’t eat it myself (any toast I have would be out at a cafe, a more delicious type of sourdough or ciabatta, probably), and can justify it till the cows come home but truth be told, getting any food in some kids can be difficult, so if they will eat a white bread egg or cheese sandwich that is going to at least fill them up, then so be it. A friend of mine commented on how she laughs when I post about lunchbox options for kids – and how (for her at least) it’s just a little unpractical and/or even if the kids show interest one day, the next they won’t have a bar of it. Now I get it. I really think I didn’t have a true appreciation for this and if I can somehow crack the nut that is ‘school lunches’ then I’d probably be a gazillionaire. One day. Maybe. (And if you have any bright ideas that I might not have thought of, pass them on!)

So, yeah. I still call my dietary principles ‘minimal processed food’ relative to the food environment and where I was at 7 years ago. Sorry to disappoint or concern anyone. Or perhaps this just makes you feel a little relieved that, despite best intentions, it doesn’t read like a perfect food environment or a perfect food diary, even for someone with my nutrition qualifications and practical experience. But that’s real life, and we do what we can. Some days are awesome, some weeks are awesome, and some, well, some just aren’t. That’s life, right? And when the dust settles, I’m pretty happy with it actually.  If you do what you can and have the best intentions going into it – then you’re always going to do better than if you didn’t try at all.

So please don’t think you have to be perfect – I’m not and nor should you stress about striving to be so. If you want some guidance at reaching your ‘happy spot’ click here to book a consultation or check out my online nutrition coaching services.

Constant cravings? Here’s 18 evidence-backed (or anecdotal) tips that will curb them.

Are you back into the swing of things but your taste buds aren’t?  It happens! Especially around this time of year where intake of sugar, alcohol and processed carbohydrates tends to be higher for most people, and while going cold turkey can be the best move, it’s sometimes easier said than done. The good news is that by reducing these foods, you’ll begin to lose the taste for them, and they’ll no longer hold the appeal that they had. For some though, completely removing them is a better idea – even small amounts can continue to drive the appetite for them. Regardless of which camp you fall into, here are some proven, some anecdotal, and some interesting ways to combat those cravings.

