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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, 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.

By louiseodriscoll, Sep 16 2014 12:22PM

I've touched before when blogging, how writing can be incredibly healing as a way of expressing creativity but also as a way of processing difficult experiences and emotions that often we try and stuff down or distract ourselves from with food.

This article provides more evidence on this, studies even seem to show physical injuries healing faster! Whether it is a letter to someone who is hurting you or has hurt you in the past, a journal detailing thoughts and feelings, perhaps the compliments you received recently or goals you've achieved, or creative writing, all of it can be so beneficial, often providing a new perspective, clarity of thought or a release - make some time in your day to give it a try!

By louiseodriscoll, Sep 12 2014 10:22AM

Why do we need food?

The obvious answer to this question is of course, to fuel our bodies. But the recent development of Soylent, a 'complete' liquid food replacement, throws up the interesting question of what else food means to us. If it were only fuel, why would there be a thousand different kinds of restaurants lining our streets and packed with eager customers, why would food programmes be so popular, recipe books sell so well? Why would food be the focus for celebration, romance, so many important events through our lives?

NASA conducted an experiment some years ago in which they attempted to feed astronauts pills which, similar to Soylent, apparently contained all the essential calories, vitamins, and nutrients that the human body needs. But over time, the test subjects became ill - it seemed that the element of taste and enjoyment is an essential part of what we actually require to be healthy. Food is so much more than a combination of macro and micro nutrients and there is still so much science doesn't yet know about how such foods as plants and meat actually break down and interact with our bodies. Food provides not just sustenance but a source of pleasure and comfort that we instinctively seek as human beings, right from being an infant crying for milk and through to old age. When we diet, we try and suppress that natural instinct, along with our appetite. A battle we are doomed to lose, as the millions of people who have lost weight on a diet only to regain it will testify. As soon as dieting mentality is adopted, we get stuck on a cycle of fearing food, denying our body not just the fuel but also the pleasure it demands for as long as we can, restricting what we consume only to eventually 'crack' and overeat, attempting to get all the pleasure we have denied ourselves for the duration of the diet in one hit, after which we tell ourselves we will 'get back on the wagon'. But overdosing on a 'bad' food only provides a short moment of pleasure - even before we finish the entire family bar of Dairy Milk, or a whole cake, we start to feel queasy, guilty and regretful.

Rather than labelling food as 'good' or 'bad', of attempting to subscribe to an arbitrary number of calories that we are told our bodies need each day, a new approach is needed, which involves working with, rather than against your appetite and acknowledging the pleasure food can bring - but instead of eating for pleasure, eating with pleasure. No food is bad, but some are most definitely better for our health than others. Change your perspective of food, away from 'things I mustn't eat' to what positive things different foods can do for us. Hunger is normal and serves an excellent purpose - listen to it, respond to it, aim to make the best choices for health and nourishment but acknowledge that sometimes, we do really want cake and that is fine as well! Enjoy it but listen to when your body says 'enough' - you can always have some more, later, tomorrow, whenever. Remember too, that it takes time for your instincts to catch up with your brain, for this reality to really sink in…by regularly eating the things that are best for health and nourishment, tastes do change, it is possible to more often prefer to eat a plate of vegetables than a pizza but if you have been battling with food so that pizza is the 'forbidden fruit' for years then it will take time and practice, so go easy on yourself, don't expect change overnight and rather than beat yourself up for the 'poor' choices, allow yourself to relax and enjoy them, really feel how your body responds, from your tastebuds, to your digestion, to your energy levels afterwards. It is all part of healing your relationship with food and body, so go with the flow and be kind to yourself! Making peace with food and your body brings an amazing sense of liberation when it does come, it is well worth the practice!

By louiseodriscoll, Jul 14 2014 12:32PM

On my facebook feed this morning, an article in today's Daily Mail highlighting the link between stress and weight, something that underpins so much of Eating Psychology. I am bemused (or perhaps I should say unsurprised, given it is the DM), by the fact that the study was undertaken on an entirely female group, but I believe it would show very similar results on a male study. The truth is, stress does not only negatively impact upon weight, it affects virtually every aspect of our health and wellbeing.

A certain amount of stress in our lives in unavoidable, in fact it is necessary, but we would all benefit from finding ways in which we can reduce the levels of stress in our lives. Here are my ideas to start with....

Eating - when we eat quickly, in a state of distraction, our body reacts with a mild stress response, at which point, our digestion and metabolisms are downgraded in terms of important functions for survival. This means that we don't extract nutrients or burn calories as well as we do in a relaxed state, the result of which the article illustrates. So no matter how crazy your day, take a few moments before you eat to breathe deeply and relax. Take yourself away from your computer screen or TV. Focus on eating slowly and really enjoying your meal. If you can, take your lunch outside. You will not only get the most from the food nutritionally but also get more pleasure from it, which in turn will further reduce stress levels and the likelihood that you will be hungry again soon after (because your brain will have fully absorbed the fact that you ate a meal, rather than being focussed on other things!)

Sleep - I have already posted twice here about sleep and its importance to our health and stress levels. Prioritise getting 7-9 hours good quality sleep every night in order to keep anxiety and stress levels in check.

Exercise - exercise is essential for good health but does not have to mean gruelling bootcamps or spinning sessions. In fact, if you hate those types of training, they are more likely to increase your stress levels! Find a form of movement that you enjoy. Walking, dancing, boxing, climbing, gardening, yoga or swimming, the choices are endless - whatever gives you a sense of pleasure and wellbeing, find it and do it regularly. Study after study shows the incredible difference exercise can make in the treatment of stress, anxiety and depression.

Mindfulness/meditation - mindfulness is a bitt of a buzzword lately, it is gaining popularity rapidly because it is so effective in managing stress and anxiety. Make time in your day at least once to have a break and tune out your worries and concerns, just breathe and be. This doesn't have to be sitting in the lotus position and chanting! There are many different forms of meditation, inlcuding 'eyes open' and walking for 10 minutes in nature. Anything that gives you a bit of distance and perspective on life and the issues that are stressing you out will help.

Pleasure and creativity - again, the subject of other blog posts here. We all need pleasure and creativity in our lives, in whatever form suits us. Whether it is traditionally creative (art, music, writing, producing something homemade) or less so, make time to do it regularly, along with the things that give you pleasure - often they may be the same thing. Do what you love and your stress levels will benefit!

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