Diet Detective: Fad Diet or Fabulous?

It seems like there’s always a diet going around that promotes itself as the best way to lose weight, or to detox for health and more energy, or… something.

Actually, at any given time, there are always several diets claiming to be THE right way to eat. Diet plans like keto, paleo, the alkaline diet, or Whole30 are way more varied than the old school grapefruit-type diets. They are usually based around a single simple guideline, with expected results including anything from fat loss and revved metabolism to decreased inflammation, improved gut health, and overall better health.

Many of these diets can provide health benefits or support weight loss, and providing a single guideline to follow often makes it easier to stick with the plan. But the simplicity can also create complications. Dietary limitations can inadvertently decrease the intake of some essential nutrients, or allow excessive intake of others. Depending on your body’s specific needs, these diets can actually backfire – even if you see short term results.

Keto diet meal of salmon and green onions

Taking a smart approach to a new diet includes figuring out whether it’s a fad or there are established, science-based benefits. If the diet falls into the second category, you also need to figure out whether the diet will be good for you.

Is It A Fad Diet or a Fact?

There are fad diets, and fad diets – some are worse for your health than others. You can generally tell if a new diet is going to be an unhealthy fad if:

It promises dramatic, fast, extraordinary results.

My momma always told me: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. The truth is, if there an easy, healthy, surefire way of eating that was sustainable over the long term, no one would need a diet for weight loss or any other health reasons. While it’s tempting to think of quickly reaching your goal weight with either little effort or lots,

It centers on, or cuts out, a single type of food.

Whether suggesting you always eat it or never eat it, any diet that is wholly focused on a single type of food can lead to health problems. This single focus may mean missing out on essential nutrients, or especially if maintained over time:

Low carb diets (Atkins, Keto) focus on higher protein and fat intakes. High levels of some dietary fats are associated with higher levels of heart disease, and high protein diets can be harmful to people with kidney disease, diabetes, and other health conditions (though it’s important to note that for most health people, a high protein diet isn’t harmful).

Cutting out entire food groups can lead to the same problems: missing out on key nutrients. For example, many vegetarians become anemic because they do not eat red meat, one of the highest sources of dietary iron.

It lacks high-quality scientific evidence. Ok, most people aren’t going to go and read the original research – and that’s assuming there is some! Many diets have little or no scientific backing. It’s also not uncommon to find that the existing studies present only weak proof, or have been funded by the companies whose products are being researched. Human nature makes it hard to be impartial in these cases!

Most people will not have access to the majority of research, or may not want to wade through the scientific jargon and statistics. You’re best bet to get simple, straight answers about whether a diet has scientifically been proven effective will be to speak to a registered dietitian.

Boring plate of only vegetables for a diet meal

Dieting For Your Body

The other benefit of discussing a new diet with a registered dietitian is that they can help determine if a given diet will meet your specific needs. This is especially important in certain circumstances:

If you have an ongoing or chronic health condition. Some foods or food types may worsen health conditions. It can also be a good idea to check with your doctor if you are at high risk for a health condition or have a family history.

If you have specific physical needs. The most common example: People who exercise a lot or at high intensities have different dietary needs than those who exercise moderately or not at all. Additionally, some medical conditions require closely controlled diets in order to maintain normal physical function.

If you want to make a significant change to your eating habits. People aren’t always aware of nutrient deficiencies or potential risks caused by a high nutrient intake. Jumping into big dietary changes may inadvertently increase health risks, even if you’re trying to do the right thing by your body. So do the right thing by your body and chat to your doctor before making big changes.

Healthy balanced meal of salmon and vegetables

The Real Winner

In the end, the best diet comes down to the diet that works for you.

That means one that helps you feel and look the way you really want to, and that your body thrives on. Many of the most popular diets may not be harmful over a short period of time, but the existing research has generally shown that they aren’t much more effective than a general plan of healthy eating and most people end up regaining the weight they lost once back into their regular eating patterns.

