Time restricted eating: when you eat matters

Intermittent fasting is an increasingly popular phenomenon among people wishing to improve their body composition and their overall health – almost as much as consuming the latest superfood.

Intermittent fasting (or time restricted eating, as it is known in the scientific literature) is when we restrict our eating during the day to a window of from around 8 hours to 12 hours, and has been popularised by the fitness industry in recent years. There are different ways to approach it, though from a health perspective, eating earlier in the day to allow for the feeding to align with our body’s circadian rhythm may optimise the health benefits for overall longevity. Fasting has been a practice undertaken for centuries in some cultures, and research reports favourable effects on many markers of metabolic health, including blood lipid profile, blood glucose metabolism and hypertension when these populations have been studied. More recently, researchers have investigated different time restricted feeding protocols in relation to risk of cardiovascular disease, neurological disorders, diabetes and some cancers using rodent and human trials. The longer time spent fasting may have pronounced health benefits, though recently a more conservative method (of even an 11 hour fast) has emerged as being beneficial for certain populations. Indeed, time restricted eating is being thought of as an easy to implement, effective lifestyle intervention that could help improve appetite control, markers of overweight, inflammation, blood glucose metabolism and hypertension, all reducing risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. This recent small study found that late night (or prolonged eating periods) increased fasting glucose, blood triglycerides, insulin and weight gain.

When healthy adults eat meals that are identical in terms of macronutrients (ie carbohydrates, proteins and fats) and caloric load at breakfast, lunch and dinner, the postprandial (ie. after eating) glucose response to the meal is lowest after breakfast and highest after dinner, even though the meal is identical. This is one example which suggests that our metabolism, and response to food, changes across the course of the day (see here). We are diurnal creatures – we do most of our activities during the day (including eating, working, exercising) and we rest at night. This is controlled by our internal clock in the brain, the superchiasmatic nucleus (or SCN) which in turn influences smaller internal clocks (or oscillators) in the peripheral tissues of our body. These clocks control thousands of genes within our body, including those that regulate our metabolic processes, which accounts for around 10% of our entire genome. While light is the major cue for the SCN in our brain, timing of food intake influences the circadian rhythm in the other tissues, including the liver, which has implications for metabolism. This tells us that our basic metabolic physiology is supposed to behave differently according to the time of day – this is everything from making neurotransmitters, to making insulin, to glucose transport inside of cells, to fatty acid oxidation and repairing cellular damage. It makes sense then that when we eat has just as important implications for our health as what we eat. Research investigating the health effects of fasting has found that anything that breaks the fast will break the fasting period, including no calorie options such as black coffee and even herbal teas. This is because there are compounds within these fluids that require breaking down by the liver. That is not to say that people don’t experience benefits from fasting if they consume a hot beverage earlier in the day (as is often recommended to help get through the morning hours and comply with a 16:8 protocol) or limited calories (for example, 50 calories), however longevity benefits may well lie within the strictest definition of fasting.

With the advent of artificial light, and the changing structure of work schedules (combined with the increasing busy-ness of everyday life), this has elongated the period of time that people eat, which has negative health consequences. While you may have heard in media reports of scientific studies that eating late at night makes no difference to overall weight loss, the focus on weight ignores the more important, underlying metabolic and chronic disease risk that eating late into the evening can have on health outcomes. It may be easier to regulate appetite too, as  research suggests that appetite hormones respond more favourably to eating earlier (8am to 7pm) than later (noon – 11pm), and the level of satiety achieved with this could prevent overeating. This is relevant with time restricted feeding as research has shown that more frequent eating patterns can be detrimental to metabolic health if consumed close together. One study found that participants who ate excess calories consuming their food over three meals and three snacks had increased visceral (stomach) fat deposition, liver triglycerides and lower liver insulin sensitivity compared to those consuming the same number of calories over three meals. The snacks were consumed later in the day, and after each meal, so elongated the overall eating period.

Animals limited to 9-12 hours feeding period, but not limited in the number of calories they eat have experienced benefits including decreased fat mass, increased lean muscle mass, improved glucose tolerance and blood lipid profile, reduced inflammation, higher volume of mitochondria (the energy powerhouse of our body), protection from fatty liver and obesity, and a more favourable gene expression. In humans, research studies suggest that eating within a time restricted window of 11 hours (say, 7am to 6pm) is associated with a reduction in breast cancer risk and occurrence by as much as 36%. Earlier eating time has resulted in more effective weight loss in overfat people, and every 3 hour increase in fasting duration was linked with 20% reduced odds of having an elevated glycated haemoglobin (HbA1c), a marker of long term blood sugar control. For every 10% increase in calories consumed after 5pm there was a 3% increase in c-reactive protein, a biomarker used to measure inflammation (the underlying process that, when elevated long term, can influence risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers). Finally, when meal times were constructed earlier in the day this resulted in a 10% decrease in c-reactive protein. Eating within a 12-hour window improved sleep and weight loss within an otherwise healthy population. You can see then, the myriad of potential benefits to eating within a time restricted eating – could it be worth trying to fit into your lifestyle? And if so, how to do it?

There are many different time restricted eating protocols to choose from – and the type of fast you choose to do really comes down to what works for you. The 16:8 protocol that seems to be most popular is a little aggressive for anyone new to fasting, and this may ultimately leave you feeling hungry, cranky, and vulnerable to overeating later in the day – undoing any potential health benefit that has been shown in the research. Indeed, many people I see that try this as their first experience report that they can successfully get to 11am or lunchtime without eating, but once they are home from work, no amount of food will keep them full, eating right up until bedtime.  My advice is to start a little more conservatively. Given that (in an ideal world), we sleep for 8 hours a night, not eating in the 3 hours leading up to bed time should be a good place to start for most people, thus it gives that 11 hours where some of the health benefits begin to be realised. From there, once adapted, you could try to push it out by an hour. While the most potent benefits occur with the strictest definition of fasting, the blood glucose and lipid improvements, along with fat loss can still occur in those whose definition of fasting refers to calories, not coffee and tea as mentioned above. That the benefits occur in the absence of caloric restriction is important to reiterate, however by restricting the eating period, many people also reduce overall caloric intake, which can further improve overall metabolic health and body composition. Fasting doesn’t appear to be something you must do every day to see the health benefits either, and even 3-4 days a week could be beneficial for metabolic health.

That said, this reduction in calories and extended time NOT eating may not be good for all, especially if your notice increased anxiety, sleeplessness or disruptions in hormone balance, so it is always best to proceed with caution. It would also be prudent for any individual with a health condition to discuss with their health professional before embarking on time restricted eating, especially the more aggressive protocols.

(PS I’ve got dates booked for Nelson, Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch for my talk! Click here to find out more details, would love to see you 🙂 ).

clock

As with many things, it could be all about timing…

LCHF…why isn’t it working for me? (Part 2)

Last week I posted three reasons why many people undertaking a LCHF diet stall with their success or never get it off the ground to begin with. The following delve a little deeper into the less obvious reasons why people struggle with their diet, and offer some options to help troubleshoot.

