Building habits (part 4): the joyful path to lasting change

When it comes to personal development, there’s a common misconception that building habits requires an iron will and unyielding discipline. While discipline can be helpful, it’s not the sole or even the most effective method for creating lasting habits. Forcing yourself to do something is not the recipe for success.

In fact, building habits that stick often requires a healthy dose of enjoyment. When we find something enjoyable, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released in our brain. Dopamine plays a crucial role in building habits and, more broadly, in the process of habit formation.

Here’s how dopamine is involved in the habit-building process.

  1. Reward system activation: Dopamine is closely associated with the brain’s reward system. When you engage in a behaviour that your brain perceives as rewarding or pleasurable, such as eating a delicious meal, completing a task, or achieving a goal, dopamine is released. This release of dopamine creates a positive feeling and reinforces the behaviour, making you more likely to repeat it in the future.
  2. Associative learning: Dopamine helps establish associations between a specific cue or trigger and the reward associated with a behavior. When you engage in a behaviour that is followed by a dopamine release, your brain begins to link the cue or context with the positive feeling of reward. Over time, this association becomes stronger, making it more likely that you will engage in the behaviour when exposed to the same cue or context.
  3. Motivation and desire: Dopamine is involved in motivation and desire. It can increase your drive to pursue goals and engage in activities that you find rewarding. This motivation can be especially helpful when you’re trying to establish new habits, as it can make you more inclined to initiate and stick with them.
  4. Habit loop reinforcement: As a habit forms, it becomes a part of a habit loop, which consists of a cue, a routine, and a reward. Dopamine plays a central role in this loop by reinforcing the connection between the routine (habit) and the reward. The anticipation of the reward, driven by dopamine, motivates you to perform the habit consistently.
  5. Craving and anticipation: Dopamine is involved in the anticipation of rewards. This means that even before you engage in a habit, your brain may release dopamine in response to the expectation of the reward associated with that habit. This anticipation can drive you to perform the habit to experience the reward, further solidifying the habit.
  6. Habit formation: Over time, as you repeatedly engage in a habit, the release of dopamine becomes increasingly associated with that habit. This makes the habit more ingrained and automatic because your brain has learned to associate the behaviour with a positive outcome (the dopamine release).

To conclude, instead of forcing yourself into doing something that you don’t want to do, find a way to make this change enjoyable. Listen to a podcast while you run or do the dishes, brew your favourite tea while you calculate your taxes, set up a nice table for your meal…

Find the rest of the « building habits » series here.


When and how to weight yourself

Maintaining a healthy weight is an important aspect of overall well-being, and for many people, tracking their weight is a part of their health and fitness journey. However there is a lot of misunderstanding around weight tracking. Our weight can vary considerably over a day because of our hydration level, the type of food ingested the day before, physical exercise, outside temperature, the amount of salt intake, stress levels, the menstrual cycle.

Measuring your weight accurately is essential to make informed decisions about your health, this is why I’d like to share some tips on the best way to do it.

  1. Consistency is key: To get accurate results, always weigh yourself at the same time of day and under the same conditions. Mornings, before eating or drinking, and after using the bathroom are typically the best times. This consistency helps to reduce fluctuations due to factors like food, hydration, and clothing.
  2. Choose the right scale: Invest in a good quality scale that provides consistent and accurate readings. Digital scales are usually more reliable than analog ones. Make sure the scale is on a hard, level surface and calibrated correctly.
  3. Minimal clothing: To ensure accuracy, wear the same type of clothing or minimal clothing each time you weigh yourself. Heavy clothing, shoes, and accessories can add extra pounds and lead to inaccurate readings.
  4. Empty your bladder: A full bladder can add several pounds to your weight. To get a true reflection of your body weight, visit the restroom before weighing in.
  5. Use a consistent method: Whether you prefer to use pounds or kilograms, stick with one unit of measurement for consistent tracking. Converting between units can lead to confusion and potential errors.
  6. Stay mindful of variability: It’s essential to understand that your weight can naturally fluctuate throughout the day and week due to factors like hydration, food intake, and exercise etc. Don’t be discouraged by minor daily fluctuations; instead, focus on long-term trends.
  7. Set a weighing schedule: Weighing yourself daily isn’t necessary. It can lead to unnecessary stress and obsession. For most people, weighing in once a week is sufficient to track progress and make adjustments to your diet and exercise routines.
  8. Consider other metrics: While your weight is an important metric, it’s not the only one. Factors like body composition, waist circumference, and overall health are also crucial. Sometimes, progress is better measured by how your clothes fit, how you feel, or other health markers.
  9. Don’t forget the bigger picture: Remember that your weight is just one aspect of your health. It’s important to focus on overall well-being, including your diet, physical activity, sleep, and stress management.

By following these guidelines, you can ensure that the numbers you see on the scale are a reliable reflection of your progress. However, always consult with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian for a comprehensive assessment of your health and weight management plan, as we can provide personalised guidance and support.


