Find your motivation
After weeks of overeating, excess drinking and overindulgence, the thought of going cold turkey on your newly acquired habit for a mid-morning Quality Street can seem daunting, but the sooner you take control of your eating, the better.
Decide on a date which will signal the end of your festive overeating and then stick with it – if you haven’t already done so today would be a good time to start – the diet doesn’t always have to start tomorrow! Coinciding a new healthy eating plan with your return to work can be helpful as well, as a regular routine can break the bad habits and put a stop to the mindless overeating that takes place during Christmas.
It’s also important to think about what your motivation is for overhauling your diet – whether it’s losing that half stone you’ve gained over the festive season or getting fitter and faster for a spring sportive, psychologists agree that having a specific goal is key to success.
Once you’ve identified your motivation, take a candid look at what you’ll need to change in order to reach your goal – this might include planning weekly meals, removing all temptations from the house, taking ready-made lunches to work or banning the boozy nights out for a month or two.
- Take stock No one enjoys the post-Christmas weigh in, but if you’re planning on getting rid of the festive excess, it’s important to know where you’re starting from. Step on the scales, decide on a target weight, and use it as motivation to head in the right direction.
Thou shalt remove
Holding onto that last Chocolate Orange, wedge of Stilton or bottle of Baileys? If you’re serious about getting back to healthy habits, a cupboard clearout is the first step.
Set aside an hour before your designated ‘diet overhaul’ date to sort through your cupboards, fridge and freezer, removing any junk food that’s left from the festive period, including fizzy drinks, crisps, biscuits, chocolates, sugary foods and booze.
If you can’t bear to throw away perishable leftovers, consider turning them into something nutritious for the freezer – turkey, salmon, ham and veggies can be used to make healthy curries, stews and soups.
Non-perishable goods such as boxes of chocolates or biscuits can be donated to colleagues and friends, or at the least, moved out of sight. Studies show we over consume food when it’s within easy reach or highly visible, so it’s important to move any treat foods into covered jars or boxes and out of your eye line.
- Do this Move your most tempting foods out of sight. In one study, participants ate 70 per cent fewer chocolates when they were placed in an opaque, covered bowl than when they were in a clear bowl.
Out with the old, in
with the new
Once you’ve rid your shelves of the junk, it’s time to restock your cupboards and fridge so that when you open the door, the foods at eye level are healthy ones. According to researchers at Cornell University, we’re three times as likely to eat the first thing we see compared to the fifth thing, which means that healthy eating isn’t just down to chance – it’s about environment.
Write a list of cupboard and fridge staples before you hit the supermarket to avoid the lure of two-for-one offers on snack foods. If you’re stuck for ideas, arm yourself with a healthy cookbook or recipe app – earlier this year Riverford Organic launched a free app with over 700 recipes inspired by vegetables. Simply select what you have in your fridge and the app will list matching recipes – examples include butternut squash and aubergine risotto, or spinach and crab frittata.
After you’ve restocked your cupboard and fridge, maintain your new healthy eating habits by setting up a weekly online food shop based around these nutritious staples, or opt for an organic fruit and veg box delivery to encourage you to experiment with seasonal produce and new recipes.
- Do this Spend some time at the start of each week preparing fruit and veg – in a recent study from the Journal of Environment and Behavior, volunteers were more likely to opt for healthy snacks (apples and carrots) when they were ready prepared and close to hand.
Think like a caveman
Last year saw a surge in popularity of the stone age or hunter-gatherer diet; a way of eating believed to be similar to that of our pre-agriculture ancestors. Put simply, this means excluding foods that weren’t available during the paleolithic era such as grains, processed oils, added sugars, and alcohol.
Although nutrition experts are yet to agree on all aspects of this approach to eating (the choice to include or exclude grains and dairy produce is hotly debated), the basic principles of a more natural diet with fewer processed, refined and sugary foods can’t be argued when it comes to optimising health.
To adopt a more primal approach to eating, base your meals around lean meat, fish, lots of colourful vegetables, nuts, berries and healthy fats such as coconut and olive oil.
- P = protein power As well as being essential for muscle synthesis and cell repair, protein rich foods help to switch off hunger – aim to include a protein rich food with each meal to help regulate appetite and blood sugar levels.
Perform a white out
After a sustained period of grazing on biscuits, pudding, cake and chocolate, weaning yourself off the white stuff can be a challenge – studies show junk food can trigger the same pleasure and reward pathways in our brain as addictive drugs, which explains why quitting the sugary stuff can be so difficult.
In fact, in a recent animal study from the University of Montreal, researchers found that eliminating junk food induced biochemical changes in the brain similar to those seen in drug withdrawal, with greater levels of stress hormones and depressive
symptoms. Although this can’t be applied directly to humans, it’s one of a growing number of studies linking junk food to negative changes in mood and brain chemistry.
Start by removing obvious sources of added sugar by getting rid of cakes, biscuits, sugary cereals, syrups and fizzy drinks, then start looking at labels for less obvious sources. If you find yourself craving something sweet, opt for fresh fruit, a smoothie or homemade ‘froyo’ – simply blitz frozen fruit of your choice with plain yoghurt.