Given all this, it seems like the real winner might be making fresh choices. Eat lots of fruit and vegetables. Eat lean proteins (poultry, fish, lean red meat, eggs, and dairy). Eat your healthy fats in small doses (nuts and seeds, avocado, olive and flax oils, just to name a few). Eat less than you think you might need. And enjoy it!


Middle age woman raising her eyebrows in surprise

The Secret Life Of A Health Coach

Want to know the biggest secret about my life as a health coach/exercise physiologist/personal trainer?

I’m just a normal person.

I like all types of fried potatoes, working out is sometimes more effort than it seems like it’s worth, and I definitely do not have a six-pack. I’ve been through periods of being super active and fit, and periods of being super lazy, and while I much prefer feeling and being super fit and healthy, I frequently struggle to make the time for it.

It’s called real life – as least, it is for most of us. There are great trainers out there who are able to juggle big workouts, prepping and eating routine meals, making their body their whole focus – Awesome for them. I’ll even admit that I’ve more than a little jealous. I had that for a few years and it was great, but it was also when I was in college with the luxury of plenty of time to spend on it.

In the years since, I’ve stopped beating myself up over NOT doing all those things. I’ve found my balance between eating healthy and really enjoying my meals, between being fit and being out of shape (though I often sit slightly below my ideal fitness level). These days, my ultimate goal is to strike that balance between making my entire life about my body, fitness and health, and being able to enjoy what life has to offer.

So, my big secrets?

My fitness levels fluctuate A LOT and I have to really work for what I have. My biggest challenge is balancing my time between every life demand in a way that I’m happy with (or at least can live with). Sometimes workouts lose out.

I love eating. LOVE IT. I love movie popcorn and giant salads and everything in between. Portion control is my nemesis.

I struggle to make myself a priority. I spend all day every day talking to people about taking care of themselves. I’m the worst at taking my own advice!

Stress-eating: Ugh, yes, that’s me.

I would much rather watch Netflix than go to the gym. (Though as with most people, I get a lot more satisfaction from going to the gym, once it’s all said and done.)

I may or may not read on my phone every night in bed, even though I know all the science says it’s bad for your sleep. Oops.

The point is, this is real life. We can have all the education and experience in the world – I’m not short on either and definitely know better – and making the best choices is still challenging. I live those choices day in and day out, just like everyone else. But these days I’m ok with those challenges. They are a lot easier now that I’ve learned to make life about habits and choices I enjoy, rather than choices that feel like chores that I should or have to do. I’ve found my balance between the effort I’m happy to make, and the results I’m happy to have. I’m launching this new section, The Secret Life Of A Health Coach: Food and Fitness in Real Life, to share what those choices look like for me, and to give you some ideas and support in finding your own balance.


Fast Facts: Vitamin C

Vitamin C is one of the best known micronutrients. However, the average daily intake is often lower than expected. You might not be getting as much as you think.

Vitamin C is perhaps best known for immune system support. Interestingly, while some immune cells need vitamin C to function (and you may be more susceptible to illness if deficient), there is no concrete scientific proof that increasing your intake makes a significant difference in the duration or severity of colds. Of course, if you’re otherwise generally healthy, it’s also not likely to do you any harm, as our bodies are excellent at secreting excess.

Vitamin C is also an antioxidant, working to help balance the body’s chemical reactions and prevent cellular damage from free radicals. It helps your body absorb iron and protects levels of vitamin E, and is needed to produce collagen (a key structural protein) and several neurotransmitters (the chemicals that carry signals throughout your brain and nervous system). It also plays an active role in cholesterol management, helping to convert cholesterol to bile acids, which in turn lowers cholesterol levels.

Much of the research on vitamin C has shown greater health benefits when you get your C through food rather than tablets or pills. Of course, eating whole foods provides you with many other nutrients as well, so food is almost always a better option than supplementation. Individual variation exists of course, so it’s worth trying a few approaches to find the right method for you.

