Vast numbers of people become obese and experience horrible illnesses as a result. Yet, some people manage to keep themselves healthy. What do those who keep their weight under control do that the obese do not? Which tiny techniques determine the massive differences between health and obesity?
When someone gives counsel to others, which they are visibly not applying to themselves, how seriously do we take their message?
How many people have sat in front of an obese health-carer (physician, psychiatrist, nurse, nutritionist…), and been told “your health will be damaged unless you lose weight”?
How credible are such implorations, when they come from someone who is not practicing what they preach? That is one of the many reasons that we have an obesity epidemic; the source of the healthy weight message is visibly demonstrating the opposite of what is advocated.
Vast numbers of people become obese and experience horrible illnesses as a result. The number of illnesses that are directly or indirectly caused by obesity is horrifyingly large. Here are just eight from that bloated list:
- Coronary heart disease
- High blood pressure (hypertension)
- Type 2 diabetes
- Osteoarthritis (breakdown of joint cartilage and bone caused by excess weight bearing)
- Sleep apnea and breathing problems
- Fatty liver disease… and many, many more
Obesity kills, and kills vast numbers of people. 63% of UK adults are overweight or obese, as defined by a BMI over 25. There are similar figures in many western countries.
Globally the figures, too, are serious: in 2020 38% of the world population were over overweight or obese. And the figures are rising fast: The World Obesity Federation predicts that 51% of the global population will be overweight or obese by 2035. That moves us from an obesity epidemic to a global obesity pandemic. The upcoming, and entirely avoidable healthcare costs, will be beyond comprehension.
Before we look at what you, personally, can do, to reach or maintain a healthy weight, it is useful to understand the causes of obesity, so that you can avoid them.
Here is the number one cause of obesity:
ingesting more energy than is expended, consistently over several years.
Here is the fundamental principle of maintaining a healthy weight:
‘Energy in’ must equal ‘energy out’ for weight to stay the same.
If a person consistently takes in too much energy, or gives too little energy out, the result is inevitable: weight gain.
Researchers in the field of obesity seem to agree on the big picture factors driving the increase in obesity: as a society, people are less physically active, and are ingesting more food, with higher energy content. Result? Weight gain.
There is much debate about which of the agreed factors behind that big picture are most responsible for the obesity epidemic. That is often the nature of academic debate. For you, personally, to reach and maintain a healthy weight, there will be no need to gather society-wide data with the intention of proving the order in which the obesity causing devils can dance on the head of a pin.
Your most important measuring tool is a set of scales.
Expect what you inspect
When people measure something, it is usually because the measurement helps them to achieve a desired outcome. If you want to find a way to weight wellness, weigh yourself regularly. How regularly?
Once a week is too infrequent. Why? Your memories of the eating and exercise behaviour that led to any change in weight are likely to be hazy. The link between action and feedback from the scales is weakened by weighing yourself too infrequently. Once a day is about right. Ideally at the same time each day.
Variation in daily weight.
While daily weight measurement is wise, it can also give readings that may vary. For instance, foods that have antidiuretic properties will cause greater water retention, and that will show up as greater weight. Other foods have diuretic properties and can make it look as though weight (of fat) has been lost, when in fact the scales show only a slight loss of water.
Similarly, a higher-than-usual fibre intake, for example, can cause a lower mass of stools to be retained in the body. With foods that cause constipation a higher mass of waste is retained, showing up as weight on the scales. The more aware you are of the factors that can cause minor weight variation, the more meaningful the reading on the scales becomes. Daily variations will occur for the reasons above. What matters is the trend.
Given that we are surrounded by advertising, imploring us to try this or that “food,” the challenge is to focus on healthy eating and block out, or ignore the ubiquitous temptations to put what we know is too much, into our bodies.
Let’s translate that into action that you can take.
For most people, their will-power is not fixed. Sometimes it is strong and others it is weak. For when it is low, it is best to not have the temptation sitting around taunting you. Here is a suggestion advocated by healthy weight experts, avoid having any temptations in your home. Have only healthy food and liquid in your living space.
Another tip: when you go shopping for food, do so after you have eaten.
That way, what ever temptations are put in front of you, you will be better able to resist. People who are successful in reaching and maintaining a healthy weight learn to manage their will power.
Cues and triggers
People who control their weight, control the cues and triggers that would otherwise have led them to overeat. For instance, the feeling of hunger for many people is a cue to eat. Hunger is interpreted as “Hunger is pain – eat now.”
