Ladies and gentlemen, it’s that time again – wherein I go on about body image. Yes, again. You might’ve spotted a bit of a furore in the papers lately, because Lady Gaga has gained some weight. She’s apparently gained 25lbs, in a move which has […]
Month: September 2012
I’ve asked Matt to help me with this post, because he’s a nutritionist (who actually won the Contribution to Physical Activity award at the Worcester Sports Awards the other night for this very programme – woo!), so this is kind of his specialist subject. I can’t over-estimate how much of a fountain of knowledge he is, so there’s a heck of a lot to say on this subject – but this is just a ‘beginner’s guide.’
Despite that – it’s long. So go make a cup of tea, and then get comfortable. This is going to take considerably longer than just saying ‘you are only allowed to eat cabbage soup’ because it’s more complicated than that. But it’s also totally worth it.
The thing about nutrition – certainly to my mind – is that it’s really simple, but for some reason, the education on what makes a healthy, balanced diet just doesn’t seem to be there. The information is available, especially with websites like the British Nutrition Foundation providing all sorts of healthy guidance – but it doesn’t seem to manage to quite get through to most of us. I know before I started this programme, I thought it was as simple as ‘eat less, move more’ – and to an extent, that’s true – but calorie restricted diets just aren’t feasible in the long-term.
Here’s why, from Matt:
“The body is a really, really amazing machine. It’s resilient, and has an astounding ability to overcome difficult situations – that’s why we’ve survived as a species in all conditions, across the globe. Our bodies are incredibly adaptive.
So when you go on a calorie-restricted diet, your body adapts to that, just as it would any other situation. The body’s mechanism for coping with restricted periods of food intake is to go into a sort of “Sleep Mode” – storing and saving as much power and energy as it can.
It’ll perform the tasks you normally do more efficiently, because it knows that there probably won’t be enough calories to go at full capacity – and any excess it does find it’ll store as fat to prepare for the prolonged periods where it doesn’t feel you’re eating enough. That’s why you can lose weight this way, but still be quite ‘flabby’ – because the number on the scale is going down, but the body’s actually storing more fat.”
So dramatically reducing your calorie intake just doesn’t work, if you’re looking to get healthy, svelte and toned. Which, let’s face it, is exactly what we all want to be. It’s the trifecta of sexy-booty-ness, which is a word I just made up – but I think you’ll agree, it’s awesome.
The good side of your body being so adaptive, though, is that when it’s getting all the right things, in the right balance, it’ll adapt to that too – which is why the whole ‘lifestyle change’ thing is so crucial. Change your life, and your body will keep up to make sure you’re running as efficiently as possible – and if you’re making the change from an unbalanced, unhealthy diet to a good one, you can pretty much guarantee you’ll lose weight (and crucially – keep it off.)
Good nutrition is a matter of having a little of everything. Understanding that your body needs protein, carbohydrates, and fats in the right balance is key, because each of these things has a different role to play in keeping your body as efficient and healthy as possible. Carbohydrates, as well as being an important energy source, are necessary for transporting some of the nutrients (among other things) around the body; protein helps to build muscle; and fats provide essential fatty acids, and helps the body to absorb certain vitamins that it can’t make the most of without fat to dissolve them.
These nutrients do lots of other things too – but what I’m getting at here is that they’re all important in different ways. Cutting out fat, or cutting out carbs, will only ever set you back in the end.
Now, the trouble is with this balanced diet malarkey is that I can’t (yet) give you a shopping list of things you have to buy and send you on your way to better health. The cabbage soup diet it ain’t – although hopefully once we’ve finished the meal plan, there’ll be something a little more solid to go on.
From the British Nutrition Foundation’s website:
“Our diets should be based on bread, rice, potatoes, pasta and other starchy foods and rich in fruit and vegetables. A variety of foods from these two groups should make up two-thirds of the food we eat.
Most of the remaining third of the diet should be made up of milk and dairy foods, meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein, with limited amounts of foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar. Most of us eat too much salt and it is a good idea to check food labels to find those with a lower salt content and to minimise the amount of salt you add to food at home.”
