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Where Do I Start? Part 3 – Nutrition

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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.

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Comments
  • comment avatar Jana 24 September, 2012

    Thanks for this post. I really needed this today. I went clothing shopping yesterday, and my old go-to, the wrap dress, which has always been flattering on my body in the past, did not quite do the trick this time, and I tried two separate dresses. My body shape has just changed too much, and I seem to have gone past a plateau I’ve never gone past before. It was a bit depressing, but also a bit inspiring, which may seem odd, at first. I walked out of that store annoyed that I didn’t come away with two fabulous dresses but with the intention that the next time I have to buy clothing to fill out my work wardrobe, it’s going to be with much more enthusiastic results. And reading this lets me know that I really don’t have this huge hill to climb; more like baby steps and keeping at it, and eventually, I’ll make it over that hill.

    • comment avatar fatgirlphd 27 September, 2012

      Jana, that’s great! I mean, obviously it’s an inconvenience at the time – but you’re going to have to buy a whole new wardrobe soon, and that’s pretty exciting, really! Well done you :)

  • comment avatar Oneika Mays 24 September, 2012

    So happy I read the article on MindBodyGreen that led me to your blog. Nutrition is a life long mission with hills and valleys (at least in my case). Love this post!! Continued success! You are really an inspiration!

    • comment avatar fatgirlphd 27 September, 2012

      Thank you – and that’s an amazing way of looking at it, I love it :) Thanks!

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