I have to admit that I'm a fan of the Survivor TV programmes. I enjoy all the intrigues and machinations, and I regard this programme as a fascinating nutrition experiment.
In each one of the Survivor series, food has played a crucial role and often determined the outcome of survival for individual participants. There are many diet lessons we can learn from it.
Dramatic weight loss
One of the most striking characteristics of the Survivor programmes is that the Survivors have always lost masses of weight. In each series, the Survivors start out looking well-fed, sleek and healthy, but after 40 days in the wilderness, with limited food supply, they become thin to the point of emaciation.
This is the most important diet lesson viewers can learn from the Survivors: if you want to lose weight, then you must cut down on your energy intake. It's as simple as that.
Low fat intake = weight loss
In the Survivor Africa series, participants basically survived on maize meal, or "mielie pap", as we call it. Their fat intake was very low and the kilograms melted away. The diet lesson is obvious: if you want to lose weight, cut down on fat intake, and not on carbohydrates.
Fat contains 37kJ of energy per gram, which is more than double the energy content of carbohydrates and protein, which only supply 17kJ of energy per gram.
So, by restricting fat intake, you'll achieve weight loss more efficiently than if you cut out all carbs. This is also the reason why a low-fat, high-fibre, high-carbohydrate diet has been found to be more successful in weight loss programmes than low- or zero-carbohydrate or high-protein diets.
A balanced diet is essential
The Survivor series has also underlined another important diet truth: if you want to be healthy and full of energy, you need to eat a variety of foods as part of a balanced diet.
Survivors often exhibit symptoms of nutrient deficiencies. For example, in Survivor Africa, Kim Senior suffered from peripheral oedema - her legs were swelling up. This was probably due to a protein deficiency, as that group of Survivors were not able to supplement their monotonous diet of maize meal with fish or pork, like their Australian counterparts.
This shows us that we need to eat a variety of foods, including protein derived from animals (meat, fish, milk, cheese, yoghurt and eggs). Vegans should take this lesson to heart and switch over to a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet instead.
To prevent yourself from getting deficient in vitamin C and beta-carotene, as often happens on Survivor, remember to eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables every day.
Vitamin C is found in fresh citrus fruits, strawberries, guavas, pawpaw, kiwi fruit, mangoes and spanspek, as well as vegetables belonging to the cabbage family, sweet green peppers and tomatoes.
Beta-carotene, which is turned into vitamin A in our bodies, is found in yellow peaches, pawpaw, mangoes, pumpkin, butternut and yellow sweet potatoes. So, stock up on these fruits and vegetables every day.
Diet and mood
In some of the previous series, the Survivors became very lethargic and often appeared depressed. I reckon they were all suffering from vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and that this was responsible for their gloomy outlook and lack of energy.
The B vitamins, as well as iron and calcium, play pivotal roles in keeping our bodies healthy and our nervous system functioning normally.
If you're feeling down and blue, check your diet for deficiencies. You may need to take a vitamin B supplement or switch over to unprocessed cereals, whole grains and wholewheat bread, legumes, and plenty of green leafy vegetables, and increase your milk intake to provide those missing B vitamins.
We can all be survivors, and winners, if we follow a balanced diet.
- (Dr Ingrid van Heerden, DietDoc, updated July 2009)
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