Myth buster: Eating after 5pm

Some popular diet books advise cutting out eating carbohydrates, or eating anything at all, after 5 or 6pm. Is it good advice?

These diets often reduce the total carbohydrate and energy intake by cutting out certain types of  carbohydrates after 5pm (such as pasta, bread, rice, potato, biscuits, cakes and soft drinks). Vegetables, dairy products and fruit are the only carbohydrates allowed.

Is there any evidence to support it?

A search by Sanitarium of more than 4,800 scientific journals in the National Library of Medicine Medline database failed to find a single study that supported the theory that carbohydrates need to be cut out after 5pm in order to lose weight. There are also no health authorities that endorse this type of approach.

At a recent symposium at the University of Wollongong in Australia on ‘Carbohydrates, fats, protein – what’s the optimal mix?’, Janet Franklin from the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, Sydney, explained that “in practice there is no perfect ‘weight loss’ diet. Different approaches are required for different people depending on their medical profile, their preferred eating style and food preferences, past experiences and most importantly, behavioural issues. Most people know which types of foods they should and shouldn’t be eating, but struggle with actually putting this knowledge into practice.”

Does it work?

In theory, cutting out some of the carbohydrates after 5pm or not eating after 8pm could reduce the total energy intake for the day. This would ultimately lead to a reduction in weight.

But realistically, this change in eating pattern is too restrictive for most people’s lifestyles. After 5pm is a social and family time. It is a time when the day’s activities are discussed over a meal, which usually contains some of the carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, rice and potatoes forbidden in the ‘no carbs after 5pm’ diet.

Are there any better options?

When purchasing processed foods, be a smart shopper and read the food labels for nutritional information.

Nutrition information panels (NIPs) include information about energy (kilojoules), protein, carbohydrate (total and sugars), fat (total and saturated fat) and sodium.

Compare different products using the figure per 100 grams (g) rather than the serving size figures, as the serving size listed may not be the same as the serving you actually have. In fact, your serving size may be larger.

We’re better off reducing our portion sizes than not eating after 5pm or cutting out carbs. A recent study showed that a decrease in portion size led to a decrease in energy intake, with no changes in hunger reported.

When deciding on your portion size, ask yourself these questions:

  • How much food have I eaten today – were they large portions?
  • What type of foods were eaten – were they high-fat, high-energy foods per serve?
  • How much activity have I done today?

If you have eaten lots of food in big portions and had little exercise, then having smaller portions at night is sensible.

When consuming your meals, focus on cutting down total fats – particularly saturated fats, since fats are the highest source of kilojoules (energy density) per serve.

Lowering your fat intake will lower your total energy intake and ultimately lead to weight reduction. It does not matter what time of day fats are consumed since fats eaten at any time of the day will contribute to an increase in energy intake.

So, no carbs after 5pm?

It is not the time of day that foods are eaten, but a combination of the total amount of foods, what the foods are made up of, the amount of activity taken over a day and general health that cause weight gain. If there is a balance of food intake and physical activity over a day, body weight remains stable.

Some guidelines for healthy eating

  • Eat plenty of vegetables, legumes and fruits.
  • Eat plenty of cereals (including breads, rice, pasta and noodles), preferably whole grain.
  • Include lean meat, fish, poultry and/or protein alternatives.
  • Include milks, yoghurts, cheeses and/or dairy alternatives – choose reduced-fat varieties where possible.
  • Drink plenty of water.

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Fat-free or low-carb: Which helps weight loss?

When we’re trying to lose weight, we want it to happen quickly. Will having a fat-free diet help? What about reducing carbohydrates?

Fat-free diet

A small amount of fat in your diet is essential for good health. Fat provides essential fatty acids, fat-soluble vitamins, and is required for the production of many hormones.

All fat is high in energy (kJ) but some fats are harmful to health, while others are beneficial.

The harmful fats are saturated and trans fats. These include animal fats (the white fat on meat), chicken skin and coconut as well confectionery and many processed foods.

The beneficial fats are the unsaturated ones (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated) found in olive, canola and rice bran oils, as well as nuts, seeds and avocadoes.

For weight loss, include only a small amount of fat from healthy sources.

Cutting down on

Carbohydrate is an essential fuel that your body needs when you are resting. Carbohydrate-rich foods such as bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and cereals also provide valuable fibre, vitamins and minerals.

A low-carbohydrate diet is not healthy for your body in the long term. Without carbohydrate for fuel, your body ends up turning on itself and using up your own body protein (that is, your muscles) for fuel.

The best way to get your weight down is to focus on being more active and reducing portion sizes, alcohol and high-fat foods and eating lower-GI carbohydrates for sustained energy.

