Should you eat less fat? Maybe you should follow a low carb template? How much protein and sugar should you consume?
In my previous article Was It A Game Changer? ran through my thoughts on the recent documentary Game Changers, and my own experience with veganism. It was a pretty lengthy read and was focused more heavily on the ethical side of what we eat.
But, I want to delve into the health side of things and what I think the real game changer is when it comes to a healthy diet.
Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975”World Health Organisation
Right now obesity is rising exponentially worldwide and according to the World Obesity Federation, by 2030 the world population of obese children and adolescents is predicted to grow to 254 million – an increase of more than 60%.
Basically we are not doing very well when it comes to what we eat! It’s a universal problem with no universal answer and most of us seem to struggle with it.
In fact we have so many possible solutions that are sold to us by the health marketing machine that it has become a problem in itself.
Something I constantly hear from people joining our Academy is how overwhelmed and confused they are over at the various diets out there.
Should you eat less fat because it causes heart disease?
Or should you eat more fat and follow a low carb template?
Maybe it’s all about how much protein you consume?
Or is it all about avoiding sugar?
Over the past thirty years almost every component of our diet has been picked on as the villain by some expert or other. But despite this scrutiny our diets continue to deteriorate.
However, there is another key factor that is crucial in successfully maintaining a healthy diet.
The Game Changer
The truth when it comes to healthy eating is that success hinges on human psychology. And by that I basically mean behaviours and habits.
It’s not just WHAT you eat. It’s HOW YOU THINK about eating too.
When it comes to what you eat we could debate the pros and cons of different diets all day long but pretty much this is the crux of it:
Rule 1 – Eat mostly real food.
Rule 2 – Be aware of your calorie intake and adjust accordingly.
Rule 3 – Do this on a consistent basis.
This solution will get you 90% of the way towards a great physique and a consistently healthy checkup at the doctor.
Rule 4 – The right training.
And you’ll be 99% of the way there.
But, the problem is that things like “reality” and “human behavior” keep getting in the way. Which is why the HOW is just as important as the WHAT.
The best diet is the one that helps you reach your goals, and that you’ll actually stick with permanently.
How I eat is not a diet, it is a lifestyle.
I’ve gradually adjusted what I eat over time without any changes that are too drastic to stick with permanently.
For lots of people diet can be like a game of snakes and ladders. You make some progress before sliding back down to where you started. 1 step forward. 2 steps back.
And part of the problem is the timeframes that we focus on.
Days & Years NOT Weeks & Months
You need to start thinking in terms of days & years, not weeks & months.”Steve Kamb
When it comes to making a change we tend to think in terms of ‘weeks and months’. The 8 week bikini challenge or 90 day shred. (Which can be great for a kickstart but only if it also encourages long term change.)
A better model to use is ‘days and years’.
In one year you are going to be in better shape than you are now, and in two years you will be in better shape than you are in one year from now. Think about what that version of you will look like and plan accordingly. To make this possible you simply scale it down to the smallest decisions you have to make each day.
Imagine it like building a place to live.
You can either throw up a temporary shelter that lasts a little while but is destroyed at the first sign of bad weather. Or you can plan out the home you really want and then start laying the foundations brick by brick. So when it comes to diet a key step in moving forward is re-framing how you view your food.
Think of building a good relationship with what you eat through small steps each day that will create a sustainable lifestyle over time. Rather than drastic short bursts of all out effort that end up failing and lead to a never ending cycle of ups and downs.
Why It’s Simple But Not Easy
It is not uncommon to find undernutrition & obesity co-existing within the same country, the same community & the same household.”World Health Organisation
I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider just why this stuff can be so hard. Over and over again I see people beating themselves up for ‘failing’ when it comes to diet and exercise. But, it is one of the worst things you can do because it leads to an ongoing spiral of negativity and forges unhelpful relationships with food.
However, by understanding the problem it can go some way to help prevent you from falling into the ‘blame game’ trap.
Human Evolution & Modern Society
The earliest remains of modern humans – known as Homo sapiens – are approximately 200,000 years old. Over time, the pace of change has increased exponentially compared to prehistoric times.
