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By Sarah O'Neill, Feb 26 2018 11:38AM

Women's Health Magazine asked me to come up with 5 research-based life hacks to help readers quit sugar - a really common struggle for so many of us. Here are my top tips (and an unhelpfully delicious looking platter of cupcakes....):


The old adage about eating little and often definitely applies if you want to quit sugar. Leaving large gaps between meals or snacks can cause blood sugar levels to dip, meaning you’re more likely to reach for a pick-me-up. Don’t leave more than 3-4 hours between meals/snacks and try to include protein which is more filling.

Life hack – COME PREPARED. Our circadian rhythms mean we have an energy slump around 430pm – prime vending machine time. Come prepared with a snack box to work (or one for am one for pm) so you have planned for this dip with a healthy offering such as hummus and crudités or a hard-boiled egg with some spinach and tomatoes – protein rich and healthy to boot.


A 2013 study looking at snack choices and timings amongst teenagers, found that sweet snacks were mostly likely to be consumed whilst watching TV. After a busy day this can be ‘treat’ time, so if you’re an evening grazer bring a bowl of healthy snacks such as crudités to chomp on during your favourite shows.

Better still, try to combat your grazing. A 2016 study by the government’s Behavioural Insights Team showed that people consume on average 50% more calories than they realise every day, the majority of which, they concluded, comes from snacking. Cleaning your teeth once dinner is over is an easy way to signal the end of eating, or find something else to do with your hands whilst watching TV… like knitting! 😊


If sugar addiction is a psychological disorder, then mental health strategies can be employed to combat it. A 2017 meta-analysis found that moderate exercise can combat physiological imbalances created by such disorders. Exercise endorphins can replace the need for sugar to hit those ‘reward’ centres.’


We often think having a DC is a healthy choice, but in fact your diet drink consumption could be exacerbating your sugar cravings. A 2010 meta analysis ‘Gain weight by ‘going diet’’ showed that various research has confirmed that diet drinks may in fact increase your cravings for sugar, by not satisfying the ‘reward centres’ in the way a sugary drink might, meaning you reach for additional sugar; plus the sweet taste of artificial sweeteners encourages sugar craving and dependence.

Lifehack: A fizzy drink can feel like a ‘treat’ – try a glass of San Pellegrino with fresh mint or lime in a wine glass so you feel like you’re having a ‘grown up drink’.


The reason diets don’t work is that we feel resentful and that we are ‘missing out’. Sugar is seen as a reward, and so avoiding it is a punishment. Shift that internal dialogue from ‘I wish I could eat that [cake/biscuit/sweets] but I want to lose weight’…to ‘I care about my body and I am proud that I’m loving myself by not putting junk in it. I have the strength and foresight to know that this isn’t the optimal way to fuel myself’. Changing the way you THINK about sugar is 90% of the battle.


Grenard et al. (2013) Sweetened drink and snacking cues in adolescents: a study using ecological momentary assessment.

Michael Hallsoworth (2016) Counting Calories: A new report from BIT on the problems with official statistics on calorie intake, and how they can be solved

Codella et al (2017) Sugars, exercise and health

Qing Yang (2010) Gain weight by “going diet?” Artificial sweeteners and the neurobiology of sugar cravings Neuroscience2010


By Sarah O'Neill, Jul 6 2017 02:07PM

Article published in Vitality Magazine:

Personal trainer and nutritionist Sarah O’Neill tells you everything you need to know about eating for recovery post-workout

Eating the right foods after your workout can help you refuel, rehydrate and recover. The best post-workout foods will also help to repair your muscles and enable you to fully reap the benefits of your session – and get you ready for the next one.

Personal trainer and nutritionist Sarah O’Neill tells us which food and drink can help you look after your body post-exercise – and gives suggestions for how best to refuel.

When should I eat after my workout?

I recommend eating a meal two hours after your workout. If you’ve trained hard, it’s a good idea to eat something small like a piece of fruit within 30 minutes, followed by a meal within a couple of hours. This is because our glycogen (the carbohydrate we store in our muscles for energy) supplies are depleted during exercise. Replenishing your levels of glycogen means you will recover more quickly and perform better in your next workout.

You also break down muscle fibres when you exercise, and leaving it too long before taking on protein means you keep on breaking down fibres rather than building and strengthening. Our metabolism is highest post-exercise, and remains high for 24 to 48 hours (sometimes called the ‘afterburn’), but leaving long periods between eating slows the metabolic rate back down. This is why it’s always best to eat something post-workout, otherwise you’re actually negating a lot of your hard work, in terms of strength, weight loss and future training ability.

Which are the best post-workout foods?

Carbohydrates should form the basis of your post-workout meal, whether you’ve been running or you’ve been in the weights room. The ideal meal should contain 20 to 40g protein with 60 to 120g carbohydrate (approximately 1:3/4 ratio).

