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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, Feb 10 2015 05:16PM

I should probably warn you all that this blog post runs a risk of turning into a bit of a rant. As a health coach I am generally keen on emphasising the fact that there is no single perfect diet for everyone and I typically help clients find a good balance in life between eating well most of the time without creating a sense of deprivation by banning certain foods. My interpretation of eating well is generally choosing real, nutrient dense food - this way works best for most of us. There are of course, certain things I would prefer people avoid most of the time and one of the main targets here is (unsurprisingly), sugar. A client I saw last week brought with her the packaging from a protein bar that she had chosen to snack on instead of a chocolate bar, believing that it was the healthier choice. I read the ingredients with a raised eyebrow. The first was soy protein isolate, the following six were all sugar with different names. The ingredient following those composed 2% of the snack, meaning that the ‘healthy’ protein bar was around 40% sugar. The thing that irritated me about the information on such packaging is that it can be so confusing, even if you are fairly well educated about nutrition, it can be hard to fathom exactly what it is you are consuming.

There are over 55 different ingredients used by food manufacturers that are all in fact sugar - some are recognisable, they have sugar in their name or are substances we know to be sweet, such as caramel, but there are others that aren’t so well known. Familiarising yourself with the less obvious ones can help you identify what to avoid…

- be alert to any mention of ‘syrup

- of ingredients ending in ‘ose’ or ‘ol

- those with ‘malt’ or ‘syrup or ‘juice’ in their name

What I would really love to see is food manufacturers forced to clearly show on labels the amount of sugar that has been added to products, so that consumers can more easily identify what it is they are actually buying. As things stand, it can be guesswork at best and for most of us avoiding packaged food entirely is unrealistic, which makes it hard to always be sure if we really are making better choices. Wishful thinking perhaps…

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 3 2014 02:01PM

This week's Change One Thing is pretty simple - it involves swapping rice or potato in one meal for cauliflower.

Cauliflower went out of fashion for a while, but with the increased popularity of low carb based diets, this brassica is enjoying something of a resurgence, and with good reason. It is versatile, delicious and packs an incredible nutritional punch. Whilst I'm not suggesting we should all turn to Atkins or Paleo diets, swapping simple white carbs such as rice or potato for cauliflower from time to time can be an easy way to make a healthy change.

▪ Cauliflower is a great source of dietary fibre and is packed with phyto-chemicals such as sulforaphane and plant sterols such as indole-3-carbinol. Together, these compounds have proven benefits against prostate, breast, cervical, colon and ovarian cancers.

▪ Di-indolyl-methane (DIM), a lipid soluble compound present in brassicas, has been found to be effective as an immune modulator, anti-bacterial and anti-viral agent.

▪ Fresh cauliflower is packed with vitamin C; 100 g provides about 48.2 mg or 80% of our daily recommended intake. This proven antioxidant helps fight against harmful free radicals, boosts immunity and prevents infections and cancers.

▪ Cauliflower contains B-complex groups of vitamins such as folates, Vitamins B5, B6, B1 and B3 as well as vitamin K. Our bodies require these vitamins to replenish itself and metabolise fat, protein and carbohydrate.

▪ It is also a good source of minerals such as manganese, copper, iron, calcium and potassium.

So this week, whatever meal you were thinking of preparing with rice, try cauliflower rice, it is quick, simple and delicious. Try roasted cauliflower with spices. Or very lightly steamed florets with a garlic and parmesan dressing.

If you were planning mashed potato, try this recipe (courtesy of Hemsley & Hemsley) below. Mashed cauliflower is as satisfying and comforting as potato mash yet will leave you feeling lighter and happy with the knowledge your health will benefit!

Cauliflower Mash (serves 2)

1 small garlic clove, peeled

1 large cauliflower, remove outer green leaves

1/2 tsp of English mustard

1/2 tbsp of butter to blend and 1 tsp of chopped up butter to top the mash

1 pinch sea salt

1 pinch black pepper

Optional 1 teaspoons of chopped chives or 1 finely sliced spring onion

Optional 30g of mature cheddar cheese, grated

In a saucepan steam the cauliflower and whole garlic cloves with just a few tablespoons of water, lid on, for 5 minutes or until the cauliflower is tender. Use a knife to check.

