Trying to lose weight? Approach it in a holistic and sustainable way

Trying to lose weight? Here’s how to approach it in a holistic and sustainable way

Want to lose weight? Join the mob. According to a Roy Morgan survey, 72 per cent of Australian women and 58 per cent of men wanted to lose weight in 2014. In the ABS’ Australian Health Survey 2012 (the latest date for which such data is available), more than 2.3 million Australians aged above 15 years reported being on a weight loss diet. Yet, despite the thousands of books, websites, products, diets and businesses dedicated to the cause, our collective girth as a nation continues to climb. A whopping 67 per cent (12.5 million of us) were overweight or obese, according to the 2017-18 National Health Survey. In the 1980s that figure was around 10 per cent. What’s the go?

“If you eat cookies for example, your insulin spikes up. If you eat egg, it doesn’t – but satiety hormones like peptide YY will go up. The responses to these two foods is totally different…”

While we tend to view our weight issues as a sign of personal failure, the real culprit is a complex combination of factors inherent in the modern world. This includes our busy yet sedentary lifestyles, social factors and the omnipresence of refined food. Rather than blaming and shaming ourselves, the answer lies in understanding the forces we’re battling and implementing habits that support a healthier weight. With obesity a glaring global health issue impacting all ages, science is increasingly being harnessed in the fight.

Why and how we should size ourselves

While we need to love ourselves in all our shapes and sizes, too much body fat is linked to numerous health issues — from a greater risk of arthritis and diabetes to certain cancers and a lowered life expectancy.

Under the World Health Organization’s definition, you’re considered overweight if you have a BMI (a measure of your weight in kilograms divided by the square of your height in metres) of 25 or more; and obese if it reaches 30. However, not everyone with a high BMI is necessarily unhealthy, including those who exercise and eat well or hold a lot of muscle mass.

Newer research suggests “belly fat” or mid-body girth, is what you should worry about most. It’s usually a sign of increased visceral fat — fat deposited around your abdominal organs. Too much visceral fat is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, colorectal cancer, hypertension and premature death, according to Mayo Clinic researchers. In 2017 they developed the Body Volume Indicator (BVI) to measure the ratio of your abdomen against your total body volume. They suggest this simple test. While standing, with a tape measure (pulled to a snug but not tight fit) measure your bare stomach just above the hipbone. If your waist exceeds 89 cm (for a woman) or 102 cm (for a man) you’re probably carrying an unhealthy level of visceral fat.

Why counting calories doesn’t work

The lemon-detox diet. Cabbage soup diet. Meal-replacement shake or pre-prepared diet meal. From the bizarre to the familiar brand, our quest for slimness has spawned a plethora of diets, products and advice, mostly aimed at reducing our calorie intake. In an industry worth an estimated $320 million (within Australia alone), it seems every week there’s a new fad.

Confusingly, even the scientific advice on weight loss changes. One minute we’re told to eat margarine and low-calorie muffins, the next minute nuts and avocados are in. And, while we might be able to shed significant kilos on crash diets, they’re unsustainable in the long run. Worse than that, the evidence suggests many weight-loss diets might actually make you fatter.

“Obese people, on average, have less diverse microbe communities [in their gut] with less species than thin people.”

When University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) researchers reviewed 31 weight loss studies, they found 83 per cent of people who were followed for at least two years had gained back more weight than they’d lost. Most of the dieters typically lost an initial 5 to 10 per cent of their starting body weight in the first six months, before piling it all on again, and more. Evidence also suggests yo-yo dieting is linked to a greater likelihood of cardiovascular disease, metabolic and other health problems.

It’s commonly assumed people who gain back their weight simply resume old eating patterns. This might explain some of it, however, scientists now know that once we’ve put on weight, hormonal, brain chemical and other biological changes conspire to maintain the status quo.