Does eating high or low GI foods matter?

A study by Loughborough University looked at the benefits of low GI foods after exercise. The glycaemic index (GI) shows how quickly certain foods affect your blood sugar levels. Low or medium GI foods are broken down more slowly and cause a gradual rise in blood sugar (or glucose) levels – they include vegetables, pulses and wholegrain foods, such as porridge oats. High GI foods are carbohydrate foods that are quickly broken down by the body and cause a spike in blood sugar levels – they include sugary foods, white bread, white rice and potatoes.

The study found that a recovery meal with low GI foods helped to increase exercise endurance the following day, with participants also burning more fat for fuel – ideal for most exercisers, as this helps with performance and weight loss goals. However, if you’re training twice a day, high GI foods can help to replenish glycogen more rapidly, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

What should I eat after a morning workout?

To avoid the mid-morning munchies, refuel with foods not drinks, which are more satiating. Porridge with milk provides low-GI carbs in the oats and protein from the milk, and you can add berries that contain antioxidants to protect muscle fibres from injury after intense exercise. Eggs are an excellent protein source – try them on wholegrain toast with smashed avocado for your carb and healthy fats fix.

You could also whizz up a frittata in advance and take it to work in handy portions. Load it up with peppers to deliver immune-boosting vitamin C, plus sliced new potatoes for low GI carbs, and grated cheese for protein and calcium.

What do I eat after a lunchtime workout?

Sweet potatoes are lower GI than white spuds, so try a jacket sweet potato topped with protein-rich tuna, baked beans or cottage cheese and add a side-salad for veggies.

A wholemeal pitta filled with roast vegetables and houmous, sushi with brown rice, or a chicken pasta salad all make a great balance of carbs and proteins.

What should I eat after an evening workout?

An easy chicken or tofu and vegetable stir-fry with brown rice is ideal – grated ginger has anti-inflammatory properties to help relieve sore muscles. Salmon plus quinoa and green veggies such as asparagus, broccoli or kale will give you a boost of phytochemicals, which have antioxidant properties and can even help to prevent cardiovascular disease.

Steak or venison is the perfect reward for a tough workout to boost your iron levels, which are depleted with vigorous exercise. Eat with roasted squash and a watercress salad, containing vitamin K for bone health.

What should I drink after I workout?

After exercise, it’s vital to replace fluids and minerals that you may have lost through sweating to prevent dehydration.

Drink plenty of water – if you want to mix it up, you could also try coconut water, containing electrolytes, which help to balance hydration levels in the body and help with muscle function. Cherry juice is another good option as it has been shown to help reduce muscle soreness post-exercise. It’s important to check the sugar levels in both cases.

Protein shakes can be a good way for heavy lifters to ensure they’re packing in enough protein, and fast. However, if you’re more of a runner or cardio lover, you’ll easily be able to consume enough protein through your chosen meals, and protein shakes can be calorific.

A study by the School of Psychology and Sports Sciences at Northumbria University showed chocolate milk can be significantly more effective than regular sports drinks as a recovery aid. It’s a great option if you’re on the go and contains much-needed calcium, but it’s only beneficial if your workout has warranted the calories!

By Sarah O'Neill, Jul 6 2017 02:01PM

Article from Vitality Magazine:

Personal trainer and nutritionist Sarah O’Neill gives her advice on the best foods to fuel your workout and when to eat them

Knowing which foods to eat before you exercise is vital for a winning workout. Hitting the gym on an empty stomach can lead to a listless, lack-lustre effort, while eating the wrong foods pre-exercise can cause unpleasant gastro symptoms such as cramps and nausea.

PT and nutritionist Sarah O’Neill tells us how picking certain foods at the right time will ensure you’re maximising your workout and getting the best results – whether it’s your morning cardio or lunchbreak weight-training session.

Should I eat before my workout?

If you’re exercising at low-ish intensity for up to an hour, you can do so on an empty stomach. One study by the Belgium National Institute of Health found increased fat burn when exercising after an overnight fast, but you’re more likely to tire sooner, meaning you’ll burn fewer calories (and body fat) overall. You’re also more likely to burn protein for fuel when muscle glycogen (the stored carbohydrate that your body uses as fuel during exercise) and blood sugar levels are low, sabotaging that lean tissue growth you’re working so hard for.

If you’ve already eaten two to three hours before your session, there’s no need to overdo the snacks, but it’s all down to the individual and if you’re running out of steam you might want to fuel up to ensure you can go the distance.

What should I eat before my morning workout?

Generally, it’s worth waiting around 30-60 minutes between food and exercise but, if you’re pounding the pavements at the crack of dawn, this can be harder to manage. Keep it light, such as a small handful of nuts or a piece of fruit around 15-30 minutes pre-workout. Bananas are a perfect, easily digested source of carbohydrate, plus they’re rich in potassium, which we lose when we sweat.

