Diet dogma, food and morality

This is a tricky subject but something that has been on my mind lately. As someone who has been in the health and wellness field for several years, I have seen this reoccurring pattern of almost a cult-like mentality around various diets. As a former vegan I have certainly fallen for this idea that there is “one diet to rule them all” and experienced this almost religious dedication to my diet dogma of choice. But this doesn’t only happen with veganism, I’ve also seen the same aggressive preaching, tunnel vision and exclusionary mentality amongst followers of the paleo, raw food, keto and carnivore diets as well as those who believe that gluten, dairy or sugar are the devil.

Why do we do this? Why does following particular way of eating give us this feeling of safety and superiority? Why do we cling onto the idea that a particular diet will save us, take away all of our suffering and lead us to an infinite nirvana of perfect health? I think advertising definitely plays a role as health, youth and beauty have become aspirational products that can be marketed and sold. This used to be a tactic adopted by food manufacturers to sell us products like diet coke and special k but now with social media, anyone can become a diet “guru” and make millions selling the new version of sermons and religious texts (aka recipe e-books and courses), sometimes without any qualifications to back up their claims, other than personal experience.

When we are struggling, either with a chronic health condition or with the belief that we aren’t good enough as we are and need to somehow improve ourselves, we become the perfect customer. These gurus become our idols and we are vulnerable to believing everything that we see and trusting what we are told. We see people sharing about how cutting out all carbs or adopting a raw vegan diet cured them of every symptom and disease and improved their life in every way and of course, we want a piece of that! But we always have to remember that we don’t see everything about people’s lives and especially when someone has a product to sell, they have an investment in promoting perfection and sweeping any issues under the rug.

We all know in theory that social media is a highlight reel and that people tend to share what is going well or their success stories in overcoming their problems, myself included! I’ve often shared stories of my past struggles and how I have managed to balance my hormones and fix my relationship to food and my body. I try to be transparent and also share the process when I am in the messy place of trying to figure something out but of course I don’t write about every single thing going on in my life. Partly because I don’t want to bore people but mostly because when you’re in the eye of the storm, you don’t have the clarity and understanding that comes with hindsight and enables you to write about your struggles. So I don’t believe that anyone does it on purpose but we all tend to show more of the positive and less of the negative aspects of ourselves. It’s human nature to want to show our best side but our shadows and struggles are what make us human.

There has been a trend over the last couple of years on social media, with vegan influencers coming out and sharing “why I’m no longer vegan” stories. Often these are people who spent years declaring to the world how good they felt, how energetic they were and how amazing their hair and skin had become on this diet, only to admit a few months later that they were struggling all along and didn’t feel able to talk about it because they felt trapped by the web they had weaved around themselves. Their online identity and professional reputation had become so tied up in their diet dogma that they found it so hard to change their diet for their health, never mind tell their audience that they were doing so. And the ones that did share this experience received so much backlash and abuse from the community for being selfish or hypocritical.

This public shaming behaviour was so shocking to me and made me realise just how far this moralising of food and diet <cult>ure has become. Food is no longer just fuel and nourishment for the body and soul but it is now a way for people to express their status as a good citizen. Yes it’s great that we are now becoming more aware of the ethical issues surrounding our food system, especially now the size of the global population is leaving our planet straining at the seams. Making more ethical choices is is a good thing and something I am totally on board with and often talk about on this blog. It’s amazing that companies are now looking at their supply chains, consumers are seeking out more sustainable, fair trade products and we want to see this trend continue. However, this is work in progress and all we can do is make the best choices where possible to meet our conflicting objectives.

A healthy diet isn’t always sustainable or ethical and a sustainable diet isn’t always healthy. And no food or diet is perfect. You eat meat and dairy and contribute to climate change and potentially animal cruelty and pollution. So you cut out animal products and instead end up eating vegan products that are shipped from all over the world, produced on farms that cause large scale eco system damage or exploit bonded labourers in developing countries. You try to eat all organic, local, plant-based food and end up with a myriad of health issues due to your overly restrictive diet. We all have a responsibility to make better choices where we can, even though with the way the food system operates right now some of this is out of our hands. But we certainly shouldn’t feel guilt or shame for our food choices when they are not perfect, or shame others who do not have access to or cannot afford to make these better choices, because let’s be honest, choosing high-quality, organic, local produce is often a privilege rather than the easy option.

Moving away from ethics and towards health and wellness, when it comes to the macro-nutrient wars of the HCLF (high carb low fat) vs. the LCFH (low carb high fat) communities, it just gets silly. Each camp has their own key pieces of research that they cite and doctors that they follow who claim that this way of eating is the perfect human diet. Each has their armies of followers with stories of healing and longevity who battle against each other in pointless debates and who circle in their own communities, brainwashing themselves and proving each other right. In reality how can we possibly know what the perfect human diet is? Humans developed all over the planet and survived on so many different diets: hunter gatherers, agricultural communities and now industrial societies like the ones most of us live in today. There is so much conflicting research out there that it’s possible to find evidence to back up almost any claim.

There is so much variety in our genetics, environment and physical health status that there’s no way there is one truth when it comes to food and diet. Plus, health is about so much more than what we eat. When we look at the blue zones (the places with the highest number of centenarians), they don’t all follow the same diet but one thing they have in common is their sense of community, slow pace of life and connection with the natural world. I think there comes a point when you have to accept that perfecting your diet can only get you so far and the simple act of trying can be a stress on the body that causes health issues to continue. It’s much better to eat food that makes you feel strong and energetic, keeps your metabolism functioning at it’s best but also brings you joy and connection with the community you live in than keeping yourself in an isolated bubble, trying to consume the optimal diet for humans.

I am saying this as much for my past self as I am for all of you out there. I have been through phases where I was so desperate to heal my body that I put all of my energy into eating what I believed was the best diet for my body as well as the planet and it only made things worse. Letting go of the diet dogma was what finally helped me to heal. Now I definitely make the effort to make ethical and healthy food choices. I buy from local markets when I can, experiment with growing my own food, eat lots of plant-based meals and choose organic, fair trade products where its available and affordable. But I’m refuse to obsess over it or feel anxious when I can’t make the ideal choice. I eat plenty of things that aren’t sustainable or health promoting just because they taste good. I also now eat animal products again as for me, veganism didn’t work out and I experienced health issues despite being very careful with my diet and supplementation (I’m sorry to any vegans reading this but this was my experience).

I would never recommend to a client that they should eat a certain way and exclude particular food groups or foods, unless they have their own ethical or medical reasons to do so. I am a strong believer in paying attention to your bodies’ response to certain foods and choosing a diet based on what makes you feel your best. One of the best ways to do this in my experience in using a food diary, not to restrict your intake but to record how you really feel, physically and mentally, after eating certain foods or meals. This way you are totally in control and rather than relying on external information, you can listen and respond to your own bodies’ signals which is what we are designed to do. And even when you do find something that works, remember that this can change! Our bodies are never stagnant, we are constantly aging and adapting to the changing seasons and environment so we can’t expect that what works for us today will work 10 or 20 years down the line.

