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I am Louise O'Driscoll, founder of Natural Balance. I am a Certified Eating Psychology Coach, helping people find their way to a healthy and happy relationship with food and body.

By louiseodriscoll, Dec 1 2014 11:01AM

This week's Change One Thing is to try and eat chocolate - yes you read that right, a health coach encouraging chocolate consumption! Of course you've probably already guessed that I mean dark chocolate (more than 70% cocoa) rather than milk or white, but if it's a switch you haven't made yet then it's definitely one worth working on, I promise it doesn't take long to change your preference! If you aren't a fan yet, start with dark chocolate with lower concentrations of cocoa and work your way up. Then take the time to enjoy a few squares a day.

Dark chocolate is frequently included in lists of 'superfoods', that provide multiple health benefits in one little package. It earns this status because of the cacao it contains, which is full of beneficial flavonoids, theobromine, antioxidants, fibre, magnesium and phenylethlamine. Lots of complicated sounding chemicals and nutrients that add up to an impressive list of benefits.

The antioxidants in dark chocolate can be even better than fruit for fighting free-radicals that age your skin and they can also fight disease and cut your risk of heart disease by over a third by improving blood flow and lowering blood pressure. It reduces the likelihood of blood clots or strokes and arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). In addition, the flavonoids it contains help reduce insulin resistance by helping cells function normally and the low GI score means that it doesn't cause big spikes and dips in blood sugar in the same way as sweeter chocolate. Dark chocolate also contains iron, which helps protect against anaemia. The oldest known woman, who lived to the age of 122 attributed her amazing health and longevity to regularly eating chocolate!

Dark chocolate can provide a great source of energy before a workout in the same way that coffee can but without the side effects that some people get when they drink coffee. The caffeine and theobromine (often found in energy drinks) that dark chocolate contains have this effect along with magnesium and chromium that help with energy production. It may also help with muscle ageing due to the plant compound epicatechin which replicates the effect of exercise on muscles. Not to suggest you should eat chocolate instead of exercising, but you can do both and gain extra benefits.

There are mental health benefits to eating dark chocolate too; the flavonoids it contains can boost your brain power, increasing blood flow to the brain and helping with concentration and focus. It has also been shown in objective tests to reduce stress and chronic fatigue so can also be useful for alleviating depression. Magnesium aids relaxation and anandamide is a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, along with phenylethylamine that raises your endorphin levels - so if you think chocolate makes you feel better when you are sad or low, then you are right and this is why!

It appears that dark chocolate can make you slim - the Swiss eat over 26lbs of chocolate, per person, per year yet have an obesity rate of less than 8% - how crazy does that seem, given our perception of chocolate as 'bad' for our waistlines? But it is consistent with findings in a US study that showed that people who consumed dark chocolate regularly had a lower BMI than those who didn't, despite them doing the same amount of exercise and even when they ate more calories. It could be that the fibre, protein and fat in good quality dark chocolate can provide a powerful sense of satiety, reducing the urge to overeat or cravings for poor quality snack foods. There is also some evidence to suggest that cacao can boost your metabolism in a similar way to green tea. Due to the sugar and fat content in chocolate that doesn't feature in green tea, obviously there's going to be a fine line in terms of consumption/benefit so don't run away too much with the idea that more is better, but it is another reason not to feel guilty about indulging in your favourite bar! From an Eating Psychology perspective, I think the ideas of quality and pleasure and not viewing food as 'good or bad' all feature here. The Swiss are renowned for producing the best chocolate in the world, it is valued as a premium product that is often artisan-made. So already it is high quality but the respect it is accorded means that when it is consumed, people take the time and attention to enjoy it and as a result they feel happy, nourished, relaxed and satisfied - all meaning that metabolism is optimised and there is no sense of guilt or regret and all of the nutritional benefit the food has to offer is maximised. Contrast this with the typical British approach of demolishing a bar of Dairy Milk with a mid-morning cup of tea whilst trying to plough through work - we don't relax, we don't really taste or enjoy as much as we could and then we often spend the rest of the day wishing we could have been 'good' and not had it or vowing that tomorrow will be different and we will abstain- what a waste of an opportunity for real pleasure and nourishment!

