Eat Yourself Fit: Make Your Workout Work Harder - Rosanna Davison (2016)
PART 3. FITNESS FOOD
“Every living cell in your body is made from the food you eat. If you consistently eat junk food then you’ll have a junk body.”
Many plants are a great source of protein, and eating a plant-based diet doesn’t mean you will miss out on your body’s protein requirements.
Protein is essential for fitness, fat loss and building and maintaining strong, lean muscles as well as for growth and repair in your body and for the production of transport molecules, enzymes, hormones and antibodies. It also helps to improve calcium absorption, making it an integral part of bone health. Plants come with all the amino acids you require in a nutritionally perfect package that also contains iron, calcium, antioxidants, phytochemicals and fibre, which is essential for weight loss.
An individual’s protein needs will differ from day to day depending on what they’re doing, so the only exact way to know the protein needs of an individual is to conduct a study of their nitrogen balance on that particular day.
The World Health Organization’s protein recommendation is 5-10% of daily calories or about 0.8g protein per kg of body weight, going up to 1.2g/kg or more for active males. This translates as approximately 90g of protein a day for an active 75kg man and 48-64g for a lightly to moderately active 64kg woman, for example. On a 1,800 calorie diet, 10% protein would be 45g.
Plant foods easily contain enough protein once caloric needs are met. The average protein level in pulses is 27% of calories, in nuts and seeds it’s 13% and in grains it’s 12%.
There are nine essential amino acids that must be eaten regularly because they can’t be made in your body: histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine.
A food that contains all nine is known as a complete protein. Like beads on a string, they form together in various sequences to build the proteins needed for the many everyday biochemical processes in your body. Your food must first be broken down into amino acids, which are then rebuilt into the protein chains specific to human muscles.
Research suggests that amino acids from plant foods are readily available to your body. A wide range of plants contain plentiful quantities of all the essential amino acids, so it is virtually impossible for you to become protein deficient if your diet contains enough calories from whole foods.
Most plants are low in fat and rich in essential minerals, including iron and calcium. Iron is an important mineral for supporting energy levels and helping to prevent anaemia, and calcium is essential for bone health and normal muscle function. In 500 calories of tomatoes, spinach, butter beans, peas and potatoes, you will find up to 20g of iron and 545mg of calcium.
Plant foods are also packed with the antioxidant nutrient beta-carotene, which is known to boost and brighten the complexion, slow down the ageing process and mop up damaging free radicals in your system. Carrots, sweet potatoes and butternut squash owe their vibrant orange colour to beta-carotene, which in turn brings colour and radiance to your skin.
BUILDING MUSCLE WITH PLANT FOOD
There are so many valuable sources of complete plant-based protein built into a nutrient-rich package to help shed extra pounds, boost your health and maximise the benefits of your workouts.
Lentils and beans are a staple in my diet and appear in plenty of my recipes, as they’re an excellent source of inexpensive and complete plant protein, antioxidants, fibre, vitamins and minerals. I love to sprout lentils, chickpeas, broccoli seeds, alfalfa and adzuki beans in my own kitchen, but I’m also a fan of cooked beans and legumes. They’re ideal for adding satisfying warmth and density to your diet without having to worry about weight gain, as beans are naturally low in fat and high in fibre. In addition, they’re high in minerals like iron, calcium and magnesium, plus vitamins and phytonutrients to help prevent the signs of ageing.
Protein powders have become hugely popular with gym-goers in the past few years, yet many commercial protein powders contain preservatives, genetically modified ingredients, whey and soy protein isolates, which can be a problem for those sensitive to soy. Some may also contain chemical sweeteners like aspartame and saccharin. A good-quality hemp or pea protein powder or the Sunwarrior brand of raw plant-based protein powders are my top recommendations for adding to a smoothie or shake to boost post-weights muscle recovery. Sunwarrior is a good option because it’s raw, unprocessed, sweetened with stevia and is free from gluten, soy and dairy, with 15g of protein and just 80 calories per serving.
Green vegetables come in a nutritionally perfect package of fibre, phytonutrients, minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and essential fatty acids. By focusing on vegetables in each meal, you will be benefiting from the fibre, antioxidant vitamins and phytonutrients that meat, poultry and eggs lack while also lessening the amount of cholesterol you consume.
Eaten raw, nuts, seeds and their butters are a super source of plant protein. However, they are a dense food, so about a handful a day is generally enough, or a little more if you’re extremely active or trying to gain weight. Shops and supermarkets are full of roasted and salted nuts and seeds, but nuts will benefit your health most when eaten in their natural, unsalted state. Roasting them can denature their amino acids and destroy their healthy fatty acids, plus they’re often cooked in unhealthy vegetable oils.
Following a diet rich in whole foods and avoiding excessive alcohol and smoking helps you to benefit most from your fitness regime. Choosing the right type of foods to eat before and after a workout, and in general to support an active lifestyle, is key to ensuring you look and feel your very best and that you get the most out of your exercise regime.
Whole, unprocessed foods contain an array of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and amino acids, ready to be absorbed and assimilated into your body to repair and rebuild torn muscle fibres after a tough workout. I’ve designed the recipes in this book to be rich in essential amino acids from different sources to ensure that you’re getting the complete range for your body’s daily needs. Protein also helps to keep you feeling full, which means you’ll be less likely to snack on sugary or fatty foods.
These are my favourite fitness foods for building muscle tone, reducing body fat and boosting energy levels.