According to Dr Jason Fung, author of The Obesity Code, and a world-leading expert on weight loss and intermittent fasting, when we restrict our calorie intake our body thinks it’s in famine mode, causing our basal metabolic rate to plummet in order to burn calories more slowly. The offshoot of that is it becomes harder to lose weight and easier to pack it on. “People who measure their calorie expenditure and say, ‘I’m burning 2000 calories a day, therefore I’m going to consume 1500, and therefore I will lose a pound a week’, they’re totally wrong, because your metabolic rate will drop to 1500 a day and your weight loss will stop,” Dr Fung says. “And that is the experience that everybody has had.”

He says hormones can influence our basal metabolic rate to fluctuate by as much as 30 to 40 per cent. “Everybody thinks the amount of calories you burn is stable, but it’s not.”

Added to that, losing body fat is a slower process than most people imagine, which discourages many, he says. “A pound of fat [0.45 kilograms] is roughly 3500 calories. If you are burning 1800 calories, for example, a day, you’re talking about two full days of fasting to lose one pound of body fat.”

Many scientists, like Mark Andermann, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a researcher at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, also believe in a set point behind why our brain complains when we reduce calories. “We don’t understand how they work,” he says. “It’s something around knowing what you can get on a reliable basis and developing habits around getting what we’ve become accustomed to.”

The insulin-glucose factor

Dr Fung, a Canadian nephrologist who first got interested in weight issues to reduce type 2 diabetes-related kidney disease, views the obesity epidemic as a consequence of what we eat and how often we’re eating acting upon our hormones. Our body exists in either a “fed” or a “fasting” state, he says. In the “fed” state we’re eating more than we need at that moment so the body stores the excess fuel as fat and to a lesser extent, glycogen in the liver. In the “fasting” state, which is where modern people need to be more often, the reverse happens and glycogen and fat are broken down for energy.

“You’re either storing fat or burning fat but you can’t do both at the same time.” And, obviously, if we’re too much in the “fed” state, we’ll start to store too much fat and gain weight.

The hormone regulating this energy cycle is insulin, released by the pancreas to keep blood glucose levels stable, and a key player in the mechanism of why so many of us stack on excess weight. “It’s not the amount of calories that’s the problem,” Dr Fung says. “It’s what your body does with those calories. It’s about changing the hormone balance, the time the insulin stays up, because it’s the insulin response that tells our body to gain body fat.”

Importantly, insulin and other hormones respond differently to different foods. Insulin is particularly triggered by the refined carbohydrates that flood our bloodstream with glucose. “If you eat cookies for example, your insulin spikes up,” Dr Fung says. “If you eat [an] egg, it doesn’t — but satiety hormones like peptide YY will go up. The responses to these two foods are totally different so why do we pretend that our bodies are responding the same to equal calorie amounts of food? Our body doesn’t have calorie counters; it doesn’t have calorie receptors. There’s this overlap that confuses people, because if you eat the same food, eating more of it is worse. The upshot of these different hormonal responses to food is simply that some foods are more fattening than others, which is pure common sense. If you told your grandmother 100 calories of cookies is equally as fattening as 100 calories of broccoli, she’d say you’re way off. And it’s true. Nobody gets fat eating broccoli.”

The best weight loss diet on earth — natural, wholefoods

Most scientists, including Dr Fung, advocate a wholefood diet low in refined carbohydrates. This doesn’t mean you exclude all carbs, but rather the processed ones. Examples include orange juice (as opposed to the whole orange), rice cakes (as opposed to whole rice) and cornflakes (as opposed to corn on the cob). In other words, foods that have had the bulk, fibre and other components stripped away.

“The core pillars are [to] avoid sugar, avoid refined grains, don’t be afraid of natural fats (except vegetable oil which can be quite inflammatory), and eat foods as close to their natural state as possible,” he states. Traditional diets enjoyed by our ancestors are a safe bet for avoiding modern processed food, Dr Fung tips. “Where we sort of add on, is to say, don’t eat constantly. Cut out all the snacks, and if you want to, you can add in intermittent fasting.”

