Have you ever thought how impressive and intelligent our bodies are? Constantly ticking away, sensing and adapting to a whole host of internal and external inputs, and in the processes sending us a myriad of signs & clues about our state of health. Fascinating isn’t it?
In this new series of posts called ‘Body Signs’ we’ll learn how to decode our bodies’ messages from a nutrition perspective (and you’ll be surprised with some of the things we’ll uncover!) But why is learning to read our bodies important? Well, being aware of what is happening in our bodies can help steer our health in the right direction, ease our anxiety, motivate us to take better care of ourselves and build a better relationship with our bodies.
So let’s start with the tongue. It is often one of the first areas of the body to show signs of nutrient deficiencies. Although this sign may not tell us exactly what’s out of balance, it can help guide further assessments.
Both iron and B vits are necessary for energy production, hormone and neurotransmitter function, immune health and DNA repair. All of which are critical processes for our overall health.
Blood tests are usually used to determine iron deficiency, whereas B vitamin levels can be assessed either through blood (standard) or urine (functional) testing. The advantage of a urine test is that it tells us whether your body has enough nutrients to function optimally (vs. a set reference range on a blood test).
Of course, such assessments should never be viewed in isolation – there are a lot of tools we can use in combination to build a clear picture of our nutrition status (including these physical signs and biochemical assessments).
Did you know that there are 13 vitamins essential for life? They are essential because each one of them serves a whole host of important functions in the body.
Take for example Vitamin A. It is needed for:
Optimal gene expression
Red blood cell production
This fat-soluble vitamin is found in animal foods as preformed vitamin A and in plant foods as its precursor – carotenoids.
Top sources include:
Dark coloured veggies (spinach, kale, collards, etc.)
Vitamin A status can be tested through a simple serum (blood) test and deficiency can produce notable symptoms such as vision problems, poor immune function, skin and hair conditions, thyroid dysfunction + more (we’ll explore some of those in our Body Signs series).
Zinc and iron deficiencies are often associated Vitamin A deficiency (zinc is needed for vit. A metabolism, whereas vit. A is needed for iron metabolism).
If you have had even the tiniest of experiences in weight loss or ‘toning’ your body (i.e. building muscle) you would have been told to stick to your daily calorie target. You would also have been told about the concept of ‘calories in’ vs. ‘calories out’. In order to lose weight the calories consumed should be less than the calories used up.
Although this concept is very true and correct, simply looking at calories is not automatically going to give you good health (even if you’re achieving your fitness/weight loss targets!).
Why is that? Because each calorie has its own nutritional value. That means that, depending on its source, a calorie will have a different composition of nutrients (protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and water). And so calories from fat will function differently in the body compared to calories from sugar.
Sugar, the simplest form of carbohydrates, requires very little digestion and goes straight into the bloodstream. Now, the body can only process the sugar at a certain rate and it also has a limit as to how much sugar should be circulating in the blood. Too much sugar in the blood can cause a range of serious metabolic derangements in the body and so our bodies try really hard to remove excess sugar from the bloodstream (in fact, our bodies work best when we have less than 1 teaspoon of sugar circulating in the bloodstream). And so the body will first use as much sugar as it can for energy and then the rest will be stored as fat.
On the other hand, calories from fats are released more slowly because fats take longer to digest and absorb (some say up to 8 hours!). This allows the body to use up the energy released from the fats in small batches, avoiding the flood of energy which then has to be stored as fat.
To make things more complicated, it is not just about the macronutrients (those required in large quantities) – proteins, fats and carbohydrates. We can think of these macronutrients as the fuel and building blocks of the body. However, it is the micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) which act as the gears that enable the body to use the fuel and function properly. Thus, a calorie which contains mostly macronutrients but little or no micronutrients is also of little use to the body.
And so we go back to the beginning – not all calories are made equal. If you’re just interested in weight loss, eating anything within your calorie target could still help you lose weight. However, in addition to losing weight you may also deplete the body of the vital minerals and vitamins, the gears of the body, which affect how your body functions and ultimately your health!
