Five things I do now that I didn’t do five years ago

I sometimes think that some people imagine I live some perfectly healthy existence. While my lifestyle might be tons better than it was when I was a young adult, say, at least some of my lifestyle habits vary a bit depending on things like environment (I travel quite a lot), workload and priorities. There is always some room for improvement. I also have never believed I am the ‘finished article’. As a result, I strive to remain open to new ideas and different ways of doing things.

Recently, I was reflecting on things that I regularly do now that I didn’t do 5 years ago. In no particular order, here’s five things that sprung to mind, and a bit on the thinking or strategy behind each of these changes:

1.   Intermittent fasting

Although I have advocated eating in accordance with our ancient diet for a long time, I had until relatively recently been in the ‘eat three meals a day’ and ‘graze, don’t gorge’ camps. It did occur that regular eating was perhaps at variance with our evolutionary patterns of eating, and then perhaps three years ago I started to get interested in the concept of ‘intermittent fasting’.

It is my belief that probably body weight and certainly overall health are not solely determined by the balance of calories going into and out of the body. These things are at least to some degree influence by other factors, including hormones. A key player here is insulin, higher levels of which predispose to fatness. This is one major reason why I advocate a relatively low-carbohydrate diet.

Insulin levels can be tempered by adjusting not just what we eat, but when we eat too. Insulin is secreted in response to eating, so tends to be elevated during the day and relatively low while we sleep. In theory, extending the time each day when insulin levels are low might promote weight loss. This, in essence, is what intermittent fasting is all about.

My personal foray into intermittent fasting came after a period during which I had been hearing good things about it. I also had been discussing intermittent fasting with someone who had lost almost 100 lbs following the advice contained in my book Waist Disposal. She had plateaued, though, and was looking for something to get her going again. I suggested intermittent fasting, and volunteered to try it myself at the same time.

Although I had rarely skipped breakfast for many years, I am generally less hungry in the morning than in the evening. I therefore decided to skip breakfast, but resolved to do this gradually by slowly increasing the time in the morning before I ate anything. I generally get up quite early (6.30-7.00 am), and after a week or two, I found myself being able to get to 1.00 pm or later before I felt ready for lunch.

I was not consciously resisting food before this time – I just wasn’t hungry. I felt no decrease in energy either. If anything, my energy levels improved, particularly mental energy, focus and clarity. I also, though this may have had nothing to do with my dietary change, found myself needing less sleep.

I do eat breakfast sometimes, but only days that I actually feel hungry in the morning. I broadly follow the advice to ‘eat when you’re hungry, and not when you’re not’. Two of the benefits for me have been some fat loss, and a feeling of being less reliant on food and regular meals. Another spin-off benefit has been I have been much more relaxed about exploring if this way of eating is right for other individuals (which it can be).

2.    Front crawl swimming (sort of)

I never really learned to swim when I was young. And my problems were compounded when, at school, I was ‘taught’ by a swimming ‘teacher’ who seems to get a kick out of humiliating non-swimmers like me. By the time I left school, I had some serious mental barriers to swimming.

In the late 1990s a good friend and colleague spent an hour a day over a week teaching me to swim breaststroke. At the start of the week, I could barely manage 25 metres without feeling like I was going to die. By the end of the week, I could swim with good form for as long as I liked. Even though I say so myself, my breaststroke is a joy to behold, and all because of some excellent coaching all those years ago.

However, front crawl has traditionally been a very different story. I remember as a very young child taking swimming lessons where we would hold out floats in front of us and kick like fury with our legs. My problem: no forward propulsion. I’ve been told that my fundamental issue is the angle of my feet relative to my lower legs and a problem with immobile ankles. Anyway, whatever the problem, my legs put a very serious brake on any attempts to swim front crawl.

A year or so ago, I was discussing this with the friend who taught me breaststroke. He suggested that I try using a ‘pull buoy’ – a figure of 8-shaped piece of foam that is help between the legs that elevates them, and basically negates the need for kicking. The end result? I worked hard on my arms and breathing, forgot about the legs, and can now plough up and down the pool at will.

pull buoy 2
3.    Drinking tap water

I used to advise against drinking tap water and would not drink it myself. But both of these things are no longer true now. So, what changed in my thinking?

