Stress, Cortisol and your Stubborn Belly Fat: How to lose fat from your abdominal region!

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Everybody wants to know how to lose that stubborn belly fat. For so many people it seems that no matter how many crunches or HIIT circuits they do, that little bit of fat on their stomach won’t budge. Why is this fat so stubborn and difficult to lose?! If you’re eating right and training hard but can’t lose stomach fat, the answer may lie at a hormonal level. Let me introduce you to a little demon called cortisol…

Cortisol is known as the ‘stress hormone’, and is released in your body in response to different types of stress. Cortisol has an important role to play in regulating the body, but prolonged elevation of cortisol can cause a number of negative effects such as sleep disruption, decreased muscle mass, lowered immune response and an increase in abdominal fat storage… (no thanks!). People who have high stress levels (myself included) and/or put their body under a lot of physical stress are likely to have elevated cortisol, which could result in any or all of the aforementioned problems.

The kinds of stress that causes release of cortisol is probably much broader than what you imagine. Stress can be mental, physical, emotional or chemical. Below I explain the different types of stress on the body and how you can manage them to help reduce your cortisol level.

Physical stress – refers to intense training and/or overtraining (overtraining is training in excess and not recovering adequately). Training at a high intensity is certainly still a good thing, provided you aren’t overtraining. However you can help reduce the spike in cortisol after an intense workout by taking the following supplements within 30 minutes of finishing a workout.

  • Vitamin C:
    You can get vitamin C through food like oranges, capsicum, berries and dark leafy greens like kale and spinach or you can take it in supplement form.
  • L-Glutamine:
    Glutamine is an amino acid than manages cortisol levels in the muscles. It can be found in foods like cheeses, or taken in supplement form ideally as a post workout to reduce cortisol that is produced in response to a tough training session. Add it to your post workout shake!
  • Essential Amino Acids:
    Some studies have suggested that taking an essential amino acid supplement (rather than BCAA’s which just contains the branch chain amino acids) after a workout can reduce the negative effects of cortisol and increase protein synthesis. Although I’m not sure how conclusive these studies relating to cortisol are, but taking an EAA shake post workout can improve protein synthesis, glycogen synthesis and muscle recovery so it has a number of positive benefits that should help to counter the negative effects of cortisol regardless.

 

 

Mental stress – when you are overwhelmed by tasks such as assignments, exams or work that is causing you to feel pressured or under the pump.

  • Sleep more – some studies show that when you sleep for six hours instead of the recommended eight you will have 50% more cortisol in your blood stream. So work out when you need to get to bed to get the eight hours you need and make sure you do it! I also take a melatonin supplement to help me sleep because getting an unbroken nights sleep has long been an issue for me, but for most people it’s just about making sure they get to bed at a reasonable time.
  • Meditation – meditation can help you relax and therefore help to reduce your cortisol levels. There are some great guided meditations online if you are new to meditating and want to get started! They talk you through every step and help you to learn how to switch off your mind, which can be difficult for a lot of people.
  • Go for a walk or read a book – anything that helps you to relax can have a positive impact on your cortisol levels. Everyone is different, so just indulge in an activity that helps YOU to de-stress!

Emotional stress – There are many causes of emotional stress – sadness, depression, anxiety or relationship breakdowns to name a few.

  • More Green Tea, less Coffee!
    Green Tea contains L-Theanine, a nutrient that causes relaxation. Although caffeine usually increases cortisol levels, because of the l-theanine in green tea it has been found to actually reduce cortisol! So try switching your coffee for green tea. (Note that I’m still struggling with this one! :P)
  • Again meditation, walking, reading or other relaxing activities will be of benefit to anyone who is experiencing emotional stress.

Chemical stress – when your body is exposed to toxins present in both what you’re eating and the environment. Although it’s not completely avoidable given the world we live in, it can certainly be minimized.