Over to you

Anyway, that’s enough of me ranting for one day! Please leave a comment below if you have any thoughts on this topic, I’d love to hear your opinions and have a discussion. If you found this article interesting, please like this post and follow my blog to be notified when I post something new.

If you are looking for guidance, support and accountability on you health journey, please contact me or check out the nutrition and holistic health coaching packages I offer. I am a qualified Public Health Nutritionist and hatha yoga teacher and my specialty is helping women to balance their hormones and heal their body and metabolism after restrictive dieting. I would love to work together with you to move past any health blocks and get you feeling your best again!

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Why we should NOT use BMI to diagnose eating disorders

Today’s post is a bit different from my usual content but I saw a story on BBC news yesterday which really stirred up emotion in me and inspired me to write. It was a young woman sharing her experience with disordered eating and being told by doctors that her BMI “wasn’t low enough to be anorexic” when she went to seek help. Here is the short video clip:

For those of you who haven’t read my previous posts about my struggles with disordered eating, I had an undiagnosed eating disorder throughout my teens and early twenties and lost my period for nearly 10 years due to being underweight for my body type. During this time I too was told by doctors that I was healthy because my weight was within the normal range and was led down the road of more and more tests to figure out why I wasn’t menstruating. This definitely prevented me from getting the help I needed and delayed my recovery by several years as I was able to keep kidding myself that I was healthy and continue with my unhealthy behaviours around food and exercise.

I still have anger inside me towards the medical system for failing to help me and I think it’s so important to share stories like these in the hope that they can help someone else who might be going through something similar. Disordered eating is something that so many women go through at some point during their life and often it is brushed under the carpet because obsession over our bodies, chronic dieting and exercising to lose weight is seen as just part of being a woman in today’s world. Using the BMI scale as a measure of disordered eating is so outdated and only continues this issue. Women and girls, like me in the past, who do become aware that perhaps they have a problem around food are often made to believe we “aren’t sick enough” to seek or receive support.

The BMI scale was developed around 200 years ago by a mathematician as a quick way of determining whether an individual is at a healthy weight for their height. It is usually seen as a chart of height vs. weight like the one below with marked ranges for underweight, normal weight, overweight and obese. However, it was never intended to be used as a formal diagnosis of health. It wasn’t developed by doctors but for some reason it has been adopted by the medical system and is still used, often without question, to this day.

According to most doctors, a BMI within the range 18.5-25 is considered “normal” but there are several major problems with using the BMI scale. The main one I want to highlight is that it doesn’t take into account the percentage of lean mass which consists of bones, organs and muscle tissue. So someone with a larger bone structure or more muscle mass can quite easily be considered overweight or even obese. Think football players or figure skaters who are often lean but extremely athletic and muscular, according to the the BMI scale many would probably need to lose weight to be considered healthy.. really?! How can a basic mathematical formula know what it healthy for your body type. All it is is statistics. On average, humans have less than 2 arms but does that mean that the typical human has less than 2 arms? Of course not!

What is healthy for our bodies depends on so many factors, including our genetics, the environment we are currently living in and what stressors we have in our lives. At certain times it’s healthier for us to hold more fat and at others it might be more advantageous to be leaner. Our bodies are smarter than we give them credit for. I look at photos of myself at my lowest weight when I was around a BMI of 18.5 and I wonder how any doctor could have thought I looked healthy. I was 20 years old but I looked like a child. There was nothing womanly or fertile about how my body looked at that time. I had hardly a scrap fat on my body, no breasts at all without a padded bra and my knees stood out a mile on my stick legs.

Of course, I didn’t look like the completely skeletal anorexic figures that you see, but I was clearly not at a healthy weight for my frame. It’s obvious to me now why I didn’t have my period. As women we need fat on our bodies to support a healthy pregnancy and to nourish a growing baby. I definitely was not eating enough to support my activity level and I was restricting food groups and specific “unhealthy” foods. I had a high level of cognitive dietary restraint meaning that I thought a lot about food and I was constantly controlling and denying my cravings. My body was sending me all the signals that it wanted to be at a higher weight, I would have crazy binge eating episodes because my body was starving for calories but I saw this as a lack of motivation or as emotional eating. I wasn’t underweight for my height so I didn’t see the problem.

This is the issue with the BMI scale, it lumps everyone in the same category and doesn’t account well enough for our bio-individuality or our bodies’ natural intelligence. Personally, I had to workout excessively and restrict my diet in order to maintain this weight which should have been a major red flag that it wasn’t my natural set point. Perhaps another woman could maintain this same weight naturally with little effort and could be healthy but that is not how my body was designed to be. But because I was so attached to the BMI scale and trusted doctors when they told me I was healthy, I carried on this delusion for too long. I’m sure there are so many other women (and men) stuck in this same false narrative, believing that their behaviours around food are healthy when in reality it is causing more harm than good.

When it comes to eating disorder diagnosis, I think using the BMI scale can be extremely dangerous. Especially today as the trend online is not just to be skinny but also to be fit and lean. There must be so many girls and women out there who are suffering in order to achieve a “perfect body” either by being overly rigid and restrictive around food or by over-exercising but they are at a normal BMI so they must be healthy, right? Wrong. Eating disorders are about so much more than physical appearance, they are mental disorders. Diagnosis should be based on thought patterns and behaviours and not on weight alone. If someone is focused on food to the point it is affecting their life, if they are afraid of certain foods or obsessed with losing weight, it doesn’t matter what BMI they are, they deserve help.

I understand that the NHS has limited resources and that they have to prioritise those who are at the highest risk. Being dangerously underweight can cause so much damage to the body and of course these people need to be under medical care, but for those who fall into the grey area of not being sick enough to receive support this can be a real problem. Disordered eating develops over time and generally the earlier it is diagnosed, the easier it is to recover. Eating disorder thoughts are like a fungus that enters your brain, sets down roots and spreads a network across your psyche. Rooting out all of the false beliefs, stories around food and your body and replacing them with healthy, helpful thoughts takes a lot of time and effort.

Putting off treatment because your weight isn’t low enough yet means falling further down a slippery slope and it can become harder if not impossible to achieve a full recovery. Eating disorders are already such a secretive disorder, drenched in shame and denial. Even when part of your mind realises there is a problem and wants to seek help, the disordered part wants things to stay as they are and will hold tightly onto any excuse to stay stuck. A healthy BMI is exactly that, a lifeline of denial for the eating disorder voice. I still have to deal with these thoughts today, even though I can recognise them and not act on them. I think this is partly because of my disordered eating being hidden and allowed free reign of my sub-conscious mind for so long.