Vitamin C is involved in:
  • Protecting cells from free radical damage, as an antioxidant
  • Improving dietary iron absorption
  • Regenerating vitamin E levels
  • Building collagen, an important structural protein
  • Production of norepinephrine and serotonin
  • Chemical transformation of cholesterol to bile acids
  • Maintaining the functional ability of some immune cells
Food sources of vitamin C include:
  • Citrus fruits (lemon, orange, lime, tangerine, etc.)
  • Cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, etc.)
  • Leafy green vegetables
  • Berries and melons
  • Squashes and carrots
  • …and most other fresh fruits and vegetables!
  • Organ meat, if that’s your thing
Getting too much vitamin C can lead to:
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas and/or upset stomach
  • Increased risk of kidney stones

There is little to no evidence that high vitamin C intake from food sources leads to any signs and symptoms of excess intake.

Not getting enough vitamin C can lead to:
  • Poor wound and structural repair
  • Poor dental health
  • Poor immune response
More on vitamin C:
  • Vitamin C levels in food are quickly reduced by heat, oxygen, and storage. You can slow these losses by refrigerating your fruit and veggies and storing them whole.
  • Nicotine decreases the effectiveness of vitamin C, and smoking in particular leads to higher levels of free radicals, so tobacco users may need greater dietary intakes of vitamin C
  • Some research has shown that vitamin C may help slow plaque buildup in arteries and keep blood vessels more elastic, leading to decreased risks of heart attack and stroke. However, this research needs more support, and there is no evidence that taking vitamin C supplements will help (it needs to come from food sources to be protective).
  • Evidence also shows that people who eat diets rich in vitamin C are less likely to be diagnosed with arthritis, though there is no specific evidence that vitamin C supplements will help treat or prevent this.
Vitamin C combined with other medications and health conditions:

Taking vitamins may have adverse effects when combined with some over the counter or prescription medications, and some medications can decrease vitamin absorption. Some health conditions can be impacted by high vitamin C intakes. Talk to your doctor prior to increasing your vitamin C intake if you have or are taking:

  • Kidney problems
  • Regular use of aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen – These can increase vitamin C excretion. Somewhat confusingly, high vitamin C intakes can decrease drug excretion, leading to increased blood levels of the drug.
  • Regular use of acetaminophen (Tylenol) – High vitamin C intakes can decrease drug excretion, leading to increased blood levels of the drug.
  • Antacids containing aluminum – Vitamin C can increase aluminum absorption, which can make medication side effects worse. Aluminum-containing antacids include Mylanta, Maalox and Gaviscon.
  • Barbiturates – Including phenobarbital and others, these may decrease vitamin C effectiveness.
  • Chemotherapy drugs – Vitamin C may interfere with some chemotherapy drugs, though it is also speculated that vitamin C may make them more effective. Don’t increase vitamin C intake (or any other supplement) without talking to your oncologist!
  • Oral contraceptives (birth control pills) and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – When taken with these drugs, vitamin C can increase estrogen levels; Oral estrogens can decrease vitamin C effectiveness.

Food Friday: Chickpea and Feta Salad

This is one of my FAVORITES.

Not your normal lettuce or spinach-based salad, this salad is packed with flavor thanks to the punch and crunch of parsley and celery, set off by creamy feta cheese. It’s also quick to put together and keeps well – I like to make a big batch and take it to work for a week’s worth of lunches so I have something fresh, healthy, and satisfying on hand.

I usually stick to the recipe as written because it’s so quick, but this salad is super flexible. You can add other veggies in for a bit more color or crunch, or fill it out with additional leafy greens of your preference. My go-to additions include spinach, cucumbers, finely chopped red onion, and/or red or yellow capsicum or bell pepper. (Not a celery fan? I’m generally not either, but I actually really enjoy it in this combination.)

