Updated: May 3
A lot of dieticians and nutritionists tend to over-complicate the whole issue of weight loss/gain and fat, making it a minefield of perplexing facts that only qualified professionals are able to navigate. Thankfully, however, there are a selection of these professionals – one being a friend of mine called Rosie – who help to tear away the confusingly detailed limitations attached to this gargantuan life issue. Rosie organises presentations, normally conducted with a set number of highly qualified experts, with the intention of dispelling a lot of the rumours surrounding nutrition and to bring about a much broader and more scientific general understanding of one of the most prevalent topics of our lives. She has written an incredible book called 'Is butter a carb' which can be accessed here.
Organic vs non-organic
The last presentation of Rosie’s that I attended had a Q&A session at the end, during which the question arose of whether organic vegetables are actually any better than generic vegetables. According to a research study published in the Journal of Science, Food and Agriculture, there is in fact no clear evidence that organic food has higher nutritional value than food grown by non-organic methods – much like the scenario of the superfoods. The question of pesticides and preservatives and all of the other things that go with large-scale modern farming is a different matter but this does not affect the nutritional value of the produce. Organic farmers are doing great things for sustainability and the environment, which are good things to support but if you’re worried about nutrition and you don’t have enough money to spend on the organic variety, you’re not missing out on vitamins.
Another of the presentation’s hot topics, needing the trusted opinion of a professional to dispel the myths surrounding it, was that of detox dieting. Another fad that has received enough consummate PR to elevate it to a dietary must, it is in actual fact an exercise that provides the consumer with minimal benefits. The BBC documentary mentioned in the previous blog assembled two different groups of people to test the effectiveness of detox dieting over one week. The first group were prescribed a traditional balanced diet, consisting of meat, fish, pasta, rice, fruit, veg, eggs, dairy and wholemeal bread, with the odd glass of wine and cup of coffee (just to represent a normal diet). The other group (the not-so-lucky ones) were effectively banned from the majority of the first group’s diet and asked to eat raw and steamed veg (not so bad), with one daily portion of rice or quinoa, and steamed fish (their only meat) every other day. They were given detox tea or coconut water to drink twice a day in an apparent bid to boost the liver, which is our bodies own detoxifier. They also got a daily boost of hot water, lemon, maple syrup and cayenne pepper, which supposedly cleanses the digestive system.
For a full week, the participants stuck to their prescribed diets and underwent an array of tests comparing their liver function, heart rate, skin health, appetite and general well being, to see if the detox diet had any evident benefits.
The results favoured the traditional healthy diet group, showing far more positive functioning in their liver and heart and healthier weight and appetite. The detox dieters only benefited slightly – from healthier skin. The conclusion was that healthy, balanced dieting is the optimum way of living your life.
When it comes to getting the correct amount and balance of vitamins and minerals for your body to function as healthily as possible, is it really necessary to prescribe yourself a plethora of supplements? We, as a nation, now spend in excess of £300million a year on vitamins and fish oils, the biggest money spinners being multivitamins. Surely if we are spending that amount of money on such necessary nutriments, we can’t be wrong...can we?
Naveed Sataar, Professor of Metabolic Medicine at the University of Glasgow, has studied this topic. He has found that, assuming you’re not eating chronically unhealthily, taking multivitamins has no added benefit to your overall health and consuming extra doses to try to increase the storage of anything will not boost what you already have. Multivitamin trials have also found that they are conclusively ineffective at preventing heart disease, cancer or any other form of chronic disease – where, by contrast, the food sources in which they can be found are effective. Other research has also indicated, in extreme circumstances, that the unnecessary consumption of some vitamin pills, in a bid to stay as healthy as possible, can actually put you at risk of developing lung or skin cancer.
When it comes down to it, if you know you’re not eating a healthy balanced diet, no amount of supplements will be able to boost your health and fend off illnesses due to your inability to look after yourself. So the best way to protect and look after your body is to eat a healthy diet.
Meat has been receiving a lot of bad press recently, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) revealing that some meats have the ability to cause cancer and are linked to heart disease. 98% of people in the UK eat meat, with the average annual consumption equating to around 54kg. With such an abundance of it being consumed, surely it can’t be as bad as its made out to be?
Lets take a steak, for example. Nutritionally, 100g provides us with: 1% Calcium, 1% Vitamin D, 5% Magnesium, 13% Iron, 25% Vitamin B-6 and 36% Vitamin B-12, which, apart from the Calcium, Vitamin D and Magnesium, provide us with sufficiently high levels of the required vitamins needed for a healthy lifestyle.
Processed meats, however, have received the worst press of late, with the WHO professing that they are a definite cause of bowel cancer. What exactly is processed meat, though?
