Up to half of women and two-thirds of men are overweight or obese in the developed world today. Being overweight not only can make us unhappy with our appearance, but can also lead to serious health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. When someone is obese, it means they are overweight to the point that it could start to seriously threaten their health. In fact, obesity ranks as a close second to smoking as a possible cause of cancer. Obese women are more likely to have complications during and after pregnancy, and people who are overweight or obese are also more likely to suffer from coronary heart disease, gallstones, osteoarthritis, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
How can you tell if you am overweight?
The best way to tell if you are overweight is to work out your body mass index (BMI). If using metric measurements, divide your weight in kilograms (kg) by your height in metres (m) squared. (For example, if you are 1.7 m tall and weigh 70 kg, the calculation would be 70 ÷ 2.89 = 24.2.) If using imperial measurements, divide your weight in pounds (lb) by your height in inches (in) squared and multiply by 703. Then compare the figure to the list (these figures apply to healthy adults only).
Sless than 20: underweight
Over 30: obese
As we all know by now, one of the major causes of obesity is eating too many calories.
What is a calorie?
Our bodies need energy to stay alive, grow, keep warm and be active. We get the energy we need to survive from the food and drinks we consume – more specifically, from the fat, carbohydrate, protein and alcohol that they contain.
A calorie (cal), as anyone who has ever been on a diet will know, is the unit used to measure how much energy different foods contain. A calorie can be scientifically defined as the energy required to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water from 14.5°C to 15.5°C. A kilocalorie (kcal) is 1,000 calories and it is, in fact, kilocalories that we usually mean when we talk about the calories in different foods.
Different food types contain different numbers of calories. For example, a gram of carbohydrate (starch or sugar) provides 3.75 kcal, protein provides 4 kcal per gram, fat provides 9 kcal per gram and alcohol provides 7 kcal per gram. So, fat is the most concentrated source of energy – weight for weight, it provides just over twice as many calories as either protein or carbohydrate – with alcohol not far behind. The energy content of a food or drink depends on how many grams of carbohydrate, fat, protein and alcohol are present.
How many calories do we need?
The number of calories we need to consume varies from person to person, but your body weight is a clear indication of whether you are eating the right amount. Body weight is simply determined by the number of calories you are eating compared to the number of calories your body is using to maintain itself and needed for physical activity. If you regularly consume more calories than you use up, you will start to gain weight as extra energy is stored in the body as fat.
Based on our relatively inactive modern-day lifestyles, most nutritionists recommend that women should aim to consume around 2,000 calories (kcal) per day, and men an amount of around 2,500. Of course, the amount of energy required depends on your level of activity: the more active you are, the more energy you need to maintain a stable weight.
A healthier lifestyle
To maintain a healthy body weight, we need to expend as much energy as we consume; to lose weight, energy expenditure must therefore exceed intake of calories. So, exercise is an important tool in the fight to lose weight.
Physical activity doesn't just help us control body weight; it also helps to reduce our appetite and is known to have beneficial effects on the heart and blood that help prevent against cardiovascular disease.
Many of us claim we don't enjoy exercise and simply don't have the time to fit it into our hectic schedules, so the easiest way to increase physical activity is by incorporating it into our daily routines, perhaps by walking or cycling instead of driving (particularly for short journeys), taking up more active hobbies such as gardening, and taking small and simple steps, such as using the stairs instead of the lift whenever possible.
As a general guide, adults should aim to undertake at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, such as a brisk walk, five times a week. The 30 minutes does not have to be taken all at once: three sessions of 10 minutes are equally beneficial. Children and young people should be encouraged to take at least 60 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every day.
Some activities will use up more energy than others. The following list shows some examples of the energy a person weighing 60 kg (132 lb) would expend doing the following activities for 30 minutes:
Ironing 69 kcal
Cleaning 75 kcal
Walking 99 kcal
Golf 129 kcal
Fast walking 150 kcal
Cycling 180 kcal
Aerobics 195 kcal
Swimming 195 kcal
Running 300 kcal
Sprinting 405 kcal
Make changes for life
The best way to lose weight is to try to adopt healthier eating habits that you can easily maintain all the time, not just when you are trying to slim down. Aim to lose no more than 1 kg (2 lb) per week to ensure you lose only your fat stores. People who go on crash diets lose lean muscle as well as fat and are much more likely to put the weight back on again soon afterwards.
For a woman, the aim is to reduce her daily calorie intake to around 1,500 kcal while she is trying to lose weight, then settle on around 2,000 per day thereafter to maintain her new body weight. Regular exercise will also make a huge difference.
