Chocolate is not unhealthy.

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This is something I often say to my clients. It’s very common for people to feel they “have a problem” with chocolate (insert other sweet food). When I ask my clients what they feel the problem is, the answer is often along the lines of “it’s bad for you” or “I eat too much of it” or “I need to lose weight”.

Let’s start with “It’s bad for you”…

No one food on its own is bad for your health. Eating 50g (or even 200g) of chocolate is not going to adversely affect your health, eating 10kg of chocolate in one sitting – if it were possible – would likely put you in hospital and quite possibly kill you! But so would eating 10kg of broccoli or drinking 10L of water in one sitting. The point being, it’s “the dose the that makes the poison”. 

This is when my clients might tell me “but I can’t just stop at 50g of chocolate, once I start, I can’t stop”. While there may be a number of reasons for this, one of the key reasons is labelling chocolate “bad” and trying to restrain yourself from eating it. At some point, restricting your eating nearly always leads to over-eating or binging, this has been well documented and if you have ever tried to control food intake through restriction, you’ll know what I am talking about.

Emotional hunger is another reason and this can be complex and often needs to be addressed with a skilled practitioner such a dietitian or psychologist who works in a weight neutral and non-diet space.

One of the biggest paradoxes with our dieting world, is that restricting food often leads to over-eating whereas allowing yourself to eat what you want when you feel like it, actually makes it easier to decide you’ve had enough. After all, when something is available all the time, we cease to be as excited by it and after a while, we may even lose interest. There are many biological, physiological and psychological reasons for this, which are explained in the books listed here.

In addition, when something tastes good and brings pleasure, why on earth do we insist this is bad for us? I think we can blame diet culture for this.

With respect to “I eat too much of it”…

When I ask my clients “what makes you think you eat too much?” The answer is usually to do with the sugar or fat content (or calories) and the idea that you can’t possibly lose weight eating chocolate. This is where it’s important to separate health from weight loss. There is clear evidence that shows people do not need to lose weight to see improvements in their health and in fact, focusing on weight loss often leads to poorer health. Click here for research. These facts aside, it is possible to eat chocolate and be a weight that is right your body.

If you can learn to separate your eating habits from weight loss, you can learn to enjoy chocolate, really enjoy chocolate, no guilt attached and still improve your health. The Non-Diet or Intuitive Eating approaches can help you with this. Separating your eating habits from weight loss can be difficult and you may need help from a skilled practitioner.

Lastly, I would like to argue that enjoying chocolate (insert other sweet food) is actually healthy. The ability to enjoy eating without fear, guilt or anxiety is pivotal to having a healthy relationship with food and your body. Having a healthy relationship with food and your body is vital for your overall health. Research shows time and time again, that the better your feel about yourself, the more likely you are to engage in healthy behaviours be they related to eating, being active, social or your mental health.

Thanks for reading and as always, I’s love to hear your thoughts on Facebook! The Moderation Movement.

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When it comes to nutrition and the human body, there is still much we don’t know and we still have so much to learn.

When I first started working as a dietitian, I could be quite dismissive of anything not backed by mainstream science or medicine. After 13 years working as a dietitian one of the key things I’ve learned, is that just because science hasn’t proved something, or Western medicine doesn’t agree with a particular idea, does not mean that idea is necessarily wrong. The human body is complex and nutrition is still a relatively new science, which means we will always be discovering new things and sometimes we will make mistakes and we will need to change our stance and text books will need to be rewritten.

So now, when a client, or anyone, tells me their homeopathic remedy or sugar free diet is helping them, I don’t try to explain that homeopathy is not grounded in science or that they shouldn’t eat sugar free. I listen to that person and if they feel strongly an alternative treatment or particular diet is helping them, I simply move on to find out why they have come to see me and how I might be able to help them.

Once I have established a good rapport with the client and they trust me, it’s very likely at some point we would discuss whether or not they are truly benefitting from eating sugar free, if they feel they are, then it’s not my place to tell them otherwise. If the client has a very disordered relationship with food and finding themselves bingeing on sugary food, or feeling highly distressed whenever they eat something with sugar, then this conversation would come earlier, but then that client is not comfortably eating a sugar free diet.

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I do however, get up in arms when nutrition claims that have no clear evidence, are broadcast as what someone MUST do to better their health. Or when a person, usually a celebrity or TV personality, uses their anecdotal evidence to encourage millions of people to do what they are doing because it worked for them. Especially when this can cause harm in some people, harm such as disordered eating, eating disorders, emotional distress, anxiety, poor body image and damaged self worth.

