Oct 11

Blood pressure lifestyle advice? Take it with a pinch of salt.

Today I look at why the conventional wisdom about lifestyle and blood pressure may not be particularly helpful, and what else to bear in mind when taking care of your blood pressure.

I was reading a public post recently from a lady who wanted to know how to reduce blood pressure naturally.  I shouldn’t have been surprised to read that the top answers to her question were:

  1. Lose weight (at no point had she said she was overweight)

  2. Exercise (we don’t know anything about her exercise routine either)

  3. Eat less salt (oh, guess what? We don’t know what her diet’s like).

So, all rather unhelpful, really.  There’s no doubt that being overweight can contribute to hypertension, but if someone isn’t overweight, weight loss hasn’t been shown to help.  And if someone does need to lose weight, how much should they aim for?  The answer may surprise you.

How much weight do you really need to lose to help support healthy blood pressure?

How much weight do you really need to lose to help support healthy blood pressure?

It’s been observed that for every 1kg of body weight lost, systolic blood pressure (the big number) will fall by just over 1 point.  Losing 5-10% of your body weight could decrease your risk of developing diabetes or heart disease significantly.  So, depending on what your blood pressure was to start with, particularly if you don’t yet have high blood pressure, but are pre-hypertensive (see my earlier post to see what this means) a relatively modest weight loss might be enough to bring you into a normal range.

Man doing tai chi

Looking for an exercise to help with blood pressure? Try Tai Chi or Yoga.

You might also be surprised when we take a look at exercise.  Someone with high blood pressure might be tempted to hit the gym or try brisk walking.  However, at least one study has shown that something gentler, specifically Tai Chi, achieves more impressive results than moderate aerobic exercise.  Similarly, isometric exercise, of which yoga is an example, achieves better results than either aerobic exercise or other forms of strength training.  We don’t really know why this is, but I might speculate that these types of exercises are helpful for reducing stress, and that it is that, rather than the exercise itself, which has the biggest effect.

Pills

Remember that medication can affect mineral absorption. Look at what you’re taking and get tested if you’re not sure.

I’ve covered salt in a previous post, so take a look here if you’re interested in salt reduction.  You do need to be aware that if you’re on medication to lower your blood pressure, you may need to get your salt levels checked, because the medication you’re taking may reduce your ability to absorb salt from food.  If you find that you’re urinating more frequently than usual this may be an indicator that your salt levels are not what they should be, so ask your GP for a test.  People on blood pressure medication should be checked every 6 months.  Remember that frequent urination may also be an indicator of diabetes, but if you are in a high risk category or above a certain age, the GP will check this as a matter of course.

potassium-sodium-ratio

Are you getting enough potassium in your diet to support healthy blood pressure?

However, salt isn’t the full picture.  Many people in the West have suboptimal levels of potassium in their diet. Potassium and sodium act together to regulate cell communication, and levels of fluid in the body, so both are important.  It’s thought that the ratio of sodium (salt) to potassium may be more important than levels of dietary salt in determining who will develop heart disease.

So, as well as reducing the amount of salt eaten, if that’s appropriate, a person with high blood pressure may also want to consider increasing the amount of potassium they eat.  Increasing your intake of potassium by 780mg or more a day (a medium sized potato or 1 ½ regular-sized tomatoes) could decrease your blood pressure by up to 4.9 millimetres of mercury if your blood pressure is higher than it should be.  In particular, someone looking to improve their dietary potassium might want to consider including the following foods:

Did you know that certain medication, including blood pressure medication, may reduce your absorption of potassium as well as sodium?  We found, for instance, that this is the case with my husband, whose potassium blood levels are very low, even though he loves bananas and we eat quite a bit of beetroot and spinach.  If you’re on regular medication, it’s worth getting these levels checked.

In my final post I’ll be looking at 5 foods which may be useful if you’d like to consider dietary ways of managing your blood pressure alongside what your doctor can do for you.  Stay tuned!

Would you love more energy, glowing skin and a really positive relationship with food?  All this can be yours as part of my ‘Stronger Without Sugar’ challenge.  Find out more here.

References:

Carlson, D. J., Dieberg, G., Hess, N.C., Millar, P.J., & Smart, N.A., (2014).  Isometric exercise training for blood pressure management: a systematic review and meta-analysis.  Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 89(3), 327-334.

Castro, H., & Raij, L., (2013).  Potassium in hypertension and cardiovascular disease.  Seminars in Nephrology, 33(3), 277-289.

Chan, A.W.K., Chair, S.Y., Lee, D.T.F., Leung, D.Y.P., Sit, J.W.H., Cheng, H.Y., & Taylor-Piliae, R.E., (2018).  Tai Chi exercise is more effective than brisk walking in reducing cardiovascular disease risk factors among adults with hypertension: A randomised controlled trial.  International Journal of Nursing Studies, 88, 44-52.

Ndanuko, R.N., Tapsell, L.C., Charlton, K.E., Neale, E.P., & Batterham, M.J., (2016).  Dietary Patterns and Blood Pressure in Adults: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.  Advances in Nutrition, 7(1), 76-89.

Sabaka, P., Dukat, A., Gajdoski, J., Bendzala, M., Capmda, M., & Simko, F., (2017).  The effects of body weight loss and gain on arterial hypertension control: an observational prospective study.  European Journal of Medical Research, 22(43). Published online 25 October 2017.

Stockton, A., Farhat, G., McDougall, G.J., & Al-Dujaili, E.A.S., (2017).  Effect of pomegranate extract on blood pressure and anthropometry in adults: a double-blind placebo-controlled randomised clinical trial.  Journal of Nutritional Science, 6(39), 1-8.

 

 

 

 

 

Sep 25

Know Your Numbers: 6 Ways to Reduce Salt

There’s been a bit of controversy about the salt/blood pressure issue in the last couple of years.  Critics claim that the obsession with reducing dietary salt has been harmful, we have gone too far, and that there’s no real evidence that reducing salt is helpful in reducing blood pressure.