Nutritionist and wellness writer, Michele Chevalley Hedge, warns people to also watch out for hidden sugars. “Avoid packaged and processed foods as much as possible,” she advises. “They contain hidden sugars, even in innocent, ‘healthy’ foods like yoghurts, muesli bars and iced teas.” Catherine Saxelby’s Foodwatch lists 48 different versions of sugar including glucose, fructose, invert sugar, malt extract, golden syrup, pear juice concentrate, palm sugar and more. Don’t trust “sugar-free” marketing claims and always read ingredient labels. Also avoid artificial sweeteners — many of these have been linked with metabolic problems, weight gain and other health problems.

In her latest book Eat, Drink and Still Shrink, Chevalley Hedge suggests healthy, balanced meals, rather than deprivation, as the secret to reducing food temptations. “You crowd out the need and desire for sweets when you eat proper meals packed with satiating nutrients. Also drink more water. Protein and fat will make you feel full and send a message to the brain to say ‘Hey, I am satiated’. I don’t believe in low-fat or no-fat anything. It’s tasteless and makes you feel hunger due to less satiation.” Backing her up, a 2015 Lancet review of 53 weight loss trials found dieters lost significantly more weight on low-carb diets than low-fat ones.

Chevalley Hedge recommends good fats like avocado, olive oil, seeds, nuts and coconut milk, as well as “smart carbs” that don’t spike insulin like brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat and sweet potato. While there’s no single miracle weight loss food, green tea and chilli have been shown to increase our basal metabolic rate, she adds.

You might also want to monitor your salt intake. While the exact mechanism isn’t fully understood, recent research has linked high-salt diets to increased weight gain and appetite, fatty liver and metabolic syndrome. Like sugar, it is widely spread within processed and snack foods, as well as restaurant and takeaway foods.

Gut microbes — the missing link

You should also be thinking about what you feed the trillions of tiny microbes in your gut, says Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College London and author of The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat. Key to our survival, and the first and oldest forms of life on earth, microbes are another, albeit surprising, part of the weight loss puzzle.

“Microbes produce many chemicals that target the brain and can change appetite levels and feelings of fullness,” Professor Spector says. “Other chemicals they produce impact our metabolic rate, as well as how quickly we break down fats and carbs.”

The key to a more slimming gut is diversity, he says. “Compared to our recent ancestors who lived outside of cities, enjoying rich and varied diets and without antibiotics, we have only a fraction of the diversity of microbial species living in our guts. Obese people, on average, have less diverse microbe communities with less species than thin people. Good microbes secrete chemicals that keep peoples’ weight down and reduce excessive appetite. When the diversity of microbe species drops, we have less beneficial microbes to help us. This also means that a few harmful inflammatory species can take over, which also leads to weight gain.”

Professor Spector’s latest research (the PREDICT studies) suggests that beneficial microbes may be able to reduce the size and duration of fat and sugar peaks related to weight gain.

To encourage their diversity he suggests increasing your consumption of the array of foods the good micro-organisms thrive on. These include fibre, fermented foods (like yoghurt, cheese, kefir, kombucha and kimchi) and plant foods, especially those high in polyphenols, like berries, nuts, dark chocolate, red wine and olive oil. “Increase the diversity of plants you eat every week, ideally 30 including seeds, nuts and herbs,” Professor Spector advises. “Fermented foods are ideal probiotics and vegetables are perfect prebiotics.”

Intermittent fasting — the science of lack

We’ve always talked about what to eat. There’s been less emphasis on how often we should eat, says Dr Fung. Standard nutritional advice of the past few decades has encouraged us to eat constantly throughout the day. “There was zero science behind that, yet it had become the de facto advice given by medical practitioners despite the fact nobody in history had ever done that,” he says. “The amount of meals went way up from the seventies to the 2000s, coinciding with the obesity epidemic.”

Say you start breakfast at 7am and finish with chocolate over Netflix at 9pm, plus main meals and snacks in between, that’s a 14-hour window of time in which insulin is being constantly stimulated. “Clearly, if you’re going to look at it from a logical standpoint, it makes more sense that if you eat all the time it’s actually going to be much more fattening for you than if you eat one or two or three meals a day,” Dr Fung says. It’s also totally at odds with the environment of scarcity our bodies evolved in.

