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. So we need to eat less and also eat more healthily. Exercise can help too and has many health benefits. Here are our top tips for diet and exercise: 

1. Eat Healthily 

A healthy diet consists of at least five portions of fruits and vegetables per day, high-fibre carbohydrates (wholegrain rice, pasta, bread, oats) and a moderate amount of low-fat protein, milk and dairy products. The UK Eatwell guide provides the dietary recommendations for adults to achieve a healthy balanced diet. Foods high in fat, salt and sugar should be consumed in moderation and less frequently. 

2. Avoid yo yo dieting 

If diets worked the diet industry would go out of business. The sad fact is that a third of dieters regain more weight than they lose and nearly all dieters will have regained the weight lostwithin five years. 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. Recent studies are also now showing the negative effects yo yo dieting can have on our heart health.

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. 

Researchers are now recognising how good healthy foods are for our bodies and our weight. Vegetables, fruits and whole grains are packed with minerals and vitamins yet have relatively few calories. They also add dietary fibre and feed the good bacteria in our gut (both believed to help us control our weight) and can make us feel full more quickly and for longer, meaning we're less likely to overeat. 

Conversely, food high in sugar, salt, 'bad' (saturated) fats and refined carbohydrates tends to be high in calories but low in vitamins and minerals - meaning we can end up overweight but undernourished - what the World Health Organisation (WHO) describes as the double burden of malnutrition. Sugary food and drink often contain empty calories - they provide a short burst of energy but don't make us feel full for long, increasing the risk that we'll eat and drink more than we need to. Foods high in salt often makes us thirsty. If we then consume sugary drinks or alcohol to quench our thirst we're adding 'hidden'calories. The lack of fibre in these products doesn't help either.  

3. Weight Loss Starts In The Kitchen 

Make your own meals at home and stay away from fast food, take aways and 'all you can eat' buffet restaurants. 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). 

Here are some tips for meal prepping at home:  

  • Prepare meals, e.g. lunches, in advance and store in lunch boxes in the fridge for the week ahead
  • Frozen fruit and vegetables are usually as nutritious as fresh, they’re low priced, last longer and can prevent waste
  • Be mindful of portion sizes– the British Dietetic Association provide a great guide for portion control across a range of food groups 
  • To avoid mindless eating, using smaller plates and not eating when watching TV can be useful. 

If you only have time for a supermarket ready-meal check the traffic light warning label for the sugar, salt and fat content (avoiding reds wherever possible). 

4. Combine exercise with a healthy diet 

Exercise and a healthy diet combined are more effective in reducing body fat and body composition changes than diet alone, with resistance training more effective for weight loss than endurance training.   A recent review established that exercise can reduce the dangerous fat around your organs (known as visceral fat, associated with higher risk of disease), whilst a low-calorie diet is beneficial for greater weight loss. 

The NHS recommends that adults should aim to achieve 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week and strength exercises on 2 or more days a week.

5. 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 having friends to exercise with 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 with 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 12 week randomised control trial involving 740 overweight and obese adults in the UK compared several commercial weight loss programmes with both GP and pharmacy counselling. Interestingly dieters following the Weight Watchers programme achieved the best results, with an average weight loss of 4.4 kilos.  

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, as we indicated earlier, 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 active lifestyle and avoiding becoming obese in the first place is the most effective approach for long term weight control and health. 

6. 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, while swimming isn’t usually expensive. Small, daily habits can also help increase physical activity, such as: 

  • getting off a stop/station earlier and walking home
  • taking the stairs instead of lifts
  • walking up the escalator rather than standing
  • taking a walk during your lunch break or in the evening  

Buying a bike can be an investment for long-term health whilst also saving money on petrol or transport for local journeys. You can also do bodyweight exercises, such as push-ups, pull-ups and lunges for muscular strength. These can be done in the living room, park or any other space. And don’t forget dancing - 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, balanced 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 30 minutes moderate-vigorous exercise a day.
  • Avoid fad diets and yo yo dieting
  • Choose exercise options you enjoy, which fit in with your life and aren't expensive. 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.
  • When you’ve lost weight, keep up the healthy diet and exercise, so you don’t end up putting weight on again.

Reviewed and updated by Nicole Musuwo, November 2018. Review date October 2022.