Sounds pretty simple. And if you’re more the visual type, the Eat Well Plate (which I’ve mentioned briefly before) is a really good illustration of how that measures up in real terms:
If your food over the course of a given day looks something like that, you’re doing all the right things. The thing you’ll notice is that most of the categories – with the exception of ‘Foods and drinks high in fat and/or sugar’ – are not processed foods. They’re ingredients. That’s why I tend to avoid processed stuff where I can – because it’s usually a pretty safe bet that if it comes in a packet and has a two year shelf-life, it’s probably chock full of sugar and fat, not to mention all sorts of crazy chemicals that just have no place in my diet.
The key is keeping it simple – and tasty.
One way to assess where you’re going wrong, nutritionally, is to write down everything you eat for a couple of days, and then compare it to that. I didn’t realise how much sugar I was eating until I started writing it all down at first – but spending time thinking about what you’re currently doing is a good way to start sorting out your diet.
If you’re not a big fan of cooking, or even if you’re a bit of a gourmet chef, the food you eat when you’re not thinking about it reflects who you are, and your relationship with food. Taking an honest look at your own resources – be they financial, skills-wise or even just taste – is a necessary step in moving forward into positive changes. That’s why it’s so important to be educated on nutrition as a whole, rather than just deciding you have to cut carbs, or starve, or whatever – this sort of knowledge gives you the power to make your own decisions and actually eat food you enjoy whilst still living a healthy lifestyle.
I know that’s kind of annoying – because personally, I’d love to be able to provide a list of ‘five things you have to do to lose weight’ and leave it at that. If only it were that simple. But while all this seems intimidating at first, once you start to understand it, you’ll find you’re more in tune with your body, and you’ll see the rewards of your learning.
The thing I’ve learned about nutrition, more than anything else, is that in a balanced diet, one treat, or one day where all you eat is toast, cake and curry because you have a hangover (I have done that – recently – no shame) will not make you gain ten pounds. It’s not like when you’re on a diet, where the logic is that everything has to be restricted and that one ‘cheat’ automatically means you’re a failure.
Lifestyle should be just that – life. Eating well, and being happy, means having a little of everything – and not feeling guilty about it. The 80/20 rule is a good one to go by, because if you’re doing everything right 80% of the time, the 20% where you’re not won’t really matter. I mean, I personally know that I can’t have a whole packet of biscuits in my cupboards because I will gnaw my way through them without even thinking about it. But if I’ve got a craving for a sweet fix, I’ll go out and do it – but I’ll just buy as much as I need.
It’s about balance, and understanding that it’s (feel free to yawn here) a lifestyle change. I’m living it – and I know it’s a permanent thing, rather than just something I’ll do until I reach my target weight. Because diet logic usually means celebrating reaching your goals with a family sized bucket of fried chicken. I, on the other hand, feel like I’ve been in ‘maintenance mode’ for months, now – even though I’m continuing to lose fat at the same rate as before. My diet is balanced already for my target weight – so no change is required, which means I don’t have to worry about yo-yo diets or weight gain. I’ve got it all covered.
Food is a big part of your life – and, as has been pointed out many times before, it’s not something you can just ‘cut out’ like you can if you have an issue with, say, smoking, or alcohol. It’s there to provide fuel, to keep your body running, and – importantly – to be enjoyed. It is totally possible to have a healthy relationship with food, as both a fuel source and a pleasure, while losing weight – but you do have to be patient and take the time to really understand it.
It’s a learning process, but one which pays dividends in the long-term – and with obesity predicted to top 60% in some US states by 2030, there’s no better time to start learning it. Not just for yourself, or for the ten, twenty, or two hundred pounds you need to lose – but for future generations too. It’s possible to eat better, and be happier, by making small changes to your life – and I promise, the investment you make in learning it now will pay off.
After all… You are what you eat.
I’m always interested by psychological type things – especially when I can apply them to myself, because let’s face it. I’ve started a blog about me. Safe to say I’m a wee bit self-absorbed.
Anyway, that meant that when Matt told me about something called the transtheoretical model of behaviour change, I was pretty intrigued. Bearing in mind I’m close to the end of my journey (relatively – I’ve still got a good 20lbs to go ’til I meet my target weight), I remembered each of the phases this thing describes so clearly, it struck me that had I known they were normal at the time, I’d probably have been a tad more patient with myself.
