Why you shouldn’t follow the health regimes of these ‘peak zen’ people

By Ali Hill

January is a popular month for newspapers to publish health and fitness articles. One that caught my eye was in The Times (12-01-2019) and featured health fanatics who have reached “peak zen” (whatever that is). There’s Alex Beer (38), a model, Tim Gray (39), founder of a web marketing company, and Dasha Maximov (30), a freelance business consultant.

Let’s start with Alex Beer’s regime. He likes to drink “slightly pink” raw coconut water the minute he wakes up. Staying hydrated is important, but there’s no reason to choose coconut water over the regular stuff. A recent study found no difference in hydration when using tap water or coconut water.

Between meetings, Beer likes to drink a charcoal shot. Activated charcoal is often marketed as an aid to rid the body of toxins. If you’ve been poisoned, activated charcoal is brilliant, if not, it’s not much use. It doesn’t detox you – that’s what your kidneys are for. The same goes for the digestive enzymes (which Beer also likes to take) – you’ve already got those in your body and they do a pretty good job on their own.

Moving on to Tim Gray. The tablespoon of coconut oil he adds to his coffee will only succeed in making it taste like sun cream. If that’s what you’re after, fill your boots. But coconut oil is a fat, which means it’s got a lot of calories in it. And to make matters worse, it’s high in saturated fats, which even us non-zens tend to eat too much of. Why would you want to have even more?

Gray says he doesn’t eat “any processed food at all”, which sounds nice if it were possible. Processed foods are those that have undergone changes to make them edible or safe to eat. Milk is pasteurised to get rid of any bugs that could make you sick. That’s processing. And you have to process it again to turn it into cheese or yogurt. If the pork belly that Gray likes to eat for lunch wasn’t processed, it would arrive on his plate as a whole pig, complete with mud and parasites.

The snobbery around processed foods is largely unfounded. There’s a difference between processing foods to make them safe and processing foods that makes them unhealthy, such as adding salt to ready meals to make them tastier. Processed foods can be a more affordable way to get your five a day (canned, frozen and dried fruits all count) and they can be a boon for people with arthritis or people who can’t chop veg to prep it for dinner. Frozen peas are not the same as a beefburger and chips.

Not entirely wrong

Not everything that these zen beings have to say should be discounted, however. Dasha Maximov is right about the fact that fish is good for you. And having lots of veg in your diet is also good. But some of Maximov’s claims, such as grains cause inflammation, are potentially harmful. People on gluten-free diets tend to have less fibre, vitamins and minerals. If there isn’t a medical reason to avoid gluten, you risk causing more harm to your health than good.

Gray says that “life is too short not to enjoy the world and the people in it” and I agree with him. But life is also too short to spend it following dodgy nutrition advice that prevents you actually enjoying it, that at best will waste your money and at worst could have long-lasting detrimental effects on your health.

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About The Author and Source material:

The author of this article is Ali Hill, who is Course Leader in Applied Human Nutrition at Solent University.

This article was first published in the online academic discussion journal, The Conversation, on January 16, 2019 and is reproduced here under CCL copyright provisions. The original article, which includes active links to all references and other material, may be found here. 

Rethinking how we see anorexia

Teenagers with anorexia nervosa, the most serious of all eating disorders, don’t have to be ‘skinny’ – it’s possible to be diagnosed at any weight

By Melissa Whitelaw, University of Melbourne

Rake thin, visible ribs, emaciated bodies. The stereotypical ‘look’ of people with anorexia nervosa is well known.

But our research at the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne and the University of Melbourne has found that anorexia is actually possible at any weight.

Anorexia’s many guises

We worked with 171 adolescents over a period of nine years between 2005 and 2013, who were hospitalised for the first time with a restrictive eating disorder. Our results are published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

We found around a third had ‘atypical anorexia nervosa’, where they met all the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa apart from being severely underweight. Over the study period, there was a five-fold increase in hospital admissions for this condition.

These patients still experienced the same life threatening complications usually associated with anorexia, including a low pulse rate, low systolic blood pressure and low phosphate levels.

But they didn’t present with the highly visible, severe emaciation that has long been considered the core diagnostic criterion for anorexia nervosa.

We also found the total and recent weight loss were stronger predictors than weight itself for a number of clinical complications, with the strongest predictor overall total weight loss. A striking finding was that no outcome was independently associated with low admission weight.

In other words, it seems anorexia’s symptoms are associated with weight loss, not necessarily emaciation.

We need to rethink how we conceive restrictive eating disorders; in actual fact, they can emerge at any weight, and adolescents who have lost large amounts of weight should be assessed for a possible eating disorder – no matter their size.

None of the adolescents participating in our study were being monitored by a health professional, despite being advised to lose weight in some cases.

Balancing healthy eating messages

Adolescents who receive positive reinforcement about their weight loss can end up on increasingly restrictive diets.

With overweight and obesity a major health issue in Australia, we have seen a proliferation of information about its prevalence and complications throughout society.

Appropriately, healthy eating and lifestyle programs are taught in schools. But elsewhere, adolescents are inundated with messages about dieting, often with inappropriate recommendations for quick fixes promising fast weight loss, advice on how to change body shape and images of ‘beautiful’ thin bodies.