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Fact or fiction: You need to detox

You need to detox to clear toxins from your body – we hear it every January after the excesses of the festive season.

It sounds quite attractive to ‘cleanse’ the body after a period of over-indulging. Nutritionist Elizabeth Stewart explains:

“Our bodies constantly filter out, break down and excrete toxins and waste products. These can include alcohol, medications, products of metabolism and digestion, dead cells, chemicals from pollution and bacteria. This is done by our body’s in-built ‘detoxifiers’ – the liver, kidneys, skin, intestines and lungs. All these toxins are excreted by the body within hours of being consumed, in the form of faeces, urine and sweat. There is no scientific evidence that a detox diet helps rid the body of toxins any faster.”

The bottom line: Myth

The body is designed to be ‘self-cleansing’. If you’ve been eating a lot of junk food and drinking a lot, you probably will feel better if you cut these things out of your diet. But if you’re a normal, healthy eater, all a detox will do is unnecessarily deprive you of foods you probably enjoy.

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What headlines tell us about healthy eating (and what they don’t)

The other day we were having a discussion in the office, when I mentioned something I’d read about sugar in drinks. 

“If you drink a 350ml bottle of energy drink every day, it’s the same as eating an extra 45 slices of white bread every month”.

To me that’s quite a shocking number. Who would want to eat that much refined, starchy food? But one of my colleagues had a different take. “So that means I can have a V instead of a piece of toast for breakfast!” he said.

He was joking. But this does illustrate a wider point. People tend to take whatever message they want from things they read about nutrition, and their conclusions don’t always make logical sense.

Newspaper headlines are a minefield for this. Here’s a few of the stories I’ve read in the last few weeks: “Cure breast cancer by avoiding all milk products”; “Fasting can repair damage to your immune system caused by ageing”; “Healthy pizza enlisted in battle of bulge”; and “Gwyneth: Yelling at water hurts its feelings”. Then there were these two, which were published on the same day: “Skipping breakfast may not be so bad for the diet, study finds” and “Breakfast helps burn fat and control blood sugar – study”.

If you were to change your eating habits based on these stories, you’d be cutting out all dairy and most meat; fasting for several days each week; eating a ‘high-protein, low-sugar’ pizza topped with cashew ‘cheese’ from a fast-food outlet and washing it down with water you’d talked to kindly. What you would be doing about breakfast, I’m not sure!

The same could be said for a recent issue of Time magazine, which featured the huge cover line: Eat Butter. If you simply looked at that (admittedly quite compelling) cover, and did not read the story inside the magazine, there’s a pretty good chance the message you’d take from this headline is not what nutrition experts would actually like you to take. Or, indeed, what the article actually said which was quite a bit more complex than that. If you were to change your eating based on this headline, and just add more butter to your diet, it’s very unlikely you’d end up being healthier.

So perhaps it is no wonder we are confused about what to eat. And it’s no wonder we are vulnerable to self-proclaimed diet experts taking advantage of this. “Everything we’ve been told about healthy eating is wrong!” they often say. “The experts can’t make up their minds! Here, I have the answer!”  This is usually followed by a ‘revolutionary’ diet plan that includes some or all of the fad diet standards: a science-ish sounding theory; a restrictive first phase; a list of banned foods; a ‘magic’ food that must be included. Oh, and a diet book, a website, and handy products you can buy to support your new ‘lifestyle’.

I’m not sure why we fall for this again and again. But we do, and have done for generations. I wonder, for some people at least: is it easier to commit to the rules of a restrictive short-term diet – even when it means denying ourselves foods we enjoy because they’re not ‘allowed’ – than it is to commit to eating a bit less and moving a bit more every day forever? Or perhaps it is the thrill of the new. A message of ‘everything in moderation’ seems so old-fashioned and uncool when everyone around you is going paleo or becoming a raw foodie.

And yet these fads will come and go. Recently I picked up a wonderful vintage diet book called The Complete Woman Book of Successful Slimming, published in the UK in 1966. Its premise, apart from advice to invest in good quality corsetry: a low-carb diet. A reminder that there’s very little that’s new in the world of weight loss.

It seems to me that the only sensible approach remains (and we all know this in our hearts) to eat moderate amounts of real food and lots of veges. But that’s far too simple to make headlines.

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Weighing in on popular diets

It’s a basic aspect of human nature, and it drives me a little bit crazy on an almost daily basis. I’m talking about our love of quick fixes, simple solutions, and miracle cures.