This salad is also packed with nutrients.

Parsley – High in vitamins A, K and C, as well as iron and other nutrients like beta-carotene and zeaxanthin, which helps protect and support eye health

Celery – Significant anti-inflammatory properties come from more than a dozen different antioxidants, as well as high levels of fiber, which is essential for a healthy digestive tract

Chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) – A great plant-based protein source, and also high in fiber, folate (vitamin B9), and minerals including copper, molybdenum, manganese, and phosphorus

Feta – Additional protein, plus calcium, phosphorus, and vitamin B12. Feta is also sodium-heavy, so if you’re on a sodium-restricted diet, use less of this – a little goes a long way!

Lemon – Even the small amount of lemon in this will give you a big dose of vitamin C

Olive oil – As well as being high in monounsaturated fats, which are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, olive oil has high levels of vitamins E and K, and numerous antioxidant and anti-inflammatory molecules

Your taste buds and your body will love it!

 

Chickpea and Feta Salad (serves 2 as a main dish)

4-5 cups of chopped parsley and celery leaves

3 large or 4 small celery stalks, chopped into 1/2 inch or 1cm pieces

1 can of chickpeas, drained

1/2 – 2/3 cup crumbled feta cheese

Small wedge of lemon, for dressing

Small drizzle of olive oil, for dressing

Notes: Celery and parsley leaves have similar flavors, so you can use any amount of either. A can of chickpeas equals about 1 3/4 cups – if you want to cook your own, start with a little over a half-cup of dry chickpeas. The canned chickpeas will be a little softer, but either option works well.

Combine all ingredients, using more or less of anything as desired, and including any additional veggies you might like. Squeeze lemon wedge over salad and drizzle with olive oil right before serving.


Label Reading 101: How To Pick Healthy Foods

Flip a packaged food over and have a look at the nutrition information on the back. Lots of numbers, big words, tiny print. Is it any wonder people get confused?

Reading labels can be an effort – at least when you aren’t used to it. But they are also a treasure trove of information about how that food might impact your health, once you know what to look for. Learning labels takes a little thought – mainly, figuring out what you are looking for – and then a little practice. Give it a try and you’ll be pleasantly surprised how quickly you’ll get the hang of it!

The Background

Many factors determine how “healthy” a food is. But regardless of your personal situation (allergies, intolerances, or other specific dietary needs), there are a few fundamental ways to help you determine if a food is going to be good for you. None of these will probably come as a surprise, but instead of just telling you to “read labels”, we’re going to discuss exactly what you want to be looking for when you’re looking, giving you a clear understanding of how to make the best choice (for you!).

It is generally assumed that the less processed a food is, the higher its nutritional value will be. Higher nutrient value is, of course, a big step toward being healthier and better for your body. More processed foods, on the other hand, are usually made up of whole ingredients that have been broken down, some parts taken out, other additives (sometimes from other food products, other times manufactured) put in to keep some sort of appealing taste and/or texture, and then reassembled into the final food product. Cheap for the manufacturer, often appealing to the consumer, but usually these are not things that our bodies love – even if it can boast being “low carb” or “fat free”. (Though as it turns out, neither low-carb nor fat-free foods are sure paths to a healthy diet.)

Actual real food, on the other hand, is minimally processed and has a much higher nutritional value, and often doesn’t even have a package or label. Common sense tells us “fresh is best”, right? Since that’s not always possible (or practical), this article is directed towards choosing the healthiest of the foods that actually come in packages and with labels.

So, how do you determine to maximize the health and nutrient value of the foods you choose to buy and eat?

Check the ingredients

This is my first stop on a food label, even before the nutrition numbers. Since each ingredient and added component (the additives) of a food need to be listed, the shorter the list, the less processed that food is likely to be. My rule of thumb is that any packaged food that I buy has five ingredients or less.

