Just looking at this picture makes me feel better personally, but have you ever thought about the impact of WHAT you eat has on how you FEEL?
I can’t pretend that navigating mental health is one-dimensional, that everyone will respond in the same way, or that what we eat is the only things that can change how we feel, it absolutely isn’t. But I grow increasingly frustrated at the “experts” that reject diet and lifestyle interventions as a way to modulate our brain chemistry and our mood.
As someone who struggles with my own mental health at times, I am particularly concerned at the impact that this extended lockdown is having on others. I am lucky, I am not confined to my home right now and I am free to enjoy nature and all the benefits that offers me, but I know that if I had stayed in London I would be experiencing something entirely different. I have no doubt that I would not have been able to sit here right now and write this blog post which I hope you will find helpful.
Because what we eat really does have an effect on how we feel. I say that from scientific research and I say that from my own personal experience. I was never diagnosed with depression or anxiety, but since having my children there were days when I felt incredibly depressed, anxious or overwhelmed. Through those postpartum days particularly, I never realised what it was that was making me feel that way, but I am so thankful for the calling I felt to study nutrition and the motivations I had to feed myself well. I have no doubt that they (alongside my husband and family) were what carried me through that time and to where I am now.
So how can we eat to support our mental health right now? Here are five tips to start you off – try one, add another, see how you feel…
1Choose real, wholefoods
When we are feeling low, cravings for high-sugar, highly processed foods are quite normal. Our minds set us up to want them, to get the quick hit of dopamine (our “reward” hormone) from a sugar or caffeine rush. But they are not our friends. They are low in nutrients that support our brain health, they spike then crash our blood sugar levels and they contain inflammatory fats.
“Swap the white bread sandwich for a wholegrain option, choose natural fruits and nuts to snack on or make yourself a colourful “rainbow” salad”
Instead, swap the white bread sandwich for a wholegrain option, choose natural fruits and nuts to snack on or make yourself a colourful “rainbow” salad. Foods such as wholegrain rice, quinoa, barley, nuts and seeds are all abundant in B vitamins that support the creation of healthy neurotransmitters (chemical messengers that interact with our brains and stimulate feelings) in the body. Vitamin B9 (folate) which can be found in abundance in leafy green vegetables such as spinach, kale and broccoli is also key in this production process, as is vitamin B12 which is found in animal products and supplements.
2 Get plenty of protein
Proteins form the backbone of many of the neurotransmitters
we need for balanced brain chemistry, so ensuring that we get sufficient in our
diet, gives our bodies the building blocks they need to do so.
Including protein in our meals also ensures that they are digested more steadily and release their energy at a speed that is balanced. Our brains use mainly glucose for energy, but we will feel much better if this is delivered at a constant and regular speed, rather than a roller-coaster of highs and lows.
“Include at least one source of protein with every meal or snack you eat”
Protein foods are meat, poultry and fish,
dairy and eggs, pulses like beans, chickpeas and lentils, and nuts and seeds.
Try to include at least one source of protein with every meal or snack you eat.
One amino acid (an essential protein building block) that plays a particular role in our mental health is tryptophan which forms the basis of the hormones serotonin (that makes us feel good) and melatonin (that helps us to sleep well). Tryptophan is particularly rich in red meats and turkey, eggs, soy, beans and cherries.
3Eat healthy fats
Fats play a crucial role in our health, not least in our brains which are made up of about 60% fat. They are also used in the membranes of each and every cell in our bodies, and as such play a crucial role when we want to send signals from one cell to another.
“Eat oily fish such as salmon and mackerel”
Healthy fats are those found in whole foods such as nuts and seeds, avocados, cold pressed oils like olive oil, and oily fish. Omega 3 fats have been shown to be particularly helpful with supporting brain health, so include some regular oily fish such as salmon and mackerel in your diet.
4Swap your coffee for a green tea
Green tea contains another helpful amino acid, theonine. Theonine is linked to another neurotransmitter called GABA, which helps to calm us down. It can be very helpful in reducing feelings of anxiety and helps to buffer the effects the caffeine that is consumed alongside it.
5Consume magnesium-rich foods
Magnesium, in conjunction with calcium and
vitamin B6, is a great nutrient for relaxation and enabling sleep. It is also
important for energy production, and often those with low levels can also
experience fatigue as well as low mood.
The good news is magnesium-rich foods are
plentiful and delicious – dark chocolate (70% or higher), avocados, nuts such
as almonds and peanuts, legumes like chickpeas and lentils, dark green leafy vegetables,
buckwheat and bananas to name a few.
If you are feeling low, please don’t
hesitate to reach out and get some help. These dietary interventions on their
own may not give you everything that you need, but please do give them a try
alongside. As a personalised nutrition expert, I can’t make specific
recommendations without looking at you as a unique individual, but all of the
above, in moderation, are safe food choices to make and at the very least won’t
make you feel any worse. On the contrary, they have the potential to make you
feel so much better.