And while adopting a healthier approach or dieting for weight loss can be done in a way that is healthy and safe, for some adolescents it can trigger eating disorder cognitions and lead to them adopting increasingly restrictive diets.

For some, this can become a vicious cycle as they receive positive reinforcement about their weight loss from friends and family. For those with previously higher weights, positive affirmations for their weight loss are common and, in some cases, they are even encouraged to continue losing weight.

We don’t yet know why some adolescents are susceptible to this while others are not, but it isn’t surprising this is the most common age for eating disorders to develop – they are the third most common adolescent chronic illness after obesity and asthma.

Adolescence is a highly dynamic period of development as we acquire the physical, cognitive and emotional characteristics of adults. By the end of adolescence, we are sexually and reproductively developed, our bodies are grown and our brains have matured.

Although adolescence is generally considered a time of robust physical health, it is often the age when mental health disorders emerge. Psychiatric illness is considered common at this age, with 50 per cent of adult mental disorders reported to have started by the age of 14 years.

Body image concerns are also common, as is a heightened susceptibility to dieting. And for some, this can become dangerous.

It’s important to be conscious of how food is discussed around adolescents; stigmatising discussions that relate food to body weight can encourage them to adopt restrictive diets.

It’s much more effective to offer positive healthy eating advice, like eating more fruit and vegetables.

A new way of diagnosing anorexia

In the future, weight loss in higher weight adolescents, even those who have been assessed as overweight or obese, should be closely monitored by health professionals so that if an eating disorder emerges, it can be picked up early.

This should include a review of the patient’s weight loss strategies to ensure they are sustainable and safe, as well as an assessment of their cardiovascular health.

And we need to rethink the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa, the most serious of all eating disorders.

Our findings suggest that weight loss, as well as weight, should be included in future revisions of the diagnostic criteria for anorexia nervosa.

It’s not just about being underweight.

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About The Author and Source material:

This material for this article was provided by the University of Melbourne press office, and is reproduced here under CCL copyright provisions. The article also featured on 2nd December, 2018 in Pursuit, which is the university’s online magazine.  The original article, which includes active links to all references, may be found here

Melissa Whitelaw’, who is the author of this piece is a PhD candidate at thr University of Melbourne. Her supervisors are Professor Susan Sawyer who leads the Population Health research group at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute and is Chair of Adolescent Health at the University of Melbourne and Director of the Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Adolescent Health; Associate Professor Katherine Lee, Senior Biostatistician at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute; and Dr Heather Gilbertson, Manager, Nutrition and Food Services at the Royal Children’s Hospital.

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What Happens When Healthy People Eat a Low-Gluten Diet?

An increasing number of people choose a low-gluten diet, even though they have no allergy. This trend has sparked public debate about whether or not low-gluten diets might also be good for people without allergies. Now, researchers from University of Copenhagen among others have looked into just that.

When healthy people eat a low-gluten and fibre-rich diet, as opposed to their more regular high-gluten diet, they experience less intestinal discomfort including less bloating which, researchers at University of Copenhagen, have shown is due to changes in the composition and function of gut bacteria.

The new study also shows a modest weight loss following low-gluten dieting. The researchers attribute the impact of diet on healthy adults more to change in composition of dietary fibres than gluten itself.

In an intervention study of healthy Danish adults, reported today (13th November 2018) in Nature Communications, an international team of scientists shows that a low-gluten but fibre-rich diet changes the community of gut bacteria and decreases gastrointestinal discomfort such as bloating and is linked to a modest weight loss. The changes in intestinal comfort and body weight relate to changes in gut bacteria composition and function.

We demonstrate that, in comparison with a high-gluten diet, a low-gluten, fibre-rich diet induces changes in the structure and function of the complex intestinal ecosystem of bacteria, reduces hydrogen exhalation, and leads to improvements in self-reported bloating. Moreover, we observed a modest weight loss, likely due to increased body combustion triggered by the altered gut bacterial functions,” explains the leading principal investigator of the trial, Professor Oluf Pedersen, Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research at University of Copenhagen.

Change in dietary fibre composition seems to be the cause

The researchers undertook a randomised, controlled, cross-over trial involving 60 middle-aged healthy Danish adults with two eight week interventions comparing a low-gluten diet (2 g gluten per day) and a high-gluten diet (18 g gluten per day), separated by a washout period of at least six weeks with habitual diet (12 g gluten per day).

The two diets were balanced in number of calories and nutrients including the same amount of dietary fibres. However, the composition of fibres differed markedly between the two diets.

Based on their observations of altered food fermentation patterns of the gut bacteria, the researchers conclude that the effects of low-gluten dieting in healthy people may not be primarily due to reduced intake of gluten itself but rather to a change in dietary fibre composition by reducing fibres from wheat and rye and replacing them with fibres from vegetables, brown rice, corn, oat and quinoa.

No basis for change of diet recommendation yet

A low-gluten diet has previously been proposed to diminish gastrointestinal symptoms in patients with inflammatory bowel diseases and irritable bowel syndrome, disorders which occur in up to 20 percent of the general Western population.

