I’m convinced that one of the major difficulties that faces the aspiring dieter is that it can be difficult to distinguish healthy foods from unhealthy ones. A big part of the problem is that weight loss is big money. Many companies make money by marketing weight loss products, and it doesn’t much matter to them whether their products actually help people to lose weight or not, as long as people buy the products.
Some examples of what I’m talking about:
- ‘Healthy’ low-fat foods that are packed with sugar and chemicals
- Cereals and cereal bars aimed at the weight-conscious, but containing as much as 46% sugar
- Diet pills, shakes and formulas that ultimately encourage you to eat badly rather than make healthy long-term changes to your diet
- Special diets, often recommended by celebrities, that are hard to stick to and do not enable you to lose weight long-term
Possibly the most pernicious of all these are the “low fat” or “diet” foods that are high in sugar. Sugar is possibly your number one enemy when you’re trying to lose weight, since as I’ll explain in a later post in this series, refined sugar has a tendency to induce unstable eating patterns that cause you to eat more.
Some may disagree, but in my experience, the true difference between healthy and unhealthy foods is that healthy foods are largely unrefined, while unhealthy foods are heavily refined and processed.
Sometimes the difference can appear quite obscure to the average dieter. For instance, some studies have found that red meat does not appear to contribute to heart disease, while cured meat (such as sausages, ham, and any kind of meat that does not require refrigeration) contributes heavily to heart disease. Why? The precise reason is unknown, but it may simply be due to the fact that meats are cured with potentially cancer-causing nitrates and nitrites, chemicals that bond to the red haemaglobin in blood cells and interfere with its ability to carry oxygen around the body.
If you want to lose weight and you don’t want cancer or heart disease, I advise eating a diet containing as many unrefined foods as possible, and as few refined foods as possible. Above all stay off refined sugar, but by all means eat plenty of fresh fruit.
I’ll discuss ways of eating more fresh fruit in my forthcoming article on beating sugar addiction, and later on I’ll be posting articles containing delicious healthy recipes that can help you to change your diet along healthy lines.
But for now, consider adding more and more unrefined, healthy foods to your diet, while eating fewer and fewer refined foods.
Some examples of unrefined, healthy foods are:
- Fresh fruit
- Fresh (including cooked) vegetables
- Fresh non-cured meat, such as chicken and beef (preferably organic, for the sake of the animals as well as your health)
- Milk (preferably half-fat, to reduce your fat intake — but worry more about sugar than fat)
- Wholemeal bread: technically a highly-processed product, but good-quality bread can still be good for your health
- Eggs (but don’t buy eggs from battery hens kept in barbaric conditions — buy free range!)
Butter and cooking oils are of course refined products. You can easily get fat eating a lot of these; every gram of oil contains about 9 calories, making it a very energy-dense food. On the other hand it can be hard to really enjoy food without these two, so I suggest enjoying them in moderation.
You can absolutely lose weight even while consuming a fair amount of fat; but try losing weight while eating a lot of refined sugar, and my prediction is that you’ll most likely fail. So go easy on butter and oil, but cut out the non-diet soda drinks, chocolate and so on completely for a while (check out my article on sugar addiction for the low-down on why sugar is so bad and tips on how to deal with sugar cravings).
Margarine on the other hand, for years marketed as a healthy alternative to butter, is best avoided. A considerable weight of evidence now suggests that margarine is much worse for your health than butter, while containing almost as many calories. I can’t help but feel that the margarine companies have been very cynical here; from a chemistry perspective, one would not expect margarine to be any better for your health than butter, since the process that renders margarine hard and spreadable turns its polyunsaturated fats into hydrogenated fats, which are basically saturated fats by another name. Margarine also contains many chemicals and weird types of fat that are very bad for your health.
Examples of foods that should be avoided or eaten sparingly:
- Cured meats
- Supermarket meals and other pre-prepared foods
- Sugar and things containing refined sugar*
- Butter and cooking oils (by all means eat these, but go easy)
- Diet foods
- Fruit juices: while not being the worst of foods from a health perspective, fruit juices are essentially a refined product, as are dried fruits
*these foods I strongly advise avoiding more or less altogether.
That’s right, I’m not a fan of diet foods. You do not need them to lose weight, and losing weight may often be harder with them than without them. You do not need a special weird diet, just the above guidelines and some common sense.
Of course, avoiding prepared foods (typically high in fat, sugar, salt and chemicals, while often having beneficial substances stripped out) entails preparing more food yourself. This need not be as time-consuming as you think. Later on I’ll be posting quick and easy healthy recipes that you can prepare at home in very little time, but for now I recommend searching online for simple recipes and meals using fresh vegetables, nuts and meat.
You don’t need to end up eating a ‘weird’ diet; for instance a meal consisting of lean-ish steak, mashed potato and carrots would be a fairly healthy meal in my view. You could follow it with a delicious fresh fruit salad or even a banana milkshake made with ripe bananas and semi-skimmed organic milk. I am personal living proof that you can lose weight and be slim on such a diet, while continuing to enjoy delicious food.
(By the way, please consider the welfare of animals when you buy meat, milk and eggs; organic meat is not only more likely to be free from from dangerous chemicals, but typically organic standards include animal welfare standards. Just because we eat animals doesn’t mean we have to treat them like garbage.)
If you’re following my weight-loss ‘secrets’ guide, you will first do a certain amount of preparation to reduce your cravings for unhealthy foods, then switch gradually to healthy foods. But even if you don’t want to lose weight or can easily control your eating habits, I would not suggest abruptly switching to one of the faddish ‘healthy’ diets that are so common these days — often consisting of salads and ‘diet’ foods laden with sugar and chemicals, making it impossible to enjoy anything like a normal diet and lifestyle.
Eating healthily isn’t an all-or-nothing business; it’s better to make gradual, sensible, incremental changes to your diet so that you are eating more healthily most of the time, than to abruptly adopt a bizarre diet in the hope of suddenly becoming healthy or quickly losing weight.
And if you’re currently stuck with very unhealthy eating habits, you might first want to stabilise your diet before moving on to changing it; more on that in the next article in this, Squiffy’s weight-loss ‘secrets’ series!