Keep your eyes peeled for my upcoming posts where I will share with you my favourite mood-boosting recipes to help you start feeling better:
So here’s an aspect of my work that doesn’t necessarily spring to mind when you’re thinking about a nutritionist – bath products. But what we put on our bodies is just as important as what we put in them too, and there’s plenty of reasons to be just as sceptical of a long list of ingredients on the back of your toiletries as you should be of your food products.
Not so long ago I was merrily purchasing bath bombs from a well-known high-street chain that professes to be “natural” and “environmentally friendly” – indeed they are making huge strides in this industry and don’t use lots of plastic packaging etc. But here’s the catch – I didn’t look at the ingredients, I just trusted them! Yep, I’m also a busy mum trying not to neglect my kids as I juggle work and the ever elusive balance so bam, quick bath bomb treats and everyone’s a winner right?
But no… one day they stuck the ingredients label on the package and as I sat on the bus heading home my gaze landed on it… In this instance it was SLS that popped out at me, but there are a number of others that you also want to be mindful of.
SLS – this is what makes products bubbly, something we probably desire in our bathroom products, but actually it is hugely irritating for the skin and can strip it of water, essentially damaging it. If you’re prone to eczema or sensitive skin, this one is a definite no-no.
SLES – this is a bit like SLS, but the additional processing that makes it kinder to the skin than SLS can actually create a toxin (1,4-dioxane) that has been linked to cancer. So I will pass on that too…
Parabens – these are essentially preservatives, anti-bacterial agents that ensure products have a long and stable shelf life. These are what hit the headlines a while ago because research has started to show that they can mimic hormones like oestrogen in the body, essentially interfering with our hormonal balance. In addition, they are playing a role in contaminating water, and spreading these effects further into our planet’s delicate ecosystem and wildlife so another that I avoid.
I won’t make this article too long, but if you’re interested in learning more about the ingredients in your kids toiletries, here’s a great article from Green People For me, it’s a simple answer – as much as I can I am making my own or sharing batches with friends and family; that way I know that only safe natural ingredients are involved, and bonus – we are having an absolute blast doing it too! If you want to get started, I absolutely love this book, Natural Beauty by Karen Gilbert – it’s got “grown-up” recipes, but you can adapt them to make more fun versions for kids which is exactly what I’ve done here!
Recipe: Natural Bath Bombs (Makes 8)
300g bicarbonate of soda
150g citric acid
50g corn flour
natural food colouring liquid or powder – amount varies*
lavender essential oil – approx 50 drops**
biodegradable glitter – as little as small hands will allow!
water in a spray bottle
Silicone cupcake case
Combine the bicarb, citric acid and corn flour in a large mixing bowl, then add the food colouring, essential oil and glitter mix thoroughly with your hands – you may wish to use rubber gloves for this as it’s quite harsh on the skin.
Continue to mix the mixture whilst spraying with water until it forms a consistency that whilst still loose, will pack and stick into the silicone cupcake forms, which is the final step.
Leave the bathbombs in the silicone moulds for 24 hours in a dry warm spot (the airing cupboard is perfect but the counter top also works just fine.
For a fun variation, split the recipe in half and make two separate batches with different colours. You can also substitute the glitter for dried flowers like lavender – once you start, you’ll soon get the hang of these and make infinite numbers of different and fun creations!
* You can use a variety of sources for this, but I have thus far stuck to the good old Waitrose Essential range.
**Lavender essential oil I buy from The Natural Dispensary – do have a look at their essential oils selection, and you can use the code POHL10 alongside my name (Catherine Pohl) to get a 10% discount (full disclosure, I also get a referral bonus when you do).
I have been asked for my opinion countless times now, on the recent Netflix film “The Game Changers”. Close friends have called me excitedly to talk about their new found vegan diet, and clients are increasingly asking me for help with cutting out meat and animal products.
But many seem somewhat confused that I’m not eating a vegan diet myself? The film was indeed very compelling. But I can assure you that I’m not vegan, and as a nutrition professional I have very solid reasons for the choices that I make around my own diet, as well as advising others with theirs and helping people make sense of the overwhelm of “information” that bombards us on a daily basis.
So why am I not vegan?
The first thing missing from the film for me was individuality. Functional medicine – which underpins my nutrition training – recognises is that we are all individuals, no two of us are exactly the same genetically or in terms of our lifestyles and life experiences.
For some, many even, a vegan can be fantastic and perfectly healthy. There is growing pressure on cutting down animal farming from an environmental perspective as well as the ethical factors for which people choose a vegan lifestyle, and all these things should be considered in the bigger picture, but if you’re choosing to eat only plant-based foods, you need to know how to feed yourself well and this is not something I feel the film either conveyed or equipped the viewer to do.
“If you’re choosing to eat only plant-based foods, you need to know how to feed yourself well”
Secondly, I want to take a moment to raise the question around the science of research. My training involved numerous hours learning how to research appraise the whole body of research evidence around a particular issue and review it critically. If that doesn’t make sense I apologise, but it basically means that I have done my time learning how to assess the scientific evidence for any number of dietary and nutrient-based hypotheses, and I do this on an almost daily basis when working with my clients.