Improve your diet
For most of us, simply adopting a more balanced diet will reduce our calorie intake and lead to weight loss. Follow these simple recommendations:
- Eat more starchy foods, such as bread, potatoes, rice and pasta. Assuming these replace the fattier foods you usually eat, and you don't smother them with oil or butter, this will help reduce the amount of fat and increase the amount of fibre in your diet. As a bonus, try to use wholegrain rice, pasta and flour, as the energy from these foods is released more slowly in the body, making you feel fuller for longer.
- Eat more fruit and vegetables, aiming for at least five portions of different fruit and vegetables a day (excluding potatoes).
- As long as you don't add extra fat to your fruit and vegetables in the form of cream, butter or oil, these changes will help reduce your fat intake and increase the amount of fibre and vitamins you consume.
Eating fewer sugary foods, such as biscuits, cakes and chocolate bars, will help reduce your sugar and fat intake. If you fancy something sweet, aim for fresh or dried fruit instead.
Reduce the amount of fat in your diet, so you consume fewer calories. Choose lean cuts of meat, such as back bacon instead of streaky, and chicken breasts instead of thighs. Trim all visible fat off meat before cooking and avoid frying foods – grill or roast instead. Fish is also naturally low in fat and can make a variety of tempting dishes.
Low-fat versions are available for most dairy products, including milk, cheese, crème fraîche, yogurt, and even cream and butter but low-fat products are normally laden with sugar to make them taste better so it's important to check labels carefully.
Simple steps to reduce your calorie intake
Few of us have an iron will, so when you are trying to cut down make it easier on yourself by following these steps:
- Serve small portions to start with. You may feel satisfied when you have finished, but if you are still hungry you can always go back for more.
- Once you have served up your meal, put away any leftover food before you eat. Don't put heaped serving dishes on the table as you will undoubtedly pick, even if you feel satisfied with what you have already eaten.
- Eat slowly and savour your food; then you are more likely to feel full when you have finished. If you rush a meal, you may still feel hungry afterwards.
- Make an effort with your meals. Just because you are cutting down doesn't mean your meals have to be low on taste as well as calories. You will feel more satisfied with a meal you have really enjoyed and will be less likely to look for comfort in a bag of crisps or a bar of chocolate.
- Plan your meals in advance to make sure you have all the ingredients you need. Searching the cupboards when you are hungry is unlikely to result in a healthy, balanced meal.
- Keep healthy and interesting snacks to hand for those moments when you need something to pep you up. You don't need to succumb to a chocolate bar if there are other tempting treats on offer.
Cut down on Sugar
Experts believe it is possible for us as humans to become addicted to sugar, and with an increase in the rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease everywhere, it's time to look at how we can reduce our intake of a food that we really don't need in our daily diets. Sugar contains no nutrients other than calories, so it provides no protein, vitamins, minerals or essential fats, just pure energy – which is great if you are intending to burn it off, but a lot of us don't, and then it becomes a problem.
How our bodies use sugar
Our bodies digest the sugars we eat using enzymes and acids, finally breaking it down to another type of sugar, called glucose. The stomach and intestines absorb the glucose and then release it into the bloodstream and once there it can be used immediately for energy or stored in the liver and muscle as glycogen for later use.
Insulin (which is made in the pancreas) helps to control the amount of glucose in the bloodstream – it tells the cells to let glucose in when there is too much of it in the bloodstream. As glucose moves from the bloodstream into the cells, blood sugar levels start to drop. The rise and fall of insulin and blood sugar is going on throughout the day and night, and it depends on how much, what and when we eat.
Using glucose for energy and keeping it balanced with just the right amount of insulin is important for helping our bodies function perfectly. The body maintains a minimum level of glucose in the blood, about 70 mg/dl, and also regulates surges of glucose when you eat a meal, to not exceed 140 mg/dl.
To conserve fuel, the body stores excess glucose in the liver and muscles, as glycogen. This can then be used when there is no glucose available.
Simple and complex sugars
Simple sugars such as pure sugar, honey and syrups metabolize quickly and cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels, whereas complex sugars such as those found in starchy vegetables, grains and cereals take longer to digest and therefore give a steadier blood sugar level throughout the day, along with sustained energy. Complex sugars also tend to provide more vitamins and minerals than simple sugars.
How much sugar should we consume?
It is presently recommended that only 10 per cent of our diet should be from added sugar – any more than the amount our body can store as glycogen will turn to fat. This percentage doesn't include sugar that occurs naturally in foods like complex carbohydrates.
