Healthy diet soundbytes such as sugar-free is best or eat your five a day might need a rethink, editor Anna Magee discovered
We’ve all been told the transformation stories from supposedly healthy diet remedies. Whether it’s a fitness guru that tried a quick, trendy workout or never touched a carb at night, we’ve adopted many of these fables as our weight-loss mantras. But are they doing us any good?
Healthy diet myth #1: Green smoothies are the health Holy Grail
Better advice: Eating your greens is better
As far as healthy diet drinks go, green is the new black, especially if the number of celebs Instagramming themselves sipping swampy-looking drinks is anything to go by.
Gwyneth Paltrow waxes lyrical about her Vitamix – the incredible Rolls Royce of blenders costing around £500 (which even in our humble opinion is actually worth it) – in which she pulps kale, lemon, water and agave.
Meanwhile Miranda Kerr makes YouTube videos of her favourite green smoothie and juice recipes. Although most of us know that fruit juices are high in sugar, the new green hype suggests that blending your veggies as green smoothies saves the body energy it would otherwise spend chewing and digesting the foods, thus delivering your body a quicker hit of nutrients than if you ate them.
But this isn’t necessarily a good thing. ‘Blending vegetables and fruit does the job our mouths do in digestion which means that we don’t have to chew them,’ says Dr. Marilyn Glenville, a nutrition expert and author of Fat Around the Middle (£14.99 from Amazon).
Of course that means that you might be eating more fruit and vegetables than you would otherwise, but it’s no substitute. ‘Though blending your fruit and vegetables into a smoothie is going to be better than juicing it as you blend them whole won’t lose the fibre in the form of pulp, the food is still being processed’.
Consequently, the natural sugars present in the ingredients – for example, those found in common juicing favourites carrots, beetroot and apples – hit your bloodstream quicker. ‘That means some of the satisfaction may be lost and you might find yourself getting hunger pangs a couple of hours after eating your smoothie as the food will pass through your system quicker than if you ate the vegetables.’
What to do instead: Boosting your green intake is fine with smoothies or juices but don’t rely on these for your nutrients, eat the rest of your fruit and vegetables instead. Stick to one vegetable smoothie or juice a day and if you’re adding fruit to sweeten it, choose low GI fruits such as berries or apples. Add some protein to vegetable smoothies such as raw nuts or nut milks or plant protein powder to ensure they keep you going longer, says Dr Glenville.
Healthy Diet Myth #2: Sugar-free cereal won’t make you fat
Better advice: Even natural sugars can lead to weight gain
The packet says sugar-free and looks pretty posh, so too does the pricetag. But it may not be the best choice if it’s laden with dried fruits, which most posh mueslis are.
‘When it comes to dried fruit commonly found in so-called sugar-free mueslis such as raisins and apricots, all the water has been taken out,’ says David Gillespie, author of bestselling book Sweet Poison (£6.99 from Amazon) who lost six stone by giving up sugar. ‘What is left is the sugar – natural sugar but still sugar nonetheless.’ The sugar molecule contained in dried fruits he says is called fructose and the kind most commonly associated with weight gain.
Eating it could even make you hungrier, found a study published in 2013 by Yale school of Medicine and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The researchers found that eating fructose containing foods such as dried fruits increased overeating by switching on areas in the brain associated with hunger.
A cursory look at posh mueslis on supermarket shelves found that The Food Doctor’s Cacao and Tangerine Granola called itself sugar-free but contained high levels of fructose containing agave syrup and dried fruits – 19.5 grams a serves – that’s a whopping five teaspoons! ‘You wouldn’t add that much sugar to your cereal so why buy one with it already there?
What to eat instead: Look on the label for not only sugar in the ingredients list but also in the nutrient breakdown and opt for the closest to zero you can get, says Gillespie. He recommends oat flakes, mini-wheats or other single grain cereals which usually contain nothing but the grain (for example Sainsbury’s Mini-Wheat cereal). ‘Then add a little chopped fresh fruit for sweetness – it won’t be as dense in calories or fructose as the dried version and will fill you up for longer.’
Healthy Diet Myth #3: Houmous and carrots are the perfect snack
Better Advice: Too much can pack in the calories
Although it’s healthier than tucking into a sour cream-packed French onion dip, the standard houmous and carrot sticks snack isn’t the dietary-saint food it’s cracked up to be. Though high in fibre-rich chick peas, It’s also laden with fat for a start.
‘There is masses of olive oil in most commercially prepared houmous dips,’ says Azmina Govindji, state-registered dietician and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association. Plus, while a tablespoon would make a fine snack at around 70 calories, the stuff is so more-ish, it’s too easy to inhale a container (and 700 calories) in one sitting.