My original reservations around tap water were based on the fact that it contains chlorine and perhaps even some aluminium. I noted some years ago that some evidence linked tap water consumption with certain cancers, and that aluminium was being touted as a potential underlying factor in ‘neurodegenerative’ diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Over the last decade or so, though, I have also become aware that there is a downside to drinking bottled water. For a start, there is at least some risk of chemicals leaching from plastic water bottles into the water. But, also, environmental issues have come to the fore. I’m always slightly horrified when I see pictures of mountains of plastic waste piled up (or washed up) somewhere in the world. Also, the transportation of water from France or wherever to where it is ultimately consumed has an environmental cost too.

Some years ago I was at a conference listening to a naturally-oriented doctor who I very much respect talk about tap water. He was relaxed about its consumption, and suggested that for those concerned about chlorine, they could always leave some water out for a few hours before drinking to allow the chlorine to evaporate off. It seemed liked a reasonable suggestion to me.

The role of aluminium in neurodegenerative conditions appears to have dropped out of favour, and my hunch is that (as mounting research suggests) problems with blood sugar control and insulin resistance will turn out to be a major factor here. Plus, I drink Nespresso coffee almost every day (and these have aluminium caps through which the coffee is ‘forced’).

All behaviours are inherently risky to some degree, even crossing the road or walking down some stairs. However, when risks are relatively smalland our appear to be massively outweighed by the benefits (in the case of using roads and stairs, the ability to get to where you want to), then I regard that asacceptable risk.

So, whereas in a café or restaurant I used to only drink bottled water, I now default to tap water (unless whoever I am with has opted to order a big bottle of water).

One other thing that nudged me in the direction of tap water was a growing collective and personal awareness that a significant proportion of the world’s population has no access to clean drinking water. So, another thing that prompted this change was a growing feeling that I just needed to get over myself.

4.    Eating white potatoes

I eat quite a decent diet, I think, and it’s based on natural unprocessed foods. I’m wary of the role of certain carbohydrates in weight and health, and while I am not a particular advocate of ‘very low carbohydrate diets’, I think its fair to say my broad advice does fit into the ‘low carb’ camp.

Low-carbohydrate eating normally necessitates eschewing starchy carbohydrates such as bread, rice, breakfast cereals and potatoes. In fact, for many years, I rarely ate white potatoes. Part of my thinking was based on the fact that potatoes are relatively disruptive to blood sugar balance. I also considered potatoes to offer little nutritional value, too.

However, on the blood sugar thing, it’s not just the food that is important here, but how much we eat of it. For me, potatoes were only usually a relatively minor accompaniment to a meal. It occurred to me that their impact on my blood sugar was not likely to be considerable, particularly if I ate them alongside foods that were not disruptive to blood sugar such as meat and green veg.

I also came to review slightly my view that white potatoes have no real nutritional value. They actually offer decent amounts of useful minerals such as magnesium and potassium. In the last year or so, potatoes have seen a return to my diet, though my intake remains relatively low (perhaps 3 meals a week).

Some concern has been expressed about the potential for potatoes to contain toxins known as ‘glycoalkaloids’, which are to be found in the skin. When I eat potatoes, there are generally without skin, either as mash or, more commonly, roast potatoes.

5.    Conscious breathing

Maybe like a lot of people, I have tended through my life to take the act of breathing for granted. A couple of years back I was in a seminar where the facilitator got us to count the number of breaths (in and out) we took in a minute. He stated that 4-8 represented a good pace. Mine was 14.

I started to read about the physiology of breathing and particular the potential impact breathing too quickly can have on our state. The risk here is that we can blow off too much carbon dioxide, making the blood more alkaline. This, in theory at least, can impair oxygen delivery to the tissues.

