An active lifestyle gets its best results when supported with a good diet. So, I have given you my ten top tips on how to sustain a healthy and happy approach to eating. What I am saying is by no means complete, but this simple advice is all you need to get started on making positive changes to how you eat.
Changing diet can be difficult for some people. Often, we use excuses such as a lack of time or money for not eating well. Try to remember that your health should be your top priority, and that making a little extra time to prepare a decent meat instead of reaching for the microwave chips will make all the difference to your overall health.
These tips are in no particular order, though some are perhaps more critical to optimum health than others. Follow this advice and you will be on your way to better all-round health. Many of my clients have had great results and so will you. It is important to remember that eating well is about more than losing weight. How we eat affects our body’s ability to renew, repair and prevent illness. This can change how we age, preventing wrinkles (often caused by poor hydration), reducing hair loss and improving essential fat absorption (through better protein digestion), as well as protecting our heart, liver, bones, hormones, and immune system.
Drink plenty of water. Most people are chronically dehydrated from simply not taking in enough water. Water serves so many fundamental roles in the body, from cell production to temperature regulation, and is essential to life. Much of the weight of the upper body is supported on discs in the lower back that are made up of 75 per cent water!
For many, the solution to thirst is to drink coffee, tea, fizzy drinks or alcohol. However, each of these actually dehydrates us further, and many contain powerful stimulants such as caffeine that can override our body’s natural systems, worsening the problem. Add to that the high levels of sugar they contain and you are on an express route to problems, from tooth decay to weight gain and diabetes.
1 Aim to drink 2-2. 5 litres of bottled water a day (generally cleaner than tap water), and always have a glass of water before eating. Although reducing caffeine can be hard initially, the negative effects of it soon exit the system to leave you feeling healthier and happier. A simple test for your hydration is to check your urine colour. If you are well-hydrated, your urine should be pale or clear in colour. If it is a dark yellow, you are dehydrated and need to drink more. (If you are taking B vitamins or a multivitamin, this can change the colour of your urine to a bright yellow. )
2 Get enough sleep. Allowing the body time to recover is one of the most important parts of a healthy lifestyle, and getting enough sleep is central to that. Although this may not be about diet, what you eat can also affect how you sleep, and it is a good idea to avoid eating before you go to bed, particularly sugary foods. Good-quality sleep is essential for us to feel energised and recovered. Without it, the adrenal hormones (in particular, cortisol) do not run their natural cycle and stay chronically elevated. This vicious circle can lead to an increased risk of weight gain, diabetes and many other health problems, as well as leaving us feeling irritable, bad-tempered, and unable to concentrate.
To get your sleep patterns back on track, establish a bedtime and a wake-up time routine. Stick to these and within a week your body will have adjusted to them, even though you may find it hard to get used to at first. You should aim for eight clear hours of sleep. It is also a good idea that before bedtime you avoid things that stimulate the mind, and try to do things that aid relaxation and rest. This could be listening to relaxing music, reading a light and easy-to-put-down book, or drinking some herbal tea.
In the evening, avoid foods that contain tyramine, as this increases the release of stimulants in the body that will prevent you from sleeping; caffeine, alcohol, sugar, tobacco, chocolate, wine, bacon, ham, sausage, potatoes, spinach and tomatoes all contain tyramine.
To help sleep, try to include foods that contain tryptophan in your evening meals; these are necessary for the release of serotonin, a hormone that initiates sleep. These foods include fish, chicken, turkey, bananas, figs, dates, yoghurt, tuna, eggs, soya beans, tofu, nuts, cottage cheese, avocadoes and whole grain crackers.
3 Eat enough protein. Protein is one of the main nutrients in our diet and we need it in fairly large amounts when we are training. Resistance training stimulates a breakdown in muscle proteins, so it is essential to have enough in the body to help repair and rebuild muscles. This has been shown to be particularly important in older adults, particularly after working out, for the growth of new muscle. There are varying recommendations for optimal protein intake; often people trying to gain weight will greatly increase protein to help with muscle growth. However, high protein intake is not advisable for all, as it can overwork the kidneys and upset the acid/alkaline balance in the body. This can cause a loss of minerals in the body that, in turn, can lead to osteoporosis, as calcium is taken from the bone to neutralise the acidity.
The best sources of protein include fish, meat, beans, lentils, eggs and soya. Many meat sources can be high in the harmful types of fat, so try not to rely on these for your protein intake. Vegetables such as broccoli, runner beans, peas and legumes contain good protein (especially when combined with whole grains), as well as being an excellent source of energy and vitamins.