This is where the idea of intermittent fasting comes in. Put simply, the strategy aims to increase the time the body is in the fasting state and burning calories and fat. There are different regimens of intermittent fasting. Dr Fung, a leading proponent of the diet, says popular methods include time-restricted eating such as the 16:8 (an eight-hour window of eating per day involving eating only two meals and skipping either breakfast or dinner) and the 5:2 (five days of regular eating followed by two days on 500 calories), and regular 24-hour fasts of one or more days.

“It makes perfect sense from a physiological standpoint,” he says. “If you don’t eat for a day, for example, your body is going to take the calories from your fat stores — in essence, you’re eating three meals from your body fat. That’s perfect. And there’s nothing wrong with that because our bodies are able to handle not eating. That’s exactly why we have body fat. It’s not there for looks. It’s there for you to use as a store of food calories.”

Rather than just another new dieting strategy, Dr Fung points out that conscious fasting has been around for thousands of years. “During Lent or Ramadan people fast; the Mormons, the Buddhists, the Hindus; literally billions of people throughout all of human history have fasted regularly. So there’s actually no reason not to, other than that we’ve been telling people not to do it for the last 50 years.”

Unlike crash diets, intermittent fasting doesn’t involve severe ongoing calorie restriction (which slows metabolism), and can be adapted to suit individual preferences. “If you want to be a vegetarian, if you want to be paleo, if you want to be keto or low-fat, you can still do that and fast. It sort of brought a whole new dimension and more tools for weight loss.”

Combined with a good diet, intermittent fasting has been found to be an effective strategy to lose weight. However, new research suggests some approaches may be more successful than others. One study (published in 2018 in Cell Metabolism) found pre-diabetic men who restricted their eating within 7am to 3pm significantly reduced their insulin levels, blood pressure and appetite more than a similar group eating between 7am to 7pm. It’s hypothesised that eating in tune to our circadian rhythms might be better for us. At night-time we should be sleeping, not eating.

Plant-based health

It’s possible to lose weight on many types of diets, however, when it comes to also protecting your health, choose one that favours natural plant foods, like the Mediterranean diet. David Katz, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center, reviewed hundreds of studies on diets, including low-carb, low-fat, vegan, vegetarian, Mediterranean, low-GI and paleo options, and found all the best diets for health and disease prevention were high in plant-based foods.

Building movement back into our lives

Of course, if you want to get serious about weight loss, you also need to exercise. We live in an “obesogenic” environment, says Sydney-based exercise physiologist, Dr Bill Sukala. “We’ve engineered physical activity out of our lives and engineered in physical inactivity, sedentary desk jobs and junk foods. If you go back 100 years, the car was in its infancy. We drive to places where we would have walked. We’ve become designed robots to eat crap food, go to work, sit on our bums in cars, at restaurants and in front of movies.”

Most of us would like to exercise more. However, time is a massive impediment. A paper by the Australian National University reveals our busyness plays a major role in our weight and health problems.

Dr Sukala suggests squeezing exercise into our activities of daily living. “People need to be doing things like taking public transport, taking the stairs instead of the elevator,” he says. “Walk to the corner shop. Instead of a [sit-down] meeting, do a ‘walk and talk’. Have a small, healthy lunch then go for a walk in the rest of your lunch break. Get a standing workstation — standing helps you waste energy. Even gardening can help contribute to energy expenditure.”

The best exercise for weight loss is whatever you enjoy and will stick to, he says. “The only people saying there’s a ‘best’ exercise are those trying to push something. Whether it’s going for a bike ride, jog, surfing or swimming, exercise is exercise.”

Most government recommendations suggest a minimum of 30 minutes of structured exercise daily. High-intensity exercise will burn the most calories per unit of time and get you the most bang for your buck, Dr Sukala says. “High intensity is something that gets you huffing and puffing. You use heart rate as a gauge.” It includes things like running and cycling hard, swinging on ropes, weight training and treadmills. “What matters is your individual effort,” Dr Sukala says. “You can cycle at a snail’s pace.”

To avoid injuring yourself, work up to it. “Don’t flog yourself,” he says. “You graduate to higher intensities. Try to match what you did before. Match that and maybe do 10 minutes more. Then start to increase your intensity a bit.”