Is salt as harmful for blood pressure as we've been led to believe?

Is salt as harmful for blood pressure as we’ve been led to believe?

In fact, there have been many studies, both large and small, throughout the world, which show that 1) too much salt has a harmful effect on blood pressure, and 2) reducing salt has a helpful effect, in conjunction with other measures.  So, I largely disagree with the arguments that we can enjoy plenty of salty food without consequences.  Of course, a ‘one nutrient’ focus is over-simplistic, and that’s where problems can arise.  I’ll be talking about other considerations in a future post.

Everyone does need some salt in their diet, as it helps to maintain the correct balance of fluid in cells and blood vessels, and is needed for communication between cells.  However, the Government recommends no more than 6g or 1 teaspoon of salt a day.  If you’re eating a Western diet it’s easy to exceed this.  If you’re eating a Far Eastern diet, you may also find things tricky.  Just 1 teaspoon of soy sauce contains your entire recommended intake.  Remember that most vegetables contain a little sodium, even if you’re not adding salt to your cooking, and fish has a notable sodium content too. So, if you’re eating plenty of vegetables, as I’m sure you are, you’re likely to be doing well, especially if you also eat fish.

Fresh foods have a salt content of their own, so you don't necessarily need to add salt to your food to have sufficient sodium in your diet

Fresh foods have a salt content of their own, so you don’t necessarily need to add salt to your food to have sufficient sodium in your diet

The Government guidelines are quite cautious, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK for everyone to exceed them all the time.  If you’re concerned about your salt intake there are some simple ways to keep it low without sacrificing flavour.  Here are some of my favourites.

  1. Reduce processed meat. You’ll be aware that bacon and salami have a high sodium content (just one serving can exceed your recommended daily salt intake), but did you know that those meats that you buy in slices and put in your sandwiches can also be packed with salt?  Instead, make your own sandwiches from leftover chicken or beef that you’ve roasted at home, or better still, put a good portion of your leftover meat in a lunchbox with loads of veggies.  Love bacon?  I discovered a ‘vegan bacon’ recipe last week made with aubergine.  As I don’t eat bacon I have no idea if it tastes like the real thing, but I’m going to try it, and if it tastes delicious I’ll let you know.

  2. Cakes and breads

    Watch out for the hidden salt in bread, particlarly speciality breads and crackers

    Ditch the bread products. Whatever your feelings are about gluten, bread products, including sliced bread, rolls and pizza account for the top 3 sources of salt in the Western diet.   Instead, try salads in your lunchbox (you can make them very substantial, so you won’t be hungry) or, if you’re in need of something sandwich-like, try egg wraps, lettuce wraps or rice pancakes.

  3. Ready, steady, salt. If you’re reading this blog, I assume you don’t rely heavily on ready meals, but if you do, the salt content is something you’ll definitely want to consider.  One of the biggest culprits is ready-made soups, even if they’re in those nice cartons with the veggies all over.  They’re temptingly convenient, but they won’t be doing your blood pressure any favours if you eat them regularly.  Instead, make your own soup.

    Don’t use a stock cube if you can avoid it; 1 teaspoon of a well-known chicken stock powder, for instance, contains 21% of your recommended daily sodium.  Next time you have a chicken, boil its bones to make broth, and freeze it in ice cube trays.  That way you’ll be able to use what you need when you need it.  If you’re a vegetarian, include a tin of tomatoes in your soup.  They’ll contain enough salt that you shouldn’t need to add much more from stock products.  You can, of course, make your own vegetable stock, but it’s difficult to do so without it tasting like dishwater.

  4. Ease off the cheese.  I do love cheese but it can be a salt-laden luxury (that’s probably why it’s so good).  If you can, buy really good-quality cheese.  Not only is it good practice to buy from ethically reared herds but although you pay more for the cheese, you use less of it, so you can reduce your salt intake without having to sacrifice flavour.  Cheeses contain on average between 1.5 and 2g salt for a 30g portion.  There’s not a huge amount of difference between creamy cheeses and hard cheeses in this respect.  So, from a salt point of view, if you’re not eating other high-salt foods, a small portion is totally fine. The question is, can you stop at a small portion?

  5. Fresh fish

    Choose fresh fish rather than smoked where you can

    Choose your fish with care. Smoked fish is delicious, but it’s extremely salty.  If you eat smoked fish, or even some forms of canned fish on a regular basis, try swapping with fresh fish.  Fresh mackerel, trout and sardines can be both economical and delicious.  They also contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for heart health.

    6.

    Miso Soup

    It’s so easy to make your own Oriental food; you can whip it up in less time than it takes to deliver a takeaway and you can be completely in control.

    Ease off the Chinese. Chinese food is so delicious, but it can be very salty, and in a restaurant you’re not in control.  Instead, ditch the takeaway and make your own Oriental food. It’s very easy, and some of the fastest cooking on the planet.  You can control the amount of salty ingredients, such as fish sauce, bean paste and soy sauce you use, and you can even buy a reduced salt version of soy sauce.  Do stay away from the sweet and sour, though.  It’s not authentic Chinese food, and it’s high in sugar and less beneficial fats.  Instead, try stir fries, steam fries and soups.  My top tip is to whip up a batch of home-made peanut sauce and use it in stir fries, laksas and satays for an instant flavour hit.  It will keep in a sealed jam jar for a good couple of weeks.

Of course, salt isn’t the full story; it’s never all about one nutrient.  In the final blog post of this series, I’ll be telling you why, and suggesting some great foods you can eat if you’re interested in maintaining a healthy blood pressure.