Originating from South America, quinoa is actually a seed rather than a grain and is naturally gluten free. With over 8g of protein per cup (cooked), it contains all the essential amino acids plus fibre and minerals including manganese, phosphorus, copper and magnesium. It’s also a good source of antioxidant phytonutrients, including quercetin. These protect your cells from free radical damage and accelerated ageing.
These tiny nutrient powerhouses are high in fibre, low in fat and packed with antioxidants and essential minerals. They contain an impressive 18g of protein per cup (cooked). Lentils are so simple to cook with and I love to use them in soups, salads, curries and stews.
One of the very best sources of complete plant-based protein, which also have the perfect balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fats to help keep your skin smooth and plump, hemp seeds are incredibly versatile. They’re also one of the best foods for building lean muscle and work well sprinkled onto smoothies, salads, steamed veggies and soups.
Beans are a staple in my diet as they’re so versatile and come in a wide range of varieties. With 12-15g of protein per cup, they’re a brilliant muscle-building, fat-loss food as they’re low in fat and calories but high in fibre, vitamins and minerals such as iron, calcium and zinc. My favourites include chickpeas, kidney beans, butter beans and black beans.
It may taste very ‘green’, but this microalgae is an incredible source of easily absorbed protein. In fact, spirulina boasts a whopping 60% protein, which makes it the highest of any naturally found food. It’s a powerful food and it’s easy to incorporate into your daily diet. I often add a small spoonful into my green goddess smoothie (here) and it boosts the nutrient value of my supergreen smoothie bowl (here).
Nutritional yeast is an inactive form of yeast and an absolute staple for plant-based diets. It’s similar to Parmesan cheese in that it instantly adds a nutty, cheesy flavour to foods like soups and sauces, plus I sprinkle it over salads. It’s also highly nutritious - a 2 tablespoon serving offers 7g of protein in the form of all the essential amino acids, plus iron, fibre and a range of B vitamins. Some brands are fortified with zinc and vitamin B12.
Pre-workout foods for energy
It’s important to eat for energy around 45-60 minutes before a workout. I often opt for a green goddess smoothie (here) and a handful of raw almonds for a great combination of easily digested protein, fat, fibre and carbs.
Smoothies work so well for boosting energy because the nutrients have been released from the plant cell and are available to be quickly absorbed into your blood for instant, clean-burning energy that won’t send insulin levels skyward. They free up digestive energy, which will benefit your workout, as it’s best to avoid anything that’s difficult to digest or makes you feel sluggish. If you’re in a rush, then a simple sliced banana or apple with a couple teaspoons of nut butter makes a speedy and energy-boosting snack.
Post-workout foods for muscle repair
Post-workout nourishment is crucial for recovery, as this is the time to replace used-up glycogen stores to replenish your liver and muscles. Try to eat within 30-45 minutes of finishing up exercise, as this is the time period during which your body most urgently requires nutrients.
After weight training, you need protein to begin the process of healing and rebuilding torn muscle, as this is how you tone and strengthen muscles to get more toned over time. But intense exercise also releases free radicals into circulation, which can contribute to cellular damage and premature ageing. It’s really important to eat antioxidant-rich foods after a workout to help protect your cells.
Protein smoothies are an excellent option post-workout, as they don’t require much digestion and their nutrients are delivered quickly to muscles and tissues to begin the process of rebuilding and repairing. I often make my blue warrior recovery shake (here) after a tough weights workout, as it contains an ideal combination of digestible raw plant protein, anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, high-fibre carbs and a rich assortment of antioxidants from the blueberries.
I usually bring a smoothie with me to drink straight after training, then enjoy a balanced meal once I’m home, containing protein, complex carbs and healthy fats.
Foods to build abs
Strong, visible abdominal muscles are one of the most popular areas of the body for developing. Not only do they help to create a visually healthy and fit physique, but having a strong core helps to improve your posture, protect your body from injury and really helps with every other type of physical movement.
Hours of crunches aren’t going to give you a visible six-pack, though. We all have abdominal muscles, but the number one key to making them visible is a ‘clean’ diet. Sufficient cardiovascular exercise helps to burn body fat, while abs and core exercises help to strengthen and build the muscles. Ever heard the expression ‘abs are made in the kitchen, not the gym’?
The best foods for building abs are natural, whole foods, low in simple carbs and high in amino acids, fibre, essential fats, vitamins and minerals.
These are the foods I focus on for meals and snacks when I want to strip back body fat and build up my abs:
Almonds and almond butter
Leafy green vegetables
Vegan protein powder
How to lose body fat
Want to look lean, toned and fit? The key to looking and feeling fit is to keep body fat levels down while maintaining and building lean muscle mass. This means that your muscles, especially your abs, will become more visible.
The right balance needs to be struck between eating enough calories and the correct nutrients to fuel your body and repair muscles without allowing your body to store excess as fat. You must optimise your metabolism while keeping blood sugar levels and insulin stable and you must never allow your body to go hungry, as it may slow down your metabolic rate if it senses a period of starvation.
The most powerful and effective way to slim down and stay lean, healthy and fit for life is to base your diet on high-fibre whole plant foods, complete protein sources and a smaller amount of calorie-dense foods, such as healthy fats.
Greatly reducing or totally eliminating refined sugar, white flour, processed foods, vegetable oils, shop-bought salad dressings and sauces, fizzy drinks, alcohol and fried foods while keeping active and watching portion sizes will help to stabilise your body weight at what is healthy, happy and ideal for your height, age, gender and activity levels.
You can tone up different parts of your body, but you cannot spot-reduce body fat from specific areas such as your tummy or thighs, nor can you lose or gain more than two pounds of body fat per week. Any extra will be water weight or muscle.