  • Eat your greens!
    Eating lots of green vegetables helps to detoxify your body. You can even get some great “Supergreens” shakes now to increase your intake of greens. Although real food is always the preferred alternative, these shakes can help you make sure you are meeting your nutrient requirements, and you can get some with little to no artificial additives.
  • Avoid packaged foods
    The less artificial crap you put in your body, the less your body has to work to try and detox from them. Eat a variety of whole foods like meat and vegetables cooked yourself instead of packet options.
  • Avoid BPA plastics and microwaving your food in them
    Water bottles and Tupperware can leach BPA into your food. Drink from glass water bottles and avoid microwaving your food in plastic – put it in a bowl first!
  • Avoid parabens and harsh chemicals on your skin
    Switch to natural and/or paraben free products that are more gentle on your body.
  • Avoid alcohol
    We all know alcohol is toxic to the body, so it’s just an added chemical stress that your body doesn’t need! Cut out or at least try and reduce your alcohol consumption.

Since taking all of the above steps to try and reduce my cortisol I have been able to see a dramatic drop in my abdominal fat storage. I’ve always trained hard and eaten healthy food, but struggled to reduce the fat on my stomach region. Since making an effort to reduce my stress levels and associated elevated cortisol, I finally have some visible abs!

If you feel like you’re doing everything else right but not getting the results you’re after in terms of abdominal fat loss, then give some of the above tips a go – it may just be what your body needs to finally strip that abdominal fat away!

And remember – stress less gorgeous! 🙂

With love,
B.xx

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Clean Prawn Fried Rice

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This recipe is one of my favourites. I love this as a post workout meal as it has a good balance of protein, carbs and greens.

Ingredients: (serves one)

100g green prawn meat

1/3 cup cooked white basmati rice

1/2 cup peas

1/2 cup carrots (cubed)

1/2 cup green beans (cubed)

1/2 cup broccoli

1 tsp chilli paste (I use the Galiko brand as it only contains chilli and vinegar)

1 tsp minced ginger (again I use the Galiko brand)

1/4 cup brown onion

2 tsp organic tamari

Method:

1. Chop all the veggies into small pieces

2. Cook the onions and prawns in a little bit of coconut oil. Once the prawns are almost cooked through, add the ginger and chilli and stir through.

3. In a wok, stir fry the veggies in a small about of coconut oil until cooked through.

4. Add the prawn and onion into the veggies, and toss through the cooked rice and the tamari.

5. Devour 🙂

PROGRESS UPDATE NO. 5: “It’s not hard to make decisions when you know what your values are.”

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I’ve recently had to make a very tough decision not to compete in March as I had planned. It was a tough call for me to make because I have invested so much time and effort into this process and come so far, so I didn’t want to let my hard work go to waste. But when pressures arose to start doing things I wasn’t comfortable with and I felt were not consistent with my overall health, I had to swallow my pride and step away from competition prep.

Throughout this entire process, my health has been and still is my utmost priority. I said from the beginning I would never sacrifice my health for aesthetics. Although it killed me to submit to not achieving the goal I had originally set myself, I know how important it is to do what’s right for my health and to always follow my gut instincts.

The training I’ve been doing for comp prep has been great – it challenges me and I’ve seen good results so far. The diet has been strict but full of healthy, whole foods and I haven’t been restricting the amount of food I eat at all. I’ve been happy with the results I’ve seen so far and overall, it has been a rewarding experience.

However I’ve come to realize that in preparing for a competition, there are many different methods that trainers use to get competitors ready for the stage. There are different diets, different training methods, different supplements, different ‘peak week’ techniques, etc. All of these methods seem to work, but not every method will suit every individual.

When my trainer started talking about taking supplements to start changing the balance of hormones in my body and get me lean for the stage, I instantly felt uncomfortable (note – they are not roids or anything, they are entirely legal supplements, I just didn’t think they would be good for my health). I went home to research the supplements that had been suggested to me, which is not unusual – I research everything before I put it in my body. Although I didn’t find any big warnings not to take it online, what I did find is very little research to support its use, and if anything a few recommendations that females should not use the product. There were no real conclusions either way as to whether it was safe or unsafe, however the fact there was so little information available to me on it and no information on potential long term effects of its use was enough for me to choose not to put it in my body.

In the midst of this uncertainty over these supplements (which for the record, I was not taking nor intending to take), I then had an allergic reaction to one of the completely natural herbal supplements I was already on. Although this supplement was just a natural combination of herbs, it caused a horrible rash all over my arms and face. It seems that this was just a reaction to the milk thistle the supplement contained, but it was the last straw for me. I took that as a warning sign, and I knew then that I was no longer going to take those supplements or any new ones for that matter.

