Exercise for longevity – is there a best approach?

The older I get, the more I am interested in the effects of ageing on our overall health span. Ageing is unavoidable, it happens to the best of us. Listed below are some of the physiological and biological changes that can occur the older we become:

  1. Insulin resistance – this is in healthy weight older adults also, with research showing there is more peripheral insulin resistance compared to a younger population (an inability to dispose of glucose into the tissue).
  2. Decreased availability of anabolic hormones, and increased frailty with lower levels of hormones
  3. Increased anabolic resistance, so not only is there a decrease in the hormones that signal tissue growth, the muscle tissue is less responsive to the stimulus of amino acids (protein) and exercise, and there is less muscle protein synthesis in comparison to breakdown.
  4. Greater protein requirements for the same relative gains in muscle, strength and function compared to a younger population
  5. Decreased motor neuron function, therefore less neural signalling to muscle tissues and reduced motor function.
  6. Increased intracellular oxidative stress, causing inflammation and reduced cell functioning
  7. Reduction in satellite (stem) cells numbers and regenerative capacity – these cells are essential for the maintenance and repair tissues in normal physiological processes or in response to muscle damage/trauma.
  8. Elevated myostatin signalling, a protein that blocks our ability to build muscle
  9. Increased chronic inflammation (also known as inflamm-aging)
  10. Changes in autophagy, where ageing reduces our ability to clear out damaged DNA
  11. Mitochondrial functioning abnormalities, where we can’t utilise energy metabolites as effectively to fuel mitochondria
  12. Reduced ability to be physically active (due to many of the reasons listed above)

Clearly, these are not all inevitable. However, it is a long, daunting, and rather depressing list of what can occur as we age – and we are an ageing population. There is no doubt that if we don’t look after this body we have got, then we really are staring down the barrel of a loaded gun.

The list above describes many of the mechanisms to explain the loss of muscle mass and function. It’s not about being ripped or having gainz, it’s about having proper functioning of the muscle so it can work effectively in our older years – this is what is shown to have the most positive impact on our cardiovascular, neurological and musculoskeletal systems.

Inactivity is the broader environmental issue that contributes substantially to the physiological issues I have mentioned above. We need to be active – in everyday life, and with some structured activity too. Hanging out washing and housework isn’t going to cut it, I’m afraid. I see a lot of people who have this idea that you don’t need to exercise in order to lose weight, and you can do it solely on diet alone. This is true, of course, but when you embark on any weight loss plan that restricts calories (i.e. any weight loss plan that is out there), then you will lose both fat weight and muscle mass – lowering your overall metabolic rate along with it. This is one of the reasons why weight regain is so prevalent. However the powerful combination of diet plus exercise helps sustainable weight loss. And exercise isn’t just moving around the house, doing chores – this should just be part of everyday living. Data looking at the effects of exercise show that resistance training confers benefits over and above what we would see if we were just doing 30 minutes of cardio-based exercise per day, something that many of us maintain, but it doesn’t offer the same benefits.

The right type and duration of exercise:

The challenge is to get people exercising. And this is especially so for those who read what I have said above, and think that – on top of 30 minutes of aerobic training they don’t have time to do, they need to then put some resistance (or weight) training in.

This is not a call to encourage you to find an additional 3 hours in your week, though. In fact, a study that is about to be published (I heard about it on STEM talk) suggests that just 72 minutes a week in total is enough to help many of the conditions associated with ageing and poor health that I’ve mentioned above. Egan and colleagues found a combination of both resistance and cardiovascular exercise in a circuit-type setting for adults over 65 years just three times a week for 24 minutes increased walking speed, leg strength and reduced trunk fat. These measures speak to better muscular function, obviously increased strength, and will help reduce metabolic health risk. The improvements were more potent in this combined group than either resistance training or aerobic training for the same duration. It wasn’t olymic lifting from the sounds of it,  but it also wasn’t lifting pink dumbbells, either.

So this was a very long preamble to the main message: if you are currently NOT exercising, then please start. While there are modalities that are better than others, seriously, anything will be better than nothing. The study I talked about is in older adults, you likely don’t need me to tell you that any age you start is obviously better than not starting at all. AND the earlier you start, the better the overall health outcomes.

There is often an argument as to which is best; exercise or diet for improving health. That’s a weird argument to my mind. Both are important and should be prioritised if you want more life in the years you’ve got left.

stronger-effect-of-resistance-training-when-combined-with-protein-supplementation

One of the only pics I could find that didn’t involve pink dumbbells. (PC: https://www.frieslandcampinainstitute.com/)

Food rules.

I’m all for flexibility when it comes to what people eat. Labels like ‘vegan’, ‘paleo’, ‘keto’ for a lot of people aren’t particularly useful (even when self-imposed) if that means the structure of their food intake is tied up into the ‘rules’ of that particular diet. People panic when they are out of their own food environment and unable to eat according to the rules of their dietary ethos. While there are those who intuitively know they don’t need to rigidly eat the same foods or meals to be able to progress towards their health goals, this isn’t a widely appreciated concept. For some, diet ‘rules’ can create a certain degree of neuroticism around food; people argue it is a form of orthorexia at its worse – I’m not sure I agree with that, given the complexities associated with diagnosed eating disorders. Regardless, if the anxiety around food exists, it can lead the person to turn down invitations where their dietary rules will not be able to be adhered to, thus becoming socially isolated from their normal circle of friends. Or they may still attend with the intention not to eat, only to ‘cave in’; one small snack becomes a bit of a binge-fest because they have ‘blown it all.’ Both of these situations can make a person feel pretty terrible, and do nothing for their self-esteem.  You can see why, then, there are people who are adamantly against ‘rules’ around food.

