As a personal training company we aim to educate and encourage our clients to adopt behavioural changes that will lead them to adopt a healthy lifestyle. Part of our approach focuses on the diet and nutrition that each of our clients take on board. This is against a backdrop of never-ending information and misinformation about what constitutes a healthy diet. What this post will look at is how the 'diet industry' has changed over the last decade, how we as a company approach this complex area with our clients and some perspective on what is to come.
Clearly, over the past decade or so all the epidemiological data on levels of obesity in the UK indicate that things have continued to change for the worse in the general population despite an abundance of information, endless TV shows focused on weight loss, nutrition, healthy eating and exercise. Surely, with so much education and information within easy reach we should have a healthier nation? But what exactly is a healthy diet? We are all biochemically different, products of different genes that were raised in different environments whose nourishment came from differing sources. Hence, humanity has survived and adapted to all manner of food sources and this variety has led our bodies to adapt to certain foodstuffs and reject others.
How to Lose Weight Fast
The obsession with fast weight loss has become a national obsession, but if all the evidence is correct we are not doing very well at it. The exhortations to follow a certain diet plan to achieve the ideal bodyweight/size are routinely wheeled out by well-meaning nutritionists and health professionals. From a purely physiological/biochemical perspective losing weight would seem a relatively simple matter. Weight loss will happen if the number of calories consumed in a day is less than the number of calories expended. However, the key debates centre around the extent to which the type of calories consumed (e.g. low or high fat, low or high carbohydrate, low or high protein in various combinations) impact on either the speed or the extent of the weight loss. Fashionable diets tend to pander to these debates and hence the proliferation of new diet plans and approaches, e.g. Atkins diet, Dukan Diet, South Beach etc. The very word diet has come to symbolise restriction, restraint, a triumph of will over temptation. In other words, setting us up for failure.
Weight loss will indeed happen on very low intakes (<1,000 calories per day), but the physiological response to a heavily restricted intake, in effect starvation will decrease metabolic rate, reduce fat mobilisation and fat burning resulting in a slowing of weight loss over time. Deficits achieved by moderate decreases in intake together with increased activity are therefore more effective in the long run. The key to achieving this and how we at Morpheus generally approach this with our personal training clients is ensure that the food consumed suits an individual's likes and dislikes and fits in well with their lifestyle. There is no point in enforcing unrealistic diet plans that will be quickly discarded and bad habits resumed. This is the key to successful weight loss on an individual level. The allure of high-protein diets that do indeed gain results are often not sustainable and eliminating whole food groups or very low calorie diets lead to most or all of the weight being regained.
So, where did we receive our advice on healthy eating, what started the trend towards a healthy diet? Dietary advice was largely informed at the start of the 21st century by the Healthy Eating Pyramid developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in the early 1990's and modified in 2005.
It has been well documented that the development of this pyramid was influenced by commercial interests keen to see a predominance of wheat growers and cattle farmers, consequently the pyramid over-emphasised refined and processed carbohydrate sources of energy by displaying loaves of bread, bowls of breakfast cereal, white rice and pasta and potatoes, failing to distinguish between these and wholegrains and brown rice. Consequently, throughout the 1990's and 2000's the obesity epidemic was fuelled by intake of high calorie dense, nutrient light, high glycaemic index (GI) and high glycaemic load (GL) foods. It's little surprise therefore that an Atkins style diet plan would become popular and and achieve success in terms of stimulating weight loss. Once these 'carbs' are cut out of the diet the only thing left is protein and fat. Both in combination enhance satiety and make you feel fuller for longer, chemically switch off hunger pangs and increase weight loss. But we now seem to hold the view that carbs = bad, protein=good, resulting in consumption of high protein foods and reduction in any form of carbohydrate, which potentially can be harmful in some instances. Whilst evidence suggests that a diet plan that is lower in overall carbohydrates is good, it is the high GI carbs that should be eliminated or at least restricted. These should be replaced with 'good' carbs in the form of whole grains, low GI root vegetables such as squashes and sweet potatoes, together with green vegetables and beans. These nutrient dense high fibre foods enable better appetite control and also as recent evidence is demonstrating are essential in preventing bowel cancer.