Low carbon dioxide levels can upset the body’s chemical balance in another way too – it lowers calcium levels in the blood. Calcium is important for normal functioning of the nerves and muscles, and low calcium can lead to symptoms such as pins and needles and possibly ‘cramping’ in the hands and feet. These symptoms are common during episodes of ‘hyperventilation’ (‘panic attacks’). In fact, the emergency medical treatment for hyperventilation is to breathe in and out of a paper bag held tightly around the nose and mouth. This increases carbon dioxide levels in the blood, which helps restore normal physiology and calm to the system.

Classical hyperventilation is quite an extreme state of affairs that I don’t believe I’ve ever experienced. However, between this and an optimal breathing pattern is a spectrum. While I don’t suffer from full-blown panic attacks, I came to believe that my breathing pattern can be a long way off optimal.

So, in recent times, I have made a conscious effort to take some control over my breathing. Specifically, when I feel in need of some focused energy, I slow my breathing down to about 6 cycles (in and out is one cycle) per minute. Within a minute or so I do usually feel better and more centred. Is this a real effect or placebo (or a bit of both). I have no idea, and neither do I very much care (it’s the result that is important to me).

27 Responses to Five things I do now that I didn’t do five years ago

  1. Cristina 28 February 2014 at 5:43 pm #

    What are your thoughts on intermitent fasting for women? My PCOS has improved significantly since I started a low-carb, almost paleo diet, but I’m not sure if skipping meals would be beneficial to keep the sugar levels stable. Thanks.

    • Mariana 14 March 2014 at 10:11 pm #

      Dr. Mercola wrote an article on this. There hasn’t really been much research done on it with women, but there is some evidence to suggest it has an androgynous effect. I myself don’t find intermittent fasting very helpful, and find that evidence to be pretty true with myself, particularly since in the past I struggled with my hormones and don’t want to mess them up now.

    • Barbara 12 April 2014 at 1:01 pm #

      I tried the 5:2 diet last year and had no success with losing weight but found it pretty easy to fast 2 days a week.

      I spoke to Dr Krista Varady on FB and she suggested that for some women to lose weight they need to fast on alternate days not just twice a week. I did try this but had to give it up after only a week or so as I felt like I was on yet another dreaded DIET.

  2. Deane Alban 28 February 2014 at 5:50 pm #

    Change is good! As new information comes to light we should make changes to our lifestyle.
    I recently read a post by Dr. Mercola who had changed his mind about a recommendation and some people were all over him, taking this to mean his original advice was “wrong” or “bad”. I warn young people who are very dogmatic about their diet that they may find themselves “eating crow”. The diet that suits them today will almost certainly not be the same diet they follow 20 or 30 years from now. I used to teach macrobiotic cooking classes but now eat meat and eschew grains and beans (major staples of a macrobiotic diet).

    What is your opinion about drinking filtered water? Where I live the water tastes SO terrible drinking it straight from the tap is not an option!

  3. Jane Anglin 28 February 2014 at 6:06 pm #

    Thank you Dr Briffa! Very interesting and inspiring too; you prompt me to explore new ways of thinking and behaving. Much appreciated.

  4. Chris 28 February 2014 at 6:19 pm #

    Dr. Briffa,

    Does your tap water contain fluoride? If so, do you have any concerns about ingesting fluoride?

    • Wendy 2 March 2014 at 3:15 pm #

      I grew up with fluoride in my water. There was not enough to do any damage of course. I am almost 30 years old and have never had a cavity and my enamel is very strong. It’s not as dangerous as people think. In small amounts obviously.

      • ValerieH 15 March 2014 at 1:45 pm #

        Your answer is anecdotal. I have read enough about fluoride over the years to avoid it. My holistic dentist advises all her patients to avoid it as well. Fluoride is not what causes healthy teeth. Its purported effect on tooth decay is greatly overestimated.

  5. Kate 28 February 2014 at 6:47 pm #

    I have found that intermittent fasting may not be ideal for those with dysregulated blood sugar. However doing a bit of exercise before breakfast can be beneficial for metabolism and having a protein breakfast with no carbs also helpful. The danger with fasting is hunger may lead to subsequent over-eating.
    The issues of both insulin and leptin resistance are huge. We know insulin sensitivity is improved with exercise but I believe the bigger chalkenge is leptin resistance. Three smallish meals per day of non-processed fresh foods at about five hourly intervals with no food after dinner seems do-able and sustainable.

