Post No.: 0367
If your goal is to lose weight then improving your diet and cutting down on calories should be your primary strategy. Exercising or being more physically active is still crucial for one’s health and should really be a concurrent strategy, but it’s easier to not consume so many calories in the first place than to try to later burn them off.
A simple illustration is that it can take just a couple of minutes to gobble down a chocolate bar that contains 250 calories, but it takes about half an hour to burn off the equivalent amount of calories if one jogged, and about twice as long if one walked.
So this is why, if your goal is to lose weight (fatty tissue weight), then your number one strategy should be to change your diet – more specifically to consume fewer calories. Exercise is an important but secondary strategy. You’ll burn energy through exercise but you’ll have to do an awful lot of exercise if you just increase your exercise without changing your diet. An 80:20 ratio on improving one’s diet and improving one’s exercise is about right if your goal is to lose weight. You must eat right because you cannot outrun a bad diet! Meow.
It’s true that whenever we eat or drink something, some of the energy from the food or drink compensates for the energy used to digest or metabolise that food or drink itself, hence we’ll never put on, say, 100 calories of fat for every 100 calories of food we consume. Nonetheless, any excessive amount of calories consumed beyond our metabolic needs or usage will, unless not fully digested but excreted out, contribute towards putting on stored weight in the form of fat.
It’s still wise to exercise regularly because exercise provides so many more positive benefits in general, both physically and mentally, than just helping one to lose weight. There’s far more to health than just losing or watching one’s weight. In fact, it’s better to eat moderately and exercise equally moderately than to eat very little and exercise equally very little. With both scenarios, one’s weight would be stable (possibly identical even), but the first person will have a stronger heart, lungs, joints, body and mind, and thus will be stronger and healthier overall. Health is far, far more than reducible to an issue of weight alone (e.g. professional rugby players typically have high BMI scores and some marathon runners might have low BMI scores, but they are not unfit if they can perform well in their sports).
You could possibly eat as much as Michael Phelps did if you move as much as he did! He reportedly consumed 12,000 calories per day during the Beijing 2008 Olympics, although it was probably more like up to 8,000, which was still over 3x what is recommended for the average man per day. Thus it’s arguably better to eat a lot and do a lot – like an athlete – than to eat a little and do little (although eating a lot has an impact on the environment, even if we don’t eat meat e.g. the land to grow this amount of food if everyone ate that amount, the transport and the rubbish produced from all the packaging – so most of us should eat moderately and exercise moderately. Also, as sportspeople retire and therefore exercise less, they’ll need to modify their diets accordingly, but suddenly eating less is not as easy as suddenly exercising less!)
Something to bear in mind though is that dieters tend to feel hungrier than exercisers. Increasing your level of exercise will tend to make you feel slightly hungrier, but it won’t make you feel as hungry compared to if you just cut out the equivalent calories from your diet via dieting. Therefore exercising is best for us in terms of not feeling quite as hungry, whilst we’re still going to lose some weight; as well as improve our physical health, performance and so forth. So with a combination of a slight decrease in calorie intake, which should gradually drop further over time until one consumes for the weight one wants to be at, plus some regular exercise – you will lose weight in a less stressful manner, in a more sustainable manner, as well as become healthier.
Still, calorie-dense foods and drinks are really the main culprit when it comes to the current obesity rates, hence why fast food and soft drinks manufacturers spend millions in marketing per year trying to associate their brands with sports and sporting events to divert attention away from blaming their own products and onto a lack of exercise as the key reason why people who consume their products regularly have higher rates of obesity. Lifestyles have generally become more sedentary over the past century but the number one cause in the rise of obesity rates across the world is how accessible and easy it is to consume so many calories nowadays in the form of highly-processed foods and snacks. (The habit of snacking itself was a concept only invented by marketers!) There’s a consistent pattern that when (American) fast food chains start appearing in a particular country or place, obesity rates rise (e.g. in China, India, Japan, Ghana, Brazil). Post No.: 0278 reflected on how rising obesity is preventable.
Even if an athlete eats a fast food meal every day as one of her/his main meals every day, she/he might be okay with maintaining her/his weight but not get all the right nutrients or in the right ratios she/he needs to perform absolutely optimally. So even though some athletes need a lot of calories every day, most don’t rely heavily on junk food because it’s not the best source of calories and nutrients. It’s fine as a minor part of their diet but not a major part (but when the media hears that an athlete ate some chicken nuggets during a competition, they and much of the public focus on that rather than on the rest of this person’s diet and how much training they did i.e. they miss the forest for being too biasedly focused on the tree they dearly want to be the whole story!)