Oh, by the way, did you also know that calories from different food sources are burnt differently? We’ll talk about this and the various factors which affect how we burn calories in part 2 of this post. Stay tuned!
Nutrition – the word itself conjures images of strict diets and weight scales, doesn’t it? And yet nutrition is about a lot more than just that.
Over the years nutrition has started taking a more prominent spot in the worlds of health and medicine. Not just in the treatment of digestive diseases, but for a wide variety of ailments and health situations.
At the forefront of change is a new discipline called ‘Functional medicine’ – I spoke about it in an earlier post. In a nutshell, functional medicine relies heavily on nutrition and lifestyle interventions before turning to pharmaceuticals.
Why are these changes happening now? Because people from both sides of the field (i.e. patients and healthcare providers) are starting to realize that the current system doesn’t work.
To put it in the words of the great biochemist and author Dr. T. Colin Campbell, most countries today have a “disease-care system” rather than a healthcare one.
Current Western medical models are too focused on the individual parts of the human body (reductionism). Although this approach can tell us a lot about how specific organs work on their own, it doesn’t reveal much about how they all function together in the complex human body. For example, knowing how the neurons in the brain work doesn’t really help us understand why we react emotionally to our favorite song.
We need to see the full picture to truly understand what is going on. And we can do this through functional medicine and functional nutrition.
How? Functional nutrition goes much deeper than food labels and diet plans – its main focus is finding the root cause of your symptoms and resolving them. A nutritionist trained in functional medicine will use advanced laboratory testing and other assessment techniques to create powerful and highly personalized therapeutic interventions.
The first step in the functional approach is to take a detailed look at the patient’s history – not just the physical symptoms but also other predisposing factors, such as past stressful life events. Stress is a huge factor in many (if not all!) diseases.
The next step would be lab testing to confirm (or exclude) possible underlying causes of the symptoms. As the saying goes – “test, don’t guess”.
Based on all of the information collected, a functional nutritionist will then start investigating what is the root cause. Where are all of your symptoms and ailments intersecting? Is there a common factor, pathway or axis? Are there any imbalances in body functions and systems?
You may be surprised how intricately all systems of our body are connected. For example, food intolerances (e.g. lactose and gluten) can cause headaches and migraines with mild or minimal symptoms in the digestive tract (which may be missed easily). A traditional doctor may just prescribe you a medicine for the migraines, without really looking into the root cause.
In other cases, a person may be experiencing a range of symptoms, however standard medical tests would come back “in the clear” and the person would be told that there is nothing wrong with them. This is usually because most lab reference ranges are for end-stage disease and not for optimal health – just because something isn’t marked red on the test result doesn’t mean that all is ok!
Another example is the link between inflammation and many “incurable” chronic diseases:
As you can see, a functional nutritionist is committed to finding the root cause of your symptoms and resolving them, no matter how long it takes. They are also committed to working together with you, listening to your story and how your body feels. And that is why functional nutrition and functional medicine is the answer to some of the problems in health and healthcare today.
No, I don’t mean that “boring, bland, diet food” (although healthy food is not boring, but more on that later). What I’m talking about is your standard food intake. You know, the “wholegrain” sandwich and pasta, the takeaway pizza, the “healthy” rice bowl or potato mash – those kind of things.
How can they make you depressed – they taste like happiness right?! Well, despite the short-term boost in mood, a high-carbohydrate, high-sugar diet can lead to something called insulin resistance.
Insulin resistance (IR)
What is it? IR happens when the cells in your body are not responding to the hormone insulin. Insulin, a hormone produced by the pancreas, takes excess glucose from our blood stream into many cells throughout the body.
When your cells refuse to open their ‘doors’ to insulin, the excess glucose remains in the blood wreaking all sort of trouble. Here’s just a few of the issues caused by IR:
The cells run out of fuel. Yes, our cells need glucose to produce energy and function properly.
The cells become malnourished. When our cells open their ‘doors’ to glucose, they also let in vital nutrients such as amino acids and vitamins. These nutrients are also needed for proper cellular function.