As for the carrots, they’re probably not the best choice. ‘If I am doing a diet plan for someone I will have free foods in there such as green vegetables, cauliflower, cucumber and celery but carrots are not considered free foods as they are higher in carbohydrates and sugar,’ says Govindji.
What to have instead: Though obviously a better choice than Pringle dippers, carrots are about five per cent sugar compared to cucumber which is only 1.5 per cent sugar, says Govindji. So portion out the houmous sticking to one tablespoon a serve and opt for high water, low sugar vegetables such as cucumber or celery.
Healthy Diet Myth #4: Avoid carbs at night
Better Advice: Carbs can’t tell the time
There’s no conclusive evidence to show that eating carbohydrate foods at night make you put on weight, says Azmina Govindji. ‘It’s all about the overall calories you take in being less than the amount you’ve burned off.’
Indeed, she says now there is evidence to suggest that certain carbohydrates in the evening could aid a good night’s sleep by helping the body release chemicals such as tryptophan that aids in production of brain neurotransmitters that help calm calm our nerves and help us stay asleep. ‘Porridge oats cooked with skimmed milk just before bed is a great snack that is low in fat and high in nerve-calming B vitamins,’ she says.
Not convinced, even trainers are now suggesting their clients swap their breakfasts for their dinners! ‘Eat carbs at night is more beneficial to fat loss,’ says Matt Hodges, a a leading trainer and creator of The MPH Method.
‘We know now that in the later stages of sleep our bodies become metabolically active and burn fat anyway, so the idea that you put on weight from a meal you ate close to bedtime while you’re sleeping is rubbish.’ He also suggests a carb-rich meal at night could help muscles use glycogen, the fuel our muscles need, for exercise the next morning.
Still not convinced? In 2011, Israeli researchers tested the theory on 70 volunteers who they split up into two groups, one who ate their carbs during the day and the other who ate 80 per cent of them at night. Within six months, the latter had lost more weight and body fat and experienced less hunger throughout the day!
What to have instead: Opt for a fist-sized portion of wholegrain carbohydrates before bed. Hodges says the best forms are quinoa, brown rice and sweet potato or – especially if sleep is an issue – try a small bowl of porridge pre-bedtime.
Healthy Diet Myth #5: Drink eight glasses of water a day
Better Advice: Eat your water
We’ve had the water thing literally poured down our throats for years. But eight glasses of water is about two litres and given the average human stomach is the size of a fist, that’s going to seriously overload your insides.
The idea was first touted in 1945 by the US national Academy of Sciences and has been celebrated repeatedly by the interests of bottled water companies throughout our lifetimes (much to the detriment of our poor old oceans thanks to all that disposed plastic).
Dr. Glenville concedes that drinking water regularly throughout the day is important to help us think clearly and avoid dehydration but how we get our water matters. ‘If you’re having too much water close to bedtime you may end up with disrupted sleep because a full bladder is waking you up,’ she says.
Plus, guzzle it all at once and you could be putting undue strain on your kidneys and excreting valuable nutrients from food through your urine without giving your body a chance to absorb them. ‘Too much water can act like a diuretic and flush your body of what it needs along with toxins,’ she says.
What to do instead: Eat plenty of high water foods such as cucumbers, celery, watermelon and strawberries, Glenville suggests, and check your urine is pale yellow to ensure your hydration is good. ‘But remember herbal teas and soups also count as your water intake,’ she says.
Increase your intake if you’re drinking alcohol or coffee or sweating excessively. Talk to your doctor about how much water to drink if you have kidney problems. Drink water but sip it rather than guzzle it and go easy on it during the evening.
Healthy Diet Myth #6: BMI is the best measure of weight
Better Advice: Waist to hip ratio matters more
What could be easier? Divide your height by your weight and voila, you have a perfect indication of how in or out of shape your are – anything under 18.5 is underweight and over 25 too high.
But while your Body Mass Index (BMI) is supposed to estimate the amount of body fat you carry, experts now say it doesn’t tell the full story because it doesn’t distinguish between fat and muscle, which tends to be heavier and can tip fitter people into the overweight range.
‘I see women so fixated on their BMI but that’s so misleading,’ says Dr Glenville. ‘Muscle is heavier than fat so you get the classic example of the rugby player that has a BMI in the obese category but is actually only eight per cent body fat because he is basically solid muscle.’
Indeed, one study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that fit women – even if they were overweight according to their BMI – were less likely to suffer a heart attack than those who were out of shape.