  1. Fat doesn’t fill you up. For some people, they don’t feel satisfied when swapping out their carbohydrate for more fat. If it takes a few handfuls of nuts or half a block of cheese to feel satisfied, then there can be some serious increase in calories that isn’t compensated for by an appropriate increase in satiety from the meal. Yes, cheese and nuts contain protein, but to be honest I treat them more as sources of fat than I do protein. If this is you, then.
    1. Increase the portion of protein you are consuming with your meals. I know many people are scared to consume more protein because protein can be broken down into glucose in the absence of carbohydrate, therefore pushing up their blood sugar levels. For people on a ketogenic diet (where 80% of their calories should come from fat), or those metabolically damaged (whereby there is a dramatic change in blood glucose response from a protein-rich meal), this may be a problem. For most people though? upping protein by 1/3 of a serve is no biggie. Still hungry? Up the protein some more.
    2. Drop out some fat –make room for the added protein by dropping out some of the fat – you could start with ½ – 1 serve and see how satisfied you feel when you do that. A serve of fat is typically 1 tablespoon of oil or butter, or ¼ avocado.
  2. You’re eating too much in one meal. A lot of people move from three meals a day, to two a day, to a ‘minimal food during the day’ approach, to sit down to a large meal at night, especially if they’ve been in the LCHF way of eating for a while and are further tweaking it. This may be awesome for some people, but not all. Eating most of your calories in one meal can, though, wreak havoc on your metabolic blood markers (such as blood glucose levels and insulin), increase fat gain, inflammation and reduce your day-to-day energy if this eating pattern doesn’t suit you. You’ll know if this is you, and if it is then:
    1. Spread your food intake out across 2-3 meals to lighten the caloric load and see if this makes a difference to your energy or other more objective markers mentioned above.
    2. Remember you’re still a rockstar even if you have to eat more often.
  3. You’ve got a high intake of dairy or nuts. Some, especially women, are not suited to high amounts of dairy or nuts, and when the begin to include more of these foods – ones they’ve avoided for years due to their fat content – they have a weight loss stall they can’t move past or, worse, they begin to store fat around their middle. While some suggest cheese is a food akin to crack, research investigating the addictive properties of the protein in cheese have not found this to be the case. Of course, if you personally can’t stop at one slice and find you’re eating the block, then perhaps it is for you. Nuts can also be trigger foods for some people, and they find it difficult to stop once they’ve started eating them. Ditto with a jar of peanut butter. What to do?
    1. Omit dairy for 30 days – sometimes it’s not the dairy per se, it’s the amounts that you’re eating it in that need to change. Removing it entirely will allow you to change your habits and then reintroduce it.
    2. Omit nuts and/or nut butter as per above in #6a.
    3. Swap snacks to those that are predominantly protein-based rather than fat based – despite the satiating effects of fat, for some, it’s just not like having protein. A hardboiled egg or some leftover chicken wrapped in lettuce or nori sheets (my current obsession) may satisfy you more.
  4. Genetically this isn’t the diet for you. If metabolic markers such as cholesterol, blood sugar or inflammatory factors go skewiff then it could be the LCHF approach doesn’t suit you. Genetic variation in the ApoE gene (ApoE4) is associated with LDL cholesterol not being recycled very well, and therefore it’s more likely to hang around the bloodstream and increase the chances of it becoming either oxidised or being transformed into smaller LDL particles, both highly atherogenic. Variants in the gene FTO can increase risk of obesity in the context of a high saturated fat and low polyunsaturated fat intake and may increase risk of high blood sugar and diabetes in individuals already overfat. The PPAR genes plays a role in ketogenesis (the oxidation of fat for energy) and storage of fat by activating genes associated with fatty acid transport and metabolism. Variants of this gene (particularly PPARa and PPARg ) are associated with increased risk of high triglycerides, total small dense LDL cholesterol and type 2 diabetes in the context of high saturated fat to polyunsaturated fat intake. Further, individual glycemic (blood sugar responses) vary considerably for the same amount of carbohydrate in food, suggesting there are a lot of factors to consider when determining the best diet for you (such as genetics, gut microbiome, activity level, stress etc), not just its macronutrient content. How to figure out if LCHF is not the diet for you? A few things to consider:
    1. Are you losing weight? If so, then wait until your weight stabilises and then retest your numbers – your body recycles triglycerides that are released from adipose (fat) tissue, therefore your triglyceride levels can appear high, but it is transient.
    2. Don’t get your cholesterol levels measured if injured, if you haven’t slept properly or you’ve been under significant stress. Cholesterol levels can change easily based on environmental triggers.
    3. Some people notice their cholesterol increases specifically in response to dairy fat, others to coconut fat – experiment for 6-12 weeks by dropping these out of your diet and get your cholesterol levels retested to see if this brings a drop in your numbers. Replace it with foods that have a more balanced fatty acid profile (such as lard or beef tallow) and foods high in monounsaturated fat or omega 3 fats, such as avocadoes, olive oil, nuts, seeds, salmon, mackerel, sardines.
    4. Here’s one I prepared earlier (and by ‘one’, I mean, ‘post on reducing your cholesterol naturally’. And by ‘naturally’ I mean ‘without Flora Pro Activ’).
    5. Get more in-depth testing of your cardiovascular disease risk profile – cholesterol is one measure and possibly not the most important one. CRP, fibrinogen, LDL particle size, number, oxidation and patterning can all give you more information than the run-of-the-mill lab test can. Contact me as I can help you arrange this testing which, for the most part, your doc might not even be aware of.
    6. Consider getting tested to find out your genetic predisposition (either through your doctor, or I can assist via Fitgenes gene testing).
    7. Consider dropping your fat intake, upping your protein intake and perhaps your carbohydrate intake too – ala the Zone diet approach. Despite its gimmicky name, it’s proven itself to be very effective for blood sugar stabilisation and blood cholesterol management. Some people just aren’t meant to eat a higher fat diet.
  5. You’ve got an intolerance you didn’t realise you had. Going LCHF means, for many, significantly increasing fat content in the diet from the obvious choices: cheese, nuts, seeds, avocados and coconut products. However, while these are awesome in terms of the nutrients they deliver, they can cause digestive issues in a number of people. Avocado, coconut, nuts and seeds are moderate-high in FODMAPs – a type of carbohydrate that can cause bloating, abdominal pain and other irritable bowel symptoms in many people. Further, the inclusion of larger amounts of cream, cheese or full fat yoghurt can be problematic due to an intolerance to the dairy protein or fat which can result in similar IBS in susceptible people. If you’ve been following a low-fat diet for many years, enzymes that help digest the fat and protein may be downregulated, so your body might not cope with the additional amounts. Sometimes it is a matter of backing down and building up, and sometimes it is that these foods just don’t agree with you. What to do? One of these tips may help:
    1. Follow a lower FODMAP approach to see if removing these foods settles down your discomfort. Doing this for at least 21 days and reintroducing a different food one at a time can pinpoint which one in particular might not agree with you.
    2. Introduce fermented foods as per #3e above to re-establish healthy bacteria in your gut.
    3. Replace dairy fat for alternative fat choices: nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut oil, beef tallow, lard.
    4. Ensure you chew your food properly at each meal to break it down, include lemon juice in water in the morning, and apple cider vinegar with meals to stimulate your digestive system, and consider ox bile supplement or a digestive enzyme that has lipase and/or pepsin enzymes to help you break down the fats and proteins.
  6. You’ve upped your alcohol intake because red wine and white spirits are “allowed” on LCHF. This might not even be intentional, but dropping your carbohydrate intake can lead to increased alcohol cravings, especially if your fat intake is too low, or your food intake is too low, or your stress levels are chronically too high. Or perhaps, you enjoy a moderate amount of alcohol but are continuing to gain weight on the LCHF diet.
    1. Be honest about how much you are drinking. Regularly consuming a ‘large’ as opposed to a ‘standard’ pour at the pub? Cracking open a bottle one night and then drinking to finish it off? Your plan to be alcohol free during the week has reduced to being alcohol free Monday – Wednesday? Evaluate if this is a problem for you … or not!
    2. Go alcohol free 5 nights a week, and enjoy a glass of whatever you fancy on the other nights. Ideally not those lolly water vodka mixes, but if you don’t like red wine, then choose something else. It’s not a deal breaker.
    3. Eat enough during the day so you’re not craving alcohol in the evening. This may mean including some additional starchy carbohydrate in your lunch meal – it doesn’t mean you’re not ‘low carb’ – as that in itself is a spectrum. This can really offset your cravings. Try it for 14 days to see if there is an effect.
    4. Lighten the load by choosing to have a low-fat meal if you drink. Old Skool 90s ‘dieting’ approach – those fat calories will only be missed by your adipose tissue, which is where they will be directed to when consumed with alcohol (which is processed first and foremost).
    5. Drink to ensure you are hydrated before you have your first alcoholic drink. This is like 101 really – we always drink more when we are thirsty, and then when we drink more, we become uninhibited and then all hell can break loose, right?
  7. Food timing: If you’re beginning your day with breakfast at 7am and winding down with a cup of tea and some dark chocolate at 10pm, you may be doing yourself a disservice. Eating over a time period of more than 12 hours can be deleterious to health. Recent research has found that restricting the eating period to 12 hours or less can improve insulin resistance and glucose tolerance, and reduce breast cancer risk even when the calories remain the same. Anything you consume that requires processing of any sort by the liver – including black coffee or herbal teas – will begin the metabolic process. When we eat is also important as our appetite hormones are on a circadian rhythm (food being an important signalling molecule for hormones), and eating late at night – even if overall eating window is short – can be problematic for your liver. The benefits derived from intermittent fasting (such as these) can still be realised if your version of fasting includes coffee in the morning, however it appears actual fasting (nothing but water) for at least 12 hours is most beneficial for metabolic health.
    1. Try to keep within a 12 hour window for consuming anything other than water. If you struggle with remembering to do this, there are apps that can help. It’s not as hard as it might seem – if you have breakfast at 7.30am and are done eating by 7.30pm then you’ve nailed it.
  8. You’ve focused entirely on diet without giving pause to consider other aspects of your lifestyle that contribute to your wellbeing. Lack of sleep, chronically elevated stress levels, over or under activity can all contribute to some of the common complaints people attribute to diet which have nothing to do with the food.
    1. Evaluate your sleep – are you getting to bed at a reasonable hour? Able to sleep through the night with ease? Feel refreshed waking up?
    2. Evaluate your physical activity – are you doing enough? Are you doing too much?
    3. Evaluate your stress levels – are you trying to do too much? Feeling overwhelmed? Or conversely is there not enough stress to keep you stimulated and motivated?