‘Empty calories’ are those that you consume but don’t make you feel very full without consuming lots of them and/or don’t make you feel full for long, such as things with refined sugars or many highly or ultra-processed foods in general. This means that you’ll tend to eat more of them at once and/or more frequently through the day. An illustration of the difference between unprocessed or minimally-processed foods, processed foods and highly-processed or ultra-processed foods is corn on the cob, canned corn and corn chips respectively; or whole wheat, wheat flour and cookies respectively.
It’s fair that we cannot blame any particular calorie for making a person obese because it’s the combined total that matters. So if someone just ate junk food but the total calories per day amounted to a healthy amount then they won’t become overweight. Or if someone ate lots of vegetables plus a lot of junk food and came to consume twice as many calories as they needed per day then how can we blame the calories from the junk food and not also the calories from the vegetables? But it’ll likely be the case that it’s the junk food that’s the empty calories, and the junk food that gives fewer and less variety of important vitamins and minerals per calorie on average too.
Exercise would be a more effective strategy for weight loss if your diet consisted of less calorie-dense foods too – as a simplified example, if a pizza takes 10 minutes to eat but 120 minutes of exercise to burn off (a ratio of 12 minutes of exercise needed per 1 minute of eating), then something more healthful like a fluffy leaf salad with a light dressing would take about 10 minutes to eat again but 40 minutes of exercise to burn off (a ratio of 4 minutes of exercise needed per 1 minute of eating).
Unprocessed fat is probably less harmful than highly-processed foods and drinks in general. Human ancestors very unlikely ever wasted the animal fats – they consumed this energy but just used it all through being far more physically active. They generally couldn’t waste anything and had to eat whatever they could because food wasn’t always plentiful, especially compared to environments like Europe and North America today, and there were no such things as desk jobs or social media either. So although fat is more calorie-dense than carbohydrate – it’s not so much about vilifying dietary fat but watching the amount of carbohydrate, fat, protein and alcohol we consume in total. Fats are still important for our health in a balanced diet. It’s no good chucking the fat from a pork chop in the bin when you don’t find eating a family-size pack of biscuits in one sitting all by yourself as disgusting(!) Every tiny bit adds up – or in this case, every a lot adds up!
The difference in energy requirement to sustain a person with a BMI of 30 compared to a person with a BMI of 22 is surprisingly minor – a little bit of difference in consumption, but consistently over a long time, can lead to a big difference in body fat and weight. This difference in energy could also be accounted for by minor differences in energy expenditure too. Clearly, obese people will have consumed more and/or expended less energy in the long-term for their height compared to people with lower BMI scores – but the difference in the daily calorie intake between an obese individual and a normal BMI individual doesn’t need to be as much as one may perceive (e.g. an ice cream per day, every day, all else being equal). So it doesn’t take much to gain weight – or get slimmer if you look at it from the other way.
Just roughly 100 calories extra per day could account for the increase in obesity rates over the past few decades. From the early-1960s to mid-1970s, obesity rates were rising very slowly, but since the late-1970s, obesity rates began to shoot up rapidly. This was despite advances in medicine, knowledge and healthcare. That’s only about one can of pop/soda or a granola bar per day! One report even suggested that women and men in the UK, on average, overeat equivalent to a small meal extra per day, every day (that’s one burger in a bun per female and two burgers in a bun per male – of course that’s the average and there’s a lot of variance between individuals). People can either exercise more – although one will again have to exercise relatively a lot more – or choose between having a cake or a packet of crisps instead of having both in any single day; apart from rare, special occasions. Don’t be greedy when there are still starving people in the world!
Whatever the case, becoming obese doesn’t ever happen overnight, so whoever or whatever we wish to blame, if we paid attention, we should be able to surely see that we’re gradually getting obese if we are, and so we should surely be able to see that whatever we’re doing, or not doing, isn’t doing us good and we must change our daily ways. However, we are extremely poor at perceiving incredibly slow changes, as well as poor at changing habits we’ve grown quite comfortable with (and eating a lot and exercising too little is quite a comfortable lifestyle for most of us!) So just be mindful and recognise that every bit counts, whether it’s every bite of a cookie or every step up some stairs, and understand that modifying your diet should be your primary strategy if your goal is to lose weight… although it’s smart to also get more physically active too.