 

Sep 03

Sweatember 2018 Day 2

It’s 11pm.  I’ve been on a pharmacology course all day, followed by a mad dash to make the train for a 4-hour journey from Edinburgh to London.  I’m tired, I’m cold, I’m missing my husband and I just want to go to bed.

Sleeping on a cloud

Sleep? Ah, if only!

BUT it’s Day 2 of Sweatember, and I promised to be active for at least 30 minutes every day.  So, however hard it is, and however much I don’t want to do it (health permitting, of course), I’m going to honour my commitment.  Today’s plan was to do a workout DVD that I haven’t done for years.

I go to the shelf and track down the DVD.  I blow the dust from the cover.  My goodness, that’s a lot of dust.  I open the box and – it’s gone!  I could cry.  My best laid plans, like so much else, have gone to pot.

No matter.  I have other DVDs.  I put on a line dancing one.  Oh my goodness, the lady in black chaps and a stetson is trying to teach me steps.  Actual steps.  It’s after 11 at night.  Get real, lady.  Another one bites the dust.

But, what’s this, still in its plastic wrapping, untouched by human hand?  A Rosemary Conley workout video.  Aren’t those just for the elderly?  Well, I’m feeling pretty ancient tonight, so I’ll give it a go.  Even if breaking through the plastic wrapper will be the most energetic I’ll get.

I set the video for the warm-up, aerobics and cool-down, and Rosemary, with her bevy of lovelies who’ve supposedly lost more than my entire body weight between them, swing into action.

If only I looked this good in a leotard when I'm confused - or indeed at any other time.

If only I looked this good in a leotard when I’m confused – or indeed at any other time.

Twenty minutes in, and I’m frustrated.  What on earth is a ‘rocking horse step’?  And how am I supposed to do side skipping on a square foot of carpet?  I need more space!  I need more coordination!  I need a completely different body!  I’m hot and yes, I’m sweaty.  Maybe this isn’t just for the elderly after all, or maybe my fitness level is more shameful than I thought.

The phone rings.  It’s my husband checking that I got home safely.  After we finish talking I’m tempted just to slip between the sheets and sleep the sleep of the innocent.  But of course I wouldn’t be innocent; I would be guilty of not fulfilling a commitment.  And that’s the very worst sort of guilt.  So I return to do further battle with Rosemary and her lithe ladies.

It’s after midnight by the time I finish, due to interruptions and not being able to work out how to programme the routine.  I’m oddly pleased with myself.  I still haven’t figured out the rocking horse step, but I’ve refused to be thwarted, and now I have an incentive to tidy my DVDs and see if I can find the missing disc.

Tomorrow it’s more walking.  I’ll need to get original soon.  Can you help?  Suggest something active that you’d like to see me doing.  If I like your idea, I’ll give it a go.  Watch this space.

How you're supposed to look after exercising...

How you’re supposed to look after exercising…

Activity: Aerobic-style DVD

Level: Almost any

Equipment needed: Good trainers

Cost: £ – you can buy workout DVDs very cheaply, particularly if they were not made in the last few months.

Accessibility: 4/5 – you do need a bit of space for this, and if like me you don’t have it you won’t get the best from the workout.

How I really look after exercising, especially at midnight.

How I really look after exercising, especially at midnight.

Difficulty: 2/5 – this probably isn’t at all challenging if you’re coordinated and moderately fit, but as neither is the case for me I found it a bit tricky, particularly when I couldn’t keep up with the steps.

Enjoyment: 2/5 – To be far, I might have enjoyed this more if it had happened earlier in the day.  But I do find things like this rather frustrating, especially when Rosemary croons, “If you do this a few times a week, you’ll notice a BIG difference”.  Yeah, right.

Would I do it again?  Yes, but not immediately.  I think home workouts are a really useful way of keeping active on a budget, and when you can’t get out, but I like to vary them to avoid boredom.

What I learned: It can be done, even in a short space of time and under less-than-ideal conditions.  I wouldn’t recommend exercising at night, though, as it can leave you a bit ‘wired’ and make it harder to sleep.

Would you like your own challenge to make you feel amazing this September?  ‘Stronger Without Sugar’ is open again. It’s perfect for you if you’d love more energy to do your favourite things.  Read more here.

Support me in Sweatember.  Click here to find out how.

Sep 03

Sweatember 2018 Day 1

Everyone who knows me even a little bit knows that exercise and I are not good friends.  To be honest, we’re rarely passing acquaintances.  In the last few months I’ve tried to change this, had a horrible experience, and ended up having a worse relationship with exercise than ever before.

Older woman stretching by a river

Staying active can keep you mobile at any age

The question is, do you walk away from a challenging relationship, or do you work at it?   That all depends on whether the relationship is safe for you, and of value (which is not the same as saying ‘what can I get out of it’, but that’s another story).  I think that the evidence very clearly indicates that physical activity is of great value.  If it’s done correctly, it can help with flexibility, mobility and maintenance of muscle mass.  In some people it helps with weight management and mood.  This isn’t the case for me, but the effect has been seen in studies, so I can’t write it off.

This month, Cancer Research UK has an initiative called Sweatember.  Terrible name, great idea.  The aim is for people to be physically active every day. How active?  Well, the current advice is that, in order to be helpful, activity should last for 30 minutes a day, raise your heart rate and make you breathe more heavily.  So, that’s the minimum I’ll be aiming for.  Where I can be active for 60 minutes, I will, but that won’t always fit into my day.

Woman with hula hoop

Could I be doing this in September? Watch this space. I promise to be fully clothed!

I’m also challenging myself to try one new activity a week.  One thing I won’t be doing is going to the gym.  Been there, done that, hated it.  I find gyms the most soul-destroying, insanitary places.  The final straw was when I caught a lady blow-drying an unnameable part of her body in the communal changing room.  If you love gyms, fine, but as long as you have someone to get you started safely, a lot of gym activities can be done at home or outdoors for a fraction of the price and in far more congenial surroundings.  Instead, you can expect to see some different forms of dancing, climbing (even though I’m terrified of heights – that’s going to be interesting), and lots of lovely walks.  You might even get me into the water, even though appearing in swimwear frightens me almost as much as heights.

