Your weight, your health: An editorial
Let’s face it, we live in an obesogenic environment! The natural trend in modern times is to eat too much of the wrong foods and be sedentary. It wasn’t always this way.
Millions of years ago, food wasn’t as available as it is today. The human biochemical setup attests to this: the liver provides carbohydrates for energy in the form of glycogen for up to 18 hours after our last meal. Afterwards, new energy is created from the breakdown of fats and proteins in an intricate process that can sustain an average weight human for up to 3 months (don’t try this with almighty water, you’ll only last for about 4 days). The human body, supremely adapted to its harsh harsh environment, was extremely well prepared for lean seasons.
In addition, hunting, farming and foraging for food kept our ancestors active. There was no sitting on a sofa and ordering pizza by an app. Physicality was a prerequisite to eating and basically staying alive, and so our forebears did a lot of exercises each day, staying lean and agile as a necessity and not for cosmesis. The sweet taste of sugar was only available naturally in wholesome foods like fruits, encouraging people to seek them out and thus reap the benefits of their consumption.
However, over the ensuing millennia, society became more specialized, with a subpopulation of farmers and livestock rearers eventually using rapidly improving agricultural technology to produce enough to eat for not just their families but also their communities and eventually, after the industrial revolution, the entire world. Once upon a time, everyone had to be a farmer to eat. Now, most of us focus on other things (corporate work, social media…) and never grow our food from birth to death (for example, just 1.3% of the US population of 325 million are farmers).
Indeed, the times have changed, but our biochemistry has not. Evolution is a slow process, and the human body is still wired to hold on to every last bit of energy it can lay its hands on. In fact, it’s quite fanatical about this. Any energy the body cannot use immediately is stored for future use as fat. This biochemical modus operandi was extremely effective when our great great great (500x) grand folks had to chase antelopes for dinner. However now that cheap high-calorie foods are available round-the-clock with minimal physical effort, this erstwhile evolutionary perk is now killing us.
It gets worse. In the 1830s, an evil genius called Norbert Rillieux revolutionized the refining of sugar, expanding its inclusion from fruits to a host of low-nutrient, long shelf life, high-profit margin consumables. Thus, in a single fatal stroke, this gentleman and his colleagues rendered Mother Nature’s most powerful healthy eating incentive null and utterly void. Anyone could now get that dopamine rush from pretty much anything with added sugar (a 50 cl can of soda, with ZERO useful nutrients, contains 9 to 12 cubes of sugar). The final nail was thus struck into the coffin of our collective health for centuries to come.
Dear Reader, we are eating too much and doing too little exercise. The situation is bleak; the vast majority of adults in the developed world are sedentary and now overweight or obese and this pandemic has not spared us. Over forty-three per cent of Ghanaian adults are overweight and obese, with much higher prevalences in urban dwellers and women.
The health consequences of obesity are myriad and devastating: diabetes, heart and blood vessel disease, pre-eclampsia( Hypertension in pregnancy), osteoarthritis(joint pains), several cancers, reduced quality of life, and higher healthcare expenses, among others. Given the reluctance of most governments to take the firm regulatory action that will improve the quality of foods that we eat, personal responsibility is key in the war to stay healthy.
For those who are already of healthy weight, the aim should be health and weight maintenance. This means moderation. Yes, we can have our ice cream and pizza, but occasionally (this DOES NOT mean occasionally each day). Be sure to get at least 5 portions or more of fruits daily, enjoying the pleasures of sugar the way Mother Nature intended. Examples of one portion of fruit include a medium to large banana, a slice of watermelon or pineapple, an orange or apple…you get the idea. If you crave the joys of a sweet liquid, then go for 100% fruit juice, but also in moderation since it’s full of natural sugars without accompanying fibre to slow down absorption (no more than a glass a day).
In addition, exercise should be part of our lives, at least 75 minutes of vigorous activity like jogging, or 150 minutes of moderate activity like fast walking or gardening (or a combination of both) each week. At the very least, try to do something that gets your heart beating fast for at least 10 uninterrupted minutes three times each week and move up from there. Remember, any activity is always better than none, and the more the better.
For those of us already battling with being overweight or obese (BMI 25-29.9 for overweight and 30 and above for obesity), the guiding principle should be that there is no such thing as “instant results.” A lot of people have failed because they go on “diets” and special plans that promise results in 6 weeks. This is a mirage because the body will fight tooth and nail to hold on to any energy in its possession. Do we hope to win an arm-wrestling bout with millions of years of evolution? For how long can you fight your own body?
Ironically, results can only come from not desperately seeking results, and from a permanent change to your lifestyle, without deadlines or drastic, unsustainable modifications. A diet won’t provide sustained results, but gradual, sustainable, and most critically, permanent improvement of how we live will.
The above advice on maintaining a healthy also applies to the overweight/obese. Important additions include not starving yourself in a futile attempt to lose weight because this might result in binge eating. Fruits are excellent as snacks because they blunt hunger, do not fatten, and taste wonderful! Also, ignore body shamers. Be confident in your body as you work towards a healthy weight. The latter is very important in our journey to health because research has shown that those who are affected by such attacks actually put on more weight.
And remember, water is your best friend. Ditch the beverages and just enjoy a cool drink of fresh or fruit-flavoured water when you’re thirsty. Your body will thank you for this!
Governments and corporations have sacrificed our collective health at the altar of wealth at all costs by facilitating the creation of an extremely obesogenic environment. Although there are some positive developments around the world, such as increased taxes on sugary beverages in Mexico and the forced reduction in sugar content of consumables in the UK, progress is still slow, especially in our part of the world. Until the whole world wakes up and corrects its ways, it is up to us to take personal responsibility for our health and that of those who look up to us.
Don’t become another health statistic, take action today!!