Hi, cholesterol!

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So I went to my doctor’s surgery for a routine check up and it turns out I have high cholesterol. Not scarily high, as my ratio of good cholesterol to bad cholesterol is in my favour. In addition I know that neither of my parents have suffered from heart disease. However, I do need to do something about it.

To back track a little; I was rather surprised to hear that I have a potential problem, as I’m more than averagely active (I’ve written a Kindle book about the pleasures and benefits of walking) and eat healthy food (loads of veg and nearly all our meals are home cooked from fresh ingredients), so I was quite complacent about my diet. To be honest though I am aware that I am slightly overweight and I have been trying to shed a few stubborn pounds over the last few years. Chatting with the nurse, helped me to identify a few improvements I can make. Here are my thoughts. If you are in a similar position to me with your cholesterol, or are trying to find ways to help someone else, maybe my ideas will help you too.

The first thing I’ll do is to reduce the few foods I do eat quite a lot of that are high in cholesterol. Hard cheese, really. I am partial to a nice cheddar, especially when added to sauces and as a way to add a splash of flavour to other dishes. I don’t eat much cream or ice-cream, but I will try to reduce those even further, taking just a splash when I do indulge. I’ll also reduce the amount of prawns I eat, as these are higher in cholesterol that you might imagine. And I’ll avoid snacking between meals.

Will I eat products that reduce (or claim to reduce) cholesterol? Only if they are natural foods. So I’ll have porridge for breakfast more often – the oats apparently help to reduce cholesterol – but my personal choice will be not to switch to a margarine spread. I will continue to use butter, but I’ll make sure it’s in small quantities.

Otherwise I think the key to success lies in:

  • Not buying or making cakes/cookies/biscuits/desserts unless for very special occasions. If we are out and about and fancy a treat, then we can sometimes buy a slice of something not too rich and wicked to eat with our coffee. If we are invited to dinner, or have a special celebration, then dessert will be eaten, but it will not be a general daily habit. I know from bitter experience that if I have treats in the house, I am quite likely to give in and eat them, so it’s best to only have healthy options available.
  • Being aware of the content of the food I am eating. This means avoiding take-aways with heavy sauces, and dishes swimming in oil. While most oils are better than solid fats, all oils are on my list of things to eat/use in moderation.
  • Eating less red and fatty meat. I enjoy a varied diet, so I only eat red meat once or twice a week, most weeks. I can make sure I eat less meat by taking a smaller slice when we have a roast, and by including more vegeables in dishes such as stir-fries and stews. If I use no more than 0.5 kg of beef to 1.5 kg of vegetables, and take care with the flavourings and spices to ensure the dish has a good flavour, I won’t notice or care about the reduction in quantity of meat. Lentils are a good addition to dishes with beef or lamb mince. Reducing the meat by a half and substituting red lentils not only reduces the fat content of the meal but, if anything, improves the flavour.
  • Eating more vegetables. Fortunately I enjoy vegetables and so this won’t be a trial. Relying on seasonal veg, including frozen veg, shouldn’t make this too expensive an option. I am also learning to cook with pulses – lentils and such like – and these really are good value for money. I’ll be seeking out more vegetarian recipes, so that I have two or more meat free days each week.
  • Eating fewer potatoes. Not that I think they are too bad in themselves – it’s that I enjoy them most when they have cream, butter or cheese added, or are turned into chips or roasties.
  • Use lower fat cheeses where possible: cottage cheese, ricotta and mozzarella instead of hard and full fat cheeses.
  • Cook with wholegrain versions of rice, flour and pasta. This makes it more filling and better for you. I’ll also pay more attention to the recommended portion size, so I keep to the right amount.

As an example of my new approach, this very evening I am going to have spaghetti bolognese. To make it healthier, I’ll use some lentils along with the mince, mix in plenty of courgette spaghetti (made by cutting the courgettes into thin strips and then into strings) along with a small amount of pasta, and I’ll just have a little parmesan cheese on top. I’ll add some extra greens sliced up into the sauce as I have some delicious looking chard that needs to be used… Water to drink with the meal and maybe some green tea afterwards to complete the healthier approach.

