Remember when ordering a coffee was a simple affair? Cappuccino or latte? Full cream or low fat? Decaf or a double shot of caffeine? Now a whole host of milks are on offer to accommodate the latest diets de jour – think coconut and almond milk (for paleo and low carbs diets) rice milk and oats milk (vegan) and soy milk (gluten and dairy-free).
Often these choices might be based on health information we’ve heard or read somewhere. The problem? We’re now bombarded with contradictory messages about which foods and food groups are healthy. “As women try to follow diets which demonise grains or ban carbs after breakfast, many are not eating enough,” says Sarah McMahon, psychologist and body image expert at Sydney’s BodyMatters Australasia. “They are depriving themselves of healthy foods then binging or feeling guilt-ridden because they ‘broke’ their gluten-free plan with a piece of rye sourdough bread or enjoyed a tub of yoghurt when trying to eat vegan.”
DITCH THE DEPRIVATION
Try this quick test. For the next few seconds, don’t think about chocolate. Tricky isn’t it? This fixation is exactly what happens when you cut out any food – suddenly it’s all you want to eat. “If you then eat the ‘bad’ food you feel bad about yourself, too, and that guilt may actually lead you to eat more of that food,” says Dr Rick Kausman, an expert in eating behaviour and Fellow of the Obesity Prevention and Treatment Society.
When we cut kilojoules, the reward centres of our brains undergo changes that cause bigger responses to sweet and salty snack foods – making our pleasure of them (and subsequent desire for them) more intense, US research shows.
Instead, Kausman encourages women to say to themselves, ‘I can have this food if I want it, but do I really want it?’ “When you frame the question in this way, the food suddenly loses power over you,” he explains. “The craving then instantly lessens and you tend to realise you can go without that dessert or creamy pasta.”
FOOD RULES YOU SHOULD LOSE
“Food rules which would have been recognised as being extreme or on the fringe several decades ago have become mainstream and aspirational, leading many women to feel confused about what a healthy diet should really look like,” McMahon says. As a result, many women have adopted the following habits for their waistline and wellbeing, when in fact they are bad news for their weight, energy and nutrient intake:
TREATING CARBS AS CRIMINALS
Slashing carbs is the foundation of many restrictive eating approaches such as going paleo and eating a low-carbs ketogenic diet. But is that quick drop in weight a mirage? “A low carbs diet causes you to burn up stores of glycogen (stored glucose from carbs) in your body,” explains Melanie McGrice, dietitian and director of Melbourne’s Nutrition Plus clinics. “For every one gram of glycogen, you burn you also lose three grams of water. So on a low carbs diet what seems like weight loss is actually fluid loss. When you eat more carbs you will regain that fluid, which means you will weigh more when you get on the scales.”
Meanwhile, low carb eating plans that promise to whittle your waistline may put your metabolism into slow-mo. “Restrictive diets often radically reduce kilojoules and trigger what’s known as the ‘starvation response’ because as you eat less food your body adapts and stops using as many kilojoules,” explains Professor Timothy Gill, a principal research fellow at Sydney University’s Boden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise and Eating Disorders. “When you return to eating more kilojoules, you’re at greater risk of gaining weight because your body remains in that slower energy burning mode.”
The upshot? Put carbs back on the menu. “Carbs should not be avoided – they are the main energy source for your body, muscles, and brain. What’s important is to choose healthier carbs found in foods such as whole grains, legumes (such as chickpeas), rice, fruit and starchy vegetables (like potato and corn).”
TRYING TO AVOID ANY SUGAR
Like carbs, sugar has also been high on the hit list for bad press because it contains fructose, which has a reputation for being fattening. “The link between fructose and weight gain has arisen from studies that suggested fructose might be converted to fat if eaten in very large quantities,” says Alan Barclay, dietitian, and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia. “Yet in those studies, much larger quantities of fructose were used than the average Australian would be eating. Research actually shows that if you eat 100 kilojoules of glucose or fructose, there is no big difference between the two in the way that your body burns fat. What matters most is the big picture of how much you’ve eaten. If you’re overeating, your body will turn the excess into fat.”
Barclay is concerned that some people who give up sugar, mistakenly think that fruits like apples are fattening because they are high in fructose. “Yet there is no evidence that eating fruit leads to weight gain and plenty of evidence that fruit is part of a healthy diet,” Barclay explains. Meanwhile, diets that claim they are ‘sugarfree’ are often misleading as they encourage the
use of sugars that go by different names. “An example of this is rice malt syrup, used by many people who cut out sugar – what they often don’t realise is that it has a higher Glycaemic Index than sugar, so it causes a bigger rise in your insulin levels than sugar does. Long-term, higher insulin levels are linked to issues like weight gain and type 2 diabetes.”
