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Meld into the perfect shape for you, right now.

While the world agonises over the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is a good time to consider another scourge that has been getting worse over the past half-century and which is preventable – obesity. According to the World Health Organisation, up to 20 per cent of all healthcare spending can be attributed to obesity through related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and its economic impact worldwide is roughly equivalent to that of armed violence, war and terrorism.

How do we know when we’re too fat?

The generally accepted measure of obesity is the BMI (body mass index), which is calculated by dividing your weight in kilograms by the square of your height in metres. If the answer is 25 or more, you’re overweight; if it’s over 30, you’re obese. But that’s not the whole answer. Muscle weighs more than fat does, so a fitness fanatic with plenty of muscle could have a higher BMI than a fat and flabby couch potato.

What you should worry about is your waistline. If your waist exceeds 89 cm (for a woman) or 102 cm (for a man), you are probably carrying too much fat around your abdominal organs, which can lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers and plenty more besides.

South Africa has a glutton-size plate-load of the problem

Just over 30 per cent of the world’s population is reported to be overweight, but a recent survey by Discovery Vitality showed nearly 70 per cent of South African women and 31 per cent of South African men were overweight or obese. In spite of the ‘sugar tax’ initiative, South Africans are apparently consuming twice the amount of sugar recommended and are also spending R41-billion on fast food per year.

There’s no simple answer

While the battle continues to find a cure for Covid, the number of ‘sure-fire weight-loss solutions’ continues to rise exponentially. Every week offers a new answer and even scientific advice changes regularly. One day butter is a deadly poison and the next day you’re told to eat it by the spoonful. We used to count calories and then try to burn up more than we consumed. At one stage we were told that digesting a hard-boiled egg used more calories than the egg contained – but that didn’t mean you could lose weight on a diet of wall-to-wall eggs.

When people put back the weight they have lost, it isn’t always because they fall back into bad eating habits. While we might not be happy with our weight, our bodies, apparently, are. When we cut down intake to lose weight, our bodies do everything they can to remain the way they are.

It’s not just a matter of calories

According to Canadian nephrologist, Dr Jason Fung, author of The Obesity Code and a world-leading expert on weight loss, when we restrict our calorie intake our body thinks it’s in famine mode, causing our metabolism to slow down in order to burn calories more slowly. “People who measure their calorie expenditure and say, ‘I’m burning 2000 calories a day, therefore I’m going to consume 1500 and lose a pound a week’, are totally wrong, because your metabolic rate will drop to 1500 a day and your weight loss will stop,” 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.”

Dr Fung 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. In the ‘fasting’ state, 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,” he says.

“It’s not the amount of calories that’s the problem,” Dr Fung adds. “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.”

Insulin and other hormones respond differently to different foods and insulin is particularly triggered by refined carbohydrates. “If you eat cookies for example, your insulin spikes up,” says Dr Fung. “If you eat egg, it doesn’t – but satiety hormones like peptide YY will go up. The responses to these two foods are totally different… The upshot of these different hormonal responses to food is simply that some foods are more fattening than others, which is pure common sense.”

Face the sugar-coated truth

Most scientists, including Dr Fung, advocate a diet low in refined carbohydrates such as sugar and refined grains and comprising foods as close to their natural state as possible. “Traditional diets enjoyed by our ancestors are a safe bet for avoiding modern processed food,” he says. “Cut out all the snacks and, if you want to, you can add in intermittent fasting.”

Processed foods often contain hidden sugars, so always read ingredient labels. Healthy, balanced meals, rather than deprivation, are suggested by most experts to reduce temptation. When you eat proper meals, the protein and fat will make you feel full enough not to crave sweets. Incidentally, a 2015 Lancet review of 53 weight loss trials found dieters lost significantly more weight on low-carb diets than low-fat ones.

Befriend your tummy bugs

As nutritional therapist Marlien Wright, the author of ‘The Yoga Kitchen’ and ‘The Mandala Kitchen’, wrote in the Winter 2019 edition of Odyssey Magazine:

“In order to heal and restore your body’s inherent ability to heal and thrive, many of the answers to our health are tied up with our gut health.”

She goes on to explain: “Your microbiome is a community of bacteria that assist your body in more ways than you can imagine… We cannot live in a sterile world and, inevitably, become a host to bacteria and their only agenda is to help create our best health to ensure their host’s longevity… The greater the variety of bacteria, the better.”

Microbes, she says, love to feast on fibre from vegetables, especially the difficult to digest ones. She recommends eating as many different kinds every day as possible, as different vegetables encourage different bacteria species to thrive. She suggests sticking to watery vegetables: Cabbage, broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, peppers, onions, mushrooms (technically fungi), cauliflower, leafy greens, tomatoes and avocadoes, (actually fruit) and limiting intake of more starchy vegetables. If you can get organic vegetables, grown in microbe-rich soil, so much the better.

Don’t fire on your allies

Avoid second-hand antibiotics in the food you choose. “Antibiotics kill bacteria, the good and the bad,” writes Ms Wright. “With one single course of antibiotics we can wipe out a third of our microbiome and some species lost we may never be able to recover.” Preservatives act in the same way as antibiotics, suppressing or killing bacteria growth. Foods to avoid include: Refined carbohydrates, gluten, sugar, processed foods, low-fibre diets and processed vegetable oils, along with chronic stress, infections, antibiotics, antacids and anti-inflammatories.

