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Healthy Weight Loss, Food Myths and the Fibs we tell Ourselves

Ever wondered why when you’ve cut back on calories, worked hard in the gym, cut out carbohydrates and given the puddings a swerve and still not lost weight?

Perhaps blamed it on your hormones? Here are some the fibs and misconceptions we tell ourselves and what we should be doing.

1. ‘I don’t touch puddings’, but a glass of wine is fine, especially if its red wine.’

Many of us make these sorts of trade-offs but this one doesn’t add up. Both pudding and wine contain a large amount of fast release sugar, however, wine is more likely to lead to weight gain, because the disinhibition of drinking alcohol often leads to eating other foods we would otherwise try to avoid, like crisps, snacks and often a generous ‘top up’! There’s no need to take an ‘all or nothing’ approach which can leave us feeling despondent leading to giving up. Cut back and maybe just have a pudding at the weekend or a glass of wine 3 days a week not 7 days, the weight will gradually come off and you’re more likely to persevere.

Sugar also disrupts sleep and increases stress, both of which further impact weight gain, triggering a cascade of stress hormones which prevent weight loss and the body will store the sugar as fat.

2. ‘Counting calories is the best way to reduce consumption of calorific foods which will lead to weight gain.’

The general guidelines are 1,900 kcals for men and 1,400 kcals for women per day for weight loss. But now we know that all calories are not the same between sugar, fat or protein. They each have a different energetic cost to be metabolised and that hasn’t been factored into the calorie counts we have previously been seeing.

Take protein, for every 100 calories of protein you eat, you can only absorb 70, because 30 are used to metabolise it. Fats on the other hand, are easy for the body to metabolise, so if you eat a 100 calories of fat, you will absorb 100 calorie, the same for sugary foods. There are also differences between ethnic groups.

There was a recent trial where a group were put on a reduced calorie diet but only given high sugar, high fat, low fibre and processed foods, overall with negligible nutritional benefit –and they still didn’t lose weight despite the lower calorie count, mainly due to the high insulin spike from these foods. They would also be at high risk from all the major diseases that can cause death. See my article about blood sugar.

3. ‘It’s best not to eat between meals if I want to lose weight.’

This depends on the nature of energy you are expending, whether you are sedentary or active. There is evidence of intermittent fasting and timed eating within an 8 hour period and not in between. Even so, if your appetite is small and you prefer smaller meals or your day demands a more flexible approach, grazing healthily in small amounts is fine, but snacking with the high sugar, saturated fat, low fibre products with processed foods grabbed off the supermarket shelf is to be avoided. Instead, choose from a small handful of almonds, an oatcake spread with a nut butter or avocado, or a few carrot batons with humus. Beware of ‘health bars’ and ‘protein bars’ these contain very high sugar values, and are in essence a biscuit, a slice of cake or a few sweets! The same with smoothies as they are absorbed too quickly.

4. ‘I’ve been good and really worked hard in the gym, so I can afford to eat whatever I want’.

While it is true that you’ll burn more energy in a high intensity workout, it doesn’t give you carte blanch to eat an ice cream or enjoy a few beers, or glass or two of wine. They do not cancel each other out!

After exercise, your body is still working – repairing damaged muscle tissue and cells and as a result, carries on burning through calories in what is known as the EPOC effect – ‘excess post-exercise oxygen consumption’.

The effect can last for 24 hours after you do the exercise but if you are eating more calories than you burn from making poor choices post work out, you will still gain weight.

5.‘The only way to lose weight is to just cut out the carbs.’

There is some sense with that, (the Atkins diet was popular for a while but only gave results while doing it) provided you are eating fewer calories than you are expending, the main reason for not being able to lose weight is insulin control. See my article on a low GI diet.

Carbs are broken down rapidly by the gut, becoming sugars which quickly enter the blood. As blood sugar levels rise, the pancreas produces insulin, prompting cells to absorb blood sugar for energy storage. When this storage isn’t being used for energy it will store as fat on the body as a store for future exertion.

That doesn’t mean you have to cut out carbs altogether. Instead: don’t eat carbs on their own but pair them with small amounts of essential fats like avocados, peanut or almond butter, as these slow down the absorption of glucose and fructose into the blood and keep us feeling fuller for longer. Avoiding ‘white’ refined carbs and choosing wholemeal with good fibre content also slows absorption. Adding protein also helps as it takes longer to digest, so slows the emptying of the stomach.

A slice of toasted wholemeal bread or a couple of oatcakes with avocado or a nut butter is the better choice. An ‘overnight’ jumbo or rolled oat cereal with a few nuts and seeds or spoon of nut butter, berries and Greek yogurt makes a good slow release and sustaining breakfast choice. Baked egg, spinach and tomato also.

6. ‘It’s my hormones.’

Again, an element of truth in that but it’s not quite the complete picture and managing diet and exercise bring results. Weight loss is harder for women post-menopause but it’s not impossible.

Reasons for weight gain at this stage are multiple, but hormones play a role. During the menopause, our bodies look to combat falling oestrogen levels by trying to obtain it elsewhere, including a different form of the hormone produced by fat cells. You might find you start to develop a ‘spare tyre’ in response to this and might also have strong cravings for foods high in sugar and unhealthy fats, which the body will, in turn, lay down as oestrone-producing abdominal fat.

The most important step is to implement healthy and sensible eating, exercise and sleep habits, but HRT can also help. According to Dr Louise Newson, GP and menopause expert, the women in her clinic taking HRT (often also with testosterone) find that they lose weight. Some of this is due to metabolic changes that occur with HRT, and some is due to the women feeling better with HRT, so they exercise more.

Those women not wanting to take HRT, then anecdotally there is feedback that certain herbal supplements or creams help.

The key message is to prioritise a low GI diet to prevent insulin spikes, take regular exercise, improve sleep habits with a regular bedtime routine (see my blog on sleep habits),  get outdoors especially in the morning to get the sleep inducing benefits of daylight, reduce stress with relaxation techniques, curtail all phone and screen viewing at least 3 hours before bedtime and read or listen to music, take an after dinner stroll, aim to finish the evening meal at least 3 hours before bedtime. Stay hydrated and consider a restricted eating ‘window’ of having all meals between at least a 12 hour period or shorter if your day allows. Ensure you eat a variety of at least 30 plant sources over the week to provide the gut with beneficial soluble and insoluble fibre. There appears to be a link between our gut health, sleep quality, well-being, and long term health protection benefits.