Real health #31 The importance of gratitude and celebration for your health

I wanted to choose the subject of gratitude for the final post in this series to say thank you to anyone who has stuck with me this whole month. I really had fun writing these posts, I hope you enjoyed them too and maybe learned something that will help you to improve your health. If you haven’t read the other posts you can find all 31 here and feel free to share with friends or family that you think could benefit. If you really absorb and implement all of these lessons you will be well on your way to becoming your own health coach! Now back to the topic of gratitude…

Gratitude is something that is talked about so much these days and rightly so. Being grateful for the things we have in our lives has been shown to improve both our physical, mental and emotional health. It is a real super power when it comes to improving your overall health and wellbeing. Gratitude helps to boost your happiness and also reduces feelings of frustration, anger and depression. When you feel better mentally, you are much more likely to make healthier choices like eating nutritious food, getting enough sleep and moving your body which can take your physical health to a whole new level. But how exactly do you practice gratitude?

I think of gratitude as a feeling state rather than an exercise that you do once a day. Sure, writing down 3 things you are grateful for each night can help you to reflect on the day and go to sleep with a more positive mindset. It is good to be grateful for every small thing in your life, especially at times like these when things feel so dark and uncertain. But I think to really soak up the benefits of gratitude you need to feel it in your entire body. Not only do you need to write the things down but you also need to really allow the emotion of gratitude to rise up and overwhelm you. When you really allow this feeling of gratitude and love to take over, it pushes out everything else and lifts your mood.

As I shared in my previous post, to change your habits you need to change your mind but when you are stuck in a negative mindset, sometimes it can be really hard to see a way out. Spending some time in a true state of gratitude can train your body to feel those positive emotions and make it easier to access them in your day to day life. Often we are limited by how we normally feel meaning that our typical mood affects the range of emotions we can access. For example, if you are in a bad mood and something positive happens, you might not get as excited as if you were already feeling happy and cheerful. We tend to resist feeling better for some reason and it can be really easy to get stuck in a downwards spiral, at least in my experience!

But the same thing works both ways. You can also set yourself for an upwards spiral by purposely spending some time feeling positive emotions each day. Yes it helps to practicing feeling good! I’m not talking about “toxic positivity” here where you pretend that your problems don’t exist. I’m fully aware we are in the middle of a pandemic and none of us should be expecting to feel amazing all day long. What I mean is there is benefit in acknowledging that life might be difficult right now but allowing yourself to squeeze the most joy out of the things that are going well in your life. Allowing ourselves to truly celebrate the wins, no matter how small, helps to keep our spirits strong and make it easier to deal with the struggles and things we are missing out on.

As for the actual practice of gratitude, I have tried following the advice of just writing down things I am grateful for and it just didn’t have the same effect for me. I have tried gratitude journals, writing post it notes to myself and countless other techniques. I would neatly write “I am grateful for my cat for making me smile”, “I am grateful for my lamp for creating beautiful light in my room” or “I am grateful for my books for letting me escape into my imagination”. But writing those things down felt more like a tick box exercise and I got bored pretty soon. I never kept it up for more than a few weeks and it felt like an extra thing on my to-do list that I had to do rather than something I looked forward to.

So what did I do? Of course I went to my favourite channel The Mindful Movement and found a gratitude meditation (I am always recommending them and they likely have no idea I exist!) . This was the game changer for me. Listening to the guided meditation below for cultivating an attitude of gratitude really helped me to truly focus my awareness and connect with the intense emotion of gratitude. I have actually cried a few times practicing this meditation! If I am feeling really down, I know I can always go back to this practice to lift me out of a hole. I usually come back to the same few things and people in my life that I am thankful for. I never try to mix it up and choose new things, I just go for the ones that feel the most meaningful and that works well for me. Let me know what you think if you try it out.

Now it’s time for me to take a break from writing and recharge my creative batteries… I’m not sure where I want to go next with my posts now this series is over but I do want to continue sharing regularly. You can expect all sorts of topics relating to nutrition, yoga and women’s health. I am also starting to record some yoga sequences for my own Youtube channel as well as my weekly live online classes. If you are interested in trying out yoga, especially if you are an absolute beginner to the practice, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Over to you…

I hope you found this article interesting and enjoyed the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts and experiences with practicing gratitude and whether it has improved your health.