I do believe that full physical and mental recovery is possible but it’s much more likely when these things are caught early and don’t go as deep. I definitely consider myself fully recovered now and have for many years but I don’t think that quiet voice will ever completely go away. As a nutritionist and yoga teacher, healthy and wellness is still a big part of my life but I am fully aware that I have to stay vigilant as it can be a fine line between looking after your health and obsessing over your health. It’s not like recovering from alcohol or drugs where you can completely abstain, you can’t recover from obsession with healthy eating by avoiding healthy foods.. that’s a recipe for disaster! However, my motto now is be healthy to live, don’t live to be healthy. Eat vegetables but also eat chocolate cake. Move your body but know when to rest. It might be cliche but balance is the way!

Over to you

Please like and share this post and help to spread awareness of this issue. Follow my blog for more posts on balanced health, yoga and nutrition for healthy hormones.

If you feel like you or someone you know is suffering with disordered eating, please please reach out for support. Don’t let having a healthy BMI get in the way of getting the help you need.

YOU DESERVE TO HAVE A HEALTHY, ACCEPTING RELATIONSHIP TO FOOD AND YOUR BODY NO MATTER WHAT!

BEAT: https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/support-services/helplines

NHS: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/eating-disorders/

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Why (and how) women should approach health and fitness differently to men

Ladies, ever wondered why it seems so much easier for your boyfriend or husband to stick to a diet or fitness plan and get results? Why some weeks you are full of energy and others you hardly want to drag yourself out of bed? How you can go 2 weeks eating healthily then all of sudden all you want is chocolate and ice cream? If you’ve found yourself questioning whether you just have less motivation or your body just doesn’t function as well then you’re not alone. The answer is simple and something that we live every single day, often without even being aware of it. Can you guess?

IT’S

OUR

MENSTRUAL

CYCLE!

As women we are simply not the same from week to week. Our hormone levels are continuously shifting which has a huge impact on our energy levels, mood, cravings, sleep and so much more. This can make it hard for us to stick to a routine and often feel like a failure for being inconsistent. We can think of men as being like the sun and women more like the moon. The sun shines consistently day by day, sometimes there might be some clouds in the sky or even a huge storm that affects how brightly we see its rays but behind all of that it keeps on shining just the same. The moon however moves through it’s lunar cycle from the new or dark moon where the sky appears empty to the full moon where it shines big and bright.

The lunar cycle is such a good metaphor for our menstrual cycle. The new moon represents menstruation, the time of the month when we are much less energetic and physically need to rest. The full moon represents ovulation when our energy levels are at their peak and we are overflowing with creativity and physical energy. Don’t get me wrong though, just because the moon appears dark at the new moon, it doesn’t mean there is no light, the light is just on the other side so we don’t see it. This is the time when lots of inner work is being carried out including physical and mental healing and the seeds of inspiration for creative projects are being birthed.

Because for men, the hormonal shifts are much more subtle and occur mostly on a 24hr basis, they can more easily stick to a daily routine that works for them week in week out whereas us women have both our daily and monthly rhythms to take into account. Our bodies are also more sensitive to stress from working out or not eating enough food as they are constantly trying to maintain hormonal balance and fertility. We can choose to see this as a weakness or we can see it as a super power that we can work with. There are times of the month when our strength and stamina can feel unlimited and we can surprise ourselves with what we can achieve and there are other times when we can push ourselves through a grueling workout and actually cause ourselves more harm than good because our bodies have to rely on stress hormones and adrenal reserves to make it through.

Of course we all know this on some level but we often think of it as something we have to work against rather than work with. Often we feel like we are “normal” for a couple of weeks and then BAM our hormones come along to ruin everything and we fall off the wagon. But what if we became more aware of how our bodies change throughout the month and actually build this into our health and fitness plan? What a game changer that would be! No more beating yourself up because you got so hungry before your period that you ate a large bar of chocolate every day. No more dragging yourself through intense workouts on your bleeding says when your body is crying out for rest. Instead using self-awareness and self-compassion to create a health plan that truly works for you.

What could this cyclical approach to health and fitness look like? When it comes to nutrition, this would be truly trusting your body and allowing yourself to eat intuitively. This doesn’t mean allowing yourself to eat a large bar of chocolate every day because, “PMS”, but it does mean loosening up on the diet rules, understanding why those cravings might be there and making sure that you are well fed and nourished during the day. The quantities and types of foods you crave will likely change throughout your cycle and this is ok, in fact it is essential. Your metabolic rate and nutrient requirements shift with your hormones and so the foods that will support your body also change week to week. The simple overall guideline for a healthy diet of eating mostly whole, unprocessed foods applies throughout the cycle but the amount of energy, macro-nutrients and the ratio of raw vs. cooked foods can definitely change. It’s much better to tune into your body to find what works for you, but if you’re struggling with getting started I did write a series of posts on how to eat for each of the phases of your menstrual cycle.

With fitness and exercise, again it is very individual. Some women need to fully rest during their period otherwise they will feel like they are dragging throughout the month ahead. Others, me included, need a bit of easy movement to help manage painful cramps. I’m sure there are some women who can exercise intensely during their period without any issues but I think this is the exception rather than the rule. If you do workout during your period, ask yourself whether you are doing it because you feel like you should or whether it is what your body is genuinely asking for. In general, during your period and the few days before it’s a good idea to at least slow down, decrease the intensity of your workouts and create space for some more restorative activities like yoga, stretching and gentle walking to help your body recover and restore energy.

On the other hand, the rising energy and stamina in the couple of weeks after your period (the follicular and ovulatory phases) are a great time to really get out there and move your body. This is a good time for more intense cardio workouts as you can get all of the benefits of getting your heart rate up and sweating without feeling totally drained. Movement can also be a great way to boost your mood and reduce PMS symptoms as you approach your period, but our energy levels tend to start to drop off towards the end of the pre-menstrual phase so it’s good to be aware of this and be prepared to take it easier without feeling guilty for not performing at your best. In general it’s about understanding and accepting that as women we are not the same everyday and we can’t expect ourselves to show up, robot-like, in the same way every day. That is a recipe for disappointment, hormonal imbalance and burn out as I’ve learned the hard way!

Over to you

I hope you found this post interesting and it gives you a new perspective and understanding of why a traditional approach to health and fitness might not work perfectly for you as a woman. If you have any questions or want to share your experiences, let me know in the comments below! If you’re interested in health and wellness for women, follow along with my blog and please share with anyone else who might be interested. I’ll be making a post soon on my top book recommendations for learning more about synching with your menstrual cycle so watch out for that too.

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Celebrating “Clean Monday” in Greece

Yesterday was a religious holiday here in Greece, the Eastern Christian festival of Καθαρά Δευτέρα (Kathara Deftera) aka “Clean Monday” or “Pure Monday”. Similar to the celebration of Ash Wednesday in the West, it’s the seventh Monday before Easter and the start of lent, a period of cleansing for the mind body and spirit. The 40+ days of lent includes religious fasting where it’s traditional to consume mainly plant-based foods, with no meat, eggs or dairy. Typically eating shellfish is still allowed during lent in most European countries, as well as fish on feasting days, hence the celebration of the first day with a big feast of seafood and vegetables. Here is our feast, curtesy of Yannis’ mum who is an amazing cook!