Meat is classed as processed when something has been added to it prior to consumer purchase (that something could be flavouring, salt, sugar or preservatives); or it has been modified in some way to make it last longer or to change its taste. Most types of meat are available in a processed form but the main provider of it is the pig. From the humble pig we get our most common forms of processed meats – ham, sausages, salami and the one thing that can turn even the most fervent of vegetarians: bacon.
To process a bit of shop-bought bacon, the joint needs to be cured by adding a mixture of preservatives to it, to extend its shelf life. Salt, sugar and sodium nitrite are added to the curing brine of the joint before leaving it to infuse for a number of weeks. Sodium nitrite is the only known preventative of the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which can be extremely toxic to human beings, leading to a disease known as botulism, a deadly form of food poisoning. Sodium nitrite is the main ingredient at the centre of the health warnings about processed meat, although its presence has no detrimental effects to the nutrients contained within the meat prior to processing.
Sodium nitrite is used to protect us from the bacteria that forms with the food going off. Despite this, it is also a potentially harmful substance when it reacts with our stomach acids and merges with the meat, forming compounds that are cancer causing. The WHO suggests that there is an 18% chance of cultivating a cancerous reaction to this. There is extensive research being carried out to replace sodium nitrite with a harmless substitute.
Risk analysts have suggested that eating two rashers of bacon is likely to shorten your life expectancy by the same amount as smoking three cigarettes. A sobering thought. You have to ask yourself, is processed meat worth the risk?
What about the health risks of unprocessed red meat? No processing and therefore no nitrite. Easy? No, although the WHO doesn’t put it in the same category as processed meat, it still believes it is ‘probably’ cancer causing. It is currently recommend that we eat no more than 70g (somewhere equivalent to the weight of two decks of playing cards) per day of either processed meat or fresh red meat, in order to give us the maximum nutritional benefit while limiting the risk of cancer. It doesn’t, however, limit our intake of white meat. So you can eat as much chicken as you like.
So there’s cancer but what about heart disease? The link between red meat and heart disease is well known, so in order to find out how much meat is actually safe to eat, a three-month experiment was conducted at Nottingham University, by Professor Andy Salter, to test whether cutting down the consumption of meat has the power to slow down or prevent heart disease. Forty volunteers who took part in the experiment were restricted to eating only half of their normal consumption of processed and red meats, which, for some of them, was quite a considerable amount. The other half continued eating as normal. They were all given blood tests throughout the experiment to measure any changes in cholesterol levels. The results found that by halving the consumption of red meat in your diet, levels of saturated fat in their blood significantly lowered, thereby reducing the Low-density Lipoprotein (LDL – bad cholesterol) and reducing your risk of heart disease.
The quantity of red meat consumed has actually dropped quite remarkably over the last fifty years, with lamb going down 60% and beef by 25%. We are, however, eating substantially more chicken; in fact, a whopping 335% more now than we did forty years ago, owing to the introduction of battery farms and the like. There is a deluge of different chickens available to buy, from the cheap and cheerful supermarket value range, all the way up to the organic, free range or corn-fed chicks. The way they are reared obviously has a massive impact on the welfare of the bird but if we sideline that (fundamental) aspect and concentrate on the nutritional state of the meat, is there a significant difference?
Nutritionist Dr. Laura Wireless conducted an experiment to uncover the health benefits and risks, if any, of eating five different types of chicken. The fat content was measured between a cheap supermarket chicken, a corn-fed bird, a free range supermarket chicken, a top end organic chicken and a forage diet farm bird.
Surprisingly, even though there is a shockingly huge price difference between the cheapest and most expensive, there was very little fat content difference between all of the birds; the corn fed one having ever so slightly the highest and the free range one having ever so slightly the lowest. When it came to assessing the fatty acids, with Omega-3 being beneficial and Omega-6 being detrimental, the corn-fed chicken’s ratio of the two was slightly less beneficial compared with the free range and the cheapest of the bunch, making the corn fed chicken the one you should avoid if you’re looking for a low-fat meat. Which is great if you want to save some money. Overall, though, chicken is a lean meat and low in saturated fat.
If you find chicken a bit boring and don’t want to risk the potential dangers of red meat, offal (the organs of the animal you normally devour), is not only substantially more nutritious than the rest of the body (over 50% in some cases), it is also very cheap. It used to be the staple of the British diet, in the form of pies and the like, but since the introduction of cheap fast food it has all but vanished from our everyday menus, declining in consumption by an incredible 88% in the last 20 years. Some offal is available from supermarkets but the best option is to try nipping into your local butcher to pick up a bag of offal for next to nothing – good butchers will be willing to share cooking advice and recipes, too, if you’re feeling nervous about the idea.
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