Obesity: A perspective beyond counting of calories

Know what will work and what won't if you're overweight or obese. It's not as simple as hitting the gym and counting calories.

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Obesity as a disease is quite complex. The most effective way it has been tackled by nutritionists and gym trainers is by asking people to be in a calorie deficit diet and work out. However, it seldom is that simple. A 2016 study by National Institute of Health, Maryland USA found that 14 of the 16 contestants in season 8 of the “Biggest Loser “show ( where contestants suffering from obesity undergo strict dietary and lifestyle changes to shed their excess weight) had regained their weight back! They had the best trainers and nutritionists available, so what happened? The answer is restricting calories to tackle obesity work only in the short term and does not help achieve long term sustained results.

I have struggled with being overweight at different phases in my life when I was in my early 20s recovering from a leg injury which required surgery. Post-op, I had put on a fair amount of weight. However, losing it was fairly simple by attending a gym and keeping a moderate check on my diet.

Fast forward five years when I was 26 kg over my ideal weight for my height, I had to retry the approach. Sadly, this time it helped me lose only 6 kg in 8 months. Then I realised simply counting calories and going to the gym was not going to be enough, I needed a better understanding of my body and better knowledge of the topic. Subsequently, in a period of a year and 4 months, I managed to reduce another 24 kg and most importantly since Jan of 2018 managed to maintain the weight, I can now actually indulge and not worry about what I am eating and never gain weight. It finally feels like I have won the battle against obesity!

What actually causes obesity?

For most people, obesity seems like an inevitable battle with sedentary lifestyles, deteriorating quality of food, too much stress, increased consumption of alcohol and processed foods and not enough physical activity. Almost everyone knows this, in that case how come tackling the issue seems like such an onerous task?

Obesity isn’t a disease which affects the individual in isolation. It is accompanied by a number of similar diseases such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and stroke. So is it our food habits or genetics or metabolism or exercise patterns?

Well, the answer is all of them. Tackling obesity and associated diseases is a far more complex issue than merely watching your calories. Firstly all calories are not the same, your body doesn’t know what a calorie is. However, your body does know the difference between consumption of 50 calories of sugar vs 50 calories of almonds. The hormonal response to both will not be the same. Sugar will cause a higher spike in your insulin levels than almonds, the latter being rich in healthy fats which have the least insulin response.

When brain does not help

obesityHave you felt fond memories of eating a cake or a samosa, but never recollect when you had good mixed daal? That is because there are different spheres in our brain, one is the metabolic brain which tells us what nutrients we need for our body and another is connected to emotional eating which often overrides the metabolic brain.

As a result, you always reach out for a samosa when the afternoon tea beckons you but you won’t be subconsciously reaching out for mixed daal during lunch. Our brain and its response to food form an important part of the puzzle to solve the obesity problem.

So is the solution to obesity as simple as switching to daal over samosa? Yes and no. Whole foods over processed foods have proven to keep your body satiated for a longer period of time, but obviously, one cannot simply switch to it and expect miracles. The key lies in understanding the simple fact, one size doesn’t fit all. What works for me may not work for you. Every individual has to identify their trigger points and understand the body for long term sustained results and win the war against obesity.