I am not a big fan of taking supplements as it is, but I can see the benefit of supplementing with vitamins and minerals that you are deficient in (and cannot obtain enough of through food alone). This is especially the case when you’re training very hard and preparing for a comp where you need your body in peak condition. However, when it starts getting into relatively new supplements with little research and little knowledge of consequences later in life, I’m not willing to take any risks. If it takes me longer to achieve my goal, if I have to train harder, if I have to add in cardio, that’s all fine; but I won’t put anything in my body that I’m not 100% sure is consistent with my health.

Not everyone takes a heap of supplements to compete. However, where I chose to train, that is the method they use. I definitely don’t question that it works – they’ve got some great results with clients and got many competitors to look fantastic on stage! But this method is not for me. It’s completely possible that the supplements are safe and will have no long-term effects on my health, but I’m just not willing to take that chance to look good on a stage for ten minutes.

Pulling out from the competition was such a hard decision for me to make because I didn’t want to feel like a quitter. I have been training hard, put a lot of time and effort into food prep, and made many sacrifices in my social life for this competition and didn’t want my hard work to be for nothing. I’m also a very determined person and the idea of not achieving a goal kills me inside a little! But the fact of the matter is the actual competition has never mattered to me. I’m not overly fussed about getting up on stage in a bikini and high heels (if anything I was actually dreading that part of it!). The reason I set the goal to compete was just to keep me on track by having a set date and time that I needed to achieve my goal by. In that respect, it has already achieved its purpose. I’ve worked hard, I’ve stuck to it and I’ve got some fantastic results so far. I’ve still got a long way to go, but my transformation certainly doesn’t end here! I plan to keep training hard, add in some HIIT cardio and mix up my diet so I can have some more balance and flexibility but still get results. Although I’m still determined to keep improving, I’m happy that without a deadline I can add more balance into my life. It’s possible I will still compete one day, but if and when I do, it will be without all the supplements and using a method that puts my conception of holistic health at the forefront.

I’ve also learnt so much from this experience. I’ve learnt about manipulating food to achieve a goal. I’ve learnt new training methods. I’ve learnt how strong I can be – both physically AND mentally. And most importantly, I’ve learnt how important it is to never lose sight of your values and always stand up for what you believe in, no matter what others may say.

I admit that in the past few months with working full time and either training or cooking in every spare minute, my social life has really suffered. Even when I go to social events and don’t eat the food or bring my own food to eat, it’s hard not to feel socially isolated. It’s fun to enjoy a meal out with friends, and you can usually find healthy options on most menus. I definitely miss this aspect of life and I welcome it back with open arms now that I don’t have a pending competition!

Since I made this decision two weeks ago, I’ve started mixing up my diet, planning it all myself with a focus on tracking my calories and macros while still eating healthy, clean foods. This is allowing me some flexibility to eat out and/or just eat some of the foods that make me happy e.g. Greek yoghurt and berries are back on the menu! I’ve been doing this for 2 weeks now and appear to be getting leaner, which is very exciting! I’m hoping it continues to work, as it is a much more sustainable lifestyle and I can enjoy myself while still achieving my goals. Bring on less restriction with solid results! 🙂

This was a tough blog post to write, in light of it being a hard and emotional decision for me to make. But it has only made me stronger, standing up for my values despite pressures to take the easy way out to get to the stage and avoid damage to my ego. As they say, it’s about the journey not the destination, and I honestly wouldn’t change a thing about this experience. It has been a fantastic learning curve and a good test of my strength in the face of adversity.

After a full on few months and an emotional few weeks surrounding this decision, so I’ve just booked a spontaneous trip to Byron Bay for the long weekend! This holiday will allow me to take some much-needed time out and take a break from what was such a rigid routine. It’s important to take time out and relax, and do what’s good for your soul. After all, looking after your mind is a very important aspect of health that should never be neglected. 🙂

With love,
B. xx

Image: zerodean.com

MEXICAN LETTUCE TACOS

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One of my passions is making clean versions of my favourite naughty meals. This recipe is quick, low-carb, clean, and still gives you the satisfaction of all your favourite Mexican flavours!

