One nightmare scenario would be if we all get to the end of lockdown with our sanity but then find that we are too fat to get out of the door! In this short essay I am not professing to have found the solution to weight control. That is the Holy Grail of the dieting world and if anyone ever did find it then a lot of people in the weight loss industry would be out a job. What I am hoping for is that you will be better informed about your body’s remarkable ability to control your weight and that insight will help you to manage your weight in the very strange situation that 2.3 billion people find themselves in fighting the coronavirus.
Obesity and overweight are the major cause of ill health in the modern age. This is a relatively new phenomenon, 200 years ago obesity was rare. I am now in my 66th year and I remember the name of the “fat kid” in our class at school – David P. Apologies if you are reading this David, I suspect that you may now be “ripped” and much fitter than me. All children in England are now weighed when they start school and again in Year 6 when they transfer to secondary school. This is the National Child Measurement programme. In the 2016/17 school year, one-quarter of reception year children were overweight and that rose to one-third of children Year 6. It would be difficult for future generations of 66-year olds to remember the names of the overweight kids in their class!!
This is a global problem in developed nations. It is a simple matter of energy balance – we are expending less energy than we consume. The body has no mechanism for excreting excess energy and therefore it is stored as fat. In the UK average energy expenditure per day in 1900 was around 5000 Calories in 2021 it is less than 2000 Calories for most people. We walk less and ride more. Work is less physical – when did you last see a workman swinging a pickaxe to do a road repair? My mum spent all day on Mondays doing the weekly family wash, now it just goes in the washing machine. There are countless examples of this and if you look back over the last century in the UK the “tipping point” occurred in the early 1970’s. At that point, most of us started to consume more energy than we needed. At the same time, food got cheaper in relation to earnings and the nature of the food we ate changed. Fewer people cooked and we consumed more convenience and ready-made foods and by and large these foods were more energy-dense (more Calories per mouthful).
So, we are where we are and in our current lockdown situation, the issues we face are compounded by reduced opportunities to exercise and reduced access to the variety of foods we were used to.
Some simple facts might help you to figure out how to improve your diet. There is no “one size fits all” solution and everyone needs to make their own, sustainable adjustments. First of all, where does the energy come from in our food? Energy is best thought of as the body’s fuel supply and just as you cannot put diesel in a petrol car, there are only four fuels the body can use:
Fat – 9 Calories per gram
This includes all oils and fats. The less fat you can consume the better.
Carbohydrate – 4 Calories per gram
This includes complex carbohydrates such as starches and simple carbohydrates such as sugar.
Protein – 4 Calories per gram
Alcohol – 7 Calories per gram
One unit of is 5 grams so that’s 5×7 Calories = 35 Calories.
One pound of human fat represents about 3500 Calories stored. In order to lose one pound, you would need to consume 3500 Calories less than you burn. When developing a weight loss plan it is realistic to aim for around about one pound loss per week. A negative energy balance of 500 Calories per day. The NHS website provides excellent resources to help you with this.
In the current “lockdown” situation it might be more realistic to keep your weight the same and take up your new regime when we are all released.
One important factor to bear in mind is that our body is 80% water and this is 80% of your body weight. Everyone has a fluctuating body weight, and this can be very misleading and disheartening when you are trying to take control.
- Do not weigh yourself every day – once a week is enough
- Weigh yourself at the same time of day
- Weigh yourself wearing the same clothing (or none!)
- Weigh yourself on the same set of scales
- Make a chart to record your weight
- Small, long-lasting and sustainable changes are more likely to succeed
Do not get disheartened if one week you do not achieve your goal. It is likely that you will lose weight quickly in the first two weeks. The energy stores your body turns to first when it finds itself in negative balance is the carbohydrate, glycogen in the liver. Every gram of glycogen has nine grams of water associated with it. So, for every 4 Calories, you are negative you will lose 10 grams. Once this store is exhausted your body must turn to its fat stores and it will take a 90 Calorie deficit to lose 10 grams.
We are well adapted to survive famine – the less you weigh the less energy it takes to move around. This is the basis of the ‘Thrifty Gene Hypothesis’. Fortunately for most of we do not have to suffer famine but this has only been the case for the last 200 years or so.
Keeping your weight under control in lockdown will be a challenge but the lessons you learn will last you for a lifetime. Good luck!!
By Rick Wilson, former Director of Nutrition and Dietetics at Kings College Hospital for 30 years up to his retirement in 2015, BSc. RD (retired)