However, I don’t agree that there shouldn’t be any structure around what, how, and when a person eats.  I think you’ll know I’m not suggesting this structure should equate specifically to a dogmatic dietary regime, such as only eating ‘paleo’ or ‘raw vegan’. I’m talking about rules that take the decision making out of some pretty common every day food experiences. Let’s face it, most people have a lot going on in their lives – we make 35,000 decisions per day (apparently!), 200 of them are food-related, though we are conscious of about 12-15 of them. Many people don’t have the bandwidth to be directly  making decisions about what to eat day-in, day-out (hence food plans like mine are awesome, btw). That’s what makes it so easy to ‘succumb’ to takeaways at the end of the day (I say ‘succumb’ as I know many people think it’s lack of willpower. Well, no, it’s more decision fatigue than anything else). Dogma around diet is, after all, the appeal of following it – someone else has deemed what you can eat and what you can’t. This takes the thinking out of it and works perfectly fine… until it doesn’t. And it doesn’t take long for it to start causing more headaches than not. The type of rules, then, that I’m thinking about are those which are akin to brushing your teeth. You just do them, they are non-negotiable. Once you get into the habit of them, you don’t even have the think about it.

The types of rules I’m thinking about include:

  1. Never eat standing up (therefore omitting mindless snacking).
  2. Brush your teeth after dinner (to avoid snacking later in the evening).
  3. Have at least one serve of vegetables at breakfast, and 2-3 at lunch and dinner.*
  4. Put all junk food in the house in an opaque container and keep high up in the pantry, so they aren’t having to see it every time they open the cupboard to prepare meals (out of sight, out of mind).
  5. Choose a protein choice (meat, eggs, fish) and vegetables first when eating a meal out, and then (if still hungry), choose something else. This will fill you up, so there is less room for other foods that are easy to overeat.
  6. Order dressings and sauces on the side (so you can control how much you use).

Instead of feeling anxious about having to decide what to eat, then constantly second-guessing what to do, simple guidelines like these can help you make better decisions in any context. They take the thinking out of it, therefore less energy is wasted and they aren’t constantly ruminating about what to eat. This creates less anxiety and neuroticism, and people can feel empowered and confident in their food decisions.  It’s less about the availability of specific food choices and more about way food is eaten, the environment it is eaten in, and the type of food. You don’t need to be perfect to be awesome, you just need to be consistent, and consistently approaching food in the same way (not deciding that you’ve ‘blown it all, so you’ll binge’ whenever you make a choice not deemed ‘suitable’ as part of your dietary regime).

From clinical experience, I find most people respond well to strategies such as those mentioned above.

One Simple Health Rule copy

If only it were this simple. (PC: theironyou.com)

Hungry?

One of the things that clients fear most is being hungry. When I talk to some of them about removing snacks and eating just three times a day (or 1-2 times, depending on their individual plan), there is a look of fear that comes into their eyes. For others, though, they almost relish the opportunity to feel hungry because it has been forever since they’ve felt the grumbling in their stomach that tells them they are ready for food. This doesn’t, however, mean that they never eat! But it does affect their enjoyment of food – and, let’s face it, food is not only fuel, but it is one of life’s pleasures. One that, for many, they’ve denied themselves the opportunity to experience.

Which camp do you fall into, why do you feel that way, and how do you change your mindset around hunger (if you need to?)

Why do you fear being hungry?

In my clinical experience there are two main reasons why people are scared to be hungry. Firstly, hunger is not actually just felt in your stomach, your entire being experiences it. If your hunger comes on suddenly and without warning (you go from feeling fine to being ravenous), if it changes your physical state (ie you start feeling light headed, lacking in energy, maybe even start sweating) and your emotional state (you feel irrationally angry, sad or conversely, on something of a high before a big energy crash), then our emotion around being hungry can be one of fear. No-one likes being shunted from one emotional state to another, particularly if it comes completely without warning, which is often the case in this type of scenario. The fear of over-eating in response to this physiological and emotional state is the second reason for being scared to be hungry. When they do finally get to eat, they don’t trust they will make good decisions around food, and thus starts a (sometimes perpetual) cycle of fear, eating, self-punishment, eating….

What gives? This kind of hunger isn’t hunger at all – it’s blood sugar. Whenever we eat too little, or too little of nutrients that regulate our appetite hormones (nutrients such as protein, fibre and fat) at a meal, it is going to cause our blood sugar to drop and – in some instances – drop too rapidly. This response from our blood sugar sends an alarm signal to our brain that we are in danger (or potential danger) of having no fuel on board. In evolutionary times, this could have meant almost certain death: we wouldn’t have fuel to either fight for our life or run for our life. There may be no sabre-tooth tigers lurking around in everyday life now, but our body’s genetic blueprint hasn’t changed in that regard. Those ringing alarm bells drive us to search for food and do it fast – hence the rapid change in our physical and emotional state. The type of food our brain tells us to seek out is that which is going to deliver quick energy – sweet or starchy food. That is what will bring our blood sugar back to within normal range and get us out of the state of emergency our brain was experiencing. The problem is, though, is that the type of food we go for is the same as what got us into the blood sugar position in the first place.

No wonder you are scared to be hungry, and you feel you can’t trust yourself around food. While one option is to eat frequently (thus, almost to prevent being hungry), this isn’t the best approach. Every time you eat, you send signals to your body that you’ve taken on board fuel, therefore causing changes in your blood sugar levels and creating a hormonal environment that is more favourable to fat gain. In addition, it’s likely the types of food you are snacking on are those which created this blood sugar problem in the first instance (this is not your fault! We’ll blame the 80s-early 2000s for that, and the message to eat ‘six small meals a day’*). They may not be high in free sugar (ie ‘junk’ foods), but they could well be low in fat, fibre or protein, all potent regulators of our blood sugar. Cue the creation of the same problem as if you had just eaten a high sugar snack. Your body doesn’t know the difference without a good amount of the aforementioned nutrients to go alongside it.

