Do I need to Diet or Exercise?
So you have decided it’s time for a change ….well you have thought it may be a time for a change…well someone said it could be time for a change….but…
Do you go on a strict calorie controlled diet or just start getting some exercise? You know you need both but well … baby steps!! So what would be best to start first? What would be best for your specific health goals, diet or exercise? Have you even decided what your specific health goals are?
Well let’s jump forward a day or two in the thought process and you have now come up with a health goal! Your health goal is to either lose weight (change your body shape) or get fitter (increase your energy). So should you diet or exercise?
Everybody knows that having both a healthy diet and a regular exercise regime are critical to our physical and mental well-being if we want to maintain a healthy weight and reduce our risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer. Even people at a healthy weight risk serious health issues and possibly terminal conditions because of a poor diet; illnesses such as heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and even certain types of cancer.
The interesting thing is that research shows that focusing on one over the other could get you better results quicker. Now I am assuming you have set your health goal because of a specific need, these can be either aesthetics, genuine concerns for your own health or even the health of someone else dear to you. If you watch television you will already be bored of this diet and that magic pill etc. There is no need for a magic pill or a diet, just a need for change! This change means that you simply start to eat foods that are nutritionally good for you (more fruit and vegetables and leaner protein sources) and take part in some regular exercise (both aerobic and resistance training).
So let’s look at the usual health goals, losing weight or as my wife would put it “getting back into those jeans!” and increasing my energy levels. Well to be blunt you need to focus on improving your diet! The old adage that “Losing weight is 80% diet and 20% exercise should really be amended to 90% diet and 10% exercise”, some trainers go even further. Most people when they want to lose weight have an aim, for example drop a dress size or improve their shape. Well improving your diet will do both, but don’t get me wrong, there is a caveat... Diet removes unwanted pounds and will therefore improve your shape, but exercise will define that shape and provide the physical and mental strength needed for the journey.
So why change my diet if I can eat the same but exercise and just burn of the extra calories?
Well the fact you’re reading this means you have weight to lose and as such this means you need to restrict your calorie intake. Losing weight is basically a matter of forcing the body to use its own supplies of energy. This is sometimes over simplified as CICO or “calories in vs calories out” (calories in is the food we take in and calories out is the energy we burn to make it through our day). What we eat and how much of it is really the most important thing. One pound of fat is roughly the equivalent of 3500 calories; this divides nicely by 7 to 500. This means if you eat a deficit of 500 calories a day, you should lose about 1lb of fat in a week! Please note that when we talk about losing weight we really mean lose fat, we want to keep all the sexy muscle as this will provide that shape we talked about earlier!
Still not sold on changing your diet?
Well think of it this way… Let’s say that after subtracting a 500 calorie deficit you need to eat 2000 calories a day to lose 1 pound of fat a week. To meet your 500 calories a day deficit you can simply cut out the cheese and toast before bed or the cider and crisp sandwich…hmmm crisp sandwich! Or you can continue to eat the 2500 calories as normal and run 5 miles or pedal for an hour on the stationary bike every day to burn the additional 500 calories! You get the idea? In general, just improving your diet will provide the required calorific deficit; the main problem my clients have when it comes to their improved diet is that they struggle to eat it all!
What sort of foods should I be eating?
Well I like to say if it hasn’t grown or been produced by a living thing (milk) don’t eat it regularly or only eat it in moderation! True food grows, anything else is a treat or a convenience; when I say it grows, I mean vegetables and fruit and of course animals (sorry vegetarians!) If you think like that, you will see that anything processed did not grow, some of its ingredients grew at some point but what’s left of them has, at best, questionable nutritional value. Now I realise that other foods such as pasta and bread did not grow, but you can use them effectively in your diet if you swap to the wholegrain versions but again, I recommend in moderation.
That means eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and healthy fats, like olive oil, these are classed as complex carbohydrates. Possibly the most popular “diet” out there right now is the Mediterranean Diet; it mostly contains vegetables, fruits, peas, beans (legumes) and grains. There is not much red meat included but it does contain moderate amounts of chicken and fish with most fat being unsaturated and coming from olive oil and nuts. I have to say that as diets go (and I do not like the idea of going on a ‘diet’) this is not a bad one!
It also means that you should cut out as much processed foods (frozen meals, sliced processed meats, pastries, white bread, white rice, white pasta and other
simple carbohydrates such as sweets) as possible. These items will generally be high in sugar, unhealthy fats and sodium.
Well that’s the losing weight solved, easy right?! Well let’s look at how changing our diet can improve our energy levels. Yes exercising will provide a boost in your daily energy levels, but once again even this is intrinsically linked to your diet. Our energy levels are directly linked to our blood glucose levels as are some of our moods. It’s all about a thing called homeostasis. Homeostasis is how the body maintains the ideal conditions within it to function at its peak efficiency. These conditions are balanced when everything is running smoothly, if they become unbalanced (a thing called negative feedback) the body acts. A popular example would be when the body becomes dehydrated. Dehydration is a reduction in water levels within the body; this will trigger the sensation of thirst. This means however that your water has already dropped below optimal levels and that by the time you get thirsty you are already dehydrated!
Blood glucose levels work in the same way. It should be obvious that as with hydration, if you start to feel hungry you are already starving and as with hydration you should try to prevent this happening. This is accomplished by eating the correct nutrition and trying to eat in such a way as to prevent the body from becoming starved triggering the feeling of hunger. Your blood needs to keep a certain amount of sugar in it at all time to service your body’s energy requirements. Keeping your blood glucose levels balanced is important as this will also mean that your body will be able to maintain stable hormone levels.
When we eat, our body releases insulin into the blood because the extra sugars from eating cause our blood glucose levels to become too high. The insulin acts as a key to your fat, muscle and liver cells to allow the sugar in. If the body thinks it is being starved (there is not enough glucose in the blood stream) it releases a hormone called Glucagon which acts as a trigger to allow the glucose back out into the blood stream from the fat, blood and liver cells.
The problem is if when we eat we make poor nutritional choices, the body can be sent on a blood glucose roller-coaster caused by these hormones! Once our sugar levels have been reduced due to the insulin release and sugar take up of our cells, the body will reach homeostasis but there will then be a delay while it realises that there is now balance. This means the insulin within the blood stream will cause too much glucose to be removed so the body will release Glucagon due to the lack of glucose in the blood!
This is where the problem starts! Because of the lack of glucose in your blood, your body will think you are hungry, so you reach for more food! A stress hormone (cortisol) will also be released to trigger the release of stored sugar in your liver to assist in bringing blood sugar levels back up. Oops, you just ate something! The cortisol combined with the food you just ate causes your blood glucose to spike high again and well here we go again…
So to maintain a balanced blood glucose level, divide your daily intake into five or six meals a day, or every three hours, you can also have small snacks. Snacks should where possible contain protein, complex carbohydrates and some healthy fats (I like a yogurt, banana and a boiled egg), Another bonus of eating regularly is that by eating smaller meals more often you will keep your digestive engine running, this means you will be burning calories at an enhanced rate during the day while your body digests its food! Frequent eating will also reduce cortisol levels. As stated above, cortisol is a stress hormone and so has links to feelings of anxiety and depression.
So how much should I eat a day? What should my calories be? We will look at calories and something called macro counting in my next fever driven post!