Your lizard brain and you

Supernormal Stimuli

This is a fantastic comic that hits home – it explains the history of the ‘argument’ you (big-brained you) are having with your subconscious every time you pass the biscuit tin.

Our instincts have served our bodies well for millennia. But they aren’t adapted to this world of plenty and abundance we’ve created. It’s only through reflection- using our conscious, determined mind- that we can rewrite our aims.

I found this comic referenced in an article by Steve Kamb of Nerd Fitness, a fantastic resource for the more geekly-minded. His philosophy is great; he has adapted the terminology and approach of video games (levelling up, for example) to fitness as a whole. Worth a look.

The men who made us thin

As a follow-up to The Men Who Made Us Fat, the fairly-predictably-titled The Men Who Made Us Thin was, on the basis of its first episode, a disappointment.

Now, you may feel that as someone who writes about diet approaches and offers weight coaching, I’m biased. And I am. Totally. I’m biased because I believe the central proposition of the programme was faulty. The host, Jacques Peretti, stated that only around 5% of people who try to lose weight keep it off. But he misspeaks. Firstly, the study he cites is limited to WeightWatchers- a weight loss approach I feel is outdated. Secondly, only 5% of people keep all of their weight off. Of course dieters are likely to put a few pounds, a kilo or three, back on once they adjust to a weight maintenance lifestyle. But in Peretti’s argument, they’ve failed.

It’s not to say that the episode made no good points. One aspect that was hammered home repeatedly was that someone on a diet is starving their body and the body responds appropriately – attempting to conserve as much of that energy as possible, slowing down metabolism and increasing food cravings. This is well known; it’s the source of the ‘starvation mode’ urban myth.

It’s telling that many of the facts shared in the original programme were omitted from this. For example, the first study that was referenced was explained to be from Ancel Keysdemonised as the ‘fat maker’ in the last series as he unscientifically identified fat, rather than sugar, as the main cause of obesity. This wasn’t mentioned here. Equally, the mention of Atkins was carefully phrased; something like “his detractors said that his diet caused his heart attack” without clearing up that misconception.

The whole thing was made to sound calculated and distrustful- when in fact, you could sum it up in two sentences.

  1. Every diet works, if you stick to it.
  2. Stop using the diet’s rules and you’ll regain your weight.

How to restart your weight loss

Sometimes, losing weight becomes harder than normal. Plateau, stall – there are lots of names for this, but sometimes it feels like the weight just won’t come off.
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Of course, that’s not true – there’s a way to get rid of the weight, but it will probably need a little change to your approach.

So, before you despair and think about giving up, run through this list.

Has this been a consistent problem for more than 6 weeks?

Weight loss isn’t a straight line; we all go up and down. This is especially true for women, where hormonal differences can cause weight gain. Weigh yourself on the same day at the same time each week. If your weight hasn’t changed for 6 weeks, you should start to look for other reasons.

Are you drinking enough water?

Amazingly, many of us confuse thirst for hunger. If you’re not getting enough water, you’re making it harder for your body to run and harder for you to avoid the snacks!

Are you getting enough sleep?

It’s not just that if you’re asleep, you’re not eating (although that’s a help). A recent study has shown that just one night of bad sleep leads people to be hungrier and to choose larger portion sizes. Here’s Why You Should Get More ZZZ.

Are you eating enough veg?

Green, leafy vegetables are low in calories and help you feel full after a meal.

Are you measuring your portions?

It’s too easy for portions to creep up as you get comfortable with your new style of eating. It’s usually gradual; a slightly-larger portion of Shreddies in the morning, or the swap of the soda water back to a swift half on Friday evening. Why not go back to weighing your food, just to make sure you’re eating what you think you are.

Are you eating something which only seems good for you?

Salad dressings, Greek yoghurt – there are many foods out there that are healthy in principle, but are easy to eat too frequently or too much. Always check the nutritional label!

Are you overeating for emotional reasons?