  • If you want to follow along with this Real Health blog series, like this post and follow my blog for daily updates. And please share with anyone you think might be interested
  • If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on you health journey, please contact me for information on the nutrition and holistic health coaching packages I offer. I would love to work together with you to get you feeling your best again.

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Real health #19 Common nutrient deficiencies and the benefits of eating MORE FOOD

As usual, I want to go against the typical health and fitness industry advice and this time talk about the benefits of eating more food. We are so often told we need to eat less if we want to be fit and healthy but is this really the case? In my opinion, this obsession with eating as little as possible is harmful for your body and your mind. We need to eat plenty of food to survive and thrive as as a fully functioning human being! Even if you are trying to lose weight, it is still important to nourish your body and give it the energy it needs. Maybe I sound like a broken record but I will keep shouting this message as I know it can benefit a lot of you out there. If you have been on the yo-yo dieting rollercoaster, bouncing between restricting your diet to lose weight and overeating on unhealthy foods, then keep reading as I am talking to you!

Now for the science part, if you hate numbers then feel free to skip to the next part. But if you’re a number geek like me, stick with it. I want to explain a bit about energy balance and caloric flux. If you are maintaining your weight on 2000 calories a day, you are taking in 2000 calories in food and burning 2000 calories through your metabolic processes and physical activities. This is known as your caloric flux (see the work of Ari Whitten if you want to learn more about this). If you want to lose weight you need to create an energy deficit by eating less than you burn. If you burn 1800 calories and eat 1500 calories, that’s a 300 calorie deficit. If you burn 2500 calories and eat 2200 calories, that’s still the same 300 calorie deficit but at a higher caloric flux. Make sense?

Whether you are trying to maintain your weight or lose weight, in my opinion you will feel better if you do it at at a higher caloric flux. Naturally, the amount of calories we burn will depend on factors such as our age, height, gender but there are ways to increase your caloric flux. You can do that either by boosting your metabolic rate or by increasing your activity, not through intense exercise but by moving more often throughout the day. Also just by eating more food you will increase the amount of energy you burn as your body actually uses energy to digest food and assimilate nutrients.

In general, eating more and not worrying about eating too much will reduce your stress levels and help you to feel healthier and happier overall. I’m not talking about aiming for 10,000 calories a day here, but more about getting yourself out of a metabolic hole and maintaining or losing weight on a reasonable, sustainable amount of food for your body where you don’t feel deprived or like you have to constantly restrain yourself in order to maintain a healthy weight.

Caloric intake and nutrients

The main benefit of increasing your food intake is that more calories = more nutrients. This is assuming you are eating mostly nutritious foods of course! Many of us, especially women, have dieted their way down to maintaining their weight on 1800, 1500 or even 1200 calories. Eating so little makes it harder to get in the nutrients you need unless you are very careful about the foods that you eat which doesn’t leave much wriggle room for less nutrient-dense fun foods. The less you eat, the more important nutrient density becomes.

Every food contains macro-nutrients (carbs, fats, proteins) and micro-nutrients (vitamins, minerals, etc.) in varying amounts and our bodies need these nutrients to keep us healthy and our metabolic, digestive, immune and reproductive systems working as they should. Macro-nutrients give us energy to fuel our bodies, amino acids for repair and growth and fats to keep our hormones balanced and to help us absorb the micro-nutrients in the food that we eat. Not taking in enough macro-nutrients can lead to a slowing down of your metabolic rate as your body becomes more efficient at using the energy it is provided with.

Micro-nutrients are essential meaning that we have to take them in through food as our bodies can’t produce them by themselves. What happens when you don’t get the micro-nutrients you need? Nutrient deficiencies can develop over time leading to all sorts of problems from feeling fatigued and run-down to dry skin and slow growing hair and nails. Below I’ve listed some of the most common nutrient that we lack in our diets, some of the signs to watch out for and foods to eat to prevent and overcome deficiencies. This is based on advice from the NHS and British Dietetic Association but you can look up your own government advice if you live outside of the UK.

