Real health #23 Keep it simple to lose weight easily

Following on from yesterday’s post on perfectionism, today I wanted to talk about how simplicity can be the way to reach your health goals with minimal effort. I’m not telling you you can lose weight by sitting on the sofa eating cookies all day. But you don’t have to be following some elaborate diet and exercise plan either, unless you are training for a bikini competition or some other competitive sport. Most of us just want to feel healthier and happier in our bodies, quit the obsession with food and exercise and just live and enjoy our lives. Right?!

If you want to make things as easy as possible for yourself, focus on simplicity and habits. Choose simple actions that you can take consistently until they become habits. When you first start to make healthier choices, of course it’s going to be a challenge. You might have to learn new information about which types of foods to eat, how to move your body and how to tune into your body (for example through tracking and syncing with your menstrual cycle!). You probably have to change some of your existing habits, try new things and get out of your comfort zone. You have to constantly be self-aware and make decisions about which actions to take. There could even be some uncertainty holding you back and you might not fully trust the process, especially if you have tried hundreds of times in the past to lose weight and improve your health. All of this means that there is a lot of mental focus at the start and you need to put in effort to keep yourself on track.

But as time goes on, if you continue to take consistent action in the direction of your goals, those actions will start to become habits. You won’t have to make so many decisions, you won’t even think about them anymore. It will become automatic and easy. For example, when I started my “diet recovery” process many years ago, I wanted to change the habit of eating low-fat foods as my goal was to gain weight and get my period back. In the beginning, my habitual action was to choose the low-fat version of everything and so every time I went to purchase a low-fat food, I had to stop myself and choose to act differently. This was difficult for the first few weeks but after that, choosing the full-fat option became my new normal and I didn’t even think about it anymore. The same process works for any habit you want to change, whether it’s starting to eat breakfast in the morning, going for daily walks, eating vegetables with your dinner or meditating.

It’s much easier to build habits when the actions you take are simple. If you need to use fancy recipes, have access to gym equipment or follow some 20-step process it puts you at a greater risk of letting things slip and giving up when you feel tired or when things feel too difficult. If the actions are easy they can become automatic to the point where no matter what is going on in your life you still do them without thinking. You want your healthy choices to become the easy option. On that note, I will leave you with some suggestions on building simple habits which will help you to stay consistent and meet your health goals with less stress!

  1. Have a fixed shopping list prepared with healthy items that you eat every week. Especially staple foods like produce, grains and dairy products. You can always add extra things to the list that you don’t need every week and rotate the list every couple of months. This will make your shopping trips much faster too as you’ll know where the items are!

  2. Limit your meal choices and rotate. I usually suggest having 3 breakfast ideas, 5 lunch and dinner recipes but it depends whether you like more variety or you’re happy eating the same foods on repeat. Eating similar meals day to day takes away some of the decision fatigue of choosing what to eat.

  3. You can also use “component based” recipes like I recommend to my health coaching clients where the base recipe structure is fixed and you vary the different ingredients e.g. porridge with different fruits and spices, stews with different vegetables and beans. This gives you enough variety to not get bored without having to learn loads of new recipes.

  4. Add daily walks into your routine. Walking is an amazing exercise for your overall health and weight loss, don’t underestimate it! Walking gets you outside in the fresh air, get your body moving in a gentle way and helps you relax your mind and de-stress.

  5. Have options for when you don’t have time. Especially have some go to meals that take less than 15 minutes to prepare and some at home workouts you can do in under half an hour (including walking!). You can spend more time on the days you feel like it but having a minimum that feels easy to achieve makes it much more likely that you’ll follow through.

  6. Stack habits together to help you build multiple habits at once. For example, taking a vitamin D supplement with a glass of water first thing in the morning or focusing on mindfulness and meditation when you are walking

Over to you…

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

  • 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 #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

Real health #13 Are you drinking too much water?

Most people worry about drinking enough water these days and getting in their “8 glasses a day”. There are even water bottles with markers on showing how much water you should have drank by this time of the day. This really freaks me out! Are we really so detached from our bodies that we need to rely on a plastic bottle to tell us when to drink water?! In this post I want to talk about problems you might encounter with drinking too much water and how much water you should drink to stay healthy. If you are reading this thinking you hardly drink any water and don’t have any issues then maybe click away but I’m talking to the health and fitness enthusiasts here who can’t leave the house without their trusty water bottle by their side (and this used to be me!).

Of course we need to drink water to stay alive. Dehydration can cause all sorts of issues from headaches and poor concentration to dry and dull skin. But do we really need to be chugging water non-stop all day to avoid dehydration? The thing that many people don’t realise is that we also take in water from the food that we eat, especially water rich fruits and veggies. The recommended 2L of water a day also includes this water, not just the water that we drink. It also includes the water in other liquids such as juice, tea and coffee. If you are already following a healthy diet with plenty of fresh food, you might already be taking in all of the water you need without drinking any water at all.

What are the downsides of drinking too much water?

You might think that water is pretty harmless and it’s not possible to drink too much but it is actually possible to run into health issues from drinking too much water. The problem is that water, especially tap or filtered water, doesn’t include the same amount of electrolyte salts as the water in your body. Over-hydration can dilute the levels of salts such as sodium, calcium and potassium levels in your body causing all sorts of problems. On the extreme end there is water intoxication where someone who drinks too much water too fast can cause damage to their brain and even death. But this is extremely rare and not something you could do by accidently drinking too much water during the day. More likely is a chronic, low level dilution of the electrolytes in your extra-cellular fluid which can cause:

  • Low core temperature and cold hands and feet
  • Muscle weakness and cramps
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Constipation and digestive issues
  • Dry skin and lips (this can be because you’re not truly hydrated, more on this in a moment)

If you read yesterday’s post on the signs of a low metabolism, you’ll recognise some of these symptoms. Drinking too much water can affect the metabolic rate as you are effectively throwing water on your metabolic fire. That’s not to say you should stop drinking water to speed up your metabolism but it is about finding a good balance.

How to know if you’re drinking too much water?

  • You drink excessively including when you’re not thirsty
  • Your pee is completely clear
  • You are peeing frequently (e.g. every 1-2 hours and once or more during the night)
  • You have a sudden urge to urinate
  • You feel cold all of the time, especially in your hands and feet
  • Your basal body temperature is below 36.5 degrees C

How much water should you drink to stay healthy?

