How to be healthy in an age dominated by social media and its constant barrage of pictures, information and videos? It is so easy to slip into the mindset of feeling inferior compared to what we see on our screens. This is particularly prevalent in the health and fitness industry, with people’s motives of exercise and ‘healthy’ living switching from performance and health, to a predominant focus on body image.
It’s no surprise that depression and anxiety disorders are on the rise in tandem with average time spent on smart phones. People scroll through Instagram only to find photoshopped selfies and 6 packs. The concept of weight loss is a term often thrown around in the world of health and fitness.
It is an idea that works synergistically with an industry that focuses on quick fixes rather than sustainable progress. The rise of social media influencers and cleverly designed marketing campaigns may be playing a significant role in why so many people venture down the wrong path. If you think about it, how often do you see an advert for a ‘2-year transformation plan’? Never.
Instead, you find 6-12 week programs and restrictive nutrition plans to try and ‘transform’ your appearance, with no real consideration for long term health. There are still some fantastic short-form programs available, but they’re often designed for enhancing athletic capabilities or educating people on healthy lifestyle practices. However they’re often diluted amongst an abundance of misleading information. The vast majority of people are still left wondering how to be healthy.
Think health and performance, not image.
To improve your body image, focus on eating for health and performance. Eating simply to look prettier is rarely helpful. That’s why I stress a holistic approach to boosting health; the combination of sustainable lifestyle practices helps achieve optimal health, not the ever prevalent one-size-fits-all approach.
So let’s focus on the 3 most important factors:
High fat, low carb? High carb, low fat? Animal protein, plant protein? Paleo? Vegan? Where do you begin?! Nutrition is so often overcomplicated with misleading information and unjustified fad diets. So many people are lead to adopt conceptualised diets that either cut out entire food groups, or consume certain constituents in excess, ultimately contributing towards adverse health effects.
The best advice is keep it SIMPLE.
It’s easy to get caught up in the latest nutrition trends and funky ideas that claim to result in optimal health, rather than focusing on the basics and consuming foods in their most natural form.
Fruits and vegetables should be a mainstay in a diet. 3 portions per meal from a variety of sources is an achievable target. Varying your sources will give you access to a more diverse mix of vitamins and minerals. Micronutrients are essential to human health and optimise specific functions within the body.
Blueberries, for example, could be included in a bowl of oats or morning smoothie, and are high in an antioxidant compound called flavonoids. This helps protect cells against toxins whilst elongating the ageing process.
Kale, an easy addition to a lunchtime salad, is high in a number of micronutrients. Potassium especially so, which is vital for bone mineral density and muscle contraction, and vitamin C; which we all know is wonderful for immune function.
Sweet potato, simply roasted with other vegetables (like beetroot and peppers, served with a portion of fish for dinner), has high quantities of thiamin. This is a B-vitamin that helps to support the nervous system.
The list goes on…
Arguably, the most important function of fruit and veg is its high content of dietary fibre. Fibre is resistant to digestion from enzymes and hydrochloric acid in the stomach and small intestine. However it can be broken down by bacteria within the large intestine to produce a substance called butyrate. This has numerous benefits for the structural integrity and health your gastrointestinal tract.
We could talk all day about the benefits of fruit and veg, but the important thing is to incorporate it into your daily meals wherever possible from a wide array of sources.
The war on carbs is dumb.
We need to differentiate between the types of carbohydrate. Yes, in some instances eating huge quantities of certain types of highly refined carbohydrates (bread, cakes, pastries, crisps, pasta) may contribute towards excess weight gain.
The highly refined nature of these carbohydrates mean that they are easily broken down by digestive enzymes to form glucose. This leads to a spike in blood sugar levels, accompanied by a sharp increase in secretion of insulin.
Insulin serves to remove glucose from the bloodstream and stores it in bodily tissues. Elevated levels of insulin over a sustained period of time are associated with greater risk of developing diabetes, simultaneously causing significant fluctuations in satiety hormones that ultimately cause food cravings.
When consumed in excess, these foods are detrimental to our health. However we shouldn’t become carb-phobic and cut them out of our diets.
As part of a sustainable lifestyle, eating these foods occasionally is completely fine and will help break the cycle of restriction and binging.
Naturally occurring carbohydrate sources have diverse micronutrient profiles and an abundance of fibre – making them extremely beneficial to our overall health. These include whole-grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables like squash, sweet potato, cauliflower and beetroot.
Whole-grains certainly have fewer micronutrients compared to fruits and vegetables. However, consumed in moderate quantities, they are an excellent source of dietary fibre.
