National Obesity Awareness Week (8th-14th January) is an opportunity to be hectored by Social media, eager to show you pictures of people exercising. If you’re trying to lose weight it’s certainly a good time to be reminded of it.
Losing weight isn’t easy. There’s a lot of information out there, and a lot of it is nonsense. When I speak to patients about losing weight, there are a few things that come up time and time again that people often aren’t aware of. Here are some of them.
1. Exercise doesn’t make that much difference if you’re trying to lose weight
Don’t get me wrong – I want you to exercise. People live longer and have healthier lives if they do. However, when I ask patients why they think they are overweight, the first response is often ‘I don’t do as much exercise as I used to.’
It’s a factor, but it’s a small factor. It’s difficult if you’re in a sedentary job to get enough exercise because you spend so much of your day sitting down. Not to mention, if you’re in an office or driving, it’s all too easy to graze absent-mindedly.
Even exercising for an hour burns up surprisingly little extra energy. If you only want to lose a kilo or two, exercise may let you keep eating as you are and trim off some slight excess. When it comes to losing more weight than that though, what’s vastly, overwhelmingly important is what you eat and drink.
2. Most people don’t know exactly what they eat (or drink)
When I tell people exercise isn’t that important, their first response is usually ‘but I eat healthily.’
Often, they are doing many of the right things: eating lots of vegetables, grilling meat, cutting back on booze, getting fewer takeaways.
After all these changes, it’s no wonder people get frustrated when they only lose a tiny amount (or nothing at all).
Some things are advertised heavily as being healthy, so it’s no surprise people think they are. Orange juice for instance. It’s quite common for people to go on a health drive and start drinking gallons of the stuff per week – literally. Some people drink 3 litres per day. Even if it’s freshly squeezed expensive stuff, that’s 1400 calories per day, just from orange juice. That’s nearly 10,000 calories per week. More calories than you find in a kilogram of fat, every week, purely on fruit juice (fruit juice is bad for you, by the way. The Washington Post agrees with me).
People also consume a lot of calories in frequent, tiny amounts. Each one doesn’t seem to make a difference, but added up over a week things are different. Quite a lot of people put 2 spoons of sugar in their tea, and have 12 cups of tea per day. Add in a biscuit with each one, and it adds up to 380-odd calories in sugar, and 750-or-so calories in biscuits. Over a thousand calories per day.
These might seem like extreme examples but I see a lot of people who consume huge amounts of extra calories per week without realising they’re doing it.
It’s so easy to eat broccoli, chicken breast, and cut out all the ‘bad’ stuff from meals, and still stay overweight because other snacks sneak in and make up the extra calories to keep you overweight.
Almost no-one knows what they eat, in detail. If you want to lose weight you need to eat less. If you want to keep it off you need to eat less permanently. To do that you need to know what you eat and drink in the first place.
A good way to do this is to keep a food diary of everything – literally everything – you eat and drink. Do it for a couple of weeks, and don’t do it when you’re on some starvation diet so the results look good. If you do this you’ll know what you eat. If you know what you eat you can start to think about whether you’d like to change anything about your diet. Make a couple of changes, see how you go for a month or two, then do a food diary again for a couple of weeks to see if there’s any difference.
3. A lot of food that people think is good for them, isn’t.
The amount of stuff on supermarket shelves that’s utter garbage is quite depressing. What’s even more depressing is that when you decide to be good, and choose the ‘light’ version, it’s not always that light, or that healthy. Orange juice is just the tip of the iceberg.
So, let’s say someone makes a New Year’s resolution to lose weight and eat better. They replace their cheddar cheese with light cheddar. They ditch Mars bars and eat cereal bars. They stop eating Coco Pops for breakfast and go for Special K.
They feel virtuous. They have a salad and put some light Caesar dressing on it. It’s a salad! New Year, new you and all that.
The problem is that these ‘lighter’ options often aren’t healthy at all. That’s why they often say in the small print on the packet that they ‘can help weight loss as part of a calorie controlled diet.’ A Big Mac can be a part of a healthy diet if you eat one once a year and eat well the rest of the time. It’s a meaningless phrase, probably put there so you can’t sue anyone when you don’t lose weight.
Lighter cheddar is still about 25% fat. Lighter Caesar dressing is also about a quarter pure fat. Plus, lighter dressings and yogurts often bump up the sugar to make them taste just a bit less awful. Special K is 15% sugar. Cereal bars can be more than a third sugar. Just because the label says it’s healthy, or it’s in the healthy section in the supermarket, doesn’t mean you want to be eating it. A lot of the time ‘healthy’ foods don’t even have that word on the packet, they’re just a paler colour than the normal version because we’re trained (through huge marketing campaigns) to paler colours signifying ‘healthiness.’
This matters because if you use a food diary to know what you actually eat, you can start looking at what’s in the food that’s going into you. It’s not about checking the labels on everything or obsessively counting every last calorie. Look for the big things you could change relatively easily first, and check the labels on them. Make changes that will add up over time, but that you will be able to stick to in 6 months and 6 years time. Buying biscuits less often so they aren’t there to tempt you. No more grazing at work in between meals. Or going from 2 takeaway curries per week to one per month. Taking in your own lunch rather than grabbing a sandwich and a bag of crisps. Over weeks and months, this sort of thing adds up.
If you want some advice and support about losing weight, have a chat with your GP surgery and see if they can refer you to a dietician – they have a lot of expertise and can give really good advice about losing weight and keeping it off.
Author Dr Paul McGovern