If not ‘eat more often’, then what? Eat more but eat less often. The main driver of this is fluctuating blood sugar levels, therefore to combat this we need to fill up more at our meal times (be it 1, 2 or 3 times per day) to avoid a dramatic drop in them. The approach to eating I advise takes care of that for you. As I said, this physiological response is because you’ve eaten too little (or too little of the right** foods) in the first place. Your blood sugars won’t rise to the same extent, will be buffered by the additional protein, fibre and fat, so will decrease at a far slower rate, thus there will be no alarm bells ringing, and no stress response. Hunger will come on gradually (perhaps 4 hours after a meal) and, if you were called into a meeting, you would be able to concentrate on the situation at hand, rather than be distracted, irritated or hangry.

And what if you fall into the other camp, when you are never hungry? The main reason for this is often due to the first scenario – you are pre-emptively eating, thus never allowing yourself the opportunity to digest food and wait for your body to send signals to your brain that you are hungry. More often than not, this is because you are scared to be hungry (so, back to the first reason then). However, there is also another factor I see that impacts on appetite – and it is stress. If you are in an elevated state of ‘doing’, and are constantly on the move, stress hormones can suppress your appetite – therefore eating is somewhat of a chore, something that you feel you should do and therefore you don’t enjoy it. Conversely, you don’t eat which leads you to overeating later in the day when you are finally able to relax. Interestingly, a lot of clients report that, in both scenarios I have described, they continue to eat after having a normal (or larger) size meal because they are not satisfied.  This is usually despite the fact that physically they feel full, but emotionally they are somewhat empty. If you don’t take the time to enjoy your food (and it’s something you derive pleasure from) then no amount of additional food at this time is going to make you feel better. In fact, most people report feeling worse. Taking the time to sit down and enjoy your food helps you to listen to your body and eat when you are truly hungry.

*like anyone knew what six small meals a day were – most examples were enough to feed a 110 kg body builder, not a person trying to maintain a size they felt comfortable at.

**foods higher in protein, fibre, with added fat for satiety.

 

very-hungry-caterpillar-teaching-plan-lesson-plan-16-9

This caterpillar was, in fact, very hungry. (PC: scholastic.com)

Overcoming stumbling blocks on a ketogenic diet: a case study

I had a client contact me for an email consultation this week. She was frustrated as, despite following a ketogenic diet (where carbs are restricted to 30g or below, over 70% of calories should come from fat, and protein is moderated), she was unable to get into ketosis.

I had a look at her food diary and could quite quickly see where I thought she could change things to help enhance her ketogenic approach. With her blessing, she’s allowed me to share this with a wider audience. Like many things, if one person is having challenges finding the right balance in their diet, there are likely many more people doing very similar things and potentially experiencing the same frustrations.  I focused on some of the main issues I saw.

You’ll notice there are foods that don’t align with ketogenic diets OR would be included in any diet for someone wanting to shed fat. We (the client and I) spoke on that in general, as clearly she knows this (i.e. cheesecake). The points I focused on were those that can trip people up that she might not be aware of. I’ve screenshot her food diary, and then my comments are below.

Her diet:

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Major points – unable to get into ketosis despite sticking to under 30g carbohydrate per day. This is measured by a blood ketone meter, and she wondered if she needed to add more fat to do this. Her overall goal is weight loss.

The thing with weight loss and the ketogenic diet, if you follow the advice from Phinney and Volek, pioneers of the ketogenic diet space, part of the energy your body needs to consume should come from your own fat stores, and not be provided for by diet. It’s a common misconception, as I see many people embark on a ketogenic diet for fat loss purposes but the opposite occurs – they gain weight. A common strategy at this point is to further reduce carbohydrate intake and bump up the fat. However, this will often further exacerbate weight gain (and frustration around the approach). Worst case scenario here is when the frustration leads to ‘to hell with it’ and that low carb diet is supplemented with all manner of processed refined carb junk food because ‘what’s the point? I can’t do this anyway, I’m useless and it’s not working for me.’ Clearly the end result of this self-punishment is further fat gain, some horrible carb cravings and a bad psychological state. Needless to say, I don’t think adding in more fat is the answer in this instance (and for this client), however I do think that tweaking what she is already doing is going to help.

It’s also good to remember that blood ketones aren’t the be all and end all – these indicate ketones in your bloodstream but sometimes, when these are low, this just means we are using them for energy – which is what you want! This is more likely to be the case in an athlete rather than anyone who is generally just active. In this case example,  I think the diet is the main reason for her not being in ketosis, rather than that the client is using ketones efficiently. However,  it is worth remembering that if you are following a ketogenic diet and are not seeing the expected results on the blood ketone meter.

Finally (and something I mentioned to the client) you don’t need a ketogenic diet to successfully lose weight, and sometimes focusing instead on the pointers I give at the end, regardless of ketosis, will give the same end result. Something like my online menu planner and individualised nutrition coaching. However, I would recommend in that instance to up the protein (double the recommendation I give you) and drop back the fat intake, as people often find that far more satisfying and easier to adhere to – which ultimately is THE most important thing with any dietary approach.

Key issues I picked up:

  • Too much protein in one sitting/in general
  • Processed foods
  • Dairy
  • Unintentional free sugar

1.Milk –  both the sugar in a cup of milk and the protein (whey) will raise insulin levels, thus put you out of ketosis. This is true of skim and standard milk.

2. Protein cookies: the type of sweetener/fibre used to make it a lower carb item can also spike insulin. For some people it is definitely a dose response thing going on – they can eat ½ cookie no problem, but a whole one will kick them out of ketosis. For any items like these, and if you do have blood glucose or blood ketone meters, it can be good to get a reading after a certain dose to see what effect they have for you. At any rate, highly processed goods can still negatively impact on blood sugar and appetite regulation in the absence of them being carb-based.