At the same time, low-intensity exercise isn’t useless for losing weight. “Generally, all exercise is good,” Dr Sukala says. “It’s just that moderate- to high-intensity exercises shift body fat faster.”

While it’s possible to lose a lot of weight on the scale quickly, avoid overdoing it. Dr Sukala says most of such weight loss is from water, glycogen (in muscle) and muscle mass. “It confuses people and sets them up for failure,” he says. “Losing fat is hard.” He suggests losing half to a kilo of body fat loss per week is sustainable. “Too much muscle loss makes people metabolically vulnerable to heart disease and diabetes. The scale is like the meat scale. It gives zero indication of what’s happening inside. [What’s] more important is body composition.”

Along with exercise and diet, hormonal changes and the life cycle influence body composition. Muscle reduces and fat increases as we age, Dr Sukala says. “You need to think of it [muscle] as metabolic machinery that has an effect on overall health and how we digest and metabolise food. Exercise helps improve overall muscle biochemistry. By default you’ll lose weight.”

Can you selectively shape your body? “If I lift heavy weights I will get visibly stronger muscles,” Dr Sukala says. “The benefits of what you actually see reflect the type of exercise you do. It’s called sport specificity.” However, it’s not possible to selectively shift fat, such as by doing sit-ups to reduce your gut, he says.

Be wary of unrealistic body goals. “Not everyone is going to be rail thin,” Dr Sukala says. “Some people are designed to carry some body weight. There’s a campaign, Health at Every Size, [and] this movement of plus-size models.”

Research suggests we’re more successful at losing body weight when our goal isn’t just about weight loss, but something deeper, such as improving overall health. In fact, some studies have found scheduled exercise activities can undermine your weight loss efforts — such as when people reward themselves with treats through a false impression of how many calories they’ve burned versus what’s in food.

You need to reframe how you think about exercise and build movement more generally into your life. Scientists have discovered, for example, that slimmer people characteristically fidget a lot. It’s stuff like tapping your feet or hands, doodling, pacing and squirming. Fidgeting has been estimated to burn up to 350 calories a day. Also change your idea of rest. It doesn’t have to involve TV.

The stress-sleep connection

Also reduce stress. People with persistent, high levels of the stress hormone cortisol (measured through hair samples) are more likely to be overweight or obese, according to 2017 research by the University College London.

When you are under stress you are more likely to make poor decisions around your health and have less time to exercise or prepare healthy meals. However, your behaviour isn’t the only factor in the stress/obesity equation.

When you are stressed, the cortisol release mobilises fat and glucose — for energy to help you fight or flee from whatever threat you are facing. Given a lot of modern stress doesn’t require physical exertion, all this additional glucose can end up circulating in your bloodstream, in turn triggering insulin (the fat storer), Dr Fung explains.

However, it’s the timing of stress that may matter most. What we have known for some time is that there’s a strong link between insufficient sleep, shift work and weight gain, says Mary Teruel, an assistant professor of chemical and systems biology at Stanford University School of Medicine. Importantly, Teruel may have discovered why.

In humans and other mammals, glucocorticoid hormones (of which cortisol is our most important one) are secreted in oscillatory patterns that peak naturally at around 7am in the morning and decline at night in response to our body’s natural circadian rhythms, Teruel explains. “Every day you have these rhythms, roughly 12 hours on during the day, then off at night. But when you’re stressed you’re secreting them [the hormones] all the time.” And it turns out such hormone production at night can increase fat mass.

When Teruel and her team injected mice with glucocorticoid hormones at the beginning of their wakeful cycle, there was no change in the weight of the mice. However, the mice that also received the hormone at the beginning of their sleeping phase doubled their fat in three weeks. “The big thing is, we didn’t give them more of this hormone,” Teruel says. “We gave them the same amount of glucocorticoids total throughout a 24-hour period, but we split it between the day and the night. A lot of people think that stress makes you eat more,” she adds. “We didn’t see the mice eat any negligible differences in food. It’s just they got stressed at night.”

