What does it mean to be healthy?

Think of the healthiest person you know. How would you describe them?

  • The absence of specific diseases or illness?
  • Healthy behaviours that they follow e.g. eating well or exercising?
  • Healthy appearance e.g. good skin or shiny hair?
  • Emotional stability i.e. happy and stress free?
  • A good social life or family network?

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The World Health Organisation defines health as:

“A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”

This is quite a holistic approach but still definitely brings up some questions!

Can someone with a disability be healthy? What about someone with a lifelong genetic condition? If someone has a chronic disease which can be managed and does not affect their quality of life, are they healthy? And what does complete well-being mean anyway and who can actually achieve it?!

The answer to these questions is that there is no answer. Defining health is actually a really difficult thing to do as it has various meanings depending on the individual. People tend to describe health based on their own situation and experiences. Someone with a chronic disease or disability that they are managing might be less likely to describe health as the absence of physical infirmity and focus on the emotional and social aspects instead. A shy person who might not have the most active social life can still feel healthy and happy and might describe health as fitness or the lack of disease.

Functional definitions of health include the ability to participate in and enjoy life. In this sense, it is also necessary to consider the influence of social, political and environmental factors on health as particular conditions may or may not impact the quality of a person’s life, depending on the systems which are in place to support them. Healthcare and medicine also plays a huge role as modern developments allow people to live much longer with chronic conditions and maintain a high standard of living.

Regardless of the specific definition, it is important that we see health as a resource for a fulfilling life, rather than the ultimate aim or achievement. A problem with the current health and wellness industry is that it abuses the use of “complete” health to keep people trapped and chasing an unattainable goal. Good health is a priority for many of us and we are willing to pay crazy sums of money for nutritional supplements, fitness programs and other products which promise to bring us closer to this panacea. We can quite easily revolve our life around “being healthy” but this obsession can take away from our emotional and social well-being.

I know for sure that my definition of health has changed over the last few years. I used to think I was healthy as I was slim, I looked reasonably well and exercised like a fiend. People around me thought so too and I was complimented for being the fit one! But looks aren’t everything and inside, my body wasn’t functioning like it should. I was stressed and anxious and my obsession with food and exercise was detracting from my social life. These days, I take a much more holistic approach to health and definitely focus more on keeping my stress levels down over everything else.

Good health is something many of us take for granted and we don’t think twice about neglecting our bodies until things start to go wrong. But a small amount of time and effort spent on learning how to look after ourselves and actually going out and practicing it can really make a difference. Think about how you would define health and what changes you could make to make the most of this valuable resource!

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Resources:

http://www.who.int/about/mission/en/

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/150999.php

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Redefining public health

I watched a documentary on the BBC this week which focused on women suffering from  Diabulimia. This is a type of eating disorder where someone with Type 1 Diabetes reduces the amount of insulin they take in order to control their weight. Without enough insulin, sugar builds up in a diabetics blood and urine. Chronically high blood sugar, known as hyperglycemia, can cause irreversible damage to the eyes, kidneys and nervous tissue. If the body is starved of glucose for long enough, it will start to beak down muscle and organ tissue in a process called diabetic ketoacidosis which can be fatal if untreated.

I had never heard of the condition before but straight away I could relate to the women as I am well acquainted with that deep sense of inadequacy that could cause you harm yourself in this way. It was so sad to see these beautiful women causing such harm to their body in order to stay slim. It made me angry that as a society we have created such a fear of weight gain that people are willing to risk their lives to achieve the “ideal body”.

The lack of support for this complex condition reminded me so much of my own visits to my GP. Admitting that you have a problem can be so challenging and reaching out for help is often a shameful experience. To  then be told that there is nothing available because you don’t fit into the standard boxes of anorexia or bulimia is ridiculous. It is time for us to open up the definition of disordered eating to include all of those whose preoccupation with food and weight is subtracting from their quality of life. I think we would be shocked at the number of people, especially women, who would come forward.

