Featured in

Featured in: Tiny Buddha, Halifax Media Coop, Fine Fit Day, Simplify the Season, La Presse, Filles, Le Canada-Français

Friday, May 31, 2013

Leading a healthy lifestyle... science can help

Beloved magnolia looks (and smells) awfully good these days

(Note to the reader: today was our first real Canadian summer day of the year (27 degrees Celsius), and I'm in a trance. All the pictures adorning this post were taken today and are part of my personal tribute to "Thank goodness, warmer weather is finally back!")

Despite our best intentions, we're not always very good at managing our health intuitively. To put it as it is, most of us, when left to our own devices, make wrong choices in a disturbing majority of occasions. Add to it the plethora of tips, tricks and diets we are constantly bombarded with... knowing what to do to remain fit, slim and healthy becomes a real headache. But fear no more, my friends! Science is here to help us! In this post I will take a few scientific findings about our relationship with food and try and make them digestible.

(This being an informal blog, I have not quoted my sources precisely, but rest assured that they do exist. I encourage you to Google anything you're particularly interested in.)

Theories of hunger and eating: set point vs positive incentive

When thinking about the system that controls hunger and eating, a lot of us still hold the "set point assumption". The set point theory emphasizes energy reserves as motivators to eating: we would eat when we need energy (fuel/calories), then stop when we are satiated, in a similar way that thermostat-regulated heating systems work.

However, for many reasons, this set point theory doesn't hold. One example: after eating a filling meal and feeling satiated, you might still want to go for dessert. How do you explain that? Especially when considering the consequence of this kind of behavior, which is weight gain and all that ensues? The ups and downs of our energy reserves do not suffice to explain our food intake. Rather, a complex combination of factors determines when and how much we eat.

What seems to explain our eating habits better, rather than the need for fuel, is the positive-incentive theory. According to that theory, a lot of the time, the reason we eat is not because our energy reserves are depleted, but rather because we anticipate the pleasure of eating. This can originate from taste, learning and social influences. In simple words: we don't eat because we need to, but because it feels good.

This theory is very important in that it does a great job at explaining why we eat more than what we really need (and thus become overweight). Does it resonate with you? It sure does with me.

Theories of body weight regulation: set point vs settling point

Another area in which we are mislead: we think that our body weight has a set point, to which it tends to go back: we would naturally eat less when our body fat exceeds that set point, and eat more when our body fat goes under. However, this theory does not account for all the various factors that influence body weight (and body fat), and it implies that a significant change in body weight and composition is almost impossible to attain. Changing your body is hard, but it is doable, and the way to go about it is to consider that our body can reach a new settling point... if we permanently modify one or more of the factors that influence body weight and composition. They are:
  • amount of available food
  • incentive value of available food
  • amount of consumed energy 
  • level of body fat
  • amount of energy being expended (e.g. through exercise)
  • strength of the satiety signal

I find this theory encouraging because it puts the power back in our hands. No one is doomed to be at a certain weight. The trick is, you need to act on the factors above (at least one of them), and it has to be significant.

Which factor(s) do you try to act on? (I personally like a multi-factorial approach.)

You do have some control over the kind of available food
you surround yourself with - here, our lettuce off to a good start

Eating well... why it's more important than you think

I get to spend a lot of time with children in all kinds of different settings, and what strikes me is how poor the food habits of the next generation are. And it worries me.

For one thing, a lot of kids do not stay seated during the meal and do not participate in either prep or cleanup. They also seem to think it's okay to take a bite of something and then discard it if it does not instantly please your taste buds.

This is not a frustrated old lady's rant, but rather the expression of a genuine, compassionate concern: how can you grow to give food (and the mealtime ritual) all the attention and respect it deserves when you don't learn it in childhood, I wonder. Studies have shown that eating sit-down meals at a slow pace with your family members on a daily basis has innumerable benefits, especially for kids (and well into teenage years).

Most disturbing is how picky children are with food, and how they seem to crave junk in their youngest years. I don't want to extrapolate on the causes of that; is it innate or acquired, does it have its roots in the individual or the society... I'm no expert. I don't want to judge families either; we each have our own battles and struggles and my kids are certainly far from perfect. But I do worry about the impact of getting so little nutritive value from food while your body is being built. I can only picture a house with very weak foundations. Those bones and muscles and brain connections being fueled with crap... how sturdy are they gonna be? Not to mention that an acquired taste has its roots in childhood.Waiting for adulthood to introduce certain foods (especially the healthy ones) is sure to backfire.

Now, science has been telling us time and again how important nutrition is; your body needs the right fuel to function optimally, and to remain healthy. The link between obesity and diseases of all sorts is also well-established.

Even more powerful, some results would indicate that eating numerous portions of fruit and vegetables, regardless of what else you do or don't do, will diminish your risks for certain diseases drastically, particularly for cancer. Maybe our quest to eradicate the main "modern world killers" (cancer, heart disease and diabetes) lies in stuffing ourselves with fresh produce!

You might also have heard of the study that showed that children who eat more than 12 hot dogs per month have nine times more risk of developing leukemia. If hot dogs can do that, I bet you other kinds of junk food have adverse effects that are as bad! Scary!

Now did you know that eating well not only affects your health here and now and in the years to come, but also the future generations? The science of epigenetics studies how what we are exposed to, including food, can modify our genes in a long-lasting way:  "What we eat, how much stress we undergo, and what toxins we're exposed to can all alter the genetic legacy we pass on to our children and even grandchildren." 