People who are successful at losing weight may interpret the same hunger signals in a different way: “If I am hungry, that means my blood sugar level is low, and that means that my body is now in fat-burning mode.” Hunger for them, is validation that they are on the right track.
Awareness of habits
Obese people have, over time trained their body to need more food. It takes energy to keep excess fat alive. Healthy weight people have trained their bodies to need less – with less fat to support, they need to eat less.
Many people become obese out of habit. They will eat not when they are hungry, but when their habit tells them to. Snacks between meals, for many, started out as a pleasant bit of self-indulgence. It was so pleasing once that it is now repeated, again and again. Eventually, it becomes a habit. That habit piles on the pounds.
For some people, each time they pass the fridge or a food cupboard it presents a temptation, a cue, a trigger. If that is you, placing a message
on each trigger/cue location could be useful.
Perhaps something like the famous quote from Ruby Wax, the brilliant comedienne:
“Nothing tastes as good as slim.”
Or another well-known phrase from the healthy eating community:
“A moment on the lips, a life-time on the hips.”
Here is another:
“The first wealth is health.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
Energy consumption awareness
How much excess food per day leads to weight gain? A tiny amount.
Here is the basic calculation. It takes around 3000 kilocalories (kcals) to put on one pound of fat. People become obese because they eat too much for a very long period.
One slice of bread per day above the daily energy needs of a person, adds 100kcals.
100kcals a day, over the course of a 30-day month, puts on one pound of fat. Over a year that leads to a weight gain of over 12lbs. Over five years that totals over 60lbs.
If a person is taking on the equivalent of one can of sugar filled drink, from the popular soda brands, they are consuming 150kcals a time. That leads to a weight gain of 18lbs over a year and 90lbs over five years.
Those calculations also contain good news for those who want to lose weight.
To shed 12lbs of fat over a year all you need to do is forego the equivalent of one slice of bread a day.
To rid yourself of the health hazard of 18lbs in a year, all you need do is cut out the equivalent of one can of soda a day.
The same is the case for a single glass of wine or a typical between meals snack. Cutting out just one a day is life changing. Not just in terms of weight loss. At least nine percent of cancers are known to be caused by alcohol consumption. It seems the less alcohol you consume the lower your chances of developing such cancers.
Simply by becoming more aware of how much energy foods contain you can consume the type and quantity of foods that enable you reach and maintain a healthy weight. That means reading food labels, and getting information on line. In this instance, a little knowledge is a healthy thing.
Go beyond five a day
Many health experts and governments advocate eating at least five items of fruit and vegetables a day. They are high in nutrition and low in kcals. Perhaps going beyond five a day is wise in all sorts of other ways too. For instance, people who eat only vegetarian foods are 40% less likely to develop cancer. Recent research indicates that if we eat from 30+ different sources of fruit and veg per week, we can be even healthier.
Become more active
Almost every healthcare professional knows this:
immobility maximises morbidity.
As you become more active, more mobile, you receive all sorts of wonderful benefits. You burn off more energy, give all the systems in your body the exercise they need to stay healthy.
Here is a very powerful reason to be active: safe, moderate exercise, based on our current knowledge, is by far the best way to minimise the risk of brain deterioration.
People who are optimally active, exercise enough to maintain health, but not so much that they harm their health. Safe, regular exercise increases your metabolic rate, which burns off kcals and keeps your body’s systems functioning.
People tend to carry on eating until their stomach says, “Enough!” If you can drink water, or other low or no calorie drinks with a meal, your stomach reaches the point of “Enough!” with less food. That means fewer kcals are ingested.
See the way to weight wellness as a welcome challenge
Carl Jung noted that: “Humans need challenges; they are good for our health.”
I think he was right, as long as the challenge is not insurmountable. Perhaps, given the obesity figures today, the most useful challenge a person can take on is to find the way to weight wellness, to avoid obesity, and maintain optimum weight.
Most weight loss is in the mind
If you speak to any person who has successfully lost weight without any medical intervention, they are likely to tell you that “it is mostly in the mind,” or words to that effect. They have figured out how to make healthy decisions each time they are tempted to indulge.
People reach and maintain a healthy weight, one decision at a time, until those decisions are automatic and effortless. The way to weight wellness is to make one decision, and stick to it until it is a habit. Then make another, and stick to that, too, until it is automatic. And keep on adding health habits, and consolidating them, until they are part of who you are.
People who maintain a healthy weight, don’t go on diets, they shape a healthy lifestyle, one decision, one habit at a time. What decision will you make today?
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.