A new “diet” resolution this year – Self-Monitoring

Here’s another piece I’ve already written!  This is my Nutrition 101 article that appeared in the December-January issue of Oasis magazine discussing the strategy of self-monitoring to facilitate weight loss.

Enjoy!

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The New Year is right around the corner, which for many means resolutions.  Among the more popular promises people make to themselves this time of year are quitting smoking, reducing stress, spending more time with their family and of course exercising more or losing weight.

If weight loss is your goal this upcoming year, I’d suggest skipping the fad diets and trying a strategy that’s been shown to be incredibly effective for people looking to shed pounds and keep them off: Self-Monitoring.

What is Self-Monitoring?

Self-monitoring refers to the practice of observing and recording your thoughts and actions, and subsequently using this information to provide on feedback on your behaviors. When we talk about using self-monitoring as a strategy for weight loss, this usually means food and/or activity logs, as well as weekly weighing.

Why does it work?

To put it simply, self-monitoring increases awareness.  It is a lot more difficult to justify eating two McDonald’s cheeseburgers plus fries and a Coke, when you see it staring right back at you in your food log.

Food & Activity Logs

The most common method of self-monitoring for weight loss is maintaining a food and/or activity log.  Of course you can do this the old-fashioned way with a pen and paper, but today there’s so many resources available (apps, books, online nutrient databases, etc.) it’s easier than ever to keep track of your diet and exercise using your computer, phone or tablet.  Whatever method you choose to track your diet make sure to at least record the type of food, amount and calorie information.  Most people tend to underestimate their portions, so it’s not a bad idea to invest in a food scale and set of measuring cups.  If you’re tracking your activity, ideally you should record the exercise type, intensity and duration.

If you’re looking for a comprehensive online nutrient database, the one from the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) is my preferred option.  Fitday and MyFitnessPal are a couple of the more popular free websites that have accompanying apps to track your diet and exercise.

Weekly Weighing

As someone who often touts that health is not measured by a number on a scale, it may seem strange for me to be advocating that people who want to lose weight make sure they weigh themselves weekly and keep a record of it.  Weekly weighing is not a strategy intended to pass judgement on your health (or self-worth), rather as a tool in which to inform. If your goal is to lose weight, it can be empowering being able to see the direct consequences of your diet and exercise choices.  Weekly weighing increases awareness and influences behaviour, which is ultimately what we’re going for here.  For maximal accuracy pick up a good quality scale (or use the one at your gym) and make sure to always weigh yourself at the same time each day.

The Bottom Line

People who self-monitor are more likely to lose weight and keep it off compared to other dieters who don’t.  Having to be so meticulous in recording your food, activity or weight may seem onerous at first (and it probably will be), BUT it does get easier.  By the time you get good at it, it shouldn’t take more than 10-15 minutes/day.  Seems like a small price to pay if you’re able to keep the weight off for good this time, doesn’t it?

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Antioxidants – Hype vs. Reality

Since I’m on the road right now, for the next couple of weeks I’ll be sharing a few articles I’ve previously written for Oasis magazine.  This one in particular is about the topic of antioxidants.

Enjoy!

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antioxidants

Antioxidants entered the public consciousness in the 1990s when researchers began to understand that damage caused by reactive oxygen species (ROS), also referred to as free radicals, was linked to various chronic diseases including clogged arteries (atherosclerosis), vision loss and some types of cancer.  This led to a rush of products featuring antioxidants, as well as antioxidant supplements hitting the shelves of supermarkets and pharmacies.  But with all the hype it can be difficult to know, how much do they actually help?  Let’s try to tease apart hype from reality when it comes to antioxidants.

How antioxidants work

First, a quick lesson on how antioxidants work.  ROS are compounds that steal electrons from others compounds in the body.  They are natural by-products of metabolism or exposure to sunlight, and can also be found in the food we eat, as well as the air we breathe.  The problem with ROS is that stealing electrons from other compounds not only results in damage to DNA, cell membranes and basically anything else they come in contact with, but the compounds they’ve stolen electrons from become ROS themselves in a sort of chain-like reaction.

Antioxidants are the defense against ROS.  They neutralize ROS by giving up an electron without turning into ROS themselves.  They’re basically the body’s version of using water to put out a fire.

Antioxidants in your diet

Our body naturally produces a whole host of antioxidants to deal with ROS, but we can also obtain them from food.  The best sources of antioxidants are fruits and vegetables (generally the brighter the color, the better), coffee, tea, nuts, whole grains, wine and, yes, even chocolate (but only the dark kind!).  Diets high in antioxidant containing foods are consistently associated with lower rates of chronic disease as well as longer lifespans, but it’s difficult to determine how much of these benefits can be directly tied to the antioxidants themselves.