By louiseodriscoll, Nov 24 2014 03:28PM

This week's change one thing may seem like a huge challenge for many readers - I'm asking you to ditch your scales, smash it, bury it or simply toss it in the bin, I don't care. Now before some of you say 'WHAT? Don't be ridiculous, if I do that I'm guaranteed to double my weight within a week!' and close the tab, hear me out!

We are, as a culture, somewhat obsessed with weight - the rising rate of obesity, what height/weight equates to what dress size, where we, individually, fall on a BMI chart and how 'acceptable' or 'unacceptable' this is. But far too much emphasis is put entirely on the number on a machine without any consideration for so many other measures of health, fitness, strength, attractiveness and even moral fortitude. The truth is that the scales tells you only one thing - how much your body resists gravity! Yet even when we know this on an intellectual level, seeing that number a little higher or a little lower than last time can deeply affect our mood and body image. This is something I've struggled with myself and still, to an extent, find hard. Walking past the scales at the gym (I don't have one at home), I always have that little temptation, to step on, just to see… yet I know, from experience, that even when it shows me a 'good' number it rarely leaves me feeling good! I have been surprised after a long lazy holiday, weeks of very little exercise and plenty of food and wine, to find myself lighter than before I left - which should prompt a good mood - yet I know when I feel the waistband of my capris a little snugger and can't lift the barbell half as easily as I did a month or two ago - I must have lost muscle, not fat, and I actually look less in shape, not more. So no comfort is found in the number the scales gives me. Conversely, I have gone for weeks feeling fantastic, eating well and training hard, only to find that I have gained 4lbs. Now it is unlikely that I gained 4lbs of muscle, but I am definitely stronger than a few months back so that may be part of the reason, but I am enjoying working out, enjoying eating pretty much what I want, my clothes fit well - life is good! So why do I choose to bring myself down by fixating and brooding over an arbitrary number? It's a certain kind of madness and one I have (mostly successfully) overcome. I truly believe that if you feel fantastic and comfortable in your skin, within reason, weight doesn't affect how attractive you are - essentially, let the scales tell you you aren't as attractive as you could be and you won't be!

We need to let go of the association between what the scales tells us and how we feel about our bodies, start using different measures, which could be how comfortable we find a favourite pair of jeans, but even better, how we feel in ourselves. Whether you jump out of bed in the morning happy and energised for the day, how often you get ill, whether you can climb a set of stairs or lift an overpacked suitcase or your child comfortably, whether you can run 5k 2 minutes faster than you did last week, or relax and enjoy sex without feeling the need to hold in your belly (tricky move that one).

Keep in mind

- when we obsess over our weight we create a sense of stress, particularly around food. As you will know if your read my blog regularly, stress=impaired digestion and metabolism, leached nutrients and heightened cortisol, al of which typically lead to weight gain, interrupted sleep, lowered immunity, decreased muscle density and general grumpiness! Not a great look on anyone.

- the number on the scales does not tell you how healthy you are

- it does not tell you how good you look or how sexy you are

- it does not tell you your body composition - body fat, bone, muscle, water, hormones, your last meal will all be in the mix affecting that single number

- whatever that number on the scale says, you are never going to everybody's idea of attractive

- you don't need a scale to keep you 'in control' - trust your body a bit more, feed it well, answer its cues.

- within a range of about 1/2 a stone, you are the only person noticing a difference in your body - if you are constantly obsessing over losing 'just the last 5-10lbs' - GET OVER IT, life is too damn short!

Sure, it is entirely possible that you might end up slightly heavier than when you were skipping meals and counting calories to stay at a certain weight (though equally, the opposite is frequently true) but consider that that slightly heavier weight may be the one which is healthy for your individual body and easily maintained without the daily willpower workout resisting 'banned' food - how relaxing and enjoyable does that sound?

If you aren't convinced enough to totally give up weighing yourself, try it for a couple of months - get someone to either hide the scales or take it away from your house. See how it goes and please let me know too!