Of course these factors contribute to how your body responds to the food, but it isn’t the food per se. As I said last week, this isn’t a definitive list, however if any of these resonate with you then try some of the ideas I’ve listed, or enlist the help of someone like me to guide you to the best approach for you.

PS: I have organised a few talks over the next couple of months to talk about making a real food (aka LCHF) approach work for you. At the moment I have:

  • Takapuna 23 March @ Streetwise Organics, Byron Ave
  • Hawkes Bay 6 April – location TBC
  • Queenstown 25 May – location TBC

…with others to come, so watch this space 🙂

pres2

Yes, I created this pic myself 🙂

 

13 tips to help you have your cake and eat it too.

Want to minimise collateral damage when it comes to fat gain over the Christmas period? It happens! While I agree with sentiments around being relaxed and not stressing too much, sometimes people benefit from having structure around how to be more relaxed … as paradoxical as that might seem. Being relaxed means you’re less likely to view a disruption to your plan as a major catastrophe to your health goals – and we all know this makes you more likely to be successful in the long run. Further, sticking to a rigid diet can increase feelings of deprivation and increase dependence – these are not attributes that turn your nutrition plan into a lifestyle.

Despite this, many clients are not happy with advice to go with the flow and ‘do what you can’ – they are after guidelines to help them… have their (Christmas) cake and eat it too (so to speak). Is this possible? Well it could be. Here are some practical things you can put into place in the lead up to and days following an event like Christmas day to minimise fat gain and help you continue to progress. I’m not suggesting these will help you lose body fat, but more give you some strategies so you feel in control of your food intake, and not the other way around.

  1. Treat the Christmas and New Year period as an opportunity to put into practice all of your healthy habits that you’ve developed, rather than an insurmountable challenge to healthy eating which can only be dealt with by pushing “pause” until January 2nd.
  2. View Christmas day as a metabolic boost. Following a lower calorie diet can downregulate your metabolism – lower calories over a longer period can reduce active thyroid hormones, increase cortisol levels and increase ghrelin levels – all of which can shift the body into energy conservation and fat storage. Therefore, it stands to reason that periodic overfeeding may help reverse this, favourably influencing hormones (such as thyroid hormones and the appetite hormone leptin) and increased energy expenditure, sending signals to the brain that it doesn’t need to downregulate metabolism and stall fat loss.
  3. Studies conducted to test the effects of exercising before or after a big meal show that exercising after a meal burned more energy, and more so than exercising beforehand. Low intensity exercise will also have an effect (compared to no exercise at all). Therefore, regardless of whether you go for a gentle walk on the beach or on Christmas day or a more vigorous game of backyard cricket, it is all beneficial. That said….
  4. …if it’s not possible to do that, then any activity is better than none! Exercising prior to the meal to deplete muscle glycogen stores and activate proteins that help deliver glucose to the muscles will result in hormonal changes favourable for fat loss. The upshot of this? More calories used to restock and less hanging around to be stored as fat. Resistance training focusing on movements that recruit both big and small muscle groups (think squats, deadlifts, shoulder press and chin ups) or high intensity interval training are your best bet: time is money this time of year and you’re going to get more bang for your buck. Of course, if you’re an endurance athlete, then doing your long run or cycle will also suffice!
  5. Take advantage of the ‘second meal effect’: the hormonal response to your Christmas dinner will be improved if the meal before was based around an abundance of non-starchy vegetables (fibre), good sources of protein and a lower overall glycaemic load. You know, the kind of meal you might normally eat. It’s easy to do this around this time of year: think barbeque meats and salads, an omelette filled with feta cheese, pumpkin and asparagus, or a quick chicken stirfry.
  6. Psyllium husk. Research has found that around 20g psyllium husk (in water) 3 hours and immediately prior to a meal can have a gastric emptying and appetite reducing effect for the next 3-6 hours. While it’s tempting to think that this could be useful for long term caloric control and subsequent fat loss, there is no good evidence to support an effect on either of these. However if the additional fibre can make you feel less hungry and you’ll be less likely to eat as much then you’ve got nothing to lose by trying it, right? (And popping this into your breakfast meal or smoothie is an easy way to boost fibre intake and enhance that ‘second meal effect’).
  7. Fill your Christmas dinner plate with protein, fat and vegetables first, then think about your starchy sweet options – again, super easy if your table is filled with lamb, turkey, ham, vegetables – and aim to finish these before contemplating the dessert table. Minimally processed foods are more filling and will produce a lower blood sugar response, and let’s face it: it’s a lot harder to overeat on the pavlova if you’ve filled your plate with foods that boost satiety. Added bonus: you’ll be less likely to fall into a food coma and more likely to have more energy for some after meal activity (see #2).
  8. Chew your food properly. This is something you should do regardless, obviously, but it’s always good to be reminded of the basics. Not only will this help you digest the nutrients more effectively (minimising the amount of discomfort you might experience after a meal), a meta-analysis of studies looking at mastication (the scientific name for chewing. I know) found chewing your mouthful of food 40 times leads to changes in your gut hormones that favour an increased feeling of fullness and subsequent decrease in food intake later in the day. In addition, chewing is related to reduced stress hormones and increased alertness. These hormonal changes will change your hormonal and potentially your emotional response to food, and the increased cognitive functioning may help you make better decisions. Overall, this may help you feel relaxed about what you eat and less likely to overeat.
  9. Have 3-5 bites of the delicious foods you have on the Christmas table. While you might think that you want to finish the Christmas pudding and the pavlova, chances are, if you’ve followed some of what I’ve suggested above, you’re not going to be that hungry anyway. Does this mean you should miss out? Of course not – however practically speaking, the level of satisfaction derived from higher fat and higher sugar foods is transient – the last bite is never as delicious as the first. I could also add here to choose between the Christmas pudding or the pavlova (as research shows an increased variety of food increases overall intake at a single meal) but I’m not convinced this is a good strategy at Christmas for some people! This could potentially lead you to feeling deprived – deprivation does no one any good at all. Instead, savour every bite of the food you want to be eating, and really enjoy it.
  10. The day after Christmas? Get up and move around. Low level activity (and structured activity) is going to make you feel physically and psychologically better. And what of the food? My best advice for anyone looking for mitigate fat gain around Christmas is to not let Christmas day turn into Christmas week. So, clearly, I’d recommend NOT finishing the trifle off (sorry to be a Christmas leftover Grinch!) You are much better off having leftover cold meat, salads, perhaps some cold jersey benny potatoes (there are health benefits of these you know!) However, if you decide you want leftover trifle want to, then own it and don’t beat yourself up for it! Nutrition goals are not gained or lost in one meal or even four meals. Consistency is key, and it’s what you achieve over the course of the year that is most important, not what you don’t do over a few days.
  11. Jump back into your usual routine ASAP – if you need help with this, head over to my website for the perfect solution to get you back on track.
  12. Don’t weigh yourself if you’re tied to the number on the scales. Overeating will increase your carbohydrate stores and water stores, so you may naturally weigh more the next day and it can take a few days to return to baseline levels. For some, it might take a few days to Intellectually you know this, but it doesn’t change how you might feel about it. If the scales are your choice of measure, then wait at least four days before jumping back on them. That said…
  13. Aim to maintain, not lose, over the next two or so weeks. This doesn’t counteract what I’ve suggested above, however if fat loss (and weight loss) is your goal, I honestly think that it’s easier on you to decide not to focus on that right now and remember it’s normal for there to be peaks and troughs. Feeling comfortable about this means you’re at a place where your attitude towards food is less about rapid weight loss (you may have been there, done that) and more about health. You can still have an overall goal of losing body fat with this mindset – and will likely be far more successful in the long run with it.
christmas-is-coming