It’s at its most evident when it comes to weight loss diets. Almost every week there’s another ‘revolutionary’ new diet that comes across my desk. Most of the time there’s nothing new or revolutionary about these, but it doesn’t stop the book from rocketing to the top of bestseller lists and thousands of us from giving them a try.

The thing with any change in eating is that results can often be quick. This is natural if you’re following a restrictive diet. Weight loss, even if it is only water, usually starts happening within days or weeks of starting on a diet, and this is what creates the initial ‘buzz’ and gets people talking about the diet, which then gets more people trying it. What almost never happens is a revisiting of the people who tried the diet in the first place, a year down the track. If we did that, we’d probably find many people for whom the initial weight loss would be followed by a plateau and then a slow (or quick) regaining of the weight. And that’s because faddish diets are rarely able to be sustained long term in real life. As I’ve written before, most have strict rules and ban certain foods or food groups.

Here are some popular diets doing the rounds at the moment.

Fast Diet or IF (intermittent fasting) diet

There are a few variations on this, but basically it entails eating nothing, or a very small amount (500 calories/2000 kilojoules) on two days out of seven. Some versions have you fasting every second day. On the other days you can eat whatever you like. The theory is that when you fast you’re drastically cutting your energy intake, and even when you go back to eating whatever you want, you’re probably not going to make this deficit up, so weight loss ensues.

While there is some research to suggest that eating a very low-calorie diet can extend life expectancy, and there are groups of people (mostly Americans) who have adopted this as a way of life to prove it, I do not think this diet is a very sustainable way to live. For one thing, it teaches dieters absolutely nothing about how to eat in a healthy way. You could do this diet and still eat mainly chips, burgers and pies, so you’d be dieting but getting no nutrition at all. More importantly, to me this encourages a very skewed relationship with food. When we think of food as something to be restricted rather than enjoyed in moderation, we are setting ourselves up for a potentially disordered pattern of eating behaviour which can be really difficult to get out of.

Quitting sugar

We’ve written quite a bit about these diets in Healthy Food Guide recently, as everyone seems to be ‘giving up’ sugar. Some versions of a sugar-free diet have you eating no sugar at all, not even fruit, while others allow some fruit but not all. Some cut out vegetables that have a high sugar content. The theory is that fructose is the baddie here because it is metabolised differently from other types of sugar, and that cutting this out means you’ll lose weight and feel better.

I don’t think you will find any nutrition expert anywhere who says ‘eat more sugar’. The fact is, too much sugar is not a good thing, especially when it comes in the form of sugary drinks and fatty, processed baked goods. Most of us could probably stand to eat less of the added sugar that comes with these foods. Some sugar-free diets encourage eating lots of fresh, whole foods and vegetables, which is great. But others are more focussed on obsessively cutting out this one element from our diet in a very simplistic approach. Again, I don’t think this is sustainable long term, and I don’t think it is necessary, either. By all means cut out soft drinks and sweets – none of us needs these. But if you’re spending your time scrutinising the labels of sauces and avoiding honey on your toast, I’d say it’s time to lighten up.

Paleo diet

This is popular in gym circles and its followers are very enthusiastic. The idea here is that we should eat as our Palaeolithic ancestors did: meat, fish, vegetables, nuts. Grains and dairy are usually banned.

There are some good aspects to this way of eating – lots of fresh food, lots of veges. You’re never going to find a nutritionist who’d advise against eating more vegetables! But most nutritionists are nervous about excluding grains and dairy completely from the diet – these are good foods which supply important nutrients that we all need. And again, the common theme: this is a restrictive diet which is potentially difficult (and expensive) to stick to for most people. I can’t imagine a life without cheese or chocolate myself. Again, I feel this could potentially encourage an unhealthy obsession with sticking to the ‘rules’ and restrictions of the diet. It would be impossible to follow this diet as a vegetarian; you simply wouldn’t get enough nutrients.

Raw food diet

Gaining popularity, this diet sees raw foodies eating nothing heated above 46 degrees. The theory is that cooking leaches enzymes and vitamins from food, diminishing its nutritional value. Raw food diets typically consist of lots of fruit and vegetables, sprouts, sprouted seeds and beans, dried fruit and nuts. Many raw foodists are also vegan, so they don’t eat any meat, dairy or eggs; although some eat raw fish and meat and/or unpasteurised dairy.