My aim is to show activity as being accessible to anyone, so I won’t be doing anything very obscure or expensive.  I want you to be able to play along with me, if you’d like to.

So, onwards to what I’ve been doing today.

Today we had a 4-hour drive from Inverness to Edinburgh.  We weren’t exactly quick off the mark in starting out, so the journey plus preparation time took most of the day. It would have been tempting to cop out and say we’d run out of time, but there was a waterfall, in fact two, to discover. Our destination was the Falls of Bruar, between Aviemore and Pitlochry.

It's a long way down!

It’s a long way down!

It’s just as well I didn’t know what the climb would be like before I started. I don’t get on well with uphill.  On the plus side, it was a perfect day for it; dry and warm, but not too hot.  And the scenery was glorious.  We climbed on well-maintained paths through glorious woodland to discover noble stone bridges, spectacular waterfalls and atmospheric pools with stunning rock formations.On reaching the summit, we were rewarded with stunning views across the glen.

The forest was planted by ‘Planter John’, a local Laird, after a personal petition from the poet Robbie Burns. Today, it’s a gorgeous tribute to both poet and planter.  Not everyone who visits the House of Bruar, known as “the Harrods of the North” makes the climb, but those who do will be richly rewarded.

A view from the bridge

A view from the bridge

About a quarter of the way up, we met a party of intrepid folk clad in water gear who were abseiling down the rock face and swimming through the pools.  Some were even jumping into the pools from a great height.  They were well supervised and well equipped, but I could hardly bear to watch.  I was terrified in case someone was dashed to death on the rocks, and although it was a warm day, the pools must have been extremely cold.  Some forms of activity are definitely not for me!

However, we also met dog walkers, young lovers, elderly couples and people from many lands.  This was truly an accessible activity for almost anyone.  I felt quite unfit compared to some of the older couples who were striding ahead, but you have to start somewhere, and the important thing is to take part to the best of your ability.

After our walk, we had a splendid lunch at the House of Bruar itself.  You’ll find something there to suit all tastes, but be aware that the portions are very generous, so you definitely won’t want to eat until after you walk!

My take-home point for today is that being active is available to everyone, and even if you have a busy or unusual day you can find opportunities to be active if you know where to look.

Each day, I’ll give the day’s activity ratings based on my chosen criteria.  By the end of the month, I’ll share my top picks.

Activity: Walking in nature; varied terrain with an uphill element

Level: Almost any

Equipment needed: Good trainers or walking shoes

Cost: Free

Accessibility: 5/5 – walking is available to anybody.  This specific walk isn’t the easiest to access, but walking can be done almost anywhere.

Difficulty: 2/5 – no particular skill required, but be aware that there’s a lot of uphill, and some rocky paths on this particular walk.

Enjoyment: 3/5 – I can’t claim to have loved the climb, but I did enjoy the scenery, the views and the sense of achievement after having done it.

Would I do it again?  Probably not this particular walk, but I’ll definitely be doing lots more walking, and perhaps I won’t be so averse to a bit of a climb in future.

What I learned: You can build activity into almost any kind of day.

Would you like to support me during Sweatember?  Find out how here.

Fancy your own get-healthy challenge?  My successful online course, Stronger Without Sugar is open for the first time this year.  Discover how to feel fabulous here.

Jul 03

Healthy Eating Week: 5 of 5 – Make one Change

For their final challenge, the British Nutrition Foundation is encouraging us to ‘make one change’.  Do keep reading to the end of this post (or scroll ahead) for some helpful resources).

I’m not keen on the word ‘change’.  I don’t think anyone, aside from those who are a danger to society, should have to change who they are.  Most people have so much ability within themselves; you don’t have to change in order to be amazing, because you already are!

children exploring

What could you view or do differently to discover the possibilities available to you?

That said, it’s definitely possible to tweak specific actions we do and how we do them in order to gain new skills and explore new opportunities.  After all, it’s often said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing repeatedly and expect a different result.  So, if you’re not experiencing the results you want from what you’re currently doing, perhaps it’s time to think about whether there’s something else you could do instead.

I’m very opposed to changing because someone says you should, or for the sake of a trend.  Whatever you do should feel authentic for you.  Remember that there is unlikely to be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to your problem.  Just because something worked wonderfully well for someone else, it doesn’t mean it will work for you.  Doing something different may involve a certain amount of discomfort, but if the change is brining you great unhappiness and little or no benefit, it’s not for you, no matter what conventional wisdom says.  Don’t make the mistake I’ve made repeatedly.  Be open to new things, but not so open that your brains fall out! Be strong and confident enough to say when something isn’t working and stand your ground.  Maybe it can be fixed but you will never know unless you speak out.

Not happy with an aspect of your life? Time for an upgrade.

Not happy with an aspect of your life? Time for an upgrade.

So, how do you decide whether something needs to be different, and what that should be?  I’ve written down my whole process for doing this, but if you don’t want to read it all, scroll to the end, where I’ve made you a handy downloadable worksheet.

For those of you who like detailed instructions, here’s the 5-step process in full:

1. Start of by thinking about what isn’t currently working well for you.  This could be in any area of your life, but let’s stick to wellbeing for now, as that’s my specialist subject.  Then make a list of headings of key areas in your life, which could look something like this:

Feeling lost?  Start making a list of simple upgrades that will move you forward.  Use my handy worksheet to help you.

Feeling lost? Start making a list of simple upgrades that will move you forward. Use my handy worksheet to help you.