Restrictive quick-fix diets that dramatically reduce carbs and calories may work in the very short term because you’re draining your muscles of stored carbs (glycogen), which reduces water weight and excess bloating. But they don’t work in the long term or as a lifestyle solution because they’re neither sustainable nor healthy.
When embarking on a weight loss plan, it becomes even more crucial that everything you put into your body is rich in nutrients so that no deficiencies can arise. That’s one of the many reasons I don’t recommend packaged, processed diet meals and snacks and base all my recipes on whole foods. A deficiency in certain nutrients and amino acids may trigger low moods and severe cravings for sugar, which must be avoided for successful weight loss.
I don’t believe in calorie counting under normal circumstances because it can be tedious and time consuming and can remove the focus from the importance of healthy whole foods. I much prefer to concentrate on eating nutrient-dense foods over calorie-dense foods, practising portion control, avoiding refined sugar and only eating until I’m three-quarters full. Listening to the hunger and satiety signals from your own body is key to maintaining a healthy and normal weight.
However, calories do matter when it comes to body fat loss and it’s pretty much an exact science, which makes it easier to navigate. One pound of fat is equal to 3,500 calories. So to lose one pound of fat a week, you must either eat 500 fewer calories a day or burn them through exercise. Either option alone is challenging, which is why combining exercise with calorie counting will achieve the best results. This is a steady and sustainable goal that can be safely followed over a longer period of time.
If you require faster results, then you could increase this weight loss to two pounds a week by applying the same mathematics to eat less or burn off 1,000 calories a day. Time-wise, it’s generally more practical for most people to eat less rather than spend hours exercising, which makes this degree of weight loss challenging. It’s also not as safe and sustainable in the long term because you would have to cut calories dramatically down from what you’re used to while still getting all the nutrients you require and maintaining consistent, intense exercise.
CALCULATE YOUR BASAL METABOLIC RATE
Before you begin a weight loss programme, it’s necessary to calculate your basal metabolic rate (BMR). This depends on your height, weight, age, gender and activity levels. It calculates the minimum number of calories your body needs simply to stay alive if you’re completely sedentary, even sleeping. It decreases with age and lower muscle mass, and increases as you gain muscle.
After that, you will need to account for your physical activity levels, as the calories you burn will need to be calculated. For example, my BMR is 1,400 calories and I would be considered moderately active, so I burn up to 1,820 calories per day. To lose one pound of body fat a week, I need to consume 1,320 calories a day, which is a deficit of 500 per day and 3,500 per week.
I strongly recommend you use an app or website to calculate your own personal calorie needs based on your BMR, as we all have individual requirements. Two of my favourites are cronometer.com and MyFitnessPal, which are free, detailed, accurate and user friendly. Any time I have had to lose a few pounds, I’ve followed this programme for three to four weeks, and the Eat Yourself Fit plan is based on my own recommended daily intake of about 1,300 calories for a weight loss of one pound per week. This is a sustainable, realistic and achievable goal, as it’s important to never eat fewer than 1,200 calories a day because you may face nutrient deficiencies that can inhibit your long-term weight loss goals.
Once you calculate your numbers, you may want to adapt my plan to include slightly more or less calories. You can do this by bulking it out with more healthy fats, such as avocado or nuts, or by reducing portion sizes. But never drastically cut calories and never allow yourself to go hungry, as that will work against your health, fitness and long-term weight management.
It depends on your goals and timeline, but I strongly advise you to give yourself plenty of time to lose weight for a wedding, holiday or big event. It’s safer and more achievable, as you will be losing body fat rather than water weight and muscle. In my experience, it takes eight to 12 weeks to see tangible results in your weight and body shape following a calorie-controlled healthy eating and fitness plan.
HERE ARE MY FIVE QUICK TIPS FOR LOSING BODY FAT
WATCH CALORIES AND PORTION SIZES
The healthy eating movement of the past few years has benefitted people in so many ways, though I think many people still struggle with weight loss, even when they’re eating ‘clean’. Healthy food can still contain plenty of calories, so you must be careful when replacing processed snacks with nuts and nut butters or adding avocado and dressing to salads, as their calories can quickly add up.
Do you find calorie counting tedious? Another useful way to lose weight is to use your hands for portion control. In a main meal, your serving of protein, such as beans, should be roughly the size of your palm; your serving of grains or carbs, such as sweet potato, should be the size of your fist; your portion of low-carb veggies and salad should be at least the size of your cupped hands together; and your serving of healthy fat or dressing should be about the size of your thumb.
LIMIT OR ELIMINATE ALCOHOL
My advice is to really limit or eliminate alcohol if you’re serious about weight loss and fitness because alcohol is one of the worst substances you can consume for storing fat, especially around your middle. Add in the sugary mixers and the higher sugar content in wine and beer, and it becomes impossible to drink regularly if weight loss is your goal. It also slows down your metabolism and the yeast in certain drinks may encourage candida overgrowth. If you must have a drink, choose clear spirits with a low-sugar mixer, such as vodka with soda water and fresh lime juice.
Like alcohol, refined sugar, white flour and other simple carbs can make weight loss very difficult. They raise blood sugar levels and insulin, encouraging excess calories to be quickly stored as fat. For more effective fat loss, reduce your intake of sweet fruit, dried fruit and natural sweeteners, including maple syrup and honey. Berries are a better option to satisfy a sweet tooth.