There’s no doubt that a diet high in plant foods is healthy. There’s abundant evidence that including more vegetables and fruits in our diets gives us benefits including lowering cancer and heart disease risk and weight loss. The downsides? Again, this is very restrictive (no chocolate or cheese here, either). Unless you are very careful, eating a solely raw diet could leave you short of essential nutrients, including vitamin B12, calcium, iron and omega-3. Most of these are found naturally in animal products. This is also a time-consuming and expensive diet to commit to. Raw food recipes often need lots of time for soaking, sprouting, dehydrating, blending, peeling and chopping and the ingredients often don’t come cheap. It is also worth noting that raw doesn’t always equal lean. Raw sweet treats can be incredibly energy-dense, usually because they’re based on nuts, honey, dried fruit and coconut. They can also cause havoc for people who suffer from IBS, for whom these foods are problematic.

As you can see, there are good and bad aspects to all of these diets. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from eight years of Healthy Food Guide, it is that one solution definitely does not fit all, despite the passionate assertions from the originators of almost all new diets. There’s no doubt some people lose weight and feel better doing these diets, so I’m not going to say “Don’t try them”. Just bear in mind that if it sounds too good (or too simple) to be true, it probably is.

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Which ‘quick-fix’ diets really work?

Welcome to a new year – and the usual New Year’s headlines. “Quick Fix Diet”! “Lose 5kg in 3 weeks!”

These are par for the course at this time in January, which is also right about the time when many of the health resolutions we’ve made on January 1 start to fall by the wayside.

I don’t think it will surprise anyone to know that about half of us make New Year’s resolutions, but up to 88 per cent of those people fail to keep them going, and the first few weeks of January is usually when we fail.
If we’ve already broken our health resolutions, it can be appealing to look for a quick fix.

I think we somehow think – despite what we know in our hearts – that this diet will be the one that transforms us into a different person and that this time, when the diet’s over, we’ll be able to keep the weight off. But it is basic human nature to hate being told what to do, and restrictive diets and detox plans essentially do just that. This is the reason most diets fail and weight piles back on. Most of us can’t stick to anything too extreme; we don’t like feeling deprived. Once the diet is over, it’s very easy to slip back into our old habits and our old way of eating and drinking. This is true whether you’re dieting to lose weight or just trying to be healthier.

If we’re going to make changes they need to be things we can stick to long term, long enough that they actually become new habits. I also like the idea of adding to our lives, rather than banning or eliminating things.

So instead of resolving to give things up – “I must not eat sugar” etc – or going on an extreme detox,  why not think of some positive aspirations for the year ahead;  things we can add to our diet and to our day?

One of the best aspirations you could have is to add another serving of vegetables to every meal. Be creative! Think about how you can get more veges into your breakfast (I like a bit of tomato and avocado on grainy toast) as well as your lunch and dinner. Summer is a fantastic time to do this. With all the fresh delicious produce around and the warm weather it’s easy to add a salad or lightly-dressed slaw of grated veges to every meal.

Another fantastic aspiration – especially if you want to lose weight – is to aim to eat breakfast every day. Breakfast eating is one of the consistent factors that most people who’ve lost weight and kept it off have in common. Eating breakfast kick-starts your metabolism and sets you up for a healthy day so you are less likely to go off the rails and go crazy on the snacks in the afternoon.

Adding breakfast; adding vegetables; adding extra incidental activity; all of these are easy to do and will result in a healthier you if you keep them up. It doesn’t have to be ‘all or nothing’ to get results.

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Can fat make you thin?

Diet is never far from the headlines. In particular, our increasing obesity problem, and what should be done to solve it.

One recent attempt at tackling the subject was on TV3’s Third Degree programme, where fat was in the spotlight. The provocative premise: “Does eating fat actually make you thin?” The programme tried to set up the idea of a ‘war’ between two different camps within the scientific community – one with the established advice that saturated fat is harmful and causes heart disease, and the other side saying that advice is all wrong, and eating fat is actually good for us. Unfortunately the main message that came across from this piece was a confusing one – and one that neither side of this particular debate, I’m picking, would be happy about.

That message was: eat more fat, especially saturated fat. We saw people cutting slabs of butter to go into mashed potato; whipping up mousse from cream and protein powder, and roasting chicken in garlic butter. We were walked through the supermarket and advised to pick full-cream milk and meat marbled with fat. However, we were not really presented with the rest of the so-called ‘low-carb, high-fat diet’ which, as the name suggests, involves getting up to 80 per cent of our energy from fat. To do that in practice, you also have to cut out practically all carbohydrates (so no mashed potatoes, then). If the main message we took from the Third Degree piece was simply ‘eat more saturated fat’, it has the potential to do a lot of harm to our bodies. For most of us, simply adding more saturated fat into our normal diets without radically changing everything else is a recipe for poor health and weight gain.