By louiseodriscoll, Nov 17 2014 09:00AM

The subject of snacks is often a controversial one when it comes to diet and nutrition. Many experts insist that a 'no snacking' approach is the best, or even only, way to maintain a healthy weight and rhythm for your body. Personally I am a big believer in working with the natural rhythms of our bodies, that essentially demand we eat three meals at regular intervals throughout the day. I can also see how this can optimise our digestion and metabolism and undoubtedly avoid excessive consumption of highly processed, high sugar foods that typically fit the 'snack' description. But for me, and for many clients, trying to avoid any snacking through the day becomes a willpower battle and creates a feeling of deprivation, which is distracting and more problematically, all too often leads to overeating, whether because of losing that willpower battle and succumbing to a family sized bar of dairy milk, or simply being so ravenously hungry when it gets to mealtime that we eat too quickly and too much. Intuitive Eating means finding what works best for your own body and working with it, rather than blindly following a set of rules set out by someone else.

My own experience with this has taught me that, even if I have eaten plenty of good food at breakfast and lunchtime, I always feel hungry at around 4pm. This is perfectly understandable in terms of bodily rhythms, it is when our metabolism tends to be at its lowest during daylight hours, so we may feel sluggish and in need of an energy boost. And the first thing our bodies tell us to seek out when we need energy is sugar! When this hunger hits me, I am aware that I could probably hold out until maybe 6pm for dinner, but the way we live means that my husband and I don't manage to sit down for dinner until closer to 9pm. In my mind, the shared experience of enjoying a delicious meal together and chatting about our day is more valuable for our health and relationship than fitting a fixed schedule for meals purely for health reasons. Health is about more than just diet after all! So I now accept that I need to eat something between 4-5pm and often I will treat it as a mini meal, or even the dessert I would have had with my dinner, but earlier. What I want readers to try this week is to look at a snack, whenever it is, more in this way and to replace one snack a day of the likes of biscuits, cakes or sweets with something with some good fat and if possible, some protein. Here are some suggestions

- banana or apple slices spread with a little nut butter

- crudites and houmous and maybe some olives

- a small slice of sourdough or seeded bread with half a mashed avocado (and chilli if you like)

- some full fat Greek yoghurt with berries and a drizzle of honey

- some oat cakes and cheese

- berries and raw nuts

- a good quality protein shake (pea protein is excellent) made with any milk you like, with added banana and honey and a teaspoon of nut butter

- a green smoothie with chia seeds

- energy balls made with dates, almond and cacao or nut butter and tahini

- a coffee (if it works for you) and a few squares of dark chocolate

Give this a go for a week and see how it affects you generally, in particular how you enjoy the different snack, and also how alert and satiated you feel afterwards and for how long, and how your mood and concentration may be different!

By louiseodriscoll, Nov 13 2014 01:42PM

If you (or your kids) are the kind of people who can eat and drink what they like and stay slim and think that makes it ok to consume lots of sugar, this article should make you think again. Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) is the most common persistent (chronic) liver disorder in western countries such as the UK and most people have no symptoms. It can lead to an increased risk of heart disease and strokes and also cirrhosis of the liver. Until recently it was predominately a health issue affecting the over-50's but it is now recognised as the most common cause of liver disease in children in the UK.

By louiseodriscoll, Nov 12 2014 02:44PM

All too often, the people that ask for my help are overwhelmed with looking after everyone else in their lives, and somehow, their own needs have been forgotten. This quote highlights the importance of remembering to look after yourself too...

“Psychic self-injury is neither heroic nor practical. You cannot say that you have mastered love until you include yourself in its embrace. If you make everyone in your life happy but yourself, you have missed the point of living and loving. Self-honoring is the beginning of true service. When you practice self-nurturing, others around you will catch the energy and you will create a wave of well-being that far supersedes the illusory benefits of self-sacrifice.

Do not do anything to yourself that you would not wish on anyone else. Instead, do everything for yourself that you would do to make others happy ... and the world will be a happier place for everyone.”

~ Alan Cohen ~ A Daily dose of Sanity

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