Remove the pan from the heat, drain any excess liquid and add the butter, grated cheese and mustard. Blend or mash until creamy and smooth. If it's too sloppy or wet allow the mash to evaporate on a low heat.

Season and add chives if using. Serve.

By louiseodriscoll, Jun 18 2014 10:34AM

Last week I blogged about intuitive eating. That is how I would like everybody to eat, no rules or restrictions on anything, but from a standing start, I get that people want some help with knowing what to choose as the best thing for their health. Its particularly hard when we eat a diet high in sugar, starchy carbs and processed food as, make no mistake, these foods have the power to mess with our heads and get us to believe that our body actually wants them! So we have to make some effort to get away from them in order to really get to the bottom of what our bodies truly crave.

So what constitutes a healthy diet? It's not surprising that many of us feel confused and frustrated by all the conflicting advice that exists on the subject of nutrition. Fasting, Paleo, low carb, low-fat, low sugar, no dairy, no meat, no caffeine....the contradictory theories and 'good' or 'bad' foods are never ending. It doesn't need to be so complicated though. Here are my guidelines - note the use of the term guidelines, I don't like 'rules' when it comes to food! - for making changes that are practical and sustainable and should make you feel so much more relaxed and healthy.

- make real food your staple diet. If it came from a tree, field or farm then it's probably good. If it has been in a factory, avoid.

- minimise sugar. We are built to love the taste of sweet food. We are not built to process the super-concentrated levels of sugar in the juices, cereals, sauces, snacks and sweets that surround us all the time. Do your body a favour and phase them out, along with any artificial sweeteners.

- get the best quality food you can find and afford, whatever it is you are eating. The fresher and more local and seasonal the veg, the better. Same for meat, the closer the animal's natural life has been to what it would be if it were wild, the better it will taste and the more it will do for your body.

- slow down when it comes to mealtime. The process of digestion and metabolism begins in your head and is optimised by relaxation. Contemplate your meal before you begin to eat, take a few breaths to relax, then eat slowly and enjoy the food. Take time away from work or the TV and pay attention. Really taste every mouthful and when you feel satisfied, stop. Be aware of how you feel after the meal...energised, bloated, sluggish for example? What about during the next 12-48 hours? Any digestive problems, skin reactions or a quick return to hunger? Take note of how different foods make you feel so that you learn what works and what doesn't.

- prioritise vegetables (lots), quality protein (a portion should be the size of a palm or two, depending on your size and activity levels) and good fat at every meal. These will give your body all that it needs to feel satisfied, repair and regenerate itself and keep you alert and energetic. Good things to choose include all kinds of veg (especially the dark green and leafy kind), meat, fish, eggs, tofu, tempeh, full fat dairy products, raw nuts, avocados, nut butter, cold pressed oils and seeds.

- Choose carbohydrates according to the first guideline, so beans, lentils, sweet potatoes, chickpeas and quinoa rather than pasta, mass produced bread and white rice. Make your portions fairly small, again a palm sized serving should be plenty.

- experiment with different foods. For example, ditch caffeine, dairy or wheat for a week or two and note how you feel. Then reintroduce it to see what happens. Often we live with low level health complaints that we don't realise are symptoms of food intolerances, this can enable you to identify them and choose your food accordingly.

- try and eat according to our bio-circadian rhythm, a meal upon waking, another between 12-1.30pm and then dinner in the early evening. Aim to stop eating at least three hours before bedtime. This timing of meals will work with our natural rise and fall in metabolic rate.

- remember to get Vitamin P - PLEASURE. Along with laughter, touch, sex and creative expression and enjoyment, eating is an important part of the pleasure we get from life, but we often forget about this in our efforts to get slim or be healthy. If you apply the guidelines above most of the time, you should be enjoying delicious and nutrient dense food every day, but if you choose to eat a less healthy meal or snack occasionally, it will be fine, that's the difference between guidelines and rules, be a grown up and apply responsibly!

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