There is a need for a general education on the harmful effects of dieting and support for building a healthy body image. Children are growing up surrounded by diet products and perfect insta-filtered bodies and they need to be prepared to avoid a generation of damaged self esteem. The focus needs to shift from focusing on weight to teaching people to eat well and move their bodies to improve their health and internal sense of well being. There are some great programs emerging in the NHS which are encouraging healthy habits but for some reason the scale always takes centre stage.

The Health at Every Size movement focuses on encouraging positive lifestyle changes for people in all body shapes and sizes, reducing weight discrimination and improving bodily acceptance and self-confidence. This is an area that I am really interested in and going forward into a career in Public Health, I hope I can help raise awareness and be part of bringing these ideas into the mainstream. This change won’t happen overnight – diet culture is well established and we need a total reprogramming of our beliefs and values. But I do believe the shift has started and it is only a matter of time before people wake up and take back the power over their own health.

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Tips for breaking the calorie counting habit

In my most recent post, I spoke about calorie counting and how what might start out as a useful tool for trying to lose weight can end up becoming the chain that hold us back from achieving true health. In this post, I want to share some of the tips that I have used over the last 12 months to move away from calorie counting hell and closer to food freedom. This is not something that happens overnight, neither can I say that I am over it completely, but these few changes have made a huge difference in my life and I hope they can do the same for those of you who are struggling too.

     1. Throw out the measurements

This is probably the most obvious tip but can be one that triggers a lot of anxiety for those who have been strictly controlling their food for a long time. The truth is, that although you might feel like the measurements are keeping you “safe” and without them you will go crazy and eat all of the food, chances are you won’t. We all instinctively know approximate portion sizes for different types of food from years of feeding ourselves. Maybe by not measuring we will end up with 40g or 60g of cereal instead of the intended 50g but generally, we will be in the right ballpark and over time the average difference will be minimal.

     2. Ignore the serving size

If you find that you are serving yourself much more than your previous measured allowance, it is most likely because you need it. Often the serving sizes on packages don’t actually relate to how much a typical person would eat, the figures are manipulated to make the food seem more appealing to the buyer. For example, if you look at the label on a 500ml bottle of coke, it will tell you that the drink contains 2 servings. But who feels guilty about drinking the whole bottle when that is how it is sold?! Food manufacturers only do that to make the calorie and sugar content seem more acceptable to us consumers, especially with the introduction of traffic lights on nutrition labels. Anyway, my point here is that experimenting with eating varying amounts of a food can be useful in learning to tune into your inner cues and find the amount needed to satisfy you rather than relying on external rules and guidelines.

3. Try new things

For lots of us, years of dieting has led to a pretty big inventory of the calorie and macro content of different foods. This information is buried deep into our long term memory and as long as we refer to it regularly, we keep it alive. So it can be really useful, especially in the beginning, to try new things. Experiment with new foods and combinations. For example, if you are used to having the same 2 slices of toast with peanut butter for breakfast every day, try cereal or porridge instead or even just change to a different variety of bread that you haven’t tried before. Research new recipe ideas (try to avoid ones that tell you the calorie content!) and experiment to find textures and flavours that you enjoy rather than basing your decisions on the calorie content.

     4. Cook in batches

Batch cooking is amazing in so many ways! Not only will it save you time and money, it also makes it much more difficult to count calories in your meals. Even if you are preparing food only for yourself, cook a larger amount of food than you know you can eat in one sitting (or a family sized portion if you have the facility to freeze leftovers) and serve yourself the amount you feel hungry for, without measuring or weighing the food or dividing it into the recommended portion sizes if you are following a recipe. If you are still hungry afterwards, give yourself permission to eat more then save any leftovers for later or the next day. Over time you will build up intuitive knowledge of how much of different types of foods it takes to satisfy your hunger at different levels.

     5. Add in extras

This might seem like a random tip but I find it really works. When I add toppings to meals such as nuts and dried fruit sprinkled on the top of cereal or seeds and dressings added to a salad or a veggie burger with all of the trimmings, I find that I can increase my calories significantly without finding it too stressful. Adding in a little bit of this and a little bit of that (as long as you follow the previous tip about not weighing or measuring) means that it is too complicated to keep track of calories. Plus you get the bonus of much more variety of tastes, textures and nutrients in your food and you can keep well-known recipes feeling fresh by switching around the toppings. Getting a bit creative with your meals adds a fun element to preparing and eating food and is a good distraction for the calculator mind that can often run away with itself.