Why does all this matter? There are plenty of websites with medical advice, such as this Heart Foundation of Australia page if you’d like more of the facts and figures. A side benefit for me is that through reducing the fat in my diet, I’ll also reduce the processed sugar I eat (no processed food with hidden sugar, and very few cakes, biscuits or desserts). Looking after my diet will help reduce my weight, generally improve my health and reduce the risks of diabetes and cancer, as well as heart disease.

A second side benefit is financial. Reducing the amount I eat means I can reduce the amount of food I buy. Although fresh vegetables aren’t cheap, they are cheaper than meat. Good cheeses are expensive too, so eating less meat and cheese and more seasonal vegetables and pulses will save a little money too.

During the coming months I’ll be making sure I eat wisely and keep active too, with plenty of walking, pilates and other classes. It’ll be slow progress towards where I want to be. Next summer I’ll have my blood cholesterol retested, and if I have adjusted my diet enough I’ll be able to continue my healthier life style without resorting to statins.

We shall see, and I will keep you posted!

Burning fat – What’s it all about?

Is anyone else in the UK enjoying the BBC series looking at food and health? “The truth about…”

I like to think I know quite a lot about healthy eating, having a degree in Biology and several years of reading and listening to advice about foods and trying to put into practice the things that make sense to me.  Although a lot of the information in the series has just confirmed what I already knew or intuitively believed (don’t follow fads, don’t give up particular types of food, don’t eat too much of anything, eat lots of veg, keep active) there has still been plenty of interest.

I  really believe in and enjoy the benefits of walking, as anyone who has read my Kindle book will know and the programme “The Truth about Calories” gave evidence that the best way to burn calories is to keep up a good level of gentle activity, rather than exhausting yourself with a too-vigorous work out. Walking fits nicely into that regime! Good news!

However, although I am healthy, exercise frequently and am careful with what I eat, I also really enjoy food, so like many people I carry a little more fat than I would like, and maybe a lot more than is currently recommended for good health. I also have a family wedding coming up in July, so I am trying to shift an extra few pounds of fat in the next three months. The most recent programme, “The truth about fat” has inspired me to try the latest scientific idea for burning fat. It sounded so interesting that I got my aerobic step out today and made a start. And I thought I’d share with you the beginning of the experiment and give you a progress report as I go along the way.

So, here’s the plan. It’s like High Intensity Interval training – short bursts of testing exercise with rest breaks in between. The programme recommended 2 minutes of exercise followed by 1 minute of rest repeated 7 times. This pattern of activity and rest switches your metabolism so you burn fat for a much longer period of time after the exercise has ended. I can’t remember the figures, but it was definitely significant!

I chose stepping, as I know it’s aerobic, but achieveable for me. You have yo chose something that will challenge you, but won’t hurt you. I have stairs in my house, but the step is handy as I can have it near a clock. On Day 1, the level of activity was right I think (hope!). I kept to a good , fast pace and appreciated the minute rest. My heart and breathing rate went up, I felt hot and could feel the work in my muscles and I definitely needed water afterwards.

The total of just over 20 minutes was easy to fit into my day, and I’ll be repeating the activity every day for at least a week (and maybe longer) to see if there are results. I aim to post a short comment each day, so scroll down to see if I’m sticking to the plan!

For the record, and so I can actually tell if there is an impact on fat, I’ll share some stats. My starting waist measurement is just less than 34.5 inches and my weight is 171.25 pounds: it’s just beginning to come down anyway after the excesses of Christmas. For comparison, in July last year I was cruising at around 165 pounds, and wanting to lose a little more fat, so although losing fat isn’t all about weight*, I’ll be pleased to get back to those sorts of levels. Even better will be a reduction in my waist measurement! [*It isn’t all about weight as increased muscle and increased bone density through exercise also increase your weight. A better measure might be accurate body dimensions, but measuring size accurately enough is quite difficult, so weight is a handy indication]

I won’t be changing the amount I eat, or my other normal daily exercises, so I’ll let you know how I get on and whether this makes a difference to me!