Interesting side note: Ingredients are listed in order of quantity, so the ingredient that comprises the largest percentage of a food will be listed first, the second largest percentage will be listed second, and so on. This can be helpful if you’re after a specific packaged food that has something relatively undesirable in it, since it can help you gauge how much of that ingredient you might actually be consuming, and whether you are ok with that amount or whether you would prefer to avoid it.

Check the ingredients – part two

Other things I’m thinking about when I’m checking out the ingredients list:

Can I actually pronounce what’s on that list? You should be able to. At the very least, you can probably recognize when something doesn’t sound like it’s naturally occurring.

Are there numbers? Numbers are not ingredients or components of food items occurring in nature. Red 5? Steer clear.

Would I cook with what’s on that list (or at the least, expect that a chef could cook with it)? If you could (conceivably) purchase and cook with each ingredient on the list, you probably have a less processed, more nutritious food on your hands. If an ingredient sounds like you might need to get it from a lab instead of a supermarket, you might not want to be putting it in your body.

The big exception: Many packaged foods are fortified with added vitamins. This is not always undesirable, as these particular additives can be highly beneficial to health and body function. But often what we might recognize as good stuff can be on an ingredient list under a different name – for example, Vitamin B2 is also known as riboflavin, a name that is definitely more chemical-sounding.  If the ingredient list is pretty simple with one or two exceptions that you aren’t sure about, a quick Google search can tell you all about the mystery words!

Read the Nutrition Label

In Australia, certain information is required to be on a food label, including:

  • The energy content: In everyday terms, this is the calorie count. The term Kilojoule is also becoming more popular. Both refer to how much energy the food provides.
  • The protein content.
  • The fat content, including the amount of saturated fat.
  • The Carbohydrate content, including the combined amount of naturally occurring and added sugars.
  • The sodium content.
  • The amount of any other nutrient (or biologically active substance) about which a claim is made. For instance, if a package states a food give you B vitamins, it should list those vitamins on the nutrition label. Go look at your jar of Vegemite and you’ll see what I mean!

My goal in choosing a given food is to maximize the nutrient value while minimizing the calorie (energy) content.  I primarily look at energy content and protein. If there isn’t a clear preferred choice, I’ll also check out total carbohydrates and relative amount of sugar, and lastly, total fat and how much of which kind(s).

I’ll also take into consideration the serving size, since the nutrition numbers mean nothing without that figure. And since often the serving size is just some random number, here’s my pro tip for figuring out if that “serving” is realistically what I’ll be eating: Look at the serving size compared to the total package size. For instance, if the total package weight is 400g and a serving size is 100g, I’ll consider whether I’m likely to eat a quarter of that package. If I think that’s unrealistic, but I still plan to buy that food, I’ll do some mental math – or get out my phone – and revise that nutritional data upward or downward as needed.

Lastly, when I have the option, I also like to compare the nutrition data from a few different brands of the same or similar products, since I’m usually shopping for something specific and I want the healthiest version. The “per 100g” column provided alongside the “serving size” column makes it way easier to compare which brand is going to meet my needs the best.

Ignore the rest of the packaging (In general)

Ever heard the saying “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”??

Simply put, many products that make health claims on the packaging miss the mark in other ways. Because low-fat, low-carb, or sugar-free products have often been processed to meet these claims, these foods are often additive-heavy to keep the food appealing when we actually eat it.

Call me cynical, but I generally regard health claims on food packages with suspicion. That specific claim may be true, but what in that food has been lost in order to meet that claim? Often what has been given up (or taken out) isn’t worth the “benefit” you get, particularly when other options are available. But that’s just one lady’s opinion!

 

Get healthy. Feel great. Enjoy life more. HealthFit Coaching provides guidance and support in making healthy habits work with your lifestyle. Get in touch to find out more about how coaching will help you.