What I eat and drink

How I move

Relaxation

How I sleep

My relationships with others

My relationship with myself

2. Then put a star against the top 2-3 that you’d like to work on.  Mine would look like:

*What I eat and drink

*How I move

Relaxation

How I sleep

*My relationships with others

My relationship with myself

3. For each area you have starred, write down at least 5 upgrades you could make in order to come closer to where you’d like to be in that area.  For now, don’t worry how good an upgrade they are, just make a list.  You can do more than 5 if you like.  For example, my ‘eat’ one might look like:

Array of healthy foods

Ready for a lifestyle upgrade? Which small change would make the most difference to you?

Drink 2 litres of fluid a day

Eat cruciferous vegetables at least once a day

Check that I’m eating a rainbow every day

Try a new healthy recipe every week

Print out a list of the ‘dirty dozen’ foods.  Buy only organic versions of these foods

Have breakfast on every weekday

Make use of my new steamer

Clear out my spice cupboard to make sure all my spices are fresh

4. Now, for each of your lists, cross out the ones you’re already doing (you might be surprised), or the ones that aren’t useful, important or achievable at the moment (you can always come back to them when the time is right).  Then decide on 2-3 things that you can do in the next week or fortnight that will make the biggest difference in getting you from where you are to where you want to be.  Highlight those.  My list now looks like:

Drink 2 litres of fluid a day

Eat cruciferous vegetables at least once a day

Check that I’m eating a rainbow every day

Try a new healthy recipe every week  (I already do this)

Print out a list of the ‘dirty dozen’ foods.  Buy only organic versions of these foods

Have breakfast on every weekday

Make use of my new steamer

Clear out my spice cupboard to make sure all my spices are fresh (I have other priorities in the next week)

Women walking & holding hands

You don’t have to do it alone! Who or what do you need to turn your upgrade idea into a reality?

5. One final step; what do you need to make these upgrades happen?  Is it a resource or a person?  Write it next to your ‘top 3’ and note what you will do to get it.  For example:

Drink 2 litres of fluid a day (2 litre glass bottle for desk – Ikea?)

Eat cruciferous vegetables at least once a day (make checklist for fridge)

Check that I’m eating a rainbow every day (as above)

Now you’re ready to go.

If it's important, be patient and persistent.  You'll never know where you'll end up unless you take the first step.

If it’s important, be patient and persistent. You’ll never know where you’ll end up unless you take the first step.

I appreciate that this may take time initially, but it shouldn’t take hugely long – after all, it’s only taken me 30 minutes to write this whole article!  Remember to come back at the end of the week and tick what you have done. See if it’s helped and decide whether you need to continue working on that upgrade, or whether you can move on to another one.  Some upgrades will take longer to achieve a result than others, so do be patient and persist if you feel it’s worthwhile.

Remember that your life upgrades should be geared towards a particular objective; not just there because ‘they said’ it was a good idea.  Who said it?  Why?  What qualified ‘them’ to say it?  Were they talking to you personally?

Make one change worksheet

Right-click on the worksheet to dowload it.

To give you a little help, I’ve made you a special ‘Make one Change’ activity sheet. Right-click

on the image to download it.

A lot of people tell me that their objective is to achieve more energy.  Does that resonate with you?  If so, my online course, ‘Stronger Without Sugar’ is here to help.  In just 60 days, you can win back the energy you need to do the things you love.  If you give this just 20 minutes a day maximum, you’ll more than make up for that time with the energy you gain.  You may also find that your skin sparkles and your digestion improves.  But above all, you’ll feel amazing.

Stronger Without Sugar graphic

‘Stronger Without Sugar’ is back, and better than ever!

If you’d like to join me at a very special price (available for a limited time only) click here to get started.

 

Jun 20

Healthy Eating Week: 4 of 5

How many times have you heard the saying, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day”?  The British Nutrition Foundation would certainly like you to believe that.  But is it true?

Can eating breakfast really improve your health?

Can eating breakfast really improve your health?

There are some studies that suggest that people who want to lose weight have a slightly better chance of doing so if they eat breakfast.  That seems a little paradoxical, doesn’t it?  Or at least it does if you still subscribe to the ‘calories in, calories out’ model.  If you do, you might be confused.  How could eating extra calories help you lose more weight?

The traditionalists would argue that if you eat breakfast, you’ll eat less during the rest of the day, and so you’ll eat fewer calories overall.  Actually, that doesn’t seem to be true according to studies.  In fact, those who skip breakfast may eat less throughout the rest of the day than breakfast eaters.  Instead, something far more interesting and important might be happening.

What seems to happen is that those who eat breakfast improve their glucose tolerance for the whole day.  This in turn means they are less likely to store fat.  It also seems that those who eat breakfast burn through energy more quickly than those that don’t.  I think this is what people mean when they say that breakfast ‘kick-starts your metabolism’.  It’s not strictly true, but it describes the effect you might see, which is fair enough.  Eating breakfast also seems to improve memory, concentration and performance in school-age children.

Eating breakfast may help improve mood and concentration in children.

Eating breakfast may help improve mood and concentration in children.

Does it matter what’s in your breakfast, or will any old breakfast do?  There are surprisingly few studies which explore this.  One is a study where primary school children were fed an oatmeal based breakfast, a cereal, or no breakfast at all.  When they ate the oatmeal they were able to pay better attention, remember things better, and perform complex tasks more efficiently.  This suggests that a breakfast that releases energy slowly may have more benefits than one which releases energy quickly.  However, it’s not quite that simple.  Our individual biology may influence what kind of breakfast will be most helpful for any one person.  What suits me may not suit you so well.

Get to work on an egg - and add some vegetables too!

Get to work on an egg – and add some vegetables too!

