You only need to glance briefly at the statistics in the UK and many other western countries, to appreciate the magnitude of the challenge in maintaining weight within a normal range. As adults, quite simply, we are in the minority if we manage to do so.
This tells us something important and it is not that most of us, must by default, have a greedy, devil may care attitude to our body size. The real culprit lies not with an implicit lack of will power or the inevitability of pounds creeping on as we move through our 20’s and 30’s to our 40’s, 50’s and beyond but with the environment in which we find ourselves living.
Over the last 50 years the availability and sheer quantity of food available to us has burgeoned and its composition has shifted dramatically. We used to be satisfied with three home prepared meals made from simple unprocessed ingredients with little in the way of snacks and not much more than water, tea, or coffee to drink in between each day.
Now, we live in an age where one meal merges into another with an expectation of a raft of snacks and drinks to fill the ‘gaps’ in between. And to compound the problem, most of these foods are processed, often highly so. They are cleverly and deliberately designed to taste moreish, making them almost impossible to stop eating once we start.
Not only this, these products, are promoted to us using clever packaging and positioning in supermarkets and on-line shopping experiences. They are advertised relentlessly on billboards and in magazines and newspapers. They are promoted online and via social media. We are even persuaded into buying them by barristers in coffee shops who innocently suggest we may like a pastry or a muffin, when we only ordered a quick skinny cappuccino.
These foods are in short, almost impossible to ignore, and it is no wonder that we eat them and in so doing, consume more energy (measured in kilo calories or kilo joules), than we need, and end up gaining weight.
Here we look at how we can healthily control our weight, with special tips for relevant age groups as we move through the decades.
Forewarned is Forearmed
Simply understanding the food environment in which we live is a great starting part. Appreciating that we are not ‘bad’ or ‘weak willed’ if we ‘give in’ to cakes and biscuits, sweets and crisps but are behaving perfectly normally in response to the environment in which we find ourselves. This can help us to reframe our relationship with our bodies and the shape it is in and this can start at any stage in your life; 21 or 71 and beyond.
Change is a Challenge
It is then vital to accept that change is uncomfortable. Whether it is changing where we live or work, changing our friends or partner or giving up smoking. Our brains set down neuronal pathways and laying down new ones, by deliberately over-riding old ones, is tough and takes time. The good news is that new behaviours do eventually become ‘normal’ and second nature and old ones can be consigned to the past. It can be immensely helpful when taking the decision to change, to mark this with a ‘new start’. Beginning with a supportive detox for example, which supports your liver, kidneys, and colon, can be a helpful punctuation point, a way of mentally drawing a line and marking a new start.
Pregnancy, menopause, stress, life-changing events like divorce and losing friends and partners as well as our metabolism naturally slowing down as we move through the decades are just some of the significant blocks in the road we face when it comes to controlling our body weight over our lifespan. It is true, they can all make it easier to gain weight and harder to lose it or simply maintain it, but they are not your destiny. They are bumps along the way, which can be addressed and overcome. Some herbal ingredients such as extracts of Garcinia camboia and triphala may provide a helping hand in improving fat burning for example and provide a little support in overcoming a slowing metabolism, while extracts of St John’s Wort can help to improve low mood.
When it comes to which diet works best, which leads to most weight loss and how can we best stick with it, this is a matter of personal choice. Some people swear by meal replacement plans, others with intermittent fasting. Some prefer the encouragement found in slimming with others, others prefer to do it alone.
What is clear is that we are all human and for most of us, the drive to eat is primal and stems from a sensation of hunger. Cutting edge nutritional research is allowing us great insight into what drives hunger and crucially when it comes to a desire to lose weight, how to tame it. If we can keep hunger under control, while consuming less energy, we stand a greatly increased chance of our bodies being in long term energy deficit and the fat stored in our fat cells, being burnt. When this is kept up over weeks and months, our body weight will begin to fall.
There are several key things to consider when it comes to hunger and how most effectively to dampen it.