We had octopus, prawns, cuttlefish, scallops, fava beans, taramasalata and homemade lagana flat bread made with sesame seeds, another traditional food to eat on this day. In the past, women would make a huge loaf of lagana on Clean Monday, the only day of the year when this type of bread is baked, and eat a small piece each day of lent. My small contribution to the feast was the radish salad and fruit pie for dessert (it’s the thought that counts right?). After lunch we went for a walk to the local park to see another Clean Monday tradition: kite flying. The kites are a spiritual symbol of our soul ascending, trying to reach the divine during this religious period. It’s also really beautiful to see all the different colours and shapes. It was really nice to see all of the kids flying kites with their families. I’m glad to see that people still kept the tradition, despite the lockdown rules. We have to continue life somehow!

The day of Clean Monday also symbolises the start of “Clean Week” where it’s custom to clean house, literally and mentally. Traditionally, people would go to confession during this week to begin lent with a clean conscience and then throughout lent they would continue to focus on reflection and prayer. I did my own version of this at home through my journaling practice. It’s always good to offload some of those nagging worries, painful memories and hidden feelings either by speaking to a trusted person or writing it out onto the page. It leaves you feeling much lighter and clearer headed for sure. I think it’s a shame we have lost some of the benefits these religious habits bring to us. Instead of freeing ourselves from our past mistakes, we often hide them away to rot inside of us leading to low self-worth and annoying emotional triggers. Mental and emotional cleansing is an equally if not more important part of a healthy lifestyle as physical cleansing through eating well and moving your body.

Today, I’m getting started on the house cleaning part. Clean Monday is also sometimes seen as the first day of spring so it’s time for some spring cleaning! First, it’s time to organise my wardrobe and set aside anything that doesn’t fit either for charity or to sell on Ebay or Depop. I started buying and selling more clothes second hand over the last few years and it’s great. I used to struggle trying to find things in charity shops in the and while I did find a few bargains (like a ski coat for a fiver), I usually couldn’t find anything that I liked or that suited me. However, then I discovered the world of buying and selling second hand online and I have bought shoes, dresses, coats, you name it. All things that were in good condition but that the person didn’t want anymore. It’s a win win situation for everyone, you save money buying clothes, get money for things you no longer wear and contribute to reducing waste via the circular economy.

Next it’s time for a deep clean of our space, open all of the windows to let in some fresh air and sort out my book collection. Luckily we moved here in October and only brought the things we needed so I don’t have much clearing out to do but I’m sure I can find something! It’s been fun to learn about the different celebrations of the Greek culture these last few months, it’s just a shame that we have had to celebrate them all at home instead of having the full experience. Greece is such a festive and social country, it’s really bizarre to be locked up at home for so long. Normally for Clean Monday, the taverns and local parks would be packed out and there would be parades and parties in the streets the entire weekend before. I’m hoping that next year we will be able to experience all of the festivities for real but for now we are trying to make the most of things and keep our spirits up as best as we can.

Now I am trying to decide whether to keep the tradition of lent this year. I love plant-based food and I was previously vegan for nearly 3 years so I think it would be pretty easy for me, even though I don’t follow a vegan diet these days. Not only is plant-based eating a good way to cleanse your body and support your natural detoxification process, it’s also good for the planet as meat and dairy have a much larger environmental footprint compared to plant-based protein sources. I do feel like I need a bit of a reset after this winter season so maybe it could be a good idea even if it’s not for the full 40 days! Let me know if you’d be interested if I share my experience and some plant-based recipe ideas.

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Healthy living during lockdown: eating from the garden

I’ve not been as inspired to write lately. Life is pretty repetitive for everyone these days.. We are just trying to make the best of things and focus on keeping our spirits up. One of the things that has helped a lot is being outside in the garden. We’re really lucky to live in an area of Athens where most of the houses have gardens and we are making the most of it.

Like most people I’ve had way too much screen time during this lockdown. Even though I go for walks every day, read, practice yoga, play my guitar and other non-technology related things I still spend a lot of time working on my laptop or watching TV and I definitely notice the impacts on my health and wellbeing. After a long day in front of screens I feel more tired, my eyes feel fatigued and sometimes I get a headache. I notice my mind feels more scattered and find it more difficult to shift into relaxation mode in the evening. Making the effort to take breaks and spend more time outside during the day has helped a lot in recent weeks. It really improves my mood and my energy levels throughout the day. Even a 5 minute break every hour to get some fresh air and feel the sun on my skin helps to keep me feeling calmer and happier and sleep better at night.

Another thing that has been great is learning about seasonal eating and focusing on eating local, seasonal foods. Greece has so many fresh citrus fruits this time of year and we’ve enjoyed picking lemons, grapefruits, oranges and mandarins and figuring out what to do with them all. We’ve made litres of lemon juice to save for lemonade in the summer, lemon confit for cooking in savoury dishes, orange and lemon cakes, tarts and pies, mandarin liquor.. the list goes on!

Citrus fruits are so good for your health, especially in the winter months which is their peak growing season. The markets here are full of fresh citrus of all varieties at this time of year and they taste so sweet, not at all acidic like the ones you can buy at the supermarket out of season. Citrus fruits are an amazing natural source of vitamin C which supports your immune system and the natural detoxification processes in your liver. They also have many micro-nutrients such as anti-oxidants, flavanoids and polyphenols which help to protect your body from disease. More and more research is being published showing the amazing benefits of these little understood compounds. If you eat the whole fruit you also get a boost of fibre and water which help to keep your digestive system functioning optimally and a dose of natural sugars to satisfy your sweet tooth.

As well as making the most of the abundance of fruit, we’ve also had another go at growing our own veggies from scratch. I am really interested in the environmental impact of food systems and I think if you have the option, growing your own food can be an amazing way to eat in a more sustainable way. Our first attempt at growing our own veggies was last year in Nottingham. We bought a tiny raised bed (around 0.5x1m) and experimented planting radishes, garlic, lettuces, onions, cauliflower and potatoes. Let’s just say that some worked better than others but it was fun and we learnt a lot. We learnt that spacing of the plants is important! We thought that if we just throw the seeds down it would be survival of the fittest and the strongest would thrive but actually what happened is the plants ended up all competing with each other and none of them thrived.

Then the moment when you actually pick and eat what you have grown is worth all of the effort. Finally eating a salad made with home-grown lettuces and radishes was so satisfying! It feels so good to eat food that you have grown yourself. You really appreciate food when you understand the work that goes into growing it. You also start to see the differences between different plants, for example, I didn’t realise that each radish plant only grows a single radish so they actually need a lot of space and resources whereas with potatoes you get around 5 big ones and a few smaller ones from each plant. It makes you want to use all of the plant too as you don’t want to waste anything. We found out we could made pesto with radish leaves rather than throw them away which was really cool and a fun alternative to traditional pesto-pasta.