Really that isn’t a question I can answer because how much water you need depends on your body, your diet and your activity level. But if you are drinking a litre of water when you wake up, walking around all day with a water bottle and refilling it several times throughout the day then there’s a chance you are overdoing it. Unless you live in a desert or do crazy amounts of exercise you probably don’t need that much water. There is a myth that once you’re thirsty you are already dehydrated so you should avoid being thirsty at all costs. But our body has a thirst mechanism for a reason, to tell us when it needs water! So put simply, only drink water when you’re thirsty.

The other problem is that plain water is not really hydrating for the body. As I said earlier it contains minimal electrolytes which means it isn’t easily absorbed and utilised by your body. Inside the water can go “straight through you” putting pressure on your kidneys because they have to work even harder to maintain balance. One thing you can also try is drinking mineral water, coconut water or adding electrolytes to tap water to make it more hydrating for your body. You want to have a good balance between the glucose (sugar) and salts (sodium and potassium) that you are taking in through your diet and the amount of water that you drink. Think about when someone is in hospital and they are put on a drip. This fluid is the perfect ratio of fluid to salts and glucose to be absorbed by the body.

Warming foods and cooling foods

To understand this food/water connection further, we can think about foods as cooling or warming for the body. By this I don’t mean cold or hot foods but rather the effect that different foods have on your core body temperature. Herbal tea is a cooling food and ice cream is a warming food – confused? Try drinking a pint of plain tea and eating a pint of ice cream and notice how you feel an hour later once the initial effect of the food temperature has worn off. Generally speaking, cooling foods are high in water and low in calories and salt e.g. fruits, vegetables and low calorie liquids. Warming foods have a lower water content and are more energy dense and salty e.g. crackers, bread, cheese, chocolate. The more cooling foods in your diet, the less water you need to drink. If you eat a more warming diet, then you’ll want to drink more water to balance it out. Simple!

Cooling foods (L) vs. warming foods (C, R)

For example, if you eat a heavy takeaway meal or a bag of salty crisps, your body is going to send you signals to drink more water. In this case the water helps to dilute the salts you have take in. But if you eat a big fruit salad followed by a glass of water, you will probably be running to the bathroom to pee afterwards and might start to feel cold. Make sense? This is a problem with a lot of “healthy” diets which encourage restricting salt and sugar and focusing on cooling foods (ahem raw vegans…). If you are following this kind of diet and have signs of over-hydration above, add some salt to your diet, reduce your water intake and focus on more warming foods for a while until you feel more balanced. And if you are a healthy person aim for a balance of the two and drink whenever you are thirsty.

If you want to learn more about this I highly recommend the book Eat for Heat by Matt Stone. His writing style might put some people off but what he has to say is very interesting and following his protocols helped to get me out of a metabolic slump and recover the symptoms described above. Remember, my point with these posts is to make you question some of the common health myths out there and not to tell you what to do. There’s no need to throw your water bottle away and eat loads of salty foods without drinking any liquids. No extremes here, there is such a thing as too little water! Listen to your body and you will find your balance.

Your challenge for today and the week ahead is to start to pay attention to how you feel after taking in different foods and liquids. Maybe play around with the amount of water you are drinking and your balance of warming and cooling foods and see how you feel.

Over to you…

I hope this article got you thinking about water and whether you are drinking too much. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

  • If you want to follow along with this Real Health January series, like this post, check out the recommended posts below 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

Real health #11 Should you try the keto diet for weight loss?

As a public health nutritionist, I like to keep track of current trends in the dieting world and wow 2020 was the year of the keto diet! On average there are a million internet searches a month for the phrase “keto diet” and Youtube health and fitness world is full of people sharing their success stories of dropping 10lbs in a week, curing diabetes and overcoming binge eating on a keto diet. You might be wondering whether you should try the keto diet for weight loss. In this article I want to explain a bit about the keto diet, how it works for weight loss and some of the potential risks so that you can make your own mind up.

For anyone not familiar, a keto diet is a high fat, very low carbohydrate diet meaning that grains, potatoes, beans, most fruits and some legumes are off limits. The maximum recommended carbohydrate intake is usually between 20g and 50g per day, sometimes less in the beginning. If you ate this amount of carbohydrates from bread and pasta it wouldn’t add up to much! So generally these carbohydrates come from non-starchy vegetables such as leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, peppers and courgettes as shown in the plates below by the Diet Doctor.

The majority of your energy intake on a keto diet is from fat, usually 75% of calories come from fat, 20% from protein and 5% from carbohydrates. Fat sources are often animal products such as meat, eggs, lard, fish and dairy but there is also the magical unicorn “vegan keto” which only includes plant-based sources such as oils, nuts and seeds. The difference between the Atkins diet and the keto diet is that Atkins diet focuses on the low carb aspect and doesn’t set any limits for protein, whereas keto emphasizes the importance of consuming only a moderate amount of protein. This means that you can’t just eat bacon and cheese all day on the keto diet as they have too much protein!

How does the keto diet work for weight loss?

The keto diet works by putting you into the metabolic state of ketosis. Your body has this back-up mechanism for generating energy when carbohydrates are unavailable, for example during periods of fasting or famine, extended intense exercise or a low-carbohydrate diet. In ketosis, your liver produces ketone bodies from fatty acids which are then transported to your cells to be used in place of glucose for energy. The theory is that adapting your body to run on fat rather than carbohydrates allows your body to turn more easily to it’s own fat stores for energy rather than sending out signals for you to consume more carbohydrates every time your blood sugar drops.

Once you are off the blood sugar rollercoaster, you no longer experience the dips which cause you to experience hunger and cravings. Those who follow the keto diet claim that their hunger levels are significantly reduced and they can go much longer periods of time without feeling hungry. On the keto diet, you have the majority of your calorie intake coming from fat. Even though fat is more energy dense having more than twice the calories per gram compared to carbohydrates and proteins, it also which triggers release of satiety hormones which make you feel full. This helps some people to feel satisfied on much less food than they usually would, especially when fats are combined with low calorie vegetables which provide fiber and water.

By excluding carbohydrates, the keto diet also completely cuts out many energy dense processed foods such as chocolate, soda, sweets, cakes and other baked goods. For some people with more black and white thinking, eliminating these foods altogether is easier than trying to eat them in moderation and it makes decisions about what to eat more simple. Over time on the keto diet, your taste buds can adjust so that you no longer have cravings for these foods, great if you are trying to beat a sugar addiction! Of course there are energy dense snack foods on the keto diet too, especially nuts and seeds, but generally these are harder to over eat because they are so filling.

keto diet foods to avoid
Another useful infographic from the Diet Doctor!