The present study suggests that even some healthy individuals may prefer a low-gluten diet to combat intestinal discomfort or excess body weight.

More long-term studies are definitely needed before any public health advice can be given to the general population. Especially, because we find dietary fibres – not the absence of gluten alone – to be the primary cause of the changes in intestinal discomfort and body weight. By now we think that our study is a wake-up call to the food industry. Gluten-free may not necessarily be the healthy choice many people think it is. Most gluten-free food items available on the market today are massively deprived of dietary fibers and natural nutritional ingredients. Therefore, there is an obvious need for availability of fibre-enriched, nutritionally high-quality gluten-free food items which are fresh or minimally processed to consumers who prefer a low-gluten diet. Such initiatives may turn out to be key for alleviating gastro-intestinal discomfort and in addition to help facilitating weight control in the general population via modification of the gut microbiota”, concludes senior lead investigator, Professor Oluf Pedersen.

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Source materials:

This primary material for this article was provided to us, on 14th November 2018, by the press office of the University of Copenhagen Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences.

To Read the original research paper on which this article is based (“A low-gluten diet induces changes in the intestinal microbiome of healthy Danish adults”) in Nature Communications, please see here

Want a Good Night’s Sleep? Eating These Foods Can Help

By Sophie Medlin

Sleep has become widely recognised as playing a really important role in our overall health and wellness – alongside diet, stress management and exercise.

Recently, researchers have been learning more about how poor sleep influences our dietary choices, as well as how diet influences sleep quality. Not sleeping for long enough or poor quality sleep are associated with increased food intake, a less healthy diet and weight gain. Lack of sleep also leads to increased snacking and overeating. And it causes us to want to eat foods high in fat and carbohydrates – with increased chemical rewards to the brain when we do eat these foods.

Essentially, poor sleep drives your body to find high energy foods to keep you awake which makes fighting the cravings for unhealthy foods very difficult to resist. But, on the other hand, when we have slept well our appetite hormones are at a normal level. We don’t crave unhealthy food so much – and we can make better choices about what to eat.

The science of sleep

All cultures around the world have traditions about which foods promote sleep. Foods such as milk, chamomile, kiwi fruit and tart cherries, have all been said to work wonders for a good night’s sleep. Given how much the food we eat affects us on a day-to-day basis, it is not surprising that our diet plays such a big role in our quality of sleep. What we eat also has a big impact on our organ function, immune system, hormone production and brain function.

A really important hormone that controls our sleep patterns is melatonin. Melatonin is produced in the brain and the amount of melatonin you produce and how efficiently our brain uses it is affected by our diet. One of the biggest influence on our melatonin levels appears to be our intake of a type of protein called tryptophan. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid – the building blocks of proteins. Essential amino acids are a group which our bodies cannot make, it can only be sourced through diet.

Dairy an excellent source of tryptophan

Other nutrients that appear to be helpful for sleep include B vitamins and magnesium. This is because they help tryptophan to be more available in the body. If your diet is lacking tryptophan, B vitamins or magnesium. It is very likely that your melatonin production and secretion will be affected and your sleep quality will be poorer.

Eat to sleep

It stands to reason then that following overly restrictive diets or diets that put you at risk of nutrient deficiencies can really affect your sleep. But by increasing your intakes of foods rich in specific nutrients, it may well help to promote better sleep quality and duration.

Dairy foods, for example, can be great at helping you sleep. Not only is dairy an excellent source of tryptophan, but it also contains magnesium and B vitamins which help to promote the activity and availability of tryptophan. Nuts, like dairy, also contain all the nutrients known to promote increase melatonin production and support its release.

Fish is a great source of tryptophan and B vitamins. Fish with bones, such as sardines, will also provide magnesium. Including fish in your diet regularly may help to promote healthy melatonin production when you need it. Pulses, beans and lentils also contain high amounts of tryptophan and B vitamins. Adding some tofu or paneer to a vegetable stew or curry can also help to increase your likelihood of having a great night’s sleep. You could also add in some soya – which is another good source of tryptophan – to optimise your sleep potential.

And if you’re still struggling to sleep, it might be that you’d benefit from some meat. Meat of all kinds contains all the essential ingredients for a good night’s sleep. So if you can’t nod off at night, maybe think about adding some lean meat to your diet.

If you find yourself hungry before bed, for the ideal bed time snack, try a glass of semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, a small banana or a few nuts – all of which can really help to improve your sleep and your willpower the next day. It’s also worth pointing out that it takes around an hour for the tryptophan in foods to reach the brain, so don’t wait until just before bedtime to have your snack. And it’s also advisable to have a balanced diet that includes plenty of foods that are high in tryptophan throughout the day to optimise your chances of a good night’s sleep.

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About the author and source material:

The author of this article is Sophie Medlin, who is a ‎Lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics at King’s College London. The article was first published in the online academic discussion journal, The Conversation, on October 5th, 2018 and is reproduced here under CCL copyright provisions. The original article, which includes active links to all references, may be found here