Every year at about this time most of us resolve
that this year we are going to do things differently.
We are going to lose weight, we are going to get
more exercise, we are going to learn a foreign
language, we are going to…. The aims involved
almost always are desirable and chosen from a
list of things that, no doubt, we really should do.
All too often, these resolutions also are carryovers from the past
year or, worse still, past years. As a result, we may ratchet up
the ante, as it were, with a virtual carrot or stick, such as buying
new clothes that we intend to be able to wear after carrying out
our resolution or taking out an expensive gym membership.
This time around, my suggestion is to remove the pressure and
adopt one or more low stress health resolution that may achieve
some important goals indirectly. This way, success will come
almost as a surprise even as benefits emerge from changes in
Eat Breakfast Every Day
Over the years, a slew of studies have demonstrated a couple
of points that need to be kept in mind. One is that the timing
of meals can be as important as the contents of the meals.
Experiments have shown that with identical meals, calories
eaten entirely at breakfast can lead to stable or reduced weight
whereas the same number of calories eaten at night can lead
to weight gain. Never skip breakfast. If you skip breakfast, your
body will take this as a sign that you are “starving” and slow
down your metabolism. There may be other unwanted effects
in the brain. Substituting a cup of coffee and a sweet roll for
breakfast is almost as bad as not eating that meal.
Another finding is that eating a relatively high protein
breakfast with a significant number of calories tends to reduce
the number of calories consumed at the next meal and even the
propensity to snack throughout the day. Advice varies, but the
argument from a number of researchers is that protein should
make up 25–30 percent of the calories and fat should make up
35–40 percent of the calories with the remainder consisting
of slow digesting carbohydrates. Many will recognize that
this conforms to the diet proposed years ago by Barry Sears.
Interestingly, research following subjects for one or two years
has not validated the low-fat-is-best hypothesis. Instead, a diet
consisting of 25 percent protein and the rest low glycemic index
(from mixed carbohydrate and fat components) spontaneously
leads to weight loss in many subjects who started the diet while
Morning Exercise and Sunshine
Today, many or even most families have both parents working.
Schedules often make it hard to send the proper signals to the
body by getting a bit of sun before lunch. Those who live in the
northern latitudes also can attest that the sun rises quite late in
the winter. Nevertheless, even a little bit of sun in the morning
helps to keep the body’s internal clock working properly.
Light exposure and exercise go well together. Exercise
burns calories, but the greatest benefit comes after the exercise
has ended. If you walk briskly for a mere 30 minutes per day, you
will increase your calorie burning for an entire 24 hour period.
Adding a moderate amount of upper body exercise or weight
lifting will improve your energy expenditure even more by adding
calorie-burning lean muscle tissue to your body. For weight loss,
plan on walking briskly for at least 30 minutes every day. This is
best done either before or after breakfast. A walk early in the day
while the body’s temperature is still rising will invigorate you
for the rest of the day. Taking a short walk (10 to 15 minutes)
in the afternoon or before supper similarly makes it more likely
that your body will burn calories rather than store them. Finally,
another time for a walk is after your last meal of the day. Walking
after meals is a particularly good practice for diabetics and for
those genetically prone to developing diabetes.
Choose Dietary Fats Wisely
A recent survey found that approximately 95 percent of all
Americans consume too little omega-3 fatty acids (fish oils,
flax seed oil and a small number of other sources) in relation
to their total fatty acid intake. Instead, we eat mostly omega-6
fatty acids because, quite simply, these are cheap to derive from
canola, corn, peanut, soy and other sources. Unfortunately,
omega-6 fatty acids in excess promote inflammatory processes
in the body.
Dietary saturated fats, after 60 years in the wilderness,
no longer are under blanket condemnation by the Food and
Drug Administration (FDA) or several other “official” bodies.
Today, it increasingly is admitted that the evidence against,
for instance, the egg, does not stand up and eggs, in fact,
are good for you even in relatively large numbers per week.
Similarly, the short-chain fatty acids in butter and other dairy
products are good for the health of the gut and another fat
from full fat dairy, palmitoleic acid, is associated with slightly
lower adiposity, with higher high-density lipoprotein cholesterol
levels, lower triglyceride levels, a lower total cholesterol–HDL
cholesterol ratio, lower C-reactive protein levels, and lower
insulin resistance. Trans-palmitoleate also is associated with a
substantially lower incidence of diabetes.
