Preventing Obesity

What can we do to combat obesity – and how important are exercise and diet? 

Preventing Obesity – Our Top Tips

The main cause of obesity is eating too much of the wrong type of food. Exercise isn't as important for weight loss but it is important for a healthy body. So here are our top tips for diet and exercise:

1. Weight Loss Starts In The Kitchen 

Make your own meals at home and stay away from fast food or take aways. You would need to walk 10 miles to burn off the calories from a single Big Mac meal - which would only take you 10 minutes to eat. 

A healthy diet consists of high-fibre carbohydrates, such as wholegrain bread and pasta and brown rice, at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, and a moderate amount of low-fat protein, milk and dairy products. Replace snacks high in fat and salt by fruit and small quantities of nuts (which are rich in vitamins, minerals and proteins).

If you only have time for a supermarket ready meal check the ratings for sugar, salt, fat and calories on the side of the packet. 

2. Combine exercise with diet 

Exercise and healthy eating reduce body fat and preserve muscle in adults better than diet alone. That’s according to a study funded and conducted by National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the US National Institutes of Health. 

This particular study suggested 20 minutes of daily vigorous exercise and a 20% calorie restriction to maintain the weight loss achieved. 

A 12 month trial in Seattle found that combined diet and exercise intervention also appears to have positive effects on Health-Related Quality Of Life (HRQOL) and psychological health – an additional benefit.

3. Get Help – from Family, Friends, Health Professionals or Weight Loss Programmes 

Help, support and encouragement from family or friends can increase your prospects of success. For instance if two or more of you are trying to exercise and lose weight together this can help keep you motivated. 

Support is often available from health professionals. Check with your GP or health centre. 

The NHS offers an online weight loss programme called “Losingweight: Getting started”This includes a number of weight loss tools, including food and activity charts. The programme advises that if you want to stick to a dietary plan men shouldn’t exceed 1,900kcal a day and women shouldn’t exceed 1,400kcal a day. 

There are commercial weight loss programmes too. A 48 week randomised control trial involving 141 overweight and obese adults in the USA compared a Weight Watchers programme and a programme run by health professionals. Both helped people lose weight. Interestingly dieters following the Weight Watchers programme achieved the better results – with one in three losing 10% or more of their starting weight.  

Realistic targets for weight loss for adults are a maximum weekly weight loss of 0.5–1 kg, and a total loss of 5–10% of original body weight over the period of the intervention. 

However, it is important to recognise that weight management programmes tend to be more effective in the short term. For many people, over time the weight starts to come back. Adopting a healthy diet and avoiding becoming obese in the first place is usually the most effectve approach.

4. Avoid yo yo dieting

If diets worked the diet industry would go out of business. The sad fact is that a third to two thirds of dieters regain more weight than they lose. That's according to a 2007 review of the research findings. One of the reasons seems to be that our bodies aren't passive onlookers. If we eat less our bodies try to compensate, for instance by slowing down and consuming less energy.

An important distinction here is between dieting (i.e. eating less to try to lose weight) and diet (i.e. the food we normally eat). Interestingly a healthy diet seems to be a more effective way of controlling weight than dieting.

That's because researchers are just beginning to recognise how good healthy foods are for our bodies and our weight. For instance vegetables, fruits and whole grains pack a lot of minerals and vitamins into relatively few calories, add fibre and feed the good bacteria in our gut (both believed to help us control our weight) and also make us feel full more quickly, so we're less likely to keep eating.

Conversely, food high in sugar, salt, 'bad' fats and refined carbohydrates tend to be high in calories but low in vitamins and minerals - meaning we can end up overweight but undernourished. Sugary food and drink doesn't make us feel full for long, so we're more likely to carry on eating. Salty food makes us thirsty. If we then consume sugary drinks or alcohol to quench our thirst we're adding 'hidden'calories. And lack of fibre doesn't help either.    

5. Keep a Food and Drink Diary 

According to the Seattle randomised control trial mentioned earlier those women who lost the most weight and body fat also kept a food journal, keeping details about everything they ate and drank apart from water and no-calorie drinks.  

6. Avoid mindless eating

To avoid overeating while you're on 'autopilot' try these tips:

  • Avoid buffet restaurants. With all that food available and the opportunity to go back for more you can end up eating much more than you need.
  • Use smaller plates when you're eating at home. 
  • Don't eat while you're watching TV or on your computer.

7. Exercise is often free – Do what you enjoy.  

You don’t need to join a gym or buy expensive equipment. Walking, hiking, jogging and running are all free. Swimming isn’t usually expensive. You need to buy a bike to cycle but you can then save money on petrol or bus fares for local journeys. And you don’t need to go to the gym to do pushups, dips, lunges and pull-ups. You can do them in the living room, park or any other space.  And don’t forget dance – which can be fun as well as healthy. 

A weight training program is another good way to burn calories, whether you’re a man or a woman. You can make a one off payment for dumbbells and then they are yours for life.

With so many free or low cost options, you can choose the types of exercise you enjoy most. That way you’ll find it easier to make this part of your everyday life. 

Conclusions – What to do to prevent obesity  

  • A healthy diet – including vegetables, fruit and wholegrains.
  • Avoid takeaways and fast food outlets where possible.
  • Combine exercise with diet to maintain a healthy body – with a target of 20 minutes vigorous exercise a day.
  • Choose exercise options you enjoy, which fit in with your life and don’t cost much. That way you’re more likely to keep exercising.
  • Don’t go it alone – get help from family, friends, health professionals or reputable weight loss programmes.
  • Keep an honest Food and Drink Diary.
  • Avoid yo yo dieting.
  • When you’ve lost weight, keep up the healthy diet and exercise, so you don’t end up putting weight on again.

Delia Morick

Published 26/9/13. Updated July 2015. Review date June 2018