NutrientSigns of defiencyFoods to eat
Iron– Tiredness and/or insomnia
– Hair loss and pale skin
– Shortness of breath
Kidney beans, black beans, red meat, liver, blackstrap molasses, dried fruits
Calcium– Weak bones and teeth
– Dry skin and hair
– Twitching or muscle cramps
Dairy (milk, cheese, yoghurt) or fortified dairy alternatives, sesame seeds (tahini), oily fish
Vitamin D– Weak bones and teeth
– Low immune system
Dairy or fortified dairy alternatives, egg yolks, oily fish, red meat, fortified cereals
Folate– Tiredness or lack of energy
– Muscle weakness
Leafy greens (spinach, kale, collards), broccoli, brussels sprouts, chickpeas, kidney beans
Iodine– Tiredness or lack of energy
– Muscle weakness
– Hypothyroidism
Dairy, most types of seafood and fish, sea vegetables, nori, iodized salt
Magnesium– Muscle cramps
– Constipation
– Insomnia and fatigue
Whole grains, nuts, leafy greens, dark chocolate or cacao, black beans, avocado
Omega-3 fatty acids– Poor memory and depression
– Slow growth of skin, hair, nails
Oily fish, hemp seeds, flax seeds or flax seed oil, eggs, chia seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds

A lot of these symptoms are pretty vague and can creep up over time so you might not even realise until something extreme happens to catch your attention like a broken tooth or patches of hair falling out. Prevention is always better than cure! If you are reading the list and feel like you have multiple of the symptoms mentioned, you can always contact your doctor to get your nutrient levels checked if you are unsure. Depending on the severity of the deficiency, you might need supplements to help boost your levels alongside eating the foods listed above.

How to eat more food and maintain your weight

So how do you go about eating more food and getting in the nutrients you need? You can either go “all in” and ramp up your calories suddenly or you can take a more gentle reverse dieting approach by gradually increasing the amount you eat each week until you reach a sustainable amount for your body. If you aren’t exercising at all, start to gradually increase the amount you move your body. Try going for a walk every day and build it up from there. Even day to day tasks like laundry and washing the dishes help to get in that body movement which will increase the amount of calories you burn so that you can eat more food and maintain your weight. No need to obsess over it or track anything, just try to become more aware of how often you move your body throughout the day.

Reverse dieting can help to minimise weight gain as your body has more time to adjust your metabolic rate to the increased calories but it takes longer and it relies on you tracking your food or eating similar meals day to day. If you are afraid of weight gain, know that you probably won’t gain as much weight as you think you will. Especially if you eat more of the nutrient dense foods listed above, you will likely feel better and your body will thank you for it. And if and when you decide you want to lose weight, you will be at a much healthier starting point which will make the process a whole lot easier! If you are interested about learning more about what to eat or how to reverse diet, let me know in the comments below and I can write a future post on that topic.

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts and experiences.

  • If you want to follow along with this Real Health January blog series, like this post and follow my blog for daily updates. And please share with anyone you think might be interested!
  • If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on you health journey, please contact me for information on the nutrition and holistic health coaching packages I offer. I would love to work together with you to get you feeling your best again.

Other posts you might like

Veganuary: Is a vegan diet best for the planet?

For anyone who has known me a while, you’ll know that in 2015 I decided to go vegan. I had been thinking about it for a while after seeing the documentary Cowspiracy which explains the impact of animal agriculture on the planet. I was shocked at the statistics about greenhouse gas emissions from ruminating animals and also at the amount of land used to grow crops to feed animals raised for their meat. I hadn’t realised before that a lot of the deforestation in the Amazon is to grow soy and grains to feed these animals and that it takes 7kg grain to produce just 1kg of meat. I’ve always been interested in environmental protection and sustainability so at the time it made total sense to me to switch to a completely vegan diet.

Now 5 years later, I am no longer vegan but this morning I listened to a podcast from the Guardian titled Is veganism the future? which talked about the environmental benefits of switching to a vegan diet. It was originally aired in January 2020 due to the rising popularity of Veganuary, going vegan for the month of January. Last year I finished my Master’s degree in public health nutrition and for my dissertation project I decided to research environmentally sustainable diets. Listening to the podcast this morning it got me thinking again about whether a vegan diet is best for the environment and we should all be going vegan in the future to save our planet. Here I want to share some of the ways that animal agriculture affects the environment and give you some things to think about if you are considering changing your diet.

Environmental impact of animal agriculture at a glance

  • Large amounts of land and water are needed to grow grains to feed animals
  • Often the land used to grow these crops comes from deforestation in places like the amazon rainforest
  • Ruminant animals such as cows and sheep release huge amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas with 21x the global warming potential as carbon dioxide
  • Badly managed farms can cause pollution through run off of animal wastes and chemicals
  • Fertilizers used to maximise production of feed crops emit huge amounts of harmful greenhouse gas emissions such as nitrous oxide
  • Feed crops are often grown on mono-culture farms destroying the natural landscape and biodiversity in these areas

Even though some of the points above also apply to growing of plant-based foods, there’s no denying the evidence that animal products have a significant environmental impact. You can definitely find more sustainable types of animal products, including pasture raised, organic meat and dairy but these products are pretty expensive and not accessible to the majority of people. It is also clear from years of research that, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, even the most sustainably produced meat still has a higher environmental impact than the majority of plant-based protein sources such as beans, lentils and soy. But does this mean that a vegan diet is best for the planet? Not necessarily.