  1. The basics: build your plate based around protein and fibre, with fat for satiety. Protein is well known to be the most satisfying nutrient, and along with fibre (also key for adding bulk and feeling full) will keep most people satisfied longer than either carbohydrate or fat. Any starchy or carbohydrate-based foods are best if they are minimally processed (such as potatoes, kumara, legumes, fruit) as these will provide more nutrient bang for your buck). How much of each? Protein-type foods (meat, fish, eggs, poultry) aim for 1-2 palm-sized portions. Starchy carbs (if included) at around a fist-sized amount.  Fat? 1-2 thumb-sized amounts, depending on the type of protein portion you’re eating: a fattier cut might be satisfying enough, however a lean chicken breast will likely require some added fat to help satisfy you. And vegetables? Go for gold – other than the starchier varieties (mentioned above) you could fill your boots with these. For some people, having a full plate is essential to feeling satisfied and if you can do that by adding more volume, it is going to have a positive effect on the satiety from a meal (that’s definitely me). For some ideas, check out my recipe e-book or my online coaching service.
  2. Get rid of anything that is ‘your poison’- if you are the person that hears the icecream calling you from the freezer, it is much better off out of the house. Out of sight, out of mind.
  3. Put all the ‘treat’ type food in one place in your house, preferably above eye level. This will save you seeing the Christmas cake when you are grabbing the eggs, and the chocolate almonds when you are searching for the bottle of olive oil. Constant reminders of all the things you are trying not to eat will NOT help your cause.
  4. Chew your food properly at each meal. Aim for 30 times per mouthful. That way you’ll digest your nutrients effectively, feel more nourished and less likely to be hungry an hour after eating because you wolfed that meal down.
  5. Do not substitute those refined sugars for ‘natural’ sugars. That dried fruit is pretty much just sugar – and (a few nutrients and fibre aside) no better than sugar and will continue to drive your sugar cravings. You shouldn’t rely on dried fruit (or any sweet food that is marketed as ‘refined sugar free’) as a substantial nutrient source . Any additional fibre or nutrients they provide in the diet is negligible compared to the whack of goodness you’ll get when you follow #1 above. When health bloggers or food producers market something based on the healthfulness of the ‘natural’ sugar, it is pure embellishment. 6 meedjol dates and a banana does not make a smoothie sugar free.
  6. Coconut oil – this is a favourite of Sarah Wilson’s: a teaspoon of extra virgin coconut oil can kill a craving in its tracks. If we head to the literature to find any peer reviewed papers on the topic (for what it’s worth, there is a LOT of research published by the Coconut Research Center), there isn’t a lot to definitively tell us that it will cut cravings. That said, there is some research has found that people who include more coconut oil in their diet (compared to other types of fat) have reduced food intake overall, particularly in the subsequent meals. Like most things, you have nothing to lose by trying it.
  7. Cocoa – chocolate is long associated with cravings, though right now, consumption of chocolate may well increase the cravings rather than stamp them out. It’s also not exactly useful if you’re trying to focus on reducing your intake of junk food! That said, chocolate is known for its cognitive and mood enhancing benefits. So how about some unsweetened cocoa (or cacao) in hot water with some milk to deliver the chocolate taste you are after. Add a touch of stevia if you wish. You could also do this cold with almond milk and ice – and add 1 tablespoon of psyllium husk or gelatin in there for some additional fibre or protein. If chocolate is what you’re after – go for the darkest that you can stand. Many people find they stop at 1-2 pieces of 90% chocolate instead of the 1-2 rows consumed of the 70%.
  8. Anything that lowers your blood sugar response to a meal is going to positively impact your cravings. The steep rise and fall of your blood sugar in response to a meal causes alarm bells to start going off in your brain. The body runs a tight ship and prefers when all systems are in homeostasis. Low blood sugar causes a release in stress hormones which tell your liver to dump glucose into the bloodstream, and create cravings so you can re-establish blood sugar to within a normal range. Including cinnamon can reduces glucose response after a meal (in amounts of 6g) and affects insulin response. Stabilising blood sugar is going to help reduce cravings. Sprinkle this gold dust on your breakfast, with your teaspoon of coconut oil, in your cocoa drink etc.
  9. Glutamine – can enhance secretion of GLP-1, a hormone which promotes insulin release that helps increase satiety and dampen appetite – this is only seen in some people however, suggesting there is individual variation of its effects. The flipside of this is that the insulin-releasing effects may override any satiety benefits, increasing hunger (and subsequent meal size) at the next meal. However, in practice this is a tool that many clinicians (myself included) have found useful for some (but not all) clients. The presence of glutamine in the bloodstream is associated with improved insulin sensitivity in healthy people. In addition to this, glutamine has been found to be beneficial for improving intestinal permeability and tight junction protein expression in the gut, being one of the most abundant amino acids in the body. If your cravings are related to gut dysbiosis then it could be useful from this perspective. In addition, it functions as part of neurotransmitter production. Taking L Glutamine by putting it under the tongue as a craving hits (1-3,000mg) may just work for you.
