I became interested in healthy eating when I was off work in 2015 with stress-related illness. Diet undoubtedly has a massive impact on our health and mental health. But if I’m honest, I think I was also looking for something positive I could do to take back control.
Either way, it was the start of a passion for healthy eating that has stayed with me ever since. I’m far from perfect and my diet isn’t stellar, but I’m always working on it.
Honestly though, it’s not solely about health and wellness. I also want to lose a couple of stone – to get back to how I looked before I had children.
I hate diet culture, and I feel strongly that our worth as women shouldn’t be dictated by how we look. I see gorgeous women at every size, and I don’t want to fit in any predefined box. I certainly don’t want to sit here hating my body for the fat it carries, wobbly bits or patches of cellulite.
Can you give zero f**** about what anyone tells you that you need to weigh and look like… accept your body… be grateful it created two children… and also want to be slimmer?
I say yes.
I wholeheartedly believe you can reject being told how your body should look, and accept your body as it is – whilst also favouring a certain aesthetic. Neghar Fonooni has argued this point so eloquently, and whilst I can’t find the post I want to link to – you can follow her on Instagram.
An aside about body image and eating disorders
I am incredibly fortunate to have a healthy relationship with food, and with my body – I pretty much approach food and body weight like a man! (Although I do realise that men can also suffer from body image issue and eating disorders.)
I see food as giving sustenance and pleasure, and whilst I can look at my body critically and want it to look different, it’s not a big source of distress. I only wish I had such a balanced, healthy and pragmatic outlook in all areas of my life!
I understand that it really isn’t this simple for a lot of people. Growing up, I saw friends and classmates who hated their bodies or even suffered from eating disorders. I know how prevalent this is, and how complicated food and diet can become in this context.
If this is an issue for you, I would highly recommend Darya Rose’s website and blog Summer Tomato. Darya is both a scientist and a former dieter, so she has amazing understanding of the personal experience AND the science.
For the purposes of this blog post though, I am putting body image issues aside and looking at food and diet in a fairly practical manner. The question I want to answer is, how should we be eating, for both health and weight loss and maintenance?
Why dieting doesn’t work and what to do instead
How many people do you know who are perpetually on a diet, but never really look any different? Or they lose and gain the same stone of weight in an endless cycle? How many people do you know who have lost an impressive amount of weight, but then gained it back again six months later?
I think it’s fair to say dieting doesn’t work. Not in the long term.
The trouble is that restricting your calorie intake… makes you hungry! It takes a lot of willpower to continually resist the physical drive to eat, and willpower is finite.
At some point, you will lose your resolve – whether it’s due to stress, a bad day, or just temptation that occurs outside of your everyday routine. And then there’s always Easter, Halloween and Christmas to navigate…
Deprivation sets the stage for overindulgence, as you’re hungry, and you’re also lazer-focussed on what you can’t have. So you eventually crack and you eat the ‘bad’ foods, you feel guilty, and you absolve your ‘sins’ with another cycle of deprivation.
Then as soon as you eat again, the weight goes back on. Except that you have probably lost muscle mass in the interim, your metabolic rate has slowed down, and it actually becomes slightly easier to gain weight this time around. This is the cruel irony of yo-yo dieting.
Admittedly some diets are more effective than others. Many people find low-carb approaches or intermittent fasting easier because you don’t tend to be as hungry. There are also individual differences at play, so what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for the next.
Ultimately though, I believe diets per se are not helpful and DON’T work in the long term. On the other hand, changing your diet can work. But how do you do this in such a way that you can lose weight and keep it off permanently?
Just eat real food (and why there is no ‘best’ diet)
I have done a lot of reading on this topic over the past couple of years, and the answer I come back to every time is this: Just eat real food. That is, unprocessed food – cooked from scratch using real ingredients.
Your diet could include meat and fish, it could be Paleo or Primal, you could be pescatarian, vegetarian, or vegan. You can get so caught up in trying to work out whether we ‘should’ eat meat, fish, eggs, dairy, wheat, gluten, and on and on – but this can be a red herring. I’d argue that a high-quality diet that includes meat has MORE in common with a vegan diet than with a junk food diet.
Real food means food made from ingredients that you would recognise as food. Fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, animal proteins, whole grains, fats. You don’t even need to read ingredients lists because for the most part, you’re buying ingredients and assembling them into meals.
In many ways this seems really simple and straightforward advice, but it took me a long time to fully understand WHY this would matter. I readily understood that eating real food would have huge health benefits, but why would eating real food actually enable you to lose weight?
Hang on – what about calories in, calories out?
If you believe that calories in minus calories out is the formula determining our weight, what I’m writing is just not going to make sense to you. Surely if we eat the same number of calories from junk food or real food, we will take in the same number of calories. We might be healthier eating better-quality food, but we should weigh the same…
The problem with the calories in minus calories out theory is that our bodies make so many adjustments along the way – depending on what we eat, how much sleep we get, stress levels, how much we move, and how much muscle mass we have.