Obligatory Christmas-related body composition picture

14 reasons to ditch the toast and jam (and 7 key tips to help you do this).

After feeling like I’d taken a trip back to 2003 with some of the sports nutrition posts and articles I’d been reading lately, I got tagged in a cool picture from a listener of our Fitter Radio podcast  – a triathlete who has switched from the traditional higher carb, lower fat diet approach to eating lower carb, higher fat, real food whilst training and commented she ‘didn’t know her 41 year old body could be the best body I have ever had’ (Woot! high fives all around!!) This coincided with finishing Mark Sisson’s Primal Endurance book.

Mark outlines 115 reasons why athletes should train and eat the Primal Endurance way. I concurred with pretty much all of them. I have added my own 2c worth, added some literature below (and cut it down to 21 for brevity’s sake). While geared towards athletes, hands down this is applicable to everyone. Everyone.

So if you’re currently eating toast and jam pre OR post training (or in general), I’ve outlined the 14 reasons why you need to ditch that junk and become a fat burning beast, and 7 key tips to help you get there.

  1. Western diet is based on excess grains and sugars (and low fibre) which stimulates excess insulin production, leading to lifelong insidious weight gain, chronic inflammation and elevated disease risk factors.
  2. A high carb, grain-based diet can leave endurance athletes nutrient deficient (due to phytic acid effects on minerals), inflamed and more susceptible to the oxidative damage of the stress of training, general life and poor nutrition.
  3. The way that most people consume modern grains (cereals, breads, pasta) ends up being a cheap source of calories which are immediately turned into glucose upon ingestion and offer minimal nutritional value. There are no good reasons to consume these types of grains and many good reasons not to, especially for those who are sensitive to gluten and other anti-nutrients found in wheat.
  4. Everyone is sensitive to the health compromising effects of grains at some level, especially the pro-inflammatory effects of gluten and the propensity for the lectins in grains to cause leaky gut syndrome.
  5. Even lean people suffer from the consequences of carbohydrate dependency, such as chronic inflammation, oxidative damage, and accelerated ageing and disease risk factors.
  6. Carrying excess body fat despite careful attention to diet and a high training load is largely due to carbohydrate dependency caused by a grain-based diet and chronic training patterns.
  7. Carbohydrate dependency cycle looks like this: consume a high carbohydrate meal – elevate bloods sugar – stimulate an insulin response – shut off fat metabolism and promote fat storage – experience fatigue and sugar cravings – low blood sugar elicits stress response and we consume more carbohydrates – stimulate the fight or flight response to regulate blood sugar – dysregulate and exhaust assorted hormonal processes, and end up in burnout and weight gain (potentially lifelong)
  8. Weight loss through portion control, low fat foods and calorie burning is ineffective long term. And while we think calories burned through exercise stimulate a corresponding increase in appetite – research might not back this up. I tend to think that people are more likely to eat more because they ‘reward’ themselves OR the long slow training allows increased opportunity to eat sports ‘junk food’ and the amount of calories burnt through training is far less than you think – and overestimated more so in females in certain instances. At any rate, the secret to weight loss is hormone optimisation, primarily through moderating excess insulin production.
  9. Endurance athletes can begin to dial in to their optimal carbohydrate intake by asking themselves the question ‘do I carry excess body fat?’ Any excess body fat calls for a reduction in dietary carbohydrate intake to accelerate fat burning.
  10. Endurance athletes who already have an optimal body composition but are looking to optimise training and recovery should choose high nutrient value carbohydrates. These include a high volume of vegetables, a moderate fruit intake, kumara/potatoes and other starchy tubers, dairy for those that tolerate, wild rice, quinoa and small amounts of dark chocolate.
  11. Endurance athletes with high calorie needs who also have an optimal body composition can enjoy occasional treats, but the habit of unbridled intake of nutrient-deficient carbohydrates should be eliminated in the interest of health and performance.
  12. Primal style eating (or eating minimally processed foods) is fractal and intuitive, and when escaping carbohydrate dependency and becoming fat adapted, you don’t have to rely on ingested carbs for energy. Eating patterns can be driven by hunger, pleasure and maximal nutritional benefit.
  13. Escaping sugar dependency and becoming fat adapted gives you a cleaner burning engine, since glucose burning promotes inflammation and increased oxidative stress
  14. Ketones are an internally generated, energy rich by-product of fat metabolism in the liver when blood glucose and insulin levels are low due to carbohydrate restriction in the diet. Ketones are burned efficiently by the brain, heart and skeletal tissue in the same manner as glucose. You do not need to be on a ketogenic diet to upregulate your ability to produce ketones – you can do this via a lower carbohydrate approach.