Our bodies have many feedback mechanisms that control hunger and the and the sense of fullness. An important one involves the hormone ‘ghrelin’ (pronounced ‘grey-lin’). It is released when our stomachs are empty and is carried in our blood, up to our brains, where it triggers the desire to eat. As we begin to lose weight, ghrelin levels begin to rise.
This drives humans to eat if their fat stores are being burnt up and in previous centuries or even decades, acted as a brilliant survival mechanism, pushing us to seek more food, maintain our fat stores and survive. Today of course, when we are deliberately trying to burn excess stored fat, it works against us.
This is true too of the hormones GLP-1 and peptide YY, both of which do the opposite of ghrelin and help to keep us feeling satisfied and ‘full’. While ghrelin levels begin to rise with weight loss making us want to eat, GLP-1 and peptide YY begin to fall, again making us feel hungry more quickly, as we burnt fat.
Fortunately, researchers have discovered ways in which we can outmanoeuvre these hormonally induced hunger pangs by eating certain foods in certain ways.
The first is by having protein within each of our meals as it appears to help to suppress ghrelin. There is no need to go overboard but having some protein at each meal and evenly spacing it during the day is recommended by appetite specialists from Tufts University, in Boston, America. This could mean having eggs, milk, soy milk or Greek or soya yoghurt with nuts and seeds at breakfast. At lunch it could be tuna, salmon, tofu, beans, or a plant-based meat alternative and at dinner, similar choices to lunch as well as chicken or a little lean meat if you eat it.
Minimally processed foods, which are naturally great for providing fibre also may help to keep hunger at bay. Experts reveal people report feeling less hungry after eating foods whole grains, vegetables, including beans and lentils and fruits compared with refined foods. This is perhaps in part down to fibre in wholegrains moving, undigested into the colon, where it feeds beneficial bacteria. These bacteria, in turn stimulate production of the hunger-beating hormone GLP-1, which feeds back to our brains to tell us we are satisfied and can stop eating.
In addition, the soluble fibre in oats, barley and pulses like soy, butter, baked, red kidney and cannellini beans, along with seaweed such as fucus and psyllium physically help to keep our stomachs full and control blood sugar levels. Both, in turn, again help to control hunger pathways.
Some herbal extracts appear to act on hunger hormones, including guggul, which contains ‘guggulsterones’ that appear to help regulate ghrelin among others, helping to reduce food intake.
It is also important to consider the volume of the meals we eat. Vegetables, fruits and wholegrains have the advantage of being ‘bulky’, which adds volume to your plate, but with fewer calories, than processed foods. For example, three chocolate biscuits provide around 300 calories but are small and do little to make your stomach feel full. For the same energy you could have one banana, two apples and a large orange. With a much larger volume, this choice would be way more filling, helping you to feel satisfied and beating hunger pangs.
The way in which we eat also counts, again, whatever our age. Scientists have proven that if we eat more slowly and take smaller mouthfuls, we eat less in a meal or a snack, compared to eating quickly and gulping down large mouthfuls. It is well worth a try when looking at the bigger picture of effective and long-term weight loss. We often eat quickly and more when feeling stressed and anxious, looking for ways to reduce the source and impact of stress in our lives can help in turn to help us to change our eating behaviours.
The Genetic Perspective:
So too, is getting in perspective the impact of the genetic hand we are dealt. It is true that we are all created differently and there have always been people who have a genetic predisposition to gain weight more readily than others. What researchers have discovered however is that there are many, many genes involved and that having genes that make you more likely to store fat does not mean you have to. Genes play a role but how you eat, what you eat and how much you eat of it totally outweighs almost everyone’s genetic tendency to gain.
Nutritional Wolves in Sheeps Clothing
A final tool to have up your sleeve when it comes to controlling weight throughout your life is to be aware of foods that appear to be healthy but are not. Flapjacks and oat bars look wholesome as they are packed with oats. But they are also packed with butter and sugar. Lentil crisps sound healthy, but they are fried, just like potato crisps, making them a highly processed and calorie-rich food. You need to have your wits about you to get to and maintain a healthy body weight in the society in which we live whatever you age.
Registered Nutritionist AFN
PG Dip Dietetics,
Associateship King's College (AKC)