It’s something we all do from time to time, but it’s not really helpful. If you’re eating just to change your mood, see if there’s something you can do instead. I’ve taken to making and enjoying a big cup of tea.

Have you reduced your physical activity level?

Maybe you’ve gone back to taking the lift at work, rather than walking up the 4 flights of stairs. Amazingly, little things like this add up. Have you tried to walk 10,000 steps every day?

Are you weighing yourself consistently?

Remember the old rhyme, ‘a pint of water weighs a pound and a quarter’? Well, if you drink a pint of water, that’s how much your weight will immediately increase! It’ll go down again as you go through the day, but that’s why we always recommend weighing in the same clothes at roughly the same time of day.

Have you already been losing for a while?

If none of the above apply, it’s possible that you’ve done so well that you’ve shrunk below your current calorie-count. When you started to lose weight, you were larger, and so needed more calories just to fuel yourself. Well guess what? You’re smaller than you were before, so now (cruelly) you need fewer calories to ‘run’. That unfortunately means you may need to reduce your intake to continue the good work. Try working out a reasonable calorie target here.

Commit to a goal.

I’ve signed up to a 5k run.

I’m not a runner. I don’t particularly like it and I find it very hard to get my trainers on and get out there. Which is exactly why I’ve signed up.

Sometimes, it’s important to have a goal – something to stretch you and make you work towards a result. When you’re losing weight, the first few kilos/pounds are easy to lose, because you’re running away from something – from ‘fat me’.

When you’re getting closer to your target, suddenly it’s much harder as you need to change your motivation to run towards something. And that what I’m doing – literally. I’m running towards my first 5k.

Using the NHS’ 5K podcast, I’ve started the 9-week programme, which will culminate with the Color Run, an untimed run which has its first races in the UK this year. I’m running in London. The sense of fun (you’re blasted with paint at kilometre markers, leaving you looking like those fools above) and the lack of competition (my aim is just to run the whole way, rather than to achieve a certain time) gives me enough flexibility to believe that this is an achievable, realistic target.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be running. Perhaps it’s not going up for seconds at a buffet, or being able to skip up the stairs at the shopping centre without running out of puff. But work on something small and build from there.

Get running with Couch to 5K

Thinking about exercise can be a bit bewildering, especially if you’ve never even trotted further than the corner shop.

Couch to 5k is designed to get you off your couch, on your feet and out the door with no new equipment – just you, your trainers and your headphones.

Working from just a walk around the block, the programme slowly builds in segments of jogging and then running, minute by minute, until after 9 weeks you are running consistently and eventually for 5 kilometres straight – the ‘5k’ of the title.

If my description sounds unnerving, don’t let it scare you – the three sessions a week are well tailored, increasing almost imperceptibly.

Best of all, it’s cheap or even free. The NHS has funded a podcast, or series of audio files that can be downloaded and used on any media player. It includes instructions and a timed track that bleeps and bloops at you to tell you when to change your pace. There are also smartphone apps that do the same, which have the benefit that you can listen to your own music in the background.

Even if you’ve never attempted any form of exercise since PE at school, Couch to 5K will have you running – properly – in just over 2 months.

Your diet approach – are you an abstainer or a moderator?

Have you heard some of the more recent advice, that a diet that focuses on calorie counting alone won’t work?

Well, it will – if you stick to it. In fact, every diet tip you hear will work, as long as you stick to them.

I had to lose 100lbs when I started dieting. I cut out bread, potatoes, pasta – I went on a low-carb diet, in other words. This helped me because I’m an abstainer.

There are two types of diet. One is to abstain; identify certain foods that you just won’t eat any more. The other is to moderate. Limit the quantity of the foods you eat.

Every diet is one or the other of these things. Calorie counting is moderation. Atkins is abstention.

Which would work for you?

You need to decide that you want this. You want this more than anything else. Because if you want this more than anything else in your life, you’ll prioritise it over other issues.