The film flashed up and referred to many studies, but on closer inspection, many of them were what is called “cherry-picked” to support an argument, ie. they didn’t also take present the other side of the argument. James Cameron, one of the directors, actually owns a vegan food business – did you know that? He stands to make a direct profit from creating more vegans in the world. In the world of scientific research this would be classed as a “conflict of interest”. It doesn’t mean his motivations are not right, but it adds a aspect of doubt that should be considered.
And lastly, I’m tiring of the “binary choice” that we seem to be getting thrust upon us at every turn. There can be huge benefits in increasing plant-based foods in our diets, but why did the film instead push the extreme outcome of excluding animals completely?
It compared our human digestive tract to that of a lion – completely different, I agree – but not of a cow (you guessed it – also completely different) I couldn’t find a picture of a cow sorry – but here’s another carnivore, a dog, and here’s the cow. Which looks more like the human digestive tract?
Do we really need animal protein?
Ok, so that covers the my main points of complaint for the film, now for why I eat meat… No, we don’t necessarily need animal protein, but there are a few factors to consider if you want to give it up, and certainly if you’re an athlete (as many of those in the film were), serious consideration does need to be given to this aspect.
For an athlete like Patrik Baboumian who was featured in the film, there is a greater requirement for protein than eating a typical vegan diet can easily provide. A simple flick into his YouTube channel will reveal exactly what he does eat, and it consists of a number of daily protein shakes, and many additional supplements. That’s not to say we all need to eat that much protein, or that his diet isn’t healthy, but protein needs to be considered, and skimming over that and implying that a body builder can get enough protein from an average vegan diet is rather misleading. Are you happy to take artificial supplements for your day to day life? I’m not.
How much protein do we need, and how do we get it?
The film also suggested that there is the same amount of protein in a peanut butter sandwich as is found in three eggs. There is approx. 18g protein in three eggs, which would translate to about 80g, or almost ¼ of a regular 400g sized jar peanut butter. I ask you this – how much peanut butter do you put in a sandwich?
“How much peanut butter do you put in a sandwich?”
Additionally, animal sources of protein are what are referred to as “complete proteins”, that is to say that they contain the full set of essential amino acids (protein molecules that our body needs to eat as it cannot break down other molecules and make them itself). Most vegetable sources do not contain all 9 of these amino acids, or if they do, few contain them all in sufficient quantities to be able to only eat that single source for our full protein requirement. For example, diets high in pulses can typically lack the amino acid methionine, but this is more plentiful in rice, hence the traditional “peas and rice” meal combination.
In the peanut butter v egg example, eggs contain all the essential amino acids, peanuts are however lacking in three of them (threonine, lysine and methionine), so they need to be topped up with other forms of protein (and before you ask, wheat isn’t a great source of lysine either so would not make up the shortfall!) You cannot just substitute eggs for peanut butter.
“You cannot just substitute eggs for peanut butter”
What else do I need to think about?
In addition to protein, there are a number of other
nutrients that are more difficult to attain easily on a vegan diet, namely: iron,
vit B12, vit D, omega 3 fats, vit A, iodine, choline, zinc.
With the exception of B12, it is possible to get these
nutrients without eating animal products, but would it not have been more
helpful for viewers to have helped them understand what they need to eat to get
sufficient quantities of them?
For many, calculating amounts of protein, their
corresponding amino acid content and additional nutrients isn’t easy or
practical – hello fussy kids or IBS and IBD sufferers that simply can’t
tolerate large quantities of pulses and legumes. For those, small amounts of animal
products provide an easy solution.
So why did the athletes and firemen do so much better on a vegan diet?
This is what made me feel truly
sad about the film. The exposure that it’s had could have done so much good.
The film picked individuals that consumed a lot of poor-quality food: hamburgers, deep-fried chicken, cheap processed meat and very little in the way of fresh vegetables, and gave them a plentiful supply of fresh vegetables.
“The film picked individuals that consumed a lot of poor-quality food: hamburgers, deep-fried chicken, cheap processed meat and very little in the way of fresh vegetables, and gave them a plentiful supply of fresh vegetables”
It really is that simple – any downside that they might have experienced from reduced proteins and nutrients plentiful in animal products (arguably negligible in the short term) was of course going to be far offset by the inclusion of nutrients that their bodies had previously been lacking – fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants plentiful in fresh vegetables and fruits.
This was not a robust scientific
study. If it had been, it would have taken into account different variables
such as reduced meat consumption with increased vegetables, and I would hypothesise
that this would have been at least as effective in improving health and
What about the environment?
I have tried to cover the fundamentals of why eating meat
may not be a bad thing for health, but in addition to that there is a lot of
attention more recently on the impact of eating meat on the environment. I
won’t go into detail as, in all honesty, I’m not qualified to do so. But it is
an area that interests me, and for which I am personally motivated to do what I
The film showed images of large-scale industrial livestock farming in desolate fields (that may or may not have previously been lush forest) and urged us not to eat meat from them.
