Weight is a big issue. We live in a society where we are surrounded by choice when it comes to foods, and the consequences of those choices can make a big difference to not only our weight, but our general state of health. Where are so many of us going wrong?
For many years now we have been told that fat is the issue, and as a consequence our fat intake has fallen dramatically – and yet obesity rates continue to rise, and more and more people struggle to maintain an ideal weight. Clearly weight is not just a fat issue!
In fact, we need a certain degree of fat in our diets for good health – a low fat diet can be extremely detrimental to good health. So-called ‘good’ fats include cold-pressed vegetable oils, such as cold-pressed olive oil, mono and polyunsaturated fats, found in foods such as avocados, fatty fish and various nuts and seeds, and even some of the saturated animal fats in small quantities – so the good news is moderate levels of butter and cream are good for us! Where fats start to go bad is when we either have too many of them, or they have been damaged by frying, overheating, poor processing or over exposure. Damaged fats such as hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oil, also called trans fats, which are in many processed foods, margarines etc will all contribute to weight problems and are now implicated in some major health issues including chronic inflammation and heart disease, due to the trouble our body has processing them. Commercially extracted oils can often be added to this list too, as the friction of high speed machinery produces heat which can spoil the oil before it even reaches the supermarket shelves!
So fats don’t necessarily make us fat, but the wrong kinds or too many of them will. What else might be a problem?
The present day diet is very heavy on sugars and carbohydrates, and these are where the main weight issues lie for most people. All forms of carbohydrate – and it is found in all types of food, including grains – will be processed by the body into the simple sugar, glucose, which provides energy for the body. How fast the carbohydrate in the food becomes glucose depends on how much is contained in the food and also how much fibre the food has within it. The more fibre the better as it will slow down the process, mitigating some of the effects.
Whichever way you cut it though, high carbohydrate foods are, on the whole, not good for us in quantity. Their whole purpose is to give us energy in the form of glucose and if we don’t use up that energy – which few of us do in this sedentary age – our body converts the excess glucose to fat. In fact, it is very clear from statistics collated over the last 60 years or so that as our fat intake steadily fell and fell, our carbohydrate intake climbed ever higher, paralleling the rise of obesity rates.
So weight gain isn’t a fat issue, so much as a carbohydrate issue.
So are all carbohydrates a problem? No, as I said earlier, they are our energy foods, and we need a reasonable supply of them – just not in excess. The problem with the modern day diet is that it is heavily weighted towards carbohydrates, and government food pyramids even endorse this approach, despite the understanding nutritionists have around the problems they cause. Carbohydrates which metabolise into glucose quickly are to be avoided – high levels of glucose in our blood are detrimental to health, causing blood sugar imbalances, setting up inflammatory pictures and potentially leading to diseases such as diabetes. These carbohydrates are called ‘high-glycaemic’ foods, and include most of the processed carbohydrates in our diet – breakfast cereals, pastry, cakes, biscuits, white bread, white pasta and white rice, and are most likely to convert straight to fat!
In fact, if you want to eat food which is healthy, and won’t cause weight issues, you are best avoiding all types of processed foods and ready meals. Not only are they likely to have a high glycaemic carbohydrate rating, but also processing deprives them of vital nutrients and fibre needed by the body, and it is not uncommon for them to contain a variety of food additives and preservatives, none of which are helpful to health and well-being. There are tables showing the glycaemic levels of common carbohydrate foods to help you make better choices in this area that you can find in the fact sheets on the website to help you with this.
Sugar is almost pure carbohydrate and converts to glucose very quickly, so is a particular problem – particularly as it is addictive. Breaking free of a sugar addiction can be more difficult than giving up smoking! You will find yourself craving sweet foods, or things that will act as stimulants such as coffee and alcohol, or even a cigarette if you are a smoker.
Eating whole foods is acknowledged to be one of the healthiest choices you can make, as helpful, and beneficial, components such as fibre have not been removed. When we talk about whole foods we mean foods that are as near to how they are found in Nature as possible. Why is this important? Well, as a whole a fruit, for example, contains a lot of fibre and nutrients in its skin as well as its flesh. Not only does it contain good nutrient levels but fibre slows down the rate of breakdown of carbohydrate to sugar so lowers the GI of a food, thus helping keep blood sugar levels stable – an important requirement for losing weight. You also need to realise how nutritionally damaged many foods are by any form of processing – wheat, for example, when it is refined to flour loses fibre, and most of its vitamin and mineral content. And choosing so-called brown bread rather than wholegrain, isn’t always what you think it is – often refined flour has just been dyed brown to make you think it is a healthier choice. Nowadays you have to be a very savvy consumer to ensure the food choices you make are good for both your health and your weight!
Another essential to be aware of when trying to lose weight is that not only is breakfast the most important meal of the day, but what you eat will make a big difference to outcomes. Starting the day with refined cereal, toast or, even worse, nothing not only fails to nourish your body with fuel to get each day started, but will cause blood sugar imbalances that are associated with weight gain and poor food choices. Ideally you will have a nutritionally-rich breakfast that includes some good protein and also fibre – scrambled or boiled eggs and wholegrain toast are a great way to start the day!
Let’s finish by taking a moment to look at drinks as well – it’s not only foods that can make you fat! Sugary, fizzy drinks are the worst, containing high levels of sugar – some of the commercial energy drinks are particularly bad, relying on huge doses of sugar and caffeine to give you an energy boost, almost invariably followed by an energy crash, which has you reaching for another drink. If you rely on these to get you through your day, you will not only gain weight, but have some serious health issues waiting in the wings.
Almost as bad are the ‘sugar-free’, ‘no added sugar’ or diet options. Most of these contain artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, which are known excito-toxins, and have been demonstrated to be as bad, if not worse, than their high sugar companions for encouraging weight gain and poor health – they are not the healthy option they make themselves out to be! Again, weaning yourself off these can be difficult as they set up the same type of cravings as the high sugar foods. Good drinks include clean water – preferably deep spring, or well filtered – herbal teas and even the occasional cup of tea or coffee. One or two of the latter two daily is acceptable, but more than that can become problematic.
A quick word around alcohol – yes, it’s yummy, and very much part of the social habits of our society, but almost all forms of alcohol will encourage weight gain, not just due to the calories it contains but also the effects on blood sugar, stress hormones and potentially even liver function. If you are serious about losing weight, leave it alone for now.
Making good choices around your food and drink requires understanding a few simple concepts around how our body uses food, the quality of modern food, and the impact that processing has on food quality. The poor quality of most Western diets means that maintaining your ideal weight can’t be left only to chance!