Alternatives to berries

Berries are not only delicious but also packed with health benefits due to their rich nutritional content. They are among the most antioxidant-rich fruits available. Low in calories and high in dietary fibre, berries are also good sources of essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin A, potassium, and folate. We are now at the end of berry season in the UK, but the good news is that you can find great alternatives:

  • Several studies show that frozen or dry berries contain similar levels of antioxidants to the fresh fruits. They are easy to find year round, I like to add them to cakes, porridge, granola or have them as a snack.
  • Green tea, rich in catechins (a polyphenol) and black tea.
  • Coffee: a known good source of polyphenols.
  • Apples: the highest concentration of polyphenols is in the skin, but wash the fruit before eating it. Pears are another good seasonal alternative.
  • Citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes are abundant during cold months and rich in flavonoids and vitamin C.
  • (unpeeled, canned) tomatoes are rich in lycopene, which is released and becomes more available for absorption when tomatoes are cooked. You can boil, bake, sauté, or make tomato sauce, paste, or soup to increase lycopene content. Lycopene is fat-soluble, so add a dash of EVOO to increase absorption.
  • Garlic and onions will add flavour and antioxidants to your winter recipes.
  • Leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts…

You can see from this list that a way to add nutrients to your plate is adding colours: red, orange, green… the reason is that antioxidants are often pigments. Incorporating a diverse selection of colourful foods into your diet is therefore a simple manner to ensure that you are benefiting from the array of antioxidants and phytonutrients that contribute to overall health and well-being.


Shining a light on winter health: vitamin D supplementation

As the days become shorter and the temperature drops, the winter season brings about a delightful change in scenery. However, it also brings with it a reduction in our exposure to sunlight, which can have a significant impact on our vitamin D levels. In this article, I want to shed light on the importance of vitamin D supplementation during the winter months and provide guidance on the recommended dosage.

Why Vitamin D in winter?

Vitamin D is often referred to as the « sunshine vitamin » because our skin can produce it when exposed to sunlight. However, during the winter, many people experience a decrease in outdoor activities and sunlight exposure due to colder weather and reduced daylight hours. This reduction in sun exposure can lead to a decline in our natural vitamin D synthesis, making supplementation a valuable option. Here are the reasons why you should consider taking a vitamin D supplement during this time:

  1. Maintaining immune health: Vitamin D plays a crucial role in supporting a robust immune system. Adequate levels of vitamin D are associated with reduced risk of infections and a more efficient immune response. This becomes especially important during the winter months when colds and flu are more prevalent.
  2. Bone health: Vitamin D is essential for the absorption of calcium, which is vital for strong bones and teeth. Inadequate vitamin D levels can lead to a higher risk of bone-related issues such as osteoporosis and fractures, which may be exacerbated in the winter when outdoor physical activity decreases.
  3. Mood and mental health: Some research suggests that vitamin D may play a role in mood regulation. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that typically occurs in the winter months, and vitamin D supplementation has been explored as a potential way to alleviate its symptoms.
  4. Vitamin D is also involved in other physiological mechanisms such as blood clotting, hormone signalling, nerve transmission and muscle contraction.

Recommended dosage

I refer here to the recommendations of the NHS, they candiffer in other countries (in France, there is no public health recommendation for supplementation for example):

  • « Babies up to the age of 1 year need 8.5 to 10 micrograms of vitamin D a day.
  • Children from the age of 1 year and adults need 10 micrograms of vitamin D a day. This includes pregnant and breastfeeding women, and people at risk of vitamin D deficiency. »

Vitamin D supplements should be used as a complement to a healthy diet, not as a replacement. You can also increase your vitamin D intake through dietary sources: oily fish (salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel), mushrooms, liver, egg yolks, and fortified foods – such as some milks and fat spreads, and breakfast cereals.

But as the winter season limits our natural sunlight exposure, considering a vitamin D supplement can help ensure you maintain optimal vitamin D levels and overall well-being during the colder months.


The role of fats in your diet and health

Lipids often get a bad reputation, but they are an essential part of a healthy diet and play crucial roles in human physiology and metabolism. In this blog post, I explore the functions and roles of fats in your body, shedding light on why you shouldn’t fear them but rather embrace the right kinds of fats for overall well-being.

1. Energy source: Fats are an efficient source of energy. They provide 9 calories/gram compared to 4 calories for carbohydrates or protein. When your body needs energy, it can break down fats, releasing a steady supply of fuel.

2. Nutrient absorption: Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K) require dietary fats for absorption. Fats help transport these vitamins from the digestive tract into the bloodstream, where they can be utilised by the body.

3. Cell structure and function: Fats are essential components of cell membranes. They help maintain the integrity and flexibility of cell structures, allowing cells to function properly.

4. Brain health: The brain is primarily composed of fat, and it requires dietary fats, especially omega-3 fatty acids, for optimal function. Omega-3s are associated with cognitive function, memory, and mood regulation.

5. Hormone production: Fats are involved in the synthesis of various hormones, including sex hormones (oestrogen and testosterone) and stress hormones (cortisol). Balanced hormone production is crucial for overall health.

6. Insulation and protection: Subcutaneous fat (the fat beneath your skin) serves as insulation, helping regulate body temperature. It also provides a cushioning layer to protect vital organs.

7. Long-term energy storage: Excess energy from the food you consume is stored as triglycerides in fat cells. When energy intake is reduced (as in fasting or between meals), these stored fats are broken down and released into the bloodstream for energy.

8. Immune function: Fats play a role in the body’s immune response. Omega-3 fatty acids, in particular, have anti-inflammatory properties and can help support the immune system.

9. Skin and hair health: Dietary fats help keep your skin and hair healthy and glowing. They assist in maintaining moisture and skin elasticity.

10. Flavour and satiety: Fats add flavour to foods, making them more enjoyable. They also contribute to a sense of fullness and satiety, helping to control appetite and prevent overeating.

Lipids are not your enemy but essential allies in maintaining a healthy and well-functioning body. However, it’s important to choose the right kinds of fats. Opt for unsaturated fats like those found in avocados, nuts, and olive oil while limiting saturated and trans fats. By incorporating healthy fats into your diet in moderation, you can harness their numerous benefits and promote overall well-being.

Remember, balance is the key to a nutritious and satisfying diet.

For personal advice, please contact me!


Food allergies and food intolerances: what is the difference?

The confusion between food allergies and food intolerances is common because both conditions can involve adverse reactions to food. Yet they are fundamentally different in their mechanisms and effects on the body.
I hope this table will help you understand these differences.

AspectFood AllergyFood Intolerance
Immune system involvementInvolves the immune system response to a specific food protein.Does not involve the immune system; it’s a non-immune response.
SymptomsCan include hives, itching, swelling, difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, and anaphylaxis.Typically leads to gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating, gas, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and sometimes non-digestive symptoms.
OnsetRapid onset, often within minutes to a few hours after consuming the allergenic food.Delayed onset, appearing hours to days after consuming the problematic food.
TriggersCommon allergens include peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, eggs, milk, soy, and wheat.Examples include lactose intolerance, gluten sensitivity, and histamine intolerance.
DiagnosisDiagnosed through skin prick tests, blood tests for specific antibodies (IgE), and sometimes oral food challenges.Diagnosis typically involves dietary elimination and reintroduction, symptom tracking, and specific tests for intolerances.
TreatmentStrict avoidance of the allergenic food(s).
Epinephrine may be needed for emergencies.
Avoidance or reduction of the problematic food or component, sometimes with the use of enzyme supplements or medications.

To minimise confusion, it’s essential for individuals experiencing adverse reactions to food to seek guidance from healthcare professionals who can conduct appropriate tests and provide a clear diagnosis, which is crucial for effective management. Understanding the key differences between food allergies and food intolerances is essential for making informed dietary choices and ensuring proper treatment and care.

You suspect a food allergy or intolerance and need advice?
Contact me!


High-protein foods: 30 grams or more for less than 300 calories

As a follow up to my article about when you should consider increasing your protein intake, here is a list of protein-rich foods.

  1. Chicken Breast (skinless, cooked): 30 grams of protein and about 165 calories per 100g.
  2. Turkey Breast (skinless, cooked): about 30 grams of protein and approximately 135 calories per 100g.
  3. Tuna (tinned in water): approximately 30 grams of protein and roughly 116 calories per 100g.
  4. Shrimp (cooked): around 30 grams of protein and approximately 99 calories per 100g.
  5. Cod (cooked): typically provides 30 grams of protein and about 82 calories per 100g.
  6. Tofu (firm, cooked): A 100g serving usually contains around 8-15 grams of protein and about 144 calories. You would need about 200 grams of tofu to reach 30 grams of protein (288 calories).
  7. Tempeh (cooked): generally provides around 18-20 grams of protein and about 193 calories per 100g.
  8. Seitan (cooked): contains around 25-30 grams of protein and approximately 120-150 calories per 100g.
  9. Cottage Cheese (low-fat or non-fat): a 100g serving generally contains about 11-12 grams of proteins and approximately 60 calories.

Other foods that are a good source of protein include eggs, lean beef and pork, game meat and offal.

Legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, black beans… are rich in amino acids like lysine but low in methionine and cysteine. Combining legumes with carbohydrates like rice or grains, which are rich in methionine and cysteine, is a common way to create a complementary protein source that provides all the essential amino acids your body needs. For example: mujadara (lentils and rice), beans on toast, peanut butter and whole wheat bread, hummus and pita bread. quinoa and chickpeas etc.

A note on nutrition claims to finish: a food is high in protein if at least 20% of the energy content of the food is provided by protein. A food is a source of protein when 12% of the energy value of the food is provided by protein.


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.