Eating our lives away

  • Health
  • Sunday, 19 Jan 2003


OKAY, time for a reality check. If you need an extra nudge to get with a healthy eating and exercise programme for 2003, maybe this will help: the obesity epidemic is not only getting worse, but the latest research shows that the ill effects of being overweight and obese in middle age now rival those of smoking.  

That’s right: we’re eating our way into health problems. 

The most recent results from the well-known Framingham Heart Study find that just being overweight at age 40 trims three years from the life expectancy of men and women compared with their healthy-weight counterparts. (And please note that none of these folks were smokers.)  

Not surprisingly, obesity extracts an even tougher toll. The study found that 40-year-old women who didn’t smoke but had a BMI, or body mass index, of 30 or more, died seven years earlier than healthy weight women. Obese men shaved five years off their lives. (Add smoking to the mix and the numbers get even worse: 13 years for obese female smokers; 14 for obese male smokers.)  

So maybe you’re newly motivated to eat well in 2003. If so, here’s a quick look back on what was learned in 2002 and remains worth keeping in mind:  

Flexibility in nutrients 

In issuing new guidelines last year, the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) left a lot of wiggle room for various nutritional approaches. For carbohydrates, it set a recommended dietary allowance of 130g a day for both adults and children, a level that is based on the amount of glucose needed by the brain. (A slice of whole-wheat bread contains 13g; one medium apple has 21g and a cup of green beans has 10g.)  

The NAS noted that most Americans far exceed the recommended amount of carbs. For fat, the NAS set 20% to 35% of total calories as an “acceptable” range. The report sets 56g of protein as the recommended daily intake for men and 46g for women. (These numbers are based on a 70kg man and a 57.7kg woman. If your weight is significantly different, you may want to do the math: 0.79g of protein for every kilogram of body weight for adults 19 years and older.)  

There are no “bad” foods. In recent years, many foods, from eggs to coffee, have been demonised. Carbohydrates are the latest on the hit list. But just as there are healthy and less healthy fats and protein, there is a wide range of carbohydrates: the highly processed sugar and flour found in Hostess Twinkies, for instance, vs. the natural sugars in a pear. In proteins, there is a Big Mac, high in saturated fat, and an egg white, with zero fat.  

And as the US Dietary Guidelines note, fat is not a four-letter word. In fact, last year the research was strong enough on healthy types of fat that the NAS set an adequate daily intake for omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids to be sure that we get some of these fats every day. They’re found in such foods as nuts, fish, flaxseed and safflower oil. The emerging consensus seems to be that it’s wise to make more nutritious choices within food categories.  

Yes, you can lose weight, at least briefly, on the Atkins diet. The US Department of Agriculture noted this very thing in 2001. In 2002, a couple of studies found that people on the very-low-carbohydrate approach advocated by physician Robert Atkins lost significantly more weight than traditional, low-fat, higher-carbohydrate weight-loss diets. 

But in the AHA-funded study, when participants were left on their own during the second phase of the study, the Atkins group could not fully sustain the very-low-carb approach. They added back fruit and vegetables but kept processed carbs – bread and pasta, for example – lower than the low-fat group did. The low-fat group stuck with their regimen throughout the study, but did not lose as much weight.  

Preliminary results from the other study showed that both groups of dieters reduced levels of low-density cholesterol (LDL) by 73%. (Elevated cholesterol has been a concern about the Atkins approach.) Authors of both studies cautioned that more research is needed about long-term safety, compliance and weight-loss maintenance for the Atkins diet.  

Exercise! Yes, you’ve heard it a thousand times – okay, maybe a million – but findings on the benefits of various types of physical activity only grow stronger. Sure, trimming calories will help move the scale in the right direction. But you’re making things much harder on yourself if you don’t boost physical activity, too.  

In fact, the latest NAS recommendations set 60 minutes daily as the goal to achieve a healthy body weight. And no, you don’t have to log that time at the gym. Brisk walking –about 4 miles per hour – is sufficient to meet the recommendation.  

Confused about what to eat? Even some scientists, including Harvard School of Public Health’s Walter Willett, are debating what’s best. Where they agree: on the dangers of saturated and trans fatty acids and the benefits of beans, fruit, vegetables, nuts, vegetable oils and whole grains, low-fat dairy products and (in moderation) alcohol.  

They also emphasise that you have to take in at least slightly fewer calories than you expend if you want to lose weight. – LAT-WP 

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