HOW TO DO THIS: 7 KEY TIPS

  1. Step one: omit sugars, grains, industrial seed oils for 21 days. Step two: emphasis highly nutritious foods such as meat, poultry, vegetables, eggs, nuts, fish, fruits, some full fat dairy, seeds, and kumara/potato.
  2. 100g or less of carbohydrate promotes fat loss, 150g is around maintenance level and over this could promote lifelong weight gain and over 300g could promote disease patterns.
  3. While transitioning to primal there are some struggles initially due to lifelong carbohydrate dependency and the addictive (for some) properties of sugar and excess grains and wheat. Headaches, dehydration, lower blood pressure and ‘dead legs’ are all initial side effects when removing processed food. Trust me – this too will pass.
  4. To minimise side effects, start the transition in a base-training phase of your training where training occurs at an easy pace. The transition phase can take anywhere from 2-12 weeks initially.
  5. Consume salt. Don’t underestimate the importance of this! Lower circulating insulin affects your body’s ability to retain sodium (and other electrolytes) – so we need more, particularly as processed food (of which you are no longer basing your diet around) is where you got around 70% of your sodium from.
  6. You can accelerate the process of fat adaptation by instigating some of the tactics used by athletes who opt to ‘train low’ – i.e. in a low glycogen training state. Some of these are naturally undertaken if you train without eating in the morning, or work out after dinner in the evening and don’t consume anything post-workout. If you’re new to this, have a read through to establish which might suit you best, and start instigating 1-2 x per week. Don’t undertake all of them as this aggressive approach could cause too much additional stress, derailing your plans to become a fat-burning beast.
  7. The FASTER study and Peter Attia, Sami Inkinen suggests any endurance athlete can become fat adapted and deliver performances that may be superior to carb-fuelled efforts all of the way up to anaerobic intensity. This is a new and growing research space, one AUT is testing, among other Universities around the globe.
Strong, lean and awesome at 41y.

Strong, lean and awesome at 41y.

 

PS What the Fat Sports Performance – currently an ebook, about to be published is one I can’t WAIT to read as well – sure to be a goody.

10 ways to naturally reduce your cholesterol-related risk and save yourself $8.00

I was at the supermarket yesterday and just happened to be taking a picture of an iced coffee drink when someone came beside me to grab a couple for themselves and put them in their trolley alongside a pottle of Flora ProActiv margarine.

Heinous drink containing 75g sugar on the left, and overpriced margarine on the right. JICYWW.

Heinous drink containing 75g sugar on the left, and overpriced margarine on the right. JICYWW.

There’s a disconnect right there.

These margarines are not only ridiculously expensive and taste terrible (I suppose that’s the nature of margarine anyway), but consuming this spread in an effort to reduce cholesterol levels is totally misguided. Don’t get me wrong. They work. In fact, a good friend of mine did her Master’s project at the same time as I did to show their effect at lowering LDL cholesterol in a clinical trial. There have been more than a handful of randomised controlled trials that show plant sterols can inhibit cholesterol absorption and reduce LDL cholesterol.

The end goal, however, shouldn’t be about reducing your LDL cholesterol levels. You’re probably down with that anyway given you’re reading my blog. The end goal is about reducing your overall health risk, and these margarines have not been shown to do this, despite the Heart Foundation tick and the Health Star Rating. In fact, for a substantial proportion of the population, a lower cholesterol level increases the risk of heart disease (for more information, read this excellent blog post by Zoe Harcombe)

Interestingly, even the American Heart Association released a statement saying the use of sterol and stanol esters should be reserved for adults requiring LDL cholesterol lowering because of hypercholesterolemia, or as secondary prevention after an atherosclerotic event – and these have yet to be updated.

If you want the real benefits of cholesterol lowering foods, eat your plant sterols in the form that nature intended (i.e. plants), not a pharmaceutical company

Anyways.

Here are 10 ways to naturally reduce your risk related to cholesterol and save yourself $8.00

  1. Eat more vegetable fibre. Fibre is the ‘f’ word that is super important but doesn’t receive nearly as much press as the other ‘f’ word (fat). Current recommendations are 28g for females, and 34g for males and we are currently consuming an average of 20g per day. Fibre comes in a few different forms and while soluble fibre has been found to lower cholesterol absorption – this is not the most important aspect to my mind. A few people (who may have a genetic defect that makes them hyperabsorb fibre, or have a defect on their LDL cholesterol recpetors which limits their cholesterol uptake and removal) would benefit from this in particular. Moreso, eating more plant based fibre shifts us back to an eating pattern that, as Eaton & Cordain point out, we consumed for over 99% of human evolution. And while estimations of fibre intake of Hunter Gatherers vary (as pointed out by Steve in this excellent blog post), the point is: we don’t eat enough of these plant-based foods and we need to eat more AND more from the sources of foods which are as close to their natural form as they can be. You’ve heard of the 5 a day campaign? I say we should aim for 9 – and mostly vegetables. This is particularly true if you do have underlying inflammation that is driving up your cholesterol level. There different types of fibre and soluble fibre is known to absorb cholesterol and remove it from food you eat and your bloodstream. This level of detail is certainly useful if you have a genetic predisposition towards a high cholesterol level which places you at risk (i.e. familial hypercholesterolemia). However, to keep it brief: if you’re currently barely managing three serves of vegetables a day – work on increasing vegetables in general. Natural sources of fibre from plants will deliver soluble and insoluble fibre, along with resistant starch. This is a good place to start.
  2. Ditch processed food. Sounds dramatic I know – and it’s not realistic to ‘never eat anything in a packet’. However if most of your daily calories come with a nutrient information panel and an ingredient list, then you seriously need to reconsider what you are putting into your body. Processed food is devoid of nutrients in the forms your body requires, contains additives and preservatives, some of which have a dubious health profile and takes very little energy to digest. This leads to peaks and troughs in your blood sugar levels, poor appetite control and the potential to overeat.
  3. Ditch sugar. No surprises here. Sugar not only increases your risk of metabolic syndrome that can result in type 2 diabetes and increased cardiovascular disease risk, it drives almost all inflammatory pathways in the body. Thankfully though, if you try hard to stick to #2 above, you’ll do this by default. Do note though, minimising sugar includes all forms of sugar – including the ‘natural’ forms. If you’re unsure of what a sugar is, print out this PDF which tells you the 56 different names to burn into your brain for your supermarket shop.
  4. Lose weight. Or, more specifically, lose body fat. Being obese is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, neurological conditions and some cancers. Yes there are certainly limitations with how we define ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’, but you don’t have to rely on tools to establish whether or not you need to lose some additional fat around the middle. You know this yourself.
  5. Increase your intake of omega 3 fatty acid rich foods (think salmon, mackerel, herring and sardines) and consider an omega 3 supplement if you don’t eat fish. I know – you’re thinking ‘what about plant-based sources’? truth is, these don’t contain the type of long chain fatty acids that are most beneficial for reducing risk of chronic disease, and their conversion rate into those forms is quite poor. Eicosapentanoic acid (EPA) is the omega 3 that is involved in reducing inflammation, and if you do have high cholesterol and inflammation, then a supplement such as this Nordic Naturals could be worthwhile taking. While a very recent clinical trial failed to show improvements in total cholesterol with the addition of an omega 3 supplementation, it did show a reduction in fasting blood sugar, triglyceride levels and c-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation in the body). And as I said, your cholesterol level might not be the most important metabolic marker to focus on anyway. Vegetarians especially would benefit from supplementation, and an algae supplement would provide a similar benefit.
  6. Get out in the sun…. and get your vitamin D levels checked. There is an association between low vitamin D and poor metabolic health – studies have shown a link between high sunlight hours and lower cholesterol levels at a population levels. This is due to the exposure of skin to the UVB rays that uses cholesterol to create vitamin D. However, a large percentage of New Zealander’s are below adequate levels. For best and safe practice, sun exposure, minus the burning, for 10-15 minutes where parts of your skin not often seen by the sun (for maximum absorption) are exposed (think: armpits, abdomen – unless you’re young and gorgeous) is best. The thing is, though, the sun doesn’t hit the earth at the right latitude to get any of those rays to produce vitamin D in winter, so we can be lagging even more coming into spring. So supplementation could well be required. In addition to the mechanism above, studies (like this one) have shown that higher dose vitamin D supplementation can lower cholesterol and inflammatory markers in women. If supplementing, choose a supplement that also includes vitamin K2 to help vitamin D’s absorption such as this Clinicians one.
  7. Alpha-lipoic acid (along with other antioxidants vitamin C or E) can provide antioxidant support to help reduce your overall health risk associated with cholesterol levels (i.e. reduce inflammation and oxidative species) by increasing the activity of your body’s antioxidant defences. If you’re wanting to spend your money on actively lowering your cholesterol, these relatively safe supplement options are a better idea than margarine.
  8. Your thyroid, your gut, your genetic profile can all influence your cholesterol profile. If your cholesterol is more than a bit elevated, consider investigating other reasons for this. FYI it’s now easier to get your LDL cholesterol tested, rather than calculated, including those which are more atherogenic, such as VLDL, oxidised LDL if you do have concerns. You can work with a practitioner to do this.
  9. Exercise. Free and long known to improve metabolic health. The arguments for or against the benefit of exercise for losing weight are irrelevant. Mood, lean muscle mass, cardiovascular fitness and general all around awesomeness will increase. It doesn’t mean you have to slog it out in the gym. Body weight exercises and some short, sharp, intense exercise a couple of times a week – combined with walking and general movement as much as you can – is most effective for health and wellbeing. If you like to track your details then get a Fitbit or a Garmin or similar. If you obsess over numbers then don’t.
  10. Stress less. Sleep more. And if you are losing weight, and doing all of the above, wait for your weight to stabilise before worrying too much about your cholesterol levels, which can be elevated during this time.