What are the downsides of the keto diet?

Even though the keto diet works for weight loss short term, I’m not convinced that it is sustainable long term. Firstly, it’s complicated! Some people test their urine using ketone-strips or test their blood ketone level to check whether they are in ketosis which can be pretty invasive. At least in the beginning you have to learn the carbohydrate content of different foods and have some way of tracking what you eat to make sure that you are below the recommended 20-50g of carbohydrates per day. I’m sure that over time this gets easier, especially if you eat similar foods day to day, but it still needs some attention and certainly isn’t for everyone. The world isn’t exactly keto-friendly either and finding options to eat when out socialising with friends and at family or work events could be a challenge.

Even if you decide that the complexity is worth it, the risk with any diet that cuts out whole food groups is that your food choices are limited which puts you at a greater risk for nutritional deficiencies. Of course, a well-planned keto diet which includes a variety of vegetables, animal and plant fats can be nutritionally adequate but I’m not sure that every person following this diet is going to do their research and pay enough attention to their diet to make sure they are getting everything they need. Short term in a healthy person this is unlikely to be a problem but when someone attempts the keto diet after a long line of other failed diets, they may already have depleted nutrient stores and could run into problems down the line. Restrictive diets also put you at a greater risk for binge eating and rebound weight gain.

Another risk of the keto diet is that your appetite might be reduced to the point where your don’t eat enough. You might laugh at this one, especially if you think your problem is eating too much, but when you are removing so many types of foods from your diet it can be easy to accidentally under eat. the problem with extremely calorie restricted diets is that can be very stressful for your body. I wrote above why calorie restricted diets don’t work in a previous post so you can check that out for more information but in short, when your body perceives a large energy deficit, it starts to freak out and tries anything it can to reduce your energy output and maintain balance. This is commonly known as starvation mode and can lead to low energy levels, fatigue, slow growth and repair, and hormonal issues.

keto diet fatigue keto flu
Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

On the other hand, many people report feeling high energy when they start out on the keto diet. This might seem like a positive but it can be a sign that your body is releasing stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline as it struggles to adjust to the extreme change in diet. Cortisol is normally released by your body during low blood sugar events to trigger release of stored glucose from your muscles into your blood stream and this can be more intense as your body adapts to ketosis. Reports of hair loss, sleep issues and menstrual disturbance in women who attempt the keto diet can be because it is just too stressful for the body. Again, a generally healthy person may be able to handle this adjustment period but someone who is already under a lot of pressure and stress might want to think twice about whether the keto diet is for them.

Finally, there is the risk of medical complications with the keto diet. Removing carbohydrates affects the water and electrolyte balance in your body and can lead to dehydration, low blood pressure and kidney problems. The “keto-flu” is common as the body transitions into ketosis and can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, bad breath and low energy. The keto diet was originally developed to cure epilepsy and was carried out under medical supervision. It is now being widely promoted as a weight loss diet but the long term impacts of the diet on the body are not fully understood. If you decide to try out the keto diet, you should know you are putting your body in an extreme state and effectively conducting a science experiment on yourself!

So should I try the keto diet to lose weight? And how can I reduce the risks?

It’s not for me to say whether you should try the keto diet for weight loss or not. It isn’t something I would try myself or recommend to my health coaching clients but there are definitely people who have had success with it. I would always ask the question of whether you need to put your body through such extremes or whether there is an easier way. But with that being said, if you do decide to try it out I’d suggest the following to reduce the risk and make the transition smoother:

  1. Always speak to your doctor before you start out. Check that you have no pre-existing medical conditions or nutrient deficiencies that could be made worse by the keto diet.

  2. Do your research. Don’t just dive into the keto diet but take some time to research what to eat to get the nutrients you need as well as other precautions to take or supplements you might need.

  3. Transition slowly. Rather than going from a standard omnivore diet straight into keto, try gradually decreasing your carb intake over time to give your body chance to adjust.

  4. Stay aware of your physical and mental health. If you feel like you are suffering in any way, don’t be afraid to “fail” the diet. The keto diet is definitely not for everyone and it is ok if it doesn’t work for you.

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this post on the keto diet and the blog series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on the keto diet and your experience if you’ve tried it.

  • If you want to follow along with this Real Health January series, like this post, check out the recommended posts below 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

benefits of journaling for mental health

Real health #10 The benefits of journaling for mental health

Yesterday I ordered a pack of 6 of my favourite A5 bound notebooks that I use to write my journal and it got me thinking about the benefits of journaling for mental health. I have been journaling on and off for over 10 years and in the last 3 it has become part of my routine that I can’t do without. My journal is like my therapist, friend, co-worker, spiritual guide all in one. I use my journal to keep track of the highs and lows of my life, to work through struggles with my work, relationships, family or inner life and to dig deep into what is under the surface of my conscious thoughts. My journal is there when there are things on my mind that I can’t say out loud to anyone and it is there when I don’t even know what is on my mind. Journaling is what finally helped me to overcome disordered eating and move on with my life.

Some of the benefits of journaling for mental health include better processing of difficult emotions, management of stress and anxiety, increased clarity and direction for your life and cultivating gratitude, mindfulness and present awareness. I’d recommend to anyone to start a journal, even if you think your life is boring or you have nothing to write. Trust me there is always something! Don’t let the fact that you “aren’t good” at writing stop you from starting a journal. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Nor does it have to be interesting to anyone but yourself or even be legible. Just the act of getting things down on paper can be extremely therapeutic, even if you never look at it again or decide to rip it up or burn it afterwards as a sign of letting go.

Journaling techniques for mental health

There are many journaling techniques you can use if you’re not sure where to start. In her book Journal to the Self: Twenty-Two Paths to Personal Growth, therapist and author Kathleen Adams describes ways to use a journal to work through past and present relationship issues, find your creative expression and get to know yourself on a deeper level. Some of the techniques she includes are:

  • Stepping stones (journaling prompts)
  • Dialogues (with people, situations, feelings)
  • Captured moments (descriptive writing)
  • Free association (mind mapping and lists)
  • Stream of consciousness (letting your unconscious speak)

You can experiment with different ways of using your journal depending on the outcome that you want. If you want to record the moments of your life, maybe a big travelling adventure, your child growing up or a special occasion you want to remember, you can use captured moments to engage with the present moment and capture everything you feel with all of your senses. Writing in this way helps you to be present and mindful and to let your creativity flow. If you’re feeling stuck in some area of your life, you can use free association techniques such as mind mapping or list making to get creative and seek innovative solutions. Or if you are feeling numb and disconnected, you can use stream of consciousness writing and see what comes up.