For more on this, Google epigenetics and see this website: http://theweek.com/article/index/238907/epigenetics-how-our-experiences-affect-our-offspring

This epigenetic phenomenon does not only apply to nutrition. Affection would be involved too. A study has shown that the way a rat pup is nurtured in the early moments has an impact not only on his "adult personality", but also on his genetic makeup. Turns out having an affectionate or not so much affectionate mother could talk to your DNA! 

For further explanation:  http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/epigenetics/rats/

We've treated this pine tree well...
When we planted it 5 years ago it was up to my knees!

(And another Sears catalogue pose... 
I might have missed my calling.)

Back to the basics

Notwithstanding all that's been said above, sometimes, a healthy lifestyle is so simple it eludes us. We look for complicated solutions when in fact, being in touch with our inner feelings and sensations goes a really long way.

Did you ever stop to pay attention to how each and every muscle of your body feel? Do you notice when your jaws are clenched and your shoulders tense or your belly uncomfortably full? Do you do something about it? When you feel sad or frustrated, do you attend to it? When you're tired, do you go to bed instead of wasting time in front of a screen until you doze off?

Another one of my go-to solution for putting my priorities back in place is spending time with children. Children are spontaneous, enthusiastic, and usually pretty active. Today, for example, apart from a bike ride around the lake with the kids, we also played 3 games of basketball!

Earlier this week I spent a day looking after a friend's little girl, C, who just turned 4 years old. Do you know how good that is for your health? I sure do. Having that cute little thing ask me if I could hold her hand, explode with enthusiasm when we discovered salamanders under a pile of wood, and make all kinds of adorable comments on the course of the day and the course of life was sure to put a long-lasting smile on my face. When I served her lunch, she said "Oh, J, this is a very healthy lunch!" (there was lots of veggies). I also love how C keeps calling my cat Mudpie (her real name is Mudslide); those mixups must be a family thing, because her older sister once told me in her most excited voice: "J, I want to show you my diarrhea!" (I was very perplexed until she produced her diary.)

All this "cutitude" totally made my day. Apparently, C did not find her day too unpleasant either, based on what she told me while we were gathering wood for the evening's campfire: "J, I really like coming to your house. I can't wait for next time you babysit me."

How could your heart not melt?

Another way to find inner happiness...
Putting clothes to dry on this "clothesline with a view".

I wish this picture conveyed the wonderful 
sounds and smells of the forest.

And now to finish, some soothing nature sounds from my backyard... to yours!

Next time you feel down, all you will need to do is watch this video... better yet, go in nature for real and let your senses rejoice. I know it helped me with one frustration today. To make a long story short:

Today I received an invitation for a dinner organized by the Dalhousie Medical Research Foundation, held in a ballroom and involving cocktail attire... that I had to decline... because that evening is already booked: I will be visiting a farm (wagon ride and mechanical rodeo included - no cocktail dress there!) with 30 little Girl Guides (including my kids). Ah... guess you have to pick your priorities in life. The cocktail dress will have to wait. But still. Grrr. For those who were wondering what parental sacrifice implies... this is it I think.


  1. Sadly, some (many) parents will hear of the hot dog study and then carefully limit their child's consumption of said "food" to 11 per month, and truly believe that in doing so, they are protecting their child from cancer. :( Early childhood today all too often consists of mom microwaving some crap and letting the kids eat it at the coffee table in front of the TV with all kinds of other distractions going on while she does her own mindless eating on her tablet or laptop. Easy, instant, cheap, high sugar/salt/fat, extremely patatable, hand-to-mouth foods is what it's all about. (I do judge; I used to be that mom.)

    1. Yes Norma, that's exactly what I'm talking about: no respect whatsoever for the act of eating. All nutritionists will say it: you have to sit down at the table and eat slowly, mindfully. Instead of TV there should be actual conversation.
      One of the busiest moms I know makes wonderful meals for her kids, with generous portions of vegetables among other things. If she can do it, everyone can do it.

  2. Hi Julie! Well, all of my kids went/are going through teen years of food rebellion. However, I'm very happy to say that the adult daughters reverted back to the healthy ways that I eat. My teen daughter is getting closer to that, and she realizes from her older sisters that she's not always going to have a teen metabolism and is soon going to have to cut out that rebellious food. Teen son is always watching what I eat and asks me if I would personally eat certain foods. When I say no, he often bypasses it too. So I guess being a role model for eating, day after day, despite some fairly atrocious food in our home, works. All 4 kids discuss eating and fitness with me on a regular basis.

    :-) Marion

    1. Hi Marion! Yes, there has to be some wiggle room.

      I hope girls eat well not only because it will keep them thin, but mostly because it will keep them healthy. That's what I try to emphasize. :-)

  3. Funny, just after I got up this morning I went out the front door with my cat and thought about taping all the lovely sounds from birds, frogs, ??? :-)

    1. I have yet to tape the frogs. They throw a huge party every night!

      Another animal you can hear in my video is the ubiquitous squirrel. Maybe you have those too. :-)

      Not so funny, I had to delete one recording because it was "photobombed" by mosquitoes. You could hear them buzz louder than the birds almost, and see them fly by! I turned off my camera and ran away! LOL

    2. The mosquitoes have not taken back the night quite yet here, but it won't be long :-(