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Personal Training & Nutrition

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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, 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)

By Sarah O'Neill, Nov 12 2011 12:15PM

Rumour has it Heidi Klum takes a naked picture of herself highlighting all her lumps and bumps, inspiring her to step away from the doughnuts. I cannot actually find any evidence to substantiate this rumour, nor can I locate any lumps and bumps on the lovely Heidi, but it got me to thinking about how we motivate ourselves to lose weight.

Personally if I popped a picture of all my least favourite wobbly bits on the fridge I would plunge into depression every time I saw it and consequently open fridge and consume entire contents. I am a firm believer that the mind works by positive reinforcement, but I’m aware we don’t all think that way. One of my running buddies once told me that he forces himself to keep running near the end of a marathon by telling himself that if he doesn’t carry on his entire family will be shot. Yikes.

I think we all operate differently in terms of our motivation to change. If imagery works well for you I would encourage the use of your favourite picture, where you consider your figure to be at its best. Binges happen when we are depressed, and not normally when we’re feeling fabulous. Perhaps if you’ve lost a ton of weight you could put a before and after photo up, but I would generally dissuade people from the use of negative techniques, as it can turn food into something sinister, and fundamentally, the main aim is a healthy relationship with food.

A friend recently told me that her sister has been seeing a hypnotherapist for weight loss and one of the techniques she has learnt to avoid eating unhealthy foods is much more positive: she has learnt to associate not choosing the unhealthy snack with feeling powerful, in control and pleased with herself, as opposed to seeing it as ‘missing out’ and therefore an act of self denial. She tells herself ‘I’m the type of person who can choose not to have the [cake/chocolate/crisps]’. I love this technique, as many a failed diet comes from the notion that we are constantly missing out and therefore end up giving up when worn down/drunk! If you can turn saying ‘no’ into really saying ‘yes’ to being thinner/healthier/happier, then I think you’re well on the right track.

By Sarah O'Neill, Nov 12 2011 12:06PM

I reckon most women will have caved in to the ‘temptation’ of a meal replacement shake at some stage or another, even if only to drink one, feel utterly disgusted and dissatisfied and leave the rest of the tin untouched to gather dust for all eternity (Recommendation: find tin, remove from cupboard, dispose of tin. DO NOT buy new tin). Well we’re not alone, Courtney Love is apparently quite fond of them too (alarm bells?) as is the lovely Whoopi Goldberg. Perhaps not the most svelte of advertisements for a product, and with good reason – the shakes DO NOT WORK.

These sorts of diet really are my bugbear. The shakes are seen as a simple, quick fix solution, but they do nothing to address the issue at hand – that being, energy intake is clearly periodically greater than energy expenditure (eat too much, do too little). The shakes do not require conscious thought and effort about healthier choices, as they just replace the meals that need reconsidering. Henceforth when normal eating is resumed the previous mismatch in energy balance will prevail, and therefore any weight that has been lost will immediately be regained. Worse still, a little extra will also be gained, as meal replacement plans provide lower caloric intake than that needed to sustain and support the BMR (see Nutrition page for explanation). Furthermore, as per the baby food diet (Diet Series 1) a liquid diet does not support a healthy digestive tract.

Unless you need to rapidly lose weight for surgery (e.g. Cambridge Diet) meal replacement shakes are pointless and a very short term view. Think about lifelong changes to eating, no matter how near your goal. For example, the 220 calories in an average SlimFast shake could be better consumed from a mixed salad with tuna and a couple of oat cakes – i.e. real food! The only good thing I can think of about a replacement shake is they tend to be fortified with vitamins, but as we all should know, it’s far better to boost your nutrient intake from upping your fruits and veggies as opposed to your supplement use.

Eating this way is antisocial, expensive, boring and does more harm than good to your weight in the longer term. Avoid at all costs.

By Sarah O'Neill, Nov 12 2011 11:41AM

The day before my University prom I decided I wouldn’t mind losing a few extra lbs (a little late admittedly). In classic student style I thought ‘Sod paying 60 for a weight loss wrap I’ll make my own’. My Uni weight-loss wrap ‘on a shoe string’ comprised wrapping myself head to toe in cling film then sleeping in a sleeping bag, plus hood (the hood merely for dramatic effect). Wrap in place, hood up, I was undeterred by the ridicule of my housemates and assured of success! But alas, needing to desperately go to the loo at 3am (detoxifying effect perchance?) I discovered the perils of trying to wee wrapped in cling film. Enough said.

My (somewhat convoluted) point is this: crash dieting isn’t clever – the risks far outweigh the rewards, and you may just end up unpeeling wee-soaked cling film deep into the night.

How to spot a crash diet:

-Promises ‘miracle’ weight loss in excess of healthy limits (i.e. 0.5-2 pounds a week)

-Encourages a very low calorie consumption, often beneath your basal metabolic rate (BMR). This is the MINIMUM calories you need to maintain physiological functions in a rested state. Calculate yours on the Nutrition page of my website. Eating beneath your BMR regularly can reduce your metabolic rate, making it harder to stay slimmer! BEWARE any diet that is around 1000-1500 calories a day.

-Any diet that focuses on just one food group – i.e. grapefruit diet, cabbage soup diet, maple syrup diet. There are NO superfoods that can produce miracle weight loss results. More on this later! Diets focusing on one food tend to be very low calorie and once normal eating resumes the weight piles back on plus a little extra due to your reduced BMR.

Most of the weight lost in week one of a crash diet is water, creating a false effect. However dieting makes you lose both fat AND muscle, which is undesirable. Lean tissue is also more metabolically active, and so stripping muscle will just mean you could regain fat much more easily. Also to note – it takes 3,500 calories to lose a pound of fat – if you lose 10 pounds in a week, is that really likely to be 10 pounds of fat? In contrast, a loss of 1 litre of water is equivalent to 2.2 pounds of weight loss, hence why certain athletes (such as boxers) will dehydrate themselves prior to the pre-match weigh-in.

Crash dieting trains the mind in unhealthy eating patterns. Over restriction of calories results in reduced metabolic rate, strips both fat and lean tissue and is ultimately unsustainable. Furthermore, since it is unsustainable once normal eating is resumed weight is regained, and since BMR has been reduced there will be an overshoot in weight gain (the yo-yo effect), with weight continuing to get higher on each failed dieting attempt. Many overweight persons are serial dieters. The ONLY way to lose weight is regular exercise (burning calories and encouraging the growth of lean tissue) and healthy eating. That’s not to say there aren’t strategies that you can employ, and clearly some diets have some little gems that we can use in a more sustainable way. Plug into the Diet Series for more.

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