In the last 100 years we have seen the rise of the car, the aeroplane, the television, the personal computer and the Internet. Nearly everything that makes up your daily life has been created in a very small window of time.
A lot can happen in 100 years. But, from the perspective of evolution, however, 100 years is nothing.
The modern human brain spent hundreds of thousands of years evolving for one type of environment and in the blink of an eye the entire environment changed.
Our Lizard Brain
The limbic system is the oldest part of the brain and has been implicated as the seat of emotion, addiction, mood, and lots of other mental and emotional processes.
Many people call it “The Lizard Brain” because the limbic system is about all a lizard has for brain function. It is in charge of fight, flight, feeding, fear, freezing-up, and fornication (sex).
Unfortunately, for us food is much more than simply fuel.
- It’s a coping mechanism.
- It’s how we show love.
- It’s what we turn to when we’re happy or sad.
- It provides relief from boredom.
Which means our ‘lizard brain’ influences our decisions around it.
And when you combine this with our modern food environment it’s easy to see why we are in the trouble that we are.
Novelty Is Now In Abundance & It Tastes Good
Apparently, there are 11,000 new foods introduced each year. And, because we have more choice than ever before, food companies are investing millions into making sure you choose their product.
These are the so called global macronutrient wars which are currently taking place. The drive to create foods with that magical mix of protein / carbs / fat and sweet / salty / soft / crunchy.
In order to see why this causes so much havoc you only have to look at the following two factors from our past:
Optimal Foraging Strategy
- Obtain as many calories and nutrients as possible while doing as little as possible.
- If you look in nature, animals cannot burn more calories than they expend, as this would be hugely dangerous for survival.
- Evolutionary we are the same, we are wired to eat more and move less – it’s in our DNA.
- No matter how tasty a food item is in front of us we will get bored of it.
- Paleolithic foragers ate small amounts of various foods to decrease the impact of toxins, poisons or pathogens.
- This is why you can be full after your main course but still have room for desert even if you’re stuffed!
This wiring in our DNA was great in helping us survive when we were wandering the plains as hunter gatherers, but not for the world we live in now. The industrial processed fast foods which fill our supermarket shelves are designed to be eaten.
These so-called “hyperpalatable” foods are deliberately engineered in such a way that they surpass the reward properties of traditional foods such as vegetables, fruits, and nuts.
The holy trinity of ingredients is the mix of fat, sugar and salt. Companies found that when fat, sugar and salt were used in the appropriate combinations, not only did they have a product that didn’t go mouldy, they also had a winning combination for the public.
Using high-tech labs and panels of tasters they could find the exact mix of the three that was irresistible for each item – what they called its ‘bliss point’.
On their own, these ingredients aren’t particularly potent, but when combined in specific ways, they tap into the brain’s reward system, creating a feedback loop that stimulates our desire to eat and leaves us wanting more — even when we’re full.
A Snickers bar is extraordinarily well engineered. As we chew it the sugar dissolves, the fat melts and the caramel traps the peanuts so the entire combination of flavors is blissfully experienced in the mouth at the same time.
In summary we have been incredibly successful as a species, but the forces that made us successful may be working against us today. We are genetically wired to eat simple, unprocessed foods, and to expend a fair amount of energy in that process of acquiring it. But, our current reality means we have delicious calorie dense foods that are easily available to us.
When you combine all of these factors it is easy to understand why we are in the position that we are. But, all hope is not lost. There are ways to circumnavigate this brave new world of convenience and deliciousness!
Where To Go From Here
The theory of Occam’s Razor says that simpler explanations are more likely to be true than complicated ones.
Instead of wasting your time on complex scenarios, make decisions by basing them on the explanation that has the fewest moving parts.
When it comes to what you eat forget the latest trend and stick to the one universal truth nobody disagrees with:
Eat a diet composed mostly of real food and limit anything that is overly processed.
This is the best path to better health and a better body. But, to achieve this, you need to combine it with sustainable behavior change:
Plan for your long term goals then focus on the small daily changes.
Now for the details.
The WHAT – Real Food
We all pretty much understand this so I won’t go into too much detail here. When I say real food, I mean stuff that came from the ground, grew on a tree, grazed on a field, flew through the air, or swam in the water.
