11th December 2015

Thinking: BAD food, bad thinking
Eating: Eating tactics
Exercising: The power of a little exercise

This will be my last fortnightly health newsletter of 2015. 

Next year, newsletters will be sent out on a monthly basis so I can get more articles written and start making videos.

All the best for Christmas and New Year. Enjoy a restful and happy time.

Here's #8.
Reading time: 9 minutes

All that we are is the result of what we have thought.”

— Gautama Buddha

THINKING - Bad food, bad thinking!

When we talk about food we often refer to it as being good or bad for us. This helps us make good decisions about what should or shouldn't go in our mouths. But what happens when we let so called ‘bad’ food in? In my experience the result is often guilt, shame and regret. When we eat bad food, we feel bad.

The psychology of eating is fascinating. I think about food a lot but I also think about why we eat the way we do. Why do we eat food that isn’t good for us? Why do we eat bad food even when we’re trying to be healthy? Take for example the biscuit paradox! Why can I not stop at one biscuit? Why does one biscuit lead to destroying a whole packet? There are a few possible reasons that I’ll discuss today.

Imagine how you would feel if you ate 20 apples. In nature sugar comes hand in hand with fibre. If you ever seen someone trying to eat a sugar cane you’d understand. Fibre slows down the release of sugar into the blood and fills our digestive system. But biscuits, sweets and cakes carry more calories and next to no fibre. This is one physiological reason why we can eat a packet of biscuits.

Then there's the evolutionary reasoning. We spent millions of years evolving a body and mind that can survive through tough times. We adapted to survive long periods without food. We developed a psychological drive to overeat food when it's available. When we overeat, we store energy in our body that takes care of us during times of hardship.

We are also driven to search out sweet, calorie rich foods. Before the agricultural revolution our best chance of finding such food was in a beehive! Honey had hunter gathers trekking miles for millions of years. And this would have been an infrequent treat. Today, 'honey' is everywhere we look. Sugar, thanks to its sweet taste and preserving qualities, is everywhere.

We know that sugar and biscuits are bad for us, so we try to cut them out of our diets. But when we do eat one, our primal brain starts thinking, “ah, biscuits, we haven’t seen these for a while. Let’s eat way more than we need, because we might not see them again for another month or two."

Biscuits are bad, they taste great but they're unhealthy. What’s funny is that eating just one infrequent biscuit, isn't bad for us. It won’t do any lasting damage. But how many of us can just eat one biscuit? I know many people that are like me, one biscuit opens up the floodgates to a whole packet being eaten.

Despite our primal urges to eat packets of biscuits I think there's something else going on, a psychological problem. I think some of us overeat to dull and numb the pain we don’t want to feel. Comfort eating as some people call it. As soon as I eat a little bad food, I start to feel bad. This is because I’ve labelled it bad for me. I feel like I’ve let myself down because I shouldn’t be eating that type of food. When I feel bad I want to eat more. But when there’s nothing left to eat I feel so much worse. That’s when guilt and shame turn up.

In the past this happened to me a lot. I used to fear Christmas, worrying about how much weight I would gain. Thankfully I much more mindful of my weaknesses today and so this Christmas I’ll be eating ‘bad’ food just like everyone else! The challenge for me is to avoid overeating bad food. I want to avoid feelings of guilt, shame and regret. I also want to avoid weight gain. So I’ll be entertaining my taste buds this Christmas but I'll be doing it with a plan.

Here are some things I'll be thinking about:

  • When will I let my hair down? Not too much not too little.
  • Can I plan to exercise before big meals or parties?
  • What triggers overeating? Alcohol is a big one.
  • Stay hydrated, overeating can be dehydration in disguise!
  • Choices are optimal or suboptimal. Not good or bad.
  • Tell myself I can have as much as I like, the biscuits will be there tomorrow. I don't need to eat them all now because today is the only day I'm allowed them.
  • I don't need to eat 'bad' food now, I can have it later.

For me sweet food is my vice. For others their vice might be alcohol, drugs or cheese! As soon as we call an action bad and then do it, we become bad. Just like when I say I'm not allowed mince pies, I then can’t get mince pies out of my head!

