Little habits pile on the kilos

New research has confirmed what we've known, but chosen to ignore, all along: just a few bad habits can add up to a steady creep of kilos over the years.

Tiny habits, like watching TV, eating potato chips, drinking a sugary soda for lunch and staying up too late at night, cause weight gain over time, a team of Harvard researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.

These innocent-seeming habits have been found to be the main culprits of an average weight gain of 7.6kg over a 20-year period in a group of men and women who were studied by the Harvard team. All the participants were normal weight and healthy at the beginning of the study, but the extra kilos snuck up on them at an average of 1.52kg per four-year period.

Apart from the obvious lifestyle choices that impact weight, like a sedentary lifestyle, too little exercise and a lack of sleep (you should aim for six to eight hours a night), the researchers found the quality of food choices, and not just kilojoules, to be key to maintaining a healthy weight.

The foods that caused the most weight gain included the daily consumption of potato chips, potatoes, sugar-sweetened beverages, unprocessed red meats and processed meats (like bacon, sausage and salami). And, it comes as no surprise that the participants who lost or maintained their weight were those who ate minimally processed foods and stocked up on fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and nuts.

This study report could come at no greater time for South Africans as we're in the middle of winter which automatically makes us want to reach for starchy comfort foods and hide under a warm duvet in front of the TV, instead of getting some exercise and fresh air - no wonder we tend to gain weight in winter.

This report, however, is also a gentle reminder for us to think about our health in the future. Have a look at your daily routine: what are the little vices that could cause your waistline to expand gradually over the next few years? Are you regularly eating healthy, balanced meals, are you getting your 5-a-day of fruit and veg, are you physically active, are you dealing with your stress levels, are you sleeping enough?

Tiny bad habits may pile on the kilos, but small changes for the good can make the world of difference, not only to the numbers on the scale, but also to your long-term health.

- (Birgit Ottermann, Health24, Nutrition Newsletter, June 2011)

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