So, if you’re looking to start, you’re probably already beyond phase 1 – but I’m willing to bet you’ll recognise it. This is…
Precontemplation – AKA ‘I’m fine! This isn’t an issue!’
This phase is where you’ve got no plans to change in the forseeable future (say, the next six months). This can be for a number of reasons – either through a lack of information on why or how you should, or because you’ve tried and failed previously and as a result, you’re demoralised. You might avoid reading about the potential risks associated with being overweight/a smoker/whatever it is, and you’ll probably switch off when people around you talk about it (or change the subject pretty rapidly).
I definitely remember that stage – I was there a LOT. For a long time, I didn’t recognise how vastly my knee issues were affected by my weight, even though it was pretty obvious. When my surgeon mentioned my weight during one consultation, I heard him, but I didn’t really ‘hear’ it, if you know what I mean – listening to the words coming out of someone’s mouth, and taking them in, are two very different things.
I had a similar attitude towards food guilt at that point – every time I ordered a takeaway (ie. every night) there was a tiny part of me that knew it was the wrong thing to do, but I’d block it out. I’d think ‘pfft, one more won’t hurt’ every time I picked up a slice of pizza, and – crucially – I never, ever looked at nutrition labels. On anything. Read into that what you will.
Contemplation – AKA ‘Maybe I could… But…’
This is where you start to think about changing, which is a big deal in itself – and since you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably already made it at least this far. Have a gold star on me – that’s a good start! However, if you’re in this phase, you’re still probably listening to a fair amount to the negative voices in your head that say you can’t do it, or it won’t be fun, or any number of ‘cons’ that balance, if not outweigh, the pros.
The key thing here is to take the time to engage in a bit of self-assessment. Being honest with yourself at this point is crucial. I found that at this point, I started to read diet blogs, and watch fitness shows, and would ask myself what was so different between myself and them. I was in this phase for a good four or five months – but every day, I got a little bit closer to…
Preparation – AKA ‘OK. I’m ready.’
Woohoo! If you’re here, it’s about to get really cool. You are about to pass Go and lose two hundred pounds – or something along those lines. You’ve started to tell people you’re ready to change, and have started to identify the steps you can take to do so.
The big worry you’ve got, though, is ‘if I try…will I fail?’ and that insidious little thought can really hold you back. I had a good month in this period where I kept thinking that tomorrow would be the day – but each time, I felt like I was missing something, so I’d research it a little more, watch another TV show, Google another thing… Until one day, I just let that thought go.
Because, as cheesy and as trite as it sounds – if you try, yes, you might fail. But if you don’t try, you’ll definitely fail – so you might as well go with the better odds!
Action – AKA ‘Progress!’
This is the first, say, six months of your journey. You’ve made significant changes, and you’re seeing results – but you still have to work hard to stay focused, committed, and ninja-tastic around temptation. At this point, you’re trying out ways to keep your eyes on the prize – testing out new activities, and things which replace your old habits.
In my case, this was yoga, green tea, walking to work… All small things that I’d lean on when the urge to eat chocolate until I was comatose cropped up. Eventually, these things become your preferred option – but at this point, it’s all about trying new things until you work out what floats your boat.
And you’ll notice I said six months. This is why diets fail. If you’re doing something that isn’t sustainable for more than six months – or six days, it’d seem in a lot of cases – you won’t make it to the last phase, which is…
Maintenance – AKA ‘I have got this DOWN.’
Well, almost. You’ve made your lifestyle change, and most of the time, you’re able to stick to it without really thinking about it. This is kind of where I am now – but you’re never completely away from your bad habits. Even at this point, you have to be aware of situations where you’re likely to slip back into old ways and do your best to stay strong against them.
For instance, I know that once a month, when I’m hormonal, I want to be alone, and I want to eat cake. Bearing in mind I was never one to shy away from hanging out, on my own, comfort eating my way through a particularly tearful episode of Grey’s Anatomy, this is a danger zone for me. For me, what works instead is to take myself out for coffee and cake, and enjoy it – because it’s a much more controlled way of satisfying the craving than buying an entire Swiss roll and working my way through it whilst sitting in my PJs, mourning a fictional TV character.
