The skinny on January dieting

After the season of over-indulgence has come to an end and left many of us with turkey thighs, Karen Emerson is here to talk about our desperate attempts to jump back on the health bandwagonNew Year’s resolutions are often made in an attempt to counteract the unhealthy behaviours we’ve exhibited in the previous four weeks. That empty box of Roses, the devoured Christmas pudding with some brandy butter, and the litres of your favourite poison that cause the traditional yuletide memory loss, all come back to haunt us in January when we look in the mirror and are horrified at the picture of unhealth that stares back at us.Over-indulgence throughout the Christmas period can cause our stomachs to stretch, enabling us to eat and crave more food than normal. The high sugar content in chocolates, Christmas cake and alcoholic beverages stimulate rapid insulin responses in our bodies in a bid to reduce our blood glucose levels.  When this energy is not used up by means of physical activity, it is stored in our fat cells as triglycerides.Fat storage, however, is only part of the festive feeding frenzy. The consumption of these high sugary foods and beverages stimulate a reward complex in our brain resulting in secretion of dopamine, the feel good hormone. This is the same metabolic pathway that is stimulated by the consumption of drugs and alcohol.In a similar fashion to drugs and alcohol, our tolerance to high-sugar foods can be increased and greater quantities are needed to illicit the comfort food response.Unwittingly, many of us exit the December month with a case of sugar addiction and a significant decrease in our metabolic health. Often it is not until the buttons on our jeans fail to close or we cramp up mid training session or match that we realise just how far we’ve let ourselves go.Desperate measures are needed, we tell ourselves. Some put into effect plans for a dry January, while others splurge on new trainers and gym memberships. It is this fleeting motivation that ensures January as the most profitable time for gyms; signing-up new members whose drive will surely dwindle in the coming months and their only presence in the gym will be seen from their monthly direct debitConsequently, gym memberships are at an all time high in the country, coinciding unfortunately, with the highest levels of obesity, heart disease and type II diabetes Ireland has ever seen.It is perhaps the lack of immediate results during our period of penance in January that is to blame for our lack of long-term drive. A handful of hunger pangs do not equate to a six-pack and our often misinformed dieting techniques and food choices can have deleterious health effects.Common dieting errors include skipping meals, over-restriction of caloric intake, omission of entire food groups and unsupervised use of weight loss supplements or pills.Meal skipping is an obvious choice to the avid dieter. The calorie deficit caused by skipping breakfast or lunch daily can amount to at least 4,200 calories a week. One lb of fat releases 3,500kcal when measured in a bomb calorimeter so in theory, a calorie deficit of 4,200kcal should equate to a weight loss of 1.2lbs per week.These figures may seem enticing in the short-term, but the long-term effects of skipping nutrient-rich foods can result in nutrient deficiencies and disorders. These include complications such as low immune response from insufficient Vitamin C, anaemia through iron (also vitamin B12 and folate) deficiency or mal-absorption and the development of osteoporosis through a failure to reach peak bone mass in adult life brought on by insufficient Vitamin D and calcium intakes.Diet pills or anti-obesity medication have been around since the 1930s. The fact that the obesity epidemic hit our shores regardless may give a clue as to the level of their effectiveness. Some of the drugs suppress appetite, increase the respondent’s metabolism, or block the absorption of fats and carbohydrates in the intestine.In recent years much research has gone into the hormone leptin in the hope that it would hold the key to solving the western world’s expanding waistlines.Leptin is the “feeling full” hormone made and released by fat cells. It signals to the hypothalamus that enough nutrients have been ingested and give us that satisfying full feeling. Scientists were hopeful that leptin replacement therapy would help obese individuals and rid them of their insatiable hunger.  Unfortunately the majority of the obese population of the world are not leptin deficient, but instead are regarded as leptin insensitive. The hypothalamus has become blunted by the constant leptin signalling from their fat cells that increasing leptin concentrations will not result in long-term weight loss.Indeed it seems that there are no short-term fixes that will improve our waistlines and health simultaneously. If we shift our goals from instant weight-loss to longevity of health and well-being, this time next year when looking in the mirror we’re sure to find a happier and better proportioned version of ourselves staring back at us.