 

Body weight exercises from the 7min workout - not a bad place to start. (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/09/the-scientific-7-minute-workout/)

Body weight exercises from the 7min workout – not a bad place to start. (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/09/the-scientific-7-minute-workout/)

Shift work and health: the Cliff notes.

I’ve worked in a wide variety of jobs in my life. Like many people, I spent the latter part of my high school and university years cleaning toilets, clearing tables, washing dishes, delivering pizza and making sandwiches when there was only one sandwich maker in town. Subway, George St. Aaah….the memories. Somehow I was always put on the graveyard shifts of Thursday night 8pm-4am and Saturday 10pm-6am. Though it totally went against my natural tendency to be early to bed, early to rise, they were the most fun shifts to work. As one of the few places open 24 hours over the weekend, we got queues out the door of students either rolling in from the Cook or stumbling home from KCs, with the busiest period being from 2.30am to around 4am. I still remember the excitement at serving both a glazed eyed Marc Ellis and Rachel’s brother Jonathan from Shortland Street – before seeing Shorty stars was as ho-hum as …. seeing Shorty stars. Anyway. I’d get home either 4.30 or 6.30 and sleep 5ish hours before getting up and try to get back into a daytime routine. I always felt rubbish through lack of sleep and so thankful that I wasn’t pursuing a career that required me to do shift work.

Now, though, amongst the industries that have always needed to be available 24/7, the global society we live in now necessitates other occupations to put in hours that extend beyond the 9-5. The prevalence of employees working shifts in the media, healthcare industry, on the front line and in the corporate world is estimated to be around 20% and the available data in New Zealand is in line with this. This is a large subsection of the working population, and why it’s of note is that there are well established links between shift work and poorer health outcomes – both short and long term. The constant sleep deprivation that results from shift work is a major underlying issue.

The most important things we can do to help mitigate the effects of chronic sleep deprivation that occurs due to shift work (aside from actually sleeping!) are the very things that go out the window. A regular exercise routine is more difficult to maintain, due to tiredness from lack of sleep or the inability to structure if you are on a shift cycle that changes from day to night. Eating healthily is more difficult as having motivation to plan and prepare is more challenging, and often the pull to higher sugar, poorer nutrient foods is governed by cravings and accessibility. In addition, perhaps overlooked, maintaining relationships can be more difficult as the non-sociable hours of shift work impact on our availability to spend time with friends and family. Hanging out with John on the 5th floor is not the same.

It’s also well established that the affects on circadian rhythm put shift workers at a higher risk of many chronic diseases. Up until 150 years ago we were constrained by the natural sunrise and sunset and life on earth had evolved according to this. When artificial light was invented there were suddenly more hours in the day that could be spent being awake, and the shift in our wake and sleep cycle impacts on metabolism, hormones, digestion, cardiovascular system; in fact all of our cells in our body is affected by this. Sleep deprivation in the short term increases insulin resistance – it takes just a single nights’ sleep for this to occur. There is an increase in the risk of injuries on the job, and a link between both acute and chronic gastrointestinal problemsMood disorders are also associated with circadian rhythm disruption, and both observational and experimental data point to an increased risk of obesity in shift workers due to these circadian rhythm changes.  Over the long term, there is an increased prevalence of risk factors associated with the metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer are all seen in shift workers compared to those who keep a more normal work schedule.

While you might think people who are early risers would be more negatively affected by shift work, this hasn’t been found to be the case.  Research shows that those who are late risers have lower levels of melatonin (a hormone that mediates the sleep-wake cycle); the suppression of which is one proposed mechanism for the increased health risks associated with working hours that disrupt circadian rhythm.

So what to do? Obviously, being able to opt out of shift work is not realistic for the 20% of the population who live and work in this 24 hour society. This report details the interventions in the research setting that have been found to be most beneficial. These include scheduling shifts to be ‘forward’ shifts rather than backward shifts (i.e. moving from a morning, to an afternoon, to an evening shift), avoiding stimulants such as coffee (in excess) and wearing light blocking eyeglasses on the way home from night shift. Sleeping in a dark room and wearing an eye mask will also help.

Along with the above, ensuring good sleep hygiene practices through both diet and exercise are essential. Though it might be the last thing you feel like doing if you’re just getting into exercise, a routine that you stick to will go a long way to helping you mitigate these effects. Exercise is so important for everyday health and well being, that to ignore it would only further exacerbate some of the health issues mentioned above. Further, in the face of sleep deprivation and acute insulin resistance, strength training helps improve insulin sensitivity and may minimise the blood sugar disruptions experienced. As mentioned, coffee is likely one of the first things you go to when you feel like you need an energy hit, but instead of this, why not try green tea – it has L-threanine in it which helps keep you alert without the caffeine hit. Perhaps save coffee for your days off (and limit to just one); dare I say it – try a decaffeinated brand otherwise. Some companies like to supply food for their employees, and this tends to be cheap plain biscuits, white bread and jam, and other types of food to provide a quick hit of energy when time is of the essence and there is no time to stop for a real meal. These options, along with the vending machine, are the last foods you want to be eating. On your off days make it a habit to prepare two or three ‘dinner’ like meals that you can freeze and eat throughout the week. Trying to structure your whole food, minimally processed meals so they are ‘dinner’ like at dinner time (before you head into a night shift, perhaps), lunch like in the middle of your shift, and then a lighter meal before you hit the sack in the morning will maintain the regularity of meals regardless of whether you’re working or not. Being prepared with your good food options means you can avoid those that are available at work. In addition, a magnesium supplement (with an amino acid or citric acid chelate) before bed can help promote good sleep. Finally, if you are constantly waking up, practicing some deep breathing in bed can help calm you down and send you back to sleep. Diaphragmatic breathing will decrease your sympathetic nervous response – ‘fight or flight’ and the levels of stress hormones entering the bloodstream which are released because of this which could prevent you falling easily back to sleep.