Peter F, Sarah W and Pete E may all have found salvation through quitting sugar (or going Paleo) and good luck to them, I am not denying it hasn’t helped them or many of the people who have also chosen to follow there rhetoric, but at this stage we don’t have evidence that what they promote actually improves health long-term (or on a population level), to be suggesting the entire population quit sugar or go paleo. The other factor we need to consider, is that if quitting sugar or going paleo is done in the context of calorie restriction with weight loss as the main objective, and often this is the case, then this is no different to dieting. There is clear evidence that dieting is ineffective and often leads to weight gain and that dieting is the number one risk factor for developing an eating disorder that does significantly worsen a person’s mental and physical health. No, not everyone who quits sugar or eats paleo will develop disordered eating or an eating disorder, but enough will and when there’s not enough evidence to back their claims, shouldn’t this be considered problematic? 

We do have an issue of highly processed (often sugary) food being too readily available at the expense of more nutritious food and this can and does cause health problems. I strongly believe the issue lies with food industry and policies, rather than the food itself. I don’t know what is required to address this, but I do know that focusing on the food products and the individual as the problem, is leading to a significant number of people ending up with a disordered relationship with food and adverse mental and physical health outcomes.

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Suggesting sugar is not evil does not mean you’re saying it’s ok to eat an entire box of donuts!

Why is it that when you speak out against extreme views, the perpetuators of those views suggest you must be encouraging the opposite – so with food, suggesting sugar is not evil means you’re saying it’s ok to eat an entire box of donuts!* 

This type of black and white thinking is what causes so much confusion around what it means to eat well. Some more examples…

Choosing not to quit sugar does not mean you are going to automatically eat excess sugar.

Choosing not to cut carbs doesn’t mean you’ll eat an entire loaf of bread everyday.

Enjoying a beer and chips does not mean you or your diet is unhealthy. In fact enjoying any food or drink seen as “unhealthy” does not mean you or your diet are unhealthy.

Equally… quitting sugar, or any food, or choosing to go vegan, paleo or gluten free does not mean you and your diet are automatically healthy. You can do these things and improve health, but they are not necessary, and in many cases extreme measures only have a short-term effect, with the longer-term effect being an on-going struggle with food and weight which leaves many emotionally and physically worse off.

The wonderful news is there is a place which flows somewhere in between the extremes of abstinence and excess and that place is called MODERATION. I say “flows” as moderation is not a static or fixed place. Moderation means sometimes saying no and sometimes saying yes, sometimes having a little and sometimes having more. All of this depends on the circumstances at the time of eating.

If you’re disagreeing with this and thinking that you are likely to polish off a loaf of bread or box of donuts, it may very well be because you’re trying restrict these foods. It’s human nature to “want what you can’t have” and making things forbidden, brings on “the forbidden fruit” effect and the food becomes even more enticing. A bit like that piece of clothing you see in a shop that you like (last one in your size) but you calmly pass it by before someone else picks it up to try it on, and suddenly you decide you really like it and pray they don’t buy it! Scarcity stirs up anxiety and abundance creates calm.

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With regard to food, especially carbohydrate rich food, these natural and very human tendencies are even stronger than with non-food items because our brains are wired to want carbohydrate rich food. Carbohydrate is the bodies most efficient fuel sources and your brain rewards you for eating them as this encourages basic survival. After a period of restricting sugar or carbs, your brains reward system will go even more nuts when you eat carbs and you can feel driven to just keep eating. This is often when people feel out of control and blame the sugar when your body’s just doing what it’s designed to do. 

If you choose not to cut out (or restrict) sugar (or carbs) from your diet, for most people, you’ll still want to eat these food, but your brain will not go as crazy for the food and you’ll find it easier to know when you’ve eaten enough. If you would like to understand more about this, check out what intuitive eating is all about.

Another layer of complexity with human behaviour around food is the food supply and food environment. Then there’s your socio-economic status which influences access to certain types of food in terms of availability and cost. If the food environment continues to be flooded with cheap highly processed foods, then I am afraid we may be fighting a losing battle when it comes to helping more people eat an adequate amount of fresh whole food (such as fruit, veg, legumes, nuts, grains, eggs, meat, fish, dairy) and not eating too much of the highly processed foods.

Note: for many people the drive to keep eating is more complex then what is described here, with factors such as the emotional strains of everyday life, stress, relationship issues, body image issues and past or present trauma being key drivers. If you feel this is you, I urge you to seek help from a non-diet dietitian or HAES® (Health At Every Size) practitioner. 

