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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, 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!

By louiseodriscoll, Jun 14 2014 09:40AM

Just a short amount of time outside in nature can be so beneficial - make some time over the weekend to get outside for a walk, bike ride, run or do a bit of gardening...

By louiseodriscoll, Jun 3 2014 03:21PM

As we are all aware, diet plays a huge part in our health, along with the other big hitters, exercise, stress and, perhaps the most significant, sleep. Yet this is so often an aspect of our health that we don't give enough attention to - as our lives seem to get increasingly hectic and 24/7, a growing swathe of research is showing us how crucial sleep is to our bodies, with a lack of it leading to profound consequences not just on a daily basis but also with regard to long term serious health issues. One study put 10 young and healthy adults on a typical 'shift worker' pattern of sleep to study the effects - after only four days, three of their blood glucose readings put them into the pre-diabetic range. This gives us some indication as to what weeks, months or years of poor sleep could be doing to us, beyond the day to day issues of tiredness, brain fog, irritability, anxiety, depression, poor immune response, risk of accidents and a drop in our sex drives.

Study after study has shown a clear link between insufficient sleep and health problems that include heart disease, heart attacks, diabetes, cancer and obesity. Reduced sleep plays havoc with our hormones; typically the 'stress hormone' cortisol (which, incidentally, prompts the body to store fat, avoid building muscle and excrete nutrients), reduces in the evening, but in a sleep-deprived state, the rate of it dropping is significantly - up to 6 times - slower and this means a higher risk of insulin resistance, which can lead to obesity and diabetes. The other important hormones that relate to obesity and diabetes are leptin and ghrelin. These are our hunger hormones, and lack of sleep reduces their ability to accurately tell us our caloric needs - it seems that when we are sleep deprived, they send signals that create a much bigger appetite for food than the amount we truly need. Obviously this means you are much more likely to eat more when you haven't slept enough, added to which you are also likely to crave the types of food - comforting white, sweet carbs - that you would typically aim to avoid if you want to eat healthily - a double whammy!

Compared to the level of understanding we have of how the body works in terms of nutrition and other functions, the role of sleep remains less clear and huge amounts of research are still being undertaken, but what is evident that by consistently defying our natural biorhythms we are damaging our health. Researchers at Oxford, Harvard and Cambridge Universities recently described this as a 'supremely arrogant' attitude in society and warned that people and governments should take the issue seriously.

To follow - tips for better sleep…..

By louiseodriscoll, Jun 1 2014 04:47PM

The history books show that we have been enjoying caffeine since the 15th century and probably never more so than today, with a coffee shop on every corner and a huge range of energy drinks containing high doses of the stuff, our love affair seems to be unending. Yet still the scientists can't seem to give us a definite answer on whether it is definitely good or bad for us. Here I attempt to weigh up the pros and cons....

The Science Bit

Our bodies naturally produce a compound called adenosine, levels of which rise in our bodies as the day progresses and gradually slow our central nervous systems down, ready for rest and sleep at bedtime. When caffeine is ingested, it impersonates the adenosine but effectively boots it out of the way, stopping it doing its job and keeping the central nervous system running at speed. This explains the 'jolt' some people experience when they have a caffeine hit.

Like other powerful substances such as sugar (and at the more extreme end of the scale, cocaine and heroin), caffeine prompts the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates the pleasure centres in our brains. It also slows down the reabsorption of the dopamine and for some people, this is what makes caffeine addictive.

Benefits of caffeine

Studies have shown that there is a long list of impressive potential health benefits we can gain from caffeine

- it can improve concentration

- it can increase physical performance during exercise

- it can boost metabolism

- it provides a dose of antioxidants

- it can boost mood

There is good evidence to show that caffeine can reduce the likelihood of suffering

- cirrhosis of the liver

- gallstones

- Type 2 diabetes

- Alzheimer's disease

- liver cancer

- Parkinson's disease

Negative effects of caffeine

- caffeine exaggerates the stress response

- it leads to an increase in blood sugar and in blood pressure

- it can also lead to decreased bone density

- it can be addictive

For some people caffeine also causes

- chronic fatigue

- digestive problems

- anxiety

- sleep disturbance

- heart palpitations

- depression and irritability

- cravings for certain foods

As with lots of foods, different people react differently to caffeine. For my money, if caffeine is causing any of the problems above then it's likely to be cancelling out the possible benefits in the first list. The negative impact that chronic stress, poor sleep, anxiety and depression in particular can have on health should not be underestimated. My advice to anyone who regularly has caffeine, suffers from any of the second list above and wonders if there may be a connection, is to gradually cut their caffeine intake down to nil (halve it every three days until you can drop the last one or two drinks). Stay off it for a couple of weeks  and monitor how you feel - then have a coffee and see what your body tells you. That is the best answer you will get!

If your body responds happily to it, the optimum dose of caffeine to get the health benefits appears to be 3-5 cups a day. I'd try and keep these to the first half of the day to avoid any impact on sleep, and make it good quality coffee, rather than energy drinks or colas that invariably contain high doses of sugar or artificial sweeteners along with the caffeine.

If you want a healthy alternative to coffee, try choosing green tea, it gives a gentle caffeine buzz, but carries huge health benefits in terms of antioxidants and an apparent thermogenic (metabolic boosting) effect. To be the subject of another blog post!

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