    I have found that the GL of some carbs depends on quantity and cooking method. Small waxy type potatoes are ok occasionally and surely potatoes are a source of vitamin C – perhaps the only source for some people?
    As for wheat, it makes no difference whether wholegrain or white, it is still the biggest dysregulator of insulin and ghrelin control if eaten at every meal and the strains of wheat cultivated now appear to have higher gluten content than older varieties. For this reason alone I believe it is best to limit it to one meal per day.

  6. Bill 28 February 2014 at 7:01 pm #

    John, you are right about slower breathing improving your health. This short TED video demonstrates live how the rhythm of your breath in and out can be as important as the speed:

  7. Melanie Ryan 28 February 2014 at 10:06 pm #

    Very interesting! I’m glad it’s not just me then.

  8. Megan 28 February 2014 at 10:21 pm #

    I, too, have become less rigid about my diet but only a little. My problem was that I had no control over my appetite: the more carbs I ate the more I craved. Low carb, no sucrose, high vegetable, low fructose fruit, protein and fat led to dramatic weight loss and energy. After a few years of this, of no hunger, of choosing when to eat, I no longer fear food. It has no power over me and I never eat unconsciously. I sometimes have a piece of pizza crust or a couple of sweet potato chips, a chocolate even without feeling that the whole castle will come down.

    I regard myself as being in the relaxed post diet phase. I thank Dr Briffa for this for without his expert, credible, profound understanding of our relationship with food and its effect on us, without this blog, I’d still be fat, lethargic and not a little unhappy. .

  9. heather machin 1 March 2014 at 4:52 am #

    such good advice, many thanks. a query re the tap water idea, understand i am a completely non-scientific person, will the chlorine disperse if i put a cloth over my water jug to keep out insects and dust? and about how long does it take? i can see me digging out the retro milk jug covers, resplendent with dangling beads i have tucked away somewhere…..

  10. Heather Brooke 1 March 2014 at 6:14 am #

    I prefer filtered tap water as I don’t want to drink flouride and also dislike the flavour of our local water.

    I also avoid pod coffee for the same reasons I avoid bottled water, the mountains of waste going to landfill. Coffee pods are so popular now that there must be a huge amount of waste product from the pods.

  11. Greg 1 March 2014 at 8:04 am #

    Watery points to ponder..
    I also drink tap water, often at restaurants, but at home have an inline water filter.
    I’m lead to believe that there are residual hormones from contraceptives and also other medications in treated waste water and various other nasties that can slip through the municipal water system.
    Also, nowadays a lot of our mains water travels through plastic pipes, again, we don’t really know the long term effects of this as was the case with the lead pipes of old.

  12. Lyndie 1 March 2014 at 9:05 am #

    Thank you for posting this. There is so much information out there about what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ that it’s good to see the balanced view of a professional. Just as an aside on intermittent fasting I am an ‘elderly’ person in medical terms (actually 67) but am finding this form of eating so beneficial. Not only has my weight dropped 8kgs since Christmas but my blood pressure has dropped too and I feel really well on it. keep posting and I’ll keep reading. Thank you for all your weekly advice.

  13. Diana 1 March 2014 at 11:01 am #

    I’ve also given up breakfast for the past couple of months, having read Dr Mercola on fasting. I now have a more planned and satisfying lunch (rather than a sandwich-on-the-run as before), and main meal in the evening.

    I’ve noticed that I’m not thinking about snacking between meals at all, and have lost the tendency to look for something sweet and carby after dinner in the evening.

    My weight has stayed remarkably stable through this time whereas I usually put on weight very easily, especially in the winter.

    My previous pattern of eating a small breakfast, small lunch and big evening meal left me overeating in the evening. The new pattern of no breakfast, satisfying lunch and evening meal has done wonders for steady energy and weight stability. I’ve also completely lost the strong urge for a glass or two of wine before dinner!