Shift work is a necessity for many people, and some fare better than others. If you are a shift worker who fares fairly well despite the disruption in sleep and subsequent poor lifestyle habits you may not feel that these tips would apply to you. However maintaining your health is as important now to offset the long term effects of shift work.

Feeling SAD?

Damn. We Aucklanders are getting our share of terrible weather. That’s the problem with being smug and posting pictures of our awesome non-winter winter climate… eventually it comes back to bite us in the butt. Usually in spectacular fashion: this week has been almost torrential storm-like conditions, with power outages and garden furniture strewn across the driveway (or is that just me?) Naturally this dip in temperature to below 15 degrees comes with it a sense of gloom as the sun fails to make an appearance. Grey clouds are oppressive, huh? Does that make you feel a bit blue? It does me – once the temperature drops and I haven’t seen the sun in four days I feel utterly miserable, diagnose myself with mild depression, and more specifically Seasonal Affective Disorder – or SAD. It’s a particular type of depression that starts in the autumn and doesn’t let up until the daffodils are out. In reality, I don’t think I would be diagnosed with SAD, and population prevalence is in the realm of 1-12% depending on your location, a higher prevalence in areas with longer winter days and lack of sunlight hours (one reason why I couldn’t live in ‘middle England’; not only does it sound horribly dull (it’s up there with ‘original flavour’) but daylight hours are limited during winter. And I know it’s worse elsewhere). But I digress. However, I feel a bit blue all the same.

Interestingly, there are two types of seasonal affective disorders – some curious people feel more depressed in summer than they do in winter, therefore the reverse is true. That to me is like a fate worse than death, quite frankly. Up there with Man Flu. SAD is diagnosed by the presence of symptoms such as: 

  • Decreased energy levels
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fatigue
  • Increase in appetite
  • Increased desire to be alone
  • Increased need for sleep
  • Increased irritability
  • Increased anxiety
  • Weight gain

Scientists have pinpointed a few reasons why the lack of sunlight can disrupt our mood. This is largely due to our levels of melatonin – this is a hormone which plays a role in how our body regulates its sleep/wake cycle. The longer periods of darkness in the winter months may stimulate melotonin production and potentially people with SAD overproduce melatonin or are hypersensitive to melatonin in the winter months. While melatonin is recommended on an infrequent basis for people who struggle with sleep (for example, during periods of travel where jetlag can set it), too much melatonin can result in headaches, day time sleepiness, and depression.

Other evidence shows that decreased levels of neurotransmitters (chemicals that transmit signals between nerve cells) such as serotonin or dopamine may also play a role in triggering SAD. Low levels of serotonin in particular have been associated with carbohydrate cravings in people with SAD, and with sleep disorders and depression in the population at large. So not only does the reduced amount of serotonin trigger carbohydrate cravings (carbohydrate facilities the production of serotonin), this subsequent increase in food intake can lead to weight gain and further feelings of despair. Lose-lose, really. Even in those that don’t feel particularly blue during winter, the stodgy, starchy carbohydrates that can lead to weight gain and increased carbohydrate cravings are the warming foods we naturally gravitate towards.

As serotonin is largely produced in the gut I went searching for studies that looked for a link between digestion and SAD, as without the nutrients required to produce serotonin – including tryptohan which is an amino acid and key in the process – levels will be lower. I didn’t come up with any though, but with the clear link between the gut and brain, it makes sense that there would be.

Lastly I also found interesting relationships between SAD and other conditions. It’s not just weight gain that could be a problem – A Finnish study found there was a significant association between seasonal changes in mood and behaviour and metabolic syndrome, with risk of metabolic syndrome increased by 56% in those with seasonal affective disorder. The researchers noted that the metabolic syndrome is related to changes in the circadian rhythm – and that circadian, sleep-wake and seasonal cycles may each be regarded to reflect an intrinsic metabolic cycle. Sleep onset is a switch for the metabolic and cell repair systems from daytime to night-time settings and if the right signals aren’t there, the circadian clockwork relies more on the metabolic cycles producing time-giving signals needed for adaptation – insulin plays a role in this and helps set the circadian rhythm.

So what treatments exist for helping improve melatonin and serotonin levels and hopefully offset the low level depression that many people experience?

Light therapy: helps with regulating melatonin production and can indirectly affect serotonin levels by blocking the mood-lowering affects of acute tryptophan depetion. exposure to intense light in the early morning has been found to be most effective, as this suppresses melatonin. The treatment involves sitting in front of fluroscent lights which are installed behind a diffusion screen, and carrying out normal activities for anywhere from 30 min to 2 hours depending on the intensity of lights. The critical factor is that the light matches that of either early morning or just before sunset. he dosage most often found to be effective is 5,000 lux per day, given as 2,500 lux for two hours or 10,000 lux for 30 minutes. This isn’t just sitting in front of a desk lamp.

I talk about sleep all the time… but in addition to adequate sleep, getting up and going to bed at around the same time most days can also help regulate levels of melatonin, particularly combined with the light therapy as above.

Get outside and exercise: it might be the last thing you feel like doing but honestly – nothing is as energising and invigorating as getting outdoors, particularly in cold, windy, inclement weather. This helps boost serotonin levels by increasing availability of tryptophan to the brain. This is particularly important as we tend to spend a lot of time inside. The added bonus here is getting natural light – this helps boost overall mood.

Fight against the desire to stay at home and make plans with friends or family. It’s all too easy to hibernate, inevitably making you feel worse.

Diet: while there are foods that are high in serotonin or tryptophan, few actually cross the blood brain barrier to enable their action in the body to improve mood. Typically high protein foods containing tryptophan were recommended, though this doesn’t actually increase serotonin levels in the brain when studied  , as amino acids compete for transportation in the body and most protein containing foods are relatively lower in tryptophan than other amino acids. Hence perhaps changing the ratio of tryptophan to other amino acids is useful, and research has shown that supplementing with a dietary protein alpha-lactalbumin (a constituent of milk) can increase serotonin through this strategy. While interesting, it’s not very practical for people in every day life. Insulin helps set the circadian rhythm and perhaps a diet that focuses on high protein for breakfast and lunch, with small amounts of carbohydrate at night can maximise insulin secretion at night and help appropriately reset circadian rhythm. Unsurprisingly, the importance of a whole food diet rich in nutrients to support digestion and absorption of nutrients cannot be overstated given the link between serotonin and mood.

Oh, and hopefully the increased protein, the exercise and the sleep helps you combat those carbohydrate cravings. In addition to this, find some equally warming winter substitutes. It’s not like you need to completely avoid carbohydrates at all (see above re insulin) – it’s about avoiding Richard Dreyfuss amounts of the white stuff. That’s not going to make you feel any better I promise.

  • Mash: cauliflower mashed with butter or olive oil, herbs and seasoning.
  • Fries: slice swede and boil until a little bit soft. Dry off and coat in coconut oil and some almond flour and roast. Or just roast from raw.
  • Pasta: zucchini noodles (or as my friend Helen likes to call them: courgetti) or use leeks (cook)
  • Rice; cauliflower rice

There are certainly people who are diagnosed with SAD, and equally there are people (like me) who wouldn’t meet the diagnostic criteria yet still feel a bit less awesome. All of the above tips then will help you keep feeling awesome over the winter months. And we are almost half way through! That’s enough to make me feel happier :-).

