10 tips to help reduce your water-bloat

I got a question on my members’ Facebook page a couple of weeks ago regarding water retention. There is nothing worse than a bloated tummy – it can not only make you feel physically uncomfortable, but can also wreak havoc on your psychological state (as many people equate the bloating to ‘feeling fat’, despite there being no relationship between the two). Further, a bloated stomach impacts on your ability to move properly. We can’t engage our core muscles, so aren’t able to move, lift, push or pull in a way that is functionally optimal. This has important implications for our core strength and injury prevention. Of course water rentention affects more than just our stomach – a long haul flight to somewhere warm can turn anyone’s lean calves into kankles due to changes in the pressure in the capillaries, causing fluid to leak out into the body tissues. There can be many reasons for this, so I thought I would investigate the most common causes and possible solutions.

  1. Minimize your sodium intake. Although sodium (aka salt) is an essential mineral because it’s used to regulate the fluid levels in body tissues, bringing water into the cells. Excess intake of sodium may cause excessive fluid retention in the body tissues. While the evidence behind this recommendation suggests it isn’t something that affects everyone, this may help some people, particularly those who are salt sensitive or hypertensive. Do note, though, that if you follow the types of principles that I suggest, your diet is probably quite low in salt anyway, as most salt comes from processed foods (around 70%). However, there are whole foods that are high in sodium, such as cheese, miso, cured meats and biltong, so you could reduce these, and avoid adding salt to your food to see if this makes a difference.
  2. I probably don’t need to tell you to avoid eating too many refined carbohydrates – these tend to spike insulin, which causes sodium (often found in these foods) to be re-absorbed back into the kidneys, thus increasing water retention. Your best bet for carbohydrate foods are those whole-food, minimally refined varieties that have negligible sodium for a start, and that you eat in a mixed meal with good fats and proteins to help slow down the release of carbohydrate into your bloodstream, minimising insulin response.
  3. Any form of dehydration can cause your body to hold onto water. Therefore, ensure that if you drink alcohol, do extended exercise training sessions, or are in a hotter environment that you remain well hydrated to offset any potential for dehydration. The fluid you lose during exercise should be replaced in the three hours after training, and at 1.5 times the amount lost – you can work out how much this is by weighing yourself before and after an exercise session. The amount of weight lost roughly equates to the amount of fluid lost. Prior to drinking alcohol, have a couple of glasses of water (this will also help slow down your drinking). And be an adult about how you drink: is it necessary to drink more than a few in any one sitting?
  4. Take adequate amounts of vitamin B6 combined with magnesium. For women, prior to your period you can feel a little bloated and that you are retaining water. Interestingly, however, some research investigating the timing of this around the menstrual cycle has found bloating occurs more in the onset of your cycle (day 1) after which is rapidly declines, despite the perception of puffiness or bloating in the week prior to menstruation. This puffiness, however, could well be related to food choices in that week, as the intake of higher sugar choices can increase for some.
  5. If you have water retention before your period, you may, however, benefit from taking both a magnesium supplement (at 250mg per day) combined with a vitamin B6 supplement (40mg) daily – a study found this combination the most effective for decreasing premenstrual symptoms when administered for two months by balancing your hormone levels.
  6. Potassium works in conjunction with sodium, pumping fluid out of the body cells. Therefore, if you aren’t consuming enough then it could cause problems with water retention. The reality is, though, that you are following the meal plan and including plenty of vegetables, your potassium intake is likely fine. However, if you don’t have a good intake of vegetables (at least 7 serves per day) then increasing these is a good idea. This will also bump up your fibre intake, which can further help reduce fluid retention.
  7. Take natural diuretics. Dandelion root has long been used to help flush water out of the body – therefore investing in a good tea such as this Golden Fields one is not only delicious (often used as a substitute to coffee), it will also be beneficial. In addition, this kidney cleanse tea from Artemis has other natural diuretics to help flush water out.
  8. Exercise regularly. Exercise can help reduce water retention, not just by increasing sweating, but by moving water from the intercellular compartments to the muscles.
  9. Increase your caloric intake, if only for a day. I know – this one sounds weird, but a ground-breaking study in the 1950s called the Minnesota Experiment found something interesting mid-way through their study. The study followed men on a 1500 Calorie diet for 6 months, and subjected to hours of hard labour per day. Half way through the trial the men were allowed a celebration meal, effectively increasing their caloric intake to 2300 Calories. Following a night of getting up to go to the bathroom several times, the men were a few pounds lighter the following morning. Obviously, the weight lost was water weight – but why would this be the case? Potentially the long-term calorie deficit caused an increase in cortisol levels, and this increases water retention in the body. By increasing caloric load, the body reduced cortisol levels and this reduced water retention.
  10. Reduce overall stress load. As we have just discovered, higher cortisol levels will increase water retention, therefore anything you can do to reduce stress is going to impact favourably on water loss. Let’s not forget the impact that high stress levels have on blood sugar levels, inflammation and fat gain (to name just three areas it impacts). While stress is a perception of a situation, and changing your mind-set is one of the best things you can do to lower stress levels, ensure you are getting adequate sleep, time in nature, time with loved ones and taking time just for yourself. These are going to help lower your cortisol levels and combat any stress-related water retention.