Technically, ultimately the equation holds true – except that the body is constantly compensating for the changes we make in our food intake or energy expenditure.
If we undereat and over-exercise, our bodies perceive this as starvation – our metabolic rate is lowered, we want to move less, we become fixated on food, we become hungry. And if we lose muscle mass, as dieters often do – our metabolic rate is lowered (because it takes more energy to sustain muscle than other types of body tissue).
Other factors completely outside of calorie intake and expenditure have a huge part to play. Sleep deprivation and stress both raise levels of cortisol, promoting both hunger and fat storage. So if you’re eating well, exercising regularly, doing everything right but you’re short on sleep – you may not achieve your weight-loss goals.
It’s becoming clear why weight loss is so hard!
(By the way, if you want practical, science-backed, nuanced and detailed information on all things diet and exercise, the Precision Nutrition blog is a fantastic resource. It’s primarily aimed at personal trainers, but I’m a fan because I love going in-depth.)
So if not calories, is it all about the macronutrients?
It’s true that different macronutrients are more or less satiating. Fats and proteins will fill you up for much longer, whereas carbohydrates can leave you hungry again quite quickly. So, what you actually eat (as opposed to the number of calories you eat) can determine how hungry you feel later, and therefore how much you have to rely on willpower.
In addition, our bodies monitor the nutritional content of what we are eating. If we’re still short on nutrients after a meal that met our calorie requirements, we will still be hungry. As a vegetarian I’ve never been much of a McDonald’s fan, but I have eaten – if not enjoyed – a few of their meals over the years. I never understood how I could feel hungrier afterwards than before I’d eaten anything!
So, there is definitely an argument to say eating a higher fat and protein diet, and keeping carbohydrates down, is the answer. Personally, I think it’s a pretty good answer. I have issues with blood sugar/insulin levels, and I feel terrible if I go high-carb and low-everything else, so this certainly rings true for me.
But it’s not the full story.
If eating fewer carbohydrates and more fats and proteins can be helpful for losing body fat, can we flip that on its head and say excessive carbohydrate intake is what’s causing the obesity crisis? It turns out that no single macronutrient is the problem here.
When looking at ancestral diets and what modern-day tribes eat, the example of the Hadza is often cited. The Hadza are foragers who live in Tanzania and their diet still consists mainly of wild foods such as baobab, honey, large game and tubers. During the wet season their diet is particularly high in carbohydrates. And their metabolic health is impeccable.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have the Inuit who live in Arctic regions and subsist on high amounts of meat and fish such as whale meat and blubber. Again, these people are healthy and don’t suffer from the chronic illnesses we do in the Western world.
At first glance, these diets could not be more different. But the thing they have in common is they are based on real food, not junk food.
Why eating real food will win every time
In optimal conditions, our appetite should be self-regulating. If we choose high-quality, nutritious food, eat until we’re full, stay active – walk, run, dance, do household chores, lift weights – find ways to minimise and mitigate the effects of stress, and get enough sleep, all should be well.
So why is obesity at its highest ever levels? What is going wrong here?
The answer is that we’re eating processed, hyperpalatable foods which completely override the natural feedback loops in our brain that should tell us when to stop.
Even the advertising tells us this. ‘Once you pop, you can’t stop.’ There is a breakfast cereal called Krave, and endless snack foods claim to be irresistible.
There is a fantastic book on this topic – The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts That Make us Overeat by Stephan Guyenet. Stephan’s approach is a little different to the mainstream, as he argues that it’s not one particular macronutrient that is driving obesity up.
In fact, it is irresistible combinations of fat and sugar – or fat, sugar and salt – or fat, sugar, salt and crunch – that send our brains into overdrive. These foods have been deliberately engineered to give us huge hits of pleasure, which drives us to eat more of them. Hunger and satiety, our normal regulatory mechanisms, are completely drowned out and overridden.
We didn’t evolve in the presence of these types of food – and we evolved in intermittent food scarcity. Our brains are designed to detect when something has a lot of calories and will keep us alive. Fat and sugar are powerful signals to our brains that this food is something we need more of. The pleasure systems are activated to ensure we take in as much as possible.
In the environment we evolved in, these hyperpalatable, send-your-brain-crazy food combinations were not really available. And when humans did have the opportunity to gorge on something high in fat or sugar, they were likely to face a food shortage the following week.
Our brains that worked so well at keeping us alive in times of scarcity don’t fare so well in the face of an abundance of hyperpalatable processed food. When you’re experiencing full-on fat-sugar-salt-crunch pleasure, the systems normally in charge of hunger, eating, adequate nutrition and fullness don’t stand a chance.
If I ever doubt this, hand me a large bag of Kettle Chips and see what happens.
Why your body wants to defend its current weight
It’s difficult enough trying to eat a healthy diet, lose fat and maintain a lower weight when we’re surrounded by appealing, convenient, processed foods. However just to make things harder, there is another piece of the jigsaw puzzle to consider: the lipostat.
