It’s about so much more than ‘diet’…

By Cliff Harvey ND, Dip.Fit, PhD (c)

In nutrition, we debate the relative virtues of all sorts of things, from high-carb vs low-carb, through to plant-based vs paleo, and many other seemingly contrary points of view.  What’s seldom talked about though is that the ‘exact’ diet you follow possibly has the smallest effect on your overall health when compared to a range of other lifestyle factors…

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that ‘diet’ (i.e. the totality of all the things you eat, not a ‘diet’ that you get from a best-selling book!) is unimportant, it’s probably THE most important facet of health, but on balance, which diet you follow isn’t as important when compared to all the other little players of health.

Sleep, stress, mindfulness, healthy sun exposure, the overall quality of your diet, and your relationship dynamics probably play a much greater role in living a healthy, happy life than whether you choose to restrict carbs, eat more protein, or cut meat out of your diet. Even when we consider diet overall, getting sufficient micronutrients and being able to adhere to a diet that focusses mainly on whole, unprocessed foods, is likely to be a far bigger influence on your health than whether it has a few extra or a few fewer grams of this or that macronutrient!

In fact, I often now choose to prescribe fewer dietary interventions and instead focus much more on simple, yet incredibly powerful lifestyle interventions first, before focusing on highly specific dietary changes. I recently spoke overseas on a few of these habits of behaviour that we can all start to implement right now and each and every day to provide a big impact on our health and happiness.

Daily Actions

1. Have two glasses of water upon rising

Every cell in your body requires water to function correctly, and those functions inevitably include the processes that allow you to build and maintain muscle, lose body fat, and think clearly. Without enough water, you will be unable to perform at your physical and mental best, and you may even feel hungrier! As little as a two percent loss in water can impair your physical and mental function. 1-4

One of the best ways to ensure that you are drinking enough water is to start your day with two large glasses, first thing. That way you can immediately offset the dehydration effects of the water lost during sleep. We have found clinically that when people do this, they typically drink more water through the day and stay adequately hydrated.

2. Create a habit of movement in the morning

This early morning movement could be your main training session for the day, or it could be a gentler, mindful, breathing based exercise. If I’m on the road, I will do basic bodyweight exercises, yoga, and mindfulness of breath in the morning in my hotel room or in a local park. When I’m home, I go for an early morning walk with my partner and dog and also do some additional breathing and stretching, with my main training session done in the mid-morning after I have done a little writing.

3. Meditate

Meditation is a tried and proven stress-reduction technique. It also helps us to be more mindful overall so that we can be aware of reactive, moment-to-moment choices that can derail our progress towards our goals, in other words, those moments of ‘self-sabotage’. As little as 10 minutes per day of simple mindfulness of breath exercise can help us realise these powerful benefits. Start each day with mindfulness of breath meditation. Begin with just 1 minute and increase by 1 minute per day until you are meditating for 10 minutes.

For more information on mindfulness and meditation see ‘Choosing You!’ and ‘Time Rich Cash Optional’ available from and other good booksellers.

4. Eat meals, not snacks!

Despite being told for decades that we should eat small, frequent meals and to snack and ‘graze’ throughout the day, snacking is perhaps THE worst habit if you want to feel, look and perform better.

When we snack, we tend to over-eat, and we are never properly satisfied. Snacking contributes to a perpetual increase in insulin which makes losing fat more difficult. Snacks are also lower in essential vitamins and minerals, and healthy fibres and starches than complete, balanced meals. In fact, evidence suggests a strong link between snacking behaviours and both increased obesity and poor quality food choices. 5

Instead, have similar sized, well-balanced meals spread throughout the day. This fits better with our natural pattern of ‘fight or flight’ (the stress response of sympathetic nervous system dominance) when we are most active, versus the ‘rest and digest’ (or ‘relaxed state’ of the parasympathetic nervous system) phase in which we can digest food optimally. When we are ‘sympathetic nervous system dominant’ (i.e. when we are active and under pressure at work or play) blood supply is drawn away from the gut to supply the working muscles, while digestive enzymes and stomach acid secretion is reduced, and movement of food through the gut is slowed. So, snacking, especially when we’re ‘on the run’ reduces how well we can digest food and can result in cramping, pain and bloating, the common symptoms of irritable bowel, along with dysbiosis (bacterial imbalance in the gut).

5. Improve your sleep

Sleep is perhaps the most important, yet underappreciated aspect of our overall health. Poor sleep is associated with increased all-cause mortality, obesity, and cardiovascular and metabolic disorders.

According to the National Sleep Foundation of the US, which convened an expert panel to evaluate optimal sleep times, the recommended sleep time is between 7 and 9 hours for an adult.6 To start to get better sleep, it’s important to have a sleep ritual. This signals the body to start winding down and increasing its sleep-inducing hormones to be released in comparison to the ‘fight or flight’ dominance of the day. Some key tips include:

  • Turn your TV off by 9 pm
  •  Use a blue light blocking app on your phone
  • Limit or avoid using your computer or phone after 7 pm
  • Read fiction at night
  • Have a warm, relaxing bath
  • Use a herbal ‘sleepy tea.’
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed

And…Don’t take your work home; leave your work at the office.

For more health & fitness tips, advice, inspiration, samples & products, head along to the NZ Fitness & Health Expo this weekend (27-28 October) at ASB Showgrounds, Auckland.  There’s free seminars, live cooking demos, kids fitness classes, 100+ quality exhibits, group workouts & classes, samples and so much more! For more info & tickets visit