Written dialogues can help you to see the perspective of someone you are currently in, or have previously had conflict with or to see the positives in what seems like a dire situation. Journaling dialogues are a good way to process and let go of past hurts, even with people who are no longer in your life. The technique that has helped me the most is stepping stones or journaling prompts. Sometimes all it takes is for you to ask to right question for you to find the solutions you are looking for. Journaling about my disordered eating patterns led me down the path of asking questions about my self-worth, my values in life and discovering hidden shame, anger, disappointment and fear that were underlying my behaviours.

Journaling also helped me to understand why I was struggling with insomnia. Using the mind mapping technique was a way to uncover some underlying worries and situations which were affecting my sleep. Some of the things that came up were obvious such as work stress, drinking coffee and feeling physically uncomfortable but through this journaling technique I also had some realisations that I hadn’t thought of before including being stuck in the victim mentality, worrying about not being productive if I didn’t get enough sleep, comparing myself to others and getting jealous of their ability to sleep (any fellow insomniacs will understand this one!) and suppressing my anger. Understanding these things helped me to overcome my insomnia and start to finally recover my energy levels.

How to start journaling for mental health

Starting a journal practice is easy because there are no rules! All you need is a notepad and pen of choice, some spare time and the motivation to explore. You can choose a dated journal or a blank notebook, lined or plain paper, pocket sized or A4. You can write in ballpoint pen, coloured pencils, fountain pen and ink or a mix of them all. You can write in prose, bullet points, poetry and add doodles and sketches to the page if you feel like it. You don’t need to worry about writing neatly, spelling correctly or perfect grammar. In fact, the less you censor yourself the better when it comes to journaling. Just sit down, set an intention for your journal session, choose a technique and write until you don’t feel like writing anymore. This can be five minutes or an hour. You can include journaling in your daily routine or you can write when the mood strikes. Really it is up to you to find whatever feels good and feels like you.

Some days you might feel stuck or just a few words and others you might write pages and pages with the words seeming to flow out from nowhere. Whatever happens, try not to judge yourself and just let the process unfold. You can create an atmosphere by clearing out your writing space, maybe lighting a candle or playing some music to set the mood. Start by closing your eyes and taking a few slow, deep breaths to centre yourself and focus your attention on your intention, whether that is to explore a certain topic, vent out some trapped emotion or to reflect on the day. Start to write and if you get stuck, try taking a break to read back what you have written and take a few more deep breaths. Once your journaling session feels complete, close your notepad and store it somewhere safe. Having a ritual with a clear start and end gives your journaling practice that touch of magic and mystery that we all need a bit of in our lives these days.

Your challenge for day 10 is to think about how you could include journaling into your routine and maybe get yourself a journal and start your own practice.

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed these quick tips on the benefits of journaling for mental health and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on how to have fun on your journey to health.

  • If you want to follow along with this Real Health January blog series, like this post, check out the recommended posts below 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

Real health #9 How to enjoy exercise and healthy eating and make getting healthy fun

A quick, lazy post today as it’s Saturday and we have been out all day enjoying nature, it’s getting late and I am tired and hungry. We drove down to Saronida this afternoon and went for a walk on the beach even though it was pretty cloudy and windy but we just needed to get out of Athens and get some fresh air. This lockdown has been loooong and even though we managed to get out for a hike and to see some friends over Christmas it is really starting to drag now and there’s still no end in sight.

Anyway, I thought that today is as good a day as any to remind you to have fun as you work towards your health and weight loss goals, in case you forgot! Wherever you are on your health journey, whether you are just starting out changing your lifestyle or you have been focusing on health and fitness for years, don’t forget that the purpose of improving your health is to enjoy your life more. Getting healthy really doesn’t have to be a chore. If you hate your diet and your workout routine feels like hell, try something different. If you hate yoga and meditation, you have to don’t do it! There isn’t one road to health so experiment and find what works for you.

I used to believe that controlling everything from restricting the foods on my plate to sticking to the same, high intensity workout regime was what I needed to do if I wanted to reach my health goals. I never really thought about whether I actually enjoyed it or not it was just something I had to endure. Nowadays my approach is definitely more fun! I practice yoga because I love it. I dance because I love it. And I eat in a way that I genuinely enjoy. If I’m not enjoying something and my body is sending me a hell no signal, I listen rather than push through it. Of course I still challenge myself.. right now me and my boyfriend are working up to running 5km in 30 minutes (well I am as it’s already easy for him) but if we had planned a run and I am feeling exhausted on the day, I won’t feel like a failure if I skip it.

I always recommend to focus on building healthy, sustainable habits that you enjoy rather than a quick fix to lose weight where you also lose your sanity. Even if your goal is to lose weight, focus on health first and your body will find it’s happy place but focus on weight loss alone and you just might lose health in the process. Remember that health doesn’t always equal weight loss. On that note, here are a few of my tips on how to enjoy eating healthy food and how to make fitness fun..

How to enjoy eating healthy food

  • Get creative and take the effort to make your plate look pretty, even if you’re eating alone
  • Have plenty of variety in your diet (unless you’re the type of person who genuinely loves eating the same things on repeat)
  • Try out a new food or recipe at least once a week, more if you have the time and the energy
  • Get your family involved and share your healthy meals with them so that you don’t feel left out
  • Don’t feel like you have to deprive yourself of all treats, remember the 80:20 rule!
  • Remind yourself that your taste buds adjust over time and you will genuinely start to crave healthy foods

Fun ways to improve your fitness

  • Try out a dance class, learn salsa, street dance or ballet
  • Experiment with gymnastics, acro-yoga or rock climbing
  • Get fit with friends, join a running group, cycling club or try out group exercise classes (as long as you can social distance)
  • Mix things up, if you normally exercise in the gym then get outdoors or vice versa
  • Listen to music or a fun podcast as you walk
  • Try out a yoga or fitness challenge at home to keep you motivated

And finally, remember that even though things might feel difficult and impossible to enjoy at the beginning, it does get easier! Once you start to eat healthier foods on a regular basis, your taste buds will change over time to the point where you actually enjoy and even crave them. As you improve your fitness you will start to enjoy moving your body more and more. Keep things simple, have fun and be kind to yourself.

Your challenge for today is to reflect on your own “health regime” and ask yourself whether you genuinely enjoy the things you are doing. If not, how could you make it more fun?