3. Coconut water – contains 3g sugar per 100ml or thereabouts. Any amount of free sugar in the diet is going to impact pretty quickly on your blood sugar levels if you haven’t just finished exercising, and kick you out of ketosis. The types of carbs you want to be having in your diet are specifically non-starchy carbohydrates -the majority of any carb sources coming from green leafy vegetables, other colour vegetables, perhaps some pumpkin/carrot depending on their effects on your blood sugar.

4. Grapes: any fruit is going to impact on your blood sugar levels, and particularly grapes – even if you stick within your limit of carbohydrate, the sugar from these are going to hit your bloodstream pretty quickly and cause an insulin response, thereby lowering ketones, especially if eaten outside of a meal that contains fat and/or protein (both of which slow down the glucose from hitting the blood stream). Fruit is typically best avoided on a ketogenic diet, aside from lemons, grapefruit, some berries.

5. Protein content of meals: for most, these need to be lower unless an individual is athletic. If struggling with getting into ketosis, it can be good to lower protein consistently to 1g/kg ideal body weight. For this particular client, this is 65g per day. Many days are consistently above this. In addition, the amount of protein in any one meal makes a difference – ideally, not more than 30g protein in any one sitting and, for you, likely 20g in a meal. This is obviously going to differ from person to person – as mentioned, athletes who have a greater energy output can generally get away with more protein (and more carbohdyrate) compared to a person who is sedentary or just lightly active.

6. Timing of food: eating within a restricted window (and not eating later in the evening) can help a ketogenic diet – our liver’s ability to metabolise carbohydrate is dictated in part by a ciracadian rhythm;  we are naturally more carbohydrate sensitive in the AM, less so in the PM, so carbs are likely to spike insulin more in the evening. In addition, fasting naturally upregulates ketone production and can help accelerated ketosis. Further, snacking can (for some) keep them from being out of ketosis, so 3 meals, or 2 meals plus a snack is recommended.

Key recommendations:

1. Drop protein down in each of the meals so you are averaging approximately 20-25g at meals.

2. Time any foods that have a greater amount of carbohydrate in them for after exercise (ie lower sugar fruit, or nuts that have a higher carb count such as cashews). The body doesn’t need to rely on just the action of insulin to deliver carbohydrates to cells in this instance, as we have receptors called GLUT-4 receptors in our muscles and in adipose tissue that can take up carbohydate and are activated post-exercise. Remember, an increase in insulin suppresses the production of free fatty acids, the precursors to ketone bodies.

3. Engage in exercise to help upregulate ketone production – aerobic/weight training.

4. Fasting for 14h at a time to help body produce ketones. Now for women, fasting can be a great tool, but can also backfire (read more about that here). Generally speaking, the fasting approach can be something that is incorporated 1-2 x per week if fat loss is a goal, and on other days, opt for a 12h window between dinner one night and breakfast the next day. The most important thing, though, is to be aware of negative changes to energy, how you feel, mood and sleep patterns – all underlying signs of a stress response that you might not be able to cope with.

5. Focus on diet quality – so the carbs, protein, fats are coming from whole foods and not processed or snack foods – ie protein cookies, fat bombs etc

6. Remove drinks / foods that contain easily digested carbs even if they fall within the carb count for the day. You’ll feel far more satisfied (and it is far more nutritious) to get your carbohydrates from green leafy vegetables which also contains a good amount of fibre.

7. Dairy – stick to hard cheeses and forgo the softer cheese/milk.

These are just some pointers from this client’s diet; another practitioner may pick up others. I will reiterate my point, however, in that a ketogenic diet, when done purely for weight loss, isn’t always the best approach and, for alot of people, unsustainable and too much like hard work. If you’re struggling to get the balance right and not seeing the results, then there are definitely other alternatives out there – one which will fit your lifestyle, eating behaviour, budget and allow you to lose weight with far less effort. It’s adherence that is key. Let me help you with that.

Selection of healthy fat sources

Delicious, nutritious food regardless of your dietary approach.

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.

Jan’s story: a real food success story

When I met Jan, she had already lost 10kg through Jenny Craig but was super unhappy and hungry, experiencing bouts of hypoglycaemia (and used dates to help lift her blood sugars again, which would exacerbate the problem), had knee pain, was experiencing patterns of low mood and overall didn’t feel very good. Further, her HbA1c, measure of long-term blood sugar control, placed her in the pre-diabetic range (above 41 mmol/L). To my mind, this cut-off seems a little arbitrary. There really is nothing different between 40 and 42 mmol/L where one is ‘fine’ and healthy, and the other is ‘pre-diabetic’. Many GPs I talk to feel the same, but I digress.

We talked through her diet, which was a little like this:

  • Pre-breakfast: Cup of tea plus piece of fruit (off to do some work on the farm)
  • Breakfast: 2 eggs on toast with butter
  • Snacks: scroggin mix, fruit, rice crackers
  • Lunch: salad with greens with grated cheese and tomatoes
  • Dinner: standard kiwi dinner food, with some adjustments made thanks to Jenny Craig programme.

It certainly wasn’t a junk-food diet the way we understand ‘junk food’ to be, however it was low in protein with the balance of macronutrients geared towards higher carbohydrate choices: fruit, toast, dried fruit, rice crackers etc.

We talked through dietary changes and lifestyle changes, and I made several recommendations based on the information she provided and subsequent blood tests that she had conducted. The main shifts in her diet were to:

  • Anchor meals around protein, fibre and fat to stabilise blood sugar
  • Avoid snacking where possible
  • Removal of most carbohydrate (including fruit) to help lower her overall blood sugar level
  • Including raw apple cider vinegar around meals (to help with glycemic control)
  • Remove dairy (clinically I see many women in their late 40s and above benefit from removing dairy from their diet)
  • Supplementing with magnesium and chromium for blood sugar control, and supplements to help support her liver function
  • Slow cook meat wherever possible (to reduce the formation of advanced glycated end-products which are toxic, especially for someone with poor blood sugar control).

