Taking the diet out of 'diet' books

Get Lean, Stay Lean.
Get Lean, Stay Lean. 

Diets are ineffective long-term. Thankfully, some experts are taking the diet out of 'diet' books. 

Instead of focusing on weight-loss and fad diets, they focus on how you feel and teaching self-care so that you achieve a weight that is healthy for you naturally

In Dr Joanna McMillan's new book, Get Lean, Stay Lean along with recipes with health explainers (prawn and spinach wholegrain spaghetti, for instance, is low GI and "has a relatively high protein content" and  "a good dose of cereal fibre, shown to be especially protective against colon cancer") there are tips on exercise, activity, stress, and sleep. 

Let go of the diet for better health.
Let go of the diet for better health. Photo: iStock

"The problem with most popular diets or the latest exercise regimen is that they don't consider a holistic approach to health and wellbeing," writes McMillan, telling Fairfax Media that the book is the culmination of two decades working as a dietitian.

"Throughout that time I've watched the world of nutrition change, the understanding and the reporting of health trends make things more confusing and all the while there is always a new diet or exercise regime that promises to make you skinny, fast," she says. "It's all a bit nuts and people end up feeling like failures and increasingly everything becomes about body image instead of health."

Indeed, which is bound to make us miserable and means any changes are unlikely to last.

"At the end of the day we are hard wired to seek out pleasure and do (and eat) things that bring us joy," McMillan says. "If we can do that in a healthy way then that's when we get long-term results."

A healthy way is not the same way for everyone, McMillan insists.

Eat by numbers

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She suggests a 1,2,3,4 approach to eating, which allows for flexibility and where you fill your plate with 50 per cent fibre-packed  non-starchy vegetables (leafy greens, mushrooms, pumpkin, fruits like berries apples and pears), about 25 per cent protein (which could come from cheese, eggs, meat, seafood, legumes or tofu), about 15 to 20 per cent "smart" carbs (like wholegrains, quinoa, fresh corn and starchy veg like sweet potato, lentils or chickpeas) and five to 10 per cent good fats (think extra virgin olive oil, avocado, nuts or hummus).

But, whatever the exact split, the main message is minimal processing.

"This is my overarching philosophy for food: Eat delicious, real food that nourishes your body, in appropriate portions to lose body fat if you need to, or to stay lean if you currently have a healthy body composition (that means healthy levels of body fat and good levels of muscle)," she explains.

Instead of HIIT try FITT

F - frequency, I - intensity, T - time, T - type. "Using FITT principles helps you to work out the answer to questions such as 'should I walk or run?'" McMillan explains in the book.

Running is more intense, but a long walk increases the time for example. 

"In other words, when you have less time to work out, increase the intensity (within your own limits). On days you have more time, try going for a longer, but less intense session," she says.

Step up your activity

McMillan suggests a standing desk, walking meetings, going to a cafe at least a block away from work, standing on public transport, standing while on the phone, walking after dinner, walking as much as possible to and from social catch-ups and setting phone alerts every hour to remind you to get up, make a cuppa or move for a few minutes.

"I separate exercise from activity as, aside from formal exercise sessions, how active or sedentary you are for the rest of the time plays a crucial role in your health and wellbeing."

Stress less

While a little stress is good for us – especially if we see it as a challenge – chronic stress is quite the opposite. McMillan adds that chronic stress affects our health and, often, our weight.

"The first point is that when you're stressed, a really common coping mechanism is to eat, and to eat certain foods. This is what I call swallowing your emotions with food," she explains. "There is also the physiological effect of stress. A number of hormones are involved, but the principle one of interest with relation to weight is cortisol."

When our cortisol rises, it increases appetite, increases blood sugar (as glucose is released into the body to prepare us to run for our lives) and it increases visceral fat.

While we cannot always change the external circumstances creating stress, we can help our response to it through exercise, taking a break, yoga, meditation, eating fish or taking fish oil (it blunts the rise of adrenaline and cortisol, McMillan says), sleep, tea (which contains an amino acid that helps with relaxation), laughter, slow, deep breathing and spending time with people we love.

Sleep it off

"Sleep is one of the most neglected areas of lifestyle change, and is almost always forgotten when it comes to weight loss, " McMillan says. "But yes, it really is true – a lack of good-quality sleep really can lead to weight gain."

Essentially, poor sleep disrupts our natural hormone rhythm, affecting those related to appetite, metabolism and body fat stores.

"Additionally, while we are sleeping the body is repairing and building lean muscle (particularly after strenuous exercise) and without enough sleep this process is impaired," McMillan explains. "Exercise may then only lead us to feel more tired instead of energised."

Despite different profit-based diets making it seem complicated or extreme, we can all benefit from making relatively small changes in our daily lives and these benefits can last the distance, helping us to look and, more importantly, feel our best.

This is the message of Get Lean.

"I hope it inspires people around the world  to make small changes that will make big differences long term and short term to their health and happiness," McMillan says.