Ingredients: (makes two tacos – serves one)

For the Tacos:

120g chicken breast

½ tbsp coconut oil

1 carrot

½ brown onion

Ground cumin

Chilli powder to taste

1 tbsp oregano (dried)

A dash of tamari

Lime juice

2 lettuce leaves

Coriander

For the Guacamole:

1 avocado

Juice of ½ a lemon

¼ red onion (finely chopped)

For the Salsa:

½ punnet cherry tomatoes (diced)

¼ cup passata

¼ red onion (finely chopped)

Crushed garlic to taste

Chilli powder to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

Dash of water

Method:

  1. Heat the salsa ingredients in a saucepan on low heat until tomatoes have softened and it has formed a salsa consistency. Set aside to cool.
  2. Smash the avocado with the lemon juice and red onion using the back of a tablespoon. Set aside.
  3. Heat the coconut oil in a pan with chicken and brown onion until chicken is cooked through
  4. Remove chicken from heat and shred with a fork.
  5. Return chicken to pan and add the carrot, cumin, chilli powder, oregano, and lime juice and heat for two minutes. You only need enough lime juice to give it a little bit of moisture. Add as much chilli as suits your preference, but use plenty of cumin as it gives it that Mexican flavour 🙂 I usually add a dash of tamari as well when I’m not preparing for comp.
  6. Carefully remove individual leaves from the lettuce, making sure you don’t tear them (or else your taco filling will be falling everywhere when you try to eat them!). I find it helps to slice across the bottom of the leaf with a knife then peel the leaf off.
  7. Fill the lettuce cups with the chicken mix, salsa, and guacomole. Top with fresh coriander leaves and serve.

Other delicious additions to these tacos would be black beans, kidney beans or corn if you want to add a carb source to the meal.
Enjoy 🙂

With love,
B. xx

Clean Eating vs IIFYM – Which will work best for you?

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Two of the biggest eating trends for improving body composition are ‘Clean Eating’ and ‘If It Fits Your Macros’ (IIFYM). They are two very conflicting ideals, yet they have both helped people to achieve their weight loss, fat loss and muscle growth goals. In this post I explore the advantages and disadvantages of both lifestyles, so you can determine which will best suit YOU.

Clean Eating

The idea behind clean eating is to eat as close to nature as possible. This means eliminating processed and refined foods, and only eating foods that are free from artificial additives and preservatives. There are varying degrees of clean eating, with the most strict only eating meat, fish, eggs, vegetables and fruit. Some people will only eat paleo foods, whereas some will eat vegan, gluten-free or sugar-free. Other ‘clean eaters’ eat packaged foods, provided all the ingredients listed are all ‘clean’.

Advantages

  • It focuses on eating healthy, natural foods – We all know that eating natural, unprocessed foods is better for our health. Eating clean is a way of eliminating processed foods, which are generally high in sugar, fat, and/or artificial additives, which are toxic to the human body.
  • There is no calorie restriction – You can eat as much food as you like, provided it’s all ‘clean’. This means no starving yourself – you simply eat when you’re hungry.
  • It’s structured and simple – it’s clear what foods are off-limits and easy to follow without the need to count everything.

Disadvantages

  • You need to be moderately savvy with food labels – Reading food labels will be a must. You need to look at the ingredients list on the back of the packet (if you choose to include packet foods) to ensure that all the ingredients are clean. You will need to be able to recognize trick word like “Natural Flavouring”, which is generally not natural at all. You can’t fall for the “all natural” claim on the front of the packaging – you really need to analyse the ingredients list of what you’re eating. A good rule of thumb to follow is if you can’t recognize all the ingredients, and if you can’t go and buy each individual ingredient in the supermarket yourself, then you shouldn’t buy it. Where can you buy a bottle of Natural Flavouring? You can’t.
  • Not all ‘clean’ packaged foods will help you reach your goal – Clean eaters love their date based bars, fruit and nut bars bound with honey, clean muesli bars etc. but these foods are often high in sugar, despite boasting a ‘clean’ ingredient list. If your goal is weight loss or fat loss, then you need to watch the amount of sugar you are consuming in these kind of products.
  • It restricts the food groups you can eat – Most people find it challenging to cut out all the junk food from their diet. Some can also become fixated on the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods, which can lead to an unhealthy obsessive mindset. If you choose to eat clean, it’s okay to have a cheat meal each week where you indulge in ‘dirty’ foods and don’t feel guilty about it.