This year we stepped it up a notch and built an even bigger raised bed (around 1.5x3m). We ordered the wood online because all of the shops were closed so it was a bit of a challenge figuring out how the thing was supposed to fit together. After spending half a day arranging all of the pieces of wood and finally starting to build we found the tiny piece of paper with the instructions on it – oops. I can’t take the credit for the construction, my boyfriend built most of it but I helped where I could and did an excellent job of supervising and capturing photos. And it actually turned out pretty well! It needed a lot of soil though and luckily we found a local company who could deliver it in small bags as it’s really heavy. We planted radishes, garlic and lettuces again, carrots, onions and leeks plus some potatoes outside of the raised bed.

It’s been a few weeks since we planted the first seeds and we already have the first signs of life. The lettuces, leeks and carrots are starting to sprout and the garlics already have huge green stems. We had to move the lettuces into small pots as they were already over crowded. We should have done that in the first place really but sometimes it takes making the same mistake a few times to learn the lesson. Hopefully they will survive the move and we can move them back into the raised bed when they get bigger. We ended up transplanting some of the radishes outside of the raised bed too. We’re slowly taking over the rest of the garden but it’s not like a lawn can survive here anyway as it’s much too dry, so we might as well make the most of the space we have!

I hope you enjoyed this quick post sharing what we’ve been up to and how we are keeping ourselves entertained during this seemingly never ending lockdown. Let me know in the comments below if you’ve ever tried growing vegetables at home and if you have any tips, I could definitely use some. Or if you’ve taken up any new hobbies this year that are helping to bring some joy into your life. I am still busy applying for jobs and working on my upcoming project but I’m always looking for fun things to do outside of work. I am I’ll be back with more posts on health, nutrition and yoga over the next weeks so watch this space!

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Why and how I include treats as part of a healthy diet

The last couple of weeks we have had lots of celebrations! Valentines’ day, pancake day, my birthday and my boyfriends’ mums’ birthday all within the space of ten days. Considering the three of us have been in lockdown together for nearly four months now we are making the most of every opportunity to be festive. And with everywhere closed that has pretty much meant one thing.. FOOD. Here’s a sample of the tasty treats we have been making. We have crepes, carrot cake, kourou (Greek feta pastries) and lemon drizzle cake curtesy of the one and only Mary Berry. Yum!

I think it’s such a gift to be able to enjoy tasty foods and share the experience with loved ones. Food can be such a sensual experience and a way for us to connect with ourselves and other beings. As humans we are designed to enjoy food as it is essential for our survival and preparing and eating delicious food can be a ritual that brings us a lot of pleasure. Of course we can survive on simple foods and that is great too but there is something about biting into a delicious homemade cake or warm pastry that gives us such satisfaction. Cooking for or with our friends and family is often a way that we show our love and memorable mealtimes are moments that we remember many years later. Passing on recipes down generations is a way to keep cultural traditions going and remember generations before.

It’s such a shame to reduce food to only fuel. Especially now the world is closed it is even more important to take enjoyment from our food. And by that I don’t mean we should be eating emotionally and using food to numb out. Or that we should be indulging in artificial junk foods that harm our bodies. I mean that we should take the time to buy and prepare delicious, nourishing food for our bodies and souls. And that includes sweet and savoury treats! There is a huge difference between baking some cookies at home and eating a few round the table with loved ones vs. buying a packet of cheap biscuits from the supermarket and eating ten in one sitting whilst watching TV alone. One bring genuine pleasure and enjoyment and the other is just a mindless habit. I think that part of including treats in a healthy diet is really to take the time to eat them mindfully and savour every bite.

I remember the days when I used to be afraid of celebrations because I was so anxious around food. If I was invited to a party I’d be worried about what food would be there and if I’d be tempted to eat foods that were unhealthy or off my diet. I’d be so focused on food that I’d forget to enjoy myself or I’d get really drunk to make the food anxiety go away for a few hours and then not remember the party the next day. If I went to a restaurant I’d have to triple check the menu beforehand to make sure there was something I could eat otherwise I’d freak out at the table and not be able to decide at all or I’d end up over eating to the point of feeling sick and spend the next week trying to burn it all off. It sounds so crazy now I look back but I know this is a reality for many others too. It’s so freeing now to be able to eat whatever I want and know that it all fits within a healthy diet. I am allowed to enjoy food without feeling guilty about it.

But I’m still a nutritionist and I still want to remain fit and healthy so how do I balance the two? The key is that I base my diet on whole plant foods. This means that most of what I eat is unprocessed and comes from the earth. I’m not vegetarian (I was vegan for nearly 3 years but that’s a story for another day) but lots of my meals are plant-based and this makes up the foundation of my diet. I don’t restrict the amount of these foods that I eat and try to “save calories for later”, I just eat until I am satisfied at each meal and move on. I follow “balanced plate method” which is something I teach to my health coaching clients, a way to create filling, satisfying meals every time. I eat lots of fruits and vegetables, grains, beans, nuts and seeds and on a day to day basis I try to keep processed foods to a minimum. When I want to eat a treat I just do it and because I’ve already met my needs for calories and nutrients I don’t have a need to go overboard.

I think an important thing to note here is that I also don’t allow myself to eat emotionally anymore. By that I mean that if I am feeling sad, stressed or angry, I focus on understanding and processing that emotion rather than stuffing it down with food. If I have a craving for a food I will ask myself first if it is because I am trying to avoid feeling a certain way. If it is then I will turn to other self-care tools rather than food which will help me to soothe myself and actually feel better rather than distracting myself and pushing the feeling down until later. But if the craving is not emotional but just a natural desire to eat something tasty for whatever reason then I’m ok with giving my body what it is asking for. I’ve learnt to trust my body around food and listen to it’s hunger and fullness cues and in return it has learnt to trust me and no longer sends out urges to eat insane amounts of food.

Something I realised is that the thing driving my fear of over eating was the fact that I was constantly hungry. I was always on a diet an maintaining a body weight that was below my body’s natural set point which meant that I was always fighting against my body’s hunger signals. When I did give in and eat what I was craving I wouldn’t be able to stop. I thought that this was just a normal part of being healthy and that giving in to it showed my lack of willpower. It was only after I went through a period of extreme binge eating, when I could no longer fight my hunger and decided to just surrender to it that I realised that this was genuinely my body telling me it needed more fuel. And once the hunger was satisfied and my body reached it’s set point weight the food obsession gradually went away.

Whatever we resist persists and I think that putting food into categories of good and bad only makes us go more crazy around the “bad” foods. As soon as I let myself eat whatever I wanted, the cravings went from mountains to molehills. After years of trying to figure out why my binge eating was happening, I was shocked! So now I am maintaining a healthy weight that my body likes, but not necessarily what my mind wants and I’ve learned to be ok with that. It’s so worth it to be a few lbs heavier and not have the constant fear of gaining weight. I’ve learned that I don’t have to be perfect to be healthy and that health is about way more than what you eat or how much exercise you do. Holistic health includes mental wellbeing and in my opinion, eating treats and not depriving myself means I feel so much better psychologically and emotionally. Living an overly controlled, restricted life is not fun and definitely does not lead to long term happiness. Balance is always the way!