It’s very difficult to achieve sustainable, healthy body fat loss without exercise. Keeping active helps to burn excess calories and build up lean muscle mass to boost your resting metabolic rate. I find that a combination of weight training and cardio really works to build muscle while burning body fat, but it’s important to do what you enjoy and can fit into your lifestyle.
EAT SMALL MEALS REGULARLY
To encourage your metabolism to function optimally, try eating five or six smaller meals each day and aim to eat every three or four hours. This ensures that your blood sugar levels remain stable throughout the day and your body is fed a consistent stream of amino acids and other nutrients to support energy levels, muscle repair and a good mood.
HOW TO BOOST YOUR METABOLISM
Metabolism is the means by which your body converts what you eat and drink into energy. During this complex biochemical process, calories in food and beverages are combined with oxygen to release the energy your body needs to function. Even when you’re sitting still or fast asleep, your body needs energy for functions such as breathing, heartbeat and blood circulation, hormone production, and growing and healing cells.
GET AN EARLY NIGHT
It’s not always easy to get your full requirement of sleep each night, especially with work, family or study demands. But if your aim is to maintain your weight or lose a few pounds, then getting enough sleep each night is really important for a healthy and properly functioning metabolism.
It’s actually pretty normal for sleep-deprived people to find that they gain an extra few pounds without changing their diet, as a lack of sleep can lead to various metabolic issues. It can cause you to burn fewer overall calories, run into problems with appetite control and experience an increase in cortisol levels, which encourages the body to store fat around the middle. Lack of sufficient sleep, which tends to be between seven and nine hours for most people, may also impair glucose tolerance, which is your body’s ability to utilise sugar for fuel.
EAT ENOUGH PROTEIN
Firstly, your body expends more energy digesting protein than fat or carbohydrates. When you eat fat, only about 5% of the calories are used to break down that food, but when you eat protein, it’s closer to 20-30%. All three major macronutrients are essential to a healthy metabolism, but eating some protein alongside complex carbs, such as oats, sweet potato, brown rice and quinoa, and healthy fats such as nuts, seeds or avocado with every meal also helps to repair and build torn muscle fibres.
Another key reason why protein is so essential to a healthy metabolic rate is because the amino acid tyrosine is a major component in the production of the thyroid hormone, thyroxine. Your thyroid controls the metabolism of every cell in your body. If you’re not eating enough protein for your body’s metabolic requirement, then tyrosine may be used for other functions.
Your body can recognise this as a famine state, sending out an alarm to your body to slow down its metabolic rate to store calories for survival. This is why crash dieting does not work in the long term and may even damage your metabolism. While certain vitamins and minerals can be stored in the body, amino acids must be eaten each day, and ideally in every meal and snack. But if you’re eating enough calories a day from whole unprocessed foods, it’s virtually impossible to become deficient in protein.
EAT SEA VEGETABLES
Sea vegetables, such as nori, kelp, kombu, dulse and wakame, are rich in iodine.
Iodine is an essential mineral for your thyroid health, as thyroxine is formed from iodine and the amino acid tyrosine. Without plentiful supplies of thyroxine, your thyroid can begin to dysfunction, which makes you more prone to weight gain, dry skin, fatigue, irritability and feeling constantly cold.
A notable exception to this is in the case of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, in which extra iodine may cause further health problems. If you suspect that you may have a sluggish or overactive thyroid, I advise you to book a blood test with your GP. While regular table salt generally has added iodine, I prefer to avoid refined salt and salty foods. Instead I get all the iodine I need for a healthy metabolism from sea veggies, which also add a subtle saltiness to foods. One great way to do this is to use toasted nori sheets instead of a wrap for a low-carb, high-nutrient snack or light lunch.
Weight or resistance training is incredibly important for strengthening all your muscles and for increasing your ratio of lean muscle to fat mass. This in turn boosts your metabolism as it encourages the body to burn calories for hours after the session while your torn muscle fibres repair themselves. Muscle at rest also burns more calories than fat.
Candida albicans is a single-celled fungus that is always found in a healthy digestive tract and genital area. Under normal circumstances it helps your body to digest and absorb nutrients, and your friendly gut bacteria help to keep it under control. But if it’s allowed to multiply and grow in disproportionate amounts, it can cause infection, both locally as thrush or throughout your entire system.
There are various reasons for developing candidiasis, from a highly stressful lifestyle, overuse of antibiotics and the oral contraceptive pill to a diet high in processed and refined foods, especially sugars.
Candida tends to be under-diagnosed, as its symptoms may relate to a variety of other ailments. It may contribute to weight gain and gas or bloating, and it can also cause fungal infections of your skin and nails. There are some laboratory tests available for diagnosing it, including blood, stool and urine tests, so please speak to your GP if you’re concerned.
Many people have had good success by overhauling their diet. Candida lives off sugar, which means that you feed it any time you eat sugar or drink alcohol, especially drinks such as wine and beer.
It can take up to six months to see symptoms disappear completely but if you follow a strict sugar-free diet, symptoms should start to noticeably improve within a number of weeks. This means following an eating plan with no refined sugar, bread, white flour-based foods, yeast-based foods, alcohol, sweet fruit, dried fruit, fruit juices or sweeteners like maple syrup and honey. I know this sounds like torture, but it should make a significant difference.
As the candida in your system begins to clear up, it’s normal to experience symptoms similar to detox, including aching joints, headaches and fatigue. You may still crave sugar as the fungus is fighting to survive, but once you get through the initial first few days, the cravings subside.