Unlike the refined carbohydrates discussed above, these natural carbohydrate sources are broken down more slowly due to their more complex chemical structure. This results in a more prolonged release of glucose into the bloodstream without excessive spikes in insulin.
The importance of fat and its potential to optimise health is certainly something that is underestimated. Like carbs, it’s beneficial to distinguish between different types of dietary fat, and identify the sources that are good for us, and those that can negatively impact our health.
Firstly, the bad stuff:
The fats that are unquestionably detrimental to our health our those that are artificially produced via a process called hydrogenation. Hydrogenation is a method in which vegetable fats are heated up to extremely high temperatures. This alters the chemical bonds and makes them more useable in the large-scale production of frying oils, refined snacks and fast food. Hydrogenated fats are also known as trans-fats and they’re known to:
- Cause inflammation in arterial cells, thus increasing the risk of developing heart disease
- Promote autoimmune responses
- Increase free radical activity
They are fundamentally something you do not want to consume as part of your diet.
The grey area…
There is much debate surrounding the affects of saturated fat. Contrary to popular belief, saturated fat possesses numerous underlying health benefits. However, for so many years, it has been portrayed as a villain. Saturated fat is found in varying quantities in extra virgin olive oil, avocados, organic meat/fish and nuts, and is proven to have beneficial effects for:
- Brain Health
- Cardiovascular Health
- Immune Function
- Nervous System
Like most considerations for nutrition, the quality of the food source is key when trying to determine the potential effects on health. Saturated fats derived from highly processed animal products or fast foods are going to do more harm than good.
In simple terms, consumed in moderate amounts from coconut oil, organic butter and high quality animal protein, there’s no side effects from these sources.
There’s good stuff too!
Monounsaturated (MUFA) and Polyunsaturated (PUFA) fatty acids are specific types of fat that are known to be extremely important to optimise human longevity.
Monounsaturated fats are highly regarded for their:
- Anti-inflammatory properties
- Anti-oxidant properties
- Improving Insulin sensitivity
- Enhancing heart health
And can be found in foods, such as:
- Olive oil
- Eggs and meat (in lesser amounts)
Some of the healthiest communities in the world consume MUFAs liberally as part of their lifestyle and their medicinal like properties cannot be underestimated.
PUFAs are arguably the most beneficial source of fat when it comes to health optimisation, with particular emphasis being placed on Omega-3 and Omega-6. These are otherwise known as essential fatty acids since they cannot be synthesised within the body without dietary intervention. Omega-3 can be found abundantly in…
- Fish oils (salmon and mackerel are the best sources)
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
It has a significant effect on:
- Brain function
- Maintaining cellular health
- Skin health
- Gut health
- Improved bone density
- Immune Function
When it comes to Omega-3, the best advice would be to introduce oily fish into your evening meals several times per week.
Omega-6 on the other hand is less potent in its potential health benefits but certainly still needs to be considered. In smaller quantities it is highly beneficial for the immune system. However, since the industrialisation of refined vegetable oils, current populations are consuming far too much Omega-6 within their diet. This results in chronic inflammation and compromised immune function.
The topic of protein is clouded by much debate in the health and fitness industry. Its importance is often blown way out of proportion. For regular gym-goers, protein has a god-like status thanks to its supposed benefits on muscle-repair and building lean mass.
Yes, protein, or more specifically, amino acids are important for repairing tissue and enhancing nervous system function. However the seemingly constant trend of bombarding our bodies with protein isn’t necessarily the best path to follow.
The requirement of protein is going to vary dependant on age, weight, activity levels and several other factors. As such, there is certainly no ‘one-size fits all’ approach. The term ‘nitrogen balance’ is something that can be referred to as a means of determining adequate consumption for each individual. Essentially…
Nitrogen balance = when dietary protein intake is the same as the amount of protein used in the body
Nitrogen enters the body from dietary protein and supplements, to be used in:
- Cellular repair
- Hormone production
- Nervous system function
Once the amino acids have been used in the body, the nitrogen exits your body in your urine as ammonia, urea and uric acid.
When the amount of dietary protein exceeds the amount of protein used in the body, it is classed as a positive nitrogen balance.
A negative nitrogen balance is when more protein is required to carry out all necessary bodily functions. However, a protein deficit is pretty rare.
Being in a positive nitrogen balance can lead to gut inflammation. Excess protein is broken down in the gut to form sulphate-containing compounds, which are known to generate bloating, flatulence and IBS like symptoms. Such symptoms promote inflammation in the gut and can potentially cause more serious conditions if not addressed.
A simple yet effective test to identify whether you are consuming too much protein is to check your urine. If your urine is excessively ‘foamy’, then this may suggest your protein intake may need to be reduced.
Like everything, the quality of protein source is especially important. Protein from fast food products and commercially reared animals will most likely promote more negative side-effects.