I’m not normally one for motivational quotes. But because I’m doing a Literature PhD, I’m going to throw out some Samuel Beckett at this point (if you’re interested, here is Liam Neeson reading it aloud – SWOON):
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
I still fail, now, even though I’ve reached the maintenance part of this model – but the ways I fail are better. I know where I am, and I know who I am – so I understand my weaknesses and can stay on top of them. Most of the time.
Identifying that you’re ready to make a change to your entire life isn’t just a matter of waking up one morning and doing it. It’s very much a gradual process, and one that’s easier if you go into it with your eyes open – so it’s worth working out where you are in your journey, even before it’s properly begun.
Because the main thing about this whole lifestyle change business is that it’s a process of knowing and understanding yourself – and learning to be happy. Which is completely possible – and once you’ve identified you’re ready to change, you’re half way there.
I’ve been asked this a lot since I started this blog – and yet, weirdly enough, it’s one of the posts I’ve struggled most to write. That’s for a few reasons. Firstly, when I set out to lose weight initially, I didn’t think like I […]
Ahhhh, carbs. Apparently enemy of all things diet, they’re the current thing to ditch. I know this, because I tried it. Not for long, mind – it’s not much fun, it makes you feel pretty terrible, and it’s certainly no way to lose any weight you’d actually like to keep off. We laugh about it now, but it gave my housemate and I a deep, unspeakable bond… Not unlike that shared by war veterans.
While shared trauma might make friendships stronger, there is no reason whatsoever for you to do any diet that gives you PTSD. Ever.
Also, as a tangential word of warning, you should never admit to a nutritionist that you’ve even entertained the idea of a no-carb diet. It took Matt about a week and a half to stop giving me the eternal side-eye of shame after I ‘fessed up to that one. Oops.
So, let me start by saying, as loudly and clearly as possible – your body needs carbs. Not only do they provide vital energy to be used in the muscles of the body, but they’re also brain fuel – and they help your central nervous system function properly. Last I heard, these things functioning right were at least on a par with looking hot on my personal value scale.
But it’s the type of carbs you choose that make all the difference. If your carb intake is mostly doughnuts and white bread, then yes – they’re probably at least partly to blame for the extra inch you’re pinching – because they’re chock full of simple carbs and sugars. Not only will these things expand your waistline, but they throw your blood sugar all over the place – meaning you can be on a food high one moment, and a carb coma the next. I know I’m way too familiar with that feeling.
But starchy, complex carbs are not the devil. Anything but, in fact. Potatoes, root vegetables, oats, and wholemeal breads, pastas, and cereals – the non-sugary kind – all fall under this category, and they’re all great ways to get your carbohydrate intake at the right level in a healthy way.
They’re also good sources of fibre. Which, it turns out, is super-important.
We don’t often talk poop here, because unlike Gillian McKeith, I’m doing an actual PhD from an actual university, and also… Eww. However, fibre is an important part of your diet for a lot of reasons. It keeps things moving, if you know what I mean; it slows down the absorption of other nutrients, meaning your blood sugar stays nicely regulated (which reduces your risk of type 2 diabetes); and it makes you feel full, which is never a bad thing.
As with all things in these here parts, it’s about making the right decisions, and ensuring the right balance.
Swap your white bread for multigrain, for instance; choose a nice jacket spud rather than a portion of chips; rice instead of naan… All of these are smooth switcheroos that mean you’ll be getting the most out of your meal, without feeling like you’re missing out. And when you’re working out your carb intake in the context of your daily allowance, it’s a good idea to follow the Eat Well Plate, which you can find here – if you can stick to that, you’ll get everything you need. Happy days.
The thing is, against the diet logic that’s become so pervasive since the Atkins diet burst onto the scene, there’s no reason for you to cut out anything from your diet completely (unless you’ve got an intolerance – but even then, that doesn’t mean you can’t have treats, as the fabulous blog The Intolerant Gourmet more than proves.) Rather, it’s a matter of moderation and self-control. Both of which are things you need to learn over time, if you’re anything like me. I still haven’t mastered the art of eating half a chocolate bar and saving the rest for later, and I’m not sure I ever will – but at least I know that much. Which means when I do want to chow down on something chocolicious, I can plan to eat the whole tasty thing, because I allow for it when calculating my daily intake. Good times.