Many of my Eat Yourself Fit recipes are devised to discourage and fight candida while encouraging the growth of healthy bacteria in your gut. However, most of my sweet treats, desserts and smoothies contain fruit, dried fruit and sweeteners, which are all free from refined sugar, but may continue to feed the candida. Generally, following a sugar-free and starch-free diet for one to three months will clear up candida. Then you can slowly start reintroducing sweet fruits and the occasional glass of wine, but reverting back to your previous high-sugar diet may cause the symptoms to return. It’s also important to look after your gut health during this time by eating plenty of high-fibre veggies and taking a daily probiotic capsule after your evening meal.
MY OWN CANDIDA EXPERIENCE
I had my own struggles with candida for the very first time after my wedding and honeymoon, which led to swift weight gain and a sore, stubborn fungal infection in my nail bed.
I went on a sugar-free and alcohol-free diet and felt very tired for the first few days. I got pretty bad sugar cravings at the beginning, which I was able to handle by dabbing a pinch of ground cinnamon on the middle of my tongue (a useful trick!). Making hot chocolate with raw cacao powder, almond milk and a few drops of liquid stevia really helped me too.
I persevered and it all cleared up within six weeks. My weight naturally stabilised too. I was able to reintroduce sweeter fruits, but I avoid refined sugar and wine now as they just don’t react well with me.
Experts believe that refined sugar is more addictive than cocaine because it stimulates the reward centre of your brain to release dopamine, which makes you want to experience that feeling more and more, encouraging a vicious cycle.
Refined sugar is found in almost all packaged and processed foods, even many savoury ones. Three hundred years ago, the average person ate a maximum of about 4lb of sugar per year. Now it’s estimated that many people are eating close to 40 times that. A 2014 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information in the US demonstrated that up to 75% of commercial foods and drinks contain added refined sugar.
You don’t need sugar in your life and the cycle of sugar addiction can be broken. To preserve your health, waistline and skin and to keep it looking young for as long as possible, I strongly advise you to either totally eliminate refined sugar or dramatically reduce it from your diet.
MY TIPS FOR ELIMINATING SUGAR
GIVE IT 21 DAYS
Twenty-one days is generally considered the appropriate length of time to break a habit. I find that total abstinence for this time is the best way to break the addiction, because even tasting a little bit of sugar can kick start the cycle all over again. After just a few weeks off it, refined sugar will taste synthetic and far too sweet.
READ NUTRITION LABELS
Always check the ingredients listed on packaged foods carefully and never believe the hype and marketing claims made on packaging. Aim to stock up on foods as close to their natural state as possible, such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, nut butters, seeds, quinoa, beans and legumes.
KEEP A FOOD DIARY
This can really help you to track and eliminate mindless snacking and where and when you’re adding extra sugar to your diet, such as in cups of tea and coffee or late-night cravings for sweet foods.
It can be easy to go through a busy day and forget to drink water. Get into the habit of sipping from a large bottle of water throughout the day. You need at least eight glasses of water per day and more in warm weather or if you’re exercising. Veggie juices and herbal teas count too, but caffeinated drinks act as diuretics and can dehydrate you.
Stock up on healthy snacks. When a sugar craving hits, try eating a piece of ripe fruit with a little nut butter or a handful of raw almonds. Green apples, citrus fruits and berries are lower in sugar than other types of fruit and make a great snack.
CHOOSE HOMEMADE OVER EATING OUT
This can be tricky for anyone out all day at work, but being in control of what goes onto your plate can make all the difference. Aim to pack your own lunches rather than grabbing a shop-bought sandwich. Get into the habit of requesting potentially sugar-laden sauces, dips and dressings on the side and try not to tempt yourself with the bread basket or dessert menu.
STOCK UP ON CINNAMON
I sprinkle this sweet warming spice on a range of dishes and add it to smoothies because I find it brilliant for helping to curb sugar cravings. Plus it helps to fight fungal infections, boosts blood circulation and it’s a rich source of minerals and antioxidants. It’s also a good source of the mineral chromium, which helps to regulate blood sugar levels and the laying down of fat in your body.
CHEAT WITH A TREAT
No matter what type of eating plan you follow, if any, I think it’s important to reward healthy living with an occasional tasty dessert or sweet treat. All my desserts and sweet treat recipes are simple to make and free from refined sugar, trans-fats, artificial ingredients, gluten and dairy.
Artificial sweeteners include aspartame, saccharin and sucralose. While all have been approved and declared safe for consumption by humans, controversy remains about the potential health risks associated with these sweeteners.
Although aspartame contains no calories, detailed studies have revealed that those drinking one to two cans of fizzy diet drinks per day had a 54.5% risk of becoming overweight. This is because the phenylalanine and aspartic acid contained in aspartame may cause the release of insulin, which disrupts the hormones that control fat storage in the body. While it’s one of the essential amino acids, phenylalanine acts as a neurotoxin and overexcites brain neurons when consumed in high amounts. There are high amounts of isolated phenylalanine found in aspartame, and this can lower levels of serotonin, which we know is an important neurotransmitter that helps prevent cravings for sweet and starchy foods.
Saccharin consumption may lead to more weight gain and increased levels of body fat than eating exactly the same foods sweetened with regular sugar.
Agave syrup has been promoted heavily as a natural and healthy alternative to chemical sweeteners. However, it is still processed. The means by which agave is processed is almost the same as how high-fructose corn syrup is produced from cornstarch, which may cause damage to health.
