‘Even in this fat-phobic era, people are getting fatter and fatter,’ declares Dita Osman, a 31-year-old Czech nutritionist based in Dubai. ‘Sugar is the problem’. After two (vaguely) successful months into a low-carb, no-sugar diet, which has seen me cut out bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and anything containing refined sugar, and wave a tearful goodbye to my most beloved lentil soup, I’m relieved to hear that I’ve at least got one thing right. Though I started the diet to improve my energy levels and boost my mood after a heavy (and somewhat extended) Christmas gorging period that dragged on well into January, small, gradual weightloss has not been an unwelcome side-effect. To Osman’s dismay, however, I’ve also avoided pulses and legumes such as lentils, chickpeas, beans and whole grains, and she’s quick to scold me.
‘It’s not a healthy diet. Our bodies are meant to run on carbohydrates as they help regulate our blood sugar levels, and you should never cut out whole food groups,’ she says, though is quick to make the distinction between the different types of carbs, and which ones I’m right to give a wide berth. ‘It’s a very wide group. You have to eat slow-releasing or low GL (glycemic load) carbohydrates, like beans, lentils, whole grains, oats, rye and vegetables, and some fruits. If you want to eliminate fast-releasing carbs like sugar, flour and other undesirable sweeteners, definitely do, but you can eat slow-releasing ones during every meal and still lose weight,’ she continues. They also help produce serotonin in the brain – a key hormone for feeling happy.
On the subject of fat, Osman encourages me to continue eating lots of avocado as the good fats help burn bad fats, but also tries to persuade me to reign in what can currently be described as uninhibited cheese consumption. ‘Cheese isn’t healthy fat, it’s saturated fat. You can eat lots of healthy fats like nuts and seeds, and different kinds each day, it’s the same with olive oil. If you stick to healthy fats, you won’t gain weight.’ ‘Salted nuts?’ I ask, hopefully. ‘Raw nuts. Not roasted, or salted.’ ‘But they’re boring...’ Osman laughs, but concedes. ‘It’s quite bland in the beginning, but eventually it will work – it’s just habit.’
She’s pleased to hear that I haven’t been skipping meals – one of her biggest rules is that breakfast is never missed, with oatmeal topping her list of super foods to start the day with. ‘It’s very underrated in our society, and I consider it to be the best breakfast of all. It has to be homemade, not an instant one loaded with sugar. I’ll make it with a little soy or almond milk, or even water, and add frozen raspberries, some dried coconut and a little spoon of honey at the end – and because you’re eating the honey with complex carbohydrates, your body reacts to the sugar in the honey in a much different way than if you had it in a sugar-loaded cereal or on white toast.’ I’ve been eating bananas and fat-free yoghurt, how am I doing? ‘I have an issue with fat-free things, because anything that’s low in fat will usually be high in something else, like sugar, or sugar substitutes, or other chemicals. I would just stick to regular local yoghurt, or make it at home with milk and friendly bacteria.’
Though it looks like I’ll have to start cutting back on the cheese (I turn my back on a fridge filled with creamy Port Salut with the heaviest of hearts), I’m relieved that throughout our chat, her main advice is to start incorporating slow-burn carbs like lentils, beans and oats. And not only can I expect to see my mood improve thanks to their blood sugar-regulating effects, but by cutting back on the meat, Osman explains I will also see my energy levels improve. Ironically, this was the aim when I started swapping potatoes for protein in the first place, but it seems that by eating more meat, I’ve actually been tiring my body out. ‘To burn protein for fuel is very hard work for the body,’ she explains. But then isn’t this why people go on high protein diets, to lose weight by making the body work harder to digest food? ‘Yes, but you’re working against the body. You are harming it. You’re burning your own tissue, which sounds logical for weight loss but the price is high – your body will start producing ketones, harmful substances that can damage your kidneys. It’s also very acidic, and long term your body will take calcium from your bones to neutralise that acid. That’s very bad for bone density as you age.’
And so, if you will excuse me, for the sake of my energy levels, my bone density and – without exaggeration – my happiness, there’s a bowl of lentil soup over the road with my name on it.