Most doctors, websites, and books have generally the same list of “healthy foods”:
- Protein like meat and legumes.
- Fibre like fruits and vegetables.
- Carbohydrates like potatoes, rice, quinoa.
- Fats like nuts and olive oil.
Another way to put it: If it wasn’t food 100 years ago it’s not food now.
So no Pop-Tarts, Big Macs, and Coca-Cola!
There is a reason the mantra ‘choose real food’ sits at the heart of pretty much every diet out there, no matter how it is dressed up and sold.
Because it works.
The main reasons being that it is much harder to overeat on real food, and it is far more nutrient dense.
The Future Not A Fad – Gut Health
If there is one ‘way of eating’ that I do think is worth promoting it’s that of eating for a healthy gut. Largely, this still centres around eating real food and reducing processed junk.
But, there is a little more to it. When it comes to weight gain you will sometimes hear a person blame their genes. And it is true that habits related to eating are influenced by genes, such as food likes and dislikes. However, just because a trait is 60 or 70 per cent ‘genetic’ doesn’t mean it is predestined. This can be seen in studies of identical twins who can sometimes have very different waistlines despite having identical genes.
According to Tim Spector Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology and specialist in twin studies, genetics, epigenetics, microbiome and diet:
“These genetic factors alone don’t explain the massive changes seen in the population over the last two generations. In the UK in 1980 only 7 per cent of men and women were obese – now it is 24 per cent. Genes, made up of variations in DNA, cannot change that fast and traditionally need a minimum of around one hundred generations to adapt by natural selection.”
In the past we have failed to account for the impact of microbes, but evolving techniques for analysis have led to a wealth of new insights, providing a deeper understanding of their diverse roles in environmental ecosystems and human health.
Microbes are not only essential to how we digest food, they control the calories we absorb and provide vital enzymes and vitamins as well as keeping our immune system healthy.
Compared to our recent past, living outside cities, enjoying rich and varied diets and without antibiotics, we have only a fraction of the diversity of microbial species living in our guts.
And scientists are only now starting to understand the long-lasting impact this has had on all of us.
To give you an idea of how important gut health is: Examining the DNA of the microbes in our guts gives us a much better predictor of how fat someone is compared to looking at all of our 20,000 genes.
So how do we cultivate a good gut microbiome?
Here are my top 5 tips:
1. Forget Superfoods & Think Variety Instead There are hundreds of species of bacteria in your intestines.
Each species plays a different role in your health and requires different nutrients for growth, and generally speaking, a diverse microbiota is considered to be a healthy one.
So that means eating a wide range of different foods.
“Fifteen thousand years ago our ancestors regularly ingested around 150 ingredients in a week. Most people nowadays consume fewer than twenty separate food items and many, if not most, of these are artificially refined. Most processed food products come depressingly from just four main ingredients: corn, soy, wheat or meat.”
The Diet Myth, Tim Spector
Superfoods are a trendy concept but they are also a marketing con, as virtually every fresh food is a superfood. There is no arguing that wheatgrass and chia seeds aren’t good for you but so are eggs, nuts, olive oil and garlic – the potential list is endless.
Instead of focusing on single ingredients, we should be thinking more of superfood communities. The wider the range, the better.
Try the 50 Food Challenge:
- Create a simple tracking document
- Keep track of every different food you eat for a week and aim for at least 50 foods
- No duplicates
- No counting foods made of the same stuff as different items e.g. bread and pasta count as just one as they’re mostly made from wheat
- Count herbs as individuals, spices, vinegars and oils – they all count
- o e-numbers, preservatives, additives etc
2. Eat A High Fibre Diet Fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes are great sources of nutrients for a healthy microbiota.
They are high in fibre, which can’t be digested by your body. However, fibre can be digested by certain bacteria in your gut, which stimulates their growth.
Get both insoluble and soluble fibre.
It’s important to consume both types of fibre, since they help your digestive system in different ways.
Insoluble fiber, also known as roughage, can’t be digested by the body and therefore helps add bulk to the stools.
Soluble fiber draws in water and can help prevent stools that are too watery.
