Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mixed messages at the supermarket

Last night I popped into the supermarket to buy a few ingredients for a dish I was making for a social gathering this evening. Here's what was on display at my checkout: 

As you can see, those last 5 kilos seem to be a real problem. Luckily you can take your pick of three different women's magazines to solve it. 

Unfortunately, you probably won't get rid of those last 5kg (even if it genuinely is a problem) because here's what was to the right of that display, on the other side of the same checkout: 

We are surrounded by so many of these mixed messages every day, everywhere. It's no wonder we are confused and conflicted. And it's no wonder a fair few people just give up and have the chocolate bar!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Diets not worth the deprivation

This week's column, first published in the Sunday Star Times, Sunday 16 February. 

I am no fan of formal diets. That’s because almost every diet restricts or bans something, from individual foods to entire food groups. Restriction and rules mess with our heads: we feel deprived; what’s allowed and not allowed takes on far greater importance than it should. The best case scenario is that we rebel and break the diet. The worst case is that we end up in a pattern of disordered eating that leaves us less healthy (and often heavier) than we were to start with. This cycle of weight gain/loss/regain can last a lifetime, which is what keeps the diet industry going. 

Another thing I distrust about many diets is that their promoters often have an evangelical air. It’s as if this diet is the breakthrough solution for everyone. There’s no allowance that there might be other patterns of eating that could also work. 

Here’s a rundown of some currently popular diets. These will all work for some people. There are good aspects to most. But they all restrict and divide food into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ which to me is not healthy or enjoyable.  

Sugar Free
Premise: Sugar is toxic and it’s sugar (especially fructose), not fat, that makes us fat.
What’s not allowed: sugar, honey, fresh and dried fruit, all processed foods containing fructose.
What’s good: Encourages lots of fresh whole foods; lots of vegetables and home cooking. Cutting down added sugar is generally a good idea.
What’s not good: Could lead to unhealthy obsession with cutting out one thing. Potentially difficult to stick to. No fruit!

5:2/intermittent fasting
Premise: Fasting two days a week helps you lose weight and lowers your risk of disease.
What’s not allowed: Nothing is banned, but on two days a week you’re restricted to one meal’s worth of calories.
What’s good: Restricted calories means you will probably lose weight.
What’s not good: The diet teaches nothing about healthy eating. You could follow it while eating a very unbalanced diet. Potentially difficult to stick to and unsociable.

Paleo diet
Premise: We haven’t evolved to a modern diet. Eating like our paleolithic ancestors is better.
What’s not allowed: processed foods, sugar, all grains, all dairy, beans and legumes, vegetable oil, potatoes.
What’s good: Encourages lots of fresh whole food, lots of vegetables, no processed foods.
What’s not good: Lots of restrictions means it could be very difficult to stick to. Vegetarians would struggle. Potentially expensive. Unsociable.

Dukan diet
Premise: Limiting carbohydrates forces your body to burn fat.
What’s not allowed: all carbohydrates.
What’s good about it:
Not much!
What’s not good: Extremely restrictive and unbalanced. Not enough vegetables, fibre or calcium. Unpleasant and unsociable.
So if you’re considering trying any new diet, ask yourself “What am I not allowed to eat on this diet?” If it’s something you think you could live without forever, maybe it’s worth trying. If not, perhaps the old-fashioned approach of ‘a little bit of everything in moderation’ might be worth considering.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Take a pause for the better

This week's column, first published in the Sunday Star Times on 2nd Feb 2014

Did you know that 700,000 New Zealanders are categorized as binge drinkers? That’s defined as more than seven standard drinks (roughly four pints of beer or just under a bottle of wine) in a session. This is recognised as a level that’s likely to do long term harm. That may surprise some people, as it’s what many of us could easily drink in a normal weekend (or week) night of socialising. 
Febfast is the NZ Drug Foundation’s campaign to raise funds and awareness by encouraging people to take a break from alcohol for a month. Whether we participate or not, now’s a good opportunity to stop and contemplate the role of alcohol in our lives. Do we use it as a de-stressor? Confidence booster? Coping mechanism? Do we ‘need’ it after a stressful day? These could all be signs we’re not totally in control of our alcohol use. 

Many of us (including me) enjoy a drink. But it’s worth understanding the real risks of what that’s doing to our bodies. While there are various studies pointing to potential benefits of moderate drinking, experts warn that the benefits of alcohol are often overstated compared to the risks.

For example, the much-touted heart health benefits of drinking are often misunderstood. The American Heart Association says there is no scientific proof that drinking wine or any other alcohol can replace conventional  means of reducing heart disease risk: lowering your cholesterol,  lowering high blood pressure,  controlling your weight, getting enough exercise and following a healthy diet. 

The Heart Foundation in NZ says “The relationship between alcohol and cardiovascular disease is complex, and for most people there will be little, or no, overall benefit.” They recommend no or low alcohol consumption as the best idea for heart health.  

Most of us do understand the link between alcohol consumption and an increased risk of cancer and other diseases. Even moderate consumption, defined as one or two drinks each day, is linked to an increased risk of breast cancer in women. Moderate to high consumption of beer and spirits has been associated with an increased risk of accumulating stomach fat, the type associated with a higher risk of everything from heart disease to type 2 diabetes. 

So how can we cut back on the drinking? A good place to start is to understand how much you drink. There’s a great tool at the Health Promotion Agency’s website to help – see www.alcohol.org.nz/alcohol-you (click on “Is your drinking OK?”). Then, try and have some alcohol-free days in your week. Even one or two – ideally consecutive – days will make a difference (and make you feel good). Three or four is even better. Don’t use that as an excuse to binge on other days, though. When you do drink, alternate non-alcoholic drinks with alcoholic ones. To reduce your long-term health risks stick to no more than 2 standard drinks a day for women and no more than 10 standard drinks a week; or for men no more than 3 standard drinks a day and no more than 15 standard drinks a week. 

Useful resources: