Understanding the need to increase protein intake: reasons and considerations

A year ago I published a post on Protein and ageing, where I quickly explained the many roles of proteins in human physiology. Several reasons may lead individuals to increase their protein intake, depending on their specific health goals, lifestyles, and circumstances. Here are some common examples:

  1. Muscle building and strength training: People who engage in regular strength training or resistance exercises often require more protein to support muscle growth and repair. Athletes and bodybuilders may have higher protein needs.
  2. Ageing: As people age, there can be a natural decline in muscle mass and protein metabolism. Older adults may benefit from increased protein intake to maintain muscle mass, strength, and overall health.
  3. Weight management: Protein has a satiating effect and can help control appetite and reduce calorie intake. Including more protein in the diet can be beneficial for weight loss and weight management efforts.
  4. Pregnancy and breastfeeding: Pregnant and lactating women require extra protein to support the growth and development of the fetus or infant. Protein is essential for the formation of tissues and organs in the baby.
  5. Wound healing and surgery: After surgery or injury, the body needs additional protein to repair damaged tissues and promote wound healing. Healthcare providers may recommend increased protein intake during recovery.
  6. Chronic Illnesses: Some medical conditions, such as diabetes, kidney disease, and certain gastrointestinal disorders, may increase protein requirements or alter protein metabolism. Healthcare professionals can provide guidance on individualised protein needs in such cases. Always consult your GP when you consider changing your diet and have a chronic condition.
  7. Vegetarian and vegan diets: Individuals following vegetarian or vegan diets may need to pay closer attention to protein intake to ensure they are getting enough essential amino acids. Plant-based protein sources can be lower in certain amino acids, so variety is key.
  8. Active lifestyles: People with physically demanding jobs or active lifestyles may need more protein to support their energy expenditure and overall health.
  9. Recovery from illness or infection: During illness or infection, the body’s protein needs can increase due to immune system activation and tissue repair. Adequate protein intake can help with a faster recovery.
  10. Malnutrition or undernutrition: Individuals who are malnourished or undernourished, whether due to poverty, food insecurity, or other factors, may need increased protein intake to address nutritional deficiencies.
The different functions of proteins

It’s important to remember that individual protein requirements can vary widely based on age, gender, activity level, health status, and other factors. Consulting with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian can help determine the appropriate protein intake for specific needs and goals, ensuring a balanced and healthy diet.

Rethinking serving sizes: the role of individual energy needs and mindful eating in nutrition

Have you ever weighted 30g of breakfast cereals? If you have, you probably noticed this was much less than you thought. Nevertheless, 30g is the common serving size indicated on cereal packages, with the corresponding nutritional values. I think serving sizes are often useless and potentially problematic for some individuals. Here is why:

  1. Individual variation in energy needs: one of the main drawbacks of serving sizes is that they don’t account for the significant variation in energy needs among individuals. People have unique metabolic rates, activity levels, and overall health status, which can result in vastly different calorie requirements. Using a standard serving size may lead some individuals to consume too little or too much energy for their specific needs.
  2. Psychological impact: serving sizes can have a psychological impact on people. When a serving size appears small or insufficient, it may trigger feelings of guilt or inadequacy, potentially leading individuals to eat more than they need to compensate for what they perceive as a « small portion. » This can contribute to overeating and disordered eating behaviors.
  3. Unrealistic portions: in some cases, serving sizes can be unrealistically small. They may not align with practical eating habits or cultural norms, which can make it challenging for people to follow dietary guidelines. Unrealistic portion sizes can lead to frustration and discourage individuals from adopting healthier eating habits.
  4. Lack of precision: serving sizes are often rounded numbers that may not accurately reflect the specific nutritional content of a food item. This lack of accuracy can be problematic for individuals who are closely monitoring their nutrient intake, such as those with specific dietary requirements or medical conditions.
  5. Nutrient density matters: serving sizes often don’t provide information about the nutrient density of a food. Nutrient-dense foods, even in larger portions, can be part of a healthy diet, whereas less nutritious foods in small servings may not provide the same health benefits. Focusing on the overall quality of the diet is more valuable than solely relying on serving sizes.
  6. Flexibility and adaptability: people’s dietary needs change over time due to factors like age, activity level, and health status. A rigid adherence to serving sizes may not allow for the flexibility required to adapt to these changes and maintain a balanced and sustainable diet.
  7. Focus on overall energy intake: a more balanced approach to nutrition emphasizes the importance of focusing on overall energy intake rather than fixating on serving sizes. Instead of counting calories or portion sizes, individuals can benefit from developing a balanced and mindful eating pattern. This approach encourages listening to one’s hunger and fullness cues, making nutritious choices, and considering the broader context of their dietary choices.

Real life situation.

On the left the 30g portion size indicated on the cereal pack, on the right what my children usually have. This is around 60 to 70g.

Instead of fixating on serving sizes, it’s often more helpful to focus on the overall energy intake, prioritise nutrient-dense foods, and adopt a mindful and flexible approach to your diet that suits your unique needs and goals.

Why am I writing about habits on a nutrition blog?

In March I started to write a series of articles about habits:

As I was about to publish a fourth article, I realised I had never fully explained why habits are important when it comes to nutrition.

Habits play a crucial role in nutrition because they are the foundation upon which our dietary and lifestyle choices are built. Forming healthy habits is essential for long-term well-being as it influences our ability to maintain a balanced diet and an active lifestyle.

When we establish positive dietary routines, such as eating regular, nutrient-rich meals and snacks, staying hydrated, and incorporating a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains into our diets, simultaneously engaging in regular physical exercise, these habits become second nature. Over time, they reduce the reliance on willpower and make it easier to make consistently nutritious choices and to stay physically active.

On the other hand, lack of movement and unhealthy eating habits, like excessive consumption of sugary snacks or processed foods, can lead to excessive weight, chronic health issues, and nutritional deficiencies. Therefore, cultivating good eating and lifestyle habits is fundamental to achieving and sustaining a healthy life, as they help us make better choices effortlessly and ensure that our nutritional needs are met over the long term.

As always in nutrition (as in life!), perfection is not the goal, small and consistent efforts are the key to lasting change.

Recharge your energy after the holidays

The holidays are a wonderful time to relax, discover, and enjoy delicious meals with loved ones. However, holidays often disrupt our regular routines, including sleep patterns, dietary habits, and daily activities. These disruptions can lead to physical and mental fatigue as our bodies adjust to new schedules and environments. Additionally, the emotional and social aspects of family and friend gatherings, while enjoyable, can be both mentally and physically draining. Outdoor adventures, social interactions, and dynamics can be both exhilarating and exhausting. Travel itself, with its associated time zone changes, jet lag, and physical exertion, can contribute to fatigue. Lastly, coming back from a vacation can bring a sense of post-holiday blues or the looming responsibilities of work or school, which can be mentally draining. It’s important to recognise that feeling tired after a summer holiday is a natural response to the various physical and emotional demands of vacationing, which are increased if you have children, giving oneself time to recuperate is essential for a smooth transition back to daily life.

The good news is that with some simple adjustments to your diet and lifestyle, you can quickly recover your energy and start the new season with vitality.

Hydration Matters

One of the quickest ways to feel reenergised is by prioritising hydration. During the holidays, we may indulge in dehydrating beverages like alcohol and sugary drinks. To bounce back, aim to drink at least 8-10 glasses of water each day. Consider adding hydrating foods like watermelon, cucumber, and berries to your diet. Proper hydration supports all bodily functions and can help boost your energy levels.

Balanced Nutrition

Summer vacations often involve indulging in treats and straying from regular meal routines. And that is absolutely fine! Now is the perfect time to reintroduce a balanced diet. Incorporate ample fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats into your meals. These nutrient-rich foods provide the essential vitamins and minerals your body craves to regain energy.

Prioritize Quality Sleep

Summer nights may have been filled with late adventures, but a good night’s sleep is crucial for restoring energy. Establish a consistent sleep schedule, aiming for 7-9 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night. Create a calming bedtime routine and limit screen time before bedtime to improve your sleep quality.

Move to Energise

Physical activity is a natural energy booster. Start with gentle exercises like walking, yoga, or stretching to ease back into your fitness routine. Gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts as your energy levels improve. Regular exercise can reduce fatigue and enhance overall well-being. You don’t need a fancy gym, any daily movement, alone, with your children or partner is good for you.

Manage Stress

Transitioning back to school or work after a carefree break can be stressful. Implement stress management techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or mindfulness to ease your mind. Reducing stress is vital for regaining your energy and improving focus. You can try to visualise the most relaxing moments of your holidays, or why not decide on a daily calming time with the family?

Caffeine Consciousness

While caffeine can provide a quick energy boost and seem a life saver to some of us, excessive consumption can lead to energy crashes and sleep disturbances. Limit your caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon, and consider switching to herbal teas or decaffeinated options.

Re-energising after the summer holidays is all about balance and self-care. By focusing on hydration, balanced nutrition, restful sleep, regular physical activity, and stress management, you can recharge your body and mind. Gradual steps are recommended as you adjust to your routine, no pressure. With these changes, you’ll be well-equipped to embrace new challenges with renewed energy and vitality.

Berry bliss: harnessing the health bounty of blackberry season

I’m thrilled to welcome the arrival of blackberry season. These plump and juicy gems not only tantalise our taste buds but also offer a host of health benefits that make them a must-add to your summer menu. Let’s explore the scientific evidence that highlights the remarkable health advantages of indulging in these seasonal delights.

Antioxidant Powerhouse: Blackberries are bursting with antioxidants, which play a crucial role in protecting our cells from oxidative stress and preventing chronic diseases. The presence of compounds like anthocyanins gives blackberries their deep hue and delivers potent antioxidant properties.

A study published in the « Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry » emphasised the significant antioxidant capacity of blackberries, attributing it to their rich anthocyanin content. These antioxidants have been associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.

Heart Health Hero: Including blackberries in your diet can be heart-smart. Their fiber, potassium, and antioxidant content contribute to maintaining healthy blood pressure, reducing inflammation, and supporting overall cardiovascular function.

A study in the « Nutrition Research » journal discovered that regular consumption of blackberries was linked to improved blood pressure levels due to their anthocyanin content, which promotes healthy blood vessel function.

Gut-Friendly Fiber: Blackberries are a fantastic source of dietary fiber, which aids in digestion, promotes regular bowel movements, and supports a healthy gut microbiome. A healthy gut is crucial for overall well-being and disease prevention.

The « Nutrients » journal emphasized the role of dietary fiber in maintaining gut health and preventing gastrointestinal disorders, highlighting the importance of including fiber-rich foods like blackberries in your diet.

Cognitive Wellness: The antioxidants in blackberries help combat oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain, potentially supporting cognitive function.

A study published in « Molecular Nutrition & Food Research » reported that the anthocyanins present in blackberries have neuroprotective effects, suggesting a positive impact on cognitive function and a potential reduction in cognitive decline.

To conclude, embrace the bounty of blackberry season not only for their delectable taste but also for the wealth of health benefits they bring to the table. From their antioxidant prowess to their heart-protective qualities, gut-friendly fiber, and potential cognitive support, blackberries truly earn their status as a superfood. Incorporate these delicious berries into your meals, snacks, and desserts to savour the seasonal goodness while nurturing your well-being.

Building habits (part 3): essential rules

In the first article, I explained how habits rely on our brain autopilot and support our executive functions. Whatever is your goal, there are key rules when implementing your habits.

1 – Something is better than nothing

To form a new habit, you need to activate your neural networks. It means you need to stimulate them: doing something will, doing nothing won’t. Start small and build on.

2 – Consistency matters the most

When you start working on new habits, your executive brain is still activated and actions are very deliberate. As the new routine is implemented, the autopilot is activated. The more often you repeat the new action, no matter how small, the stronger and the more efficient the autopilot becomes. Eventually the autopilot takes over: the habit is formed.

This has to do with synaptic plasticity, which is as Wikipedia simply puts it « the ability of synapses to strengthen or weaken over time, in response to increases or decreases in their activity ». Repeated actions, over time, become habits. Random actions don’t.

3 – Repeated, « good enough » actions

When trying to form new habits, we sometimes set the bar too high, feel discouraged and can’t be consistent. Reduce your threshold of what is « good enough » to focus on small, achievable and sustainable actions that you can do consistently. This will activate the autopilot and embed the new habit.

In a few words, regular small steps will take you to your objective.

As I started a new job, one of my objectives is to build a routine around publishing articles here. I am aiming for one per week but need to find the right cues (time, place etc).

And you, are you trying to implement a new habit in your life?

Sugar and cancer risk

TL, DR: sugar is not a carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substance.

The idea that sugar fuels cancer cells is a fallacy that unfortunately thrives on the Internet. No studies in people have shown that reducing sugar intake prevents or treats cancer. No studies have shown that eating too much sugar causes cancer.

There is no direct link, and therefore no causality, between sugar and cancer.

All cells, including cancer cells, require energy to survive and grow, this energy is glucose. When we eat sugary foods (simple carbohydrates), glucose gets absorbed straight into the bloodstream ready, for cells to use. When we eat starchy food (complex carbohydrates), like pasta, the digestion process breaks them down into glucose. When there are no carbohydrate in our diet, cells can turn fat and protein into glucose as a last resort, because they need glucose to survive. This means that replacing sugar with other energy sources won’t affect the growth of cancer cells.

Remember that a healthy diet includes carbohydrates, for the energy, fibre, minerals and vitamins that they contain. Avoiding healthy, nutritious foods is not a science-based method to prevent any disease. Avoiding sugar will not prevent cancer, as consuming sugar won’t cause cancer. « Cancer » is a group of different diseases triggered by a huge variety of genetic and lifestyle factors.

The only link between cancer and sugar is indirect: excessive sugar intake can lead to weight gain and increase the risk of obesity and diabetes, which may in turn increase the risk of cancer.

Building habits (part 2): key steps

In the first article I explained how habits support the executive functions of the brain. It is estimated that 40% of our actions rely on habits, this is why building habits that serve your goals is essential. Here are a few tips for that.

Tip 1: Identify the habit

The new habit or routine is the behaviour you want to start or change. This can be exercising, stop adding salt, walking more. I will take the example of my Saturday 8.30am yoga class.

Tip 2: Set reminders

One of the key aspects to forming a new habit is remembering everything you need to remember in order to follow through on your aspiration. Forgetting is easy, as our brains always take the easy way, the way of current habits 😉

In my case, I have 2 reminders for this yoga class: one to remember to book the class, and one popping on my phone 30mins before the class.

Tip 3: Start small

This means being specific, and to think of the when, where, how. My aim was not to go to yoga everyday, but to commit to this one, every Saturday. If you can’t proceed to your chosen habit (class cancelled, preferred food not available etc) , have an alternative so that your brain does not associate the reminder to nothing. My alternative to yoga is running. Anything is better than nothing.

Small actions are the seeds for the habit to grow, they activate your neuronal networks.

Tip 4: Reward yourself

We are wired to seek pleasure. Our brain releases « happiness » chemicals during reward, which help the remodelling of neuronal circuits and new habits to stick. We usually think of extrinsic rewards (money, food, objects) but intrinsic rewards work just as well: this feeling once you finish your run, the calm after yoga, learning a new skill, being more energised etc. Remember that the reward comes from the smallest action towards your goal, so the smallest step towards changing or building a habit is rewarding.

After my yoga class, I feel both relaxed and energised, I am (usually!) satisfied with the progress made, and seeing my teacher is a pleasure in itself.

Tip 5: Repetition

As you repeat an action, the new neuronal circuits reinforce and it starts to require less effort. With time, the action is transferred from executive brain, that requires a lot of mental energy, to the autopilot brain and it becomes easier and almost automatic.

And you, what habit would you like to build to achieve your goals?

My current challenge is to eat less salted butter to decrease my overall salt consumption 🙂

A healthy, happy Ramadan

During the holy month of Ramadan (ninth month of the Islamic calendar), adult Muslims across the world fast during daylight hours for 29-30 days. Fasting is one of the 5 pillars of Islam and means abstaining from food, drink, sexual activity and smoking during daylight hours. Some people who are ill or whose health could be affected by fasting are exempt: pregnant and breastfeeding women, people with diabetes, people travelling…

Here are a few tips for a healthy and happy Ramadan.

Stay hydrated

Before breaking your fast, drink fluids to avoid dehydration: water, teas (low in theine in the evening) and herbal teas are your best allies. Be mindful of the sugar content of juices and soft drinks. It is also very important to hydrate enough before the breaking the fast at Suhoor each day.

Dates at Iftar

Dates are traditionally eaten (in an odd number!) to break the fast, they will increase your blood sugars and give you energy, as well as fibres and minerals. Other dried fruits such as apricots, figs, raisins or prunes will also provide fibre and nutrients.

Have a soup

Soups help with hydration, energy and provide a range of nutrients: carbs (potatoes, cereals), proteins (eggs, meat or poultry but also beans and pulses), fibres from beans, pulses and veg,

More veg!

In salads, sides, veg provides us with vitamins, minerals and fibres.

Breakfast – Suhoor

Have carbsbefore the fast begins to ensure you have sufficient energy for the day. Cereals, particularly wholegrains, such as porridge, muesli, oats or slices of wholemeal sourdough are good choices for a slow energy release. Be mindful of the salt and sugar content as it could make you thirsty. Proteins also help with satiety.


Building habits (part 1) : why habits matter

Today’s post will be the first of a series about habits (and change). The objective is to give you an explanation of why we have habits, and how we can change them to make them literally work for us. Why do I write about habits here? Because a lot of our lifestyle choices (diet, exercise, alcohol consumption, smoking…) consist in habits, and if we want to make a lifestyle change last, having some basic knowledge in psychology and neuroscience can help. Let’s start by having a look at our brain.

Isaac Tobin/Dan Harris/ABC News

As human we have a uniquely large executive brain that support executive functions such as working memory, flexible thinking, impulse control, self monitoring, motivation, emotional control, willpower, planning, prioritisation and task management. These functions are future-oriented and enable us to make decisions according to our objectives.

Executive functions require a lot of mental energy, which can be drained by the demands of our busy, modern lives, leaving us feeling low.

This is where the autopilot, that sits deep within our brain, comes handy. The autopilot does not interact with motivation, it is made of habits. Habits are stimulus-response behavioural task, they are automatic. Brushing your teeth, going to the gym every Monday lunchtime, eating porridge at breakfast, adding salt to your food….

If our habits support our goals, we rely on autopilot more and have more mental energy available for our executive brain. We are more motivated, we perform better. When our habits don’t align with our objectives, our executive brain uses extra mental energy to suppress them, eventually we risk feel drained. The problem is that we cannot always replenish our mental energy enough, or reduce the demands of our executive brain.

Therefore, to cope with the demands of our busy lives, we can build habits that support our goals, while changing the habits that go in their way.