     6. Eat out more

When I was deep in my dieting hell, the thought of eating something not prepared by me filled me with horror. I wouldn’t eat food cooked by my family as I didn’t know the ingredients or how much oil it had been cooked in. I would go to restaurants for special occasions but I found it so stressful. I always hoped that I could find the nutrition information online so that I could plan what I would eat before I went or I would try to track the calories using an online tracker once I got home so that I could “make up for it” the next day if the number was too high. This took all of the pleasure out of what should have been an enjoyable time socialising with friends and family. Once I decided to give up calorie counting, eating out at restaurants or friend’s houses was a life saver. Surrendering control and giving myself permission to just eat is a challenge at first for sure, but it is much easier than trying to resist counting calories whilst preparing food at home.

 

So those are my top tips for stopping counting calories. I think the biggest thing to remember is that you are in control – you don’t need to be controlled by anything outside of yourself. Relying on your own hunger and fullness cues will help you to feel connected to your body and you might find it is easier to develop compassion and acceptance for your body once you see it as an ally and not something to be suppressed or tricked.

I have been practicing these in my life for the last year or so and my relationship to food is a million times better than what it was. Sometimes I do still fall back into old habits but I am only human. For now I am so happy and grateful for how far I have come and I know I will let go for good when I am ready. Hopefully this post can help you too wherever you are on this journey 🙂

Why it is so hard to stop counting calories

Calories.. since when did they become such an integrated part of modern life?!

We are so used to seeing detailed nutritional profiles on every item of food we buy that it is hard to believe that less than thirty years ago, this information was hardly available. Ingredients and additives, along with allergen and health advice have been included for a long time but, until recently, it was rare for packaging to show the exact number of calories or grams of fat the food contains.

That isn’t to say people didn’t count calories for weight loss – this has been a thing since the early 20th century – but it was something they had to go out of their way to do. Nowadays, calories fill our media world from websites, diet books and government recommendations for how many calories we should consume to magazines covering celebrity diets, hinting at how many calories we need to eat in order to achieve that A list body.

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With the rise of intuitive eating, we can see just how addicted to calorie counting we have become. We now have a name for simply eating according to our natural cues and have to relearn how to do it. For those coming to intuitive eating from a history of chronic dieting, a big part of making this shift is learning how to stop calorie counting and start listening to our bodies. Sounds easy right???

Wrong!

Giving up counting calories is one of the hardest things to do. In part, this is because lots of us have become reliant on this external tool to determine how much to eat each day we have forgotten how to listen to our bodies. Without this life jacket, we feel like we will drown in a sea of chocolate milkshake or disappear into a refined sugar quicksand, never to be seen again. We have heard or seen or read that in order to be healthy or lose weight we should eat X amount of calories per day and we cling onto this for dear life.

In doing this, we discard the inner knowledge that we were born with. We hand our power over to health gurus, scientists or government organisations and let ourselves forget that no one knows our bodies better than we do. That intuitive wisdom of how much and when to eat is never lost but we allow it to shrink further and further away from our conscious mind until it blends into the white noise in the background. Compared to the bright colours and bold text of the media, its no wonder that this faint whisper often goes unheard.

As humans, it is only natural to desire a feeling of control. Following calorie guidelines gives us a sense of being in control but in reality, it is an illusion. If we are following external rules rather than our own inner guide, are we really in control?! But for many of us (and I include myself in this) it is a habit that is extremely difficult to let go of. We might see ourselves as fully functioning, independent adults, but in this area of our lives we feel totally incapable of looking after ourselves. Counting calories allows us to feel safe and grounded, especially when things in the world around us get crazy.

Once we do accept that calorie counting is futile, and even harmful, it is not easy to actually stop doing it! We don’t wake up one day and decide we want to stop and that’s it – we never think of calories again, we eat what we want and live happily ever after. Well, maybe some people can but for the majority it is a much longer process. It is sad to say but many women (and some men too) have spent so long thinking about calories, diets and macros that the neural pathways in our brains which are involved in thinking about these things have become so well worn that the counting happens on autopilot. It happens without us thinking about it and actually takes more effort not to!

