Fat, Low Fat Diets and Health

Since the 1970s the message from government and public health bodies has been that dietary fats (especially saturated fats) need to be reduced in the nation’s diets.  Even today the general public health message is that dietary fat is associated with weight gain, cardio vascular disease and possibly a whole range of other problems such as diabetes and certain cancers – however there is an increasing body of science that casts doubt on these claims.

The government watchdog that assesses and advises on the efficacy of medical interventions and public health initiatives (NICE) still advises that at least 50% of our energy from food should come from carbohydrates (sugars), no more than 35% should come from fats (saturated fats should form no more than 10% of dietary energy intake) and 10% to 15% should come from protein sources.

Weight management is still generally promoted through restriction of fats as these are very energy dense foods.  Indeed since the 1980s the food industry in particular has promoted low fat (high carbohydrate) meals and foodstuffs.  Yes still the nation gets bigger, type II diabetes is increasing rapidly and coronary heart disease shows no sign of becoming less prevalent!

However since the millennium researchers have been looking at alternative approaches to a healthier diet. Recent evidence from 2002 onwards (see especially Westman et al, 2007) suggests that a carbohydrate restricted, moderate protein and higher fat diet may be more effective in weight loss, managing diabetes, reducing cholesterol and even high blood pressure than the historic low fat/high carbohydrate diets.

This superficially would make no sense, as fats are far more “energy dense” than carbohydrate.  However higher fat/low carb diets have been shown to  –

  • Lead to reduced amounts of processed food in the diet
  • Perform better at reducing weight loss – especially central obesity
  • Provide increased satiety/satisfaction from food
  • Improve HDL levels (good cholesterol)
  • Reduce plasma levels of fats
  • Reduce blood pressure

Indeed the benefits of higher fat/low carbohydrates diets would appear to be higher for people with insulin resistance.  The Swedish government now recommends high fat/low carbohydrate approaches to tackling overweight and obesity.

So are all fats good?  Well probably not, so it would still be wise to avoid trans fats/hydrogenated fats (man made fats) as these are associated with inflammation in the body.  It is also probably wise to increase our levels of unsaturated fats (from plants or oily fish) more than natural saturated fats (such as butter, cheese, cream, fats in meat etc).

Sugar and Ageing

High sugar diets are not only implicated with heart disease, cancer, diabetes and dementia – scientists now believe that they can cause the skin to prematurely age.  Indeed many scientists now argue that high sugar consumption is as aging for the skin as smoking.

All the evidence indicates that Britons love sugary treats and we consume roughly 3 times the recommended daily amount – government guidelines indicate that no more than 5% or 30g should be consumed.

So how is sugar guilty for not only making us fat and unwell, but also looking older?

There are two important proteins in our skin – Elastin (which gives it stretch) and Collagen (which plumps it out).  Both of these proteins are gradually lost over time resulting in wrinkles and saggy skin, however high sugar diets massively speed this process up.

Sugar “spikes” during the day, as we eat our cakes and biscuits, causes the release of insulin into the blood – this causes inflammation under the skin and eventually leads to the degradation of elastin and collagen, through a process called glycation.

The safest and easiest way to avoid the ravages of sugar (and time) is simply to reduce the amount of free sugars consumed by trying to eat low GI foods and keeping the chocolate cake as an occasional treat!!

Pilates and Lower Back Pain

Do you have lower back pain and have tried everything, but still got no relief? Have you read newspaper articles that have given curl ups and twists for lower back pain and ended up in even worse pain?

Lower back pain is endemic in our society (it is estimated that 80% of all adults will suffer at least one episode of “severe” lower back pain in their lifetime (the true figure could be closer to 100%). Well our sedentary lifestyle, posture and limited movement patterns all contribute.

Well below I have listed 7 Pilates based exercises that in my experience have really helped clients.