 

The power of consistency (…keep being awesome)

The best piece of advice I received when I was completing my doctorate was from friend and colleague Erica. Like many people, I was working full time and studying at the same time. While allowances within my job were made for me to carry out the research, there were times when the demands of the teaching superseded any ideas of blocking out time for the PhD. Erica advised me to spend an hour each day working on my it, non-negotiatable. Obviously there were days and weeks that would be devoted to focus solely on the thesis, but even on the days where I couldn’t imagine there would be time to complete anything useful, I spent an hour on it. Though I am a person who works much better to a (looming) deadline, following that piece of advice was the best thing I could have done. On the days that I thought I was just opening up my computer, flicking through some statistical analysis information and perhaps running two or three statistical tests, I took comfort in the fact that spending the hour in that time meant it was one less hour I had to spend at the end of the road. However short or unproductive it could have felt, it was more productive that not doing it. This consistent practice got me to the end of the PhD journey in relatively one piece.

The power of consistency. Winter is a good time to reflect on the ability of this to keep you on track with your health-related goals. Remember how awesome you were? Getting outdoors for a run, making salad as a staple for dinner, and incorporating seasonal summer fruit into your diet becomes second nature when the weather is warm. Come June and the start of winter, it is this time of year where the snooze button on the alarm is utilised more, the running shoes are left in the cupboard and the gym carpark starts to thin out. Motivation tends to diminish along with the sunlight hours and even the most dedicated among us start to waver in the face of the cooler temperatures and shorter days. The number of missed training sessions can start to accumulate without realising it and suddenly, instead of hitting the gym 5 days a week, the number of sessions barely add up to 5 in a fortnight. More often than not, when exercise goes out the window, our motivation to eat well also tends to slide. Again – part of this is habit. When we are in the routine of going for a run or swim, we tend to also have to be a bit more organised around our meals. Yes, exercising does make us busier but, equally, when in a routine, it’s often easier to have a set plan in place when it comes to deciding what to eat. Many people get home from work, pack their bag for the next day (if training away from home) and then prepare breakfast and lunch. It’s routine. If the gym falls by the wayside, then there is no need to pack a bag, therefore things tend to get more relaxed around organising meals. In addition, our priorities around food tend to change. If you’re an athlete and are training for an event, the focus is on fuelling properly for the training sessions. In the off-season, there is less perceived need to be concerned about diet, and poorer choices around food tend to creep in, particularly if diet has only really been used as a tool in training and not in ‘life’.

If your mood, sleep, health and overall well being weren’t affected by these blips in training and eating habits, then it wouldn’t matter. You’d make it through winter and dust off the running shoes to go for a jog come September, no worse off than you were in May. However more often than not these are what are affected the most. Perhaps (like me) you notice a slight shift in the aforementioned due to winter anyway (heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder?) This is only exacerbated when the very habits that help support emotional and physical well being fall by the wayside. In addition, often in this instance people start to fall further down the rabbit-hole rather than lift themselves out of it – a cycle of events perpetuated because we feel bad. We can turn to food in an effort to feel better, knowing full well that it will only make us feel worse.

So let’s not even go there. Let’s stop this cascade of events from ever eventuating. Even if you’ve been hitting snooze on your alarm clock or have grabbed a dirty muffin from the café near your work a few more times than usual over the last couple of weeks, all is not lost. At all. You are still awesome. Here are my top tips to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and charge into the cooler months knowing you’ve got it covered.

  1. Re-evaluate your goals around healthy living – this will help you reprioritise where necessary. Setting short goals (month by month) makes them far more salient. Even day by day goals (exercise, prepare lunch, feel awesome) can help refocus when you find yourself going astray.
  2. Stop hitting snooze. Well that’s a no brainer, isn’t it? Getting out for your morning training session isn’t going to kill you. Put the alarm clock at the other end of the room so you have no choice but to get up to switch it off.
  3. No-one regretted a session they ever completed, but plenty of people regret the one they missed. Of course, if you do miss one – don’t dwell on it. Make sure you don’t do the same the next day. If you’re someone who usually gets up and goes in the morning but would rather not go out in the dark, perhaps shift the time that you exercise to lunchtime. Or, if you have the flexibility in your job, go to work earlier to clear emails (and miss the traffic), then go out when it’s beginning to get light. You can do a lot in ¾ of an hour and would be back at your desk ready to go by 8.30am. There are options. Use them.
  4. Look at your exercise routine. If you’re in the habit of getting up and going for an hour run every single day, then perhaps it’s time to rejig that so you start doing training to mix it up and keep it fresh. Shorter, sharper sessions not only take up less time, they are far more effective for cardiovascular and muscular health, but also can provide a big boost of endorphins in far less time. Too many people I talk to think that if they don’t have an hour to train, then it’s just not worth it. The smarter people I know spend 25 minutes and are those that are physically in the best shape. Yes, this isn’t going to suit you if you are training for a marathon – those long runs have to happen. But not every day and in fact, you’d probably benefit more from the aforementioned sessions.
  5. Get to bed earlier. It’s too easy to feel warm and cosy rugged up by the fire or on the couch, and how often is the TV left on later than necessary because we feel too comfortable to move and get to bed. If this is you, make a deal with yourself to use the time between the last couple of ad breaks in the programme you DO want to watch to organise yourself. Brush your teeth, sort your work gear, and clear the dishwasher – whatever. Do what you need to do so once the show is over you are done.
  6. On #5: set an alarm. We set one for the morning – so why not set one at night. It takes discipline to go to bed at a reasonable hour, and an alarm will signify that it’s time to turn in for the evening.
  7. People always equate ‘comfort’ foods as being stodgy puddings, potatoes and chocolate. Sure they might make you feel awesome when you (over)eat them at the time, but there’s seldom anything awesome about how you feel the next morning. Stay consistent in your healthy eating habits by keeping them fresh. Investigate new winter dishes that will provide the same level of comfort and warmth in winter but without the associated carb-coma that inevitably follows. Soups, slow cooker meals, cauliflower-based dishes (aka the AMAZINGLY versatile vegetable), butternut, swede or pumpkin based dishes can all take the place of stodgier items that can weigh you down at dinner time. I’ve plenty of ideas in the recipe section or (more up to date) my facebook page.
  8. Keep eating salad but make it a winter one. Who said salad always had to be lettuce, cucumber, tomato and a $4.99 avocado, thanks very much. Mix it up with a different one every week (coleslaw, roast vegetable, silver beet as a base), throw some seeds, a different home-made dressing etc.
  9. Investigate taking a vitamin D supplement. We need vitamin D to synthesis hormones in the body responsible for thyroid and overall energy (among other things). Many people in New Zealand are vitamin D deficient as the sun doesn’t hit the earth in the right position to deliver the UVA rays we need to synthesis it. Doctors often find it unnecessary to test for vitamin D levels (expensive compared to other tests) so if you’re someone who wants it checked, then ask them for it. They may well suggest just taking a vit D3 supplement.
  10. Have you heard of the 100 Happy Days project? Or of a gratitude journal? What about the 30 days of dancing challenge? These are just some of the wellbeing projects you can put some energy into which, when you carry them out, will make you feel better. I’ve completed the 100 Happy Days challenge, posting a photo every day of something (anything!) that made me feel happy that day. Most of the time, it was relatively easy. But some days it wasn’t and I really struggled (I’m a largely positive person too!) However I liked the focus on being happy – so much so that now I’m on a 100 foam roller day challenge (strange, no-one has joined me…) and the 30 dancing days challenge. These require no additional explanation – the name says it all. If you start any of these (or your own challenge) now, winter will fly by.
  11. Get out into the sunlight during the day. Nothing is as refreshing as time outside where you can get rejuvenated by the elements, be it rain, wind or sun.
  12. Hug someone. There’s nothing nicer.

Note: these aren’t all food and exercise related – in fact, if we support our emotional well being, it can drive the maintenance of physical health behaviours. And vice versa. The key is to do them today. Then wash, rinse and repeat tomorrow. And the next day. Consistency is arguably the key to good health, as long as those habits serve the purpose. Keep on being awesome.