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed these quick tips on how to enjoy exercise and healthy eating and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on how to have fun on your journey to health.

  • If you want to follow along with this Real Health January blog series, like this post, check out the recommended posts below 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

Real health #8 Benefits of yoga for health and how to start a home yoga practice

The benefits of yoga for health are endless! Of course, as a yoga teacher I am pretty biased but I honestly think that starting a yoga practice is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health. In this article I want to share the top benefits of yoga for health that I have experienced over the last 10 years of practicing yoga.

Benefits of yoga on the body

The practice of yoga has so many health benefits for people of all ages. A daily yoga practice, even if it is just 10 minutes, is a great way to get your body moving, get your blood flowing, loosen up your joints, improve your flexibility and strength. Physical health benefits of yoga include:

  • Better cardio-vascular health and reduced risk of heart disease. Like any other type of exercise that gets your body moving, the health benefits of yoga include improved cardio-vascular fitness. Unlike many other types of exercise, yoga is low intensity and not stressful on the joints so it is a great way for those new to exercise to start out. Vinyasa and other types of “flow” yoga can be especially good for improving your fitness.

  • Lowered blood pressure. Practicing yoga regular can help to lower your blood pressure, reducing your risk of heart disease and stroke. There are certain yoga postures which specifically help to lower blood pressure including standing forward fold, downward facing dog and legs up the wall pose. Practicing yoga daily along with a healthy diet can lead to huge improvement in your blood pressure readings.

  • Reduced muscular tension from prolonged sitting and sedentary lifestyles. Now more than ever we are spending increasing amounts of time in front of our computers and phones. Especially with COVID19 restrictions, many of us are working from home and sitting for long periods of time. Yoga helps to counter-balance habitual tension in the neck, shoulders and hips creating a sense of ease and wellbeing in your body.

  • Improved flexibility, balance and joint health. One of the most well-known benefits of yoga for physical health is improved flexibility. Remember you don’t have to be flexible to practice yoga but practicing yoga will help to improve your flexibility! Yoga practice improves mobility in all of the main joints in the body including the spine, knees, hips and wrists, helping you to stay fit and mobile as you get older and improving your quality of life.

  • Stronger, more toned muscles. Many fitness enthusiasts see yoga as “not challenging enough” but then you get them on the mat and watch them struggle! A yoga practice can be a full body workout where you are challenging and all of your muscles in a holistic, functional way. Of course, the intensity of a physical yoga practice varies a lot but practicing yoga can definitely be a great way to strengthen and tone your upper body, core thighs and glutes.

  • Improved sleep quality. Yoga helps to calm and relax both the body and mind which can help you to get a better nights sleep. Practicing yoga in the morning helps you to stay calm and relaxed throughout the day and sleep more soundly at night. a gentle bedtime yoga practice is also an excellent way to wind down, let go of the stress of the day and prepare your body for sleep. Better sleep has all sorts of health benefits including better blood sugar control, improved energy levels and lowered inflammation.

Benefits of yoga on mental health

As well as the physical health benefits of yoga, there are also many mental health benefits of yoga. In today’s busy world, most of us feel some level of pressure, tension and stress on a daily basis and cases of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues are also on the rise. The benefits of yoga for mental health include:

  • Reduced anxiety and stress levels. Getting yourself onto your yoga mat to take some time for yourself and close out the outside world is a great way to reduce anxiety and stress levels. Unfortunately life will happen and no matter how we try to reduce the external stressors in our life the past pace and pressures of modern society will always cause us some level of stress but practicing yoga helps to reduce this stress and the anxiety that going with it.

  • Improved nervous system health. Because of the high levels of stress, adrenal fatigue and burn out are becoming more and more common. If you have a stressful job or busy family life, drink a lot of caffeine or spend excessive time on the internet or social media it’s highly likely that your nervous system could do with some attention. Yoga practice, especially breathwork and meditation but also physical asana practice is a great way to nurture your adrenals, activate your parasympathetic nervous system and and strengthen your capacity to deal with the stress of daily life.

  • Feelings of calm and wellbeing. Regular yoga practice helps you to tune into your body, notice habitual patterns of tension and gripping and learn to let go into deep states of relaxation. Often we hold on tightly to life, feeling like we need to control every little thing but yoga invites us to surrender to the flow and accept what is, creating a sense of peace and wellbeing in your body and mind

  • Improved self-awareness. I wrote an article on yoga and self-awareness recently but I think improving self-awareness is a key benefit of yoga for mental health. Yoga helps you to listen to your thoughts and feeling and over time to become aware of patterns that may be hurting you or holding you back in life. Through practicing yoga regularly, you can learn to rewire these patterns, changing the way you think about yourself and the way that you approach life.

  • Greater connection with others. Yoga classes have been an amazing sense of community for me over the years. From the huge gym classes I took when I started out my practice to the intimate group in my teacher trainings, I have always found yoga to be a gateway to deep connection with others. I’m not sure if it’s because people who are more emotionally open and vulnerable are drawn to yoga or whether it is yoga that cracks people wide open but either way, I’ve always found this sense of connection and community amongst yogis. For those interested in embarking on a spiritual path, yoga is also a great way to connect with your surroundings, higher self and something greater.

How to start a home yoga practice

I started practicing yoga by going to face to face classes and I always recommend this as the best route for beginner yogis. But a home yoga practice is a great way to complement teacher led classes and deepen your practice. The way that I started my home yoga practice and still continue to learn more about yoga is through reading yoga books. You can find books on the foundations of yoga, yoga philosophy and history, yoga anatomy and physiology and meditation and pranayama (breathwork). Some of my favourite yoga book recommendations are:

Yoga: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness by Eric Schiffman
Yoga for Women by Bobby Clennell
Light on Life/Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar
Thrive through Yoga: A 21 day journey by Nicola Jane Hobbs

These yoga books will give you different perspectives and techniques and highlight the health benefits of yoga. They will talk you through the basics of connecting with your breath, quietening your mind and learning the alignment of the asana which will form the foundation of your home yoga practice.

Also with the internet and social media it is now easier than ever to find information and learn how to do things at home. There are endless yoga tutorials on Youtube from beginners foundation classes to crazy advanced ashtanga sequences. Whatever level you are at, you can find an online class to suit you. Some of my favourite online yoga teachers are Yoga with Adriene, Yoga Upload, The Mindful Movement and Cat Meffan. You can check out my Youtube channel Moon Life Yoga as I am planning to upload more guided yoga classes this year!