The take-home message? Switch off at night. “It makes sense that your body is set up to be on some kind of rhythm,” Teruel concludes. “It’s like keeping the lights on all the time — you don’t necessarily want that.”

Along with living more aligned with our circadian rhythms, stuff like dimming the lights, going to bed early and not working at night – routines to switch off from stress — can help. Author of The Off Switch, Professor Mark Cropley, says exercise, hobbies, socialising, playing with children and active relaxation techniques like meditation are some of the best stress-relievers.

Fighting food cravings and emotional eating

Despite being armed with the best knowledge and intent in the world, it can still be impossible to overcome the food cravings that lead many of us to binge on junk food. Rather than a sign of a weak will, scientists like Andermann believe food cravings are powerful biological drives built into us to help us survive.

“Even up until 200 years ago you were always going to be in a current or future state of near starvation,” he says. “Even if you saw food that was really high calorie; even if you’re not hungry; you should go after it, because there was always scarcity. In nature there are always states of negative energy balance. The brain just didn’t evolve with circuitry to curb your desire for calories because there was never really this issue that the calories would be too much,” he speculates. “Now we’re in this fundamentally different world that our bodies and brains are not adapted to, where we’re well into the range of surplus all the time.”

“In patients with obesity there’s this enhanced sensitivity in the brain to these high-calorie tastes and foods. Coupled that with the fact the environment is totally different to half a century ago. You can’t get away with paying attention to these things because they’re everywhere. Socioeconomic factors also play a role – it’s cheaper to buy high-calorie foods than healthier foods. In a sense, that’s the perfect storm for cravings taking over your life even if you’re a normal-weight individual.”

Andermann reveals scientists are able to make mice that have eaten a big meal consume another 10 per cent of their body weight in food by stimulating brain neurones related to eating. “The converse is also true. If you silence these neurons when the mouse is hungry, the mouse that hasn’t eaten for a day will just sit there in front of [the] food and not eat it.” The significance of this, he concludes, is “it’s not so easy as to tell yourself ‘not to eat’.”

Food can activate reward neurons in our brains, in a similar way to sex and drugs, he says. While there’s no food that can evoke a reward response as powerfully as cocaine, he hypothesises: “What you don’t get from the magnitude you can get from just repeated abuse over and over again.”

Andermann believes the best way to protect yourself against comfort eating is to ensure you have lots of healthy ways of rewarding yourself. “If you think about depression,” he speculates, “you would want to stimulate the reward neurons however you can and if you’re not doing it in the ways that are due to having a healthy social life and so on – because social interaction also stimulates these neurons – you might try and make up for it with food. There are people who start to lean on food as a kind of medication and I don’t think those people should be criticised, but it reflects a broader sadness about where our society has come. Potentially, a lot of these things have become reactions to the isolation of society.”

Due to the way the human brain works, the rewards we get from food tend to be short lived and unsatisfying, leading us to seek out a new taste and flavour. “If you eat something, it’s super rewarding and then it’s suddenly not rewarding 10 minutes later,” Andermann says. “Whereas, if I interact with my daughter, I don’t get bored of her.”

A lot of emotional eating is also related to habit. “The habit-forming part of the brain is very powerful,” he says. “If I feel really stressed all the time and food helps me feel less stressed, I’m going to develop habits around eating certain foods. The longer you wait to treat that the harder it is because a lot of these things become more and more habitual and then your brain gets less flexible.”

You are more likely to make bad food decisions when you are tired, which is another reason to plan meals in advance. “If you have something unhealthy in front of you, you’re always more likely to make a bad decision than if you have to walk to the store.” It’s about how much energy one has to expend. “But if you have a cupcake before you in the morning versus in the evening, you’re more likely to eat the cupcake in the evening.” One factor that likely contributes to this is that the prefrontal cortex (involved in planning and decisions concerning the future) gets overloaded. The prefrontal cortex is able to suppress the emotional parts of our brain and does a lot of vetoing of bad decisions, Andermann explains. “Over the course of the day, prefrontal function declines. After a night of sleep it’s ready to go again.”