  10. Magnesium is a nutrient that is involved in over 250 processes in our body, and particularly when we are under stress, it is put under the pump. Sugar (or specifically) chocolate craving is often linked to a deficiency to magnesium, but that isn’t conclusive. At any rate, magnesium is perfectly safe to take, and as our food supply is relatively low in magnesium, looking for a supplement that is a magnesium glycinate, citrate or chelated with amino acids may be useful, at amounts of around 300-400mg elemental magnesium.
  11. Chromium is another supplement that some people have found useful for stopping cravings – research has found a reduction in carbohydrate cravings, food intake and an increase in satiety when supplementing with chromium…however this is in the laboratory using mice. There’s nothing definitive in the research to support using it for people who already have adequate amounts of this mineral. That said (as with anything), it’s individual – I know many clients who swear by using Chromium supplements when a craving hits. The only way to know if it works for you is to try it, by taking 1000mg chromium in two doses in meals that contain carbohydrate (due to its suggested benefits at reducing blood sugar response to carbohydrate meals)..
  12. Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) are three amino acids that act as nutrient signallers which may help reduce food intake . Leucine (one of the BCAAs) activates mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) which is required for our brain to respond to leptin (a hormone that tells our body when we have had enough food). BCAAs are involved with hormone release in both the gastrointestinal tract and in fat deposits. BCAAs and dietary protein enhanced glucagon like peptide-1 (GLP-1) release and reduced the expression of genes required for synthesis and adsorption of fatty acids in a human intestinal cell line (NCI-H716), suggesting an intestinal mechanism for the beneficial effect of BCAAs. Those that have successfully used BCAAs suggest 5g in the AM and every few hours while you’re adjusting your diet back to baseline awesomeness.
  13. 5htp: 300-500mg taken with a meal to increase satiety of the meal – studies have found a reduced food intake (particularly carbohydrate). Studies conducted have focused on people who have reduced availability of tryptophan in the brain (a precursor to 5htp). Increasing 5htp increases tryptophan and therefore serotonin production, reducing cravings and overall food intake. (Don’t use if you are currently on antidepressants without clearance from your doctor.)
  14. Exercise. A no brainer, really, but research has found this to be super effective for reducing cravings. In fact, any activity done while in the midst of a craving will take your mind off it. So when a craving hits, doing something active for 10-15 minutes can reduce your desire for something sweet. Go for a powerwalk, shoot some hoops, do some hill sprints…
  15. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep! It’s hard this time of year with longer days and opportunities to take advantage of summer (when it shows up…) Sleep restriction enhances activity in brain regions involved in reward in response to energy dense, nutrient-void food (think: lollies, chips, chocolate), suggesting heightened sensitivity to rewarding properties of food. This can lead to increased cravings. If you are burning the candle at both ends and not yet back to your regular 7-8 hours sleep per night, then nailing this will go a long way to helping curb that sugar demon.
  16. Meditation: decentring – viewing your thoughts as separate from yourself – has been found to help reduce food cravings and want for unhealthy food items. Mindfulness practice is also useful for not only reduced cravings, but for reduced emotional eating, body image concerns. It doesn’t require a 90 minute class three times a week (though there’s nothing wrong with that!) Headspace, Calm or Buddhify are three smart phone applications which may help you get going and provide guided sessions of between 2-20 minutes long. It’s consistency and frequency that makes a difference (like any habit).
  17. Clay modelling to reduce cravings: yep. Researchers found that visual imagery plays a key role in reducing craving. Participants who worked for 10 minutes constructing shapes from plastacine had reduced cravings for chocolate compared to people who were left to their own thoughts or who were given a written task.
  18. Your gut bacteria can influence your cravings. There is indirect evidence for a connection between cravings and the type of bacteria lurking in your gut. For example, people who enjoy and crave chocolate have different microbial metabolites (i.e. bacteria by-products) in their urine than “chocolate indifferent” individuals, despite eating identical diets. In addition, gut bacteria can influence the production of our ‘feel good’ and motivation hormones (serotonin and dopamine), thereby influence food decision-making based on our mood. Finally treating mice with a probiotic reduced hunger-inducing hormones and food intake. Action points here? Yes, you could start with a probiotic, particularly when you’re in the thick of it all, as this will help ensure there are beneficial bacterial strains present in your gut. However, for ongoing gut health, the regular addition of probiotic and prebiotics through food will help you maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Therefore:
  • Include fermented vegetables into 1-2 meals daily, working up to 1-2 tablespoons at a time.
  • The addition of unsweetened yoghurt (dairy or coconut) as part of your everyday diet (as it contains beneficial bacteria).
  • Kombucha, at around 100-150ml per day (check the back of the label to ensure a lower sugar variety).
  • Water, milk or coconut kefir, start with around 100ml per day.
  • Raw apple cider vinegar in water – start with 1 tsp in a small amount of water, working up to 1 tablespoon. This will help stimulate stomach acid when taken prior to meals, helping you digest your food properly, and delaying gastric emptying, so your glucose response to the meal will be slower too.
  • Vegetables, in abundance, to include fibres that feed your gut bacteria.

