Twenty nine million British people tried to lose weight in 2013 according to Mintel and with numbers like that it’s hardly surprising that the weight loss industry exists. With prolific media coverage of all things related to diet and body weight, including the diabetes and obesity epidemics we are all too aware of the dangers that being overweight can pose to our health. So it’s understandable, that many people believe the best way to prevent those health risks is to lose the weight.
The question is, at what point did we start equating better health with losing weight?
Weight loss and health
In early societies, food sacristy was a real issue. A lack of nutritious foods might cause a person to be more susceptible to illness and disease and could cause them to heal more slowly from wounds. Obesity was rare and anyone who could be described as such was wealthy and well fed. Today, food is considerably more abundant and obesity is no longer viewed in that way.
What we can learn from our collective history is that the human body thrives on balance. We need the right amount of oxygen, nutrients, blood and water to maintain a healthy body and deviations in either direction may cause problems.
Our efforts to lose weight are attempts to maintain balance and by extension reduce the likelihood of health risks. However, I believe we do this without truly appreciating that the weight gain, just like type 2 diabetes, is a symptom of an imbalance within our bodies. Single-mindedly focusing on losing weight with the expectation that the other issues will disappear when the weight does is like buying a car in the hopes that the act alone will make it more likely that you pass your driving test. Sure, it might motivate you but there are no guarantees.
Focus on health
In addition, research tells us that the body adapts to weight gained making it harder to maintain long term weight loss and on top of that the risk of weight gain increases with each new dieting period. But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we shifted our focus from weight loss to health improvement by way of rebalancing, losing weight could be a happy side effect.
Health improvement is achieved through a number of areas in your life, some can be changed (living and working conditions), others not so much (genetics and gender). What we eat and how active we are, are a couple of areas that we do have control over. With this in mind, here are five things you could do to improve your health and lose weight:
- Gain some insight - it may not be sexy, it may not even be fun but it is oh so powerful. Using a habit tracker, can help you figure out what’s behind the behaviours that derail your attempts at doing the right thing when it comes to your health. The more aware you become, the greater the likelihood of you stopping the behaviour the next time it occurs and replacing it with something that will better serve you.
- Routine will set you free - willpower is finite and using it regularly is exhausting. Instead set up a routine. The more you repeat positive behaviours the more likely they are to become automatic. And at risk of beating the car analogy to death - think of it like setting up cruise control.
- Focus on food - I’m sure you’ve heard it said a lot so I hate to repeat it, but you need to eat real food. It’s a lot harder to overeat when eating foods as they occur naturally i.e. fish, not fish fingers. Real food means plenty of vegetables and fruit, protein and whole grain carbohydrates
- Make your drink of choice, water staying hydrated ideally through drinking water and eating hydrating foods (radishes, celery, cucumber) is super important for energy levels and preventing you from eating when you don’t need to.
- Get active the rush of endorphins will do wonders for you. It doesn't have to mean hitting the gym unless you want to, just do something you enjoy.
Taking the emphasis off dieting and establishing lifestyle change provides a sustainable approach to enabling improvements in health and often the desired weight loss can also be achieved.
Leah de Souza-Thomas is a registered public health practitioner and health and wellness specialist who helps people who struggle with weight loss and are concerned about their health to get back on track, get the results they want and make them permanent.