According to Dr Gregor (2017), author of How Not To Die, over 90% of health comes from what we eat.¹ If this is true, and recent research strongly indicates that it is, one of your primary objectives in your weight-loss campaign should be to cultivate a healthy diet. For not only is a healthy diet closely correlated with decreased disease, illness and preventable mortality (see opening quotes), but it is by far the single most effective method of losing weight.
Before we embark on an exploration of what constitutes as a healthy diet, and delve into the methods of how to shape a diet that assists and supports weight-loss (and health! of course), I want you to complete the following task.
Task: make a mind-map/spider diagram/list of you currently understanding of what qualifies as healthy eating habits. Or, more simply, encapsulate the proceeding question in a paragraph:
Q: Do you know what constitutes as a healthy diet?
If you are not exactly sure and your understanding is a little foggy, don’t worry, you are not alone. As it happens, that vast majority of people have a hazy understanding of what qualifies as healthy eating. Actually, what most people believe to be healthy eating is, in fact, quite the opposite. For example, the following assumptions are ubiquitously regarded as healthy eating habits:
meat must be consumed to ensure the body gets adequate protein
milk is essential for bone development
all fat is an evil that is best avoided
5 pieces of fruit or vegetables should be consumed daily
white rice and pasta are good sources of energy
alcohol can be consumed in moderation as part of a healthy lifestyle
low fat products are better than their full-fat counterparts
it’s not where the calories come from that matters, it’s the number consumed
I can eat what I like so long as I do a bit of exercise
By the fact that these assumptions have been identified you will have guessed that they are wrong. Well, they are not only wrong but, according to emerging research, some of them are contributing to disease, ill-health, obesity and premature death. The WHO, for example, has warned that the increase consumption of ‘energy-dense’ and ‘nutrient-deficient’ foods – such as certain animal products and all confectionaries – coupled with high doses of salt, sugar and saturated fat – again, animal products, confectionaries and all processed foods – have contributed to the exacerbation of disease and a three-fold increase in obesity rates.²
By the end of this module you will have experienced an in-depth insight into what a healthy diet looks like – in accordance with the recommendations espoused by contemporary nutritional science. Furthermore, you will possess (I hope) the knowledge of how to cultivate a diet that supports your weight-loss ambition while fortifying and strengthening your health, as opposed to undermining and weakening it.
In addition, you will develop a keen eye for distinguish unhealthy foods and you will be able to see through the disguise of ‘health’ that many foods have been cleverly cloaked in. This ability – or skill – is not to be disregarded and is of critical importance in the pursuit of a health-promoting diet.
There must be a billion and one blogs on the subject of diet – and a further million books to boot. Anyone who has ever entered even a small part of this enmeshed web of information will no doubt have become quickly entangled in confusion. To be sure, there is a staggering amount of contradictory advice on what constitutes as healthy eating.
And though it would be impossible to disentangle this giant web of confusion and contradiction, there is, if one looks close enough, a fine thread of continuity running through it all. Below I have encapsulated in a checklist the common consensus on what constitutes as a healthy, weight-loss-promoting diet. Underneath the checklist the points of primary concern have been explained in more detail.
cut out all processed food
cut out all refined carbohydrates: white rice/pasta/bread/etc.
drastically limit or remove sugar
drastically limit or remove all animal protein: dairy/poultry/meat/fish
drastically reduce or remove alcohol consumption
reduce snacking between meals
increase vegetable consumption – especially cruciferous vegetables (dark leafy greens) – preferably to 8 piece every day
increase fruit consumption – especially berries (as they low in sugar content but extremely high in essential vitamins) – preferably to 4 pieces every day
replace refined carbohydrates for wholegrains: brown rice/pasta/bread/etc.
consume clean liquids: herbal teas/fresh ground coffee/water
consume nuts and seeds
To improve health and reduce superfluous body fat all processed foods must be purged from your diet. As well as being over-laden with sugar, salt and saturated fat – all health filching ingredients – processed food is highly refined, nutrient deficient, and, perhaps most concerning of all, they contains chemical additives. .