4 Eat regularly. Going for many hours without eating is a sure way to find yourself reaching for that convenience food when you get the chance. Not only that, but it will lead to your metabolism slowing down as your body tries to conserve valuable energy stores.
Going too long without something to eat will cause fatigue, tiredness, lethargy, and low levels of blood sugar. Many people don’t eat enough throughout the day and end up having a large meal in the evening. By this time the body is so desperate for food that it will store all this energy, leaving you tired on the sofa as your body has to work to digest it all. Our preservation mode also kicks in, and any food taken after a long day without eating will be stored as fat, instead of being used for energy.
By eating small meals regularly, we can create a healthy balance in blood sugar levels, maintain energy and avoid the need for a large evening meal. Try to eat five or six times a day, and make lunch your biggest meal of the day. Remember, graze – don’t gorge!
5 Be sugar-aware. Sugar is probably the biggest enemy to a healthy diet, and these days it is added to just about everything that comes packaged, tinned or boxed. When refined sugar comes in a form that is quickly absorbed into the body (white bread, white pasta, orange squash), it causes a release of insulin into the body.
This hormone promotes the storage of sugar as fat and, over time, as fat levels increase and our sensitivity to insulin decreases, it can lead to the development of diabetes. This used to be known as adult-onset diabetes due to it affecting us in later life, but excessive sugar levels in processed foods, fizzy drinks, and junk food have now led to it being seen in teenagers. Not only this, but sugar negatively affects energy levels, and can contribute to certain types of cancer, heart disease and other illnesses, even behavioural problems!
To avoid becoming a victim of excess sugar, avoid processed foods (such as ready meals), cereals (almost all of the common breakfast cereals have added sugar), processed fruit juices, flavoured water and fizzy drinks, and refined foods. These foods contain high amounts of sugar but none of the other nutrients that you need to digest it. This also includes alcoholic drinks, which are full of calories and devoid of nutrients.
Even worse, alcohol requires many essential B vitamins to metabolise, it damages the gut and liver, and blocks the absorption of many beneficial vitamins and minerals. Make a start today by cutting it from your diet. Aside from the obvious sugars we know, beware of hidden sugars under other names such as corn syrup, fructose, lactose, malted barley, fruit juice concentrate, and raisin syrup; if anything ends in either syrup or `ose’ then it is made purely from sugar.
If you long for that sweet taste, try a few blueberries, dried apricots or a freshly prepared juice. A juicer can cost as little as £20 and there are numerous recipes around to help ease the sweetest tooth. Although fruit contains more goodness, don’t go overboard with it, it’s still sugar and many people find fructose (fruit sugar) difficult to digest. If you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), then avoid citrus fruits in particular.
6 Eat the right fats. A common approach to trying to lose weight is the eradication of all the fat from your diet in favour of low fat’ alternatives. However, not only does this approach make eating very difficult, it also ignores the fact that the body actually needs some fat to function properly. Our metabolism (including how we actually convert nutrients into energy) is reliant on essential fatty acids for it to function at all, and the body cannot produce new cells without it. Most low-fat food makes up for the lack in fat with a very high sugar content, leaving you feeling empty and still hungry after you have eaten.
To get the right type of fat in your diet, avoid saturated fats such as those found in margarine, cheese, biscuits, crisps and fried food. Saturated fat is the fast way to gain weight and puts you at greater risk of heart disease. Instead, eat oily fish (salmon, mackerel, tuna) twice a week, unsalted nuts and seeds (keep it to a handful daily as these are very high in calories), and use extra virgin olive oil on your salads (but don’t cook with it, as heating it up destroys all the goodness in it). These oils contain the essential Omega 3 and 6 that we need to make new cells and enzymes that we need to keep joints and organs (even our brain!) healthy. Stay clear of anything containing hydrogenated vegetable oil, where an unnatural process is used to mass produce hard fats from liquids. This is bad for the body, as it simply cannot deal with them effectively.
7 Always eat breakfast. I have worked with many clients whose day starts off badly with either a poor breakfast, or worse, no breakfast at all. If you don’t start the day on the right footing, it is always going to be a case of playing catch-up with the body for the next 24 hours. Many of the same people who neglect a proper breakfast are the same ones reliant on stimulants such as caffeine to get them through the morning.
Breakfast should be a complete meal; eat too little and you risk reaching for that sugary snack or coffee to perk you up an hour or two later. Your first meal of the day should also contain some source of protein, which helps to set the body up to regulate its blood sugar levels throughout the day. Try including such things as natural yoghurt, seeds, nuts, eggs, soya, sardines, kippers, or even chicken!
