A few days into the New Year, I decided that my diet needed an overhaul. I felt tired of frequent belly bloats and looking 5 months pregnant as a result, feeling like a stuffed sausage in my size 8 clothes, feeling completely wiped out after my workouts or runs for the rest of the day, crashing out on the sofa at 9pm after a normal day at work, and trying to summon more and more effort to function as a human being. I did not feel great in my skin and felt that all the effort I had been putting into exercising in the gym and running was not being reflected in how I looked and felt, because of my diet.
I said in my last blog post that I am looking to take a long term view with how I train and eat and this requires a lifestyle change that is sustainable, because it needs to be something that truly works and is enjoyable at the same time.
As a starting point, I had to look at my relationship and habits with food. I ascertained that my eating habits had significantly changed after I moved to England and then again, after I got married. The choices here in the UK are much more abundant than in Hungary, I find food shopping an exciting and enjoyable experience. When my Hubby and I moved in together, quite unsurprisingly, his eating habits had an impact on mine, and I have to admit that these changes were not necessarily great for my waistline. I also got addicted to sugar – I was craving it all the time and I got the point whereby after 3pm at work all I could think about is sugary snacks and treats, and my Hubby had to resort to hiding the treats away from me at home because that was the only way to ensure he had some left to enjoy, too. This actually caused some arguments between us, which was not great for our relationship. During stressful times at work and at home, I used to instantly reach for a treat to comfort myself thinking ‘I work out a lot, I can get away with it’. The same happened whenever I felt bored – I reached for the fridge or cupboard to see what I could stuff my face with, to satisfy my cravings. I guess my turning point was just how I felt about myself generally, as described in the first paragraph.
I decided that the best approach was to clean up my diet, primarily by cutting out the junk, eating as much raw and whole food as possible aka REAL food, regaining control over portion sizes, adding some superfood to boost the nutritional value of dishes and most importantly, making the whole thing out to be an exciting adventure. This way I was not mourning over the things I had to give up, but was looking forward to experimenting with some new and tastebud-tantalising food.
I won’t say it was easy at the beginning. It was a real struggle and it required a lot of forward planning, researching and stocking up on nutritious yet delicious recipes and ingredients, finding some good role models in the ‘healthy eating world’ whose philosophy I could relate to, and last but not least, constantly reminding myself of why I was doing it. I kept my eyes on the end goal which I knew I wanted more than instant gratification. In the meantime, I kept up my normal running and exercise routine which helped me stay focussed and mentally strong. Fortunately, these are not very stressful times at work so my emotional connection to food has been reasonably under control lately.
In just 5 weeks, I have noticed the following positive changes:-
- I have more energy and feeling rejuvenated – in general, and also during exercising/running. I do not feel completely shattered by the end of the day and getting up is much easier. I have more energy during high intensity classes such as spinning – when I hit my max, the faint/nausea-like feeling is gone.
- My running performance has increased – due to having more stable energy levels and fuelling my body with lots of goodness.
- The number of mini fatty deposits (milia) I have on my face has drastically decreased, I barely notice I have any! In the past, the beautician gave up on getting rid of these awful little white spots after a number of extremely painful and failed attempts.
- I do not get bloated that much – because I am currently minimising the amount of dairy and wheat I consume and using fortified plant based alternatives instead.
- I can very comfortably fit into my tightest clothes (skinny jeans, pencil miniskirt etc.) – I look and feel much leaner and can actually see my six packs (!)
- My gassiness issues have completely resolved – I know it’s not very girly to talk about this, but just had to throw this in J
- I am not craving sugar and junk food any more – seeing a cupcake, an ice cream etc. does not phase me the slightest. I don’t even fantasise about these things any more. Blueberries anyone?
- I am enjoying my food much more and have a much more positive relationship with it.
This journey so far has been a real eye-opener. I have learnt a lot about nutrition and food and I can now see clearly where I went wrong in the past and am able to make better choices now. My bottom line is that exercising and being active alone are simply not enough to lead a healthy, fit and full life. The results I have got within just such a short period of time are beyond what I had expected, which makes me even more motivated to keep up this new way of eating.
So, if anyone wants to follow me on this journey, I have summarised below my top tips for healthy eating:
- Eat as much plant based whole food as possible – They have loads of concentrated goodness. Apart from B12, all nutrients can be obtained from plant based stuff. However, some nutrients may be slightly tricky to obtain for vegans and vegetarians so I would not dismiss meat and dairy. Fortunately, many foods are now fortified with vitamins and minerals to cater for vegans/vegetarians or people with sensitivities and allergies.
- Do not cut out certain natural food groups without good reason – A good reason would be for example being sensitive or allergic to certain types of food or having strong ethical/religious convictions. I do not believe that dairy and meat are evil, but I believe it is a responsible and reasonable thing to do your own research and make sure they come from quality and ethical sources. For example, ideally the animals were grass fed their whole life rather than grain, allowed to roam in the fresh air and treated well. Unfortunately, the biggest let down on dairy and meat products is the general quality and some ethical issues around the treatment of animals and the lack of sustainability of farming them and the negative impact of this on the planet. I think a good compromise would be to reduce the consumption of these products.