The small amounts of fructose found in fruit don’t cause a problem in the body, plus their high fibre and water content reduces the concentration. But in the considerable levels found in agave, it may place a strain on the liver. This is because the GI tract doesn’t absorb fructose that well, so it’s transported straight to the liver. Fatty liver disease, obesity and a number of other health issues have been associated with the consumption of high levels of fructose. Honey contains fructose too, so it is best eaten in moderation.
Stevia is a natural herbal sweetener that comes in a liquid or powdered form and is calorie free. It won’t raise blood sugar levels or cause weight gain. It can be used to sweeten hot drinks and smoothies and you can use it in baking and in desserts too.
Xylitol is another acceptable option, and again it does not affect blood sugar levels. Cinnamon is a good sweetener because it’s naturally sweet and warming, and high-quality, organic maple syrup is another sweetener I use in quite a number of my dessert recipes, as it has such a rich flavour. Although it’s not raw as it has to be heat treated, it’s still less processed than agave and it contains some B vitamins, calcium, magnesium, zinc and potassium.
Another good choice is organic dried fruit, once it’s free from added sugar, sulphites and other preservatives. However, dried fruit is better eaten in moderation as it is higher in sugar. Dates, raisins and figs also contain a number of beneficial vitamins and minerals, including potassium, calcium, magnesium, B vitamins, copper and iron. There have been many times that dried fruit has saved me from a craving for something naughty and sweet, so it’s a good idea to keep some stocked in your cupboards!
Crash diets don’t work
I’m frequently asked for the quickest way to shed pounds in a week or two before a holiday, wedding or big event. A few days of eating really clean, healthy whole fruits and veggies and drinking plenty of water can definitely help to prep your stomach for a holiday as you’re just helping your body to shift any stored water retention. But in the long term, those restrictive diets simply don’t work.
Research shows that when you diet, blood levels of tryptophan and subsequent levels of brain serotonin drop significantly. Your brain then demands that you eat carbohydrates immediately, and the message is so powerful that even the strongest-willed person would probably struggle to ignore it. If your diet is also low in nutrients, including zinc and vitamin B6, then a similar craving for stodgy carbs may arise because you’ll likely be failing to produce sufficient serotonin.
Depending on the person, these low-serotonin cravings can range from fancying a biscuit with a cup of tea to a full-blown binge on bread, chocolate, ice cream, crisps, chips and whatever else you can get your hands on. This is why the majority of diets do not work!
YO-YO DIETING AND THE SET POINT THEORY
Yo-yo dieting may be tempting as a quick fix, but it generally does more harm than good. Dieters find themselves on a constant roller coaster of weight loss and weight gain, often gaining back even more than they originally weighed. It can become a constant, stressful and soul-destroying cycle.
The set point theory may explain why dieters end up exceeding their original weight with rebound overeating. The ‘set point’ is the weight that your body tries to keep at a steady level by regulating the amount of food and calories eaten. Research shows that each person has a programmed ‘set point’ weight, controlled by your individual fat cells. When the fat cell begins to shrink as the person diets, it sends a strong message to the brain, telling it to eat immediately as the body is facing a starvation state.
The set point is yet another explanation as to why calorie-restricting diets don’t work, and certainly not in the long term. A person determined to lose weight is able to use sheer willpower in the short term to fight off the urge to eat what they normally do, but the impulse usually becomes too powerful to ignore. What follows is ‘rebound eating’, and the person frequently ends up gaining more weight than before. This reprogrammes their set point to an even higher level, making future weight loss even tougher.
SO WHAT’S THE ANSWER?
The big secret to overriding the set point in your fat cells is to increase your insulin sensitivity to enable fat stores to be burned for energy. How do you do this? By exercising regularly, eating a high-fibre, whole-foods diet full of veggies, fruit, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and trying to avoid blood sugar-raising foods and drinks, including refined sugar, soft drinks, alcohol, white flour, fruit juice, chips, crisps and other junk foods.
MY TOP 10 FOODS FOR FAT LOSS
These are my top 10 favourite foods to focus on for helping fat loss and boosting overall health, and they crop up in most of my recipes.
Kale is part of the brassica family. It has a mellow, earthy taste and its large, waxy leaves provide more nutritional value for fewer calories than almost any other food available. It’s rich in fibre and water to keep you feeling full, to boost fat burning, to maintain a healthy digestive system and to make you less likely to overeat, plus it has an abundance of essential vitamins, minerals and disease-fighting antioxidant compounds. Kale contains a concentration of two types of important antioxidants, called carotenoids and flavonoids. Calorie for calorie, it contains more calcium than milk, more iron than beef, 10% more vitamin C than spinach and is high in amino acids, antioxidants, vitamins A and E and minerals.
Chickpeas are an excellent fat loss and fitness food to include in your diet regularly. They’re low fat, rich in complete protein and B vitamins to boost energy levels and support a healthy metabolism, and they’re packed with fibre to encourage normal digestive health and banish bloating. They’re also lower in starch than many other types of beans, so they’re easier to digest and they help to keep blood sugar levels stable.
Fibre is essential for weight loss and effective fat burning, as it fills you up, boosts your metabolism and contains no calories. Lentils are full of fibre, with almost 12g per cup (cooked). They’re also low in calories, high in protein and iron and they contain virtually zero fat. The perfect fitness food.
Nature’s sweet treats in a perfect package! Berries are amongst the fruit lowest in sugar and calories, and they contain plenty of fibre to keep blood sugar levels and insulin stable. Rich in antioxidants, they assist in reducing inflammation in the body, protect your skin from the early signs of ageing and help to banish sugar cravings.