You can find us here:

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*As in most cases eating a whole box of donuts would leave one feeling uncomfortably full and somewhat sickly, I would not encourage this as you will get more satisfaction out of your eating experiences when you eat in a way that leaves your body feeling good – this is a key aspect of intuitive eating.  Now, if you eat a whole box of donuts mindfully paying attention to taste and satisfaction and how your body is feeling, if once you’ve finished you feel really comfortable mentally and physically (so not too full, sickly or with thoughts you shouldn’t have eaten them all), then eating a whole box of donuts may not be an issue. Provided the donuts are not displacing other nutrients on a regular basis or causing any other health issues, then no one has the right to tell you eating them is problematic. 

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No food on its own is unhealthy or bad for you

The reason no food on its own is bad for you and the damage that can ensue from such thinking…

Like with everything in life – context matters.

Extreme example to make a point:

If you were lost in the wilderness and all you had to eat for several weeks were cakes & pastries would they be bad for you?

A: No as this food contains the vital nutrients carbohydrate, protein and fat and believe it not, they even contain a range of vitamins and minerals. This food would also provide some water… It would help keep you alive.

Now I want you to imagine this same scenario but all you have to eat is broccoli, which would you be better off with, the cake or the broccoli?

If you said the cake, you’re right; while broccoli is an excellent source of many vitamins and minerals, it is a poor source of the vital nutrients carbohydrate, protein and fat. You might still be alive when you’re rescued after several weeks, but you would be in much worse shape.

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More realistic example:

It’s 3.30pm and you’re hungry, in your mission to be healthy you’ve brought a nutritious snack of chopped up veggies and hummus. It’s been a crazy busy day and you don’t have time to take a break, let alone time to sit down and munch on veggies and hummus (plus you’re really quite hungry and the veggies are not calling to you). You decide to ignore your hunger and skip your break. By the time you finish work at 5.30pm, you’re ravenous and on the way home you grab some food from a vending machine, this doesn’t really satisfy you and you continue to much your way through whatever is easy to eat once you arrive home. You then find you’re not that hungry for dinner but think you should eat anyway as at least it’s a nutritious meal. You end up stuffed full and feeling like you’ve blown your mission to be healthy. Neither your physical or mental health benefit in this type of situation.

Now I want you to imagine the same scenario, but instead of ignoring your hunger, you grab a muesli bar you’ve hidden in your bottom draw – you hid it when everyone told you sugar was evil and muesli bars were full of this “evil” (most aren’t). When you finish work at 5.30pm, you’re a little hungry and now you have time to enjoy your veggies and hummus. By the time dinner rolls around, you’re moderately hungry again and finish your meal feeling comfortably full and content. You’re pleased you made a choice that felt right for you in that particular moment – that’s choosing to eat the muesli bar – as it served you well and you ate a range of nutritious foods that satisfied you.

Note: I am not saying the veggies and hummus are better than the muesli bar, or that muesli bars aren’t a good choice, quite the contrary. In the scenario described here, the muesli bar was a good choice. I am also not saying food from a vending machine is bad and there are times where such food does the job. One of the complexities with nutrition, is that it is not black and white (unless of course you have a food allergy or Coeliac disease) and there is no right or wrong choice.

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The ability to be so selective with what we eat is a Western world privilege.

In terms of the Western world, I strongly suspect an over-abundance of food, our desire for convenience and of course the food industry, are reasons we have so much highly processed food in our diets. The proliferation of such processed food is, I believe, a large part of why so many people are turning to different forms of eating, be it ‘paleo’, ‘clean’, gluten free, quitting sugar, vegan etc. After all, if we only had fresh whole food available to us, the term ‘clean eating’ most likely would not have arisen. I also suspect that if we only had fresh whole food available to us, and this includes whole-grains and legumes, the paleo diet also would not have come about. There is no doubt the over-use of refined sugar in processed food is a why people have started quitting sugar.

The one thing all these new styles of eating have in common is the elimination of highly processed food. Well at least that’s what the idea was, the food industry has responded with plenty of packaged paleo food (there’s paleo chips, paleo chocolate, paleo protein bars, paleo muesli) and highly processed sugar-free (insert anything free) food, which ironically is exactly how we got into this “food fight” in the first place. Watch this space, in a few years there will another style of eating to combat all the new processed food that has infiltrated paleo, clean eating and quitting sugar – at some point I’m sure the halo will fall from rice malt syrup and it too will be seen as “evil”.

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While all this goes on, there are millions of people in the world who are just happy to have whatever food is available. They have no interest in whether the food is sugar free, clean, paleo, alkaline or Calathumpian and most likely they don’t even know theses terms exist – except maybe Calathumpian.