Whereas, protein sourced from wild caught fish, grass-fed meat and free-range chicken/eggs, are sources rich with micronutrients, while not containing any unwanted additives and hormones.
Movement has been a fundamental aspect of human life for millions of years. Walking, running, jumping, squatting, and climbing are movement patterns that are vital to optimise human longevity.
In the 21st century it has never been so important to move our bodies. So many of us are often confined to an office space, spending time driving our kids to and from school, or sitting on the sofa scrolling through social media whilst watching Netflix.
General movement and exercise have far reaching benefits for our health:
- Increased immune function
- Nervous system optimisation
- Reduced risk of injury/illness
- Cognitive function
- Physical benefits: strength, endurance, flexibility and weight loss.
Movement is so important for productivity; mainly through enhancing the function of areas in the brain. Otherwise known as the hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex, they help with information processing, creativity and memory.
Those who move regularly are proven to have better cognitive skills than those who don’t, which often translates into better performance at work or school, and improved mental clarity.
The idea of movement doesn’t have to be complicated or too structured. Finding time to be active can be difficult for some people. However, the best thing about movement is that it can be done anywhere.
For example, you could sit at your desk and every 30 minutes get up and jog on the spot. Sit down again for half an hour and repeat. You could watch TV and do 10 burpees every ad break.
Do this several times a day and you can accumulate a decent chunk of movement without disturbing your day.
However, allocating time to be active is even better. It could be as simple as walking your dog before work, hitting the gym during lunch or organising a physical activity with friends.
The most important thing is to find something you enjoy. Of course, not all exercise may seem fun at first. A gym session may leave you out of puff, but the short-term discomfort will reward you with long term benefits. Variety is often the key when it comes to movement and exercise.
Unless you are a sportsperson/athlete who has to train the same way, it’s beneficial to expose yourself to different forms of activity. This way you access a blend of movement patterns and training methods, whilst experiencing different types of social scenarios.
For instance, spend a few days a week doing a more strenuous gym session, one day jogging with friends, and another having a country walk with family.
All of this equates to a week filled with different forms of movement and developing physically, whilst using different social avenues. This social side of exercise is so vital for overall health and happiness, and sustainable lifestyle changes.
The importance of sleep is so easily overlooked as part of a healthy lifestyle. Substantial bodies of evidence now suggest sleep, or lack thereof, is a major underlying cause of chronic disease, including; cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease.
It seems as if sleep deprivation is becoming a trend in the 21st century. Working hours are longer, commutes are longer, when people arrive home, sleep is often compromised in place of smartphones and Netflix.
Prioritising sleep is almost seen as a weakness, a form of laziness in a world demanding constant energy and rigour. Yet those placing emphasis on the significance of sleep will have far more to shout about.
Anything less than 7 hours per night, from a neurological perspective, is classed as sleep deprivation. You have probably seen it before, but 8 hours per night is an absolute must when it comes to sleep. Every cell in the body is regulated by a circadian rhythm (24 hour cycle) which functions on the basic principles that:
Nighttime= rest and recovery
The brain especially must be tuned into these light and dark cycles. Your brain can determine what time of day it is depending on the colour of sunlight. Blue light in the morning, and red light in the evening.
Exposure to blue light signals release of cortisol, a type of stress hormone that primes the body for the day. Whereas red light aids in the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps us enter our sleep cycles.
However, exposure to artificial blue light from smartphones and TV inhibits melatonin production, subsequently affecting our ability to fall asleep. Two useful sleep strategies would be:
- Get outside first thing in the morning to expose yourself to natural blue light
- No screens at least an hour before bed to promote the production of melatonin
During deep sleep, cerebral spinal fluid is released via the glymph system, flushing the brain clean of metabolic waste products. This includes amyloid deposits; a substance that’s accumulation may be a potential cause of Alzheimer’s.
Other benefits of sleep include:
- Better regulation of blood glucose levels, and the ability to metabolise food more efficiently
- Improved immune system function, namely the production of natural killer cells and T-cells
- Overall hormone optimisation
The priority is sleep. Cutting out that extra TV episode, and instead heading to bed an hour earlier than usual to relax your mind is a great start.
In short, the best way to have a healthy and happy life is to eat foods in their most natural forms when possible. Enjoy a varied diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and protein. Move more and often, and actually get some sleep!
Try to implement a few of these changes into your day to day life, and you will notice a vast improvement in not only your body, but your overall mental health and wellness.
Need some extra help? Head over to the Auro Facebook group. We’ve got a whole community there sharing tips and advice on their own fitness experiences, so you don’t have to feel like you’re alone in your health journey.