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Are you and your diet a match?

Updated: Feb 1, 2023

The new year is a time when so many of us decide to go on highly restrictive diets. We do it as a kind of compensation for ‘over-indulging’ at Christmas. Maybe we’ve put on a few pounds, maybe we feel a bit sluggish after the festivities or maybe we don’t feel anything in particular until we are told how we are supposed to feel by every food brand, gym and instagram influencer imaginable. January 1st comes around and we are bombarded with messages telling us why we need to lose weight, get fit or eat clean. Of course, we’ve also been told all our lives that we have to look a certain way in order to have value in this world…so perhaps for many of us, these messages fit with that belief.

I am certainly an advocate of eating the foods which are good for our bodies. I know that over the last few decades, the exponential growth in processed, chemical and sugar laden foods, are, at least in part, responsible for most of the chronic illnesses we suffer with today. I also know that we are bombarded with messages to eat these foods, just like we are by the messages telling us to stop eating in January. We are, to some extent, at the mercy of the food industry and how they choose to influence us. So in this blog, I aim to show you how you can take back control, avoid falling prey to the latest weight loss fad and make choices which are genuinely good for your body.

Vegetarian, vegan, carnivore, keto, paleo, low fat/high carb, low carb/high fat, the list goes on… There is always an ‘expert’ telling us why their way of eating is right for all of us.

The truth is that no one diet works for everyone, because we are all completely, utterly and wonderfully unique.

My biochemistry is different to yours, as is the accumulation of my life experiences which have affected my biochemistry. Firstly, the genome you are born with is unlike anyone else’s and it provides the blueprint for your body. We now also know that we are host to billions of microbes living in our gut and on our skin (the microbiome) and they have genes which outnumber our genes by 100 times (2). Your microbiome can be 80-90% different from the next person’s! (1). In addition to this vast diversity, there’s the fact that we all live in different environments and make different choices day to day and this is what determines whether those genes are switched on or off. For example, you may have a gene which predisposes you to weight gain, but whether you do in fact gain weight is determined much more significantly by your exposure to stress, toxins and childhood trauma, your food and eating habits, how much you sleep, move your body and whether you live with a sense of purpose and fulfilment. This effect is called epigenetics (3) and it is the reason why identical twins can have the same DNA but entirely different health outlooks (4).

Now that I’ve talked about just how unique we all are, I’ll share with you the most important reasons we should be eating in a way which works for our individual body, starting with some myth busting about calorie restriction…

1. Calorie restriction diets only work for weight loss short term

A new systematic review (5) of 121 studies into weight loss which followed adults on various popular diets such as Atkins and Jenny Craig showed that they don’t work for most people. Whilst after 6 months some weight loss and cardiovascular benefits were shown, after 12 months those improvements largely disappeared. It seems that when we eat in a way which is highly calorie restricted, not enjoyable enough, or too complicated it’s not possible for us to stick to it. Sustained weight loss can only come from sustained food choices that work for your body. Keeping up those choices long term relies on your food being pleasurable and satiating but also on finding ways which make healthy choices easy and convenient.

To take things further, extreme calorie restriction can actually lead to slower metabolism and in some cases weight gain long term. The human body was evolved to be able to cope with periods of food deprivation by reducing the number of calories it burns in order to conserve energy. It’s a natural (and very wise!) response which prevents starvation (7,8,9). So if you are eating a low calorie diet but struggling to lose weight, this may be one of the issues (other causes include Polycystic Ovarian syndrome, Hypothyroidism and chronic stress which can all prevent weight loss during a calorie deficit). In any case, extreme calorie restriction is dangerous, as it can lead to nutrient deficiencies which can cause a myriad of diseases.

I believe we should free ourselves from calorie counting and spend more time thinking about the quality of food on our plates - healthy weight loss comes from eating whole foods that minimise stress and maximise the nutritional needs of our bodies.

2. Most of us need to eat less starch, but not all of us

Up there in the biggest food trends of this time, is the Keto diet, or in other words high fat and low carb. The theory is that this puts your body into a metabolic state called ketosis which makes it efficient at burning fat for energy (11). Most research shows that low carb diets are more effective than low fat diets for weight loss (14,15, 16), however these diets may be closer in their benefits over the long term (17). Perhaps more importantly, the Keto diet can be an effective way to reduce blood sugar and insulin resistance which are frequently at play in metabolic disorders such as diabetes (13,18).

However, it's important to note that carbs per se are not bad foods and we shouldn’t demonise them. Sweet potato, carrots, brown rice and lentils are all very healthy, high carbohydrate foods. But not all carbs are created equal. It is the ‘refined’ carbs or in other words grains which have been broken down from their original form (white wheat, white rice) and of course sugar, which rapidly increase our blood sugar, and over time, can lead to obesity and diabetes. Whilst for many, a greater emphasis on healthy fat and protein will be beneficial, restricting healthy carbs long term is not a good idea as its likely to lead to nutrient deficiencies and gut imbalances (19, 20).