IIFYM

IIFYM allows you to eat anything, provided it fits within your daily macronutrient requirements, as pre-determined by a ‘macro-nutrient calculator’. Some people also track micronutrients and dietary fibre.

Advantages

  • There is freedom of food choice – You can literally eat anything (including a whole block of chocolate), as long as you don’t exceed or fall below your macros for the day.
  • Flexibility can make it easier to adhere to – eating out is easier, because you can account for it in your macros for the day. You can still eat foods you enjoy like the odd chocolate, protein bar, or ice cream. The benefit of eating in this way is that long-term adherence is easier when your eating is less restricted.

Disadvantages

  • You have to calculate everything – Firstly you need to work out how many grams of protein, fats and carbs you need per day to achieve your goal. Then you need to work out how much of those things is in everything you eat for that day.       Although it sounds easy, 100g of chicken is not 100g of protein. It contains about 31g of protein and 4g of fat. You need to work this out for everything you put in your mouth, which involves a lot of weighing, counting and research. Although this gets easier as you go and start to learn the macronutrient content of your regular foods, every day will be focused around counting. It’s a time consuming process.
  • It’s not necessarily healthy – Just because you can eat chocolate bars all day and still hit your macros doesn’t mean you should. They are still highly processed, full of sugar and fat, and contain toxic additives. Using IIFYM as an excuse to eat junk fund while ‘getting shredded’ will still have consequences on your health. It’s so important to get enough vitamins and minerals from fruit and vegetables. If you fill up your macros with junk food, you’re missing out on certain nutrients vital to your health. Some people will track their micronutrients as well, but again that is a time consuming process.
  • It can be overly tempting – Although the norm is not to fill your macros with junk, when the options are open, some people struggle to resist temptation. Eating foods high in sugar causes your blood sugar level to spike and then drop, which results in you craving another sugar hit to give you energy again. This can become a vicious cycle of cravings and sugar hits, which is not a good thing to have when you’re on a diet where you can technically eat anything. Another problem people may have is if they indulge too much early in the day, forcing them to ration their macros for the rest of the day. Leaving yourself to go hungry because you already used up your macros is not healthy physically or mentally.

What works for me?

I personally prefer the clean eating approach. I care a lot about eating highly nutritious food and avoiding toxins in my lifestyle, especially in what I eat. Eating clean is an effective way to minimize exposure to toxins and maximize intake of vitamins and minerals. I love healthy food because it makes me feel more energized and happy. Junk food always makes me feel sick or groggy. I’m human and get cravings that I occasionally succumb to, but because eating clean makes me function so much better it motivates me to ignore my cravings and eat well. I like having foods I can and can’t eat, and having rules to adhere to. For me, that kind of structure is easier to follow than an IIFYM approach, where I would be tempted by the wide variety of foods I could eat and get slack on my meal prep. I also hate the idea of counting my food and working out my macros every day – I’ve always hated maths! I still have my cheat meal once a week, filled with ‘dirty’ foods. I do think that it’s important to have a cheat meal to keep you balanced, enjoy a meal out with friends, or just to keep you sane. We are all human and there is a lot of temptation, so it’s nice to be able to give in to them sometimes. But overall, I love eating healthy foods and clean eating works well for me.

What will work for you?

You need to work out which approach will be most convenient, manageable and thus sustainable for you and your lifestyle. What will allow you to stick to your eating plan? Do you like to have rules about what foods to eat and what to avoid? Do you feel better eating clean foods? Perhaps you have food intolerances and clean eating is the best way to manage them. Or do you enjoy having flexibility in your diet to have some treats? Do you love eating out a few times a week, and are not willing to sacrifice that? If you had flexibility in your diet, would you have the willpower to still eat healthy foods the majority of the time? The reality is both methods can help you achieve weight loss, fat loss, or muscle gain – you just have to find the one that best suits you. No two people are the same, and thus no diet will work for everyone. Experiment, work out what you find sustainable, and stick to that, because it is consistency that is more important than which lifestyle you choose to follow.