  14. Liz Glen 2 March 2014 at 8:42 am #

    What are your thoughts on the latest opinions published by Dr. David Argus. He is in favour of everyone taking statins, having the flu jab and other controversial theories. Some good some bad in my opinion.

  15. Anita 2 March 2014 at 6:06 pm #

    Hi Dr Briffa
    I have enjoyed reading your blogs and books – learning a lot of useful health tips on the way, thank you.

    I do have to challenge you on those coffee pods though. Why would you force hot water through plastic and aluminium? Is this not potentially far worse than cold water out of plastic? And what about all the landfill waste? How long does it take for those to decay?

    Time to clean up your act too, and drink real coffee, and compost the waste grains!

  16. Tony Kerstein 2 March 2014 at 7:51 pm #

    We put tap water into couple of glasses and leave them in the fridge until required. This not only gets rid of the chlorine but we find the taste indistinguishable from bottled water. We live in Redbridge in Essex and the water here is hard.

  17. Dan 2 March 2014 at 9:30 pm #

    Great changes. I have often wondered why potatoes get such press (high glycemic index I suppose).

  18. Naomi Jones 3 March 2014 at 8:23 am #

    1-4 wonderful, thank you
    5 good, but I have a problem. You put forward that alkaline blood is a problem, yet I repeatedly read that eating acid-forming foods is bad (exacerbating inflammation & therefore conditions such as arthritis) and alkaline-forming foods good. I had assumed that the place they ‘formed’ was in the blood so surely alkaline blood is good?
    I would be grateful for any clarity here.

  19. Marc 4 March 2014 at 2:18 pm #

    I was a fervent freediver when I was young, able to hold my breath for 5 minutes after hyperventilation. I was also doing lots of yoga and pranayama, which is the technique for good breathing. So I thought I know a lot about breathing.

    But I never did it as you mentioned in your post. I just counted the number of breaths I take in 1 minute and the result is 16 !

    So, I try to figure out what is happening, and I realize that I do not use my lungs fully : as I am typing this I am sitting, my shoulders slightly arched even though I use a stand up desk stool. Each breath in does not last longer than 5 seconds. A deep, pranayama-like breath in takes 15 seconds (I just counted) ! And doing so I can litteraly feel my lungs getting more air.

    Which means that on average I’m using 1/3 of my lungs, at best. Therefore my cells get less oxygen than what they should. That could be also an explanation why slowing your respiratory rythm makes you more focused, apart from the biochemical standpoint.

    I found this study which states that “Slow breathing increases cardiac-vagal baroreflex sensitivity (BRS), improves oxygen saturation, lowers blood pressure, and reduces anxiety”

    So, back to deep breathing ! Thanks for the insightful post.

  20. Chris 4 March 2014 at 8:21 pm #

    Doc, I dont know why I had the impression that you were advocating for a ketogenic approach to nutrition.

    • Dr John Briffa 5 March 2014 at 1:04 pm #


      I don’t have an issue with nutritional ketosis, but I also don’t particularly encourage it as it is, for most people, unnecessary for weight loss and improvements in disease markers and wellbeing.

  21. Chris 6 March 2014 at 6:35 pm #

    fair enough 🙂 I’m a bit biased since it works so great for me.

  22. Judith Fage 9 March 2014 at 8:33 pm #

    When we used to holiday regularly in Corsica, about 10 years ago, we noticed that the excellent hotel restaurant where we ate each evening overlooking the gorgeous Golfe de Porto kept a huge fridge full of carafes of tap water, letting out the chlorine and getting nice and cold. We stopped using bottled water after this unless tap water was unavailable or in countries where it wasn’t safe. We have a water filter at home and the water is chilled and nice to taste.

    I have a query for Dr Briffa – as a 72 year old who has broadly followed the low carb higher protein diet, with a focus on vegetables, I wonder if there is any special guidance for older people. Maybe the next book? I do not follow it perfectly – I cannot resist REALLY good bread if offered it, which is not that often, and am in that portion of the population who has never cared much about chocolate but cannot resist a good cheese (someone on Desert Island Discs asked for a huge round of manchego for their luxury item! And I totally sympathised with that.)

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