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A foot – essential equipment for step exercises, and for walking!

Day 2: Hard to make a start today… But that’s my own fault. We had dinner with friends ast night, and I had a glass of wine too many… No wine for me today!

Day 3: Easy to be good on the wine front today: just water and tea in liquid yesterday, and again today I think. A little Easter fare – hot cross buns and some choclate: and home made pizza for tea, so I haven’t been trying to reduce the calories through food intake. We have done a little gardening, and then I did my 20 minutes for the fat burning regime. I’l be interested to weigh myself in a couple of days and see if there has been any effect. Not that I’m expecting anything much so soon…

Day 4: Such a nice day! I just want to be lazy!! But I have done my repititions, so am entitled to feel virtuous. Two days until my weekly weigh-in. I wonder if this will show results? I feel lighter…

Day 5: The novelty is wearing off, but once you start it’s no so bad. And I was feeling chlly after sitting and typing, but i’m nice and warm again. We have our Wednesday weigh in tomorrow, and maybe I’ll see a difference. You’ll be the first to know!

Day 6: The weigh in. Well, there has been a loss – about 0.25 pound. Not much, but then we did have a very nice meal out with friends, including wine, and some hot cross buns for Easter treats. Alec put on a pound in the same period of time… I am thinking that my stepping needs a little more resistance to it, so I have got my wrist weights ready to use today.

You don’t need daily updates, do you?  I’ll be back with news next Wednesday!

Day 7 – maybe just one interim update! I did the 20 minutes with wrist weights today and found I had to push myself much harder towards the end. I think just step wasn’t quite enough for me…

Day 13 – Weigh in day! First of all – how has the week gone? Well, not too bad. I have done my 20 mintes of stepping – with wrist weights – on 5 of the intervening days. I missed out 2 days when I had my normal exercise classes and was busy with work. The wrist weights definitely make the sessions tougher, and I am very glad to finish, but the advice was that you need to make the exercise tough for it to be effective. So the weigh in.  A loss this week too:1.25 pounds this time.  I feel lighter, so I believe I have lost some internal fat, which is good for health such as reducing diabetes risks.

There may be an additional factor in the weight loss, which is that when you are putting effort into losing weight, it makes it easier to resist snacks and treats. Certainly I have been ‘good’ dietetically this week. We shall see what next week brings – watch this space!

Day 20 – It’s a disaster darling!  No weight loss this week (I’m blaming 0.25 pound increase on the fact that I weighed myself wearing heavier clothes than the gym clothes I normally wear). I’ve had a busy working week too, so missed a couple of fat burning sessions. I enjoyed a glass of wine – and a pint of beer now I come to think about it – over the weekend too. Whoops! Back on the step for me!

Day 27 – And we’re back on track! I’ve lost 2.5 lbs this week, That’s 3.75 pounds lost since I started the regime a month ago.  It’s been a stressful week – I’ve had a computer meltdown and IT related issues. I haven’t done the fat burning 20 minutes every day, but I have done it a couple of times as well as a few early morning walks and my usual exercise classes. Half a bottle of wine, some chocolate and crisps at the weekend, so I haven’t been super good on the calorie front.

I was reflecting today that the pilates class I do on a Wednesady is quite close to the regime: quite aerobic sessions followed by a short rest. The sequence with 3 pressups, a 20 second plank and then rising up onto the balls of your feet, squatting and reapeating 3 times is certianly stenuous, for example. So maybe the step is another weapon to have have in my armoury for the days I can’t get out for other exercise….

We shall see.

Giving advice – how hard can it be?

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Well, the answer is – very hard indeed! And the other question is – how good are we all at taking advice?

I heard on the radio this week criticism of guidance given on the amount of exercise we should be taking on the basis that it would be unrealistic for many people to achieve that level, and so they would be de-motivated to try to exercise more. I only fleetingly heard this, so I can’t give details, but I believe the advice was that we should be taking 2.5 hours of moderate exercise every week.