With love,

B. xx

Image: sabotagetimes

6 Every-Day Habits that may be Compromising your Health and Weight Loss!

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Many people don’t realize the consequences little things have on their health. But when you do these little things every day, it starts to add up and can compromise your health and weight loss efforts. Check out these 6 every-day habits that may be acting to your detriment.

1. Your coffee

Coffee is one of the crops most highly sprayed with pesticides. This means that your coffee beans, although seemingly innocent, may be leeching chemicals into your body.

How do you avoid this? Buy organic! Find a local coffee shop that has an organic blend. If you buy instant coffee, also switch this for an organic one. I use ‘Republica’ organic coffee (available from Coles), which tastes better than most instant coffees I’ve tried and it’s better for you.

How you drink your coffee could also be taking its toll. Do you enjoy a latte or a cappuccino? Everyone is mildly sensitive to lactose, and drinking a full cup of dairy won’t do you any favours. Dairy also causes inflammation within the body, so it can stop you getting that lean and ripped effect. Drink your coffee black. You get used to it.

2. Your ‘healthy’ breakfast

Do you sit down over morning with your bowl of natural muesli, banana, yoghurt and honey and applaud yourself for being so healthy? Unfortunately there is more than one reason why this isn’t a good way to start your day. Here they are:

  • If you buy your muesli, it is probably full of preservatives, sugar, sulphites in the dried fruit, and other nasties.
  • Even if you make your own muesli or have found a packet one which you believe to be free of artificial additives, starting your day with a big bowl of carbs is only going to cause a big spike in your blood sugar levels, which when they plummet, will lead to sugar cravings later in the day and potentially an afternoon crash.
  • Banana, honey and yogurt may sound healthy but they too are full of sugar and will cause the same spike in blood sugar/ sugar cravings/ afternoon slump.
  • There is little protein in the meal. Even if you are using a high protein Greek Yoghurt, it’s not the same as eating meat or eggs for breakfast.

The best way to start your day is with a high protein, low carb meal instead – like a vegetable omelette. A savoury meal as opposed to a sweet meal will stop you craving sugars later in the day by avoiding that initial spike of your blood sugar. Meat and veg is a great breakfast too, if you can stomach it at that time of day. I know I can’t, but if you can I would definitely recommend eating meat for breakfast.

3. Your job/ Your study

Do you have a high-pressure job or study load? Stress is a huge factor in body fat, due to the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is released when you stress, and leads to the storage of body fat. Unfortunately we all have stress in our lives, but the way you cope with it will play a role in your body fat storage. This is particularly the case with fat around the stomach. I am a massive stresshead, and tend to fill my days to the absolute brim, causing myself more stress. I’ve managed to decrease this slightly by supplementing with Magnesium, practicing meditation, and just generally taking ‘me’ time. Your body will benefit from cutting the stresses out of your life, or at least learning to manage them.

4. Your vegetables

Vegetables are healthy, right? Well unfortunately in this day and age where farmers are more concerned with the yield of their crop than the quality of it, we are being sold vegetables laden with chemical pesticides. The best way to avoid this is to buy organic vegetables. There are some vegetables where this is more important than others – you can find lists online of the vegetables that are most highly treated with pesticides and thus should always be bought organic.

5. Your beauty routine

Toxins make their way into your body not only through your food but through your skin. I tend to harp on about this a lot, so if you follow my blog you probably already know that! Toxins cause the storage of body fat because they slow the detoxification process of the liver (basically because it has more work to do), so it can’t adequately remove all the toxins from the body. This causes the toxins to be stored in the body (in the form of fat and/or inflammation). The best way to limit this is either trying to wear less make up, or wear it less often, and switch to certified organic products. One of my favourite beauty products is coconut oil. You can use it as a moisturizer, and even as an eye make-up remover!

6. Your cooking methods

Many people still cook with olive oil or vegetable oil. Cooking with olive oil is a bad idea because when you heat it beyond a certain point, it loses all its nutritional value. Even worse – heating it actually releases harmful, carcinogenic compounds. Vegetable oils shouldn’t be used as an alternative because they are full of trans fat. Instead, it is best to cook with extra virgin coconut oil – it’s good fat, it tastes delicious, and it doesn’t become carcinogenic once heated.

Changing these few things can make a big difference to your health. I hope you learnt something by reading this 🙂

With love,
B. xx