It’s a bizarre paradox but at a time when our society has never been so image-focussed or had so many resources to help us with weight control, we have never been so overweight. We are, in fact living through an obesity pandemic. So are we to believe that we have simply become weak-willed, lazy and gluttonous in the last few decades or is there another explanation?
Why does obesity matter?
It matters, not just because of aesthetic appearance and the impact on confidence of being overweight. If our weight deviates significantly from the range at which our bodies function optimally, all sorts of adverse effects start to impact our health. Life expectancy, fertility and susceptibility to myriad chronic diseases, including cancer. Obesity is a BIG problem, literally and figuratively.
Why is it so common?
Like most health issues, the answer lies in both our genes and our lifestyles. Numerous “fat genes” have been identified, so a tendency to develop obesity can indeed run in families. But contrary to the belief that our genes are fixed and unchangeable, we now know that genes can be switched on and of according to environment. To give the best chance of survival in an world where food was not always plentiful, babies of mothers nutritionally deprived during pregnancy adapt by switching on genes that promote fat conservation. So whilst these new-borns are below average birthweight, their risk of obesity in later life is higher than that of children of well nourished mothers. Calorific intake is not the only important factor here, nutrient poor diets are thought to have a similar effect.
Do calorie restrictive diets make us fat?
Absolutely! We each have an ideal weight set point, a bit like a thermostat. Fat stores are monitored within the brain by reading the level of the hormone Leptin, produced by fat. If our fat stores fall due to illness or dieting, leptin levels fall and we become generally more hungry and conserve energy by lowering metabolic rate and becoming more sedentary, until fat stores and leptin levels return to our personal norm. But there’s a sting in the tail. As an extra insurance policy, our clever brains set our fat “thermostat” higher than before, to ensure we have more reserves to draw on in case of future calorie restriction, to save us from starving to death. This is why dieters often find that each diet they follow, whilst successful in the short term, does not result in continuing weight loss and often end up heavier than they were before they started. How unfair.
Why have obesity rates rocketed in the last few decades?
Since the 80s, food in developed nations has changed fundamentally. Much of what we eat is highly processed and contains chemicals our guts have never previously been exposed to. Our consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates have reached an all time high, partly due to erroneous information and advice perpetuated by health professionals to avoid fat. Fats are a vital part of our diets, but the message of fat avoidance still pervades today despite the scientific community having established that this advice is not correct. We should be aiming to consume plenty of healthy, delicious, satiating fats in our diets.
Why is sugar fattening?
Glucose is the basic fuel our bodies require but the level must be tightly controlled; too low and we fall into a coma, too high and our tissues are damaged (as we see in uncontrolled diabetes). Eating sugar or highly refined carbs causes a spike in blood glucose (the “sugar rush”). This results in a massive release of insulin, to bring it back to a safe level. Unfortunately, the insulin spike often drives the glucose level too low, provoking intense hunger and a craving for calorie-laden foods to quickly restore it to normal. This see-sawing of blood glucose can easily result in a higher calorie consumption than we need and weight is gained. Secondly, high insulin levels interfere with our brain’s reading of leptin (fat store) signals. It assumes fat stores are low and that also stimulates hunger, reduces metabolism etc. Lowering insulin levels is therefore important for weight control.
CONTROL YOUR WEIGHT WITH MY TOP 10 TIPS
1. Stop dieting! You are training your body to gain weight. No more calorie counting from now on.
2. Reduce blood insulin levels by eliminating sugar and refined carbs from your diet as much as possible.
3. Cook from scratch with real ingredients. Sugar, trans-fats and all sorts of nasties are contained within ready meals and other processed foods. They are making you fat. Get rid of them.
4. Eat plenty of green, leafy vegetables and try to include pulses in your diet. Fibre has an important role in appetite and gut health.
5. If you eat meat meat and/or fish, go for high quality and grass fed/line caught if possible. Eggs and dairy are good guys in the weight loss battle – go full fat as low fat versions usually have added starch (aka processed carbs).
6. Modify how your body processes carbs; keep skins on starchy veg and opt for brown rice and wholemeal pasta. Cooling and reheating pasta, potatoes or rice* changes their chemical composition such that much of it becomes undigestible and acts as fibre. A double win.
7. Eat healthy fats. The healthiest fats to use in cooking are olive oil, coconut oil and butter (yes, really). The process by which oils are extracted from seeds involves industrial processes and chemicals. They are therefore best avoided.
8. Fasting is an effective way to reduce blood insulin levels. Restricted feeding, i.e. extending fasting periods (e.g. 6pm to 12 noon) and restricting eating hours (e.g. noon-6pm) works well, or you could try intermittent fasting (e.g. 5:2) if it better suits your lifestyle.
9. Exercise regularly. It helps reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol (responsible for belly fat deposition). A walk after a meal can help to normalise blood glucose levels and improve the sensitivity of tissues to insulin, leading to reduced circulating levels.
10. Get enough sleep. Insufficient sleep increases appetite, resulting in an increase in calorie consumption by up to 20% and increased cortisol levels.
These measures will not make you skinny overnight. They are a long-term strategy for long-term weight control and optimal health. Having struggled to control my weight since my teens, in the last few years I have sustained a weight and dress size I’m very happy with, using the tips detailed above. I will never diet again and wish the same for you.
*Take care when reheating rice. Reheating must be done effectively to kill potentially harmful bacteria