Similar problems arise with recommendations about the amount of  fruit and vegetables we shoudl be eating every day. Most, if not all, nations are pointing out to their citizens that the more fruit and veg they eat, the healthier they will be, but the quantities recommended vary greatly. In the UK it’s now 7 a day, I believe, up from the 5 a day we have become used to. But in Japan they recommend 17 different fruit and veg every day. The difference is largely down to the fact that most people in the UK struggle to get to anything like 7 portions a day. However, I have heard some commentators say that it is discouraging to mention 7 so we shoud recommend fewer portions.

The problem is that if we are simply advised to “eat more fruit and veg” or “exercise more”, many people wll have no idea of what they should be moving towards, or how close they are already to the ideal. Someone who only ever eats meat and potoatoes may think they are doing marvellously by having an apple every week or so, or some fruit juice with breakfast. Someone who always drives may think they are exercising well if they walk to post a letter. How will they know otherwise unless someone tells them?

I know that when I was teaching, I had a series of conversations with a parent whose child was doing very badly at school, and had little or no ability to take part in their lessons. Eventually I asked the right question (“Is it just that he’s tired?”) It turned out that he was watching videos every night until his parents turned off the television at midnight. No one had ever told them how much sleep a child needs.

Part of me is continually surprised that we need this kind of advice. But another part of me realises that many intelligent and well meaning people just don’t have the informaton they need to make good choices.

So maybe we all need to toughen up a bit, and learn to take advice the right way. We might not be able to exercise for 2.5 hours a week, but we should know that if we are doing less, we would be wise to make an effort to do more. We shouldn’t give up just because it is hard and we have a long way to go, but use the guidance as a measure of how well we are progessing.

(In case you are wondering why I chose the photograph above, it’s about perspective and point of view.)

Television is good …

— provided you are watching the right things.

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This week I have been happy to have a television to be able to watch BBC’s Horizons on whether Fat or Sugar is worst for you, and their documentary on the mysteries of Easter Island.

I won’t go into depth – watch the programmes is my advice – but I will remember these programmes for a long time.

The Fat/Sugar programme was presented by identical twin doctors, Xander and Chris, one working in the US and one in UK.  Being genetically identical, you could put any differences wrought on their bodies by a diet to the diet.  One went on a sugar only diet – processed stuff but also fruit, veg and carbs but no fat or dairy, and the other on fat and protein only.  The end result was that both these diets are bad for you, but that it is really hard to overeat on either.  The combination that is killing us in the West is fat and sugar in a 50:50 mix.  This a combination that you never find in natural foods (apparently – don’t tell me if that’s wrong!) and so humans don’t have on ‘off’ switch for them.  Basically we will gorge on them until we pop.  So stick to natural foods, avoid the processed stuff, and regulating your weight is relatively easy, provided you exercise.

So the mysteries of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui as it will now be for me.  I watched programs about this as a child and imagined the island to be an uninhabited grassy island in the middle of the Pacific, dotted with the immense statues of their ancestors – the Moai.  The story was that the people on the island had cut down all the trees in the effort of erecting the Moai, and as a result had wreaked an environmental disaster upon themselves.

Not so.

The islanders lived an environmentally balanced life in their isolated home, managing resources and the environment for centuries.  Their downfall was the arrival of Europeans.  As we are realising we are about the last people on Earth to understand how to live in harmony with the environment, so this moment signed disaster for the populace.  First, the visitors brought disease – probably colds and the flu – which the natives had never been exposed to and so were decimated by.  These first visitors were followed 50 years later by more, who captured the Rapa Nui men to go and work in the mines in Chile and people who bought land from them for minimal sums, confining them to the one town on the island, and importing thousands of sheep to graze the land.

As nations rarely dwell on the things they should be ashamed of, all this has been hidden in the distant pass, and the uninhabited land became a genuine mystery. However, a rich English amateur archaeologist wrote a book in Victorian times, when she interviewed at length the Rapa Nui elders who remembered stories of the old days.  Presumably this book has recently been rediscovered, and the truth has been uncovered.

There are people back on the island, beginning to undo the damage as far as they are able.  As one young woman said, in so many words:  just because it will be hard work, that is no reason not to try.  Amazing.

And thank you, BBC, for these great programmes!