Hang around here to get a feel for what might work for you. But start. This isn’t going to be a quick-fix, so that best thing you can do is to start anything and see how it works. If it works for you, great! If not, OK, try a different diet.

But don’t give up.

Good luck.

A brisk walk is healthier than running

A study from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California has suggested that as long as you’re expending energy, the speed doesn’t matter.

At least, that’s the findings from an astonishing six-year-long study on over 48,000 runners and walkers. It showed:

Risk of developing Running Walking
Heart disease down 4.5% down 9.3%
High blood pressure down 4.2% down 7.2%
High cholesterol down 4.3% down 7%
Type 2 diabetes down 12% down 12%

The catch? The amount of energy expended needs to be equal – so to achieve the same results a walker will have to walk much further and for longer than a runner would need to run.

“Walking and running provide an ideal test of the health benefits of moderate-intensity walking and vigorous-intensity running because they involve the same muscle groups and the same activities performed at different intensities,” said study leader Dr Paul Williams, from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.

“The more the runners ran, and the walkers walked, the better off they were in health benefits. If the amount of energy expended was the same between the two groups, then the health benefits were comparable.

Life’s a game. Let’s play.

It’s the holy grail, really. If you can enjoy your way towards a goal, you’re more likely to keep going – and get there. Can you enjoy weight loss? You can. Embrace whatever competitive streak you have and turn it to your advantage. Turn weight loss into a game – your own game.

  • It’s meant to be enjoyed.
  • It’s supposed to be challenging but not impossible (even though it can feel that way).
  • You get to play your with any strategy you want, any one that works for you.

Here are some ideas for how to make fitness fun:

The tree dash: If you’re out and about, pick a tree to run to. Once you’re there, see if there’s another you can go to. Switch it up – perhaps you have to go as slow as possible without anyone noticing?

The music sweep: Cleaning is a chore, but it’s also good aerobic exercise. So, pick a song (one with a good pace) and try to sweep or vacuum a room before the song ends. Too easy? Pick a shorter song, or make it washing the bathroom floor!

The advert smash: Every time the adverts come on, don’t just sit there! Get up and do star jumps, running on the spot. Beats watching adverts for chocolate!

The supermarket switch: When you get home from the supermarket, get out the receipt. You are awarded 1 point for every healthy thing (like vegetables and fruits) and deducted a point for unhealthy foods. Tally up; can you get a better score next week?

Exercises for when you’ve not got time for exercise

The exercises only use household items

Even if we can’t all find the time – or the enthusiasm- to get to the gym regularly, most of us can agree that exercise is an important part of healthy living and particularly of weight loss.

Nano Workout is a great ‘one purpose’ site – it gives you regular little snippets of exercise tips that you can work into your everyday life. Waiting for an appointment, travelling upstairs, even lying in bed – all become opportunities to take a few seconds and improve your activity level for the day.

In the words of its creator:

I no longer see working out as a binary event but I do it continuously during the day. […]  [Y]ou can achieve a more healthy life, no matter what your day looks like. A small amount of exercise many times becomes a lot when added up. For instance if you exercise when brushing your teeth it will add up to 24 hours during one year.

No, they’re not going to have the same impact as a full-on session, but the little tips add to your existing portfolio of healthy activities. I’ve also found them to be helpful if you’re stiff or aching in a particular muscle.In a way, I consider them to be the complimentary opposite of NEAT – a way to deliberately build a little more activity into your day.

Thirty 100 kcal snack ideas you’ve probably not tried yet

A great resource, this. Fitbie have put together thirty ideas for quick snacks (more like mini-meals, actually) that clock in under 100 calories. As that implies, they are more suited to those on a low-cal rather than a low-carb diet. There are some brilliant ideas, some of which are a little more inspiring that the standard offering, like these celery, peanut butter and cranberry sticks above.

Admittedly, evil rice cakes are on the list. You can’t have everything.