The meat I eat does not come from such farms. I am fortunate to be able to source meat from organic, small-scale, high welfare British farms. Not everyone in the world has this option, and the research does suggest that the whole world population cannot now be fed on a diet that includes animal products to the scale at which we consume them, but the meat, dairy and eggs that I personally choose to consume is not from farms such as those depicted.
I also do not eat it in the quantities also depicted in the film. I simply wouldn’t fit it all in, especially around the amount of veggies I eat, and it’s definitely not necessary. I don’t want to provide a precise guide on how much you need as this is so personal at many levels (please get in touch if you would like help working out what is right for you), but for most, 3-5 portions of meat/fish/eggs (always including oily fish) a week alongside careful protein planning should provide enough of the nutrients you might otherwise find lacking.
Please also take a closer look at the farms you buy from,
and ask questions of your butcher, farmers market stall owner about how they
produce the food they are selling. Get comfortable with what you feel is right
for you from a welfare, ethics, environmental and health perspective. With the
changes in food legislation that look likely to happen with Brexit (US imports,
the lifting of EU bans on GMOs and pesticide use etc.) this is all the more
important to do now.
The environmental impact of plant-based foods
“Are your avocados sustainably grown or are they intensively grown on deforested land and shipped all the way from Mexico?”
Please also apply this to the plant-based foods you eat too. Are your avocados sustainably grown or are they intensively grown on deforested land and shipped all the way from Mexico? Is your almond milk made from local organic almonds, or Californian almonds heavily sprayed with pesticides which are decimating bee populations? How much energy did it take to produce, package and transport the foods you’re eating, and are there any additional waste or pesticide issues that accompany them?
“Is your almond milk made from local organic almonds, or Californian almonds heavily sprayed with pesticides which are decimating bee populations?”
This is the bigger issue for me right now, and one I’m keen to share on here and via my social media. Plus it’s a conversation that’s so important – it’s not binary, it needs to be openly discussed if we want to make any real progress.
My personal diet and the message I share around healthy eating has not changed in light of this film or any others that I’ve seen. I continue to preach the message that the majority of people should be eating more plants – 10 portions of veg and fruit per day. Initiatives like “meat-free Monday” are brilliant for helping people to reach that target. But I won’t be eliminating animal foods, (meat, fish, eggs and dairy) from my diet.
I will continue to choose high-quality and responsibly farmed products animal products, and I will continue to eat them in moderation – not every day, never more than ¼ of my plate at a time, and always alongside plenty of fresh vegetables. And I will strive to uphold these standards across all food items I consume, plant- as well as animal-based. For me, this is the right balance between supporting my health and the environment right now, but I remain open to new research and ideas that might change that.
What’s your take? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below…
“I eat meat, not every day, never more than ¼ of my plate at a time, and always alongside plenty of fresh vegetables”
If you look at the internet you’ll typically find two schools of thought – there’s one group hell bent on green juices and colonics, and another that cite the science and assure you that “detoxing” is not something you have to put effort into doing, that it is simply something that the body does on a daily basis – if you weren’t detoxing, quite simply put, you’d be dead.
And this second school of thought is absolutely right – our bodies really are detoxing every second, every minute of the day, but is that to say that there’s no reason to give them a little extra help?
The fact of the matter is this – we live in a far more toxic
world than we’ve evolved to live in. Air pollution, agricultural chemicals,
smoking, cosmetics and cleaning detergents all combine with toxins produced by
the breakdown of hormones in our bodies to increase the workload for our liver
and other organs. Whilst some thrive, others do not, and an individual’s
ability, or rather inability, to efficiently break down toxins, detoxify and then
eliminate them, means that they can build up in the body.
If we’re suffering from constipation or poor concentration, if we seem to pick up every bug going around, if we can’t shift stubborn weight around the middle or are feeling constantly tired, the chances are we might be struggling to detoxify well and could use a little bit of help to cleanse and reset our bodies; a little TLC for our liver and other detoxification organs.
If you’d like to know more, and join a supportive and motivated group of individuals on a two-week programme combining diet, exercise and lifestyle support designed to do exactly this, please get in touch to learn more about the upcoming Cleanse and Reset programme starting 6th November.
Sadly, the headline was not helpful at all. Rather than
offering support to working families or those with children that are classified
as overweight or obese, it just caused upset, guilt and anger. I took to
Instagram live and was pleased to see that that was helpful for a lot of
parents, but for those of you who missed it, here’s a written summary…
What the paper said
The research was a paper published in the scientific journal SSM-Population Health, with the title “The impact of maternal employment on children’s weight: Evidence from the UK”. It tracked 19,244 children born between 2000 and 2002, measuring their Body Mass Index (a measure of weight relative to height) at 9 months, 3, 5, 7, 11 and 14 years. The premise of the paper was that both childhood obesity and the number of mothers is paid employment has risen dramatically since 1975. The hypothesis set out to test if there was a causative effect between these two factors, rather than them both being independent statistics that happen to show the same trend.
