I recently read an article discussing research from the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Scientists followed 22 women and 10 men looking at the effect of diet and exercise.
The two research groups were subjected to regimes where they worked at the same calorie deficit. That is, the number of calories ingested was lower than the number consumed. This is the generally accepted model for weigh loss: burn more calories than you eat and you’ll lose weight.
The trouble is, we focus very heavily on weight as a measure of health. And, as a result, we tend to not look at all the factors that contribute to good health.
Weight is very easy to measure, so we give it a lot of attention. My doctor is also a fan of the waist measurement. Again, it’s easy to measure. Similarly, blood pressure, age and many other factors are often used as measures of our overall health and predisposition to particular conditions.
So, why do I think the fascination with calories deficit diets is wrong?
Weight, waist measurement, BMI and other one-dimensional measures are not, in themselves, indicators of specific problems. They are indicators of potential risks. For example, we know that there’s a strong correlation between obesity and other problems such as Type 2 Diabetes or heart disease.
But being thinner doesn’t make you immune to those diseases.
I’ve struggled with my weight for most of my life. Even now, where I can comfortably head out and run 20km, the BMI calculator at The Heart Foundation says overweight and need to lose about 9kg, or almost 20lbs.
Many doctors or other practitioners use BMI incorrectly. It’s not designed to be a measure of an individual’s height and weight ratio. BMI was designed to look at trends in large populations.
The obsession with being thinner is, in my view, largely driven by our celebrity culture and has increased the prevalence of Body Dysmorphic Disorder and Muscle Dysmorphia because of the unrealistic expectations those images put in front of us. The trouble is, many of those images are heavily photoshopped versions of people who, in some cases, have had body altering surgery.
A recent walk through my local supermarket highlighted this. Looking at a magazine purporting to be about health, the focus was on appearance. And it wasn;t just the women’s magazine. The men’s magazine focussed on the torso – “nuke your gut” and “killer pecs” with the women’s publication offering the “best bum ever”.
I don’t disagree that weight is an important indicator of health risks. But we need to think holistically about our health.
That means exercising regularly, eating in moderation, ensuring you eat a balanced diet with protein, carbohydrates and fats – the so-called dietary macros. Even a some chocolate or alcohol can be OK as long as it’s taken in moderation.
I am very skeptical of any diet that says “carbs are the enemy” or points the finger at any one food or group as needing to be either eradicated or eaten out of proportion with other foods.
The exception is, of course, food allergies and intolerances.
There’s an old saying in business. If you look after the cents carefully, the dollars will sort themselves out.
I think there same goes for our health. The cents in our health are a balanced diet and regular activity. This will, literally, play out in the dollars of good health. If you’re healthy, your health care costs will be lower, you’ll feel better and, even if you don’t increase your overall longevity, you’ll enjoy a better lifestyle for longer.
One last thing.
We’ve all heard stories about people who have lived to a ripe old age having smoked 20 cigarettes and drinking a bottle of wine each day.
But the reason those people make the news is because they are so rare.