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Tips for a healthy lifestyle: Don't forget about portion size and calories

Devoted to organic, gluten-free, whole-food eating but still gaining weight? Turns out you can have too much of a good thing

Siobhan Norton
Monday 12 January 2015 12:40 GMT

You’re a paradigm of health. You eschew processed sugar, carbs and bad fats. You’re not just all about superfoods, but supergreens, and barely grimace at the taste of spirulina. You sprinkle chia seeds on goddamn everything. You Instagram your meals, pose for green-juice selfies and are on first-name terms with the staff at your local health shop. You. Are. Awesome.

While this level of piety was rare (but still extremely irritating) in the past, it is becoming increasingly popular. We now bandy around buzzwords like Paleo, clean and organic, while discussing the merits of cutting out grains, dairy or gluten. Or all three. We snack on protein bars or refined-sugar-free flapjacks instead of chocolate, and choose oven-popped vegetable chips over packets of bog-standard salt ‘n’ vinegar. Our cupboards are fully stocked with various nut butters, manuka honey and prehistoric grains.

Then… why… are we not all morphing into Greek gods? Of course there are some, the green-juice-quaffing Miranda Kerrs and Blake Livelys of the world, who have achieved deific levels (although I suspect genetics play a role there). But, as a nation, we’re getting fatter. According to Public Health England, 64 per cent of us are overweight or obese.

I am one of the 'healthy' brigade who was mystified as the counter crept up on the scales. I had replaced refined sugar with agave, maple syrup or honey, and white flour with almond flour in my homemade gluten-free brownies, more than happy to indulge knowing they were so virtuous. My beef was grass-fed, my butter and eggs organic, and honest-to-goodness nut-based bars were my snack of choice. A trip to a cafe normally involved a matcha soy latte and superseed muffin or banana bread. I laced everything with coconut oil.

It took an awfully long time for the simple truth to dawn on me. Calories do count. While some food movements exhort you to ditch the scales and stop counting calories - a divine proclamation to anyone who has spent a lifetime memorising those important little numbers - they don’t encourage you to eat like you’re preparing for hibernation. We added that convenient little footnote ourselves.

Weight-loss expert Louise Parker has seen every ‘diet footnote’ in the book. “The most common mistake that we see is, not surprisingly, overconsumption of calories, coupled with inactivity,” she says. “What is more surprising is that clients will fall into two categories – those who realise that they are overeating and not active enough and those who really think that they are and are baffled, citing a ‘poor metabolism’ or ‘bad genes’.

“In 20 years, we’ve never come across a client with a ‘bad metabolism’ and that can’t lose weight. Ultimately, calories do matter. Balancing the calories that your body actually needs with what you consistently consume over a week is the starting point.”

Calories can be difficult to count in your own home-baked creations, but shop-bought alternatives can be awash with other perils. Companies have cottoned on to the popularity of ‘clean’ eating and suddenly the word 'natural' is emblazoned on everything. Beware: technically salt and sugar are natural, as are plenty of other nasties that will be tougher to digest and harder on your body than the stuff they're replacing.

Gluten-free breads contain extra fat, stabilisers and gums to try to mimic the springy, gluten-y texture of normal bread. Healthy snack bars can have as much sugar as a Snickers - and sometimes twice the fat. One popular green juice on supermarket shelves clocks in at a whopping 53.5 grams of sugar (the WHO daily recommendation is an average of 25g). Even Coca Cola has jumped on the bandwagon with Coke Life - which has a green label, gym-honed Rosie Huntington-Whiteley as its spokesmodel and natural stevia flavouring (oh, and 22g of sugar per can).

But what of the glowing goddesses touting their food-porn on Instagram? Enter the #eatclean hashtag and you’ll be greeted with an array of bronzed six-packs, chia porridges, vats of green juice and stacks of pancakes. Surely the paleo posse are doing something right?

“Instagram is awash with skinny girls posting coconut porridge with caramelised prunes and pistachio nuts," says Parker. "Delicious – yes, organic – yes, whole food – yes, but calories-wise it’s a match for my mother’s sticky toffee pudding and not best consumed for breakfast daily if your goal is to look like the girl in the picture. What you can’t see is that perhaps she doesn't eat it, or she works as a personal trainer for eight hours a day.”

Real advocates of the paleo trend are normally cross-fitters - disciples of the high-intensity exercise cult trend that burns serious calories. They eat clean but train dirty, and if your idea of a good training session involves walking home from the pub, then you can’t really afford the raw cacao brownies. Or at least not twice a day. While the sweet treats are more Instagram-friendly than, say, a salad, the real health advocates will still only be scoffing them as an occasional treat.

So should we just chuck our chia seeds and reach for the takeaway menu? Well, no, not quite. Make smart, informed choices of what you put into your body - and how much. Coconut oil is anti-fungal, anti-microbial and a great source of energy, but it’s still a fat, so don’t think you can eat it by the bucketload. A green juice is a great way to get your five a day - but make sure there are more green, leafy vegetables than sugar-rich fruits going into it.

"The trick is to eat whole, real, seasonal, nutritious food,” says Parker. “So choosing organic, natural options is already a great move in the right direction – but the sugar and calorie content has to be balanced in a way that stabilises your blood sugar levels, whilst boosting you with nutrients."

Louise Parker's no-nonsense way to stay healthy:

Our programmes are all about changing habits – to deliver an impressive drop in body weight, whilst boosting metabolism. If you start with just three basic habits, this will propel you into action and change the way you live. You need to be able to wholeheartedly believe that 80 per cent of the plan you’re about to embark on, you will still be living in five years’ time.


Give yourself a TV and screen cut-off time, ideally at 9pm. By limiting the amount of light and stimulation, you will prepare yourself well for quality sleep. Have a hot bath with a few drops of essential lavender oil and some Epsom Salts an hour before you want to go to sleep. Then, get straight into bed – in the best nightwear and bedding you can afford – and read. As your body temperature drops, you will become sleepy and set yourself up for the best chance of deep sleep. Aim for an absolute minimum of 8 hours sleep.


In order to really become an active person, you need to exercise daily. Most of us are sedentary 95 per cent of the time and so it’s essential to challenge your body for at least an hour a day, every day, for the rest of your life. We see clients in their 80’s adapt this habit after decades of inactivity, so don't be put off. Alternate your effort – follow a high day (higher effort and intensity) with a low day (lower effort and intensity) every day. Your body progresses at lightning speed with this system of undulating efforts as your body’s ability peaks back up every time it is a ‘high day’ allowing you to continually build a stronger and fitter body.

EAT BEAUTIFULLY (most of the time)

Start by simply deciding that you are going to eat more delicately, and be selective about what you eat. Pay attention to the quality of the food that you eat and make sure that you eliminate all obvious junk food and alcohol. Then, start by organising yourself to ensure that you eat three meals per day, and two little snacks, at regular intervals throughout the day. Make sure that each meal contains a little dose of lean protein, along with a dash of healthy fat and a couple of portions of vegetables. Snack on two pieces of fruit per day, and a delicate handful of nuts to really manage your appetite. This should allow you to eliminate all sugar from your diet – processed and hidden sugars such as fruit juice and white bread, which will sabotage your results.

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