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this post and it gives you the confidence to allow yourself treats as part of your healthy diet. Let me know your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

  • If like this post, hit the like button and follow my blog for regular posts on health, nutrition and yoga. 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 #27 Top 15 foods for healthy hormones and weight loss

A quick post for you today with some of my top foods to include in your diet to nourish your body, balance your hormones and reach your healthy, happy weight. If you haven’t already, check out yesterday’s post on how the calorie density of foods affects weight loss. Lots of the foods on the list below are “low calorie density” meaning that they will help you to feel full and satisfied when combined with other foods. At the end of the article I will give you some examples of how to put simple meals together including these foods.

  1. Potatoes (any variety, especially sweet potatoes)
    Potatoes have to be my top food on the list. Mainly because they are so demonised in the dieting world and I want to throw the idea that potatoes are bad for you out of the window! Potatoes are a super filling food which will give your body the energy to function at it’s best and also provide a good dose of vitamin C, vitamin B6 and also vitamin A for sweet potatoes. Eat them with the skin and you’ll get the added benefits of a fibre boost to aid digestion and keep you full for longer.

  2. Oats
    Oats are another great source of complex carbohydrates which will give you the fuel to lead a healthy, active life. Eat them raw in muesli, blended in a smoothie or cooked as porridge with whatever toppings you like. Oats are a good source of minerals such as manganese, zinc and biotin and also provide you with fibre and protein to keep you feeling full and satisfied for hours.

  3. Greek yoghurt
    I just loooove greek yoghurt! It makes such a tasty, satisfying breakfast or dessert and also provides plenty of protein to help with repair and growth and fats to support healthy hormone production and absorption of fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Yoghurt is also an excellent source of calcium to keep your bones and teeth strong and to maintain healthy thyroid function.

  4. Tahini (sesame seed butter)
    Another food I love from the Mediterranean culture is tahini. I was first introduced to this liquid gold when I started to make my own hummus but now I love it on toast, on porridge oats and in salad dressings. The bitter taste isn’t for everyone but it is a great mineral dense food providing calcium and iron as well as a dose of fat and protein to make your meals tasty and satisfying.

  5. Broccoli
    Now onto the veggies.. broccoli is definitely a winner. Cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower and kale all have a component called DIM which helps to detoxify excess estrogen from your system and improve your hormonal balance. Broccoli also has plenty of fibre to aid digestion and lots of vitamin C. Top tip – pair with iron rich foods to aid with absorption.

  6. Leafy greens
    Maybe I am cheating here by grouping them together but a healthy diet is not complete without those leafy greens. Whether it is soft baby lettuce in a salad or cooked dark greens such as collards or chard, getting those leafy greens into your body will do wonders for your hormonal and overall health. They provide a huge amount of vitamins and minerals as well as fibre to help sweep out excess hormones from your system.

  7. Courgette (zuccini)
    Courgette is another low calorie density food that can add bulk to your meals and help you feel satisfied. It’s not the most nutrient dense vegetable but it does offer vitamin C and B6 as well as smaller amounts of iron and calcium. But the mild taste of courgette makes it a vegetable that most people can include into their diet and it is less likely to cause bloating and gas like the cruciferous veggies can which makes it a winner for me.

  8. Berries
    How could I forget about the fruits?? It’s hard to limit myself to just a couple of fruits as I love them all but berries definitely make the top of the list. They are packed full of anti-oxidants, vitamins and minerals and water rich helping to hydrate your body so you can feel your best. They are delicious hot or cold and are usually available year round fresh or frozen. My favourites are raspberries and blackberries – yum!

  9. Bananas
    Another fruit that has to make the list is the humble banana, another fruit that people tend to be afraid of. Don’t be – I wouldn’t like to try and count the amount of bananas I have eaten over the last 5 years but trust me it’s a lot! Bananas are such a versatile fruit and can be enjoyed as a snack or used as a sweetener to your meals. They give you a good dose of carbs to boost your energy and mood and are a good source of potassium, vitamin C and B6.

  10. Hemp seeds
    Now these is a real nutrient power house. Hemp seeds are a great plant-based source of omega-3 fats, zinc, iron and magnesium so if you’re veggie or vegan definitely include these in your diet for hormonal balance and overall health. They are also a complete protein to support muscle growth as well as healthy skin, hair and nails. You can eat them sprinkled on porridge or salads or blend them into a smoothie for extra creaminess.

  11. Black and kidney beans
    Kidney beans and black beans are another great plant-based source of iron and calcium as well as magnesium and vitamin B6. These are great to eat before and during your period to support healthy blood iron levels. They also provide some calcium as well as protein and plenty of fibre. Top tip – if you are just starting to include beans in your diet, take it slow, add in small amounts and let your digestion adjust over time to avoid gas and bloating!

  12. Red lentils
    Red lentils are softer and generally easier on your digestion compared to beans but they too are a good plant-based source of iron and vitamin B6. Lentils also provide folate which is an essential vitamin for women who are trying to conceive. Lentil soups are a warming, filling meal especially for the cold months. You can mix it up by adding different veggies, herbs and spices to change the flavour.

  13. Chickpeas
    Last one of the legumes is chickpeas! They have a similar nutritional profile to kidney beans but with the added benefit that they can be blended with tahini and lemon to make humus. This is great for anyone who doesn’t like the texture of beans as it can be added to wraps and sandwiches or used as a dip for veggies or tortilla chips. Chickpeas are also great baked as a crisp snack or added to veggie curries as a protein source.

  14. Salmon
    Fish and seafood are an amazing source of zinc for healthy hormones as well as iodine. Salmon and other oily fish such as mackerel or sardines also provide those omega-3 fats to support your brain health and lower inflammation as well as being essential for healthy hormone production. The NHS recommend including one portion of oily fish in your diet every week for optimal health.

  15. Eggs
    Last but not least, we have eggs. I have included these because they are such a dense source of nutrients, especially vitamin A, B12 and selenium. Just adding one boiled egg to a salad can make it so much more satisfying but they also make a quick and easy meal for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Go for organic free-range eggs where possible to avoid hormone disrupting anti-biotics and chemicals.

Here are some simple meal ideas to give you inspiration.. enjoy!

Breakfasts

  • Porridge oats cooked with mashed banana and tahini
  • Greek yoghurt topped with oats, lots of berries and a sprinkle of hemp seeds
  • Oat and banana pancakes topped with berries and tahini

Lunch

  • Leafy green salad with salmon and boiled potatoes
  • Omelette with broccoli and courgette
  • Red lentil and sweet potato soup with side of wilted spinach and courgette

Dinner

  • Black and kidney bean chili with a side of grilled courgettes
  • Sweet potato and chickpea curry with a side of steamed broccoli
  • Roasted or baked potatoes with grilled salmon and veggies

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts and your favourite healthy foods if I’ve missed them off the list!