EATING - Christmas eating tactics

Is it possible to have your cake and eat it during Christmas? I've learnt a few tricks over the years to avoid packing calories onto love handles. Here they are:

  1. Pre-emptive eating - When faced with unhealthy meals, eat well beforehand so you’re not ravenous in front the buffet! A protein rich breakfast is always a good place to start.
  2. Never eat carbs on their own - eat them with fat and protein. Sounds counter-productive but fat loss and gain is not as simple as calories in and out. Fat and protein slows down the digestion of carbohydrates. Which reduces insulin spikes that funnel sugar into fat cells.
  3. Personalise your meals - yes I know it’s not very British to be picky, but our health is important. Ask for a larger serving of something healthy, and a smaller serving of something less healthy.
  4. Sleep well - sleep dictates willpower and hunger. A lack of sleep makes you crave sugary food.
  5. Watch out for alcohol - not only is it loaded with sugary calories but it also reduces our inhibitions. This causes us to overeat all the ‘naughty’ food that surrounds us at Christmas.
  6. Avoid unconscious eating - try to avoid eating whilst watching Christmas movies. Scientific studies have proven we eat much more when not eating mindfully.
  7. The 20 minute rule - before asking for extras or tucking into the chocolates wait 20 minutes. By then our stomach has had time to tell our brain we are full.
  8. Low carb mornings - if you restrict carbs during the morning/day and then work out it is possible to ‘abuse’ carbs in the evening. For those interested research John Kiefer, carb backloading to learn what’s possible.
  9. Fasting - especially for men, fasting can be a handy tool to deploy. The body has evolved over millions of years for feast and famine. If you force a famine then the feast doesn’t do as much damage. Fasting increases insulin sensitivity which helps reduce weight gain during Christmas. I’m not a fan of the format of Michael Mosleys 5:2 diet but there is a lot to be learnt from fasting.

In the most part, we gain weight because we don't use the calories we consume. But the type of food we eat has a much more important effect on our body than calories alone. When we are inactive calories from simple sugars are dangerous. They’re exceptional at making their way into fat cells. This situation is worse in humans that are overweight. Bodies with large deposits of abdominal fat don't handle carbohydrates well. This is due to something called insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes. So controlling blood glucose and insulin are key to staying healthy.

Here are a few bonus tips from Tim Ferriss, author of New York Times bestseller, The Four Hour Body. Tim wanted to learn how food affected his blood sugar. So he had a continuous glucose monitor implanted into his hip. He knew that if you control blood sugar you control insulin. And insulin is the hormone that makes fat cells grow.
Here they are:

  • Follow Tim’s Slow carb diet. Includes not eating white food (no processed flour, sugar, milk and other grains) and replacing them with beans, lentils and pulse.
  • Eat 30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking up.
  • Drink coffee with sweet desserts. Coffee speeds up digestion and decreases absorption.
  • Use the power of acid. Try consuming citrus fruits/ juices before going to town on a mince pie. A little diluted apple cider vinegar in water also works but isn’t so tasty. These both blunt blood sugar/ insulin spikes.
  • Add cinnamon to desserts and/ or your coffee. Cinnamon blunts the insulin response from a sugar laden treat.

Nb. There's an intelligent interplay between the use of caffeine, fructose and acids in controlling insulin. To learn more, buy the book, it’s a fascinating read!

EXERCISING - The power of a little exercise

For everyday life we should apply a kind of 80:20 rule. 80% of the time we should be making optimal choices about our health. The other 20% of the time we should allow ourselves a little bit of slack. During the Christmas period our 20% gets much bigger. So we need a tool to combat this to avoid unnecessary weight gain.

The best tool I know is exercise. By exercising before a feast we funnel the extra calories into our muscles and not onto our love handles!

Whenever we exercise, especially intense exercise, our muscles use up their stored sugar. In survival terms the body is now in a weak position. So immediately after we finish exercising the body begins a recovery process. This process makes sure the body is ready to combat danger again (or run away from it of course).

When we digest carbohydrates, sugar enters the bloodstream. To keep blood sugar balanced the pancreas secretes insulin into the blood. Insulin acts on glucose transporters (GLUT-4) to take sugar across cell membranes. GLUT-4 exist in our muscle cells and our fat cells. GLUT-4 is a gatekeeper that controls the flow of sugar in and out of cells.

When we don’t exercise enough GLUT-4 in the muscle become inactive. So blood sugar is funnelled into fat cells. As it turns out, we don’t have to do all that much exercise to make GLUT-4 active in muscles cells.

Performing some basic exercises (squats, lunges, press ups) before a meal can be enough to activate GLUT-4.  Try 30-50 body weight squats. And further activity an hour and or so after a big meal can also help. In China they have a saying, “if you take 100 steps after each meal, you can live to be 99 years old.”

So why not end a lovely Christmas meal with a nice family walk!

(I can just hear the abuse flying my way. I'm so grateful I enjoy the company of my family at Christmas and sorry for all those who hate their family.)

Good luck during Christmas, just remember the basics. Do the right thing 80% of the time and enjoy the 20% slack. Keep exercising and don't let the 20% get out of control! You'll be fine and even if you do get it wrong, you will be back on track before you know it.

Merry Christmas 


I hope these tips are useful, if there is anything else you would like me to talk about don't hesitate to get in touch at

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