A great source of complex carbs, sweet potatoes are low calorie, with virtually no fat and plenty of fibre to keep you feeling satisfied between meals. They don’t raise blood sugar in the same way that regular potatoes do, making them a reliable and versatile fat-loss food.
PLANT-BASED PROTEIN POWDER
Protein is so important for burning body fat, as it requires more energy for your body to digest and helps build lean muscle to keep you toned and slim. Hemp powder and other forms of raw, vegan protein powder are excellent sources of complete protein without having excess calories. They also work well in smoothies and protein bars and balls.
These tiny seeds can absorb liquid and swell up to 15 times their size, making them a brilliant food for weight loss as they keep you feeling full for hours. With high levels of protein and fibre, chia seeds are also one of the very best sources of omega-3 fats to nourish your skin and help keep your cell membranes strong and supple.
ALMONDS AND ALMOND BUTTER
Not only are they a good source of easily assimilated plant protein, but raw unsalted almonds are one of the very best food sources of vitamin E to nourish, soften and protect your skin from sun damage. Opt for a handful a day to snack on between meals as they help to stabilise blood sugar levels. Raw almond butter is a great way to enjoy these protein-rich nuts, but aim for no more than a tablespoon per day.
This naturally gluten-free seed is packed with fibre, complete protein, magnesium, B vitamins, iron and potassium to boost energy and support weight loss and fitness goals. It’s higher in amino acids and minerals and lower in carbs than couscous or rice.
Oats are simple to prepare and fill you up quickly, helping to keep blood sugar and insulin levels stable. They’re also higher in protein than many other grains, lower in non-fibre carbs and rich in energy-boosting B vitamins. The beta-glucans in oatmeal help to lower bad cholesterol by removing it from the bloodstream.
Do you ever have days or weeks when you feel hungry all the time and no amount of food can satiate you? There can be a number of reasons involved in that feeling of being full enough to stop eating, so it’s important to get used to listening to your body’s hunger and satiety signals.
Food portions served in restaurants tend to be much bigger than they ought to be, and people often think that they need more food than they really do. This can lead to overeating and taking in more calories than the body can burn, which encourages fat storage over time.
If you find yourself constantly snacking and would like to take steps to break the cycle, ask yourself these four questions.
ARE YOU GENUINELY HUNGRY?
One of the most effective ways to gain control of your weight for life is to really pay attention to what your body is telling you. It’s easy to get into the habit of eating out of boredom or emotional eating if you’re feeling upset or lonely. I’ve always encouraged clients I’ve worked with for weight loss to ask themselves if they’re really hungry before they reach for a snack.
ARE YOU PROPERLY HYDRATED?
Try drinking a glass of water first and waiting a few minutes to see if you’re still peckish. Caffeinated drinks like tea, coffee and some fizzy drinks will act as a diuretic and cause more water to be expelled from your body, which can lead to dehydration. Herbal teas can help if you’re looking for a slightly sweeter taste. Try adding a few drops of liquid stevia to sweeten them even more.
ARE YOU EATING ON THE RUN?
Slowing down, being present in the moment and really developing your awareness around food, snacking and the relationship between food and your body can make all the difference when it comes to achieving your ideal weight.
We lead busy, demanding lives, so eating on the run is something we can all be guilty of. But making less healthy choices when out and about and then gulping down food can really impact on your waistline and digestion. I keep a packet of raw almonds in my handbag so that I always have a healthy snack on hand to keep me going until I can eat a proper meal.
ARE YOU FEELING FULL?
Putting down your knife and fork when you’re three-quarters full is my favourite tip for portion control on a plant-based diet, and it means that counting calories isn’t necessary. Low-fat plant-based meals are nutrient dense but low in calorific energy, so you would have to feel seriously stuffed before you overdo it on excess energy. Listening to your body and appetite signals, eating from a smaller plate and finishing when you’re three-quarters full will ensure that your weight will stabilise to what is ideal for your body type and height.
For many people, eating five or six small meals a day and never going for longer than three to four hours without food can help to balance their blood sugar levels, preventing extreme hunger and the urge to binge on calorie-rich foods.
The stomach stretch response
One key reason for being tempted to overeat is linked to the actual stretch and feeling of fullness in your stomach.
When your stomach is full after eating, stretch receptors in its walls send a signal to the vagus nerve, which tells your brain to stop eating because enough food has been consumed. One of the many reasons I recommend a diet based on high-fibre plant foods is because it fills you up so much more effectively than any other type of food, enabling the brain to receive the signal that you’re full.
To use calories as a reference, imagine the difference between 400 calories of vegetables, olive oil and beef in your stomach. You would need to eat plenty of veggies to get 400 calories’ worth (about six cups each of lettuce, aubergine and tomatoes), but they would really fill you up since they’re so rich in water and fibre.
However, just under 3½ tablespoons of oil or just under a cup of sliced beef quickly add up to 400 calories, and without all the dietary fibre to tell your stomach’s stretch receptors that you’ve eaten enough because animal protein contains no dietary fibre. It shows how important it is to fill up on veggies to help with weight management.
What your food cravings really mean
No matter how healthy and balanced your lifestyle is, almost everyone will face food cravings at some stage. But did you know that the type of foods you crave may tell you a lot about the essential nutrients that you could be lacking? Your body may be in need of various nutrients, which the brain interprets as cravings for certain foods. These are often sugary, salty, starchy or fatty snacks.
FULL OF FOOD, STARVED OF NUTRIENTS
Eating a diet that’s high in refined carbs, processed foods and nutrient-depleted foods can often lead to food cravings, as your body struggles to get the wide array of nutrients it requires each day for normal and healthy function. These foods can cause extreme blood sugar fluctuations, which may really impact your mood and energy levels and trigger food cravings. While you may be eating a lot, your body can still be malnourished because it’s not getting the nutrients it needs, so your brain tells you to keep on eating.