Even when we want to stop counting, we can’t help looking at a chocolate bar and automatically thinking 200 calories or silently adding up the calories in the items when we buy a lunch time meal deal. We can’t help looking at the calories on food packages that we buy and comparing similar items. Even restaurants often show the calories in the meals these days and for those of us coming from a background of dieting and restricting food, it is difficult to order a burger and fries when the menu tells us it contains 1500 calories which was probably our “daily allowance” at some point.

I am not saying by any means that it is wrong for this information to be available. I do think that it is useful in making healthy choices but we are all individuals with different needs when it comes to our health and well being so it can be difficult to find a one-size-fits-all solution. In this case, for those of us trying to undo years of dieting habits, having these numbers glaring us in the face does not make it an easy process!

So if you are trying to give up counting calories and finding it hard, please know that you are not alone. The media and your human brain make up are both against you on this one. It is a challenging process but so worthwhile so stick with it and you will get there 🙂 this post is getting quite long already so I will save my tips for giving up calories and finding food freedom for next time!

Is veganism just a diet fad?

One thing that really frustrates me in the media is the association of veganism with “clean eating”. There has been a lot of media coverage in the last few months about the diet fad clean eating and somewhere along the line this has been confused with veganism. Celebrity health coaches such as Ella Woodward from Deliciously Ella have brought whole foods vegan diets into the mainstream to be met with a crazy concoction of aspiration and contempt.

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Clean eating is generally defined as eating foods with minimal process steps between farm and plate. Processing a food involves taking the original ingredients and modifying them in some way, usually by adding (e.g. sugar or preservatives), taking away (e.g. removing the bran from wholewheat bread) or manufacturing chemical foodstuffs from scratch in a lab. Fruits, vegetables and pulses are considered “clean” foods. Meat, eggs and bone broth are also considered “clean” foods. A clean eater could be vegan, vegetarian or omnivorous – it doesn’t matter!

A vegan diet is a diet which avoids all animal products. This means no meat, fish, dairy, eggs or honey. I know vegans following all sorts of diets with all sorts of reasons for their choices. Ranging from raw vegans who eat nothing but fruits and vegetables to self-proclaimed junk food vegans living off of the fantastic array vegan donuts and takeaways that are now widely available. Veganism is about more than health, it is about making choices that lead to the least amount of cruelty to our planet and the creatures we share it with.

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It is true that a following a plant-based diet can be one of the best things you can do for your health. Eating a wide variety of plant foods on a daily basis and minimizing consumption of meat and dairy will boost your nutrient intake and reduce your risk of serious health conditions such as heart disease and stroke. But your diet alone by no means defines your health status. There are so many other factors involved that you simply cannot tell how healthy a person is by looking only at what they eat.

You can be healthy without being vegan and you can definitely be vegan and unhealthy.

I have been predominantly vegan for almost two years now and throughout that time my diet has evolved and changed, just like I have. In the beginning I did get swept up by the wave of “clean vegan eating”, although I didn’t call it that at the time. For a long time I avoided processed foods as much as possible and tried to follow a low fat diet too as I was struggling with some health issues and I thought this was the answer. As time went on, I started to feel restricted by my diet, I was feeling tired a lot of the time, I had a lot of anxiety around my food choices and most importantly, I still didn’t have my period (see my journey with Hypothalamic Amenorrhoea here).

When I decided that things needed to change, I had to take a long hard look at my diet and make some drastic changes. The anti-diet communities that I was active in at the time were also very anti-clean eating and promoted documentaries such as BBC’s Clean Eating – The Dirty Truth. This made me question everything that I was doing and wonder if I needed to give up veganism for the sake of restoring my health and relationship to food. I knew deep down that I couldn’t go back to eating animals but I was surrounded by messages that veganism was restrictive and that recovering from disordered eating required surrendering and accepting that all foods are equal.