Making Positive Changes

Making changes to our normal routine or habits can be difficult at the best of times, and especially when the change we want or need to make isn’t one we are excited about. Many people find themselves in this sort of conundrum when it comes to improving their health, fitness, and wellbeing. We know we should be doing something different, and we even have a good idea of what is it, but we just don’t realllly want to.

However, we don’t need to make sweeping changes to have a positive effect on our lives. Making good food choices and moving our bodies more are where we’ll most benefit, and if we can make progress in one or both of these, we are well on our way to feeling (and looking and living) better.

But where to actually begin? There is abundant information available, and mis-information too. Couple that with frequent pressure (both from external sources like the media, and from ourselves) to doing everything right, and the thought of making any change can be overwhelming.

Let’s fix that.

In a nutshell, the key to making permanent change to habits or routine is to set yourself up for success. Pick ONE thing to work on at a time, so you don’t get overwhelmed by making a million changes all at once. And go easy on yourself: New habits and healthier routines are created when we make our desired behavior or choice easier than making our old, habitual, less desirable choice.

Example 1: You are on your way home from work and starving. The options: Pizza, or making a healthy dinner… Hmm.

What if you had some chicken and salad ready and waiting for you when you got home? Because there is no work and no waiting involved, you’re more likely to head straight for that (even if pizza sounds more appealing).

Example 2: You are thinking about exercising more, but you HATE the thought of joining a gym. Then a friend calls and asks if you want to join a recreational soccer team (or insert other fun activity here: hiking, running around with the kids, line dancing, etc.).

Picking an activity that involves movement and fun is going to beat the activity that involves movement and boring and hard. Bringing a friend along can also up the enjoyment factor, making you even more likely to stick with it.

Bearing in mind that we want to pick something that is an easy addition to our lives, the best changes we can make are the ones that will have the greatest impact on our lives. We want the biggest bang-for-buck, especially early on, because success in itself is motivating. The more you have, the more inspired you are to work harder, and hard stuff becomes easier because it’s your ticket to continued progress. “Most impactful” can be different things to different people, so it’s worth taking time to consider what life might look like with one new habit versus another.

Bear in mind that you might not come up with an idea that is totally fun and really easy – sometimes you give a little of one to get a little of the other, and that’s ok too, as long as it is ok with you. There are no rules – just keep tweaking an idea until it really works.

The Takeaway: When you want to make a change, make it easy on yourself:

  • Choose one new activity, behavior, or choice to work on at a time. This allows us to focus, and cements this new, positive change faster. Adding a second desired change greatly reduces our ability to make either permanent. Stick with one thing until you find yourself doing it without thinking about it, then consider what change you might like to make next.
  • Choose the simple, most impactful things to work on first. Most of us have a number of ideas about what we can do to “get healthier”, thanks to a seemingly-infinite number of news sources. Worry more about eating less cake than eating more kale (or whatever the latest trendy superfood is).
    • Make it easy by choosing the things that are easy for YOU
    • Think about “bang for buck” – what is the one thing you could do that will give the most progress?
    • Realize that the easiest thing might not have the biggest bang-for-buck, and that’s ok!
  • Master the basics, and then move to greater challenges. Start with something you are confident that you can be successful with. Ask yourself: Am I confident that I can 90% stick with this chance for the next week? If yes, go for it! If not, continue to simplify it until you feel that you can stick with it 90% of the time.
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself. None of are on our best behavior all the time. This is why we use the “90% test”. When you make a choice that isn’t in line with your changed behavior, don’t stress about it. Every hour of every day can be a fresh start, so if you slip up, shake it off and keep moving forward.
  • Do celebrate your successes. (Not with cake.) One of the best ways to cement a change is to associate it with something you enjoy. This can be done on a daily basis: think about eating extra broccoli as you enjoy that juicy steak, or go walking with a friend instead of by yourself. Celebrate your bigger successes too. When you feel confident in your new habit, reward yourself – go for a massage, get a manicure, see a movie. Treat yo’ self!