So… not a definitive list, but hopefully a few pointers to help you get to the bottom of your fluid retention issues and make some improvements. For more individual advice, don’t hesitate to contact me for a consultation or for online nutrition coaching. Further, if you’re in the Bay of Plenty, Queenstown, Nelson or Wellington regions, then I’m headed your way for an evening of ‘real food’ talk – click here to find out more information and to book tickets!

 

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

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

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

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

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

cravings

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does your doctor value nutrition? These 3 questions might help you find out.

How much does your doctor value nutrition? This has been a rather hot topic of late, with the recent gagging of Gary Fetke in Australia, an orthopaedic surgeon who co-owns a nutrition clinic that employees dietitians to help clients. He has recently been ‘gagged’ by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) and is not able to talk about the role of nutrition in preventative health, nor in the management of chronic illness on any social media platform.

That’s troubling to say the least. Nutrition and talking about nutrition is certainly a contested field, and perhaps there is some protection of the patch when it comes to nutrition advice. I’m not going to lie to you – I can get a little scratchy myself when I read prescriptive advice from people who aren’t qualified in nutrition that push the boundaries in terms of scope of practice. Mainly because of the potential fall out if they aren’t equipped with the knowledge to either resolve and issue or refer it on. But to prevent a doctor talking about nutrition is just madness.  Doctors SHOULD be talking about nutrition – especially given that some of the most common reasons people go to their general practitioner (GP) can be improved (if not resolved) by diet. Thank goodness similar shenanigans have not been taking place this side of the ditch.

To what degree GPs should have the authority to discuss nutrition with their patients is a bit of a ridiculous question if you ask me. I know many brilliant GPs that use a holistic approach to their practice, who know a LOT about nutrition, give guidelines when that is all that is required and also who refer their patients on to more in-depth nutrition help if necessary. More important is asking your GP to what degree do they value nutrition. If you feel nutrition is an important part of your overall health, I think that having a GP who feels the same is rather important, and these three questions I heard on a podcast could be a good start to give you confidence that your needs will be met by their services.

  1. What affect does nutrition have on my health?

This may seem like a weird question to be asking your GP. I mean, surely everyone knows that diet and health are intricately linked, and doctors – well, it’s their job to know this stuff, right? Given the number of clients I have who leave their doctor’s clinic rooms feeling stupid for even mentioning diet, I don’t think we can take it for granted that your GP is going to be open to the idea of diet being a reasonable therapy (or adjunct therapy) to any condition. Sure, the diet-health connection isn’t foreign to them – there is the lipid hypothesis after all. And if you’ve ever stepped on the scales and been told your body mass index (BMI) is too high, so you need to eat less and exercise more to lose a little weight and reduce your overall health risk, then clearly your GP didn’t sleep through their three nutrition lectures provided in the medical school curriculum. However I wouldn’t be surprised if you know more about diet being able to prevent or manage conditions such as auto-immune disease (including type 1 diabetes), mood disorders, inflammatory bowel disease or irritable bowel syndrome, metabolic conditions (such as type 2 diabetes), asthma and allergies and the like. Now I’m not saying your GP is an idiot – at all! But time is a resource many health professionals don’t have, and while your GP might be open to exploring alternative or adjunct nutrition therapy, they may not have had the time to research this avenue. That (in my opinion) isn’t so much of an issue. It’s not as important (in my mind) that your GP may not know as much as you; being open to you exploring it speaks volumes, though. If your GP isn’t interested, then that is a problem. Given some of the reactions that clients have reported when mentioning to their GPs they use diet as a way to manage their health condition, there are clearly GPs who choose to remain ignorant. If you are dismissed, laughed at, or told in no uncertain terms that diet will not help, alarm bells should ring in your head. My advice would be to look for another GP.

  1. What do you think about the difference between normal lab ranges and optimal ranges for nutrient status?

There’s a difference? There appears to be, or at least, some doctors argue that there is. Vitamin D is a great example of this. In New Zealand, the adequate vitamin D level starts from 50nmol/L but a published review determined that looking at endpoints on a broader scale than just bone health (including  bone mineral density (BMD), lower-extremity function, dental health, and risk of falls, fractures, and colorectal cancer) determined it best to have serum concentrations of 25(OH)D begin at 75 nmol/L (30 ng/mL), and the best are between 90 and 100 nmol/L.