I think it’s also worth adding that, while changing your diet seems ridiculously complicated at first, it does get easier – and not just because I’ve got a better understanding of it. Nope, I can safely say that now, my body pretty much knows what it wants, and it tells me when it’s not getting that. For example, I have definitely eaten and enjoyed cake since I started my ‘journey’ – but I’m more satisfied, and more comfortable, when I’m eating healthy, clean, (mostly) unprocessed foods in the right balance. A really nice apple, these days, is one of the things that makes me as happy (if not more so) than cake, because what I like has changed so much.
It takes some time to work out what you like, and what you don’t – and if you really don’t like something, there’s no point forcing yourself to eat it. Brown rice, for instance, is one that divides people – personally, I love its chewiness, but I know a lot of people who can’t stand it. But the closer you get to removing processed foods and refined carbs from your diet, the more your taste buds will change – so keep experimenting!
Oh, habits. Bad ones are really easy to pick up, and ridiculously hard to quit. And good ones, predictably, are quite the g’damn opposite. Here’s a few examples from my own experience: grabbing a sausage sandwich and a can of full-fat coke as consolation for […]
I don’t know about you guys, but I love a good spag bol. It’s been a staple of my diet since way back in my heady undergraduate days – although the “mince” we’d buy then was probably a tad suspect, and I’m not sure it was all that tasty in hindsight, being composed primarily of chopped tomatoes and whatever random things we could find in the cupboard. Not ideal, but back then food was necessary only for either putting off a deadline, or lining the stomach before a big night out, so it didn’t really matter.
I’ve previously mentioned that I did the whole processed, low-fat, instant food thing when I first started out trying to get fit – and while it worked for a bit, it wasn’t satisfying and it certainly wasn’t healthy, so eventually I lapsed back into old habits and saw the weight creeping back. Bad times.
When I’ve written about emotional eating, I’ve talked fairly negatively about it – and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the only emotions it’s possible to attach to food are the ones that might be best described as like a solitary teardrop falling into three pints of cookie dough. But you’d be very wrong. Food, well cooked, lovingly prepared and presented, should be a joyous thing. You should love and appreciate it – and that’s where my problem lies with ready meals.
I’m not sure I’ve ever managed to buy a ready meal (and trust me, I’ve had more than my share) without feeling a bit depressed. It’s just such a cliche, like it’s something I need to accompany with a Bridget Jones-a-thon (including re-enacting the “All By Myself” scene). Regardless of nutritional concerns, it’s like food with the soul sucked out of it – and it never, ever manages to quite hit the spot.
Which takes me right back to the cookie dough.
But the thing is, I get it – for convenience and low-cost, ready meals are a sure winner, right?
I beg to differ.
Matt and I decided to team up and put this to the test with a tasty spaghetti bolognese, with three intended outcomes of Ready-Meal-Ass-Kicking-ness. It needed to be cheap, easy to do, and really god damned tasty. And guess what? It delivered on all counts.
Don’t look so surprised.
This recipe makes five portions – we were aiming for four, but it’s a very generous helping even divided by five, so we’re going with that.
So, here’s what you’ll need:
- 600g Extra Lean Mince
- 250g Onions
- 2tbsp Olive Oil
- 375g Peppers (three decent sized ones)
- 250g Celery
- 25g Garlic (5 cloves) – 2 in sauce, 3 fried
- 50g Chillies
- 2x Knorr Beef Stock Cubes
- 150g Mushrooms – chopped in half (decreasing energy density)
- 1x Bag of Spinach
- 400g Chopped Tomatoes
- 142g Tomato Purée (that’s a small tin – I’m not just being difficult!)
- 1tbsp Worcester Sauce (make sure it’s the gluten-free variety, if you’ve got an intolerance)
- 1tbsp Balsamic Vinegar
- Mixed Herbs
- 75g Spaghetti per person
- 15g Reduced Fat Cheddar
- Black Pepper to taste
And here’s what to do:
- 1. Chop the onions and three cloves of garlic, and fry in the olive oil in a large pan (the biggest you can find!)