Another good choice is a smoothie. As it’s a liquid, the sugars are absorbed more quickly – handy if you struggle to digest whole foods without feeling queasy early in the morning. Blitz up your favourite milk or yogurt, plus half a banana and/or a handful of frozen berries. But beware – packing tons of fruit into a smoothie can deliver sky-high levels of sugar and calories, off-setting your hard work before you’ve even started. Try adding veg such as spinach, beetroot or kale to balance it out.

What should I eat before a lunchtime session?

If you’re working out in your lunch break you’ll have enough time to factor in a snack late morning, ideally 30-60 minutes before training. Respond to how your body is feeling – a snack-sized yogurt (try Greek yogurt, or one without added sugar) or a small handful of dried fruit like apricots may suffice.

If you’re very hungry, opt for a small bowl of low-fibre cereal or porridge, ideally eaten around 60-90 minutes before you exercise. The emphasis is on a carb/protein mix, with the carbs providing your fuel and the protein assisting muscle recovery and growth. If you’re looking for something quick and easy, an oat or fruit-based bar makes a great snack. Just remember to check those labels – don’t eat a 350kcal bar ahead of a 150kcal workout.

What should I eat if I’m exercising after work?

You’ll need to carefully plan your snack for post-work exercise as you’ve already been on the go all day. Avoid fatty foods such as chocolate or pastries (which you’ll spend your whole workout trying to burn off) and instead have a small snack around 60-90 minutes before you exercise of houmous and crudités or pitta, fruit loaf or raisin bread, half a bagel with nut butter, a toasted muffin topped with honey, or something more protein-rich such as leftover cooked turkey or chicken.

Any pre-workout snacks I should be avoiding?

As a rule, avoid anything high in fat or fibre. Fatty foods can take up to four to five hours to fully digest, and fibre is both slow to digest and increases gas production – making you the least popular person at the gym.

Energy drinks before or during your session are not necessary unless you’re exercising at intensity for 90 minutes or more, plus a lot of them have added unnecessary sugar.

How much water should I be drinking before my workout?

For every hour of exercise you’ll need an extra litre of water to replenish what’s lost in sweat. Dehydration can lead to impaired performance and muscle cramps, so get ahead by sipping water in the hour before your workout.

Will a dose of caffeine help?

Seasoned coffee drinkers will be pleased to know caffeine can have performance-enhancing effects, according to the British Coffee Assocation. Caffeine can decrease glycogen use earlier in the session by up to 50%, saving glycogen for later in the session (increasing endurance), and increasing fat burn. However, caffeine is also a diuretic so you’ll need to up your fluids.

By Sarah O'Neill, Feb 24 2017 03:16PM

I recently contributed to a piece in Women's Health on iron-deficiency anaemia (Something weighing down your workout? WH March 2017 issue p.67-70), a condition that affects as many as 12-15% women aged 15-50 according to the WHO (World Health Organisation) and is the most common nutritional deficiency in the world. However in many cases it goes undiagnosed, and, as I told Women's Health, is particularly prevalent amongst women frequently training at intensity. This is because training increases red blood cell production (increasing your iron needs) plus you lose iron both in your sweet and through something beautifully termed 'foot strike haemolysis' whereby blood cells and capillaries in the feet are damaged by running and jumping, creating a higher turnover of red blood cells. Running puts a force of 2.5 times your body weight on the soles of your feet (why I'm also always banging on about refreshing your trainers regularly...)

Unfortunately many of us put those feelings of depletion down to a hard session and busy lifestyle, but for as many as 22% of both elite and recreational athletes there's something more serious going on. Moreover, data suggests 50% of women with heavy periods are likely to be iron-deficient, so if you're both a heavy exerciser with heavy periods it's definitely worth getting checked out.

So what should you look out for?

- fatigue

- headaches, dizziness

- pale skin

- shortness of breath

- irritability

- racing heart

- cold hands and feet

- poor concentration

- restlessness including restless legs (or 'eebjabs' as my mother calls them...not a scientifically validated term...)

- sore tongue, cracks around the mouth

- hair loss

- frequent infections (iron plays a MASSIVE role in the immune system)

If a number of these symptoms resonate with you it might be time to pop to see your GP for a blood test. Recreational athletes need 1.3 - 1.7 times more iron than the general population, and living with iron-deficiency anaemia can mean you're failing to progress in your training, or hit new PBs. It can also mean you're struck with every bug going around, and struggling to shift these infections, leaving you yet more run down.

Treatment for iron-deficiency anaemia is often with something called ferrous sulphate, a form of iron we can readily use. However around 1/3 people don't tolerate these tablets well and can develop gastrointestinal symptoms such as constipation, diarrhoea or stomach pains. There's a lot we can do with diet, however, and it's always worth modifying your plate before your pills, unless your levels call for immediate medical intervention.