Over the course of the next 14 weeks, Jan has experienced the following:

  • Sleep has improved
  • Knees no longer sore when moving
  • Blood sugars have stabilised, no signs of hypoglycaemia
  • Mood has infinitely improved
  • Skin and hair are better
  • No cravings
  • Appetite is good, feels satisfied with food
  • Body composition changes: she has dropped 15 kg
  • HbA1c had dropped to 37 mmol/L (out of the ‘danger’ zone).

Importantly, her overall wellbeing is SO much better than it was. She sounds so much brighter on the phone, she feels so much better about herself and she has achieved so much. When we caught up two months ago at our previous appointment her weight had stabilised around 5 kg heavier than it is now, though she continued to notice body composition changes – her shape was changing but on the scales, it was the same. I see that frequently, and nothing is linear, of course. It can be weeks of plateauing on the scales before they shift. Is this a metabolic adaptation? Not sure. Usually it’s compliance to diet, though Jan had been consistent with her approach. Of course, there are things you can do to help move the needle a little bit if necessary, but sometimes it can just be a matter of waiting it out before the trend down continues. The key is to not be demotivated by this. Scales can be a good indicator of progress, but remember not to rely on them as the sole indicator. Luckily for Jan, she was experiencing the benefits of eating well every day, so even though the number on the scale hadn’t changed, she still felt good about her lifestyle change. Her husband has also benefited from her lifestyle change, dropping excess body fat by virtue of eating from the same food supply.

A typical day’s food intake for Jan now would be:

  • Breakfast: 2 eggs plus bacon and mushrooms
  • Lunch: salad, chicken, a boiled egg
  • Dinner: salmon, roast pumpkin and carrot and salad

OR

  • Breakfast: 3 scrambled eggs, tomatoes, spinach
  • Lunch: sushi (no rice), cabbage slaw
  • Dinner: butter chicken with cauliflower rice

If she feels like a sweet treat, she makes something like this Pete Evans nut bar, or mixes up some coconut yoghurt and frozen berries to make a sorbet-type dessert, and is completely satisfied. She was initially worried about my reaction to the nut bar, given it’s got some dried fruit in it, however she reiterated that she cut it into 30 pieces, froze it, and brings it out “not every day” to have with a coffee. Honestly, though, had she told me she ate it every day and got these physical and psychological benefits, then it is working for her regardless of what I think (in the context of an already stellar food intake). One food doesn’t make or break a diet.

She finds it is super easy for her to follow this way of eating and eating out or with other people is not an issue. She asks for dressings for salads, and sauces for steaks on the side to control how much of these she has, and to help avoid hidden added sugar or industrial seed oils that are commonly found in these foods. She is ‘busy’ but not overly active, and we are working on getting her resistance training up to help protect her bones AND increase muscle mass. These two things will help her overall health and prevent sarcopenia in later years. We are starting with home based activities for this. While she could have started this earlier, it’s sometimes easier to focus on one health behaviour and bring the others in – everyone is different though; so this needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

One thing she does find interesting is other people’s reaction to her weight loss, with some people asking when she will stop doing what she’s doing (as if it is a ‘diet’, which Jan isn’t on), or saying that she is getting ‘too thin.’ This regularly happens when someone loses weight and gains health; people are used to seeing a different version of them. To deviate from this can be unsettling. For others, they subconsciously take the actions of someone like Jan personally, like she (who is adopting the improved health behaviour) is doing it to highlight some failing of their own. While that might seem ego-centric of them, I don’t think it’s on purpose for most people! These people are often good friends and want to see you succeed. The important thing for Jan in this instance is to not take on board what others say and stay confident and strong in her approach.

So that’s Jan. Awesome, huh? She’s booked a holiday too – something she said she wouldn’t have contemplated previously. This has less to do with her weight (though certainly she can move around much more freely) but more about the increase in overall wellbeing that has occurred through adopting these changes. It makes me feel so privileged to work with people like Jan and share in their success. While I gave Jan the tools to guide her, the hard work was up to her. If you’re in a position to do the same, click here to set up an appointment, or check out my online nutrition coaching options here.

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Delicious food! (PC: runningcompetitor.com)

Trouble shifting body fat? Two solutions (which are free! And simple).

Lots of good things happen when you eat well (and by well, I mean forgoing the advice of the dietary guidelines and following a less processed, more whole food kind of approach). Your sleep can improve, your skin clears up, your eyes sparkle with an increase in vitality and that brain fog you were struggling with for years (it’s just age!) has cleared. Your concentration levels are second to none.

But your weight isn’t budging. And you’re frustrated as hell. I get it. I talk to many clients and online coaching members about this. If all other aspects of your health improve with the change in diet and lifestyle, then by default, excess body fat should begin to shift. But, unsurprisingly, not for everyone*.

What,then, are two diet ‘hacks’ that could help you push through the weight loss stall?  Well it could be pretty simple, actually. You could either eat more, or eat less.

Eat more

If you are consistently trying to eat fewer calories, this can backfire on you – over an extended period of time this will break down muscle tissue and reduce overall metabolic rate, sending signals to your hypothalamus to shut down all unnecessary metabolic processes as energy needs to be preserved. In this context, the last thing your body wants to do is shift body fat. This is something that the physique athletes (such as bodybuilders) have known for years and often use a ‘refeeding’ period (of more calories or carbohydrates in one or more meals per week) that sends a message to the hypothalamus assuring it that there is enough calories coming in that it doesn’t need to slow anything down, or shut any processes off. While this is used a lot anecdotally, in research we see an increase in the hormone leptin with an increase of carbohydrate calories during periodic overfeeding, though the metabolic changes are modest at best. Despite lack of scientific verification, I’ve seen many weight loss stalls broken through once calorie cycling is introduced (and overfeeding, something I term a metabolic reset meal – I should really ™ that one).