The Fat of the Land
Another important failure of the food pyramid was that it failed to differentiate between types of fat. All fat was deemed bad and confined to the tip of the pyramid which ignored the research that demonstrated the health benefits of of essential mono and polyunsaturated fats from fish, and vegetable sources such as dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds. Again, this common misconception led to food manufacturers to develop fat-free products laden with sugar and salt and established the belief in the public's mind that any FAT was equally evil as any CARB. We now know that it is the trans fats found in hydrogenated vegetable oils that is the real danger to our health as the human system cannot metabolise them and lead to big increase in bad LDL blood lipids whilst lowering good HDL's and enhancing systemic inflammation.
Healthy Eating and Healthy Diet
Clearly, as rates of obesity are one the rise it would appear that a clear, easy to understand message is needed to enable the public to make healthy, well-informed choices regarding their diets. Without it there will be a persistence of faddy, fashionable diets that serve only to confuse an already bewildered, diet-exhausted public. Thankfully, the USDA finally discontinued the food pyramid and instead introduced MyPlate to the world which although is a much improved message, prioritising fruit and vegetables, it did not mention any fat, good or bad and doesn't distinguish between different types of protein. Fortunately, an alternative version has been produced by Harvard University's School of Public Health. It clearly summarises the past 10 years of accumulated evidence base for the relationship between nutrition health and weight-management and allows the public to make better choices. Although, at Morpheus personal training we don't subscribe to all the new recommendations, we feel it is a large step in the right direction.
Diet Restriction, Genes, Disease and Long Life
Diet, nutrition and healthy eating has been an evolving science over the last 10 years and will continue to evolve as new research brings forth new ideas and revelations on what we as human beings can consume to enable better health and prevent disease. The unlocking of the codes within our genes is telling us much about our health, how likely we are to develop certain diseases and what we can do to prevent them. But clearly as health professionals and personal trainers we need to continually educate and inform our clients of the benefits of consuming nutritious, well-balanced meals as like most things in life, prevention is better than cure.
In an age of abundant food sources it is admittedly hard to turn the other cheek. Never has there been an age where food was so plentiful for those of us lucky enough to live in the developed world. Supermarkets shelves bursting with all types of food, and super marketeers ready and willing to offer multi-packs of food at reduced prices tempting an already voracious consumer. Difficult therefore to adhere to a new piece of science coming out of the US that believes starving every other day may actually help with weight-loss, delay age-related disease, boost brain power and extend lifespan. Many a personal trainer will tell you that starving is a game of diminishing returns, so to speak, and that the pounds will surely creep back on once metabolism slows to a snail's pace. According to this experimental diet, pioneered at the National Institute for Ageing (NIA) it contends that "Dietary energy restriction extends lifespan and protects the brain and cardiovascular system against age-related disease". More importantly for the fitness community their experiments showed that feeding intermittently ( i.e. on alternate days) increased sensitivity to insulin, the all-important hormone that regulates sugar in the blood reducing the risk of diabetes and reduced fat storage. There were also indicative markers for enhanced function of brain synapses and resistance to a neurotoxin that simulates Alzheimer's disease. Slightly worrying in this research is the contention that would-be dieters could feasibly eat what they liked on their 'eating' days and still be effective with their weight-management. However, it is proof that our genes are only part of the story and that what we eat and how we eat can have a massive impact on our health and wellbeing.
Amongst all the information that is continually purveyed through media channels and by well-intentioned health professionals about how to lose weight, maintain a healthy weight and what diet we should consume, it is clear that following the latest fashionable diet is, and most of the evidence bears this out, going to be unsustainable in the long run and not be 'healthy'. Over-complicated, supplement-led diets are not the answer to achieving an optimum weight and preventing disease. Getting the basics right is essential together with understanding the role the macronutrients play in human health and performance and is how we approach this area with the majority of our personal training clients.