So was there a
The paper statistically concluded that there was, however it did also fairly summarise the other available research on this subject. What it found was a number of research papers that also supported the association, and an equal number that did not. It also offered two possible contradicting explanations as to how and why a mother’s employment status might link to their child’s weight:
Working mothers have less time to prepare and
cook healthy food
Working mothers may be able to afford better
quality food for their children
The study also asked two additional questions of the
children / their carers:
How many hours TV did they watch per day during
term time? This was to determine how sedentary children of working versus
stay-at-home mums are
How often did they skip breakfast? To act as a
measure of children’s healthy eating habits
So how robust does that make these findings? In my opinion, the existence of other conflicting studies do seem to undermine a strong statistical significance, and these additional questions do take rather a big leap between what is being asked and the conclusions drown. There are, however, some useful take-aways from it.
What can we learn?
Rather than single-handedly blame working mothers, the paper concluded that steps should be taken to better involve both fathers and childcare providers in the day-to-day childcare activities and responsibilities such as eating and exercise, something which it recorded as still falling largely to mothers regardless of employment status. It noted that, whilst again not statistically significant, children who also lived with grandparents tended to have a lower BMI, suggesting that it is this aspect of time and capacity to care for and teach and provide food for our children that was the key factor.
What about working
This was a huge objection from the audience, so to cover off why fathers were not considered in the study, this was legitimately due to a lack of data. Father’s working status was also recorded, however only about 10% of the total fathers were not in employment at any stage of the study, so sadly any conclusions drawn about fathers specifically would not be statistically significant.
A word on BMI
The main measure used to determine whether or not a child was overweight or obese was BMI, which is calculated by taking a person’s weight in kilograms and dividing that by the square of their height in meters (if you’re interested in finding out yours, I would suggest popping over to the NHS website and using their handy calculator tool). When it comes to children, this is then applied against a population average that places your child at its appropriate percentile against the population as a whole. A healthy weight is deemed to be between the 3rd and 95th percentiles.
Is BMI helpful? It does give a measure across large populations and a way to track trends, so using it to show that on average childhood obesity is increasing over time is relatively helpful. However when it comes to the individual, things are less clear cut. Total weight does not take into account heavy muscle mass or lighter fat mass such that, for example, a healthy athlete may have a much higher BMI than an elderly adult who has lost much muscle mass and gained in unhealthy fat mass. Similar can be said of children – they are all so very different, and medical professionals do not usually consider BMI alone as a measure of good or poor health.
What to do if your
child has a high BMI
Children in the UK are measured at school, and that BMI
measure is then communicated back to their parents for follow-up. First of all,
if you’ve received such a letter, I would say not to panic. Please consult a
medical professional who will be able to tell you whether or not there is
something of concern.
Depending on where you live, there are varying free support services available to help you to make changes to diet and lifestyle if needed. Many Registered Nutritional Therapists such as myself, are also able to offer help and support in this area: click here to find an NT near you.
I think it’s safe to say that we’re not going back to pre-1975 and looking to retire the majority of mothers from the workforce. Ethics aside, even if this was feasible from a financial perspective, I doubt it would be in any way successful. So many factors in our lives have changed in the last 45 years, many of which have contributed to a poorer diet and increased levels of obesity. So here are my alternative ideas for healthy change:
There is no difference between kids’ food and
of my biggest bug bears is this notion of “kids’ food” versus adult’s food.
Where did this come from? I’m not advocating weaning babies and young children on
restaurant dinners or suggesting that we can’t occasionally enjoy richer or
spicier food alone, but most of the food I cook and eat is not designated for a
single-sized human, and that’s how it was until very recent history in the
grand scheme of things.
It has become the norm to only
offer children fish fingers and chips, mac and cheese or chicken nuggets in
restaurants. Also normalising the omission of any type of vegetable in many
When we promote foods as a
“children’s dinner” in a world where working parents often are eating
separately out of necessity and timings, it’s easy to see how we can get caught
in the trap of feeding our children their own food at their own dinner time.
But actually, was this a conscious decision? Or has it just happened due to
marketing and following what peers do? Ask yourself this question – would you
eat what you’re serving your children?
My challenge to you is – can you stop? Can you prepare the same food, even if it’s eaten at separate times? Or can you ensure that childcare providers that are providing this food eat the same foods with the children in order to model good eating habits? Depending on how ingrained habits are and how old your children are, this may take some time to transition, but perhaps weekends would be a good starting point – a family meal that is fun, but also healthy and suitable for all ages.
2. We don’t always need snacks
My mum always scoffs at kids’ snacks and asks when on earth did this become the way to eat? Certainly not when I was a child apparently (and we’re not even going back 40 years then either, not quite!) This is an additional area of marketing for the food industry – if children need snacks then they can sell them. And it’s completely become the norm again without many actually stopping and thinking about whether or not their child really needs a snack. If my boys eat a decent breakfast, they are rarely hungry again by 10am and actually asking for more food, unless that is, they see it, and/or their peers are eating it.