Some options could be to:

  1. Include a meal based around kumara or potato, and make it a large one (for example, jacket potato with taco mince for dinner.
  2. Have dessert – it doesn’t have to be processed, refined carbohydrate if you don’t want it to be (though it can be! 90/10 and all that…) How about a fruit crumble or real banana icecream made with frozen banana and coconut cream?
  3. Eat whatever you want, one meal a week – this isn’t a license to binge, but rather a recognition that it’s what you do typically that makes the overall difference – one meal is neither here nor there, really. Have McDonalds if you really want to (not judging or anything, though I can’t imagine why you’d want to.)

Your body responds well to changes in energy flux – consuming a higher number of calories on days where you expend more energy (ie a high energy flux) will encourage hormone signalling in your body that allows for more lean tissue to be laid down, and is great for bone health.

Eat less

Conversely, if you’re eating too many calories on every day of the week, then you’re…eating too much. I know, can it really be that simple? Think about it: you’ve changed the types of foods you’re eating, and this has equated to better appetite regulation so you’re no longer eating because of insulin surges and blood sugar crashes. However you may still be in the habit of eating a certain amount of food which could be preventing you from dropping body fat. If you’re following a low carbohydrate, higher fat approach as a means to lose weight, a common mistake is that people eat too much fat. Don’t forget that you want to utilise some of those calories stored on your body, and part of the ‘HF’ of LCHF should come from this reserve rather than be provided by the diet. You don’t need to count calories to do this, either. It might be as simple as:

  1. Dropping out one or more snacks (if you’re in the habit of snacking) –those nuts mid-morning, the bier stick mid afternoon or the 70% cocoa chocolate at night. What is the worst that can happen? You’ll feel hungry, likely. This doesn’t mean you need the calories, it’s more likely your body’s used to eating at that time, therefore it’s anticipating a feeding period and releasing ghrelin (our ‘hungry’ hormone) because of this. It will pass. Have a drink of sparkling water and brush your teeth instead.
  2. Dropping the fat content on days you aren’t as active – this is an easy way to drop calories (thus cycling calories) – but without the feeling that you’re depriving yourself. I’m not suggesting you use products that have had their fat removed (ie trim milk), but don’t use as much added fat as you normally might on the days where energy expenditure is lower. Forgo the almond butter on your cottage cheese and berries for breakfast, omit the nuts that you’d normally add to your lunchtime salad, or serve salmon with the skin on at dinner with steamed vegetables rather than creamed or roasted ones. If you are hungrier, then up the amount of protein you consume on these days by about a third per meal (as we know that this will likely benefit body composition). This won’t make up for the number of calories you’ve saved by making these small changes.
  3. Experiment with fasting. You’ve got nothing to lose with this one and, if you do it in a way that is sustainable for your lifestyle, then you’ll naturally drop body fat with little effort. I know many people are afraid to fast for the additional stress it might place on their body. To be honest, I think there’s almost been a disservice to our stress response – we hear so often of how everyone is ‘too stressed’ and while this is true, I speak to many people who are now too afraid to exercise due to the metabolic damage they could incur due to their already stressed state. Stress is really healthy for the body – it adapts and becomes more resilient. Fasting is a type of stressor (and I’ve written about it in more detail here) and it might be the thing you need to kick your fat loss into gear. You may have more to gain from a 5:2 protocol, where your normal food intake is cut by a third on two (non-consecutive) days of the week. You may wish for this to be one meal or two smaller meals. Go easy on the activity on these days (and time your workouts to be before your larger meal), and when you do eat, make them protein and vegetable based – the caloric restriction doesn’t allow for a large fat intake, and protein will be more satiating anyway. I suggest not doing back to back calorie-restricted days- you may eat slightly more food the day after the fast (or not, it’s quite individual) and if you fast for a second day after a refeed meal, this could put you in a bit of a hungry/hangry spin.

So, these are just a couple of things you could try. Of course, there may be more going on that is preventing you from shifting fat, and that’s where talking to a professional can help. But if you’ve not tried either of the above, then give it a whirl. For a good 4-6 weeks I think. Your body needs time to adjust to a change in environment.

* Now I don’t use scales in my clinic, nor make it a blanket recommendation for people to do so as their measure of fat loss. How your clothes fit, your waist measurement, what you see in the mirror –these are far more accurate ways of assessing changes in body composition. In saying that though, some are motivated by what the scales say and if they can remove their perception of self-worth from the number on the scales, then it’s not a problem. In addition, some find them a very useful monitoring tool and can keep on target if they use scales daily – research does support the daily use of scales for helping people reach their body composition goals.

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PC: eatTV.com

Diet and body composition: 11 key take home points

The International Society of Sports Nutrition just released a position stand that reviewed the literature available regarding diet and body composition. You can read it here.  For those who want it broken down into more simple terms, I’ve distilled it somewhat into 11 key take home points. While much of this draws on literature from strength and power athletes, it is definitely applicable to the general audience too, given that resistance-based training is one of the best things you can do to support your health and body composition goals.