- Do cut out the junk – processed food full of artificial preservatives and additives, white sugar, artificial sweeteners, syrup loaded coffee products in cafes, cream, margarine, fizzy drinks/soda, tinned soup, pre-made sandwich spreads, ready made salad dressings, frozen meals, sweets, candies, cakes, chocolate bars, takeaway food, supermarket ‘plastic’ bread, crisps, deep fried stuff, sunflower oil, lard, cream cheeses, condiments and sauces, shall I go on? They have very little nutrients packed in them and will only pile on your waist and make you feel cr*p if you frequently consume them. If you are really fond of some of the stuff that fall into one of these categories, make it a very occasional treat and upgrade it to a higher quality version to make it feel like a truly special indulgence (e.g. for me a special chocolate treat equals to Lindt and a great pizza comes from Fratelli La Bufala).
- Always check the ingredients list on the product – Labels are often misleading. Manufacturers like to use big buzz words such as ‘organic’, ‘one of your 5 a day’, ‘bursting with goodness’, ‘natural’, ‘hand made’, ‘low fat/zero fat’. The biggest culprits are breakfast cereals, flapjacks, fruit juices, flavoured yoghurts and low fat/0% fat products just to mention a few. If you carefully look at the ingredients list on the back, you may notice the sugar content is extremely high (especially in low fat products because they usually add sugar to compensate for the taste that is lost due to reducing or removing fat). Beware of products whose ingredients list includes too many things (I would say over 4) and you should definitely feel alarmed if you do not even recognise some of the ingredients that make up the end product… My golden rule is to choose products that have natural ingredients only or just one ingredient (which is the product itself LOL). So always read the ingredients list, no matter what you see on the front of the packaging.
- Intake control – Most fruits and 100% fruit juices are naturally high in sugar so watch your intake but you can be more liberal on veggies. Dried fruits are also high in sugar and nuts/nut butters tend to be fatty so I would use these as ingredients or in smaller (palm sized) quantites if you use them as a snack or a treat. The key takeaway here is that just because something is 100% natural and is classed as healthy, it does not mean the sky is the limit – balance is the key.
- Portion control – When it comes to eating, I would stop eating when I feel 80% sated to avoid overeating. If you are craving seconds, the advice is to wait 20 minutes to see if you still want more food!
- Be a mindful eater – Hunger and thirst are very easy to confuse so I usually apply a simple test of drinking water if I feel hungry to see if it is truly hunger or just thirst I am feeling. Sometimes I can satisfy my sugar cravings for example by drinking some naturally sweet herbal tea, my current favourite is Health & Heather’s liquorice tea ith oriental spices – no sugar, no calories, but lots of exotic sweetness!
- Find healthier alternatives for your staples – for example, for sweetening things it is better to use honey, 100% maple syrup, coconut sugar, medjool dates and stevia instead of white sugar. In fact, stevia is the best thing you can use because it is 100% plant based and has zero calories! The key thing when choosing your natural sweetener is looking at their calorie content and to what extent they cause spikes in your blood sugar levels. On both fronts, the lower the better to keep your energy levels stable and your hunger at bay. For cooking, ditch the sunflower oil (a lot of dubious chemicals are used in processing this kind of oil) and margarine and ghee (contains the bad types of fat and is an artificial product), use extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil instead. If you love cereal bars/ice cream/flavoured yoghurt (like myself), try to make them at home, it is great fun and you will be able to control the ingredients and sugar content! Use spices and herbs to add flavour instead of reaching for sugar and salt etc.
- Avoid wheat whenever possible – Wheat in itself is considered to be healthy, however, the modern wheat we eat today is unfortunately not the same as the wheat our ancestors consumed centuries ago. The one you can find in food today is processed differently and has been genetically tampered with to improve the shelf-life of the product, but making it harder to digest it which can cause gut problems and allergies/sensitivities. Fortunately, there are many other, healthier alternatives to wheat out there today, so it is relatively easy to avoid wheat without having to give up your favourite foods.
- Never compromise on the flavour and enjoyability of your food – I want to live healthily but I think most of us find plan, traditional salads extremely boring. I definitely don’t want to live on salad leaves, tomatoes and cucumbers for the rest of my life, and probably you don’t, either… There are so many exciting yet healthy and nutritious recipes out there, so go on and experiment!
- Adopt a healthy attitude to food – I personally feel comfortable to relax my clean eating rules occasionally if by doing otherwise it may be perceived as ‘offensive’ in social or family situations, or if it counts as a ‘cultural exploration’; as long as I eat 90% healthy and clean, I am not going to stress about the remaining 10%. A healthy attitude to food is as important as healthy ingredients, otherwise it can be a dangerous path to go down on, potentially leading to eating disorders such as orthorexia nervosa (an obsession with healthy food).
- Make sure you get the most bang out of your buck with ‘superfoods’ – There is a lot of hype about ‘superfoods’ these days. Do your research to decide which ones you feel you would benefit the most from, and most importantly, is there any conclusive evidence out there to prove their health benefits. It is also worth looking into who is making the health benefit claims – the producer is likely to have a vested financial interest in bigging up the product, in comparison to independent researchers. Do your homework and draw your own conclusions to make sure you are well informed. This way you can make educated choices for yourself, and not just fall for a fad.
- Lead by example – People (perhaps including your own children) will soon see the positive changes in your life and may follow suit.
Finally, here is a small selection of some great resources I have come across:
- Websites: Authority Nutrition, WebMD
- Cook books/recipe inspirations: Madeleine Shaw, Deliciously Ella, Jamie’s Superfood, Green Kitchen Stories, Pinterest
- Thought provoking documentaries: Fat Sick and Nearly Dead; Forks over Knives; Cowspiracy
- Places to buy superfood or ‘unusual’ ingredients from: Amazon, Holland & Barrett, Tesco, Amazon, Panacea, Grape Tree.