(What does the photo have to do with this?  Nothing!)

The ELEM diet – it’s working for me!

Are fad diets a thing of the past?  I think they may be, although when I look at Facebook I still see strange ads promising that I can lose kgs of fat by the weekend following this old trick …  I’ve never bothered to click as I just don’t believe it can be true.

You have to understand yourself (your weaknesses and your strengths, the things you enjoy and the things you hate) to be able to work out how to keep to a better regime.  Whether the issue is studying, keeping the house tidy, sorting out your paperwork, losing weight or getting fit, you have to be realistic about what you can achieve and what you’ll never be able to stick to, to stand any chance of success.

The latest best selling diets are based on the 5:2 principle, where you eat normally for 5 days and make a special effort to eat less on 2 days a week.  This seems to be a great idea, if it works for you.  No banned food groups, no odd foods you have to eat, and you only have to manage hunger pangs on a couple of days a week.  Fit eating less to days when you are busy anyway – extra busy at work or out on a shopping expedition for example – and it should be relatively easy.

Regarding weight loss, I know that my major failing is not controlling portion size.  I usually eat quite good food with most things made from fresh or frozen ingredients, and I rarely eat processed food.  I’m lucky that I like fruit and vegetables, so eating my 5 a day is a piece of cake,  (pardon the c word!). However, when food is tasty I have often been unable to resist going back for another helping.  This applies to chocolate, crisps and other snacks too.  I find it relatively easy not to start eating them, but once I start it’s really difficult to stop.

So for me it’s the ELEM diet, through which I have lost 10lbs in a couple of months.  No snacking, other than fruit. No alcohol during the week, unless it’s a special occasion. (Have you seen how many calories there are in a glass of wine??? And think about how much money you save through not buying that extra bottle or two of wine every week.)  Regular exercise, including walking every day, some pilates and a bit of gym work. And a big effort to serve up smaller portions and not to go back in for second helpings.  I do this every day, but less so at weekends and when we are eating with friends, so there is a bit of a cross-over with the 5:2 diet.

So far this seems to be a regime I can stick to.  And as I can see a loss of about a pound a week, I am motivated not to weaken.

What works for you?

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Home made butternut squash and chilli soup.  Yum!

 

 

Goodbye 2012. What’s your approach to 2013?

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Sunday 30 December 2012.

You are probably already thinking about New Year Resolutions.  We all do at this time of the year, don’t we?

Partly is because we are mentally starting a new calendar and we have that whole fresh year spreading out ahead of us to make the most of. Partly it’s because we already feel at least a bit guilty about all the extra food and drink we have consumed in December, not to mention the amount we have spent during the last year on things we don’t really need.  Partly too it’s due to an in-built desire to make the most, and to be able to feel proud, of ourselves, perhaps recognising a need to turn things around for ourselves.

What does the picture I’ve slotted in above have to do with resolutions?  Well to me resolutions are about being realistic and not trying to set on something that goes too much against the flow of my nature and what I am able to do.  If I set myself a target that is honestly unattainable, I am bound to fail.

So I do want to get back on track with my health, but no grapefruit-and-yogurt-drop-two-dress-sizes-in-a-month diets for me.  I know that I can lay off snacks and chocolatey treats, and drink alcohol only at the weekend (and then just a glass).  I know I can exercise more too, and tomorrow I’ll resume visits to the gym on a consistent basis, but I’m afraid you’ll never see me entering the London Marathon.

I’ll revisit my long-term issue with controlling portion size for meals.  The problem is I love food and cooking, and if you make something delicious it is really difficult to stick to the amount you know you should eat.  So renewed determination is called for.

My big resolution for this year is to make sure I organise my time, so that I have some time each week to be creative, and to properly keep in touch with the people who are important to me.  I have several projects in mind that I should be able to develop into something that is at least personally satisfying, but which might also be the basis for a little business enterprise …  it’s too soon to share details just now, but by this time next year I hope to have something to show for it.

Enjoy your New Year’s Eve whatever you are doing.  Good luck with choosing and sticking to your resolutions and have a truly marvellous 2013.