  1. There is a vast multitude of diets and within these, several subtypes of diet. Low fat, low carb, higher protein, Mediterranean, low calorie… and these will all work work to reduce body fat given the right conditions. As a practitioner, we need to be familiar of the evidence supporting each diet type to make informed recommendations to the people we interact with, both at an individual and population level. As someone who is interested in losing body fat, know that no ONE diet is going to suit everyone, and if you’re trying to follow something because your mate is too, but you’re not seeing the results, then potentially it’s not the right plan for you. Seems simple when I write it down – but I think important to remind you.
  2. All body composition assessment methods have strengths and limitations. It’s good to bear in mind the limitations of using just scales as the only indicator, as this doesn’t account for fat mass loss. I’ve had numerous clients basically freak out that they have gained a kilogram overnight because they’ve eaten something high in carbs (causing your body to hold water) or they have done a hard training session (inflamed tissue). It is impossible to gain kilo of fat over a week, let alone a night, but the obsession with scales can make even the most rational person a little … less rational. Thus, if you use the scales, then think about how this makes you feel. And do it at the same time each week, on waking, after you go to the bathroom – etc. IE try to make it consistent. Ditto re: skinfolds – choose a practitioner who is skilled and stick to the same person so any errors are at least consistent errors.
  3. While it’s not about ‘calories in, calories out’, as that is far too simplistic, we do need to create a deficit in calories to drop body fat. Don’t freak out by the next bit of (evidence-backed, science-informed) information: The more fat you’ve got stored, the quicker you can lose this body fat without losing too much muscle mass by creating a large calorie deficit. The leaner an individual is, it is better if the caloric deficit isn’t as dramatic, to help preserve muscle mass. We can use calorie cycling to do this (ie higher calories for some days, lower for others across the course of 7-14 days, such as the 5:2 approach), or a consistently lower calorie approach, whatever fits in with the individual and their adherence. This study found that working on a weekly reduction of 0.7% of body weight better than 1.4% for preservation of lean muscle tissue.
  4. A wide range of dietary approaches (low-fat to low-carbohydrate/ketogenic, and all points between) can be similarly effective for improving body composition, and this allows flexibility with programme design, which is great – again, there is no one right approach for everyone. AND there is no one approach that will suit the same individual all the time – context, physical activity, stress, budget etc will all affect the suitability of an eating style that will improve body composition. This in part could explain why Weight Watchers, which helped you drop weight in the past, is not working now – regardless of how many points you are under at the end of the day/week. Being flexible rather than dogmatic will go a long way to finding a plan that suits you. I will also add, however, that something based on minimally processed food contains more nutrients – this will nourish your body and provide nutrients to ensure metabolism, brain and gut health are optimised while shifting excess body fat.
  5. When protein amounts are matched in the diet, there doesn’t appear to be an approach that reports a meaningful reduction of fat when we look at different macronutrient composition. All are as effective as each other – it’s sustainability which is the factor to consider. If an individual is insulin sensitive, research shows they are going to be able to lose weight on a moderate carbohydrate diet and potentially perform better on that than a lower carbohydrate diet. The reverse is also true. In addition, when adding resistance training to the mix, in some instances insulin sensitivity is improved. Therefore, knowing your metabolic health markers initially can help you determine what dietary approach might work for you.
  6. However, a ketogenic diet has been shown to have appetite-suppressing potential in part due to its effects on our appetite hormones (as explained in this review), resulting in a spontaneous caloric restriction. That said, for some this may only happen initially and clinically I have seen that this affect appears to wear off. (Note, this is my clinical observation).
  7. Increasing dietary protein to levels significantly beyond current recommendations for athletic populations (up to 2g/kg body weight) may improve body composition as in line with the ISSN’s position stand. It is also much more satiating for those of us who aren’t athletes, particularly in a restricted calorie state (as I’ve discussed here). There is also evidence that increasing protein in the diet beyond 3g/kg body weight and creating a calorie surplus can increase muscle mass and decrease fat mass simultaneously- I know! It’s like magic! Except very difficult to eat that much protein for a lot of people.
  8. Time-restricted feeding (which I’ve written about here) combined with resistance training is an emerging area of research that has thus far shown mixed results with respect to body composition (ie see here and here, however eating within that restricted window does allow for improvements in metabolic health. Much like cycling calories, the window of time that people choose to eat should be based on individual preference in a way that is easy to be sustained in everyday life. There is more to gain from having a good resistance-based training programme and adequate protein (in the context of an awesome diet) than worrying if your eating window is 8 hours a day or 9 hours a day.
  9. Do we starve our metabolism, thus slow it down and lead to fat gain if we restrict calories too much? Only in the context of a restrictive caloric diet and in the absence of resistance training where muscle mass has reduced, and energy expenditure has reduced. This can be mitigated when these are accounted for (see here and here).
  10. In addition to this, clinically what seems to work well is having a metabolic reset meal, where more fat/carb calories are consumed (which some might call a ‘treat’ or ‘cheat’ meal, particularly in the fitness industry) – this might be 1-2 meals every 7-14 days depending on the individual and their goals.
  11. There needs to be more research on women, older adults
  12. There needs to be more research on meal frequency and timing combined with different caloric loads, and with different training regimes.

Despite all of the above, a member of my online nutrition coaching system shared with me her experience with improving overall health (and metabolic markers – prior to embarking on her regime her HbA1c was in ‘pre-diabetic’ range). She found focusing on a higher fat approach, coupled with water fasting helps her control her insulin resistance and overall health much more than focusing on protein intake. While a few years ago this would have set alarm bells ringing in my head, the longer I’m in the game the more I understand that it is so individual as to how someone will respond to a dietary approach. Being willing to experiment with different protocols will help you figure out what works best for you regardless of the research papers.

 

No willpower when it comes to food? Read this.

‘ The chocolate bar calls my name. No, really – I can’t NOT eat it if it’s in the house.’

