If anything epitomises the saying "Easier said than done", it would be "Eat less, move more". It's well established that we live in an obesogenic environment - that is to say, our society is structured in such a way as to promote weight gain. We don’t even know how fat we were sixty years ago, because it was such an unimportant problem that statistics on obesity were not even collected. Not so today, when a majority of adults (58% of women, 68% of men) in the UK are either overweight or obese. We know that the solution is to eat less, and to move more. However, have we in fact been eating more and moving less? And how can we achieve that elusive ideal to reverse the trend?
If anything epitomises the saying "Easier said than done", it would be "Eat less, move more"
Are we eating more? The surprising answer is that we don’t have the data to know for certain. The National Food survey, and its successor, the Living Costs and Food Survey have been collecting data on household food consumption across the UK since 1940. These have shown a steady decline in reported calorie consumption since the mid-1960s. However, there are two major problems with the dataset: one is potential under-reporting, and the other is that it does not include data from food eaten outside the home. The latter has increased dramatically over this time period, with Brits eating out twice a week by 2016. So, while it is possible that we are eating less than we used to, the likelihood is that we are consuming more, but we don’t know how much. Home cooked food isn’t the problem.
You’d have to prize my dishwasher and washing machine out of my cold, dead hands
Are we moving less? British women reported spending three hours per day on household chores in the 1950s, plus an hour walking, burning off 1,512 calories from this work, compared to around 556 calories from daily activities today. Men generally had more physically demanding jobs, to which they typically walked or cycled. Now, I'm all for the freedom from housework that technology has provided. You’d have to prize my dishwasher and washing machine out of my cold, dead hands, but unless this reduction in activity is matched by either exercise or a reduction in food consumption, it is inescapable that the consequence will be weight gain. Furthermore, even with all these labour-saving devices, more households are employing cleaners. More than half of workers in England and Wales reported driving to work in the 2011 census. This means that we have to formalise exercise, and remaining active relies more on motivation than necessity.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. When we didn’t have a choice about being active, our activities were often dull, repetitive and potentially lead to aches and pains. Little wonder that we embraced labour saving devices. However, we replaced them with sedentary activities, such as TV - or in many cases, longer working hours in our desk jobs. If we are to burn off our daily calorie consumption, we face a choice of reintroducing physical activity into our daily lives, or replacing our sedentary time with exercise. We can exercise in our preferred ways, perhaps the thrill of sport, the joy of dance or the feeling of the wind in our hair as we walk, cycle or run for leisure. We can balance our bodies and minds with yoga and Pilates*.
We have freed up the time to exercise in our own ways
While working for short-term diets, the calories-in, calories-out model is an inadequate solution for people to sustainably manage their weight because it doesn’t address the environment in which we live. Lifestyle changes to increase physical activity, such as a change in commuting method, and/or a long-term commitment to regular sport or exercise can help to counter the reduction in calorie expenditure from labour-saving devices and more sedentary jobs. Reserving eating out for treats, rather than to save on cooking, will also help to reduce the excess in caloric consumption. Addressing emotional reasons for overeating is a subject for another day, but certainly a complex factor for many people. It’s not about counting calories, but about making healthy changes that are sustainable in the long term.
*A slightly political message is unavoidable here. I wrote the previous paragraph with a slight cringe, aware that this is a privilege denied to many. Overweight children are more likely to become overweight adults. According to the Office for National Statistics, by the end of primary school, obesity levels among children in the most deprived areas are more than double the obesity levels in the least deprived areas. So, while you as an individual can modify your behaviour to manage your weight, as a society in which economic inequality is still prevalent, obesity is likely to be an ongoing problem.
Fitness and Pilates instructor with a passion for science.