What to do instead: Look for inch loss if you’re trying to lose weight, says Dr Glenville. Your waist measurement or even better, your waist to hip ratio is a more reliable measure of your health as it takes into account where your fat is stored.
Women should aim for a waist measurement of 31.5 inches or below, says Azmina Govinji. To calculate your waist to hip ratio, measure your hips, then your waist and divide the waist number by the hip.
According to the NHS, a ratio of .85 or higher indicates you’re carrying too much weight around the middle putting you at increase risk of diabetes and heart problems later in life.
Healthy Diet Myth #7: Short workouts are better
Better Advice: You’re probably doing them wrong
High Intensity Interval Training or HIIT has taken over the country with its promise of increased fitness in a short time (we’re looking at you F45). The idea, workout as hard as you can in intervals – some as short as five minutes – and you’ll get slimmer and fitter quicker than you would with longer and more moderate workouts.
‘The problem with people doing short HIIT workouts to lose weight is the majority won’t be doing it hard enough to get the benefits so they’re short-changing themselves,’ says leading celebrity trainer Dalton Wong.
‘To get results from a 5-10 minute HIIT workout you’d need to work as hard as you humanly can for the ‘High Intensity’ part and most people – without a trainer pushing them – will only work at around 60 per cent even if they think they’re going all out.’
Plus, exercising too hard can be dangerous if you’re not already conditioned – remember some years back when BBC News presenter Andrew Marr blamed his stroke on his flirtation with doing HIIT on the rowing machine in his gym.
What to do instead: Three times weekly, do a circuit of around five moves that’s about 30 minutes, says Dalton Wong. ‘Challenge yourself to do around 15-25 reps of each move – say push ups, squats, burpees, lunges and leg raises – then keep going around the circuit until 30 minutes is up, making an effort to go through it quickly.
‘Going from move to move will provide natural rest periods and give you the benefit of interval training without overdoing it.’ For an at-home alternative try the amazing 20 minute circuit on the DVD Jillian Michael’s 30 Day Shred (£5 from Amazon) who takes you through HIIT in a correct, guided way (it hurts but it works).
Healthy Diet Myth #8: You can’t beat running for weight loss
Better Advice: Running can make you fat
There’s one in every gym: that woman running on the treadmill day in day out and never losing any weight. ‘When people run for long periods in an effort to lose weight their bodies are losing muscle which is catastrophic to fat loss as you need lean muscle to keep your metabolism fired up,’ explains Matt Hodges.
When you run, you work at over 65 per cent of your maximum heart rate, he says. ‘Done for a long, sustained period the body goes into a ‘catabolic‘ state which means it starts storing fat and using muscle as fuel instead because the body thinks something is wrong and it needs to get ready to survive,‘ he says.
Consequently, running generates stress hormones in the body because it is so stressful to the body and these – including cortisol and adrenalin – cause the body to store fat around the middle.
Lastly, Hodges explains that while running might burn more calories than any other activity, it can also increase your appetite to such a degree that people eat too much to compensate.
What to do instead: ‘If you like the feeling that running gives you, go to your local park and sprint,’ says Hodges. Run hard for 100 metres, then walk around a bit and do it again for around 6-7 minutes. Then, if you want to get your cardio in, choose walking. Done at a fast pace, it can burn through calories without putting too much strain on the body or increasing the appetite. Aim for 15,000 steps a day (about an hour steady done at once or at different times) for weight loss.
Healthy Diet Myth #9: Eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day
Better Advice: Eight are better, mostly vegetables
You can blame the World Health Organisation for that broken record of five-a-day health advice we get from authorities. Yet, only three in ten adults in the UK get their five a day.
Despite this, research is now showing that up to eight portions could be better for overall health. A study in 2011 looking at 300,000 people in eight countries found that people who ate eight or more portions of fruit and vegetables had a 22 per cent lower chance of developing heart disease.
‘The five a day message was set so it would be manageable,’ says Dr Glenville. ‘But in some countries it’s different: in the USA its 5-13, in Denmark it’s six and strikingly in Japan it’s 17.
What’s more, in Australia where it’s seven, they split it up and recommend that five of those be vegetables and only two fruit.’ And therein lies the rub, she explains. ‘Some people go too mad on the fruit and load up their systems with high-sugar fruits which can mean their blood sugar goes haywire and can lead to increased appetite and overeating. You need to focus on the vegetables.’
What to do instead: Aim for 8-9 portions, making only two fruit – chosen ideally from low sugar fruits such as berries, apples and pears rather than tropical fruits such as pineapples, Glenville advises. If you’re opting for higher sugar fruits, have some nuts or seeds with them to slow down their effect on your blood sugar and keep your satisfied for longer.