 

In the longer term, my opinion is that getting as much nutrient density as possible into your diet is the way forward, and that applies to breakfast too.  We used to be told to ‘go to work on an egg’, and I think that’s still sound advice.  Eggs are packed with protein and nutrients.  What’s more, you can enjoy them with avocadoes, mushrooms and tomatoes and get some nutrient-dense vegetables at the start of your day.  Too busy to cook eggs in the morning?  Hard-boil them the night before and tuck into them the next day.  Please don’t eat them on public transport, though, as it will not make you popular with your fellow travellers!

Hate hard boiled eggs?  Me too.  Instead I make a frittata (Spanish Omelette) and eat a wedge when I’m in a hurry.  You can find one of my frittata recipes here.

So, although breakfast probably isn’t the most important meal of the day, it certainly seems to play an important role in overall health, and in your ability to succeed at any intellectual work you may be doing.  If you do eat breakfast, get in as much nutrient density as you can, avoid sugary breakfasts with no nutritional value, and really make the start of your day count!

Would you like some ideas for healthy breakfasts that are quick, easy and definitely not boring?  Join my Breakfast Club here.  It’s free until the end of June.  breakfast-club-no-date

 

Jun 15

Healthy Eating Week: 3 of 5

Get Active

Parents and toddler exercising together

Keeping active is for everyone. It doesn’t matter where you’re starting from.

Although this is called ‘healthy eating week’, the BNF is addressing other aspects of lifestyle as well.  Staying active is one of the best things you can do to keep your body and mind healthier for longer.

The current recommendation is to do 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity 5 days a week.  Of course, you can do more if you want to and are able.  Moderate intensity activity means that your heart rate should go up by 60%.  For example, if your resting heart rate is 75 beats per minute, your heart rate after moderate exercise should be 120 beats per minute.  How do you know what your heart rate is?  Most phones now have an app where you can measure your heart rate, or you may have one of those sports watches that perform the same function.

As well as this, you should also do two sessions of strength training every week.  This can be anything involving weight, but you don’t need to lift weights.  There are plenty of videos that show you how to do resistance activity using your own body weight, or you can use filled water bottles, cans of food, or a resistance band.  You could even do gardening or carrying shopping.

Bored teenage girls (12-16) sitting with instructor in gym class

Fed up with exercise? My tips could help.

The drawback is that exercise isn’t always easy, accessible or enjoyable. Take me, for instance. I loathe exercise.  Absolutely can’t stand it, but I know I need to do it.  Apparently people like me are genetically programmed to hate exercise.  Whereas being active has been shown to be helpful for improving mood, I’ve often found exercise makes me unhappy, and I know from anecdotes that I’m not alone.

Some people can use reframing or other mindset techniques to help themselves tolerate exercise better, but this can be incredibly challenging.  The reason is that, in some people, exercise provokes hormonal changes that make them more prone to low mood.  As I’ve often said, in the battle between willpower and hormones, hormones will always win. That’s their job.

If you love exercise, being active for 150 minutes a week at a beneficial level of activity is easy.  If not, it’s a big deal.  What can you do to make it more bearable for yourself?  Here are 5 top tips from a self-confessed exercise-phobe.

  1. Woman with hula hoop

    Could this be your new favourite exercise? Bare midriff optional.

    Choose something you like. There’s no need to join a gym, in fact unless you really love gyms and plan to go often, I don’t recommend it.  You can injure yourself if you’re not using the equipment properly, and I don’t find them very hygienic places; you’re always putting your hands in other people’s sweat.  In my gym I once found a lady (I use the term loosely) using the hairdryer to dry somewhere unmentionable.  That was the last straw!  Luckily, there are many other great places to exercise.  Swimming is great if you’re able, and if not try aqua aerobics or water volleyball.  Some people love dance classes, but if you’re self-conscious like me, get a DVD and work out at home.  Try something really unusual like hula-hooping and break the mould.

  2. Change it up and break it down. Doing the same exercises all the time is very boring and could lead to injury if you’re always working on the same muscle groups.  Instead, try building lots of different activities into your week.  Even if you’re at home and can’t get to anywhere that’s safe to exercise, there are a myriad of DVDs and You Tube videos you can use.  Don’t have 30 minutes a day, or not able to do that much yet?  No problem.  Two lots of 15 minutes or 3 lots of 10 minutes are just as good provided you can get your heart rate up and keep going.

  3. Two legs or four?  Activity is more fun with a friend (or many)

    Two legs or four? Activity is more fun with a friend (or many)

    Involve a friend. You don’t need to exercise on your own and think how much more variety you can introduce if you play with one or more friends. It’s also safer as you can keep an eye on one another.  Tennis and badminton are great if you can find a friend of a similar standard.  You don’t have to join a club or buy posh whites.  Many parks and councils will have courts that you can use on a pay-as-you-go basis.  If you like team games, there’s a massive range to choose from.  If you really hate sport just going for a walk with a friend or partner is fantastic, or if you’re both a bit scared of going to a class, go together to give each other moral support.   If you’re on a walk, try and balance faster walking to get your heart rate up with natter time.

  4. Older woman stretching by a river

    Let nature be your playground

    Let nature be your gym. There’s some research to suggest that you get more benefit from performing exercise outside than from doing the same level of activity indoors. Where it’s safe and practical to do so, it’s great to be outside.  Walking is free, and it’s not the only thing.  You can use benches to do press-ups or tricep dips, and clean grass makes a nice soft base for sit-ups and planks.  If you’re really brave and it’s safe and permitted you can even climb trees!  Remember that gardening is great exercise if that’s available to you.

  5. Keep track. Take advantage of the free app on your phone or use your fitness watch and keep track of what you’re doing.  You may not feel like you’re doing very much, but those steps can all add up.  On many phones you can set yourself a daily step target.  We’re supposed to do 10,000 steps, but that’s a big target if you’ve got very little time or haven’t exercised before.  Start smaller (but still challenging yourself) and build up.

A note on exercising safely.  How do you know if the You Tube video or DVD, or the new sport you’ve picked is safe for you?  My mate Karl, who’s a personal trainer, has these tips for you.