(As a side note, any change to your gut environment can result in unintended (and unwanted) changes to your digestive tract! If you’re new to the fermented foods and/or probiotics, then start small and work your way up. If you end up spending way more time in the bathroom than you wanted, reduce back further. Consider yourself warned.)

You won’t need to do all of these – but I think #1-5, #14, #15, #16 and #18 would completely diminish that sugar demon so you can get back to feeling awesome.

cravings

Grab that cupcake and bin it immediately. Underneath something that will stop you from retrieving it later on. (PC: SamadiMD.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An endurance athlete’s ‘real food’ success story: making it work for you.

I got this email this week from a client that I have worked with since just before mid-year. She is an endurance athlete that came to me as her overall energy levels were low and she was carrying a few extra kilograms that she wasn’t used to.

We chatted through not only nutrition but lifestyle-related changes that she could make to help support her busy lifestyle. This included changes to her diet, additional supplemental support, working on sleep-related behaviours and finding the middle ground between ensuring adequate energy levels and losing body fat to a level that was sustainable and achievable. You can appreciate this is a delicate balance! I discussed with her that when we sorted her energy levels, the body fat loss would take care of itself – she was aware of this and that her energy levels were the priority.

As an endurance athlete she often trained at both ends of the day and came home late, stayed up a little later than she thought she should, and relied quite a bit on carbohydrate-based choices such as bread and cereal to boost her energy levels during the day. While she didn’t recognise it, I immediately flagged this as one of the reasons she was feeling exhausted. She was also hungry a lot, eating at multiple times during the day. This was another indicator that her food choices were not geared towards an optimal balance of good quality carbohydrate, protein and fat. A detailed discussion on her diet proved this to be true.

This client was very motivated to feel better, and took the suggestions that I made and found a way to work them into her lifestyle. We had four sessions together, the last being just before a race that she was doing – the first one for her in a while.

I asked if she minded if I shared her email – she was happy for me to do so.

“Thanks for the item on Thyroid on Fitter Radio this week – it was really helpful. Good to know low thyroid is not something you are necessarily stuck with for life.

Following our catch-up at the end of September I just thought I’d update you with how things have gone since then, and where I have found a really comfortable place with training and nutrition.

Update:

So in summary, I performed well at my last race and was very happy with my placing in my age group. I really noticed that getting extra sleep made a big difference to how I felt, two nights before the race I had 9 hours and felt amazing the next day.

My weight has stabilized at around 53kg so I think this is possibly the happy place for my body, and it’s the same as it was a couple of years ago when I was running at my best.  I feel good at this level and I’ve figured out how to keep it there – for me it’s:

  • at least 7.5 hours sleep;
  • not eating late; and
  • doing some kind of activity in the evening, even if that’s just a walk.

Food wise, what seems to be working and manageable is:

Prep: (crucial to ensuring that I’ve got options available during the week):

  • Bulk making a week’s smoothies at the weekend, then freezing and using during the week
  • Ordering Primal Kitchen for weekday lunches and weekend main meals
  • Making a few wraps at the weekend for weekdays when I do something straight after work. For example, Farrah chia wrap* with Vital Vegetables Slaw, lemon juice, a flavour (Thai spice mix, peanut butter or salsa) + a protein such as smoked salmon or chicken

*yes I know it’s has wheat in it and is a carb but it seems to give me enough energy/and is practical – if I eat fewer carbs than I am I don’t seem to have enough energy.  I have tried other things instead of a wrap like cabbage leaves/sushi sheets/… but they just don’t work as well, they fall apart. The thing that does work is the Vietnamese rice paper wraps but they are very fiddly so I would tend to buy the Farrah wraps instead – very good place in central Wellington to get them! 