3. Eat Probiotic/Fermented Foods Fermented foods are foods altered by microbes.
They are known as ‘good’ or ‘friendly’ microbes as they compete for space and food against harmful microbes and prevent them from settling in the gut.
- Plain natural yogurt
4. Eat Prebiotic Foods Prebiotics are foods that promote the growth of beneficial microbes in the gut.
They are mainly fiber or complex carbohydrates that can’t be digested by human cells. Instead, certain species of bacteria break them down and use them for fuel.
Many fruits, vegetables and whole grains contain prebiotics, but they can also be found on their own.
5. Avoid Sugar & Fried or Processed Foods
We know this anyway but when it comes to gut health they break down into components that feed the less hospitable bacteria in your gut.
One Stop Solution – More Plants
One of the reasons I’m a fan of eating more plant based whole foods is that it can help tick many of the boxes above when it comes to improving gut health.
Several studies have shown that the fewer fruits and vegetables and fibre you consume, the less diverse your microbiome, but the reverse is also likely to be true. And the best way to achieve this, in my eyes, is to reframe how you see plant based eating.
Most of us view plants as being individual components, like broccoli, that you ‘have’ to add to your plate of meat or fish. (That’s how I used to think of it.)
Instead, think of plants as entire meals in themselves, such as broccoli burgers with spicy cashew mayo.
Think of plants as entire meals in themselves, such as broccoli burgers with spicy cashew mayo.
Start adding in one or two plant based meals a week from cookbooks like Bosch and you’ll see just how easy it is to up the variety and fibre in your diet.
For myself I will generally make plant based meals the majority of the time and then sometimes add some good quality meat or fish to compliment it, rather than the other way around.
Side Note – Fasting
It may not suit everyone but personally I’m a fan of intermittent fasting, which you can read about here. And it’s been shown that short-term fasting can stimulate friendly microbes (just remember you still need a diverse diet outside of your fasting periods).
The HOW – Habits & Behaviors
As I said in the beginning, to reach success around your diet you must build a good relationship with what you eat through small steps each day, that will create a sustainable lifestyle over time.
Remember: days & years, not weeks & months.
Before we jump into some tactics for your ‘days’, you need to think about your ‘years’. By that I mean your long term goals.
What does the version of your future self look like? Why you are trying to eat better? If it’s just because ‘you think you should’ then you’re setting yourself up to fail.
But there is no right answer to this and saying “I want to look better naked and start dating again” is perfectly valid.
However, the deeper you can go with this the more powerful it will be when life gets busy and the biscuit tin starts calling to you.
So adding reasons like “I don’t want to die early like my dad did” can root your goal with more deeply seated emotions.
Once you have a vision of where you want to be and a plan in place then it comes down to the actions you take on a daily basis.
Six Tactics For Better Food Choices
In reality there are lots of ways to achieve this but these are the 6 we’ve found that work well.
1. Consistency Not Perfection This is absolutely vital!
It is true that consistency is essential for success. But you do not have to be flawlessly consistent. When you’re trying to lose weight, it’s easy to convince yourself that if you don’t follow your diet perfectly, then you’ve failed.
But consistency does not require perfection.
We are all human beings which means we need a safety margin for errors, mistakes, and emergencies.
“Cutting yourself some slack becomes even more important when we consider the science behind habit formation and continual improvement. Research shows that, regardless of the habit that you are working to build, missing a single day has no measurable impact on your long-term success.“
Instead it is all about average speed, not maximum speed.
No journey is a straight line, there will always be detours and diversions.
But if you maintain a good average speed, you’ll always make it to your destination despite the stops and delays along the way.
2. Start Small Every new diet works in the short term.
And nearly every new diet fails in the long term. Most of the time this is due to the fact that the change is too much too soon.
As humans we like to be in a state of balance, and anything that upsets this causes us to quickly rebound to our default setting.
If somebody starts the keto diet (cutting out carbohydrates) they’ll most likely lose weight. But, if they spend the next 30 days in misery, dreaming of carbs, counting down the meals until they can “go back to eating like normal,” they will put all of the weight back on.
Instead follow these 2 steps:
- Start with a version of the habit that is incredibly easy for you. It must be so easy that you can’t say no to doing it and so easy that it is not difficult at all in the beginning.