  1. Make sure the person explains and demonstrates the exercise clearly. Practice with them until you’re sure you know what to do.

  2. You don't need to look like this to exercise; find role models who are more like you.

    You don’t need to look like this to exercise; find role models who are more like you.

    Are any of the people doing the exercise like you? If they’re all super-fit gym bunnies with concave stomachs that’s fine if you’re that person too, but it may not be right for you if you’re a bit less active with wobbly bits.  Many DVDs will show a range of people doing the exercise, and that will tell you if it’s likely to be suitable.

  3. If you’ve got special circumstances, such as pregnancy, post a question or write to the makers of the video to check if the exercise is safe for you.

  4. If you’re exercising in a gym or club, check that their insurance will cover you. Most gyms and clubs have trainers on hand to make sure you’re using the equipment safely and effectively.  Use them.

  5. If you’ve got an underlying medical condition or you’re not sure, ALWAYS check with your doctor first.

Let me know what you’re doing to stay active.

Jun 14

Healthy Eating Week: Part 2 of 5

Vital Veggies

Small children surrounded by fruit and vegetables

Eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables is associated with better health.

Today I’m talking to you about vegetables and fruit.  The BNF would like you to achieve your ‘5-a-day’ target, but is that really enough?

We’re bombarded by the ‘5-a-day’ message, but some studies suggest that ‘7-10 a day’ would be far better in terms of improving our long-term health.  For example, the recent EPIC study, which was indeed truly epic, showed that the greatest benefit came from eating more than 569g fruit and vegetables, especially vegetables, each day.  That’s at least 7 portions.

The ‘5-a-day’ message was introduced because it was thought that most people wouldn’t achieve a higher target.  Indeed, in 2015 it was reported that up to 75% of adults may not be achieving 5-a-day, with 16-24 year olds being least likely to get sufficient.

Both fruits and vegetables in a variety of colours provide a range of vitamins, minerals and plant nutrients essential to good health.  As some fruits can be high in sugar, I tend to recommend eating more vegetables than fruit; limit your fruit to 1-2 pieces a day.

Berries

Berries are packed with nutrients, and provide a touch of sweetness without a big effect on your blood sugar.

Some people say you should avoid eating fruit if you want to lose weight.  I haven’t found any evidence to support that.  Indeed eating fruit is associated with a reduced risk of many chronic conditions, including high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.  If you’re trying to lose weight, stick to berries and orchard fruits (if you like numbers, anything with a GL of 7 or less), and avoid sweeter tropical fruits.

So, how can you get more veggies and fruits into your diet?  Here are 7 quick tips:

 

  1. Bowl of butternut squash soup

    Vegetable soups are filling, healhty and a great way to add more veg and reduce food waste.

    Take portable veggies to work. Cherry tomatoes, sugar snap peas and baby carrots are all durable, and require no preparation. Eat them with houmous or guacamole if you don’t want them by themselves.

  2. Put together all your leftover veggies and make a big batch of vegetable soup. Freeze in portion sizes for a fuss-free meal when you need it.  A great way of avoiding food waste.

  3. Small portions of leftover veg? Mix them with beaten egg and a little cheese, decant into cupcake cases and bake for 15 minutes for simple breakfast muffins that can also be eaten on the go.]

  4. Search the Internet for unusual recipes involving vegetables in unlikely places. For example sweet potato or beetroot brownies, or avocado chocolate mousse.  These aren’t super-healthy, of course, but may be a way of boosting veg intake in veggie-phobes, and are great for occasional novelty value.

  5. Eat a small bowl of salad at the start of your main meal. Bitter leaves such as rocket or watercress may help with your digestion, and you can add variety by adding in a couple of different vegetables every day.  For example, one day you could be simple and classic with tomato and cucumber, and another day you could go Mediterranean and use grilled peppers and courgettes.  The possibilities are endless.

    Happy lady eating salad.

    Try a small salad at the start of your meal. What veggies can you add to make it more interesting?

  6. Chop and freeze ripe fruit that you’re not going to eat. Blend it with yoghurt or equivalent and half a frozen banana for an instant iced dessert.  If you have a machine that really churns frozen fruit to an ice cream consistency, so much the better. If your fruit is sweet enough you won’t need the banana, and if your machine churns properly you can forego the yoghurt too if you like.

  7. Try cauliflower or broccoli instead of rice, or use them as a base for veggie burgers.

    Try cauliflower or broccoli instead of rice, or use them as a base for veggie burgers.

    Use cauliflower or broccoli in place of rice (simply blitz it in the food processor, or grater), and courgettes or carrots instead of noodles. It’s best to make these at home with a small device like a pencil sharpener, but if you really can’t stand the idea, most supermarkets sell pre-spiralized veggies.

Want to find out more about what’s in your diet?  Come and join me at the Aldgate Festival this Saturday (16 June) from 2pm and take one of my quizzes.

Jun 13

Healthy Eating Week (Part 1 of 5)

Array of healthy foods

The foundations of healthy eating aren’t complicated!

This week is the British Nutrition Foundation’s healthy eating week.  The problem with healthy eating is that it can be both extremely simple and rather complex.  Simple in that a few basic principles apply to most people most of the time, and complex in that there are plenty of exceptions to every rule, and finding out why some people’s bodies don’t work in accordance with the ‘norm’ can be a difficult task.

When people ask me what’s healthy and what’s not, it’s not always easy to answer, because everyone is different.  What’s healthy for me may be less healthy for you.  However, if you’re having difficulties, it’s often worth going back to basics, and making sure the essentials are in place.  Once you’ve got those sorted, you can often get a clearer idea of whether something more specific needs to be done, and what that might be.