In conclusion she writes: “I will end by highlighting the importance of a high-fibre, clean diet that excludes processed foods. In a nutshell, choose the right fibre, good fats and proteins to power up your microbes and brain to heal your gut and ensure your best health.”

It doesn’t hurt to go without

Eating ‘little but often’ was the touted ‘wisdom’ of the of the past few decades. Says Dr Fung: “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 cites a direct correlation between the amount of meals and the obesity epidemic between 1970 and 2000.

“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,” says Dr Fung. It’s also goes against the entire background of human evolution.

Intermittent fasting aims to increase the time the body is in the fasting state and burning calories and fat. There several ways to go about this. Dr Fung says popular methods include time-restricted eating such as an eight-hour window of eating per day involving eating only two meals and skipping either breakfast or dinner) or five days of regular eating followed by two days on 500 calories), or 24-hour fasts on 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. Its not there for looks. It’s there for you to use as a store of food calories.”

Conscious fasting has been around for thousands of years. “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.”

With intermittent fasting, metabolism is not slowed as a result of sustained calorie restrictions. “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,” says Dr Fung.

Sleep and grow slim

Recent research shows that people with persistent, high levels of stress are more likely to be overweight. Well, we knew that anyway, but we always blamed it on the chocolate! While comfort eating might have something to do with it, we now know that it’s actually caused by a hormone called cortisol.

When you are under stress, cortisol mobilises fat and glucose to give you energy to face the upcoming crisis. In this day and age you are unlikely to have to ‘fight or flee’ in the literal sense, so the extra glucose finishes up being stored as fat, Dr Fung explains.

It’s bad enough being stressed during the day, but if we are stressed at night, when nature dictates that we should be relaxed and snoozing, that’s when the cortisol-glucose-fat relay really kicks in. As the proponents of 12-hour fasting insist that the night is not a time for eating, the stress researchers add that it’s not a time for worrying either. In short, night is for sleeping and living according to nature’s timetable will benefit both your general health and your waistline.

Recent research has also come up with a reason – other than a lack of will power – for being unable to keep our hands out of the cookie jar. Apparently it stems back to a stage in our development when we had to cram in all the food we could get because there might not be anything to eat tomorrow. Our brains did not evolve beyond that, as nature guards against famine, not feast.

Fast forward from the hunter-gatherers to the 21st century and we are faced with a choice and a situation in which our cave-man instincts are telling us to do the wrong thing: To gorge ourselves on the nearest available high-calorie junk food. Our brains have not adapted to handling a surplus.

Food is also classed as reward by our brains and treated as a panacea for all emotional ills. In a society in which it is cheaper to buy high-calorie foods than healthier alternatives, it’s easy for cravings to rule your life.

The best way to avoid comfort eating is to find other ways to reward yourself or ease your depression. Social interaction also stimulates reward neurons, so having a healthy social life means that you don’t have to lean on food for comfort. A lot of emotional eating is also related to habit and the longer you wait the harder it gets to break out of it.

Plan meals in advance, because you are more likely to make an unhealthy decision when you are tired, particularly if the unhealthy option is immediately on hand while the healthy alternative still has to be bought or baked. The part of your brain that makes decisions gets tired by the end of the day so, if you haven’t planned ahead, you will almost certainly go for the easiest option.

Remove temptation by making unhealthy food less available. Put lots of fruit and vegetables on the table and leave chocolate on the supermarket shelf. Get enough sleep and exercise – and think positive thoughts. Feeling good about yourself can reduce your desire for junk food.

Get your mind right

One of the big obstacles to losing weight is the tendency to ‘go with the flow’ instead of thinking about what we are eating and why. We not only reward ourselves with sweet treats, but we do the same to our children, setting the scene for the next generation of complacent fatties. Making a daily habit of something that should be a once-in-a-while indulgence is a sure way to pile on the pounds.

Another is to ‘clear the dish’, whether or not you really want a second helping. The Second World War legacy of not wasting food has become an excuse for eating more – ignoring the alternative solutions of cooking less or leaving some for the next day. If we think about what we’re eating and ask ourselves if our bodies really need that extra spoonful, the answer will probably be ‘no’. Research has shown that eating while thinking about something else generally leads to eating more. Mealtimes are for eating, not for watching TV and if you keep your mind on your food, you’ll probably enjoy it more, as well as eating less.

Most people who succeed in losing weight and maintaining weight loss take plenty of exercise daily and don’t sit around watching TV. They are likely to be at their best in the mornings and they don’t skip breakfast. They tend to cook at home and they reduce not only the quantity of food they eat but also avoid an excess of fatty and sugary foods. They are proof that there’s no need for expensive meal substitutes or extreme diets.

When you are focusing on eating well and getting into the beast shape you can be and you desire better health, then that is what you’ll attract. When you adopt a healthful lifestyle modification program that suits your needs and your preferences, you’ll want to eat more of the nourishing foods that are make you feel great and energised, and you will want to move your body. The first battle will be won you won’t crave the not-so-good stuff because the good stuff is making you feel fantastic. And, your body, mind and spirit will meld into the perfect shape for you,

Adjust your lifestyle – and think before you eat.