Due to Popeye we all mistakenly believe spinach to be our mightiest source of iron, however iron is much more readily accessible in its haem format, which comes from all meat and fish, with seafood such as oysters and clams also an amazing source. Venison is in fact richer in iron than beef and lower in fat, if you're a game fan, although liver is the still our best source (ick).

Vegetarians need 1.8 times more iron than meat-eaters as non-haem iron from plants is less bioavailable (readily absorbed and accessed by the body). However you can increase absorption by coupling your iron source with vitamin-C rich foods. For our veggies the best sources are legumes (particularly kidney beans), grains, nuts, seeds (especially pumpkin) and green leafy veg. Kale, brussel sprouts and broccoli all contain good levels of iron AND vitamin C so you're getting the ideal combo there. Otherwise adding in red or green peppers or consuming them with a glass of OJ (or better still a fresh orange, strawberries, grapefruit, kiwi of guava) will assist non-haem iron absorption.

It's also worth noting that inflammation in the body post-workout blocks the iron absorption pathway for several hours afterwards. So before chowing down on a humungous steak it's worth hopping in an ice bath (or use cooling pads). Spend maximum 10 minutes in there, but anything from around 6 minutes will do the trick. Also avoid drinking tea or coffee with your meals which can impair iron absorption - best to wait at least an hour after eating.


It's essential when you start an exercise programme to think about your diet, and this is why all our clients get the opportunity to undergo a nutrition review from the outset. Over nutrition can scupper the effects of your training by not allowing you to change your body shape in the way you desire. However under-nutrition in any area (and most specifically iron) can also mean that exercise pushes the body into a deficiency state, which can have detrimental effects on your health.

By Sarah O'Neill, Jan 29 2017 05:37PM

I was busy reflecting on the psychology of food choice, and came across an interesting review* that analysed the most prevalent barriers and enablers of healthy eating across 34 research papers. The authors concluded the barriers to be:

- male apathy towards diet; unhealthy diet of friends and family; expected consumption of unhealthy foods in certain situations; relative low cost of unhealthy foods; lack of time to plan, shop, prepare and cook healthy foods; lack of facilities to prepare, cook and store healthy foods; widespread presence of unhealthy foods; lack of knowledge and skills to plan, shop, prepare and cook healthy foods; lack of motivation to eat healthily (including risk-taking behaviour).

Personally I can relate to a number of these triggers. For me there is a strong psycho-social element to my periods of (self confessed) over eating. For example, I would say I'm a 'feeder' and so if I'm entertaining I struggle to release my guests in anything other than a calorie coma. When eating out, I adopt a 'less than three courses is cheating' mentality. With a toddler to care for (who still doesn't buy into all-night sleeping) my motivation to eat healthily has been replaced by an overwhelming desire to eat cake or chocolate at least thrice daily. I have the knowledge and skills to identify which foods are best for my body and the ability to create healthy balanced meals, and yet the desire not to do so often wins out through those inner voices telling me it's a treat not to do so, plus a lack of perceived self efficacy to change this behaviour amidst the tired fog that is motherhood...

I am sure we can all look at the list and identify our own triggers. And perhaps this is the first step on the road to change. But the second stage is also critical - discovering the enablers of success, which the authors identified as:

- female interest in a healthy diet (hurrah, girls!); healthy diet of friends and family; support/encouragement of friends and family to eat healthy; desire for improved health; desire for weight management; desire for improved self-esteem; desire for attractiveness to potential partners and others; possessing autonomous motivation to eat healthy and existence and use of self-regulatory skills.

I think critically we have to really desire to change. It's essential to identity why you want to change and what's stopping you before you embark on a weight loss journey. You may still 'fall off the wagon' but you'll be far more likely to ride the blip and return to those positive lifestyle changes, which is absolutely fundamental to achieving your goals longer term.

Ask yourself (and perhaps write down)...

- WHY you want to change your diet (weight loss? well being? fitness? self image?);

- HOW it looks to eat healthily (taking into account your current knowledge and the advice of your PT or nutritionist); and therefore

- WHAT you're going to change to make positive nutritional choices (e.g. no alcohol, more veggies, less refined carbs, cutting back on sugar...) and

- HOW you will support this with self-regulatory skills (positive mindset, saying 'no', rigorous planning etc).

But if you are currently in a place where you feel your barriers outweigh your motivation to change, then I would suggest doing some work on your mindset in the first instance, ensuring you have a sufficiently positive perception of your ability to achieve your goals, and therefore greater likelihood of long-term success.

* Barriers and enablers of healthy eating among young adults: a missing piece of the obesity puzzle: A scoping review, A. E. Munt, S. R. Partridge and M Allman-Farinelli et al. (2016)

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