  • 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 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 #26 Calorie density of foods and weight loss

It’s been a while since we focused on nutrition in this series! And that’s for a reason, health is about so much more than what you eat. And it’s pretty easy to search for healthy foods to eat these days but if it were so simple, why isn’t everyone eating a healthy balanced diet? Why are so many people struggling to maintain a healthy body that they feel good in? As a public health nutritionist, I am always on the lookout for new patterns in the world of health and nutrition and the “low calorie density” trend is another one that seems to be gaining popularity this year. But what exactly is calorie density and how can the calorie density of foods affect your weight loss attempts?

Calorie density is the amount of energy (calories) per unit of a food. This can be based on volume e.g. calories per cup or on weight e.g. calories per lb. The idea of a low calorie density diet for weight loss has been made famous by the book The Starch Solution by Dr John MacDougall and his suggestion is to consume low calorie desnity foods that have less than 700 calories per lb (around 154 calories per 100g) in order to lose weight easily and effortlessly without counting calories. Sound interesting? Wondering how this works?

I will start by saying that all foods are made up of macronutrients which have a different amount of energy per 100g:

Carbohydrates – starches and sugars (400 calories per 100g)
Proteins (400 calories per 100g)
Fat (900 calories per 100g)

Don’t worry! I know it looks like NO foods are under 154 calories per 100g but this is because there are two other components in foods that we need to take into account that don’t have any calories: water and fibre (actually fibre does have calories but we can’t absorb them so they pass through our bodies). Low calorie density foods such as fruits, vegetables, starches and legumes have more fibre and water which fill you up without providing calories. High calorie density foods usually have more fat or sugar and less water and fibre.

The premise is that the calorie density of foods affect how filling a meal is. To understand this we can look at a couple of examples. Firstly take a bar of chocolate that has around 200 calories. Chocolate is a high calorie density food which provides a lot of energy in a very small package. On the other hand, a huge salad with low calorie density vegetables such as lettuce, carrots, tomatoes and cucumber, could also provide 200 calories. Which is likely to be more filling? Probably the salad! But does this mean we should fill up on low calorie density foods and only eat salads and veggies to lose weight?

No, it’s a bit more complicated than that because in order to feel fully satiated by our meals we need to have two elements:

  1. Enough volume to stretch our stomach and we have eaten enough food (fullness)
  2. Enough calories and/or fat to release fullness hormones and signal to our brains to stop eating (satisfaction)

Going back to the example above, if you eat the huge salad you will likely feel full but not necessarily satisfied. I mean who wants to just eat watery raw salad for a meal?! That’s not very sustainable long term and is only going to lead you to overeat and binge once your body has had enough. On the other hand, if you go for the bar of chocolate, you might be satisfied but you are unlikely to feel full as it is so tiny. We need to create meals which provide both fullness and satisfaction so that we are truly satiated by our meals and not left dreaming about when we get to eat next.

One of the easiest ways to do this is by including a combination of food groups to provide a moderate calorie density at every meal. Low calorie density fruits and vegetables provide BULK, starches such as potatoes, beans and grains provide ENERGY to make you thrive and high calorie density fats and proteins such as nuts, seeds and dairy provide SATISFACTION and make your meals taste better. If you include all of these elements in the right proportions, you will be able to eat to complete satiation and not worry about counting calories ever again. Finding the combination of these food groups to meet your specific goals is what I help my health coaching clients do! The table below shows the approximate calorie density of typical foods.

FoodCalories per lbCalories per 100g
Vegetables60 – 19513 – 42
Fruit140 – 42031 – 93
Potatoes, Pasta, Rice, Barley, Yams, Corn, Hot Cereals320 – 63070 – 138
Non-fat dairy (milk, yoghurt)180 – 450 40 – 99
Beans, Peas, Lentils (cooked)310 – 78068 – 171
Seafood, lean poultry, lean red meat400 – 87088 – 191
Breads, Bagels, Fat-free Muffins, Dried Fruit920 – 1,360202 – 299
Sugars (i.e. sugar, honey, molasses, agave, corn syrup)1,200 – 1,800264 – 395
Dry Cereals, Baked Chips, Fat-free Crackers, Pretzels, Popcorn1,480 – 1,760325 – 387
Nuts and seeds2,400 –  3,200527 – 703
Oils4,000879

As a start, you can start to focus your diet on the first 5-6 rows of the table and especially include more fruits. vegetables and starches. So many people worry that “carbs make you fat” and are afraid to eat rice and potatoes but in reality these foods are very filling and satisfying and will give you the energy to live an active, healthy life! I want to keep it simple and not put too much attention on micro-nutrients in this article but you will notice that the foods towards the top of the table tend to be mostly whole foods which also provide a lot of vitamins and minerals to keep your body healthy. Eating plenty of these foods will help to you stay well and also to maintain your ideal body weight.

I’m not one for extremes and I definitely don’t think you should never include higher calorie density foods or more processed foods such as bread, pasta and sweets. I think they do have a place in a balanced healthy diet and it’s good for your mental health to eat fun foods and enjoy eating with friends and family. I’m all about focusing on what you do most of the time and including more low calorie density foods in your diet is definitely a great step towards improving your overall health and losing weight if that’s your goal.

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article on how the calorie density of foods affects weight loss and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts or experiences if you have experimented with a low calorie density diet.

  • 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 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

Real health #25 How meditation can help you to change your mindset and your habits

We are long past the days where meditation is seen as something completely hippy or “out there”. Meditation and mindfulness are becoming every day terms understood and practiced by students, parents and business executives alike. We are starting to understand the impact of rushing through our lives in a half-conscious, distracted state is no good for our health and happiness and embracing meditation and mindfulness as tools to help us to become more present and aware. Yesterday I wrote about how to change your habits you first need to change your mind and today I want to explain how meditation can help you to create this mindset change.

Most of us spend our days operating from our conditioned mind. Our sub-conscious has a huge set of stored thoughts, beliefs, emotional responses and programmed actions that we play on repeat and these conditioned patterns define the way that we show up in the world and our identity. If we want to change our habits we have to consciously think different thoughts which enable us to feel differently create new pathways in the brain. But this can be hard to do when we are constantly bombarded with the familiar thoughts and feelings that tell us who we are. If we try to think differently, we will be greeted with a barrage of opposing thoughts and intense feelings because we have moved outside of our familiar comfort zone. This can make changing your thoughts very difficult!

How can meditation help you to get past this and change your mindset? Firstly, meditation helps you to become aware of your current habitual thought patterns. Yes all of those annoying intrusive thoughts when you are trying to meditate can actually be a good thing. Pay attention to them and you will see where your mind is probably wandering throughout the rest of your day too, without you even realising. Maybe you are distracted by things you should be doing instead or maybe you find yourself criticising yourself for not being able to empty your mind and meditate “properly”. Maybe your mind tells you that you can’t do it, you are uncomfortable or that you always fail. Whatever it is, take note! This is your first glance at your natural state of being from the point of view of an observer.