This is a complex topic and I don’t think I can do it justice here, but I would highly recommend reading The Hungry Brain in order to understand this better.
In very simple terms, your body has its own idea of what weight you should be – and it will fight hard to maintain that, even in people who are overweight and obese.
The lipostat is like a thermostat for body fat levels. Much like you set your desired temperature on a thermostat and the central heating system adjusts accordingly – your body will make adjustments to maintain the level of body fat it ‘thinks’ is appropriate.
These adjustments could be in the form of driving your hunger and cravings up, lowering your metabolic rate, or lowering your desire to be active. Physical activity, among other things, changes the lipostat settings – enabling your body to accept a lower level of body fat.
All things considered, if you want to lose body fat and keep it off – you have to do it by stealth.
How can we outsmart our brains for weight loss?
After reading this, you could be forgiven for feeling the outlook for sustainable weight loss was a little bleak. However, you can outsmart your hungry brain if you take the right actions. Here is my summary of the recommendations Stephan Guyenet gives in The Hungry Brain.
- Fix your food environment. Make the foods you want to eat visible and accessible. Make sure the foods you don’t want to eat are either out of sight, or not there in the first place. This is one of the biggest, simplest things you can do to tip the odds in your favour. (You can also prep food healthy ahead, or save leftovers for your next day’s lunch – as you’ll probably eat what’s easy. When eating out, you can look at the menu ahead of time and choose healthy options, away from the pressure and temptation you would face in the moment.)
- Manage your appetite. This tells your brain that you are not, in fact, starving. Choose foods that send strong satiety signals without being overly calorie-dense. This tends to include simple foods that are close to their natural state, and moderately palatable (appealing, but not so delicious that you will keep on eating long beyond what you need). Stephan suggests fresh fruit, vegetables, potatoes, meats, seafood, eggs, yogurt, whole grains, beans, lentils.
- Beware of food reward. Chocolate, pizza, chips, crisps – you know the foods that you find it hard to get enough of. It’s not that you can never have these foods, but you probably need to keep them to a minimum if you want to lose body fat. Also avoid things that are inherently habit-forming such as alcohol and caffeine, which drive you to consume more of them (and bring a whole lot of calories along for the ride). Caffeinated drinks don’t have to be a problem if you don’t add sugar, but alcohol is always calorie-dense.
- Make sleep a priority. You can find my tips for getting more sleep here, and however important you think sleep is – it’s more important than that! In terms of food and weight gain, lack of sleep increases hunger, cravings, and impulsive behaviour. And high levels of cortisol encourage fat storage. It is a recipe for weight gain.
- Move your body. Regular physical activity can help manage your appetite and weight in at least two ways. Firstly, it increases the amount of calories you use (studies have shown that people generally don’t go on to eat enough calories to compensate for those expended during exercise – although it varies). Secondly, physical activity may help maintain the lipostat in the brain, encouraging your body to be comfortable with lower levels of body fat. (I have previously written about metabolic conditioning as a way to get great results whilst spending less time exercising.)
- Manage stress. Much like sleep deprivation, stress can really undermine efforts to lose weight and sustain a healthy weight. If you are a stress eater, you can look to replace stress eating with more helpful coping mechanisms – find other things which make you feel better in that moment. It can be helpful to identify stressors and make practical plans to improve situations that are stressful. And you can practice mindfulness meditation, which I have personally found incredibly helpful.
Where to from here?
So, it comes down to this: Just eat real food – make that the easy option, get the other stuff out of your environment as much as possible. Don’t diet, don’t make anything forbidden, don’t let your brain think you’re starving! Stay active, prioritise sleep, manage stress.
This is fairly simple and intuitive advice – but I don’t think it’s easy to implement. I don’t say that to be discouraging, but because I think it’s better to recognise that the system is stacked against you.
You’re surrounded by junk food, and junk food advertising. Subway is wafting bread smells out onto the street. On every street corner, you can find food that is appetising, cheap and convenient. Entire industries are built around fuelling and satisfying your desire for hedonic pleasure from food.
The alternative, at least to start with, is simply harder. You may lack time, money, expertise in cooking, or all of the above. You may set out with the best of intentions to buy whole foods and cook from scratch, but life is hard, and stressful, and of course at times you fall back on what’s easy.
All you can do is take it one step at a time, and go easy on yourself when it doesn’t go to plan. It’s not about success versus failure, it’s about learning a new way to eat, and a new way to live.
If you think about a few examples of learning something new – learning to walk, learning to ice skate, learning a new language, learning to drive, learning a new skill for work. In any of those examples, have you ever seen anyone instantly download the skill into their brain, and execute it perfectly from that moment on?
In that case, please don’t set out to overhaul your diet and lifestyle and expect to get it right first time! Or second, third, fourth, fifth, tenth, twentieth, fiftieth time. Just take steps in the right direction and don’t chastise yourself for mistakes.
And I’ll be right there on the journey with you, making the same efforts, the same mistakes, and trying again.