Make better choices

2013-09-12 00:00

THE South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (Sanhanes-1) results were released last month and they painted a very bleak picture of our nation’s state of health.

As we saw last time, more than 60% of the nation is overweight or obese, with the vast majority denying that they have a weight problem.

A multitude of diseases can result from being overweight, including strokes, heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Human nature generally leads us to believe it will never happen to us, but it is sobering to realise how quickly one’s life can be changed should a crisis of illness invade our home.

Obesity and overweight are very complex conditions and are influenced by myriad factors. One of the most common causes of unwanted weight gain is simply eating more than we utilise on a daily basis.

Eating too much doesn’t only mean we dish up large meals. It is easy to consume excessive calories without realising it, thanks to the number of processed and refined foods available to us that are commonly very high in hidden sugars and fats.

Our busy lifestyles also mean that very little time is spent exercising or being physically active. Lower activity levels cause our metabolism to slow down, resulting in our bodies burning up far less fuel. By paying attention to our habits and making some conscious decisions regarding our health, we can take control of our weight and dramatically improve our health.

It is rather disappointing to realise how quickly and easily bad habits creep into our daily routine. Somehow, good habits seem to take a lot longer to develop than bad habits. If we don’t pay attention to what we eat, our meals and snacks can degenerate, causing effortless weight gain. Watch out for a few common pitfalls.

• Don’t skip meals. Eating regularly throughout the day helps us to control the portion sizes we eat at the next meal. Eating regularly also keeps the metabolic rate higher and helps the body to utilise the food we eat more effectively. Missing meals puts the body into starvation mode, which causes it to store more fat at the next meal. By “regularly”, I mean eating a meal or snack about every four hours. Never skip breakfast, lunch or supper, and include a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack if necessary, to avoid a very long gap between meals. Healthy snack options include fresh fruit, vegetables such as cherry tomatoes, snap peas and carrot sticks, low-fat yogurt or a few nuts.

• Don’t eat to meet an emotional need. Often we reach for chocolates or biscuits as a reward for surviving a long day. Try to use non-food rewards to relax and unwind.

• Don’t eat in front of the television. Watching TV while you are eating results in not concentrating on how your food tastes and how full you feel. It is easy to devour a plate of food, bowl of chips or slab of chocolate without realising it while distracted by the TV. Aim to eat mindfully at each meal, be aware of how much you are eating and concentrate on eating slowly.

• Allow yourself one treat day per week. Don’t slip into the habit of eating treats such as chocolates, biscuits, cakes and crisps daily. Be aware of dangerous habits such as always eating a biscuit with your tea, or heading for the fridge as soon as you get home from work.

• Exercise daily. Remember that something is better than nothing. If you can’t fit in your usual hour at the gym, try to go for a 20-minute walk after work, or skip in five-minute spurts while cooking dinner. Becoming more active is an excellent antidote for preventing unnecessary weight gain. The Sanhanes study showed that 28% of men and 45% of women are unfit. Aim not to be one of these statistics.

My challenge to you this week as we start the new season of spring, is to take a good look at your eating and lifestyle habits, and replace the dangerous options with healthy alternatives. Making small adjustments on a daily basis is a sure way to achieve your long-term goal of good health for the future.

• Sharon Hultzer is a consulting dietitian.

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