January is when millions of us set those important health goals, but making a resolution isn’t the same as keeping it. And just two weeks into the new year, your resolve might be wavering. But before you abandon your health kick and reach for the biscuit tin, take a look at the benefits achieved by foregoing alcohol, sugar, meat and empty carbs. We asked the experts what measurable effects might be seen in just 10 days.
Improved muscle strength, heightened concentration and increased energy levels are just some things you’ll notice days after quitting booze, meat and sugar.Credit:iStock
No hangovers, more energy, a brighter complexion; one week alcohol-free and you might already be feeling more jolly than you ever did after a glass of wine. “A couple of alcohol-free weeks also help show us that we can function and manage without alcohol and are not using it as a crutch or turning to it in times of anxiety, stress or to unwind,” says Professor Curt Ellison from The International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research.
For the first few days of Dry January you might have wondered why you felt so moody. Alcohol creates a complex imbalance of dopamine, released when we engage in pleasurable activities, in the brain. Alcohol use overloads the brain with dopamine, while also reducing the brain’s dopamine receptors in the process. When you first quit drinking, the lack of dopamine and diminished receptors can lead to feelings of sadness and hopelessness.
Four days in, however, and your body’s systems will have adjusted. You may find you have better concentration and energy.
Sleep might be a little harder at first without alcohol’s soporific effects; even if booze is bad for deep sleep. But after 10 days, says Professor David Nutt, author of Drink? The New Science of Alcohol and Your Health, “your sleep will be of a better quality and you’ll feel more refreshed in the morning”. Dreams may also be more vivid without alcohol suppressing the REM stage of sleep.
The physical consequences of heavy alcohol use, such as liver damage and high blood pressure, are well known. But can there be any impact on those areas after just ten days of abstinence?
“Yes,” says Dr Nutt. “Ten days of freedom from alcohol will restore the liver back to normal and will also remove the effects of alcohol on the heart and blood pressure.” But, he warns, quitting alcohol will also undo any tolerance to alcohol in your brain. “So you will get more effect from the same dose when you restart – which means be careful once you restart not to accidentally overdo it.”
Going on a sugar detox might initially cause you to suffer withdrawal symptoms. “Sugar stimulates the brain’s reward system, leading you to eat more of that sugary food,” explains nutritionist Rob Hobson. Research has found the most common foods associated with addictive symptoms are those high in added fats or added/refined sugars. “Some people may face certain physical or emotional symptoms when abstaining from refined sugar. Most of us will not face any symptoms, but studies have shown symptoms could include fatigue, low mood and alterations in concentration levels when cutting refined sugar.”
These are just short-term effects, which are outweighed by the long-term impact on overall health from cutting out or down on refined sugars; from weight loss to better gut health.
Cutting sugar out of your diet may help to boost energy levels and improve your ability to focus, says Hobson. Although he points out that natural sugars found in fruit and vegetables are beneficial in our diets, as our bodies metabolise fruit sugar differently than processed or added sugars.
“The low glycaemic index and glycaemic load in apples means they are a source of slow-release energy, making them an excellent snack choice for people with insulin resistance and diabetes, who need to carefully control their blood glucose levels,” says Hobson.
“Refined and added sugars, on the other hand, may lead to a higher risk of health conditions such as diabetes or heart disease.”
Obviously, it depends on how much you used to eat before giving it up, but for the first 10 days of going meatless, you may still feel hungry after your main meal. This is because psychologically you’re accustomed to eating meat and a small side of vegetables at most meals. Some vegan diets may be lower in fat and protein, and the unsatisfied feeling may be related to that, too.
Although, for Rachel Ama, vegan recipe creator and author of One Pot: Three Ways, she felt a lot lighter and more energised within 10 days of making the decision to go vegan. “After meals I felt full, but never heavy and sluggish, which I realised I used to feel after eating meat. I really hadn’t noticed that happened until I went plant-based.”
Your taste buds will also change, as zinc, found in oysters, beef and crab, helps to boost tastebuds. Fortified cereals, yoghurt, cashews and oatmeal are some of the vegetarian-friendly foods that can help up your zinc intake.
What will also improve is your gut health. The dietary fibre in vegetables, fruits and wholegrains help your body maintain a healthy intestinal microbiome by contributing to the growth of “friendly” bacteria. When you first start adding more plant-based foods to your diet, you may feel like you’re going to the loo more than usual. But if you’re going once a day, you’re actually becoming more regular.
“One reason why it can be difficult to keep up a healthy habit at the beginning is because positive changes are unlikely to be noticeable for a few weeks,” says James Collier, registered nutritionist, co-founder and head of sustainable nutrition at leading nutritionally complete food brand, Huel. “Don’t let this get you down. If you’re on the right track, making small changes will lead to bigger results over time. Patience combined with determination will get you a long way.”
You may notice some weight loss; studies show that people who stick with a vegetarian diet consume less fatty food, and are thinner than people who eat meat.
Ten days is too soon to know, but there’s evidence that the world’s longest-living people are found in plant-based diet communities.
There are no quick fixes and shortcuts to a fitter body, but after 10 days of taking up exercise, Dean Hodgkin, personal trainer and head of programming at leading community wellness and fitness app Truconnect by tv.fit says strength can improve.
“Although this is as a result of neurological adaptations rather than muscle gains. The individual motor units within your muscles quickly learn to work in synchronicity, resulting in the muscle fibres generating more force.”
Recent research suggests just a single bout of exercise can positively impact your mood status. After 10 days you will have reduced your stress levels, helping to lower the risk of slipping into depression.
“As soon as you begin working out, blood flow to your brain will increase, helping your brain cells to function more efficiently. It’s common to feel more alert during exercise and more focused afterwards.”
It’s no secret that some forms of exercise, e.g. high intensity interval training (HIIT) can be somewhat uncomfortable. “As a response your brain immediately releases endorphins,” explains Hodgkin. “A source of euphoria that will not only numb the pain but also boost your mental fortitude so you’ll push harder, ensuring you achieve the results you desire.”
After only a few cardio workouts, you’ll feel fitter and have more energy due to a rapid increase in the enzyme mitochondria within the muscle cells. “It is known as the power generator so you will quickly become more efficient at producing energy, meaning exercise will become easier in future.”
HOW TO STICK TO YOUR HEALTH RESOLUTIONS
There are three important elements to successfully sticking to any resolution:
Why do you want things to be different? It’s not about anyone else’s reasoning or comparison. Own it yourself and it will help you persevere when you have a tough day, you don’t make it to the gym or feel like giving up.
Get specific. What do you want to be different? Then drill down into the detail. What would change? What would feel different? What would happen if you didn’t change it? That can sometimes provide the motivation you need.
It’s all now about the action. Plan your gym classes, get that gym kit out or change into it before leaving work. How exactly are you going to make this happen? Get a friend with similar intentions and do it together.
Dr Radha Modgil is author of Know Your Own Power (Yellow Kite)
The Telegraph, London
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