I am also offering 3 online yoga classes a week during the COVID19 pandemic.

Yoga for Absolute Beginners – Tuesday 1pm UK/3pm Greece

Yoga for Beginners/Intermediate – Thursday 4pm UK/6pm Greece

Yoga for Women – Sunday 4pm UK/6pm Greece

You can find out more information and sign up for classes here.

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on the health benefits of yoga and how your yoga practice has affected your physical and mental health.

  • If you want to follow along with this Real Health January blog series, like this post, check out the recommended posts below 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

why diets don't work

Real health #7 Why calorie restricted diets don’t work long term

The fact that restrictive dieting works for weight loss is one of the most widespread myths of the western world. We are made to believe that to lose weight, or maintain a healthy weight, we need to restrict our calories to 1800, 1500 or even 1200 calories a day, cut out all treats and always choose low fat or low carb options. I remember being a young teenager and reading the pages on weight loss and celebrity diets in women’s magazines and thinking this is how I need to eat to be beautiful and successful.

Yes, dieting works in the short term but what happens a few months or years down the line? The fact is that most diets don’t work long term. It’s estimated that 95% of people who lose weight on a diet gain it back within 5 years. So many women (and men!) are stuck in this constant cycle of calorie restriction and deprivation followed by rebound overeating and weight gain. Not only is this bad for your physical health but the dieting cycle is bad for your mental health too.

The problem is that we don’t see the yo-yo dieting as a cycle. We see it as lots of separate, successful diets with periods of failure on our part in-between. We see the diets as being successful due to our initial weight loss and then blame ourselves for “falling off the wagon” and gaining back the weight. Then of course, we see the only solution as starting a new diet. What we don’t realise is that with every cycle our body builds it’s defenses against the perceived famine. Your body does this by:

  • Slowing down your digestive system in an attempt to squeeze every last calorie out of the food that you eat, leaving you feeling bloated and sluggish.
  • Turning down your metabolic rate so that you waste less energy as heat, resulting in a drop in your core body temperature and symptoms such as cold hands and feet and sensitivity to cold.
  • Growth of your nails and hair also slows down as your body tries to conserve energy by limiting unnecessary functions and women may experience disruption to their menstrual cycles.
  • Even you slow down as you start to feel the effects of being in a chronic energy deficit such as fatigue, brain fog and muscle aches and pains.

Basically, everything slows down when you are on a calorie restricted diet! Not only that, your body develops ways to persuade you to eat more when you diet, including decreasing the hormones which make you feel full and increasing your hunger signals. Your body is smart and it remembers where the the highest sources of calories are. Calorie restriction can lead to intense cravings for sweet and fatty foods making you feel like you just don’t have the willpower that you used to. Often, we feel like we have no control around food and start to think about it wayyyy too often. We blame ourselves and try to diet harder but in reality it is the restrictive dieting that is causing the problem!

Even though our society views dieting as the healthy and often even the moral thing to do, chronic calorie restriction and yo-yo dieting are some of the most damaging habits for our bodies long term. Really, calorie restriction can go one of two ways:

  1. Sustained weight loss / chronic calorie restriction

Yes there is a small percentage of people who lose weight through dieting and successfully keep it off. However, it is important to realise that those who lose weight through dieting need to eat less and less over time in order to maintain their weight. Sometimes this is referred to as “metabolic damage” but in reality it is actually our bodies getting super efficient. Naturally our energy requirements decrease as we get older so it’s much better to keep our metabolic rate as high as we can while we are young.

Restrictive dieting doesn’t only mean you are eating less calories but you are also taking in fewer nutrients putting you at risk of deficiencies. Remember, weight loss doesn’t always equal health! Being in a calorie deficit is also a stressor for our bodies, causing levels of stress hormones such as cortisol to sky rocket. Short term, this has the effect of raising your blood sugar and increasing the breakdown of lean tissue for fuel. Long term, chronic stress affects all systems of the body causing digestive issues, a suppressed immune system and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease… and you thought going on a diet was healthy??

  1. Weight cycling / Yo-yo dieting

Cycling between extreme calorie restriction and rebound overeating is a trap that many dieters fall into. One of the issues with this is that we can still end up depriving our bodies of essential nutrients. In the dieting phase, we might be eating healthy food but as I said earlier, if we are not consuming enough calories then it is unlikely we are getting the nutrients we need. In the rebound phase, our bodies are desperate for energy so we are much more likely to reach for calorie dense, processed foods that provide that quick surge of energy but still don’t provide enough of the essential nutrients for a healthy, thriving body.

Of course, this is another survival mechanism as if we were in a true famine it is much better to survive with a nutrient deficiency than to waste away from lack of energy. But when we are practicing this pattern of yo-yo dieting and calorie restriction again and again throughout our lives we can get into trouble. In addition, each weight loss cycle results in loss of muscle as well as fat which can change our body composition significantly over time. Reduced lean mass leaves us with a lower resting metabolic rate (i.e. the amount of energy we burn in a day with no activity), meaning that each time we fall of the wagon we seem to regain weight quicker and each time we diet it gets harder and harder to lose weight.

So if dieting is off the cards, what is the solution?

As I said in a previous post, you can definitely lose weight on restricted diets such as a paleo, keto or vegan diet if you need to. I don’t think these diets are doomed to failure but it’s important to make sure you are eating enough to keep your metabolism healthy and your body feeling safe. If you aren’t feeling full and satisfied after your meals and are constantly wanting more, it’s unlikely you are eating enough. That said, I think jumping off the diet wagon altogether and learning to eat intuitively is one of the healthiest things you can do for your long-term health. I really recommend the book Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole as a guide to escaping the diet cycle and tuning into your body’s needs. It is definitely a journey rather than a quick fix as it take time to unpick old habits and form new ones but one that is so worth it!

Right now, I am in the healthiest place I ever have been with food. I probably weigh 15-20lbs more than my old “goal weight” but in time I am realising how warped my view of ideal actually was. Now I am at a healthy weight for my body where my hormones are balanced, my hunger levels are in check and I feel fit and strong. Plus, I have maintained this weight for the last 4 years on probably twice as many calories than I used to eat which is so liberating. I eat food that I love and that I know is nourishing for my body and eat plenty of it. And when I want to treat myself I do. I go out to eat knowing that I can have whatever I want with no guilt and I eat until I am satisfied (sometimes more and that is ok too!).

If you are currently stuck in the dieting cycle, today’s challenge is to take a moment to write down a timeline of your dieting history and look at the patterns.