- Increase your habit each day, but in an incredibly small way.
- Eat a single plant based meal in week one.
- Each week add in another meal.
This may seem an incredibly slow way to make a change BUT In the beginning, performance doesn’t matter. What does matter is becoming the type of person who always sticks to your new habit – no matter how small or insignificant it seems.
You can build up to the level of performance that you want once the behavior becomes consistent.
3. Get The Basics Right
As always the fundamentals are crucial and the following are the 3 steps you will want to master.
- A. Food Shopping 101
- Write a list before you go, and stick to it!
- Never go shopping when you’re hungry, EVER!
- B. Learn To Cook
- Time spent on learning how to cook is one of the best investments you can make.
- Reframe how you see it, not as a chore but a skill which enhances your life.
- I am no chef but being able to make simple meals has been a key piece of the puzzle in terms of health throughout my life.
- Choose a few easy recipes to get you started and give it a go.
- Using a slow cooker is a great ‘cheat’ option here. An incredibly simple way to make delicious and nourishing meals.
- C. Batch Prep
- This isn’t essential but can be helpful and I personally recommend it.
- Dishes such as stews, curries or bolognese are perfect for this.
- Simply make double the portion you need and freeze it for healthy meals always on standby.
- The slow cooker is also great for this.
4. Design Your Environment
One of the best and easiest ways to eat better is by making it convenient to eat well and hard to eat badly. Essentially keep unhealthy food out of the home. Just don’t buy it, because if it’s there you’ll eat it. If you really really want it then you might make the effort to drive to the shops , but I doubt you’ll do this every time.
If this is a step too far then begin by reducing the amount you have in the house. Perhaps have a weekly allowance that is kept in one place in the house and once it is gone is not replaced until the following week.
5. Defeat Cravings
When it comes to cravings you can use two simple strategies to help combat them.
- A. Stop, Drink, Wait
- Set timer for 10 mins on your phone.
- Drink some water.
- Often the craving will pass but if you still ‘really’ want something then your next option is the craving scale.
- B. Scale It Down
- This is simply a way of trying to sate the craving by choosing a better option.
- For example, if you want something sweet then start with a piece of fruit.
- If this doesn’t work try dried fruit or dark chocolate.
- Only default to the chocolate bar as a last resort after trying other options first.
One thing to bear in mind is that our cravings or need for certain foods are not set in stone and can be changed. We naturally tend to think that our mind is the controlling driver over what and when we eat.
But there is a strong argument that the human gut microbiota is a key regulator of appetite.
Essentially there’s a positive feedback loop:
Your microbiota is influenced by what you eat: Your microbiota influences what you crave/eat.
The microbes that occupy the long tube that runs through your body depend on you – the human host – to provide them with energy.
Whether or not a specific gut microbe is able to survive and reproduce in your gut is largely determined by what types of foods you’re eating.
Some gut microbes do well on a meat-heavy, fat-rich diet, others thrive if you eat a lot of refined sugar, and yet others do their best work if you take in a lot of fiber.
Your dietary choices produce a positive feedback loop. For example, if you eat a lot of sugary, processed foods, “sugar-loving” microbes will proliferate in your mouth and intestine, whereas microbes that don’t do so well in the sugar-rich environment will die off.
Due to their expanding numbers, the “sugar-loving” microbes will attain greater control over your appetite and eating behavior and will cause you to crave more sugary, processed food, because that’s the type of food that’s optimal in terms of their survival and reproduction.
And vice versa, when you have microbes that are thriving on foods that are beneficial to the body this is what you will be craving.
This is not going to change overnight but it should give you hope that you can get to a point where you have cravings for processed foods far less than you currently might do.
By making small changes each day, over time you can reach a point where choosing the foods that are better for us will be so much easier because you’re not battling your microbes.
6. Be Patient Learning to be patient is perhaps the most critical skill of all.
You can make incredible progress if you are consistent and patient.
Patience is everything.
Until next Time
Healthy eating will change your life. But only if it fits into your life too.
Small changes, not dramatic shifts!
You don’t have to give up the foods you love, or be perfect, you just need a good moving average.
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