Bicycle Network: Health Matters
Health at every size
Despite what the media and diet industry tells us and contrary to popular opinion, being skinny doesn't equal being healthy, explains keen rider and nutritionist Jo Chambers.
Food and eating plays an integral role in our social, work and family life. It is a critical contributor to our physical well-being, a source of pleasure and a major topic of conversation. Shopping, preparing and eating food occupies a vast amount of our waking time and chews up (pun intended) a significant proportion of our incomes. We eat when we are bored, when we are sad, when we are happy and when we want to celebrate. We eat to show love, to feel part of a group and when we’re grieving. You get the message: food is a big deal! In Australia in 2012, the majority of us are living in abundance, surrounded by an unprecedented array of food and drink choices. Food is available anywhere and at any time and the food industry is incredible successful at making us want to eat it. Because we are constantly faced with food, we must be able to make decisions about what and how much we should eat. However, for many people this need to choose causes great worry and stress. As a nutritionist and public health advocate I am frequently asked ‘what should I eat?’ and ‘what do I have to do to lose weight?’ It saddens and alarms me so many people feel confused and anxious about food and their weight. Not that I blame them- I sometimes still feel confused and anxious despite having spent six years studying nutrition. When it comes to food and health, there is a wealth of inconsistent and conflicting information available. Every day there are reports in the media about the latest diet and weight loss crazes. One minute it’s all about low fat diets, before switching to the message that fat is good and carbs are bad. High protein, low fructose, gluten-free…it’s never ending. Food is as much seen as a poison as it is a source of pleasure and nutrients. It frustrates and annoys me that you have to fight to get good quality, consistent information about food and health.
Fat and fit
We are told that our waistlines are expanding at epidemic rates at the expense of health. A war on obesity has been declared and great efforts are being made to encourage people to lose weight. We are fed shows like The Biggest Loser, where people are tortured and humiliated in the name of ‘better health’ and entertainment. There are many other examples from the media that contribute to the commonly-held belief that being thin equals being healthy and happy, and being fat equals being lazy, slovenly, unattractive and unhealthy. Despite the continual focus on weight loss and ‘healthy eating’ we are losing this war on obesity. Fighting fat has not made the fat go away; instead, it has resulted in extensive collateral damage: eating disorders, body dysmorphia, yo-yo dieting, general poor health and weight discrimination. Few of us are at peace with our bodies and have a healthy relationship with food. Much of the information that the public is fed (pun intended again) about weight management fails to meet the standards of evidence-based medicine. The field is full of speculative claims that do not present accurate data. However, there is good evidence that the assumption that overweight and obese people are unhealthy and will die sooner is false. It is also untrue that anyone can lose weight if they are determined and work hard, and that if they lose weight it will prolong their life. It is perfectly possible and acceptable to be fat and fit! This doesn’t mean that you have a free pass to eat whatever you like without consequence. If you frequently binge on foods high in fat, sugar and salt you will definitely feel low in energy and eventually become unwell. When it comes to food and eating, our focus is all wrong. Instead of focussing on losing weight, we should be focussing on changing our diet and lifestyle to ensure that we get all the nutrients that we need so that our blood chemistry and blood pressure are within a healthy range. The “Health at Every Size” approach to weight management, developed by American nutritionist Linda Bacon, is a system that acknowledges that well-being and health habits are more important than your actual weight. Bacon promotes a sensible approach to eating that involves accepting your size; trusting you own internal signals, such as hunger, fullness and appetite; adopting healthy lifestyle habits, such as becoming more physically active, stop eating when you’re full and eat satisfying, nutritious food and embracing size diversity. The reason Bacon’s approach works is that it removes the blame and shame that is usually associated with eating and weight loss. In fact, it doesn’t even involve weight loss! This tactic sets people up to empower themselves to make healthy choices and to adopt a healthy lifestyle for the sake of their health. It also does not involve any stupid fad diets, expensive pre-packed home delivered microwaved foods in plastic bags, soy protein shakes, or weight loss pills. Now to come back to my most frequently asked questions, ‘what should I eat?’ and ‘what do I have to do to lose weight?’ Nutrition is a vast and complex topic, but there are some key points to remember.
- Follow a ‘health at every size’ approach. Be kind to yourself and ditch the scales.
- Listen to your body.
- Avoid all diets - especially if it involves paying ridiculous amount of money to a company that will give you something expensive and tasteless to replace real food that will take all the joy out of eating.
- Eat real, fresh food. Your body likes and knows how to process it: vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, lean meat, grains, eggs, dairy and so on.
- Buy the best quality food you can afford - organic is great but it’s not the only answer.
- Everything in moderation (alcohol, fast food, sweets…you know the drill), including moderation!
- Make sure you are calm when you eat. Try to sit down and focus on your food and surround yourself with people that make you feel happy.
- Get active! Physical activity has so many benefits. I love bike riding because it regulates my appetite. I get to ride interesting places to eat interesting food with interesting people and more than anything, it makes me feel strong and fit and less focussed on weight. People of all shapes, sizes and fitness levels can enjoy riding a bike as it is low-impact, accessible and easy to do. It’s also a great way to get active without focussing entirely on your calorie expenditure, which is easy to do when slogging it out on a treadmill at the gym. Riding is a great way to simply get from A to B, with added health benefits.