Burnout of pancreatic cells. The beta-cells of the pancreas are responsible for producing insulin. These cells are stimulated by excess glucose in the blood. Constantly high blood glucose levels will force these cells to work overtime, pumping out as much insulin as they can until they start to burn out and die. The result: reduced capacity of the body to produce insulin. This is the beginning of diabetes.
IR and brain chemistry
OK, we now know that both insulin and glucose are needed to take nutrients into our cells. But how does that relate to our mood, brain chemistry and depression specifically?
You may have heard that our moods are regulated by our brain chemistry. What that means is that certain chemical molecules can affect how our brain cells function. Such molecules are called neurotransmitters – they transmit ‘information’ from a nerve cell to another nerve cell or a muscle cell or any other cell in our body.
Neurotransmitters are made inside the brain from amino acids (the building blocks of protein) and other compounds. To get inside the brain, the amino acids have to pass a protective barrier called the blood-brain barrier (BBB). This process requires sufficient amounts of insulin and the cells to be sensitive to insulin’s actions.
The important neurotransmitters for regulating our moods are serotonin, dopamine, adrenalin, acetylcholine and GABA. Here’s how two of them are made:
Audio from Dr. Oscar Coetzee, Masters in Human Nutrition lecturer and clinical nutritionist.
So when the cells in our body, including the brain, are not responding properly to insulin fewer amino acids can cross the BBB leading to a drop in the amount of neurotransmitters in the brain. This alters our brain chemistry and can lead to many emotional and psychological symptoms including the below:
So here you are – what you eat can make you depressed by altering your brain chemistry! Of course there are more factors including stress, addictive and toxic foods as well as vitamin and mineral deficiencies. These will be covered in future posts, so keep an eye out if you’re interested!
First of all, I hate the word diet. It is terribly close to the word “die” and exudes connotations of great struggle and suffering. Oh, and I love food.
The poor word has been so badly abused by the media and health & food industry that it has now become our second nature to associate it with hunger, unpleasant meals and unhappiness.
Yet, it still feels like we are obliged to follow a “healthy” (definition: TBC) diet of some sorts. Apparently doing that can solve many personal and global problems. Problems such as:
Eliminating waste (buy only what you can eat, often misinterpreted as eat all you can and throw away nothing)
Ending hunger (similar to above, but with an extra dose of guilt)
Saving the planet (reduce environmental impact by eating local & seasonal foods)
Saving the animals (no explanation needed here)
Getting your body the nutrients it needs
Preventing disease and curing existing health problems
Getting in shape, losing weight
Maintaining a state of happiness and mental health
There’s probably more claims out there, but I believe these are the main ones.
Now do you see the problem? There are specific diets for each of these problems and there are diets which cover more than one problem. In fact, there are over 100 recognized diets!
However, I am yet to find a diet that can fix it all and keep you happy. You know what I mean?
If you eat meat, you are a merciless killer who’s likely to suffer some digestive issue due to the high acidic profile of animal products. Of course, the alternative is not eating meat and fighting a slow battle with pernicious anemia (B-12 deficiency) or trying to keep your kidney alive due to long-term supplement usage (ok may be I am a bit harsh, but you get the picture).
And there are many more examples…
So I think it’s time to move away from the word diet and take a closer look at our lifestyles. Fitting food around the way we live and the preferences we have will make things much easier. At least in theory.
We are all unique individuals with different needs and likes, so it’s only natural to adopt a lifestyle that feels healthy to you, makes you happy and energetic.
Have you found what works for you? Share your story in the comments below 🙂
Starting a gym friendly diet doesn’t need to be daunting – you just need to understand the basics and be prepared to do some food preparation.
Firstly, you need to get back to eating real food: in other words the stuff that grew out of the earth or on a tree, swam in the sea, ran on the ground or flew in the sky. Avoid things that have been processed and come in packaging, ready meals or fast food deliveries. It is time to get back to cooking so you understand just what is going into that body of yours. Losing weight and feeling healthy is 80% down to diet.
Avoid the fad diets, detoxes and juice cleanses. All these will do is cause fluctuations in your body weight and health. They aren’t sustainable and a lot of the time you end up putting back on all the weight that has been lost. What we want to do is create a diet/meal plan that is sustainable for you and keeps you healthy.