Low to low normal levels of serum folate are related to increased risk of depression and increased severity of depressions and affective disorders. Our ‘normal’ starts at above 7 nmol/L and research has shown that people with chronic mood disorders have lower morbidity when their nutrient status is above 18nmol/L, and symptoms began to alleviate when supplementation brought the levels up to above 13nmol/L. Low folate is also associated with higher homocysteine levels in the blood which is an independent risk factor for atherosclerosis.

While B12 levels in the blood are actually a poor indicator of B12 activity (as only 5-20% of the is bound to transports and able to be metabolically active), research has found a relationship between levels of B12 of 258pmol/L and lower in the bloodstream and depression. The ‘normal’ range starts at 170pmol/L, with borderline low from 110-169pmol/L. I know GPs who look for levels of 400pmol/L as being optimal for cognitive functioning and health. A sports doctor I am aware of uses higher cut-offs when it comes to haemoglobin and ferritin (both markers of iron deficiency) for athletes and will supplement to determine if a boost in iron intake helps address fatigue-related complaints or not, even if the athlete is within ‘normal’ range (see here).

Thyroid stimulating hormone, a commonly measured marker of thyroid function has a reference range between 0.5-4.0mIU/L. However, TSH is considered to be a poor indicator of thyroid function and the ‘normal range’ included people that had underactive thyroid or thyroid disease. The recommendation from the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists association was to lower the range to 3, with a view of it lowering further to 2.5mIU/L because data from the National Academy of Clinical Biochemistry found more than 95% of rigorously screened normal euthyroid volunteers have serum TSH values between 0.4 and 2.5 mIU/L. Though this was recommended in 2003, it was contested by other governing bodies, potentially as it meant that the number of people in the US with subclinical thyroid function increased from 3 to 20% of the population, thus (as concluded in this paper) many more would require thyroxine medication as treatment.

These are just a few examples where you may fall into the ‘normal’ range, but may not be optimal according to the opinion of some doctors. At the very least, it may explain why you may be experiencing physical symptoms but these aren’t recognised by your lab test results.

  1. What will you do if my test results don’t marry up with what I’m telling you my symptoms are?

Important question, don’t you think? Let’s hope that your GP doesn’t respond with ‘perhaps you need to see a psychologist’ – as one of my clients reported. To be honest, I actually think there is a degree of psychosomatic issues that occur when someone is struggling with a health problem – most of us are familiar with the gut-brain axis and relationship between stress and digestive problems. This is partly driven by the return of seemingly ‘normal’ test results that don’t explain their ongoing concerns. However, to dismiss your symptoms as being unimportant because the results don’t reflect what you are reporting should (to me) set off alarm bells.

I think one problem could lie in the funding for lab tests. My GP is brilliant and will order me any test I want, but at my cost. I don’t blame her for this as there is pushback with GPs ordering tests. However I know that not all GPs are like this, and not all people can afford testing to get to the bottom of the issues. I think if more GPs appreciated the role nutrition can play in preventing, managing or reversing many of the chronic conditions people are dealing with today, then, then there would be more referrals to nutritionists or dietitians on the basis of reported symptoms or test results that may fit into the ‘normal’ range, but aren’t what is considered optimal.  From here, nutritionists, naturopaths and dietitians can order tests that delve further into hormonal issues, gut problems and even cholesterol levels if required. But this might not be necessary as they may pick up from your initial test results that certain nutritional strategies can help you optimise your nutrient levels without the need for further testing.

At the end of the day, you should feel confident that your GP values nutrition as much as you do.These questions may help you determine that and, if you suspect they do not, perhaps it’s time to find another GP.

Nutritionist

Obligatory doctor and fruit shot. I couldn’t find one with a steak.(PC: http://www.healthtrap.com)

 

Do you need some Headspace?

Do you sometimes feel like you just need more room in your head? Like there’s little space in your brain to concentrate on important things because you’ve got a lot of other tasks, thoughts and emotions which are taking up room? I did. On the encouragement of my mate Bevan I decided to give Headspace a crack. Headspace is described as a gym membership for the mind. A course of guided meditation, delivered via an app or online, that you can undertake sessions in length from 5-20 minutes per day. Apparently 80% of business leaders and entrepreneurs engage in some meditative practice daily, and while obviously not the sole reason these people are successful, some swear by it as the making of them. And this is daily meditation – not yoga for 90 minutes, 1-2 times per week, but small amounts of time to sit down and just ‘be.’ If you’re reading this then you’ll know I’m about more than just food; anyone who has come to see me in the clinic knows that I spend around two-thirds of the time talking about seemingly ‘non-food’ related lifestyle information. However most of you also realise that these elements of health can’t be changed in a silo – they all affect each other and help uncover whether your dietary habits are working for you or against you.