8 Get at least five a day. You may have noticed that some supermarket chains are now very gently promoting the five-a-day approach to eating fruit and vegetables. Eating your ‘greens’ is absolutely essential for optimum health, as they are rich in nutrients, vitamins and minerals that the body needs to function at its best. Not only that, but nobody ever got fat from eating too many vegetables, so they are excellent if you are trying to lose weight. It’s not just green vegetables that are important; each colour has its own different qualities. As well as valuable vitamins, these also contain antioxidants that protect our bodies from damage caused from harmful chemical reactions in the body. These reactions are made worse by the chemicals, additives and pollution around us.
Fruit and vegetables are also a great source of fibre in the diet. Fibre is perhaps the most underrated part of people’s diets in terms of the health benefits it can bring.
Low-fibre diets are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and certain cancers. Fibre is nature’s great cleanser, and on its way through the body it picks up many harmful substances, and helps us to remove them regularly and easily.
If a meal lacks colour and everything on your plate is white, then it is likely that there are not enough vegetables in your diet. Try to make food as colourful as possible by adding veg to every meal. It needn’t be soggy Brussels sprouts either; there are many exciting, tasty and healthy fruits and vegetables you can add to your diet for variety and enjoyment.
9 Supplement where needed. There is often a deep-rooted distrust of taking supplements as part of your diet. For many of us, these concerns are unfounded, as certain supplements can improve health, boost the immune system, reduce the impact of stress and promote the absorption and digestion of many other foods.
The quality of your supplements is important though. Many high street multivitamins, for example, are ‘fast food’ supplements, low on quality and produced with the cheapest available ingredients.
Supplementing can help many people with food intolerances or dietary problems, but can also be very useful to those with a healthy lifestyle. Although a full and healthy diet should contain enough vitamins and minerals, mass farming and low quality soils have led to our fruit and vegetables having lower levels of nutrients. This is one of the reasons that organic produce is preferable.
Before adding supplements to your diet, I recommend that you check with your doctor or see a nutritionist, as some types of supplement can be harmful to people such as pregnant women, those on medication and anyone with a specific disease or condition.
Generally, you can support your diet with a good multivitamin, extra vitamin C and a fish oil capsule. For those wanting to support bone growth, or those with insomnia, muscle cramps, stress and fatigue, you can consider the use of calcium and magnesium.
10 Forget dieting. The word diet actually means ‘way of life’, yet it seems to have become distorted over the past years to mean something else entirely. There are all kinds of diets out there, from Atkins to cabbage soup, but who wants to eat that for the rest of their life? Dieting is destined to fail long-term, and the proof is in speaking to anyone who has ever been on one. In the short-term, it leads to stress and anxiety, affecting how you feel, both inside mind and body, normally for the worse. Very few people manage to sustain healthy weight loss simply through restricting calories. This kind of social obsession leads to eating disorders, illness, depression, rapid weight loss and gain (yo-yo dieting), loss of muscle mass, a drop in metabolic rate (leading to a lower overall daily use of calories, which contributes about 75 per cent of your daily energy use), and overall poor health. Stop thinking quick-fix and start thinking about changing how you eat for good. That way, you’ll have the kind of body and health you will be really happy with.
Changing how you approach your eating habits can be challenging for many people. It means taking a little more time over what and how you eat, right through from being a bit more selective in your shopping to actually spending a little longer preparing, eating and digesting your food.
To make the change easier and more focused, pick one particular tip at a time and work on making that your main nutritional focus. Once you have mastered it, take another one and go from there. As most people are chronically dehydrated when they start training, I always advise tip 1- to drink more water – as the best place to start. Many people notice the difference from that straight away.
You could also consider visiting a nutritional therapist. Far from just giving you meal ideas, a nutritional therapist can check for food intolerances, deficiencies and hormonal imbalances, and advise you accordingly on the best foods to eat for your body.
The reality for many people is that they can make significant changes to their health by simply reducing their sugar intake, increasing their vegetable and fibre intake, and avoiding negative factors like alcohol, smoking, and fried foods. By cutting out the junk and sticking to a balanced and (where possible) organic diet, you will notice the improvements almost immediately.
Although eating organically has been expensive in the past, most leading supermarkets now carry extensive ranges of organic foods and it is no longer as pricey as it used to be.
Remember, this is primarily about getting stronger and fitter, so the tips given here are by no means the whole story on healthy eating. They are intended to get you started in the right direction and to make some positive changes to your diet.
Making these changes can be tough at first, and is often not without setbacks or failures. Dieting equals stress; often, the focusing on where you want to be can lead to severe anxiety about weight and body image in the present. Instead, enjoy being yourself and take responsibility for your life and make the most of it. Keep a positive image of yourself and enjoy the achievements that you reach by improving your health, fitness and wellbeing.