As always, no one diet is good for everyone and some people are highly unsuited to the Keto diet. For example, those who are suffering with bacterial overgrowths in their gut, gallbladder disease or who don't have enough bile in their digestive tract are unlikely to be able absorb fats effectively (21). The Keto diet would leave these people without adequate nutrition and low in energy.

Rather than following a diet like this blindly, I recommend experimenting with different ways of eating and then tuning into your body to see how it responds. If switching up your usual porridge in the morning for eggs and salmon or a protein smoothie gives you more energy and keeps you full until lunch, it’s likely to be working for your body.

3. “We are not just what we eat, we are what we eat, digest, absorb and get past the cell membrane” Tracy Harrison

Let me give you a personal story. I, like so many today, believed in a vegan diet. I care deeply about animal welfare and helping to save our planet for future generations, and I believed that it must be a healthy way of eating. I mean, I was eating a tonne of plants, how could it not be?! What I didn’t know at the time was that I was suffering with maldigestion and malabsorption issues as a result of years of insults to my gut. Copious amounts of antibiotics as a child, chronic stress and more food poisoning incidents than I care to remember, had left me unable to absorb necessary amounts of critical nutrients such as B12, iron and zinc. My vegan diet was exacerbating this problem as these nutrients are much more plentiful in animal foods, and because of my gut issues, I needed a lot of them! Whilst it is possible to reverse maldigestion and malabsorption, it was only when I began eating small amounts of healthy animal protein, that my nutrient levels went up and I felt better.

Now, I am not saying that eating meat is the only way forward - for some people, a vegan diet may be just what their unique body needs, as demonstrated by elite athletes like Lewis Hamilton.

There is also no doubt that we all need to eat a lot more plants and less meat, both for the health of ourselves and our environment. But it is important to be mindful that there are some things you cannot get at all in a vegan diet (B12) and some things which are harder to get in plentiful supply and properly absorbed by the body (zinc, iron, iodine, vitamin D3, collagen and some omega 3s), so if you are a vegan, or considering it, I would encourage you to get checked for these critical nutrients so you can understand what your body needs to be nourished on a cellular level (6).

In fact, with any diet that restricts certain foods, it’s important to understand if you are missing out on any nutrients entirely or only ingesting them in less absorbable forms. As we need nutrients for every biochemical reaction in our body, it’s only when we are properly nourished that we can feel at our best and stave off disease.

4) We can become sensitive to foods which cause us to be unwell

The final area I will cover is the highly debated topic of food sensitivities. Now, some will argue that food sensitivities aren’t real and it’s just another way that the food industry is trying to make money out of us - gluten free, dairy free, yeast free… It’s certainly true that this creates product opportunities and they are not necessarily good for us.

However, I believe that we all know food sensitivities exist. We’ve all experienced a boat of bloating, belching, reflux or diarrhoea after a certain type of food that ‘doesn’t agree with us’. It has also been shown time and again that symptoms such as eczema, fatigue and joint pain can disappear once a food sensitivity is removed from the diet. Whilst they are different to food allergies, whereby the reaction is rapid and potentially life threatening, symptoms from sensitivities can be highly debilitating.

It’s important to say that it’s not the fault of the food. We now have an undisputed amount of research which shows that some of us are suffering with Enhanced Intestinal Permeability or “leaky gut” - where the tight junctions in the lining of the gut start to wear down (22,23). Leaky gut is linked to a number of issues - autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, celiac and Chrohn's, arthritis, asthma, acne and more, but it also explains why we become sensitive to foods (22,25). When you have leaky gut, it’s like the doors are open between your intestines and your bloodstream and some of the things which are supposed to stay in your gut can now flow freely into your bloodstream, including undigested foods. This makes your immune system react because it thinks the food is an ‘invader’ and it is what causes food related symptoms (24,26).

It is usually possible to eat the foods which you are sensitive to again, once you have healed your gut and unraveled why it became leaky in the first place. But this is not a one-size-fits-all approach - as I said at the start of this blog, your biochemistry has been affected by the accumulation of your life experiences and the choices you make each day - so if you suspect food sensitivities, it’s a good idea to do the detective work on yourself or with the support of a functional medicine or nutrition professional.

Please get in touch if you'd like to explore any of the concepts I've discussed in this blog.

In the meantime, you might like to read some of my related blogs, The Myth of the Ideal Body Weight and Does our Mental Health Depend on our Gut Health.


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