I’d resisted Headspace (and any kind of meditative practice) as I thought that you had to be quite ‘Zen’ to even do it. Which, when I think about it, is kind of ridiculous given that the whole purpose is to help you sit with your own thoughts, not try to get rid of them or shut them down. I also thought that I had to do it for at least 20 minutes every day in order to experience benefits (and who has 20 minutes?!) Again, this is also incorrect. In fact, these misconceptions were really the first of many I’ve discovered after doing Headspace consistently over the last 100 days, some I’m sharing today.

I am a person prone to anxiety. These things run in my family. My nana wasn’t a particularly happy person until she went on medication for her anxiety – quite frankly, this didn’t dramatically change her personality but it certainly made a change to her disposition. Others in my family are also more likely to feel depressed or worried and anxious, so I would use the label when describing to people (or even when I thought of myself) as the type of person I am.

But, actually, I’m not.

This isn’t just about engaging in meditation – my brain definitely calmed down when I ditched processed food actually, however I still identified with being an anxious person. After around a month of Headspace it dawned on me that the physical and emotional signs of being anxious weren’t actually present. It wasn’t until, during the anxiety sessions of Headspace when we were asked to try to disengage with the thought patterns associated with anxiety that I realised they weren’t actually there (this thought was actually quite distracting!)

I have thought a lot about this over the last couple of months. I don’t think Headspace enabled me to view the world so differently that I don’t respond with an anxious head and heart – I think what it has done is enable me to view myself differently. I had set up this belief in my head that I was a person with anxious tendencies, and with this firmly planted in my head it dictated how I described myself to others and, more importantly, how I responded to the world around me. Do you know how liberating it feels to be free of this? I actually can’t describe it, but it has noticeably changed my thought patterns and subsequently my actions. The thing is, beliefs do that – they create this lens with which how you interact with other people and the environment without really realising it. People who have started and stopped diets multiple times in their lives almost unconsciously label themselves as a failure when it comes to eating well. Is this you? Do you embark on a ‘diet’ or ‘way of eating you already ‘know’ that you will fail? Changing these belief structures are key to changing whatever emotional or physical road blocks that might exist when trying to change your diet.

Headspace has also made me realise that I needed to get rid of a lot of things that were either in my emotional space or in my physical space. I’m not a minimalist (though not a fan of trinkets), it’s more of a ‘get rid of things that don’t matter’ declutter. Books I don’t need yet I have hung on to. Clothes I don’t wear yet can’t get rid of.  I’ve deleted over 400 people from my personal Facebook page. And if you’re one of them, it’s not you it’s me (genuinely).  I have tried a few times over the last two years to do this but I could never make the start as I would scroll through the list of friends, hand hovering over the ‘unfriend’ button, and come up with reasons as to why I couldn’t delete that person. This time I went into the exercise with a different set of questions. As basic as it sounds (and perhaps you can concur), the first question I asked was ‘do I actually know you?’ I used to love Facebook as a way to connect with friends, old and new and this is just a way of bringing it back to the reason why I signed up in the first place. And, the reality is, the people that have ‘unfriended’ probably just never got around to doing it first and likely won’t even realise I’ve done it. Again, this may not just be about Headspace, but I think it made me more aware of ‘stuff’ that takes up unwanted space in my physical and emotional surrounds and this helped me make a start and declutter. What about you? Do you feel burdened by ‘stuff’ to a point where you feel you’re wading through quick sand but not getting anywhere? Do you need to declutter your physical space, your emotional space, maybe even people around you to create room for behaviours, habits, feelings and people that will serve to help move you forward rather than hold you back? If you don’t really know, then meditation can help you step back and evaluate the ‘stuff’ that is important and positive and the stuff that is not.

When I bring the idea of meditation up with people in my clinic I get a mixed response. People are so willing to change their food, their exercise and even their sleep habits actually before trying to change their thought patterns. In fact, without the latter most people are not going to see any sustainable, positive changes in the former. I get it. In today’s fast paced, stressed-to-the-max world where there are demands on your time from every corner, it’s difficult to imagine where you are going to find more time to do one more thing. However, you really can create more time by doing some form of meditation. It’s just difficult to believe until you try it.  And, hey, maybe you don’t need it. However, if the idea of taking 10 minutes out of your day to sit down and just ‘be’ sets you in a panic because you are just far too busy, then perhaps you do need Headspace*.

Buddhify is another popular app. Or even Youtube some meditation practices if you’re unsure of how to start. There are so many of them out there that if one doesn’t grab you, I’m sure you’ll find another that does.

Image from hinesight.blog.com

Image from hinesight.blog.com

 

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.