If the cold turkey approach to quitting sugary foods isn’t feasible, aim to gradually cut them out over the period of one to two weeks – this will allow your taste buds to gradually adjust so that cravings for sweet foods become less of an issue.
- Beat cravings with an early night. Studies show our brains are more susceptible to the lure of junk food when we’re sleep deprived, so commit to a few early nights each week to support healthy eating intentions.
Quit mindless munching
There’s no doubt that the festive season promotes a consistent pattern of grazing, but distracted or mindless snacking is one sneaky habit you’re best off ditching if you want to get rid of your festive excess.
Not only do studies show that we eat more when we’re distracted, it’s difficult to know when to stop if you weren’t hungry in the first place, and unless you’re burning them off or cutting down elsewhere, excess calories (be it a slice of cake, leftover mince pie or half a bag of crisps) will lead to weight gain.
To break the habit, psychologists suggest moving away from the TV or computer screen when you eat and avoiding snacking straight out of open bags, jars or cartons, as it’s impossible to tell how much you’ve eaten.
If you can bear it, you might also want to try eating with your non-dominant hand – according to research from Southern California, this can reduce calorie intake by about 30 per cent as it disrupts the physical sequence of automatic eating.
- Hand reaching for the biscuit tin? Ask yourself if you’re hungry, or whether it’s habit, boredom, or the clock that’s triggered you to eat. If it is, try distracting yourself for 10 minutes – this is often enough for the impulse to pass.
Get a diet buddy
Research shows our eating habits are heavily influenced by those who are around us, so in order to stay on track, think about roping in a friend, flatmate, work colleague or partner for a team effort on the healthy eating front.
Not only will this make it easier when it comes to eating out or preparing meals, it’s helpful to have someone on hand who can help you stay on track when the lure of the vending machine gets too much. In fact, research into health behaviour suggests we can learn healthy habits just by observing others.
To make this work, agree on an accountability system whereby you check in with each other on a daily or weekly basis whether that means a weigh in, a joint training session, or simply keeping each other motivated with a quick text or email.
Use a tracking app
Recent advances in mobile technology mean there’s an app for just about everything, and keeping track of your diet is no exception. Better still, new research shows that smartphone apps are actually effective when it comes to boosting weight loss – in a recent study, dieters who used a mobile app to track their diet and activity levels lost around four kilos more than those who didn’t use the technology.
Experts believe that food journals work because they increase awareness of what, why and how much we’re eating, helping to reduce so called ‘eating amnesia’. Most of us are also guilty of underestimating the number of calories we eat, especially when eating outside the home.
MyFitnessPal is one example of a fast and free smartphone app which allows you to track your calorie intake and exercise in just a few clicks. Alternatively try snapping your meals with your smartphone camera for an instant food diary or send yourself a quick email with your daily food intake – studies show these methods are all effective ways of encouraging healthy eating habits.
Take a break from booze
Attempts to keep tabs on your alcohol intake during December can feel futile, but once you reach January, taking a break from alcohol is much more feasible.
Not only is alcohol high in calories, it reduces the amount of fat the body burns for energy, and when you’re suffering with a sore head, you’re less inclined to stick with healthy eating intentions.
Alcohol also plays havoc with post-training recovery, so if you want to make the most of your bike sessions, a no-alcohol policy after training is sensible.
Medical experts warn against a January ‘detox’ or complete abstinence, as this creates a false sense of security in regards to long term liver health and can cause more problems if you return to full force drinking habits come February. Instead, resolve to have two to three alcohol-free nights each week on a more permanent basis, and avoid drinking over the recommended limit (three to four units for men, two to three for women) on consecutive nights.
Try a flexible approach
If the thought of a sticking to a diet seven days a week brings you out in a cold sweat, you might want to try an alternative approach in the form of intermittent or alternate day fasting.
Initially studied as a method for enhancing longevity, researchers have recently become interested in alternate or intermittent fasting (IF) as an effective approach for weight loss. Put simply, the IF approach involves a day of eating normally followed by a ‘fast day’ where food intake in restricted, typically to 500 calories a day for women, or 600 for men.
Although research is limited, initial studies suggest that intermittent fasting is as effective for weight loss as continuous dieting – in one study, overweight adults fasting two days a week (nicknamed the 5:2 method) lost as much weight as those restricting calories seven days a week – 6.4kg versus 5.6kg.
While there are no specific rules (ie how to ‘spend’ your calories on fast days), advocates recommended fasting on non-consecutive days (say Tuesday and Thursday), and including plenty of protein and vegetables on your fast days, as well as lots of non-caffeinated fluids. Typical fast day meals could include two scrambled eggs or a smoothie for breakfast, and a light evening meal of fish and vegetables.
It’s important to remember that this isn’t an excuse to eat badly on the non-fasting days. You also need to consider that training during a fast day or the morning after can be challenging, as glycogen stores will be limited. However, it does allow greater flexibility with your eating, and means you can enjoy eating out and higher calorie days without worrying about ‘breaking’ your diet.
This article was first published in the January 17 issue of Cycling Weekly. You can read our magazines on Zinio, download from the Apple store and also through Kindle Fire.