I have a horror of and fascination with the diet industry in equal measure- and of the dieting discourse that permeates our popular culture. I find the rhetoric of denial and sin levelled at those of us who have weight issues quite abhorrent, not least because it dramatically misunderstands the reasons behind why people cannot control their weight and eating habits in the first place- and simplifies it to a stunningly banal question of willpower. This latest manifestation of the rhetoric of guilt comes in the form of Channel 4′s frightfest, Secret Eaters (http://www.channel4.com/programmes/secret-eaters), where fat families agree to be monitored 24/7 in their homes, and are also secretly filmed by private investigators hoping to catch them in the act of snaffling a burger or two. Families are presented with the incriminating evidence later in a special room dolled up to look like a crime scene, and then promptly put on a 10-week ‘healthy eating regime,’ whatever that means.
The reasons why people are overweight and eat the things they do are of course indexed to things like social class, education, social mobility and economic wealth. On a physical level there are an equal number of influential factors, such as metabolic health, the state of the gut flora, stress and of course dieting itself… Dieting doesn’t tend to work. All the evidence shows that restricting calories has a temporary effect- yes in the short term participants can lose a lot of weight, regain energy and health- but in the long term, those markers can reverse and come to bite them on the behind. Very few dieters manage to maintain the initial weight that they’ve lost for longer than 2 years.
So if you want to know what my no-diet diet rules are for a healthy and happy life, here they are:
* Eat real food. Closest to its unprocessed self.
* Avoid low-fat foods. These are correlated with increased weight and infertility. They also make you eat more. Cos the body ain’t no fool.
* Avoid PUFAs, or polyunstaurated vegetable oils, if you want the full title. These are the veg and seed oils we’re all being encouraged to eat (so as to avoid the dreaded saturated fat) yet studies show no overall benefit of lowering cholesterol (the holy grail of Big Pharma), and are pro-inflammatory, immuno-suppressive (quickest way to induce cancer in a rat? Feed it a sugar and corn oil mix. Hey wait, isn’t that what a fast food meal is made of??), toxic to the thyroid and liver, AND more fattening gram per gram than saturated fat.
* Don’t diet. Over time it lowers metabolic rate and the set-point, in other words, the rate at which you burn calories for energy. You’ll feel cold and lethargic and stressed. And then you’ll put the weight back on.
* Don’t calorie-count. Not all calories are created equal and your fuel isn’t just burned- it’s used to create your cells, your hormones, your neurotransmitters- all of which you need! Calorie-counting has also never been proved to help people lose weight and keep it off. It’s also a headache.
* Don’t do hard cardio workouts on an empty stomach, or if you’re tired, stressed, or rundown. It will just cannibalise your glycogen stores, your muscle and switch off your thyroid and immunity. Better to focus on resistance, muscle building and flexibility.
* Eat breakfast. Study after study shows that people who eat breakfast weigh less than people who don’t, function better generally and don’t binge-eat. Whether it’s a handful of nuts and a banana or a full English… eat something!!
* Want to lose weight, or improve digestion and mood? Like the adage says, eat like a King in the morning, a Prince in the day and a pauper in the evening. Your lightest meal should be last. In the West we overload ourselves late at night with huge portions of meat and potatoes, pasta, puddings, sweets and alcohol- no wonder we sleep badly, have acid reflux and constipation and wake up feeling dead. It’s not rocket science!
* Enjoy a treat but eat it after a meal. Constant snacking, even on so-called ‘healthy’ things like fruit juice (and this is true for kids too) can keep insulin elevated, preventing the hormones responsible for fat-burning from doing their job. I’ve lost count of the number of times I see overweight people constantly snacking on fruit. Give your body a rest from digesting- if you have a nice big meal which leaves you satisfied, constantly grazing on things afterwards can- perversely- start making you feel unsatisfied.
* Eat salt! The whole drive to minimise salt is a complete red herring, and salt restriction only brings down blood pressure in a tiny percentage of the population- for many others with hypoadrenal/thyroid problems, their BP is low. Again low-salt and no-salt frankenfoods just make you eat more to get that hit. Real sea salt/rock salt contains all the trace minerals and is essential for proper nerve and muscle function. Oh, and children need salt too, which is why they go crazy for salty things when you’re not around. They’re not daft.
* Avoid artificial sweeteners, which spike insulin, but because they contain no sugar, the insulin is forced to draw on your own blood sugar, which drops, and then you go hunting for food anyway to boost it back up again. So it results in you eating the calories anyway, possibly more than you would if you’d eaten the original item in its full-sugar form.
* Get enough sleep and deal with your stress. Easier said than done, but chronically elevated stress hormones disrupt appetite, make you reach for the quick hit (empty sugar calories, caffeine, alcohol) and release fatty acids into the bloodstream, which depresses sugar metabolism so you can become hypoglycaemic AND insulin resistant. It also leads to systemic inflammation and a big change in your gut flora, which can also alter the way you process carbohydrates. This is a major factor in obesity. Sleeping and relaxing more just on its own can help you lose weight.
* Try and tune into your appetite signals. Eat when you’re hungry, don’t put it off until you’re ravenous- you’ll just eat more. Eat slowly- it takes 10 minutes for your brain to register when you’re full, but if you eat too quickly and mindlessly, you won’t give your brain time to catch up.
* Address your gut flora. Studies have shown that gut bacteria differ in obese compared to lean people and that obese gut bacteria profiles lead to increased energy extraction from food, such as dietary carbohydrates, and increased fat storage (Jumpertz, 2011).