In her book Swallow This Joanna Blythman brings our attention not only to the concerning use of chemical additives in processed foods, but also to the additional chemicals used in the manufacturing process and plastic packaging they are entombed in.
Task: stop reading! Go and make a list of all the foods in your cupboards and fridge that are processed.
But, you may well ask, what are processed foods? Examples of common processed foods include:
savoury snacks such as crisps, sausage rolls, pies and pasties
meat products such as bacon, sausage, ham, salami and paté
microwave meals and/or ready meals
drinks such as milk and/or soft drinks³
So now that you know what foods constitute as processed go and make your list – ensure to come back as soon as you have fulfilled this task.
(Assuming the task has been completed)
It stands to reason that, like most people living in the Western Hemisphere, your cupboards and fridge are packed to bursting with processed foods and as a consequence the list you’ve just made is a lengthy one.
This surfeit of processed foods (amongst a number of other reasons – identified below) accounts for why obesity, certain cancers, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and a plethora of other nasty, yet preventable, diseases are plaguing the west.
But you do not have to succumb to the miserable statistics that head this course. For you can, right of this very moment, take immediate action to cleanse your kitchen of those foods that increase your chances of disease and ill-health.
Simple! Bin all the foods on your list.
But I don’t like wasting food, you proclaim, in an obvious act of procrastination.
Fine, bag all those foods up and donate them to a foodbank. There, problem solved.
Listen, if you are serious about losing weight and improving your health you must be prepared to take decisive and serious action: no pussyfooting around! And one of the most important strategies to achieving those desirable ends – that of weight-loss and improved health – is by engineering an environment conducive to those ends.
It should be obvious that your chances of achieving weight-loss success diminish dramatically when temptation beckons behind every cupboard door. It’s for this reason why they must be eradicated. You know what to do.
Moving on . . .
A refined food has gone through a synthetic, mechanical process that transforms raw or natural produce into something that will eventually be eaten. However, during this process much of the nutrient value of the food is lost. For example, refining grains ‘removes the bran and germ, which contain important nutrients like B vitamins, iron, and fibre.’⁴
In addition to depleting the nutrient value of food, the refining process also strips grains of ‘roughage’ – otherwise known as insoluble fibre. The diminution of dietary fibre has been linked to increase rates of obesity and incidences of metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure and diabetes.
In a study of 40,000 males, researchers made a convincing link between high-fibre consumption and the reduced risk of coronary heart disease.⁵
Refined foods have also been shown to exacerbate weight gain while causing the adulteration of healthy eating habits. (And such foods, because they have been stripped of their roughage, do not quell the pangs of hunger like their superior wholegrain counterparts do.) People who regularly consume refined, sugary foods come to crave them – sugar is as addictive as some band psychotropic drugs. Moreover, they lose their taste for healthy foods which become ‘bland’ and ‘tasteless’.
This triggers a kind of negative behaviour reinforcing feedback loop where the addiction and lack of satiation drives consumption and the adulteration leads to the reduction of healthy foods in the diet. Thus, it is always best to abstain from eating processed, sugary foods.
Task: stop reading! Go make a list of all refined carbohydrates and sugary foods in your cupboards and fridge.
But, you may well ask, what are refined carbohydrates and sugary foods? Examples include:
bread and tortillas containing white flour
waffles and pastries
soda, fruit juice, and smoothies
condiments, such as ketchup or BBQ sauce
any and all confectionaries
(Assuming the task has been completed)
Right, now that you’ve made your list you know what to do. Bin!
Next . . .
The argument over the impacts of animal protein on health continues to be hotly debated. Health professionals, dietitians, nutritional scientists and deluded bloggers wage word wars weekly over whether the consumption of meat, poultry and dairy increase disease susceptibility.
