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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 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 10 2014 09:00AM

If you are a similar age to me you will probably remember adverts for cream cakes years ago, with the tagline 'naughty but nice'. The thought of this makes me cringe now - how on earth can a food be 'naughty'? How crazy! But as a result of our culture's fixation with dieting and healthy eating, most of us have perceptions of food falling into either the 'good' or 'bad' camp like this, and by association, we ourselves become 'good' or 'naughty' according to which type we choose to eat. This is a strange and scary amount of power to give to food - moral qualities! Of course no food is morally good or bad, how could it be? Nor is the person who eats certain foods morally superior or inferior to someone who eats differently. It's just food!

Whilst there is no question that some foods are nutritionally better for us than others, thinking of foods as good or bad leads to a thought process and relationship with food that can be damaging. I wrote in the 'change one thing' blog a few weeks back about relaxing when you eat, and how this is so beneficial when it comes to how our bodies digest and metabolise food. By mentally sticking a 'bad' or 'naughty' label on food you instantly create a sense of 'shouldn't' when you eat it, thereby putting your body in an anti-relaxation, mild stress response, which makes the food even less nutritionally valuable than it is in its basic state! It also sets up an idea that certain foods should be restricted and for many people this leads to a consistent willpower battle, invariably culminating in binges which are not only detrimental to health and weight but also our mental state. Typically a binge on 'bad' food is immediately followed by a sense of regret and self loathing which helps no one. Wouldn't it be better if we could all chill out a bit about food and when we really want a cream cake or burger, simply have one, enjoy it and move on? If you are someone who is on, or is constantly thinking they should be on a diet, or eating only certain foods, imagine how much headspace would be freed up if you could do this? No longer would you have to have the distraction of drawn out mental negotiation about it prior to consumption and the regret and vows to do better afterwards, imagine all the things that you could achieve!

Instead of 'shoulds' and 'shouldn'ts', how about thinking of food from the perspective of what you feel you need from it at any given moment. What are you craving and why? What will the food provide you with? Most of the time we hopefully want to nourish our bodies as best we can, with the most nutrient dense, high quality food we can get. A basic understanding of nutrition and what different foods do for our bodies will help us choose these. But occasionally, we want to nourish our soul too, with food that perhaps comforts us and reminds us of childhood, or gives us a sweet hit we feel in need of. This type of eating is as valid and valuable as any other, providing it is used in a relaxed and responsible way. When we tip over the edge into using food as our only source of comfort or pleasure, eating the nutritionally poor food on a more regular basis than nutrient dense, high quality foodstuff, then and only then does it become a 'bad' thing. Like wine, which can benefit our health but also damage it if we drink too much, the dose of any food makes the poison. If we are turning too often to food as comfort, we are likely to be lacking nourishment in the form of creativity, intellectual or physical stimulation, love and affection, or healthy self esteem and need to look at these areas of our lives. But - health conditions such as intolerances and allergies aside - there's no need to cut it out completely!

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, Oct 27 2014 09:00AM

The first 'change one thing' blog post suggested bringing more mindfulness to the process of eating. This week's is an extension of mindfulness when it comes to food and it focuses on the quality of what we eat.

Much is known about the benefits of a Mediterranean diet - the fact that these Europeans regularly enjoy such foods as cheese, bread, wine and chocolate yet stay slim and much less affected by heart disease and diabetes than other Western populations seems to contradict everything we have been told for years about how bad they are for us. Many aspects of the diet have been analysed to identify precisely what it is that brings such a result. The abundance of vegetables, of fish, olive oil and possibly the red wine...these no doubt play a large role. Another key part, for me, is the way people in more Southern areas of Europe always sit down together for meals, it is a ritualistic, celebratory custom to stop and take time to eat together, to relax and chat and appreciate good food, which is treated with great respect. All this is beneficial to levels of pleasure, satiety, efficient digestion and metabolism, as discussed in my previous 'change one thing' post on mindfulness. There is also another piece of the jigsaw though - quality. The food eaten in the Meditteranean is usually locally produced, in season and very fresh. Meals are made from scratch with delicious ingredients and care. And this is where we can look to make healthy changes in our way of eating.

This week, bring your attention to the quality of the food you eat, with the goal of always trying to choose the best you can get or afford. Is the fruit and veg you buy in season? How far has it travelled? What kind of life did the animal whose meat you are eating have? How processed is the food? Is it possible to choose an organic version? What ingredients are in it, are there preservatives and flavourings that you don't recognise as 'real' things you might have in your kitchen? How was the cake you eat made, in a factory, or with natural ingredients by hand? Even amongst the most 'unhealthy' foods there will be different levels of quality to choose from. If food budget is a concern, maybe rather than eating average quality meat or fish 4 times a week, make it twice with the best available and have two great vegetarian meals instead?

When we choose the best quality food we can, we gain multiple benefits. The obvious one, the food selected is likely to be the most nutrient dense version, so more benefits for your health. Also, it will probably taste better, so you gain more pleasure and satisfaction, typically resulting in less of an urge to overeat or to eat again soon afterwards. Finally, there is a huge psychological benefit; by selecting the best quality food you can, you are physically demonstrating your respect and care for yourself. An act that, repeated over time, can help convince your brain of how valuable your body (and soul) is, should it need it. This is a much healthier way of treating your body than depriving it of certain foods on the basis of calories, carbs or fat content, or punishing it with poor imitations of real food, such as low-fat or sugar free versions. It is an approach that, in conjunction with mindful eating, has a much better long term chance of being sustained so that our bodies can find their healthy, happy weight and state of wellbeing.

So this week, try and bring more awareness to the idea of quality when buying and cooking food. Try making one meal that you regularly prepare, but using the very best quality ingredients possible. Eat it mindfully, like the meal last week, without distractions and see what, if any difference it makes to your taste, enjoyment and satiety.

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