WE may have been bombarded, as is only to be expected in the new year, with articles and advice about losing weight and getting fit, but I always feel that the dark days after Christmas are the worst possible time to think about a major overhaul. This time of year, when we start to feel things picking up, may be more conducive to success and to enjoying that success.
The science behind weight loss has seen some major shifts in recent years, and we know now that it’s far from being simply a matter of calories in versus calories burnt. But in terms of living a longer as well as a leaner life, a study out last month suggests that cutting calorie intake (in monkeys, who share the majority of our genes) by 20% extends lifespan by an average of nine years.
This reduction was achieved using the increasingly popular model—because it works and it’s pretty easy – of intermittent fasting. That is, they ate only between 8am and 5pm. I’ve also been delighted to discover more evidence that the notion of breakfasting ‘like a king’ is misguided and has been perpetuated largely by the cereal companies. People eating breakfast do not, it has been proven, eat less throughout the day because they make better choices (actually they eat more, which is really not surprising), and in fact the act of eating itself only stimulates hunger, and the release of fat storing insulin.
Aside from a lower calorie intake, intermittent fasting works by repopulating the gut with the good bacteria that helps reduce appetite, blood sugars and fat storage, and is now firmly at the centre of weight loss research. Just to take a couple of new research examples: from the US, bouts of eating badly change the gut bacteria profile so significantly that it becomes almost impossible – without intervention in the form of probiotic and prebiotic supplements and foods such as fermented and fibrous products – to shift the extra weight, or to avoid becoming even heavier after a weight loss diet has finished. And, from Israel, eating foods rich in flavonoids (many vegetables and some fruit) can help to restore the good bacteria sufficiently to return the body to its fat-burning mode.
We know that insulin, released when we eat carbohydrates, especially sugars and refined grains, causes fat to be laid down, but now it seems that there is a good reason, apart from issues of comfort eating, why stress makes us overweight. Not only does the stress hormone cortisol cause fat to be laid down around the abdomen but stress triggers the release of another hormone called Adamts1, which does the same thing.
The reason why getting enough sleep helps to keep weight down is also hormonal; it’s when we’re asleep that the body produces leptin, the satiety hormone. If we’re not getting enough it starts producing ghrelin, the hunger hormone, leading to study participants eating on average 300-400 more calories the following day.
Regular consumption of oily fish can help here, because omega 3 fats increase the body’s sensitivity to leptin, and their vitamin D and zinc content has also been found to boost weight loss. Full fat dairy, meanwhile, has now been shown to actually help, because it decrease fat absorption, and contains unique compounds such as CLA and butyrate that promote body fat loss.
Exercise is the key to ensuring that it’s fat you’re losing and not muscle, and of course muscle burns calories even while you’re resting. Another reason to stay active comes from a brand new study showing that sitting down for ten hours daily has such a cell-ageing effect that it creates a biological age that is on average eight years older than actual age—an effect, however, that can be completely reversed by simply exercising for half an hour a day. Do it in the morning to burn 20% more fat.
One of the new books I like is How to Lose Weight Well by the TV presenter Dr Xand Tulleken, which embraces all of the new thinking about skipping breakfast, and enjoying two healthy and above all tasty meals focusing on proteins with fats and huge amounts of vegetables. Below are some of his menu ideas, all serve two.
Roast carrot, goat’s cheese & lentil salad (652 calories)
Preheat the oven to 160 C. On a baking tray place 3 carrots, quartered lengthways, 3 quartered garlic cloves, 1Tbsp olive oil, 1 Tbsp honey, and the zest and juice of 1 lime. Stir well, and roast for 45 mins.
Add 200g cooked Puy lentils, season, mix well and arrange on some salad leaves. Crumble over 65g soft goat’s cheese. Dress with 1tsp tahini mixed with 1 Tbsp olive oil, juice of half a lemon, pinch of salt and 1tsp honey.
Fish and sweet potato fries (392 calories)
Soak two small sweet potatoes, cut into wedges, for at least an hour. Preheat the oven to 200 C. Dry the potatoes and coat well with a heaped tsp of cornflour, a Tbsp of olive oil and a pinch of salt. Bake for 30-40 mins.
Place two fish fillets on a baking tray, and add 1Tbsp of olive oil, the zest and juice of a lemon, 1Tbsp chopped capers and plenty of chopped parsley. Season, cover with foil, and bake for 12-15 mins.
Chocolate orange banana ‘ice cream’ (111 calories)
In a food processer, blend 2 bananas that have been peeled and frozen with 1Tbsp cocoa powder and the zest of an orange. This may take a minute or two. Serve immediately.