The messages were so strong that it did take me while to figure out that clean eating and veganism are not the same thing. And to me, all foods were not equal any more. Maybe I could accept that letting go of food rules would have a positive impact on my physical health but mentally, eating animal products filled me with so much guilt and negative emotion that it couldn’t possibly be healthy psychologically.

Eventually I realised that I could learn to relax around my food choices and still be vegan. I found this list of “accidentally vegan” snack foods to be so useful in breaking the connection between veganism and health. Hobnobs, Oreos and Greene & Black’s dark chocolate became my saviours. I ate cake in the morning and pancakes at the weekend. I explored all of the tasty vegan restaurants in my city and enjoyed being able to pick whatever vegan delight I wanted off the menu without worrying about the calorie content or the health destroying chemicals it might contain.

I still follow a mostly whole food plant based diet now because it makes me feel good. I love cooking meals from scratch and nourishing my body with lots of healthy plant foods. But when these foods aren’t available I eat whatever vegan option I can get my veggie hands on. And if the option was a vegan burger or a non-vegan superfood salad, I would go with the burger any day. I treat myself whenever I feel like it (hello, vegan pizza..!) and never restrict food groups.

I love how veganism has reached the mainstream but I really hope that it doesn’t end up being viewed next year as just another diet fad, put in the same boat as gluten-free and low-carb and going down with the sinking ship of the Atkin’s diet. There really is so much more to veganism and I am praying that the positive messages don’t get lost amongst the backlash. I hope that the vegan movement is here to stay and will continue to grow for the sake of our planet and all that live on it. And that includes us!

 

Do you still believe in diets?

The fact that dieting works is one of the most widespread myths of the western world.

So many women are stuck in the constant cycle of calorie restriction, deprivation followed by rebound overeating and weight gain.

Diet cycle

The problem is that we don’t see it as a cycle. We see it as lots of separate, successful diets with periods of failure on our part in-between. We see the diets as being successful due to our initial weight loss and then blame ourselves for “falling off the wagon” and gaining back the weight. Then of course, we see the only solution as starting a new diet.

What we don’t realise is that with every cycle our body becomes better equipped to deal with the perceived famine.

  • Our digestive systems slow down in an attempt to squeeze every last calorie out of the food that we eat, leaving us feeling bloated and sluggish.
  • Our metabolism slows down so that we waste less energy as heat, resulting in a drop in our body temperature and symptoms such as cold hands and feet and sensitivity to cold.
  • Growth of our nails and hair slows down as our bodies try to conserve energy and we may experience disruption to our menstrual cycles.
  • Even we slow down as we start to feel the effects of being in a chronic energy deficit such as fatigue and muscle aches and pains.

Basically, everything slows down! Not only that, our bodies develop ways to persuade us to eat more, increasing our hunger signals and cravings for sweet and fatty foods making us feel like we just don’t have the willpower that we used to. Often, we feel like we have no control around food and start to think about it wayyyy too often.

Even though our society views dieting as the healthy and often even the moral thing to do, chronic calorie restriction and yoyo dieting are some of the most damaging habits for our bodies long term.

Really, calorie restriction can go one of two ways:

  1. Sustained weight loss / chronic calorie restriction

Yes there are people who lose weight and successfully keep it off. However, it is important to realise that those who lose weight through dieting need to eat less and less as they get older in order to maintain their weight. Sometimes this is referred to as “metabolic damage” but in reality it is actually our bodies getting super efficient!

Being in a calorie deficit is a stressor for our bodies, causing cortisol levels to sky rocket. Short term, this has the effect of raising our blood sugar and increases the breakdown of lean tissue for fuel. Long term, chronic stress affects all systems of the body causing digestive issues, a suppressed immune system and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease… and we thought going on a diet was healthy!

  1. Weight cycling / Yo-yo dieting

Cycling between extreme calorie restriction and rebound overeating is a trap that many dieters fall into. One of the issues with this is that we can end up depriving our bodies of essential nutrients. In the dieting phase, we might be eating healthy food (or not!) but if we are not consuming enough calories then it is unlikely we are getting the nutrients we need. In the rebound phase, our bodies are desperate for energy so we are much more likely to reach for calorie dense, processed foods that provide that quick surge of energy but still don’t provide the nutrients our bodies need. Of course, this is another survival mechanism as if we were in a true famine it is much better to survive with a slight nutrient deficiency than to waste away from lack of energy. But when we are practicing this pattern again and again throughout our lives we can get into trouble.

