Changing the style of life is the only true way for long-term weight loss and at the same time for improving the physical and mental state. We have to realise that our environment has changed and there is no natural regulation of energy balance anymore. We don’t need to climb more trees to get more bananas.
The only way is to change yourself with the power of our will.
In my article written three years ago I gave an example of a successful weight loss programme which I implemented with one of my clients. He lost 3 kg ( from 75 to 72), significantly improved endurance and strength and got rid of beer-belly. It took one year, and I was really proud of my work. After that, we did not see each other for two years. He called me a few days ago and asked for the training again. He is 80 kg now, his belly is much bigger then it was, and he cannot run at all. I have to admit that we lost our fight against obesity and physical decline. Why? Because although I had managed to change his weight, I failed to change him. Unfortunately, our chances in new attempt are small as well.
Even though the human body is a very complicated mechanism, losing or gaining weight depends on a simple balance between energy utilised and spent. I just want to emphasise “utilised” which is different from “consumed”. Not all calories which are stored in food can be transferred into energy or body energy stores. So when you are looking at energy content labels, it does not give you exact information on how many calories you actually get. The efficiency of utilisation depends on many factors which are beyond the scope of this article. We need to understand that the same food eaten by different people or in different circumstances may give different calories.
In its turn “spent” does not mean only physical and mental activity. A body needs a significant amount of energy ( basal metabolic rate) for maintaining its functions even when there is no physical activity at all. This basal metabolic rate (BMR) is different for different people and conditions.
Energy spent on the same physical activity is different for different subjects and conditions as well. It again depends on many factors which I cannot discuss here. Amount of calories spent on your workout which is given to you by your sports watches is based on general population data and is just approximation.
To summarise: People get energy from the food and spend it on metabolic maintenance, activities ( mental and physical) and growth. The rate and effectiveness of energy extraction and expenditure are individual and depends on many factors. Thus all labels and indirect calculations are just approximations. However, it is easy to understand your energy balance just looking at scales. If your weight is stable energy balance is neutral, if crawling up — positive, if sliding down — negative.
Going to war.
So, if we utilise energy more than we spend it should go somewhere. It can go for natural physiological growth, if you are still young, for building muscle’s mass (you need to exercise for that) and, unfortunately (well, from the evolution point of view maybe not, unfortunately), it may be stored as fat. We need some amount of fat for normal body function, but when it is excessive, it is believed to be the cause of a lot of problems. So people go to war against obesity.
You are looking at the mirror, and you are not happy with your appearance? You put on your favourite trousers and suddenly realise that they are tight? Yes mate, you gained a few extra kilos and probably became overweight.
So you decided to take the situation under control and to get rid of these annoying kilos. You go on one of highly-advertised diet ( protein, low carbohydrate, low fat, crash, etc.) and/or you come to a personal trainer with the great endeavour to burn fat in vigorous physical exercises.
You are really determent to win the fight against looming obesity especially since the amount of overweighting is just a few kilos and the task does not look so hard…
Well, I can “encourage” you by saying that though you will be able to win a few battles, it will be hard to win the war.
Your allies and enemies
You have some allies in this fight. Actually, we have a self-regulated mechanism for defending current weight-status.
This theory postulates that our body has some genetically predetermined body weight which it tries to “defend” during life. In my opinion, it is only partially correct and environmental factors play a significant role. I am not going to discuss set point theory in details here but some explanation why we relatively slow gain weight is on a surface.
If you get some additional kilos, you need extra energy to support this extra mass. First of all this mass takes energy just for its metabolical maintaining ( increased BMR) and secondly, you make extra work for carrying additional mass. Also, fat cells produce the hormone— leptin which can decrease appetite. So, if energy consumption will not increase, weight gain may plateau for a relatively long time.
However, your enemy is very cunning, invisible and patient. It does not rush. And it has a mighty ally – time.
First of all, time means ageing. Yes, we become older. We become less physically active, our hormone’s level and BMR decrease. Thus we spend less energy. Unfortunately, we very often do not cut our food consumption accordingly and energy balance becomes positive. Excessive energy is stored as fat.
Secondly, time means that small changes gradually accumulate and become huge. Just 30 grams per day gain by increasing food consumption or decreasing activity, which are unnoticeable on scales, eventually give you ten kilos over one year.
Finally, time means established habits and routines, and they are often not healthy.
More than half of the people who came to me for training and advice want to lose weight. I have to say honestly that in most cases we are unsuccessful.
Actually, such failure is a global trend, but not all weight-loss service providers are honest.
Why losing weight is so difficult? Well, many clients want to lose weight rapidly and a lot. Especially women who are worried about their appearance for particular events ( wedding holidays etc.). It isn’t rare that female clients ask me to lose 10-15 percent of their body mass just in few weeks.
Ok, we can design a programme for rapid weight loss, but people don’t realise the price they will have to pay.
They don’t understand how much they need to exercise and they don’t know how difficult to implement food restriction in a long-term.
Clients who come to me with the aim to lose weight most often want to book just two sessions per week. I can say that although it is good for maintaining health and wellbeing, it will unlikely significantly affect body mass. We are very economical creatures regarding physical activity. 5 km running is approximately one 100 grams “Snickers”. So even if you did the equivalent of 20 km run during two sessions per week you just need to consume the equivalent of 4 “Sinkers” additional food to compensate this energy. And trust me, unnoticeable for you your body will do this.
To increase energy expenditure significantly, you need to exercise much more: 4-6 times per week. Who is ready for this physically, mentally and organisationally?
Restrict food consumption and you will lose weight rapidly. However, this may happen not so quick as you expect.