In my research, I found out that it is not as straight forward as “a vegan diet is better for the planet”. An Italian research study on 2018 compared carbon dioxide emissions, land and water use for the real diets of omnivores, vegetarians and vegans. I say real diets because a lot of studies use computer modelling to compare different diets rather than food diaries showing what people actually eat. The study found that yes, on the whole, vegan diets had the lowest environmental impact in terms of carbon dioxide emissions and land use but the difference between the vegetarian and vegan diets were small and on average the vegetarian diets had the lowest water usage of the three group. And another shocking result was that the two participants with the highest environmental impact in the whole study were vegans whose diet consisted mainly of fruit, eek!

And what about dairy products, how do vegan milks compare to dairy in terms of environmental impact? The graph below is from another study in 2018 which again compared carbon dioxide emissions, land use and water consumption this time for different types of dairy-free alternatives vs. dairy milk.

environmental impact dairy-free milk alternatives

Typically, dairy milk does have a much higher environmental impact than dairy alternatives, even rice and almond milk which are known for the amount of water they consume. But I’m not sure whether these figures account for the global warming impact of deforestation to be able to grow huge amounts of soy and almonds in certain parts of the world. Forests are the lungs of our planet, taking in carbon dioxide and converting it to oxygen. When we cut down trees to plant crops, we not only have increased emissions from agricultural processes but we also lose the protective effect of the forests. I don’t think there is a problem with choosing dairy-free alternatives and they can definitely play a role in a sustainable diet. I drink them personally but I do think we have to choose wisely and mindfully.

I’m going to go into the nutrition aspects of the vegan diet in more detail in another post but I will touch here on the fact that dairy-free milks are not equivalent to dairy in terms of protein, minerals and fat-soluble vitamins which are essential to healthy bones and teeth. That’s not to say that you can’t get these things elsewhere on a vegan diet, there are plenty of sources of calcium in the plant-kingdom but I am just pointing out that substituting rice milk for dairy you could run into nutritional deficiencies down the line. Personally, I am no longer vegan for this reason although I still eat a mostly plant-based diet with plenty of vegan meals.

In reality there are many aspects to a sustainable diet including where the food is grown, how it is transported and packaged, whether it is eaten in season or not and what methods of farming are used. Of course, it’s possible to eat an environmentally sustainable diet if you consume a lot of staple foods such as grains and potatoes that are grown in your region but if you are eating avocados, mangos and almond milk on a daily basis like the typical vegan influencer then you are kidding yourself! This isn’t a criticism to anyone doing this as there have been times when I bought lots of imported fruit and almond milk too, I’m just highlighting that sometimes we need to look at the bigger picture. Another major issue that is often overlooked when we think about sustainable diets is not what we eat but what we don’t eat. No matter what the type of food, vegan or animal products, if it goes into the bin as food waste that has a massive impact on the environment.

So, in summary, no I don’t think that a vegan diet is always best for the environment or the only way to eat sustainably. Although if you do want to adopt a vegan diet you can definitely reduce your environmental footprint by doing so if you do your research beforehand. I do think though that you can make a significant impact by cutting down the amount of animal products you consume, or even adopting a pescatarian or vegetarian diet without having to take “extreme” measure of going 100% vegan. If you’re interested in reading more about sustainable diets and how you can make your diet more environmentally friendly, I’d recommend checking out the British Dietetic Association One Blue Dot project which sets out guidelines for a healthy, environmentally sustainable diet. They do recommend significantly reducing meat consumption as well as eating less foods imported by plane and eating local and seasonal produce.

Over to you…

Thank you for taking the time to read this post, let me know in the comments below if you found this article interesting and whether you have thought about going vegan for environmental reasons. Like this post and follow my blog if you want me to share more about this area of research. It’s not something I usually write about here but it is something I am interested in! If you want to read my research publication on “A cross-sectional survey of the readiness of consumers to adopt an environmentally sustainable diet” you can find the pdf here.

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