A lot of people focus on calorie counting, yet this shouldn’t be your only focus. You should also be taking note of the macronutrients that you are ingesting. The below explains the three macros:
Protein: Every time you exercise your muscles break down and then use protein to rebuild and become stronger. This is why protein needs to be the main component of every meal. You should be aiming for one gram of protein per pound of body weight (for example, if you are 120 pounds you should be having 120 grams of protein minimum per day). Stick to lean high quality protein sources like beef, poultry and fish.
Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are converted into glucose (sugar) when ingested which is then used to provide energy. When you consume more carbohydrates than are being used up as energy the excess is being stored as fat. You want to avoid simple carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, cakes, etc.
Fat: Unfortunately, fat is the most misunderstood macronutrient in diets. Fat, contrary to popular belief, is absolutely necessary for your body and should make up the majority of your calorie intake.
Your macro split is down to what fitness goals you are trying to achieve. You need to firstly determine the number of calories your body requires in order to calculate your macros. Your required calorie intake is based on your age, gender, weight, rate of metabolism, activity level and goal. There are a number of calculators online which will calculate this for you however I would recommend using the following site http://www.bmi-calculator.net/bmr-calculator/
The standard split for macros is 40% protein, 40% carbohydrates and 20% fats. Don’t get too caught up on the ratios as long as you are roughly sticking to this. I promise it does get easier over time!
Now that you know your base metabolic rate and a rough guide of your macro intake you have an understanding of the number of calories you should be ingesting. So you can start planning meals based around this.
The easiest way to stick to your meal plan is to prep your meals – this eliminates any temptation or picking up food that is unhealthy on the run. For more information on meal prep please check out my previous article here.
Good luck and once you start the process of a gym friendly diet things will become easier and a second nature.
Simple, quick and easy to make. With just 3 ingredients, these pancakes are healthy and sweet with no sugar added.
They come together in a few minutes and make the perfect breakfast or sweet – tooth satisfying dessert.
The flavour will vary, depending on the flavour of your protein powder. I used organic chocolate powder (made with with cacao and stevia). The banana itself gives enough sweetness so no need for any extras.
If you like your pancakes fluffy add in some baking powder, however I prefer it simple and go by the “less is more” approach.
1 medium banana
1 scoop of protein powder
1 egg white
Toppings (optional) as in picture:
Splash of dark chocolate sauce
Handful of blueberries
Handful of pistachios
Place all the ingredients into a blender and mix until smooth and creamy
Heat a pan over medium heat and melt a about ¼ teaspoon of butter or coconut oil into the pan.
Pour the batter in the pan: Drop roughly 2 tablespoons of batter onto the hot griddle.
Cook for 1 minute or until the bottom looks browned and golden when you lift a corner.
Gently flip the pancakes and cook for another minute on the other side.
Transfer the cooked pancakes to a serving plate and continue cooking the rest of the batter.
I managed to get 9 pancakes out of this recipe and it was perfectly satisfying. Talking about toppings, feel free to add whatever toppings you wish. Get creative 😉
This recipe is one of my favourite as I always have the necessary ingredients. My whole family loves it. The patties are incredibly easy and quick to make, and they’re budget friendly too. More so they taste fantastic!
1 tin of tuna
3tbsp of sweetcorn (organic)
1/2 cup oats or breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 Tbsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 Tbsp chopped fresh chives, green onions, or shallots Salt and freshly ground black pepper or any other seasoning of your liking
1 raw egg
2 Tbsp coconut or olive oil for cooking
Mix all the ingredients together in the big b0wl.
Cover with foil and chill in the fridge for an hour)
Divide the mixture into 4 parts or 8 smaller.
With each part, form into a ball and then flatten into a patty.
Heat the oil in a cast iron or stick‐free skillet on medium high.
Gently place the patties in the pan, and cook until nicely browned, 3‐4 minutes on each side.
You can cover them in breadcrumbs if you like them crispy and don’t mind the extra carbs 🙂