  • Pelvic Tilts (1 minute) 
  • Knee Folds (2 minutes)
  • Swimming from Kneeling (1 minute)
  • Side Bend/lateral lift (3 reps on each side)
  • Shoulder Bridge (10 reps)
  • Supine Hamstring Stretch with Belt (hold for minimum of 1 minute)
  • Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch (hold for minimum of 1 minute)

Really important is to remember what NOT to do when you have back pain.  Avoid forward flexion, straight leg lifts and all twists.

Difficult Ground

It is estimated that the average Briton walks approximately 2.2 miles per day (the Government advice is 5 miles a day or equivalent activity) and the average citizen of the USA only walks 0.6 miles per day.

As human beings we evolved to move, specifically as hunter gatherers it is believed our ancestors would cover 3.5 to 10 miles per day.  Moreover is it also believed that the development of the human brain was (at least in part) due to deal with these walking and running behaviours (walking over difficult ground requires more eye-brain coordination, quick decision making and quicker reflexes).  Some scientists also believe the “S shaped” curve of our spines developed due to our bipedal movement on challenging ground.  Also it should be borne in mind early humans would be traversing uneven and often difficult surfaces – all of which are now known to stimulate brain activity, brain development and physical development.

However in the 21st century our reduced levels of activity and the presence of smooth surfaces in towns and cities, means that our joints and brains are less challenged.  Our movements now tend to be linear with little or no rotation or lateral movement.  Limited movement patterns will obviously lead to accelerated joint wear via soft tissue imbalances, but it is also theorised that they can –

  • increase mental decline
  • damage the cardio vascular system by increasing blood pressure
  • reduce muscle tone
  • lead to weight gain via reduced calorie expenditure
  • decrease balance
  • reduce proprioception

To put it crudely walking on “nice safe surfaces” may lead to accelerated aging.

Research in China has also shown that walking/running on difficult ground reduced blood pressure, improved balance, helped restful sleep and improved mood.  People suffering chronic pain reported reduced pain scores.

So if possible take yourself “off path” – in a park, walk on cobbles/uneven surfaces in towns, go for a hike in the countryside.  Start slowly and if you have a health problem speak to your health practitioner before starting your “off road challenge”.

Good luck.

Stress, Cortisol and Belly Fat

Fat serves many functions in the human body – energy storage, protection of vital organs, vitamin and mineral storage, thermal insulation, is an essential component of certain hormones (including the sex hormones and steroidal hormones eg cortisol and adrenaline and lastly fats helps the body produce make cell membranes and the fatty nerve insulation called myelin.

There are fat cells all over the human body, although the distribution varies from person to person.  The fat cells lying just under the skin are called subcutaneous fat cells, whilst the deeper fat cells which wrap around the inner organs are called visceral fat cells.  The majority of people are worried about the subcutaneous fats as this can be seen – however the more dangerous fats are those deeper in the body which are the visceral fats.

Visceral fat cells produce cytokines which trigger low grade inflammation in the body.  Chronic inflammation has been linked to a whole array of illness including cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, diabetes and even dementia.  Indeed of all the visceral fat areas, the most dangerous for health are said to be those around the abdomen – the “beer belly” or more correctly central obesity.

So what can be done to reduce this dangerous fat storage?  Exercise and diet is often inadequate to shift these fats.

It is now thought that central obesity is the result of chronic stress which activates the HPA axis (a cascading chain of hormones) that ultimately leads to cortisol production.  Cortisol once produces remains in the body for days and has the effect of encouraging fat storage in the abdominal area (in a organ called the omentum).  Vigorous exercise and dieting can even cause the body to lay down more fats in this area, as these can often stress an individual more!!  In essence active but stressed people may develop belly fats they find almost impossible to shift.

Recent research would seem to indicate that more gentle activities (ie those that reduce stress in individuals) may be more effective than exercise or diet alone.  Positive results have been produced with gentle Yoga, breathing exercises, meditation, guided relaxation and Tai Chi in addition to good diet and a healthy level of daily exercise/activity

The Chemistry of Happiness

Yogis, sages, wisemen and philosophers have long questioned the human search for happiness – it purpose, role, how to achieve happiness and even if happiness exists.  Well in this post I will examine how the body’s “chemical factory” may provide a series of keys to how and why we experience the state we describe as happiness.