Many people I talk to lament that they can’t control themselves when it comes to sugar or junk food – that they don’t have the willpower to say ‘no’ despite their best efforts. This implies that they have all the control. Now I’m not saying there isn’t an element of discipline that may initially be required when changing the way you eat, especially for people who have lost touch with their appetite and satiety signals which can happen when the food eaten drives unfavourable hormone responses in the body; a phenomenon which is common in the current food environment. However, there are other more powerful forces at play here. Your No physiology has far more say in your food decisions than you think, and I’m going to cover one of the main ones I see (and one of the easiest ones to correct) that will help people control their food intake, rather than let their food control them: the blood sugar rollercoaster

This is one of the biggest drivers of cravings in my experience. The type of diet that many people follow is either carbohydrate heavy or devoid of protein and fat. Both situations are going to set your blood sugar up for rise and fall of (what can be) epic proportions. When carbohydrate is broken down into the bloodstream into glucose, this takes our blood glucose level out of homeostasis (normal). One thing our body likes is homeostasis – a blood sugar level too high or too low will send signals to the brain that this needs to be corrected. The greater the fluctuation, the louder this signal is. Insulin is the hormone responsible for removing glucose from the bloodstream to be used immediately for energy or to store it for later use (in our muscles and liver) and return the blood glucose level to homeostasis (normal). However, a meal that has a large amount of carbohydrate (a high carbohydrate load) will accelerate this process, as will a meal that has minimal protein or fat (even with a lower carbohydrate load, as the proportion of carbohydrate will still be greater). This is because insulin responds first and foremost to carbohydrate, with a minimal response to protein containing foods, and (for most people) a negligible response to foods predominantly containing fat. When this process is accelerated, insulin moves too much glucose into cells and our blood glucose level rapidly drops to below normal (an over-correction). The signal to our brain therefore becomes a panic signal: blood sugar has dipped below normal and needs to be rapidly restored – enter sweet food cravings as our brain recognises these foods are going to return our blood glucose levels back to within that normal range much quicker than, say, a salad. Along with the cravings, we may experience ravenous hunger (where 15 minutes earlier you felt fine), irritability (‘hangry’) and (in particularly bad cases) dizziness, light-headedness, sweating and vision loss.

The quicker the carbohydrates are digested (especially in the absence of fat and /or protein), the higher the rise and fall in blood sugar, and the greater the effects on energy and subsequent cravings for food (and ‘lack of willpower’). You may be fine for the morning and rapidly cave in post 3pm. Or it might be that Monday and Tuesday you are sweet, but by Wednesday you are raiding the kids ‘treat’ box in the pantry.

This isn’t just an issue with regards to blood sugar management and fat loss goals, but more importantly it can make you feel pretty rubbish. So many people start a tirade of negative talk that they weren’t able to say ‘no’ to a paleo muffin or chocolate biscuit, that they have ‘failed again’ and they ‘may as well finish the entire packet as it’s the last time they’ll eat X food again.’ Or their inability to resist a sweet treat clearly indicates they aren’t worthy of whatever health goal or life goal they’ve set themselves, and will eat junk food as a form of punishment (or undereat to try to get it under control), and so starts the rollercoaster ride of the blood sugar crash.

While I’d like to say it’s really easy to figure out which foods are most likely to cause this process, recent research tells us that there is wide individual variation. You are your own best investigator when trying to figure this out. It is useful, of course, to know where carbohydrate comes form in the diet and starting to explore how these foods affect you specifically. You can use an app like Easy Diet Diary, My Net Diary, Fat Secret to help you determine where the carbohydrate is in your usual diet if all of this is new to you. That said, an energy dense, carbohydrate source is more likely to trigger a blood sugar response. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Dates
  • Other dried fruit
  • Honey
  • Rice malt syrup
  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Cereal (including Nutrigrain, Cheerios, most cereals with a Health Star Rating)
  • Honey
  • Coconut sugar
  • Kumara
  • Potato
  • Grapes
  • Fruit juice
  • Vegetable juice with a fruit juice base
  • Vegetable juice with beetroot/carrot base

This doesn’t mean that all of the above choices are bad! At all, however, in the wrong amounts, and when eaten in isolation of other food choices, these are more likely to spike your insulin levels than other foods. Artificial sweeteners do not get a free pass either, unfortunately, with some showing the same physiological effects as sweet foods, eliciting a glucose/insulin response.

So… it’s not willpower, people – it’s physiology.

The easiest and *best* way that helps mitigate this is NOT a supplement. While these can be useful in certain situations or medical conditions, for most people it comes down to food timing and balancing. Protein and fat don’t have the same insulin effect, so they are not going to cause the same blood glucose rollercoaster that carbohydrate does. Incorporating these as the majority of your energy source is going to slow down the digestion of the carbohydrate you eat and the subsequent rise in blood glucose. Without reaching the same ‘highs’, your blood glucose doesn’t have the same drops – and cravings, hunger and crashing energy levels are FAR less likely. Fibre from non-starchy vegetables are another way to have this effect and help maintain a homeostatic state.

Despite what I say, what other experts tell you or what the literature or dietary guidelines tell us, you are your own best investigator when it comes to figuring out what works for you. One of the easiest ways to measure how food affects your blood sugar control is to assess the qualitative signs after eating: do you feel like falling asleep after a carb-based meal? Do you get moody, irritable, ‘hangry’ a couple of hours after eating? Are you fine, fine, fine, STARVING a few hours after eating? These are all good indicators that your blood sugar is in control of your actions (rather than you). From a quantitative perspective, getting a glucometer (finger-prick blood glucose reader) from the pharmacy and testing your blood sugar two hours after eating a particular food or meal is another good way to see how this affects your blood sugar levels. If it lurks above the 7 mmol/L mark at this point, then potentially the carbohdyrate type (or the context with which you ate it) isn’t ideal for you. Remember, this isn’t just about the food you’re eating at that time, it has implications for your food decisions later in the day. This is potentially more important if you find you have ‘no willpower.’ If you need help figuring out what to do from here, contact me for a consultation, we can sort it out.

Finally, pro-tip: when eating a meal, eat the protein and vegetables before tucking into the carbohydrate component. This will lower the post-prandial glucose response and the overall effect on your energy levels, levelling them out as opposed to leading to a crash.

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 🙂 ).

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