Try starting the day with a healthy and filling breakfast, and see how long your children last without asking for or visibly needing food. You may be surprised! And always take a back-up snack that is full of fibre and protein and not high in sugar.
3. The food industry is an industry
The clue is in the title – food as an “industry”. Food became a “technology” subject at school and we stopped being taught how to cook and instead learned about how to produce “food products”. Do you see the difference? We stopped leaning about how all the wonderful nutrients in our bodies really work there in a way that made them appetising, and focused instead on the art of analysing our food as products to sell. We were subconsciously trained to buy food products rather than cook them ourselves, and indeed many people I meet genuinely believe that cooking is far more difficult than it actually is (ok I may not be Michelin star standard, but what I produce is more than “edible”!) and that processed packaged foods are just as nutritious as homemade one (they are not).
There is more and more emerging evidence that processed foods are not healthy for us, regardless of how many vitamins and minerals are artificially added, and the UK is one of the biggest consumers of highly processed foods in the world (certainly lengths ahead of our European counterparts). Perhaps this change in how we learn about food, rather than the increase in working mothers, has actually driven down the route of buying more unhealthy processed foods?
4. Food labelling is too complicated
In addition to buying in to the
food industry itself, we are also being constantly conned by food labelling. It
is there in the guise of making it easier for consumers to make healthy
choices, but oftentimes this very labelling is making it much harder than it
really needs to be to make a judgement on a food’s nutritional value.
My golden rules for reading labels
are very simple:
If it has more than 5 ingredients, it’s probably
If you don’t recognise any of the ingredients
listed, or your grandparents wouldn’t, it’s probably not healthy
I teach the fundamental principals of good nutrition in my EAT TO THRIVE programme, and it’s so rewarding to help people make sense of reading food labels. There’s often a traffic light system to help busy people make good choices quickly, but this does not reflect a product’s propensity to spike blood sugar levels, and “healthy” artificial sweeteners aren’t really a healthy choice despite keeping that traffic light number in the green.
We need to approach food labelling
with a more cynical eye, and increase our own confidence in reading labels, cooking
and choosing healthy foods so that we can pass those skills on and model them
to our children.
What can we do?
I put that question to you, and the response was fantastic, so…
1.Teach our children about food; teach them how to cook it, teach them what it does in their bodies, get them involved in every aspect of what they eat from choosing it at the supermarket/market, to growing it, chopping it, cooking it.
If you’re not preparing the food for your children, speak to those who are about doing this too. Find your most knowledgeable friend or neighbour and rope them into volunteering at your child’s school or nursery to do food-based activities with them, there are endless possibilities
2. Brush up your own knowledge and skills. It doesn’t have to be a chore to learn how to cook, there are loads of great cooking classes out there. Sign up, take a friend, learn to love cooking real food from scratch so you don’t have to rely on processed meals
3. Surround yourself with supportive friends and talk about nutrition. For older children surrounded by peer pressure, how can we help them? In all honesty I’m not there yet, but I am doing everything in my power to model good eating habits to my children and surrounding our whole family with like-minded people so that they have a group of peers in exactly the same boat.
And I talk about it! Yes, I am probably that annoying nutrition friend, but we can all do it – if you learn something, share it, talk about it. Headlines like this try to divide the working mums from the stay-at-home mums but we shouldn’t let them. If you have challenges, ask your friends for help – chances are they are experiencing or have experienced the same issues too.
4. Provide a healthy breakfast. This was the key area that consistently came up as challenging – what to serve your children for breakfast that is quick, easy and tasty, and not a high-sugar breakfast cereal that won’t support their energy levels over the course of the morning and will likely lead to more pestering or bad choices at “snack time”. So I’ve pulled together five recipes that I use on a regular basis – you can download them by signing up to my mailing list.
I hope that helps, but if you’ve any questions or requests, please do post them here, and let’s continue the conversation about how to help turn around the childhood obesity epidemic regardless of how many hours mums spend per day in paid employment! And if you’re in the Wimbledon area are would like to learn more, my next Children’s Nutrition Workshop will be taking place on 18th May.
Functional medicine is a term that’s very familiar to me, but I forget sometimes that when I started studying it a little over seven years ago, the concept was relatively new to me and certainly the term itself was not one that was in my day to day vocabulary. So today I wanted to draw on the inspiration provided to me by functional medicine doctor Tom O’Bryan, who I had the pleasure of meeting the other week. Dr O’Bryan’s knowledge is phenomenal, but it’s not that information that I want to share with you today, it’s the analogies he uses to explain in simple terms what Functional Medicine is, and how he proposes everyone undertake life-changing practices that are not daunting, nor complicated, nor intangible to the many…
So what is functional
Functional medicine, put simply, is getting to the root cause of health symptoms, and fixing the issues that lead to chronic ill health in the first place. Here I must just reiterate that it’s chronic conditions I’m talking about, not illness through an accident or stringent virus that we were unfortunate enough to befall. So when we find ourselves in a place of chronic ill health, the analogy Dr O’Bryan used and which I want to share with you today, is one of falling down a waterfall and into a pond.