It is important to be open to new theories – this is after all how all new scientific discoveries happen. Of course, not every new theory turns out to be right. While the idea of the low-carb, high-fat diet is interesting, right now it is just that: a theory. As Professor Jim Mann (a member of the HFG Editorial Advisory Board) pointed out on the programme, there is no evidence at the moment to prove that this diet has long-term benefit and, crucially, there’s also no evidence to show that it does no long-term harm. We – along with the rest of the nutrition community – will be following the research on this with interest.

In the meantime, what do we know about fat – and what does it mean for us? Firstly, it’s fair to say that the ‘low fat’ message is outdated. We do need fat in our diets; it plays lots of important roles in our bodies. It’s important, though, to choose our fats wisely.

While a little butter won’t hurt you if the rest of your diet is mostly whole foods and plants (remember it’s all about the big picture), it’s a long way from there to ‘saturated fat is a health food’. The body of evidence shows that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat (not refined carbs) is a good idea for health, and will cut your risk for heart disease.

So what are healthy fats? They’re unsaturated fats that come from plant foods such as nuts, seeds, avocadoes and olives and their oils, and oily fish.

Choosing fats wisely also means avoiding baked or fried foods such as cakes, muffins, pastries and deep-fried takeaways, which combine saturated fat with refined carbohydrates, salt, sugar and  trans fats in a quadruple-whammy of unhealthiness. One thing everyone in nutrition does agree on is that these things combined are a health disaster.

At Healthy Food Guide, we are in the business of making life easier, not more confusing. As you will know, if you are a regular reader, we are not fans of anything extreme when it comes to diets. We don’t think eliminating foods or entire food groups is a good idea. That’s’ because any kind of extreme diet is difficult to stick to, long term – it’s just not sustainable or convenient for most people. So we stick to the evidence and don’t jump on to every diet fad that comes along.

Our menu plans reflect that message of moderation. They average around 47 per cent of energy from carbohydrate, 23 per cent from protein and 30 per cent from fat. Individually our recipes vary: some will be lower in carbohydrate and some will be higher, and it’s the same with fat. But all you really need to know is this: our recipes use real, whole foods that are easy to find and family friendly. We always load our recipes with veges, which we tell you about with the vege serve icons. They’re easy to make and they taste good.

It’s not radical, no, but it’s not confusing either. It is, we think, easy to understand, practical and relevant to the lives of most Kiwis.

*For more on fat, see ‘The truth about fat’ feature in the December 2013 issue of Healthy Food Guide.

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Fact or fiction: Don’t eat protein and carbs together

We’ve heard that you shouldn’t eat protein and carbs together and fruit must be eaten by itself, or the body becomes too acidic. Do they really fight with each other?

The concept of ‘food combining’ – eating certain foods in certain combinations and not at the same time – has been around for ages. In 1911, Dr William Hay came up with the theory that different foods, when combined, produce an overly-acidic condition in the body, which is unhealthy. He classified foods into three groups, and advocated not eating foods that ‘fight’ with each other (like protein and starchy foods) together in the same meal.

Since 1911, science has moved on quite a lot. Nutritionist Jeni Pearce explains why keeping protein and carbs apart is pretty hard to do:

“There are very few foods that are made up entirely from only one nutrient: sugar is pure carbohydrate, oils are pure fat and egg white is mostly protein and water. All other foods are a combination of carbohydrate, protein and fats in differing ratios. Bread, although typically thought of as a ‘carbohydrate food’, contains some protein and a small amount of fat; an average cheese is 1/3 water, 1/3 protein and 1/3 fat; rice and potatoes both contain small amounts of protein. Therefore food combining is impossible to achieve in reality.

“The body’s digestive system works 24 hours a day, and is on ‘automatic pilot’, which means it secretes enzymes for digestion based on the composition of the meal eaten – not the other way around. The digestive system is capable of managing any composition of food you send it. In exceptional cases, where enzymes are absent some foods may need to be avoided, such as gluten in coeliac disease and some rare pancreatic disorders.”

The body has a range of mechanisms specifically to regulate the pH level (or acid/alkaline balance) in various organs.

The bottom line: Myth

There is no scientific basis for food combining. As with many diets, if you lose weight eating this way, it’s most likely because you’re taking in less kilojoules. Eating meals that contain a range of nutrient sources is the best option.

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Fact or fiction: Your blood type affects the food you can eat

This diet plan became quite popular – but is it really true?

According to this theory, proposed by Dr Peter J. D’Adamo in his book Eat Right 4 Your Type, people with different blood types have different nutritional needs. But it’s pure science fiction. There is no credible science behind this theory and around the world the medical community scoff at it. Common sense also tells us to stay clear of diets which make us avoid a whole range of nutritious foods.

The bottom line: Myth

Eat right for your health, enjoyment and well-being, not for your blood type!

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