Fruit, for example, contains fructose (fruit sugar), but whole fruit also contains fibre, which offsets the fructose and makes it healthier for our bodies.
Present surveys show that across all age groups people are consuming 11.5–15.6 per cent of their diets from added sugar, with soft drinks, sweets, jams and alcohol being the biggest culprits.
Scientists are still investigating whether there are direct causal links between high sugar intake and weight gain, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses. What is known is that eating too many calories without burning them off through exercise can lead to obesity, and obesity is a risk factor for other diseases.
How to reduce the sugar in your diet
It's important to realize that sugar is in many foods you may not suspect it to be – shop-bought soups, sauces, baked beans, cereals, flavoured yogurts, and even your Chinese takeaway – all contain unnecessary sugar that will add towards your daily total.
Cooking fresh ingredients from scratch enables you to be in control of any added sugars, and once you start reducing them you will find it becomes easier to go without. Most sugary snacks are eaten out of habit, because they are easily available, so instead be organized and prepared with foods that do not contain sugar. Here are a few tips:
- Cut out added sugar; use only honey and maple syrup in small amounts.
- Don't eat ready-meals or shop-bought sauces or soups – they normally contain sugar, even though you may not taste it.
- Avoid low-fat foods as these products are normally laden with sugar to make them taste better.
- Use herbs and spices for giving extra flavour to your food.
- Choose fresh fruit snacks with small handfuls of nuts or seeds – eating protein with every meal and snack is not only more satiating, it also prevents spikes in blood sugar levels.
- Be aware that so-called healthy breakfast cereals sometimes contain as much as 3 g (⅛ oz) of sugar per 100 g (3½ oz). Make your own breakfast cereal by mixing rolled oats, nuts and seeds together and soaking the mixture in milk in the refrigerator overnight.
- Cinnamon has been shown to help sugar cravings, so use this lovely spice to flavour your cooking and reduce the sugar.
- Drink alcohol in moderation.
- Make a batch of healthy snacks such as Fruit & Nut Slices, so you have something to take to work each day rather than be tempted by shop-bought cakes or sweets.
- Drink herbal teas and water with slices of lemon or ginger rather than fizzy drinks or tea/coffee with sugar.
The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar daily (for men the cap is 9 teaspoons) and that can add up quickly.
If you're scanning labels on products, here's what you should look for.
Here are some popular names for sugar that may appear on your food labels.
1. Anhydrous dextrose
3. Agave nectar
4. Beet sugar
5. Brown sugar (light and dark brown)
6. Cane juice
7. Cane juice solids
8. Cane sugar
9. Cane syrup
10. Carob syrup
11. Caster sugar
12. Coconut sugar
13. Confectioners' sugar
14. Corn syrup
15. Corn syrup solids
16. Crystalline fructose
17. Date sugar
18. Demerara sugar
21. Dehydrated cane juice
22. Evaporated cane juice
23. Evaporated cane syrup
24. Evaporated sugar cane
26. Fructose crystals
27. Fruit juice crystals
28. Fruit juice concentrate
29. Glazing sugar
31. Glucose syrup
32. Golden sugar
33. Golden syrup
34. Granulated sugar
35. High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) - this is very common - found in most drinks
37. Icing sugar
38. Invert sugar
39. Invert syrup
40. King's syrup
42. Maple syrup
43. Maple sugar
45. Malt sugar
46. Malt syrup
50. Pancake syrup
52. Powdered sugar
53. Raw sugar
54. Refiners' syrup
56. Sorghum syrup
60. Superfine sugar
61. Table sugar
63. Turbinado sugar
64. White sugar
65. Yellow sugar
Weight loss tips
Cutting down on your sugar intake should assist with weight loss, but it's still important to eat a healthy, balanced diet, one that includes great protein from meat, fish, eggs, pulses, nuts and seeds, and fresh fruit and vegetables. This book gives a variety of recipes for meals and snacks – and variety in your diet is very important, to ensure you are consuming a wide range of nutrients that are all-important for optimum health.
Shop-bought foods may contain more sugar to give them extra taste and texture, so again, cooking from scratch enables you to be in control of what you eat and makes it easier to be aware of how much sugar and calories you consume. Portion control is also important If you include snacks in your daily intake, just be sure they are healthy choices!
When you are trying to lose weight, the key is to make conscious choices about eating whole, nutritious foods, with a diet that suits your lifestyle, and including exercise to balance what you eat.