When we fall down that waterfall we, hopefully, receive the medicine we need to survive, his so-called “lifejacket medicine”. But what brought us to that place in the first place? And how do we get out of the pond? This is functional medicine – looking back upstream, sometimes as far as events in our childhood or even preconception, that lead us to that stream in the first place. And once we find them, we can start to make changes to resolve that underlying issue or issues, and figuratively climb out of the pond and walk back upstream to a place of good health again.
To quote Albert Einstein “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. If we don’t make any changes, how can we expect to set out on a different, healthier path, that won’t lead us back to that waterfall again?
In some cases I don’t dispute that lifelong medication may
be needed, but even in that instance, there are likely factors we can change
that will help support our health for the future, and those factors are what is
today more commonly called “lifestyle medicine”: diet, exercise, sleep and
What does functional medicine look like in everyday life?
Whilst my main focus, as a Nutritional Therapist, is on diet, my functional medicine training has taught me how to also recognise and address the other three of these pillars too, and clients who come to see me for advice on what to eat often also leave with simple changes to make to their sleep habits or exercise regime too, or ideas and tools to help them better manage their day-to-day stress. All these aspects are also very much interlinked: diet plays a role in how we manage stress for example, and exercise can impact how well we sleep, all these factors are inextricably intertwined. While that might sound more complicated and daunting, it’s often the very opposite: making one small change can act as a catalyst to so many other aspects of our life and health. And these leads me to the other pearl of wisdom from Dr O’Bryan that I wanted to share with you today: “base hits win the ball game”.
“Base hits win the
An American phrase I know, but what it means is simple: it’s not the home runs that have the biggest impact on a baseball team’s success. It’s not the huge life changes that we sometimes think we need to make (“it’s January, out with the sugar and the TV dinners, in with the kale and daily gym work-outs” – does that sound familiar?) It’s the small steps we take that positively impact our health, lead to good habits, and allow us to move on and make the next small step rather than give up because everything’s become too overwhelming.
Where are you now?
For some of you reading this, you may well be feeling that you’re in the pond at the bottom of the waterfall. Would you like some help to climb out and walk back upstream? For others you may be in the stream. Perhaps you don’t realise it yet, but if you’re not confident about how to eat, sleep and exercise well and manage your stress, could it be that you may be headed for that waterfall? If any of this does resonate with you, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line and set up a complementary call to see if a personalised functional and lifestyle medicine approach could help you. Or, check out my next EAT TO THRIVE programme to help learn the main principals behind eating well and feel confident you really are making healthy choices with your diet.
As Christmas is upon us, and we prepare for the usual over-indulgence (let’s be honest!), I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on my last year, and to share a few words of wisdom from my nutrition and lifestyle medicine training. You see, it’s not just about the diet – I cannot emphasize enough the role that stress plays on our health and wellbeing, and the importance of celebrating our wins too.
This time last year, I was about to embark on a new series of workshops – EAT TO THRIVE. After three successful rounds and a whole bunch of happy “Thrivers”, I’m really looking forward to continuing to run this in person (book here) and online (details to follow!)
I’m also expanding my Wimbledon clinic to accommodate more 1-2-1 personalised nutrition clients, starting with a open day offering 30 minute mini-sessions on Sat 19th Jan to help you kick off your healthy lifestyle in 2019 – make sure you book your slot soon!
What have you got planned for 2019? I do hope to see you at an event soon!
Whilst Christmas is a joyful time of the year, it often comes with plenty of pressures too, so my top tip is: don’t make food another stress! Enjoy yourselves this Christmas, be relaxed and just take the opportunity to nourish yourself where you can as well. In the meantime, here are a few “gift” ideas for your body:
Balance your blood sugar. When we consume large meals or sugary snacks, we spike the level of glucose in our blood, inducing that surge of energy followed by a slump and increased hunger. What our body is actually doing is working in “emergency mode” and the end result is that we are more likely to store those extra calories as fat. Opting for smaller portion sizes, as well as combining fibre and protein with each and every meal, helps to balance those blood glucose levels, ultimately helping us to feel fuller and satisfied for longer, and not pile on the extra pounds.
Seek out the nutrient-dense Christmas treats. Nutritionists often refer to white sugar and highly refined carbohydrate foods as “anti-nutrients”. This is because they are so low in micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that our body actually uses more nutrients in the process of digesting them than it gets back in return. 70% dark chocolate is high in antioxidants, dates are rich in minerals such as magnesium, and nuts are a great source of protein, healthy fats and fibre, so why not opt for these over milk chocolate and sweets?
Don’t scrimp on the organic sprouts! Brussel sprouts form part of the brassica family of vegetables, along with cabbages and other leafy greens. These foods are key in supporting our bodies to detoxify, so if we’re perhaps indulging in a little more alcohol than usual, making sure we eat plenty of brassicas can help towards mitigating the effects. Also, opting for organic foods that are free from pesticides can lighten the load on our on our bodies to detoxify, so also help to keep us feeling well.