I know for me it really helped to see on paper how long I had been chasing my tail – just how many times I had lost and gained the same 5lbs and just how many “fresh starts” I had had. Sit and really think about the emotions that you feel during each phase of the cycle and ask yourself whether it is worth it. And if not, know that there is a way to step out of all of that and into food and body freedom.

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your thoughts on calorie restriction and whether it works long term.

  • 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

self-sabotage and health

Real health #6 Why you self-sabotage your health and how to stop

Ever wondered why you just can’t seem to that new diet, exercise regime or self-care plan? Have you set yourself hundreds of goals for your health and just when you seem to be on the right track you fall off the wagon or do something to mess it up? Do you find yourself falling into the same patterns of destructive behaviour again and again? This is called self-sabotage and it might just be the thing that is getting in the way of you reaching your health goals.

Self-sabotaging patterns include procrastination from healthy habits or or any form of addictive behaviour such as binge eating, substance abuse or over-using social media. It is defined as behaviour that deliberately causes you harm and gets in the way of you reaching your long term goals i.e. preventing you from becoming the person you want to be. I say deliberate meaning that the behaviours are often things you know aren’t good for you but often the thoughts that drive self-sabotage are unconscious meaning we aren’t even aware that we are having them. All we know is that one minute we were enthusiastic and motivated to reach our goals and the next we have given up and are back to square one.

self-sabotage and health
Photo by Nathan Cowley on Pexels.com

Why do we self-sabotage?

Psychology research says that self-sabotage is a pretty common phenomenon. We all have that critical inner voice that develops during our childhood and for some this voice is harsher and louder than for others. The voice might say that you are lazy, that you are unworthy of success or that you’ll never reach your goals so you might as well give up. Whatever it is for you, we all have a dark, destructive aspect of our psyche that just wants to destroy things, labelled by Freud as the “death drive”. It is that part of us that doesn’t seem to want happiness and seeks to disrupt anything that seems good. You might be thinking why would I ever destroy my own health and happiness?! But so many of us do it.. think of all the times you have stopped doing something that made you feel great or carried on with bad habits that you know don’t make you feel your best.

As humans we like the familiar, things that we know and understand. Our brains are wired to think and act in a certain way in the world. Our neural connections get stronger with repetition like thousands of hikers walking the same pathway across a field until a deep muddy path forms. So when we want to change our habits and develop ourselves, it takes work to form a new pathway! When we start out, it’s very easy to fall back into the groove of our old ways. Most of our actions during the day are done on auto-pilot without us even thinking about it. It takes much more energy to make decisions about our behaviour and take conscious action and our brains are energy conserving machines. So it’s totally understandable that we will slip up more than once when we are trying to change our behaviour.

I recently watched a video by Irene Lyons, a nervous system expert, who explains that procrastination, self-sabotage and “fleeing from health” (i.e. repeating the same unhealthy behaviours again and again) is even more common in those who have had a traumatic or stressful childhood. Because this feeling of stress or lack of safety has become a normal state of mind, anything else feels alien and the unconscious mind acts quickly to disrupt things. She says that the origin of self-sabotage is stored trauma or trapped survival stress in the body which needs to be processed and released.

How to eliminate self-sabotage and reach your health goals

I don’t think it’s possible to fully eliminate self-sabotage. We aren’t robots and we can’t expect ourselves to behave logically and rationally 24/7 according to the rules we set for ourselves. But there are ways we can try to minimise self-sabotage and make it easier for us to work towards our goals.

1. Have self-awareness. Being aware of your destructive thought patterns and self-sabotaging behaviour is the first step to overcoming them. Depending on how severe a problem this is for you, you might need the support of a therapist. But you can always start by spending some time in silence and solitude each day, without the distraction of technology, to tune into your inner world. Listen to the repetitive thoughts and observe the feelings that come up and reflect on how these could be contributing to your self-sabotaging behaviour.

2. Start small. Rather than setting yourself a massive goal to go from couch to marathon in 6 months, try setting smaller more manageable goals. If there is a huge gap between your current self and your goal, it can feel intimidating and overwhelming and you are much more likely to give up and sabotage any progress you have made. It’s better to focus on the actions rather than the end goal i.e. “meditate for 5 minutes a day” rather than “be able to meditate for an hour” and over time gradually increase the time that you practice. Make your goals achievable so that you can be boosted by your success rather than falling into patterns of critisising yourself for not reaching the high standards you have set for yourself.

3. Plan for failure. Once we accept that self-sabotage is a normal part of behaviour change, we can start to plan for those occasions when we are likely to fall into the unconscious self destruct trap. Think of this as the “if, then” approach. You can think of situations which are likely to trip you up or common scenarios that occur when you are trying to create healthy habits. For example, if I binge eat at night then the next morning I will have a healthy breakfast and go for a walk. If I forget my running shoes for my lunchtime jog, I will go for a walk instead. If I skip my morning yoga and meditation practice I will have a gentle stretch before bed instead. Or if I had a stressful day at work and I want to have a takeaway on the way home, I will go for a healthier option like rice and veggies rather than fish and chips or a whole pizza.

4. Have self-compassion. This goes along with planning for failure, by learning to expect ourselves to fall back into old behaviours rather than expecting ourselves to be perfect. When slip ups inevitably do happen we can learn to show ourselves kindness and understanding rather than beating ourselves up over it. This way we can avoid the inner critic running the show and keeping us stuck in negative thought loops and self-sabotaging behaviour. We can see self-sabotage as a normal part of the process and see it as an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and the funny ways our brains work.

5. Relax into health. Stress and living in an anxious, fear based mindset is going to make you more likely to sabotage yourself and fall into unhealthy coping mechanisms. This includes stress from putting pressure on yourself to take certain actions or reach your goals. To reduce self-sabotage, it’s important to try to relax and allow your nervous system to move out of flight or flight mode. This could be through a dedicated meditation practice or by simply taking breaks during the day to focus on your breath and consciously relax tension that has built up in your body. The key is to not make relaxation another task that you have to do but by focusing on the relaxed inner state that you want to feel.

Your challenge for today is to take a few moments to reflect your own behaviours and whether self sabotage is a common pattern for you whenever you are trying to improve your health and maybe you can identify any repetitive thoughts and feelings that could at the root of your self-sabotage.

OVER TO YOU…

I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your experience with self-sabotage and your tips for dealing with it.

  • 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

oats nutrition label

Real health #5 Is counting calories for weight loss a good idea?