However, though the effects animal protein has on health remains a contentious issue, the relationship between weight-gain and animal protein consumption is largely a settled matter – that is, the regular consumption of meat and dairy can cause weight gain. But this really shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the high saturated fat content of these foods.
The takeaway here is, if you are serious about losing weight you must start cutting down on meat and dairy consumption. Transitioning to a ‘plant-based’ diet – which consists primarily of vegetables, fruits and whole grains – may shave as many as 360 calories off your daily intake. And, unlike traditional weight-loss programmes, where the practitioner continues to consume animal protein but in restricted quantities, a plant-based diet does not require that you cut out meals. As Dr Greger notes, paradoxically, ‘a meatless diet could be considered an all-you-can-eat version of a calorie-restricted weight-loss diet, without having to count calories or restrict portion intake.’
Nowadays making the transition from fauna to flora is much easier than in former times. For not only are vegetarians and vegans increasing as a population group, making it socially more acceptable and accessible (when I first adopted a vegetarian diet I discovered dining out to be quite restrictive as few eateries offered meatless meals), but there are many emerging meat alternatives and literally millions of healthy vegetarian recipes.
‘Alcohol consumption contributes to 3 million deaths each year globally as well as to the disabilities and poor health of millions of people. Overall, harmful use of alcohol is responsible for 5.1% of the global burden of disease.’⁶
In addition to increasing your chances of developing fatty-liver disease, mouth, throat and breast cancer, brain damage and a whole host of other horrible health problems, alcohol consumption has been shown to contribute to weight gain.⁷
According to Dr Greger ‘moderate drinking does appear to protect against heart disease, perhaps because of a blood-thinning effect, but even light drinking (less than one drink a day) has been found to increase cancer risk.’⁸
And though the link between light drinking and weight gain is tenuous, with opposing and contradictory findings, ‘recent studies have shown that heavy drinking may be more of a risk factor for weight gain.’⁹
But, irrespective of where you class your consumption – light/moderate/high – if weight-loss is your goal, it is best to banish alcohol from your diet completely. Considering that 1 gram of alcohol contains over 7 calories, a glass or two each evening or over the weekend is only going to increase over-all calory intake which will ‘certainly promote a positive energy balance and ultimately weight gain,’ (ibid).
Though it has been argued that there are some benefits to consuming alcohol – such as decrease risk of developing heart disease and the augmentation of microbiome diversity – these scant positives pale under the enormous shadow of the myriad ills associated with drinking; which include addiction, cellular degradation, cirrhosis of the liver, genetic damage, cancer (of course), fatty liver syndrome, foetal damage in pregnant woman, obesity and neurological disorders.
Thus, for the person pursuing weight-loss and improved health, it would be prudent to abstain from alcohol consumption completely and work towards cultivating a teetotal lifestyle.
Snacking is also recognised as an enemy of weight-loss and health – of course, that is dependent on the type of snack foods being consumed. If snacks are processed, from a packet, laden with fat and/or sugar, they will – over time – exert a deleterious effect on health and contribute to the accumulation of unwanted body fat.
Ultimately, irrespective of what foods are being snacked on, it is always best to keep this behaviour to a minimum. The body needs far fewer calories than we realise. Two to three healthy plant-based meals a day will provide us with all the nutrients and energy we need to sustain daily activity.
Other Lifestyle Factors that Deteriorate Health and Promote Weight-gain
[Sedentarism is] The habits and routines associated with relatively low levels of activity and movement, leading to health-related problems such as obesity.
Oxford Reference – 2020
Being active is not about how much physical exercise you do each day, it’s about how often you move in a day. Even if you exercised for 30 to 45 minutes every day but spent the remaining twenty-three(odd) impersonating a potato, you’d still be leading a sedentary life.
Emerging research is starting to show that, people who are generally more active, who are up and about, they tend to be at a healthier weight and are less likely to develop the diseases associated with sedentarism.