Being in touch with your body and your food cravings can make all the difference to your health and maintaining your ideal body weight. When a craving arises, it really helps to know why it’s happening and what foods can ease without impacting your health or waistline.
ARE YOU WONDERING WHAT YOUR FOOD CRAVINGS ARE TELLING YOU?
Here’s a handy guide to why you might crave certain foods and some healthy alternatives to choose.
This is often a sign that your body is lacking magnesium, which is nature’s sedating hormone and essential for easing stress and anxiety, relaxing muscles, enabling energy production, building healthy bones and for normal heart function. Instead of reaching for a bar of chocolate, try eating raw nuts and seeds, leafy green veggies or one of my healthier chocolate treats, such as the fitness fudge brownies here. Raw cacao powder is a super source of magnesium and antioxidants and banana is an excellent good mood food too.
This may also be linked to magnesium deficiency. Try incorporating more nuts, seeds and leafy greens into your diet. Almonds and avocados are both good sources of magnesium, and my stress-soothing avocado smoothie here is rich in this essential mineral.
If my body needs a quick energy fix, I usually crave sweet fruits like banana, pineapple or grapes rather than refined sugar or stodgy carbs. I find them perfect for a pre-workout snack, as they provide clean-burning, instant energy.
But if I’m tired and craving a sugar hit, I eat a handful of raw almonds, pumpkin seeds and raisins sprinkled with cinnamon, which work together to help produce serotonin and lift my mood.
CRAVING SALTY FOODS
You need a small amount of chloride each day for healthy bodily function (about ¼ teaspoon), so cravings for salty foods may indicate that you need a little bit of salt to balance levels. In that case, I recommend using a pinch of Celtic sea salt or Himalayan pink rock salt rather than refined table salt, as they’re both richer in minerals and more natural than processed salt.
But salt cravings can also be related to stress. When you’re highly stressed or feeling under pressure, your adrenal glands produce excessive levels of cortisol. This stress hormone may cause you to crave high-fat, stodgy foods, including crisps and chips. Once again, stress management is essential.
Salty foods may cause you to look and feel a few pounds heavier, as they can dehydrate the body and encourage your kidneys to send out the signal to store water rather than excrete it. Avoiding salty foods or adding extra salt to foods, plus drinking plenty of water, can help to release water retention for leaner limbs and a flatter stomach.
CRAVING FATTY FOODS
According to a Harvard Medical School study, ‘Once ingested, fat-filled foods seem to have a feedback effect that inhibits activity in the parts of the brain that produce and process stress and related emotions.’ This means that many people could view fatty foods such as chips and cheese as comfort food, then crave them when they feel sad or stressed.
Cravings for these fatty foods may also indicate a lack of essential fats in your body, such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. To boost health and ease cravings for fat, try eating a handful of raw unsalted walnuts or adding a tablespoon of chia seeds, ground flaxseeds or hemp seeds to smoothies, porridge, soups and salads every day.
CRAVING FIZZY DRINKS
This may indicate a need for more calcium in your body, and Irish adults require 800mg of calcium per day. Calcium can be found in dark green leafy vegetables such as kale, broccoli and collard greens as well as in dried beans and legumes. Other good sources include tahini (sesame seed butter), dried figs, flaxseeds, chia seeds, calcium-fortified plant milks, oranges and almonds.
Many people associate dairy with calcium, but scientists from the prestigious US Harvard School of Public Health have stated, ‘Calcium is important. But milk isn’t the only, or even best, source.’
CRAVING TEA OR COFFEE
Many of us love a daily cup of tea or coffee, especially in the morning. But craving these hot drinks all day can indicate a deficiency of phosphorus in your system. Phosphorus is important for proper cell functioning, energy production, the regulation of calcium, and strong bones and teeth.
Some of the best plant-based sources of the mineral include almonds, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, beans, mushrooms and sesame seeds.
Cravings for bread may happen when you’re stressed or following a low-carb diet, but it may also be because your body requires more nitrogen. Nitrogen can be consumed in high-protein foods, including beans and legumes, nuts and seeds and quinoa, as well as animal-based protein if you’re not eating a plant-based diet.
It’s all about balance
One of the questions I’m asked most often by those interested in my lifestyle is whether I get cravings for ‘unhealthy’ foods. My honest response is that it does happen sometimes, but not very often, as I’ve learned how to balance my diet and ensure I’m getting all the nutrients I need. My body never thinks that it’s being starved or deprived of essential nutrients. Also, I follow a plant-based diet because I really enjoy experimenting with the foods and flavours. It’s definitely not a punishment!
I’m only human though and I do enjoy breaking ‘the rules’ from time to time. In my twenties there were times when I tried to be the absolute ‘healthiest’ version of myself. And you know what? I wasn’t very happy or healthy doing it, because I would feel immense guilt for missing workouts or eating something I had told myself I shouldn’t. Life is for living to the full, enjoying fun times with friends and treating yourself every so often.
Be kind to yourself, avoid crash diets, eat sensibly as much as possible and never feel guilty for enjoying your life and treating yourself. But for the best quality of life, I believe it’s important to eat and drink moderately and to strike a sustainable balance between health, fitness and fun to help you feel your very best. Be good 80% of the time and enjoy yourself for the remaining 20%.
It’s not about being perfect all the time. It’s about balance and progress.