What is the SEAT plan, and can it change your life?
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Would you be offended if someone told you to stop eating all the time? If so, you wouldn’t be alone. The subject of people’s dietary habits has become so fraught that criticising how a person eats is akin to criticising their children. Or, worse, their dog.
But research is increasingly showing that one of the biggest health issues facing us today is that we never stop eating. It wasn’t so long ago that we were being advised it was healthier to ‘graze’ in order to prevent blood sugar peaks and troughs. Endless newspaper articles dictated five small meals a day, rather than three normal sized ones. So what’s changed? Well, the short answer is: awareness around gut health and insulin levels.
We now know that your digestive system needs time to recover between meals, in order to function as it should, and insulin levels are designed to go up and down. ‘Constantly elevated insulin levels impact a huge number of conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, liver problems and some cancers,’ explained Dr Jason Fung on Rangan Chatterjee’s Feel Better Live More podcast last month. ‘The idea that you should eat all the time to be healthy is probably one of the most damaging things that we’ve done to people.’
Now the tide has turned and everyone is talking about intermittent fasting, ie. eating dinner early and breakfast later, with a 12-16 hour ‘fast’ in between (much of which you’re asleep for, which makes it easier). The cover story of the current issue of the New Scientist is all about the ‘longevity diet’ which, as well as advising the usual (eat your veg, people), also suggests these long breaks between meals.
I recently interviewed Dr Jan Stritzke, longevity expert and medical director at the newest outpost of Lanserhof wellness resorts at Sylt in Germany, and asked him what is the biggest single thing we can do to improve our health and increase longevity. With brilliant German directness, he said: ‘Stop eating all the time’.
In all of the discourse about intermittent fasting and time-restricted eating and blah blah blah, I hadn’t heard it articulated quite so simply. Of course, there are some people for whom that could be unhelpful or triggering, such as those with an eating disorder. But, for most of us, it’s good simple advice.
I’m calling it the SEAT plan, ie. Stop Eating All the Time. Now, every time I walk past the fridge and reach for a Babybel, I tell myself: Stop Eating All the Time. When I smell the croissants as I’m buying coffee, I think: Stop Eating All the Time. And, weirdly, it’s working. For some reason that sentence has flicked a switch in my brain that extensive clinical studies about the benefits of fasting has never managed to. Many people think they need to eat regularly to keep their energy up but, actually, the opposite is true. Fasting improves your energy, alertness, mood and focus.
I’m still eating three meals a day, but have ditched the snacks and, miraculously, I don’t flag in between. Food isn’t only about fuel or nutrition; it’s also pleasure and deliciousness and, ideally, time spent enjoying it with other people. For me, that means mealtimes. The snacks in between are thrown back mindlessly, often in a state of boredom or stress - weird that both those emotions send us to the fridge. Anyway, my point is it’s not about deprivation: I’m still enjoying good food every day. And enjoying it more because I’m actually hungry by dinnertime.
One of the other things I like about this concept is that is pairs nicely with NEAT, or Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis. That’s the scientific term for all the energy you expend while not doing structured exercise. For example, running for the bus, hanging up the washing, vacuuming or - as I like to call it - living your life. There’s plenty of evidence to show that a weekly trip to the gym can’t cancel out an otherwise sedentary lifestyle; you are better off taking the stairs instead of the elevator and walking instead of jumping in an Uber.
The thing I like about NEAT is that it’s so easy, and available, and free. I once interviewed Tess Daly (a famously fit fiftysomething) for the cover of Women’s Health, and her fitness advice was ‘never sit down’. She was exaggerating of course - and sitting down during our interview - but the modern world makes it very easy to sit down aaaall day long.
Sometimes it’s nice to cut through all the complex advice out there and remember that being healthier can be as simple as moving your body throughout the day, and not eating all the time. NEAT and SEAT. Give it a go and let me know how you get on.
This week I’m…
Watching the brilliantly surreal new series of Atlanta on Disney+
Cooking with the beautiful Kew Gardens Cookbook: A Celebration of Plants in the Kitchen
Becoming quite obsessed with the trailer for Matilda, starring Emma Thompson and Lashana Lynch
Signing up to this Substack newsletter about intermittent fasting, for extra SEAT inspo