Firstly it is pure arithmetic. You restrict calories, your body weight goes down, and now you need less energy to maintain and carry your mass. If energy consumption remains the same your weight plateaus. If you want to lose more, you need to cut food again.
Secondly, a body considers insufficient energy income as stress. It switches to safe mode and starts to spend less. Spend on what? On heat production, on physical activity and even mitochondria (cell’s power stations) become more economical.
And finally, food may become an obsession. You think about it all the time and gradually or abruptly you give up. Consequences may be dare. Your weight will bounce to the previous level and even more.
Another way of dieting is to manipulate with the food content. Whereas I strongly support substitution of junk food with the healthy one, I am really sceptical about “ magic diets”. Examples may be “protein diet,” “low carbohydrates diet” and so on.
We need certain amount of different nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. These come from the diets which are determent by cultural traditions, climate and available resources. I think all regional diets ( e.g. Mediterranean or Japanese) are healthy and provide all necessary for life.
When one goes on an unusual diet that may kick body out of comfort zone and consumed calories may be not utilised efficiently. Though you may achieve some short-term weight-loss effect due to the stress of unusual food composition and non-efficient energy utilisation, long-term consequences may be not so promising. You may gradually adapt to new diet and start to extract calories more efficiently, or your health and well being may deteriorate.
Digging deeper. Style of life.
It was always, the case that we gain weight because our energy balance is positive but only recently a lot of people start to eat more than spend and obesity becomes a global problem.
That is because life for people in developed countries changed dramatically.
There are some of these changes:
Food was limited throughout all human history thus we evolve to eat when we have an opportunity because it may be a shortage later. Excessive food can be stored in the body (fat) and used in hungry times. However, there is no food shortage for many people anymore thus fat reserves are not being used.
Quality of food changed as well. Now food producers make high-calories, tasty food which is very attractive for people and commercially profitable.
Quality of work. We don’t need to work physically for our food. More and more people spend their working hours behind the desk.
Social. We are eating when we meet each other (business lunches, parties etc). This food is often not necessary. Also social life is associated with drinking, overeating and junk food.
We are eating when we are stressed. In the previous time, people did this as well, but they reacted on stress physically thus spent energy. Now we don’t need to run or fight when we are stressed, so additional energy ends up in fat deposits.
Evolutionary food connected with pleasure thus may provide some “cure” for stress. Stress makes us eat more junk food which usually offers more pleasure and more calories.
So actually we can see that we gain weight because of a changed style of life, so why it is a problem?
What is the real harm?
Today from every corner we hear about the harmfulness of obesity. But where this notion comes from?
It comes from data that excessive weight connected with high blood pressure, high cholesterol level, cardiovascular diseases, etc. However “connected” does not mean “the reason for.” In their very interesting paper “Biomedical Rationale for a Wellness Approach to Obesity: An Alternative to a focus on Weight Loss“ Paul Ernsberger and Richard Koletsky
argued that inactivity, bad diet, and stress are the causes of health problems regardless of weight gain. Of course, often excessive weight follows these bad habits, but overweighting is more an indicator of the unhealthy lifestyle rather than the cause of poor health itself.
So shedding excessive kilos does not guarantee health improvement and in a long-term may be even harmful. When you see fire-alarm lamp switches on indicating a fire, you are not going to hit the lamp, aren’t you? You need to find and extinguish the source of fire.
The same is true about the fight against obesity. Aggressive weight loss programme can give short-term result without changes in the quality of food and lifestyle. However, after some period, you most likely will bounce back and even higher. This yo-yo pattern is more dangerous for health than just to be obese.
Am I a defeatist?
No, I am not. It is different to be defeatist and to understand clearly the difficulties ahead.
Where there is a problem, there are people who make money from it. Weight loss becomes a profitable industry. Dieticians suggest magic diets, doctors magic medicine, and sports professionals magic training programmes. I don’t believe in magic. Not only because their long-term weight loss effect is questionable. More importantly, weight loss itself is not a solution. Long-term health and psychological problems will not disappear together with excessive kilos. The real magic hides in simple changes in lifestyle. However, as it often happens in life, simple changes are the most difficult.
We have to realise that our environment changed and there is no natural regulation of energy balance anymore. We don’t need to climb more trees to get more bananas.
The only way is to change yourself with the power of our will.
What to do.
A some advice which, of course, is not something new.
1. You have to exercise to become stronger and healthier. Stronger you are the easier is an exercise for you. The weaker you are, the more difficult exercise for you — this is a vicious circle.
2. Try to eat healthier. Healthy food can be enjoyable and tasty. It is just a matter of habit.
3. At the same time, don’t be obsessed with healthy lifestyle otherwise it drives you crazy and you will bounce back to the bad habits. You can allow yourself cakes and drinks sometimes. However, there is a simple rule: You have to exercise additionally if you spoiled yourself with extra food.
4. Make time your ally. Make exercising and healthy eating a routine. Organise your schedule. When you are tired after your work that doesn’t mean that you are not able to exercise. Do it instead of watching TV and you will feel better.
5. Socialise without eating or eat and drink less. Yes, it is difficult but possible.
6. You have to eat less with the ageing.
7. Remember: Obese and inactive parents — obese and inactive children. Change yourself in the sake of your children.
8. Learn to cope with stress. Of course, it is easier to say than do and coping with stress is a big problem nowadays. About overeating and stress, my experience is: I react on stress with running rather than with eating.
“Undeniably, weight loss programs can benefit health. This is especially true when these programs emphasise permanent lifestyle changes and encourage exercise and healthier food choices. On the other hand, positive lifestyle changes can be encouraged without a primary focus on weight loss” Paul Ernsberger and Richard Koletsky.
Photo from fishki.net