To supplement or not

So, antioxidants from our diet are probably a good thing, but are you getting enough?  Should you consider supplementing just to be sure?  Some common antioxidant supplements include vitamin C, vitamin E, beta-carotene, selenium, manganese, glutathione, coenzyme Q10, flavonoids, phenols, polyphenols and phytoestrogens.

Unfortunately outside of very particular situations there is little evidence to suggest that, supplementing with antioxidants staves off many of the diseases they are often claimed to and in some cases may actually be harmful.  For example, beta-carotene supplementation appears to reduce help prevent the development of macular degeneration (a form of blindness), but had no benefit in terms of heart disease or stroke, and actually increased the chances of developing lung cancer in smokers.

The Bottom Line

Antioxidants play an important role in protecting the body from damage caused by ROS.  Your primary source of antioxidants should be food, ideally from varied sources, including fruits and vegetables.  Most people do not benefit from taking antioxidant supplements, however if you are considering doing so, you should first discuss with your physician or dietitian to minimize the risks of any potential negative side-effects.

Tips for keeping an eye on health this holiday season

healthy-holiday-gift

As an expat living in Egypt, the holiday season isn’t all that much different than it is back in Canada.  Besides the relatively balmy weather we still experience many of the same things we do back home (albeit admittedly it’s a little more subdued), including workplace gift exchanges, holiday-themed decorations in malls and stores, Christmas trees for sale on the street, and of course parties.  This week alone I had 3 different holiday parties to attend.  And with all the celebrations going on, it can be pretty easy to let your health slide.

Here are a few tips that will allow you to keep your health at the forefront this holiday season, whether you’re at home, abroad or even on the road…

1. Refocus on fitness. Don’t wait until the New Year to make this resolution.  Life during the holidays can get busy for us all but that doesn’t mean your exercise schedule should fall by the wayside.  Make a plan to continue being active during the break, and most importantly, make it non-negotiable.

2. And don’t use your exercise as an excuse to overindulge later in the day. We tend to give ourselves permission to overindulge with food after a big workout.  I get it, I’ve done it myself.  The problem with this logic is that unfortunately most people overestimate the amount of calories they burn during exercise and underestimate the calories the consume.  This is a recipe for disaster and can really sabotage your health goals, particularly if weight is a concern.

3.  Avoid mindless eating.  Don’t park yourself next to the appetizer platter at a party or get-together.  Try carrying a glass/bottle of water around to keep your hands busy and less likely to grab food that just happens to be in close proximity.  It only natural to eat food that’s sitting right in front of us, so don’t put yourself in a situation where that’s likely to occur.

4.  Don’t treat the buffet like a buffet.  Buffet meals are plentiful during this time of year, and don’t get me wrong, they can be great.  But just because you encounter a buffet doesn’t mean you need to eat like you’re breaking a fast.  Sample only the dishes you really love or want to try and keep the portions reasonable.  Piling your plate so that the food is as high as the plate is wide or going up for seconds is one of the surest ways to pack on the pounds.

5.  Be moderate with your alcohol intake.  It can be easy to overlook but alcoholic beverages have calories too.  And over the course of a day/evening, they can really start to add up if you’re not careful.  Alcohol also has the potential to lower your self control regarding other dietary choices.  It’s a good idea to limit yourself to no more than a couple of drinks per day.  If nothing else you may want to try alternating an alcoholic drink with a glass of water.

6.  Pre-eat for parties.  One of the most important ways to prevent overeating is to make sure you’re never feeling really hungry.  The worst thing you can do is show up to a party feeling ravenous, where food (usually mostly unhealthy options) is virtually unlimited.  Instead, have a small meal or snack before you show up and chances are you won’t be as tempted to eat everything in front of you the moment you arrive.

BUT with all that said,

7.  There’s no need to be a Nazi about it.  After all, the holidays are a time of traditions with family and friends.  A big part of those traditions is often food and drink.  Rather than avoiding, what you need to do is find a balance between being able to indulge at times without going overboard.   It can be a tough thing to do.  Doing so takes a degree of honesty and awareness with oneself that most people aren’t able to consistently demonstrate.  I suggest that when you’re faced with an unhealthy choice, whether it be skipping a workout or going for second helpings of grandma’s famous candied yams, ask yourself if it’s worth it.  Often it won’t be, but sometimes it will.  And that’s okay too.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

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