In addition, each weight cycle results in loss of muscle as well as fat which can change our body composition significantly over time. Reduced lean mass leaves us with a lower resting metabolic rate, meaning that each time we fall of the wagon we seem to regain weight quicker and each time we diet it gets harder and harder to lose weight.

So if dieting is off the cards, what is the solution?

Jumping off the diet wagon and learning to eat intuitively is one of the healthiest things you can do for your long-term health. I really recommend the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole as a guide to escaping the diet cycle and tuning into your body’s needs. It is definitely a journey rather than a quick fix as it take time to unpick old habits and form new ones but one that is so worth it!

Right now, I am in the healthiest place I ever have been with food. I probably weigh 15lbs more than my old “ideal weight” but in time I am realising how warped my view of ideal actually was. Plus, I am maintaining that weight on twice as many calories than I used to eat which is so liberating. I eat food that I love and that I know is nourishing for my body and eat A LOT of it. And when I want to treat myself I do. I go out to eat knowing that I can have whatever I want with no guilt and I eat until I am satisfied (sometimes more and that is ok too!).

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If you are currently stuck in the dieting cycle, please please please take a moment to write down a timeline of your dieting history and look at the patterns. I know for me it really helped to see on paper how long I had been chasing my tail – just how many times I had lost and gained the same 5lbs and just how many “fresh starts” I had had. Sit and really think about the emotions that you feel during each phase of the cycle and ask yourself whether it is worth it. And if not, know that there is a way to step out of all of that and into food and body freedom 😊

HA recovery diaries #6 the roller coaster of healing emotions

In the beginning of this journey I thought that getting my period back was the final goal. Little did I know back then that this was merely a sign that I was on the right track on a much longer healing journey. It has been 3 weeks since the return of AF and it has been a rollercoaster of emotions.. mainly joy, excitement and gratitude but also fear and uncertainty.

Deciding to tackle this mountain of an issue is not easy. Most of us have dedicated years of our lives to our “health” and “beauty” goals only to find out we have been fed a pack of lies. We have spent so long cultivating beliefs about how we should look in order to be happy and successful that finding out that this isn’t necessarily what is right for us is quite a blow.

At first we remain in denial – our lifestyle can’t possibly be the cause of our lack of periods, we are slim and fit therefore we MUST be healthy..right?

Once we start to realise that maybe fixation on our weight could be responsible we get defensive – we aren’t exercising THAT much, we aren’t VERY underweight, we know people skinnier than us who still have their cycles..

At some point we experience anger – anger towards the media and diet industries for making us feel unworthy and for providing us with our body ideals and even anger towards our own bodies for not conforming to these images of “perfection”

Of course there is the sadness too –  we are sad that we have neglected our bodies in this way and grieve for the time and energy we have lost and can’t get back

Yet along the way we discover the other women who are also walking this well-trodden path and we find hope – time and time again we see healing stories which give us hope that we can also overcome this

But we haven’t yet cultivated patience and expect miracles to happen over night  – when we don’t see the changes we want we start to feel lost and broken like we are different from the others and will never be able to heal

We start to feel uncertainty – we don’t know whether this will work, we are out of our comfort zones and crave the safety of our old routines. We can’t quite let go of something, maybe our weight, our control over food or our exercise routine

Eventually we surrender and feel a huge sense of relief. – giving up the struggle and allowing our bodies to lead the way instead of our minds constantly planning, analysing, criticising

This is where the magic happens

Getting my period back brought me huge joy but it is not the end of the road. Now I have to relearn how to look after my body.. I want to eat well and move my body but I don’t know how to go about it any more. Everything I learned from the past is a no go and I feel totally lost. I need to discover where my boundaries are – what can I do? how much is too much? Right now I am remaining cautious and I am very aware that I could easily slip back into old patterns.

It seems like I am in this for the long haul but I wouldn’t have it any other way 🙂

Amy