As with the consumption of full fat dairy in the form of
cheese, milk and yoghurt (obviously, not lots of whipped cream
with sugar!), the evidence supports that improving the ratio of
omega-3 fatty acids in the diet may moderately improve weight
and cardiovascular health.
Eat More Vegetables
Most readers automatically will think “eating more vegetables”
means eating more fiber. This, however, is not the whole of the
story by any means. Let’s take fiber first. Fiber slows down food
consumption so that your body has a chance to signal that you
have eaten enough. It adds bulk to the meal to give you a feeling
of satisfaction at having eaten. It slows the increase in the blood
sugar level that follows meals. Fiber carries waste products
from the body and, especially if it comes from lightly cooked
vegetables, it supplies important minerals and antioxidants. Try
to vary your fiber sources. Avoid too much scratchy wheat bran,
but add grains such as oats and barley and starchy vegetables
such as sweet potatoes and yams (without added sugar) to your
Clinical studies that came out earlier this year now have
added another dimension to the story. It turns out that the
plant hormone abscisic acid is present and active in humans!
Abscisic acid can be found in many fruits and vegetables. In
one study, microgram amounts of abscisic acid in a fruit extract
improved glucose tolerance and reduce insulinemia in both
rats and humans! Another clinical study found that there is an
impaired increase in abscisic acid in the blood in diabetes and
gestational diabetes. The upshot of these studies is “eat more
Old Fashioned Versus Fast and Prepared Food
Most studies on food and health focus on the big three nutrients
(carbohydrates, fats and protein), the glycemic index and
various isolated food components. One novel approach that
breaks this mold looks, instead, at the issue of food processing.
Many foods that we think are either good or bad actually owe
their effects to how they have been refined, manufactured and
prepared. To give but one example, steel cut oats are excellent
food, but instantized oats designed to become oatmeal with the
mere addition of hot water become a high glycemic food akin
to white bread or sugar. One Brazilian researcher writes that the
issue is “ultra processing” and its impact on food.
This commentary distinguishes between three types of food
and drink processing, and in turn three groups of foods and
drinks, depending on the nature, extent and purpose of their
processing. The first group are unprocessed (as defined here)
or minimally processed foods. The second group are processed
culinary or food industry ingredients. The third group are ultra-processed
products—two examples of which are ready-to-eat
eat breakfast cereals and burgers.
Today, at least 50 percent of all meals eaten by Americans
are consumed outside the home with a good percentage
being eaten in fast food restaurants. Good health depends,
at least in part, on reducing the amount of ultra-processed
food in the diet.
Worthwhile resolutions do not need to be great or grand. With
patience, small, practical changes can yield major improvements
- Breakfast-skippers may over-eat to compensate for low dopamine levels. See Hoertel HA, Will MJ, Leidy HJ. A randomized crossover, pilot study examining the effects of a normal protein vs. high protein breakfast on food cravings and reward signals in overweight/obese “breakfast skipping”, late-adolescent girls. Nutr J. 2014 Aug 6;13:80.
- Larsen TM, Dalskov SM, van Baak M, Jebb SA, et al.; Diet, Obesity, and Genes (Diogenes) Project. Diets with high or low protein content and glycemic index for weight-loss maintenance. N Engl J Med. 2010 Nov 25;363(22):2102–13.
- Mozaffarian D, de Oliveira Otto MC, Lemaitre RN, Fretts AM, Hotamisligil G, Tsai MY, Siscovick DS, Nettleton JA. trans-Palmitoleic acid, other dairy fat biomarkers, and incident diabetes: the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Apr;97(4):854–61.
- Magnone M, Ameri P, Salis A, Andraghetti G, et al. Microgram amounts of abscisic acid in fruit extracts improve glucose tolerance and reduce insulinemia in rats and in humans. FASEB J. 2015 Dec;29(12):4783–93.
- Ameri P, Bruzzone S, Mannino E, Sociali G, et al. Impaired increase of plasma abscisic Acid in response to oral glucose load in type 2 diabetes and in gestational diabetes. PLoS One. 2015 Feb 27;10(2):e0115992.
- Monteiro C. The big issue is ultra-processing. ‘Carbs’: The answer. [Commentary]/ World Nutrition February 2011;2(2):86–97.