So, what are these essentials? For the next 5 days I’ll be focusing on one of the BNF’s healthy eating challenges each day.  They’re not rocket science, but they’re often forgotten, and yet if they’re not in place, it’s much more difficult to build a healthy lifestyle.

Today I’ll be talking about how to stay hydrated

Staying hydrated enables every cell in the body to carry out its functions.

Staying hydrated enables every cell in the body to carry out its functions.

You’ll have heard people saying that it’s necessary to drink 8 glasses of water a day.  Actually, there’s no evidence behind that, and no studies to show that people who do this achieve better health outcomes.  However, the truth is that we are essentially bags of fluid, and every reaction in the body takes place in a fluid environment.  So, in order to function at every level, it’s essential to take liquid on board.

Although water is important, it’s worth remembering that there’s plenty of fluid in fruits and vegetables, and that these can count towards your intake as well, as can soup and milk or its equivalent.  To an extent, you can eat your fluids as well as drink them.  In general you should aim for 1.5-2 litres of total fluid a day, but if you’re in a hot country or doing a lot of exercise, you may need more.

Remember that too much water without sufficient minerals can be dangerous, so make sure that you’re taking nutrition on board in some form, not just drinking loads of water!

Top tips for getting water on board:

  1. Plenty of vegetables and fruits have high water content, giving you lots of options for keeping your fluids topped up.

    Plenty of vegetables and fruits have high water content, giving you lots of options for keeping your fluids topped up.

    Eat your fluid. Cucumber, watermelon, courgette, lettuce, peppers, aubergine and spinach are all composed of over 90% water, and will help you stay hydrated.

  2. Keep a full bottle of water where you work and drink it throughout the day.

  3. Bored with water? Herbal teas and clear soups count too.  Don’t like herbal teas?  Try adding lemon or orange slices, mint leaves or pomegranate seeds to your water to cheer it up.  Experiment with your favourite combinations.  Fizzy water is just as good as still, and can feel like a more exciting drink, especially with a few fruit slices added.

    Jars of flavoured water

    Keeping your fluids up needn’t be boring.

  4. Hot day? How about blending some fizzy water with a piece of fruit, and freezing it on a stick?  Result: a healthier ice lolly, and great hydration.  Some people also like to add veggies into the mix, but I’ve never been brave enough.

  5. To get the greatest benefit from your water, sip it through the day, rather than drinking a big glass (or several) all at once. The only effect of drinking a lot at once will be that you spend more time than you’d like in the bathroom!

Tomorrow I’ll be talking about veggie power, so be sure to join me then.

Do you have too much sugar in your diet?  Do you know what’s really in your snack?  Join me this Saturday afternoon (19 June) at the Aldgate Square Festival in London and find out.  It’s free!

Apr 26

When it all goes Wrong (Part 1 of 2)

Does someone you know appear to have the perfect life? The chances are that they don't!

Does someone you know appear to have the perfect life? The chances are that they don’t!

The world can be a very tough place to live in.  And when one unpleasant thing happens, others often follow.  If you’re struggling with any of the problems that regularly beset us; chronic stress, debt, bereavement, conflict and discrimination, it can be galling to look at all the people on social media with their perfect lives, doing everything you can’t.

Well, let me give you a reality check.  What you see on social media is rarely the whole picture, and even the experts struggle, fail and pick themselves up again (or sometimes fail to do so).  Let me give you a personal example.

When you meet me on social media, or live at a networking event, I’ll always have a smile on my face.  I’ll always try to make you laugh and help you to feel good.  You’ll think my life is full of fun, and that only good things come my way.

Do you have days when you feel like this? I do. Life can be cruel to everyone.

Do you have days when you feel like this? I do. Life can be cruel to everyone.

What if I told you that I’d suffered two bereavements in the past 6 weeks? What if I told you that my entire healthy lifestyle strategy has gone out of the window, because for a time I was in too much physical and emotional pain to get out of bed, and afterwards I couldn’t pick up the pieces?  That’s part of the truth as well, it’s just the part that you don’t normally see.

It’s not supposed to happen to me.  I’m the professional.  I’m the expert.  I’m the one who’s supposed to have all the answers.  I’m supposed to be the perfect role model, and get it right all the time, so I can inspire everyone else.  Isn’t that why you choose me?

Susannah Alexander

I’m not anyone’s idea of perfection, but I hope that makes me easier to relate to.

Or might you choose me because, like you, I have feet of clay.  I don’t have trite answers for the complexities and tragedies of life, and I don’t even try to present a perfect image designed to be unattainable or make you feel somehow inferior.  I know that feeling, and it’s the last thing I want for anyone I work with.

If losing my way with health goals can happen to me, a professional in the wellness industry, I’m sure it can happen to you, or someone you know.  There’s no shame in it; when life’s tragedies hit, everyone deals with them in the only way they can.  Afterwards, there’s no manual for picking up the pieces.

All this got me thinking; how do you start again when it’s all gone wrong?  You still want to be healthy, but it all seems like far too much effort, you have so many other things to deal with, and you feel guilty or shallow for even thinking about it, yet you’re not happy with where things are.  How do you get yourself unstuck?

Stress

How do you pick up the pieces when your world comes crashing down?

I’m not going to give you easy answers, because I don’t want to belittle what you’re going through, and because I don’t have them.  If you’re in a bad place, the last thing you want is some strident voice telling you some variation of, “(Wo)man up; you just have to get on with it”.  But I do have some ideas to get you started.  In the second half of this blog, I’ll be sharing 7 strategies with you.  They’re easy and attainable, and you can pick and choose what suits you best.

In the meantime, if you’re going through a tough patch, please know that you’re not alone, and you don’t have to do this alone.  Help is out there.

Have you had a hard time recently?  Would you like help in reclaiming your health goals in an atmosphere of compassion, kindness and fun?  If so, my wellness break in the Scottish Highlands is perfect for you.  Click here to learn more and get our special introductory offer.

 

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