You can also use meditation as a way to practice disrupting these unhelpful thoughts and letting them go. When you aren’t paying attention, one thought can lead to another and before you know it you can spiral down the rabbit hole of negative thinking. Our thoughts affect the way we feel and those emotions then affect the way we think. We can easily become stuck in unhelpful loops of thoughts and emotions without noticing. Maybe you have a memory of being left out at school and the thought brings up emotions of sadness and loneliness. Those feelings then trigger other memories where you have felt alone and the feelings of isolation grow and become overwhelming. Over time of thinking these thoughts and feeling these feeling you can start to identify with the state of being as a lonely, unloveable person and this becomes your identity. Meditation offers you the opportunity to become aware of these patterns and break the chain.

When we have negative thoughts about ourselves, there is usually another voice present in our mind which knows better. For example, I’m sure many of you have experienced body image issues at some point in your life. That voice that tells you you are not beautiful enough or thin enough is probably loud at times but there is always that quiet voice underneath which says you are good enough as you are. Meditation slows down your thoughts and allows this alternative voice to have it’s say and become louder. In other words you are able to observe a thought and how it makes you feel then choose to think a different one. Of course you can do this through out your day but the focused attention state of meditation makes it much easier to observe your thoughts and engage your conscious mind.

How to start a meditation practice

There are many different meditation techniques but as usual I suggest to keep it simple if you are starting out. All you need is a quiet place, a comfortable place to sit and a timer. You can practice in your living room, on your bed, in your garden or out in nature. There are no rules, just find a place where you feel safe to relax.

  1. Set your timer for anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes (tip set it on vibrate or on quiet so you aren’t jolted out of your practice)
  2. Sit comfortably in a cross-legged position or sit on a chair with your feet planted on the ground
  3. Close your eyes and start to become aware of your body sensations, noticing areas of comfort or pain, tension or tightness, hot or cold and the contact points between your body and the surface beneath you
  4. Bring your attention to your breath. Notice the sensations associated with the inhale and exhale, the rhythm and depth of your breath, whether you feel it deep in your belly or high in your chest
  5. Hold your attention on your breath. You can count your breaths if it helps you to concentrate or continue to focus on the sensations
  6. As thoughts arise, notice the emotions they trigger. Note whether they are helpful, unhelpful or neutral and then let them go. If you find yourself distracted, at the point you realise, let the thoughts go without judgement
  7. Continue like this until your time ends and then slowly open your eyes and start to bring movement back into your body
  8. Try to keep this relaxed, focused awareness with you as you go on with your day

With practice, meditation can also help you to access your sub-conscious mind and change your beliefs. I especially like combining meditation with affirmations by starting with a full body and mind relaxation and then listening to repeated phrases that reflect the new way I want to think. I have recommended them before but my absolute favourite guided meditations for changing your mindset are from The Mindful Movement. They have so many free videos on Youtube on all sorts of topics from healing your physical and emotional body, improving self-confidence to releasing fear and worry and letting go of the past. The video below is a great one if you are embarking on a new healthy lifestyle and trying to change your habits. Listen to the meditation before bed a few times a week and watch your confidence and belief in your ability to succeed soar!

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts experiences with meditation, especially if it has improved your life and helped you to build healthier habits.

  • 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 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

power of the mind

Real health #24 To change your habits, first change your mind

Yesterday I shared about how taking consistent, simple actions can set you on the road to success when it comes to reaching your health goals. But we all know we are creatures of habit and often in the beginning behaviour change is hard! Our brains are designed in such a way that all of our past experiences shape who we are today. We wake up in the morning and after a split second all our familiar thoughts come flooding back. We realise who we are, where we are and our mind already has an idea of how the day will go. We get out of bed, have our familiar morning routine and get on with our day, mostly in autopilot.

This isn’t a bad thing, it’s actually our brains’ way of making things easier for us. It allows us to go about our day without thinking too much, following the familiar path that we have created through our habits. But what happens when you want to change those habits and your life? If you want to act differently, you have to start to think differently first. In order to start eating healthier you have to let go of the image of you as an unhealthy person who hates vegetables and start to see yourself as the type of person who loves to nourish their body with good food. To become someone who enjoys exercise and keeping fit, you have to stop telling yourself that you are lazy, unfit and that you hate exercise. Or if you need to gain weight for your health you need to let go of the image of yourself as the skinny one or the fit one and start to embrace a new version of yourself that is more relaxed and free around food and exercise.

In short you want to create a new identity for yourself that aligns with the positive changes you want to make. You want to see yourself as the type of person who just does these things without even thinking about it, even if you aren’t there right now. We are all chattering away to ourselves most of the day without even realising it and these thoughts create our identity. To change this idea of yourself, start to think about the type of thoughts that your ideal self would have, then start telling yourself those things! I don’t mean just thinking them half-heartedly and deep down thinking otherwise but really feel and believe this as a possible reality and take actions based on those thoughts and feelings. It might feel unnatural at first but over time the nerve patterns in your brain will be hard wired and the new thoughts will become your default.

Whether you think of this as affirmations or you focus on the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy theory that the way you think affects the way you feel and the way you feel affects your actions, it’s the same idea that your thoughts become your reality. I have seen this play out in my own life with one of the biggest health challenges I have had – overcoming insomnia. The hardest thing was that after months of struggling with sleep, my brain was programmed to expect that I would sleep badly and wake up during the night. I would go to bed telling myself “I’m going to have such a good sleep” or “tonight I will sleep like a baby” but my sub-conscious mind didn’t believe it. Deep down I believed that things would be the same as always and that is how the same pattern ended up playing out for years!

I would also wake up in the morning and the first thought I would have would be about the time and how much sleep I got. I was so focused on my sleep that I let the amount of sleep I got dictate my energy levels and mood. The interesting thing was that during a period of letting go of obsessing about my sleep, I realised that some days I slept well and still felt exhausted whereas other days I slept less and actually felt more energised. I started to tell myself that my sleep quality and my happiness were two seperate things. Once I let go of the expectation, this gave me permission to be happy even when I slept badly and I actually started to feel better (and over time sleep better too!). Implementing this fully is a work in progress for me but it was mind blowing. And the same thing can be applied to other changes you want to make in your life too.

If you already predict the outcome that you won’t like healthy food or that you will fail at exercise then this is most likely what you are going to see happen for you. Instead, try giving yourself the chance to explore and genuinely see how you feel. Let yourself imagine the possibility that you will enjoy these things and be successful! If you’re interested in learning more about how to change your mindset and build habits I definitely recommend reading Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself by Joe Dispenza and The Power of Habit by Charles DuHigg. If you are wondering HOW you can possibly change your thoughts and start to access your sub-conscious mind, stay tuned for tomorrow’s post where I will be sharing how meditation can help you to change your thoughts as well as how to start a meditation practice.

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on changing your mindset to reach your health goals.

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