Upon our return to work after the summer holidays, many of us will have felt pleased with the progress we have made on our health and fitness, pleased with both how we look and feel, and grateful for the renewed vigour with which we have been able to enjoy the summer months. The consistency of the last year will have paid off, and we should be proud of our achievements.
A few of us may feel less pleased with our progress - we didn't get to where we wanted in the end; the consistency hadn't been quite there, and that last minute blitz didn't get the results we wanted, even though the magazine cover or the Clean Eating Diet Plan promised us that we could.
Remember, it is the regular food choices that we make hour by hour, meal by meal, week by week that determine how we look and feel every day. Our body shape, appearance, mental agility, body fat, concentration and physical ability are all a reflection of these regular choices that we have made over the last few weeks, months and years.
It is important to remember too that this is not about perfection or deprivation. Our diets should be enjoyable, tasty, and predominantly filled with foods we know to be healthy and which we consume in moderation. It is about making healthier choices most of the time - of course there is room for cheat meals, nights out and drinks in moderation - that is part of a healthy, balanced & social life, but remember too that on the flip side, a load of processed food, an excessive meal, or a shed-load of alcohol will always move us away from our goals as it has the likely potential of disrupting our digestion, our sleep patterns and our hormones, and then our body has to focus on recovery.
The last few years saw a growing obsession with the concept of 'Clean Eating' as the best way to achieving the perfect body and becoming healthy. Who hasn't heard someone obsess about the fact that they are eating clean or seen the hashtag #cleaneating on Facebook or Instagram? It seemed clean eating was the answer to enable us all to get to where we wanted to go - but was it?
Traditional media is obsessed with promoting the best way to get healthy as quickly as possible. A fast solution sells magazines which generates advertising income, and social media has gone down this path too with bloggers realising they can generate an income, and often skewing their writings with this in mind.
Nevertheless, the changes we want to see will be the result of consistent change over the coming weeks and months, rather than a lifestyle that becomes an unhealthy obsession.
To me, chasing this quick fix isn't the way to go about things, which is why I share below 7 steps that I think will have a far healthier impact on your mental and physical health, well-being, and sanity.
Step 1: Eat real food
Trust me, if there was a perfect diet regime, we would all be following it. The healthiest diet is one that incorporates real food – a good dose of plants and some animals. Whether a meat-eater or a vegetarian, you can’t go wrong if you eat a predominantly plant-based diet.
Your top foods to avoid are as follows:
- Anything processed, packaged or marketed as low-fat or diet etc.
- Anything that talks about calories or calorie restriction
- Anything with traffic light labelling – this usually means it is processed, and often a green or amber light is achieved by a ridiculously small portion size.
And for most of us, if we have got into the habit of snacking, or buying the latest health snack or bar, question its purpose; do we really need it and is it moving us towards our goals. I am pretty sure most of us can master that feeling of slight hunger or temptation and live with it; if your goal is fat loss, you might be surprised how quickly cutting out snacking can move you towards your goals.
Step 2: Eat proper meals
As the most important meal of the day, you must ensure that you eat a proper breakfast that gives you a mixture of protein, carbohydrate and fat. Something like eggs or peanut butter on whole grain toast is a great choice, and if you accompany it with some fruit or veggies on the side even better still. For example, with eggs how about some mushrooms, spinach, rocket or tomato? The exact same logic applies to lunch – for most of us a salad or a sandwich is nowhere near enough.
For the evening meal, the reverse is true. We often eat 50% of our daily energy at our evening meal – this is too much, and will be detrimental to any fat loss objective. Throughout the day, remember to fuel your body in line with your energy needs, especially if you are exercising. Exercising on an empty stomach increases stress hormones, eats muscle, and even has the potential to encourage longer term fat storage.
Step 3: Embrace variety
The best way to stay healthy is to incorporate a variety of real foods into your diet. It’s a good rule of thumb to apply the same logic to your daily intake of fruit and vegetables: different colours will give you different health benefits. Eating organic fruit and vegetables isn’t always essential. Instead, try eating fruit and vegetables that are typical to the season, and grown on home soil. Luckily for us, the UK provides a fantastic selection of home-grown greens to suit every taste bud, and these are particularly good for getting your metabolism to function in the way it should.
If you are meat and dairy fan, go as free range and organic as your pocket allows. Avoid factory farmed fish and cheap chicken – these are usually pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. When it comes to milk, don’t go skimmed or low fat. As a general rule of thumb, low fat yoghurts usually contain more sugar than your standard yoghurt, so it’s best if you avoid these.
Step 4: Go with the groups
Many fad diets talk about cutting out food groups such as dairy or grains; don’t – unless there is a medical need. The key to maintaining a healthy weight and diet is to integrate a varied amount of each food group into your meals, that way you will get all the main nutrients - fat, carbohydrate and protein. These provide energy, build muscle, and maintain the constant 24/7 repair and growth of your body. And don’t forget the micronutrients, these are vitamins and minerals and act like the spark plugs in a car in that they are vital to so many different bodily processes.
Step 5: Fruit and Vegetables
As a general rule, vegetables offer an even wider variety of vitamins and minerals than fruit so make sure they make up a large proportion of your plate. Try to eat a variety of colours, with reds and greens being particularly important (white potato doesn’t count!). Aim for 7-10 portions a day – with only 2-3 being fruit. Yes, I know 7-10 is a lot – it won’t be practical every day, but go for it and see the difference it makes.
Step 6: Plan
Think of your new regime not as a diet, but as change – a change is a long-term commitment which will bring long-term success to your life. Change isn’t easy, so accept that there will have to be some sacrifices and a change in the way you do things. You will need to plan your meals, make time to order and buy the ingredients, make time to prepare the meals – but factor this into your schedule and it’ll soon become part of your everyday routine, just like brushing your teeth.
Step 7: Accept yourself
We are all genetically different and for some of us, it will be easier to lose fat than for others, likewise with muscle building. Listen to your body, and see how it reacts to the changes you make – you may find it easier or harder than a friend or a colleague, even though you are doing exactly the same thing. The reality is some of us may have to work harder depending on our body-type and genetics.
Think of your hands and the fork as some of the most powerful tools to be utilised to achieve your goals; these drive what you pick up in the shops, what you prepare in the kitchen and what actually goes into your mouth. It may be tough at times, but you are in control of this physical movement. Exercise will greatly help your objectives but is only part of the story. Overall health and success are dependent on your food being part of this too.