Happiness is often described as the inner state of joy, lack of worry, contentment or absence of inner agitation.  But why is happiness sought and what is the purpose of happiness.  The modern world is awash with anxiety, depression and absence of happiness.

It is argued that our evolutionary biology makes us feel good or happy to reward behaviours that increase our chances of survival.  For example the pleasures of food or sex, drive us to indulge in these behaviours.  However the development of modern cultures with new technologies  have switched off our body’s chemical happiness factories through lack of exercise, poor diet, social isolation, repetitive activities and isolation from nature.  Most of the chemicals described below are hormones (chemical messengers), produced by the brain or for the brain.

Happy Hormones

1. Endocannabinoids – “The Bliss Molecule” 

Endocannabinoids are self-produced cannabis substances that work on the receptors of the cannabinoid system in the brain.   Aerobic and endurance activities are said to increase their production, eg the “runner’s high”.  Many spices (especially those traditionally used in curries) can stimulate these chemicals and foods rich in omega 3 can also help these “bliss” chemicals

2. Dopamine –  “The Reward Molecule”

Dopamine is responsible for reward-driven behaviour and pleasure seeking. Every type of reward seeking behaviour that has been studied increases the level of dopamine transmission in the brain. If you want to get a hit of dopamine, set a goal and achieve it.

Many addictive drugs act on the dopamine receptors in the brain (especially stimulant drugs like cocaine).  Extrovert people often have high levels of dopamine.

Foods that can help include oily fish, plants rich in omega 3 oils, nuts/seeds, cheese and eggs.  Dark green leafy vegetables are also useful.   These foods help both dopamine and serotonin production.

3. Oxytocin –  “The Bonding Molecule” 

Directly linked to human bonding and increasing trust and loyalty.  This hormone can be stimulated by skin to skin contact, affection, love making and other forms of intimacy.  In fact any of close personal human contact stimulates this hormone (some studies have shown having a pet and cuddling it produces the same chemicals!).

In a cyber world,  we often lose sight of the fact we absolutely need human face to face contact – digital contact is a very very poor replacement for this.

Foods that have high levels of phyto – oestrogens may help stimulate oxytocin.

4. Endorphin: – “The Pain-Killing Molecule”

Endorphins resemble opiates in their chemical structure and have analgesic properties. Endorphins are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus during strenuous physical exertion, sexual intercourse and orgasm – make these a regular part of your life to bring more happiness into your life.

Spicy foods, dark chocolate and ginseng can all have a positive effects on endorphin levels.

5. GABA: – “The Anti-Anxiety Molecule” 

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is an inhibitory molecule that slows down the firing of neurones and creates a sense of calmness. You can increase GABA naturally by practicing yoga, meditation and relaxation.  Benzodiazepines  that work as anti-anxiety drugs by increasing GABA.   Studies show Yoga may increase GABA significantly.  Nuts, seeds, good plant oils and oily fish can also increase GABA production.

6. Serotonin –  “The Confidence Molecule” 

Serotonin plays so many different roles in our bodies.  High levels bolster self esteem, increase feelings of worthiness and create a sense of belonging. To increase serotonin, challenge yourself regularly and pursue things that reinforce a sense of purpose, meaning and accomplishment.  

Foods that can help include oily fish, plants rich in omega 3 oils, nuts/seeds, cheese and eggs.  Dark green leafy vegetables are also useful.

Low levels are associated with anxiety, depression, eating disorders, OCDs and increased pain perception.

A variety of popular anti-depressants are called SSRIs help keep serotonin levels high artificially.

7. Adrenaline –  “The Energy Molecule” 

Adrenaline, technically known as epinephrine, plays a large role in the fight or flight mechanism. The release of epinephrine is exhilarating and creates a surge in energy. Adrenaline causes an increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and works by causing less important blood vessels to constrict and increasing blood flow to larger muscles.