Support your gut bacteria. The health and diversity of our gut bacteria is a huge and rapidly emerging area of science that has been linked with immune function, brain health and weight. Sadly, high-sugar foods feed the not-so-beneficial bacteria in our gut, and can tip the balance away from the healthy type. To keep your healthy bacteria on top form, feed them lots of high fibre foods like onions, garlic, bananas, rocket and oats. And why not add in some probiotic foods like sauerkraut to accompany your cheeseboard, or kombucha as an alternative soft drink?
Take time off to relax and unwind. Studies of populations around the world have shown that, regardless of religious beliefs, being spiritual and engaging with those we love can increase our health and lifespan. So switch off from work and social media, go for a gentle walk outside, and reconnect with friends and family.
Of course, none of these actions is going to save us completely from the potential impact of poor food and drink choices this Christmas, but each and every time you manage one of them, know that you are doing something good for your body. And whatever you do, enjoy what you eat and celebrate without the stress.
From the Atkins diet, through Paleo and now Keto, low-carb high-fat (LCHF) diets have been all the rage in the world of weight-loss and health for the last couple of decades. These have been producing great results despite contradicting many government guidelines on healthy eating that still focus on reduced fat and an energy intake dependant on about half carbohydrates. More recently, there’s been a lot of publicity around reducing sugar (a simple carbohydrate) consumption to support good health, and even using LCHF diets to put type 2 diabetes into remission, so I was quite surprised to last week suddenly read the headline “Low carb diets could shorten life”, as this seems to go against the trend of the increasing scientific literature.
The headline is based on a new paper published in The Lancet Public Health. In order to qualify as a Registered Nutritional Therapist, I had to undertake extensive training in reading and interpreting research papers, understanding the statistics and assessing the reliability of data presented, so I was keen to take a look at this myself. What I found is definitely food for thought, and certainly not the headline picture being painted by the media… I’ve tried to summarise here a couple of key points I took away from my reading, and hope that they will be useful for you too when deciding how to structure your diet to a long and healthy life.
First of all, the 25-year study, which infers a LDHF diet will reduce longevity, was based on surveying people on what they ate at 6 points in time from 1987-2017. However, the results are extracted from the dietary information obtained from only two of those surveys (taken between 1987-89 and 1993-95). The question I therefore ask is “why not use the more recent data too?” So much can change over the course of 25 years, I want to know these people are really still eating the exact same foods they did in 1987 before I make a judgement on the extent of its effect on their lifespan.
I was also concerned by this statement: “Participants who consumed a relatively low percentage of total energy from carbohydrates [ie the LCHF participants]… were more likely to be young, male, a race other than black, college graduates, have high BMI, exercise less during leisure time, have high household income, smoke cigarettes, and have diabetes.” Could the fact that they were non-exercising smokers have also played a role in their reduced life expectancy? Adjustments in the statistical analysis were made for these factors, but to me this invokes the old statistical example: “shark attacks increase in-line with ice cream sales”, and I proceed with my assessment with an increased sense of scepticism.
Secondly, the paper is not based on just one study, but is instead what is referred to as a “meta-analysis” – that means that the results are a cumulation of multiple other studies too. Whilst this type of study can be valuable for gaining a good understanding of data over a larger sized sample, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all the data is completely comparable. In this instance, the result is broad classifications of complex food groups being “mashed” together for a complete picture, rather than accurately and specifically giving useable data on clearly defined specific food groups for increasing longevity and health.
There is little differentiation, for example, between different types of carbohydrate. One thing I tell my clients and teach in my EAT TO THRIVE classes, is that all carbohydrates are not equal – we know that the glycaemic index (GI) of a food plays a huge role in its metabolism and therefore the effect it has on our health. Simple sugars act very differently to complex wholegrains, yet both are categorised as “carbohydrates”. There is also a huge difference in nutritional profile between eg. a salad and a pizza – both largely carbohydrates, one packed with fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, the other? Not. This is also true of other types of fats and proteins – outside of the headline, some attention was paid to animal versus plant sources of these, however this is still a simplified classification of a much more complicated group of nutrients (processed meats versus organic free-range chicken or fish, for example) for which there is much more comprehensive data available.
So, based on this study, how likely am I to recommend to my clients that they should switch away from a lower carbohydrate diet in order to lead a long and healthy life? I hope you will have deduced by now – not likely at all. For now, I will continue to advise a balanced diet of vegetables, wholegrains, good quality fats and proteins which follows an educated interpretation of “low carb” informed by multiple other robust scientific studies. And as for this headline? Whilst the occasional indulgence in “bad carbs” will probably not shave too many years off your life, it’s most definitely not conclusive evidence to support the “absolutely everything in moderation” mantra and over-indulge in them on a daily basis. Whatever you prefer to eat, remember to take these headlines with a pinch of salt, and learn how to really EAT TO THRIVE.