So what does being more active look like?
It’s quite simple really. It’s about engineering your daily habits to include more movement. For example, a couple of years back I got so sick of sitting in traffic when commuting to work that I sold my car and bought a pushbike. Now I enjoy the six-mile commute. No traffic. No polluting. And an extra 40 minutes of exercise!
But of course this is not a tenable option for everyone; some people commute much further than six miles and others work from home – and others are just far too lazy. However, there are literally a million and one ways to get more movement into your life.
Before turning the keys in the ignition ask yourself: do I need to drive? Can I not make this journey by foot of bike?
Apparently, the majority of car journeys are entirely unnecessary and the distance so short that it could be covered bipedal in almost the same amount of time. (I read somewhere that the average American drives 1500miles a year but because the commutes are mostly short and there is a lot of traffic, they could walk the distance quicker!)
If possible go for an afternoon/evening walk. It only needs to be a 30-minute stroll at a gentle pace. That’s more than enough to burn calories and get the blood circulating.
When at your desk (presuming that, like the many millions of people across the globe, you spend most of your day tapping away at a computer) try standing or swop the chair for a stability ball. Or, if your company is too tight-fisted to supply you with an elevated desk and health & safety prohibits soft spherical objects, set a 20-minute timer to remind you to get up off your arse and move. Maybe go for a five-minute walk or do some squats.
Some quick ideas
spend as much of your days as possible in the horizontal position. On account of the heart having to pump harder to circulate blood, the body uses more energy when we are standing.
always take the stairs, never the escalator or lift.
walk when possible.
buy a cheap exercise bike and pedal while watching TV.
Dietary and lifestyle action plan
firstly, aim, over a one-month period, to cultivate a food environment conducive to weight-loss and health. Do this by reducing, removing or eradicating all processed foods, refined carbohydrates and animal protein.
ensure that all meals are cooked from fresh.
establish three meal-times – breakfast, lunch and dinner – and stick to them.
cease snacking – certainly on undesirables.
drink clean liquids.
remove alcohol completely from your diet.
move more – much more!
Recommended further reading
The China Study (author Collin. T. Campbell, PhD)
The science is clear. The results are unmistakable. You can dramatically reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes just by changing your diet. More than thirty years ago, nutrition researcher T. Colin Campbell and his team at Cornell, in partnership with teams in China and England, embarked upon the China Study, the most comprehensive study ever undertaken of the relationship between diet and the risk of developing disease.
How Not To Die (Michael Greger MD.)
How Not To Die gives effective, scientifically-proven nutritional advice to prevent our biggest killers - including heart disease, breast cancer, prostate cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes - and reveals the astounding health benefits that simple dietary choices can provide.
Ready to progress on to Module 4: Exercise?
(As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest, former Royal Marines Commando, is a personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.
¹Greger, M. Stone, G (2017) How Not to Die; USA; Pan
²World Health Organisation: Obesity and Overweight (2003)
(Caption Box) Blythman. J (2015) Swallow This. Fourth Estate. UK.
³ Processed foods list adapted from: nhs.uk/live-well/eat-well/what-are-processed-foods (2020)
⁴Johns Hopkins: Food Processing. http://www.foodsystemprimer.org/food-processing
⁵Harvard School of Public Health:
https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates/fiber (cited online (5/1/2021))
⁶World Health Organisation latest figures of global alcohol related deaths. ‘Harmful use of alcohol is accountable for 7.1% and 2.2% of the global burden of disease for males and females respectively.’
https://www.who.int/health-topics/alcohol#tab=tab_1 (cited online (5/1/2021))
⁷NHS – alcohol support (2020). (https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/the-risks-of-drinking-too-much/ (Cited online (5/1/2021))
⁸Greger, M. Stone, G (2017) How Not to Die; USA; Pan (‘Alcohol consumption contributes to 3 million deaths each year globally . . .’ p144).
⁹National Centre for Biotechnology Information. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/