Monday, January 27, 2014

Don't detox!

This week's column, first published in the Sunday Star Times on 26th January 2014. 

Even if you’re back at work, the early weeks of January still feel a bit like holiday time. But now February looms and there’s no denying it: time to get back into our regular routines. Cue a fairly predictable crop of ‘detox’, ‘quick fix’ and ‘re-start’ diets, all designed to get you ‘back on track’. The one doing the rounds on social media lately is Gwyneth Paltrow’s detox, which she claims is ‘filling’, but which seems to me to consist of just one solid meal a day and a lot of tea, soup and broth. Just reading the diet made me feel hungry. 

No matter how many times nutritionists say we shouldn’t do drastic detox-style diets, and that our bodies do very well, thank you very much, at detoxing us; there are always people for whom this kind of severe, restrictive diet appeals. I think it is the psychological ‘kick start’ aspect; the idea that if I do this, it will make me lose weight quickly, and then I can (presumably by becoming a different person) keep the weight off. 

Of course, the reality is that very few people succeed at keeping the weight off. After a period of severe restriction, we very easily slip back into old habits, go back to ‘regular’ foods and unsurprisingly the weight come back on, often with a bit extra to keep it company. 

So what’s a better way to give yourself a healthy start to the year? First of all, don’t buy into anything that calls itself a detox. Just the word implies denial, deprivation and depression.  And it’s also temporary. If you truly want to look at yourself at the end of this year and say “Yes, I’m healthier than I was this time last year”, it will take changes that can become a permanent part of your life. So why not make a list of small tweaks you can make to some of your everyday behaviour – things that are not too difficult to maintain, but will add up to long-term benefits? 

When it comes to food, these could be things like:

  • I will plan my meals for the week before I shop, so I’m prepared for the activities of the week.
  • I will pack my drawer at work with healthy snacks, so I don’t get tempted by the vending machine.
  • I will have three good handfuls of veges every day (think breakfast, lunch and dinner).
  • I will have at least three alcohol-free days (ideally in a row) most weeks.
  • I will concentrate on recognising when I am hungry (and eat), and when I am full (and stop eating).  
  • I will eat fresh, whole, colourful food at every meal.

None of these examples are drastic or particularly difficult, and they’re all things that are easily incorporated into a busy life. They’re slow, steady changes to what we do most of the time. Once you start doing them, it won’t be long before you don’t even think about them any more. The upside: you’ll feel healthier and have some great new lifelong habits.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Which 'quick fix' diets really work?

That headline! It's the kind of thing we see all the time at this time of year - just take one look at the weeklies. It's all too easy to be tempted into a detox-style, quick fix diet ('lose 2kg in 7 days!') but in our hearts, we know what really works long term, and it's not giving up sugar and caffeine and dairy and meat and who-knows-what else for a couple of weeks. 

I say how about instead of eliminating things from your life in deeply depressing fashion (see this example from Gwyneth Paltrow) we actually try adding things to our life, instead, for a healthier long-term benefit. 

Read more here.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

It's up to us to keep our kids healthy

This week's column, first published in the Sunday Star Times. 
With the new year comes a slew of worrying statistics about our nation’s health. In particular: the health of our kids. Ministry of Health figures show that 10,000 more New Zealand children are now classified as overweight or obese compared to last year. It’s a number that’s been steadily growing, putting us ahead (in a way we don’t want to be) of Australia and the US, where childhood obesity rates have plateaued. Where Australia is investing heavily in healthy eating and activity programmes in schools, here in New Zealand there’s no comprehensive plan to tackle what is not just a serious health issue but an economic one as well. 

What can we do, as parents and concerned citizens? Well for a start, it’s an election year. The time will soon come to quiz your local political hopefuls about what plans they and their parties have to make some real and meaningful changes to this urgent health problem, and to use your power as a voter to make change happen.

 In the meantime, though, at a family level, we have to set our kids up to make good choices, and give them the best chance of growing into healthy-weight adults with great attitudes towards food and eating. 

That means modelling and establishing great habits in the home environment. Here are some goals to consider for 2014. 

Be adventurous. One of the best gifts you can give your child is to train their taste buds to enjoy many different flavours, not just sugar, fat and salt. A child may have to try something up to 10 times before they start to enjoy it, so don't give up. Take them shopping and let them choose new foods to get them excited. 

Eat five or more colours a day. Different colours have different health benefits, so make it a fun adventure and get the kids involved in growing and cooking their colours, too. 

Make water the main household drink. Buy cool water bottles for everyone, and serve water with meals. Keep juice and other sweet drinks as 'sometimes', not 'everyday' food.

Eat breakfast. Even if it is just fruit and a glass of milk, this teaches that some food in their stomach kick-starts the body for the day, giving energy for work, study and play.

Sit at the table to eat. This seems like a no-brainer, but it’s becoming less and less common. Not only does sitting down at the table reduces snacking and grazing, it also teaches social skills such as table manners, conversation skills and patience.  Research has found that families who eat together are twice as likely to have five servings of fruit and vegetables a day; consume less fried food and sugary drinks; and have diets that are higher in fibre, calcium, iron, folate and vitamins.

Teaching a love of cooking is another hugely valuable gift. This, along with regular activity and limited junk food, may just help the next generation beat the statistics.