SET SUSTAINABLE FOOD GOALS
“We’re so stitched up by restrictive eating plans that many of us are losing simple, important skills we need for healthy eating,” McMahon says. “These include knowing the right portion to serve, listening to hunger and fullness signals, and trusting ourselves to be able to make healthy choices using our own sensible judgement about healthy food choices.”
Balance and flexibility are now considered the cornerstones to maintaining a healthy weight. So instead of following diets that are basically about don’ts, set some simple and effective eating goals:
1. CUSTOMISE YOUR OWN FOOD PLAN
Trying to slavishly follow the latest ‘it’ diet.
Setting your own healthy food habits based on your preferences and lifestyle.
Restrictive food rules stop you from listening to your body. If you are eating a low-carbs (ketogenic) diet and you’re constantly starving or you’ve gone paleo and developed severe constipation (a common low carbs problem), clearly that diet is not working well for you.
Design your own personalised eating plan, taking into account:
- Your taste preferences For example, if you like pasta, have it several times a week, but make the tortellini or rigatoni a side dish served with protein (think fi sh, chicken, tofu, lean meat) and vegies. Are you a fan of fast food? Plan for healthier homemade versions such as a burger with rye buns, chicken and salad vegetables or grilled fish and potato wedges baked with the skin on.
- How busy you are If you work long hours, have a long commute or you’re stretched for time, quick fix dishes will suit you best. On your menu? Stews, salad with frittatas made from leftover vegies.
- Foods you really enjoy “Set a food budget of around 2,000 kilojoules to ‘spend’ each week on foods like dessert or beverages such as wine,” suggests Aloysa Hourigan, spokesperson for Nutrtiona Australia. “The anticipation increases food enjoyment. After all, food is an important pleasure in life.”
2. PLATE UP WITH MORE PLANT FOODS
Eat five vegie serves a day.
Fill your plate with plant foods first and make them the biggest component of every meal.
Vegetables are low in fat and high in fibre. This win-win combo promotes fullness after a meal, so vegies are also beneficial for weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight. That’s a good reason to eat vegetarian one or two days a week – an approach known as eating ‘flexitarian’. “When you eat more plant-based foods your weight benefits from the reduction in kilojoules,” says Hourigan. “In the long term that can help you maintain a healthy weight over the year.”
Add more vegetables to every meal by:
- Eating vegies at breakfast Throw mushrooms and capsicum into an omelette or serve avocado and wilted spinach with your toast.
- Enjoying vegies at lunch Try making your own salad or adding extra vegetables to a sandwich.
- Choosing vegetable-based snacks Take hummus with vegie sticks for a snack or rye crispbreads with tomato and cucumber.
3. EAT TO BEAT HUNGER
Eating high fibre
Eating high fibre foods that add more bulk to your meals.
Foods high in fibre take up more space in your stomach and trigger a response in the nerve stretch receptors in your stomach wall. But some high fibre foods (such as chickpeas) and meals (such as soup) add additional bulk, so they are even more filling. These foods set off “I’m full” responses even faster in your brain, which then sends out hormones to reduce your appetite. In addition, you feel full for even longer.
Trigger a faster fullness response by:
- Drinking more water Aim to drink a large glass of water about 30 minutes before a meal.
- Eating legumes Foods like chickpeas and lentils can increase feelings of fullness by 31 per cent, according to research at the University of Toronto.
- Top ’n tailing some meals Eat soup as a starter and salad as your third course and without adding much to your kilojoule intake, you will feel full.
4. FEED YOUR GOOD BELLY BACTERIA
Eating less kilojoules to attain a smaller, flatter tummy.
Eating foods that support good bacteria, to help sustain a healthy weight and reduce issues such as belly bloating.
Having a wider range of bacteria in your gut is linked to maintaining a healthy weight, British research shows. The suggestion is that our collection of bacteria (or microbiome) in our gut can influence how we store fat, how we balance glucose levels and how we respond to hormones that tell us if we feel hungry or full.
Enjoy the following foods to help increase your levels of good belly bacteria:
- Yoghurt and kefir (a cultured dairy drink)
- Kombucha tea
- Kimchi (a Korean vegetable side dish)
- Kvass (a fermented beetroot drink from Eastern Europe)
For more articles by Prevention on nutrition and wellbeing, sign up to our weekly newsletter.