An ‘adrenaline rush’ comes in times of distress or facing challenging situations. It can be triggered on demand by doing things that terrify you or being thrust into a situation that feels dangerous. You can also create an adrenaline rush by taking short rapid breathes and contracting muscles. This jolt can be healthy in small doses, especially when you need a pick me up.

Taking risks, and doing scary things that force you out of your comfort zone is key to maximising your potential.   Coffee, tea, citrus juices, chocolate and cocoa can all elevate levels of this hormone.

Mindless Yoga

In an age where more is better, slow is boring and novel is neat the need for Yoga is never more needed to restore our overworked minds and bodies.   Many would argue we live in a fast, mindless, unlovely and disconnected World.  Yoga traditionally has offered focus, grace and connection.

But … if our Yoga practice has been “infected” by the anxieties, superficiality and mindlessness of the age … what is to be done?  When we leave our mat at the end of practice are we more or less at peace have we greater or less awarenessare we more detached or more opinionatedmore critical or less criticalPut simply true Yoga practice should NOT lead to an increase in attachment (Raga), aversion (Dvesha) and the creation of samsaras (habits or traits) – the purpose of our Yoga practice is to give us more freedom not less!!!


The application of the simple tools of mindfulness to our Yoga practice can do much to regenerate our practice and bring it back to a true spiritual practice.

Mindfulness, is a small subset of practices from Buddhism, which can be applied in everyday life.  Mindfulness has been defined as “Paying attention on purpose to the present moment, without judgement”.

The Application of Mindfulness to Yoga

Attitude and Mindfulness

  • Non judgemental/impartial witness
  • Patience – letting things unfold
  • “Beginner’s mind” – don’t let previous experiences cloud the present
  • Trust and especially self trust
  • Non-striving
  • Acceptance
  • Letting go of thoughts, feeling and situations

Simply Sitting

Use any simple seated asana to start your Yoga practice and aim to sit for 10 or 15 minutes.

  • Scan body for physical sensations. Note posture.
  • Scan for feelings and emotions that may arise.
  • Watch and witness thoughts and thought patterns. Be attentive that you do not engage with thoughts – this will give them energy.
  • Watch breath and attributes of breath.

Asana Practice

Mindfulness can be applied to any Yoga practice – strong or gentle.

  • INHALE when foot leaves floor and EXHALE when foot touches floor.
  • Breath – inhale entering (deepening) in posture and exhale when coming out of posture.
  • Watch for physical sensations of tension and relaxation in the body.
  • Watch for the upwelling of emotions during practice, especially ANGER, IMPATIENCE and BOREDOM.
  • It is said that the asana only really begins when we want to leave it.  Stay a little longer if possible.
  • When mind wanders from practice – REMEMBER YOURSELF – draw back and focus.

Relaxation Practice

Always finish each Yoga session with a period of relaxation.  Just lie and observe as when simply sitting to start the practice.

Sirtuins and Health

You may not know what sirtuins are – but if you have a chronic health problem and/or are trying to lose weight, you may be interested to find out!

Sirtuins are proteins found in the body that contain specific enzymes and regulate certain biological pathways – such as ageing, transcription (the copying of DNA on replication), apotosis (programmed cell death) and inflammation.  Particularly important is sirtuins ability to protect cells in the body from dying when they are under stress.

Also sirtuins may be able to influence the body’s ability to burn fat and boost metabolism leading to weight loss.  It is thought excess weight is both a sign of bodily inflammation AND excess weight can also stimulate inflammation.

Well what are these “superfoods”?  Common ones include –

  • Green Tea
  • Coffee
  • Dark chocolate (that is at least 90% cocoa)
  • Apples
  • Citrus fruits
  • Parsley
  • Turmeric
  • Onions
  • Kale
  • Blueberries
  • Capers
  • Olive oil
  • Red wine (high in polyphenols and resveratrol)

However like all diets there is a need to have a sensible balanced eating plan, but increasingly our consumption of sirtuin stimulating foods can do nothing but good.