Rice, maize (corn) and wheat provide 60 percent of the world’s food energy intake (see source below). Of the top 10 crops in the world, all are carbohydrate rich food. I am not suggesting that this is the way it should be, but it is the current situation. The overwhelming majority of people in the world cannot afford (and I don’t just mean financially) to adhere to these Western world food trends. Luckily for them, they don’t need to, and nor do we. I’m not saying eating clean, paleo or sugar free is wrong, I’m just pointing out it’s not necessary in order to eat well and looking at some of the reasons these styles of eating have come about. Dietitians and nutritionists have been banging for years about reducing sugar – for some reason our collective voice is not really heard, it seems you need to be a celebrity, or have the message SUGAR EQUALS DEATH to be really heard. The power of the food industry might just be playing a part in our voices being drowned out, and this is probably happening to quitting sugar too.

However you choose to eat, try to keep things simple, ensure the bulk of your diet is whole fresh food (veggies, fruit, nuts, legumes, whole-grains, eggs, meat, fish, dairy, oils etc), consider how much highly processed food you consume, from an environmental and nutritional stand point, and be thankful you have access to so much nourishing food. Try to avoid placing a moral value – I’m being so good, let’s be naughty – on how you eat, or following a style of eating that doesn’t fit in easily with work, family, social events or travel, or where you don’t receive pleasure from food and eating.

Why? Aside from the practical difficulties and having to restrict food you might actually enjoy eating, restrictive eating can foster an unhealthy relationship with food and can lead to disordered eating or eating disorders. If one of your reasons for following a specific style of eating is weight loss or your appearance, then you may be increasing your risk of body image dissatisfaction, weight cycling and ultimately, weight gain. If you have ever dieted, you will know what I mean.

Note: if you have been properly diagnosed with Coeliac disease or a gluten intolerance by a health professional, then of eating gluten free is necessary for you. Vegan is also an ethical choice for which a person has every right to.

Source: What the world eats

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10 things more evil than sugar

After seeing an ad for show that described sugar as the enemy of the 21st century, I thought I needed to bring a bit of perspective to this fashionable belief.

By no means is this list exhaustive and they are in no particular order. And no I am not being paid by BIG sugar, or anyone for that matter as I work for myself.

  • Civil war
  • Domestic violence
  • Being overworked to the point of high stress
  • Inadequate sleep
  • Our culture’s obsession with always being busy
  • Our culture’s weight bias and weight stigma
  • The believe that anyone above a BMI of 25 should lose weight for health
  • Relentless promotion of an image of the “ideal” female or “ideal” male body which doesn’t actually exist due to digital manipulation/air brushing etc
  • Highly restrictive diet programs that claim not to be pyramid selling schemes but really are
  • Minimally qualified nutrition “experts” who claim their way of eating is the only way and everyone should do as they say, not always as they do

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I want to discuss a few of these in relation sugar.

Example 1.

When people are working long hours, stressed out of their mind and not getting enough sleep – a common product of our culture’s constant drive to always be doing something, earning more, achieving more, being more – it’s not unusual to reach for more highly processed sugary food to get through the day. When we don’t have time to organise lunch, convenience food is often the quickest, easiest thing available.

So is the issue here the sugar, or is it much more complex and tied up with the need to earn a certain amount of money, to feel worthy and that you’re doing enough, to meet the demands of a culture that always seems to demand more, or to escape relationship problems? Combine this with the abundance and ease of attaining the sugary food and it’s a match made in heaven for the food industry.

Example 2.

When people are constantly exposed to thin, lean or “ripped” bodies, and these bodies are held up as the picture of health, happiness, attractiveness and success, people are encouraged to feel their bodies are not good enough, not thin enough, and they should work to change them. When we misguidedly equate health with weight, this reinforces the desire to be thinner. All this contributes to a culture of dieting and restricting food, especially “forbidden” food, which is usually always followed by episodes of over-eating or binging on the very food that was restricted, often the “forbidden” sugary food.

So is the issue here the sugar, or is it much more complex and tied up in many people’s unhappiness with their appearance (and sometimes lives), the desire to look a certain way as driven by various industries and the heavily promoted and misguided notion that anyone with high BMI should lose weight?Combine this with the belief that some food (especially sugar) is “bad” and should be completely avoided, and you have a recipe for a “what the hell, who cares” shame fuelled eating session that doesn’t help anyone.

Pardon my long sentences…

For those of you thinking, if the sugar wasn’t available people wouldn’t be eating too much; is it really the sugar that’s the problem or is it the overabundance of sugar in our food supply driven by capitalism and politics?

The message here, in case I need to spell it out to those who truly believe sugar is evil, is not that we can eat as much sugar as we like and be perfectly healthy. The message is that health is so much more complex than just what we eat and certainly just one component of food.

Yes many people could benefit from eating more fresh fruit and veg and less sugary foods, but many/most of these people also need to address the other complexities of life and being human as discussed above.

So please let’s not oversimplify health to be about too much sugar.

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