- 2. Add in the mince, and fry until brown. Once it’s done, drain off the fat, and add in the stock (mixed in boiling water).
- 3. Chop the peppers, celery and chillies and add to the pan, keeping the ends to one side.
- 4. Meanwhile, make the sauce by blending the chopped tomatoes, tomato purée, two cloves of garlic, the balsamic vinegar and the ends of your chillies and peppers. I know you’d normally throw them away, but they’re a great way to get some extra fibre – which we love. Mmm-mmm.
- 5. Chop the mushrooms in half – this is an excellent way to decrease the energy density of the meal, which I’ll explain later – and add them to the frying pan.
- 6. Add the sauce and spinach (slowly – it’s easy to make a mess with spinach!) and let the whole thing simmer – if you can cover it, do, but this isn’t essential.
- 7. Measure out 75g of spaghetti for each person you’re serving – we used the gluten-free variety, but obviously you don’t have to. If you’re hopelessly messy and uncoordinated like me, feel free to use fusilli or something similar – no judgment here. Boil for about 8-9 minutes.
- 8. Dish it up! Grate a little bit of cheddar on top, and if you’re feeling in the mood, have a small glass of red wine with it. You’ve earned it.
It’ll look a little something like this:
Now where this gets really interesting is when you start making direct comparisons with actual ready meals – because we just love evidence in these here parts. No casting of aspersions here. Here’s how they compare – note the difference in portion sizes between the ready meals, and the homemade version…
|Taste the Difference (400g)||751||60||56||7.6||30.4||8||5.2|
And let’s look at the serving sizes. For the Value meal, you’ve got 300g; the two other ready meals are 400g; but the homemade version weighs in at a tasty 470g when cooked – so regardless of what’s in it, that’ll fill you right up. And it looks damn fine on a plate, too. Whereas these… Not so much. I’ve actually purchased one of each, for the purposes of comparing them for this blog, but I’m going to have to come back to that because I just can’t bring myself to do it. They don’t look so good.Those of you who are used to the idea that fewer calories are better and carbs are bad might be looking at the data above and thinking that the two cheaper ready meals have one up on us there – but I refer you back to here for why you need the right amount of calories, in a healthy, balanced diet that includes carbs, protein, and fats. And, you know, to the 120lbs I lost. Ahem. You’ll also be burning calories in the process of cooking – because of that lovely thing called non-activity exercise thermogenesis, which you can read about here.
The serving size business brings me back to the energy density thing I briefly mentioned earlier on. Energy density is the amount of calories in a given portion – so, for instance, a bowl of water would have a minimal energy density, whereas the same bowl filled with ice cream would be super-high. What this means for us is that when we cook with lots of veggies, for instance, we end up with lots of water in there because that’s what they’re made from – meaning you get a lower energy density, but still the pleasant feeling that comes from a nice full plate, and a nice full tum – known as satiety to those in the know (check me out with my new words!)
We’ve also got the right amount of protein. In a meal like this, you should be shooting for around the 30g mark – more than that and your body can’t absorb it, so it metabolises as fat; less, and it’s not giving you what you need, especially if, like me, you’re trying to gain muscle too. And fats can be good, if they’re the right kind – so 14g is pretty good going for a tasty meal like this. Plus, you’re getting all the fibretastic goodness that comes from lots of fresh veggies in your meal – so again, it’s all good.
It’s also helpful to see how they compare, nutritionally, on a like-for-like basis – so here’s how they stack up, per 100g. The colours should give you an idea of where they sit, relative to each other:
So, we’re happy with the taste and it’s nutritionally about bob on – here’s the clincher. Cost. The Value, Regular and Taste the Difference ready meals were 76p, £1.30 and £3 respectively. Per serving, our spaghetti bolognese works out at £1.54 (assuming you’re buying from Sainsburys, as with the ready meals – so it’s all equal on that front. We managed to get it down to £1.10 in Aldi – so if you’re a really savvy shopper you can probably do even better!)
And as for being easy – well, the leftovers are now safely stowed in portions in the freezer. Meaning that when I need a quick and easy, convenient dinner – a ready meal, if you will – it’s good to go.
And that, my friends, is research in action. Enjoy – and if you make this meal at home, let me know how it works out!