Breakfast – usually 5:30-6:30 depending on day

  • Smoothie and a hot drink + a spoon of peanut butter – I usually make the smoothie quite thick and eat it out of a bowl with a spoon!
  • If I’m doing something hard-ish like a swim squad or a run/bike then I have something else too. This tends to be either a sachet of plain oat porridge with the smoothie on top, or 2 hard-boiled eggs with some salt (or on a race day 1-2 x banana depending on length or race).

Mid morning – usually have a coffee with rice milk but don’t need to snack much now. If I do it’s 1-2 Brazil nuts

Weekday lunch – usually eaten around 11am-noon

  • Primal kitchen – 1/2 a warrior size shared with partner + handful baby spinach
  • 2 squares of dark chocolate and maybe a couple of strawberries.
  • Raspberry white tea

Mid afternoon – usually have a Redbush tea with rice milk but don’t need to snack now. If I do it’s a carrot and maybe a few almonds.

Weekday dinner – on days when I do something around 5 or 6pm in the evening, I just eat this around 4pm which seems early but it gives me fuel for the activity then I don’t need to eat a meal later. This way I get a semi-fasted thing happening (as per train-low principles) without it feeling hard. And it means I don’t eat a bunch of rubbish in the afternoon. So it works!

  • Wrap
  • 2 squares of dark chocolate
  • Redbush or green tea

Evening – Usually have a hot drink (not caffeinated), and maybe a swig of wine or my partners beer, but I don’t need to snack as much now – if I do it’s because I’ve just been for a hard-ish training session or MTB ride, and, something like a gold kiwi and few nuts does the trick.

Weekends, similar but we have Primal Kitchen in the evening but I try make sure we eat early, like by 6. For lunch something like sardines on toast if at home with salad, or eggs on toast if we are at a cafe.

Overall

It’s working well and although probably to you getting Primal Kitchen for most of our main meals will probably seem like a bit of a cop out!! But actually takes the stress out of everything – otherwise I would end up doing all of the thinking ahead/planning for both of us on food and basically end up spending more of my free time on it which to me wouldn’t feel fair! (My partner is wonderful but he just isn’t as organised as me and has lean genes and the fastest metabolism on earth so can eat anything. To him, super healthy food isn’t so much of a priority). I think it also works out the same cost or cheaper, definitely frees up some time and makes logistics easier. I’m sure at some point in my life I’ll enjoy doing more food prep and cooking more but this works right now and keeps the balance of effort fair!**

I am planning on giving up triathlon after this summer and just focus on running, mostly trail running and doing other stuff I enjoy for fun.

So, that’s it! Thanks for everything and your podcast, the whole experience of getting nutrition consultation has been a really positive one and the result for me has been to shift a good couple of kilograms and change my mental attitude in a very positive way.  🙂 ”

You can see from the discussion of her food choices, her diet isn’t low carbohydrate per se – though it is definitely LOWER in carbohydrates than it was. There is a lot more protein here than what she was having, and overall the nutrient density has improved.

Overall I think this is such a good ‘real food’ success story and that’s why I asked if I could share it. Does she eat ONLY non-processed food? No – however it’s all about context and finding the middle ground with what can be achieved in the context of the individual’s lifestyle.  That, to me, is success. 🙂

Merry Xmas.

 

**to be clear, I don’t think that getting meals from a place like Primal Kitchen (or ordering through My Food Bag etc) is a cop-out at ALL. I think it’s a smart strategy to help people meet their nutrition goals and not fall back into bad habits that could contribute to poor overall health status. It’s really interesting here that it works out MORE cost effective too. It saves on buying food that they would have to throw out as they haven’t found the time to cook it. It also saves the temptation of just having toast or cereal in the evening, or a sandwich that doesn’t provide enough protein and important nutrients. Primal Kitchen is a great choice.