Removing temptation (making unhealthy food less available) as well as lifestyle and habit changes can help. “It’s never going to be one magic bullet but a combination of changing your life on many different levels that together can make an impact,” he says. “It’s going to be: put lots of fruit and vegetables on the table. Don’t put chocolate in the house. Make sure you’re sleeping enough that you don’t make bad decisions at the end of the day because your prefrontal cortex is tired. Make sure you have healthy motivations that enrich your life. And exercise for an hour a day.” Intriguingly, exercise, which increases feel-good endorphins, has been associated in some studies with a reduced desire to eat junk foods.

Listening to your body

Trying to reduce weight involves an ongoing battle with a culture that encourages us to overeat. Dr Fung says we need to stop rewarding ourselves with food and ingraining that into our kids. “If you look at wedding cakes for example, you should eat cake on your wedding day. But what you shouldn’t do is eat cake every day, which you do when you eat low-fat muffins. The reason it should be special is it’s really not good for you. We’ve taken this idea and gone way overboard with it.”

“Plate sizes have doubled or tripled in a hundred years,” Andermann adds. “There are also all these things about ‘don’t waste food’. Eventually you just stop paying attention to your body altogether and pay attention to the social factors. There’s this notion of the wisdom of the body. Your body can teach you a lot about what is good for it. We’re often just not listening.” For example, babies can make effective nutritional decisions about how much to eat, he says.

While the social and cultural factors encouraging you to overeat can be powerful, you can circumvent them by paying more attention to your own body’s needs and practising mindfulness. Numerous studies show that eating while distracted (such as when you’re watching TV, on your computer or distracted) generally leads to eating more. Mindfulness can also help us make better food choices. Chevalley Hedge suggests daily micro habits, like breathing techniques and meditation apps.

Reducing environmental obesogens

A more recent frontier in obesity research concerns “obesogens” — endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can promote the development of fat cells and cause weight gain. Scientists believe obesogens have multiple mechanisms of action, including interfering with normal metabolism and weight homeostasis. An especially sensitive time for exposure is in utero and the neonatal period, reveals a 2017 report “Endocrine Disruptors and Obesity” in Current Obesity Reports.

According to the researchers, obesogens are ubiquitous in consumer products. They include synthetic compounds in pesticides, personal care products, paints, plastics, detergents, flame-retardants, air fresheners, industrial products, coatings on food and beverage cans, dental sealants and the lining of water pipes.

Many medications, including some antidepressants and steroids, can also cause you to pack on the kilos.

The successful losers

Those who succeed at losing weight against all the odds can teach us a lot. A study by the National Weight Control Registry examined the characteristics of 6000 people who maintained a weight loss of at least 13 kilograms for an average of more than five years. Most of them did a high level of exercise daily (walking, exercising at home, with friends and in a group, were popular), watched less than 10 hours of TV weekly, and were more likely to describe themselves as “morning people” and eat breakfast. They also tended to cook at home, monitor their weight and diet by weighing themselves, reducing the quantity of food eaten and reducing high-fat and sugar-laden foods. On top of that, they had lower levels of depressive symptoms and disinhibited eating.

If you want to lose weight sustainably, you don’t need expensive meal plans and extreme diets. You just need to tweak your life.

Linda Moon

Linda Moon

Linda Moon is a freelance feature writer reporting on health, travel, food and local producers, work, parenting, relationships and other lifestyle topics. Her work has appeared in International Traveller, Voyeur (Virgin Airlines magazine), Jetstar Asia, Slow Living, Traveller, Domain, My Career, Life & Style and Sunday Life (Sydney Morning Herald), Sprout, NZ Journal of Natural Medicine, Nature & Health, Australian Natural Health, Fernwood Fitness, The New Daily, SBS, Essential Kids, Australian Family, Weekend Notes, The Big Bus Tour & Travel Guide and more.

Based in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains, Linda is a qualified and experienced naturopath, spa and massage therapist and a partly trained social worker.

Her writing interests focus on health, responsible consumerism, exploring beautiful places and the quest for a fairer, healthier and happier world for all.

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