Today’s topic in this Real Health January series is counting your calories, specifically whether counting calories to lose weight is a good strategy. I’m sure most people these days are aware of the idea of calorie counting and might be familiar with calorie counting apps like My Fitness Pal and Chronometer. But to quickly cover the basics, a calorie is a unit of energy commonly used to describe the amount of energy in a food. This energy comes from three macro-nutrient groups: carbohydrates and proteins which have 4 calories per gram and fats which have 9 calories per gram. You can find the amount of calories (kcal) on the nutrition label of most foods. Usually the label will also have the recommended guideline daily amount for a typical adult, like the one below for porridge oats.

There are many “macro calculator” websites where you input your age, gender, height, current weight and how much weight you want to lose and it will tell you how many calories you should aim to eat per day to reach your weight loss goals. You can then count calories in the food that you eat and try to stay in the recommended range. Sounds simple. But is counting calories to lose weight a good idea? And is there another way?

The benefits of counting calories for weight loss

It is true that calorie counting has been linked with successful weight loss in multiple scientific studies. In order to lose weight, you need to be in an energy deficit (i.e. burning more calories than you take in through food) and counting your calories can be a good way to make sure you are doing this. Calorie counting can be a helpful tool for anyone who has absolutely no idea how much they should be eating to become familiar with the portion sizes they need to eat to lose weight. Over time counting calories can be a good way to learn more about the nutritional values of different foods and which foods are more satisfying for the amount of calories they supply. For example, a 500ml bottle of coke which doesn’t fill you up at all has more calories than the bowl of porridge shown above!

There is also a concept called “if it fits your macros” in the fitness world which means that you can eat whatever you like and still reach your weight loss goals, as long as you eat within the recommended calories and macro-nutrient ranges. This makes the calorie counting approach very appealing to anyone who doesn’t want to give up treats and other foods they like or follow any specific diet rules. It allows for flexibility in the types of foods you eat which for some people is a very freeing approach to weight loss. This is similar to the idea of Weight Watchers or Slimming World where every food has a points value and you can eat whatever you like as long as you stay within your points allowance for the day.

The problems with counting calories for weight loss

Even though counting calories for weight loss can be successful, personally it’s not a method I recommend for several reasons:

1. My training is in public health nutrition so for me, health always comes above weight loss with my clients. Counting calories focuses only on the amount of energy in foods and doesn’t consider the nutritional value. As well as calories and macro-nutrients, we need micro-nutrients such as vitamins and minerals to maintain strong healthy body including a well functioning metabolism and immune system, strong bones and teeth and healthy skin, hair and nails. It’s better to eat a higher number of calories in whole foods than it is to eat a low number of calories in processed junk foods. You could eat 1000 calories a day in only chocolate cake and lose weight but that wouldn’t be healthy or sustainable in the long term!

2. Calorie counting apps and nutrition labels are not 100% accurate. The information is based on laboratory tests that have an accuracy of +/- 10% which means that if you count calories to precisely 2000 per day, in reality you could be eating anywhere from 1800 to 2200 calories which is a huge range and could have a massive impact on your goals! The same goes for calorie and macro-nutrient calculators, they aren’t tailored to your individual body but are based on averages and statistics. So just because a calculator tells you to eat 1500 calories per day to lose 2lbs per week, it doesn’t mean that will happen for you which can be pretty frustrating.

3. Counting calories for weight loss is a very rigid approach. Usually you will aim for the same calorie target each day which doesn’t fit with the constantly changing, flexible way our bodies work. Your calorie needs can change from day to day depending on many factors including how much activity you did, how much sleep you got or how much stress you are under. For women, our calorie needs can also shift cyclically with our hormonal rhythms (see my posts on how to eat with your cycle). Counting calories encourages us to over ride our natural hunger cues and can lead to eating when you’re not hungry just because you “have calories left” or not going to bed hungry because you “ate your calories for the day”.

4. Counting calories and macros can easily become an addictive or obsessive behaviour. Research has linked use of calorie counting apps and fitness trackers with the onset and maintenance of disordered eating behaviours. Whilst it might seem harmless, and it can be if it is a short term measure to learn about nutrition, tracking food and counting calories is a slippery slope and can become compulsive and controlling. As I shared recently in my post on letting go of the over-controller, it’s much better for our overall health to be flexible and intuitive rather than rigid and focused on numbers.

Alternatives to counting calories for weight loss

So if you’ve decided counting your calories isn’t for you but you still want to lose weight, what are your options? I’m not going to tell you that you can eat as much as you like of whatever you want and still lose weight because that’s not realistic. Unless you are a competitive athlete who needs ridiculous amounts of calories to fuel yourself..

But you don’t have to rely on calorie counting apps either to reach your goals. One option is intuitive eating. I can write a whole separate post on this but the basic idea is that of really tuning into your body’s hunger and fullness signals and cravings and learning to eat mindfully. Often we eat whilst on the computer or on the go without really paying attention to our food. Or we eat for emotional reasons or boredom rather than true hunger. Learning to eat intuitively helps to improve your relationship with food and be able to enjoy a wide range of foods without following specific diet rules.

The alternative to calories counting and intuitive eating is to follow a restricted diet. By this I mean any diet which limits the types of foods you eat. Ever wondered why there are sooo many different diet books out there all claiming to offer you the solution to your weight loss woes? Well that’s because there is no one true diet to follow that is perfect for all humans. These diets work because by limiting the types of foods you eat, they automatically limit the amount of calories you consume. Some examples:

  • Whole foods or Paleo diet (limits processed foods)
  • Keto or Atkins diet (limits carbohydrates)
  • Vegan or plant-based diet (limits animal products)
  • Starch solution (limits fats)

Honestly I think all of these diets can work and if you experiment and find one that suits your tastes and lifestyle you can find weight loss success. Personally I have always leaned towards intuitive eating and a more plant-based diet as it suits my tastes and ethical values but for someone who really craves animal-based foods and prefers to eat smaller portions, they are unlikely to last long on a diet that focuses on high volume plant-based foods. I think it’s much better to let go of dogma and realise that we are all different. As I always say, listening to your body and working with it rather than against it is much more likely to lead you to health and happiness than constantly fighting and controlling yourself with force.

Your challenge for today is to reflect on diets or weight loss methods you have tried in the past. What worked and what didn’t? Think about what might be the best approach for you and your specific preferences, tastes and lifestyle.

Over to you…

I hope you enjoyed this article and the series so far. Let me know in the comments below your experience with counting calories and whether you think it’s a good way to lose weight.

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