I know we are about to enter the season of goodwill and gluttony, but I promised in my last health blog to talk about how on earth I lost a stone (6 kilograms) in weight by accident while fighting heart failure.
Several people got in touch to ask for tips on not just shredding the fat – but then keeping my weight down.
In the first six months after discovering I had heart problems (in January 2023) my weight gradually slipped down from just under 13 stone (82 kilograms) to 12 stone (76 kg) and it has stayed around there ever since.
So what was my ‘magic’ diet?
Truthfully, it wasn’t planned and I was expecting weight gain through water retention while increasing my heart medication.
Cutting the booze
Mind, I followed the heart doctor’s advice and gave up alcohol completely for three or four months – and then stuck rigidly to the recommended 14 units or less a week.
Alcohol can cause high blood pressure and make some symptoms of heart failure worse as well as lead to weight gain.
So even reducing the amount you drink should not only improve your health but help you lose weight as alcohol is pretty high in calories.
It probably helped having a doctor tell me to give up the booze to improve my chances of living longer, but I’ve also stuck to a healthy lifestyle. I swim regularly and enjoy a walk, despite having rather painful arthritis in my right foot, so keeping active was the easy part.
Before my heart condition was diagnosed, I used to get breathless very easily but that has eased with the cocktail of 14 or 15 tablets I take daily, and losing the extra pounds has made me feel fitter.
Alcohol is actually one of the easiest things to measure and control, with 14 units being equivalent to around a litre of 13% wine or six pints of 5% beer or lager – a week!
I recommend you spread that over several days rather than using up your weekly quota in a binge night and find lower or zero alcohol alternatives. They do grow on you after a while.
See my health blog from May on ‘How tough can it be to stop drinking alcohol? for tips on the best non-or-low alcohol beers, lager and cider.
Don’t bother with zero alcohol wines. I found them a waste of money. But, if you don’t want to appear a complete killjoy over the festive period, try Isla Negro Sauvignon Blanc Pedro Jimenez from Chile. It sells for around £5.50 and is 10.5%, so you can stretch those units a bit further.
However, I shouldn’t really be encouraging you to drink!
Next tackle the fats
Now the harder part for both reducing the risks facing those with heart failure and for those trying to lose weight: what to eat!
Well apart from smaller portions, the specialist heart nurses said to also cut my intake of saturated fats (as well reduce salt and sugars). That put my beloved cheeses on the naughty list, with cheddar apparently amongst the worst villains for clogging up the arteries as well as putting on weight.
They recommended just 30 grams of cheese in a sitting and not every day! That’s about the size of your two large fingers. I often used to eat treble that amount which may be the reason I ended up with clogged arteries.
For me, that was a bigger ask than giving up a glass or two of wine or beer, but saturated fats can raise your cholesterol.
Look at the food labels
Saturated fats are in many of our favourite foods, including butter, cakes, biscuits, fatty cuts of meat, sausages, bacon and cured meats like salami and chorizo as well as cheese, chocolate, pastries, cream and ice cream.
The UK guidelines recommend the average man should eat no more than 30g of saturated fat a day and the average woman no more than 20g.
That’s difficult, as a 30 gram slice of Red Leicester Red Fox contains 7.3g of saturates (a third of the daily recommended intake for an average woman and a quarter for the average man). That’s just a small chunk!
Chocolate addicts look away now! A 25g slice of dark chocolate contains about 7.7g of saturates. That’s a tiny bar!
Look on food packaging and it often say how much fat, saturates, sugars and salt are in the foods we buy. Sometimes these labels are put in a ‘traffic lights’ system, using green, amber (orange) and red and often they are put details in so many grams of fat per 100g, etc.,
If in doubt, go for foods with the most green or amber labels and the fewest reds.
For saturated fat, more than 5g per 100g is high. Under 1.5g per 100g is low.
Be prepared to be shocked
You may also find the percentage of your recommended daily allowance in foods we buy from supermarkets. Be prepared to be shocked!
What all this means in practice is swapping high saturated fats products like butter for healthier alternatives like olive oil spreads and eating chicken or fish instead of red meats. And, of course, eat more fruit and vegetables.
At least try to keep your intake of saturates within the recommended daily guidelines most days.You are allowed occasionally slip-ups – and when you go out for a meal you’ve no idea really what you are eating, so count those times as slip-ups unless you are sure your menu choice is really healthy.
Be inventive with alternative foods and do more home cooking from scratch so you know what’s in what’s in the food you are eating. My wife Ann has found a more tasty and healthier substitute to supermarket or deep-fried chips. We cut salad potatoes into chip shapes and put these on a baking tray and mix with a couple of spoons of rapeseed oil and stick them in the oven for an hour. Turn a few times and put a sprig of rosemary on the baking tray or sprinkle with thyme while cooking. Much healthier and tastes great!
Seek medical help
Despite the obstacles, make sure you seek medical help when you think something is really wrong.
Yes, the NHS isn’t perfect after 13 years of the Conservative government doing its worst to undermine the NHS and try to make us go private, but, I’ve found the NHS (at least on Teesside) still working reasonably well and I can’t complain (at least so far) about the treatment I’ve received.
Perhaps it helps having a multitude of health issues, having gone through bowel cancer and having so many injections for arthritis that I feel like a pin cushion, but I try to manage my health as best I can and don’t expect the doctors and nurses to do everything without any input from me.
It is a team effort to stay healthy and you have a key role to play and I feel a lot better since losing that extra stone in weight, even if it means that some of my clothes don’t fit properly and I have to tighten my belt to stop my trousers from falling down.
So try cutting down on the alcohol and try non-or-low alcohol alternatives which are now more available in supermarkets and pubs and definitely reduce your intake of saturated fats (and sugar). Better bet than sweet fizzy drinks!
Remember, there is no truth to the claims that carbohydrates are fattening. Gram for gram they contain less than half the calories of fat. However, not all carbohydrates are the same.
Sugars are also a type of carbohydrate. While those found naturally in milk and fruit are healthy for us, the sugars we need to cut down on are those added to food and drinks, such as cakes, biscuits, sweets, and sugary drink.
Treat your body like a car
I always say treat your body like a classic motor car! That means making sure you not only look after the bodywork, so it is nice and shiny, but also look after the engine and inner workings.
And as with driving a car, do what the colour-coded nutritional traffic lights say on food labelling or look for (Fat under 17.5g per 100g) Sugars (under 22.5g per 100g) Saturates (under 5g per 100g) and if you suffer from heart disease cut the Salt to under 1.5g per 100g) and go for green or amber and avoid the red foods, or at least don’t have them every meal.
Even if you don’t have heart failure, see page 48 of the British Heart Foundation’s ‘Eat Better’ booklet to understand the food labels and take a look at ‘How to eat less saturated fat, Practical Tips from the NHS if you want to learn more about being healthier and losing weight.
Hope some of this helps you stay healthier and get a bit lighter!
- Images from British Heart Foundation Eat Better booklet.