Three years ago I watched a documentary on the ABC called The Men Who Made Us Fat. This three part documentary series, and its cousin, The Men Who Made Us Thin, which played a few weeks later, completely changed how I view my health and body. The series highlighted the ways in which key individuals from within the food sector had shaped consumption habits over time, eventually giving rise to the current ‘obesity epidemic’. The second series was similarly structured, but focused instead on the subsequent rise of the dieting industry.
Whilst I would recommend both series to anyone with an interest in health, fitness, food and dietary trends (be prepared to be confronted, many of the images made me want to heave ..), I believe its key messages are relevant to a much broader audience.
EAT REAL FOOD: This is actually harder than it first appears, as many of the items consumed as part of a typical ‘Western’ diet are so processed they are not actually food at all. A good thing to keep in mind when shopping is to always read the ingredients list; if there is something on there you don’t know (within reason) or cannot pronounce, best put it back on the shelf. Remember that ingredients are listed by quantity, so if sugar comes before apples in the ingredients list on the back of your apple juice, maybe consider an alternative brand. Really though, it is worth keeping in mind that the majority of your diet shouldn’t have an ingredients list. I have yet to find one on the back of a capsicum. If in doubt, a good rule of thumb is to consider whether the item is something your grandmother would recognise. She probably pre-dates the invention of most ‘plastic foods’.
MODERATE PORTION SIZES: Financial gain shapes much of our lives, and the food industry is no exception. The concept of ‘supersizing’ meals began as a way to sell more McDonalds, but it has permeated our understanding of food to such an extent that we now tend to over-eat even at home. Again, best to stick to real food; the fibre in an apple will help tell your body that you are full, but without this in-built warning system, it is easy to consume the sugar of ten apples just by drinking a small cup of apple juice. Another common mistake is to rush through the act of eating, as it takes ten minutes for your body to recognise it is full after you have reached the point of fullness. Along the same vein, consider the size of your crockery; you are more likely to serve yourself a larger amount of food if you are using a large plate. I have found using crockery relative to the size you would like to consume is a useful practice, as it inhibits mindless eating. And finally, remember that humans are programmed to seek out sweetness as part of our evolutionary biology. Rather than ban sweets completely, source naturally sweet foods like honey or dried fruit which have additional health benefits. Everything in moderation
DON’T DIET: By its very definition, a diet tends to be a finite thing. While I unreservedly acknowledge the proven health benefits of occasional fasting, manipulating your diet by going without and constantly limiting your intake is destined for failure in the long run. Sure, you may see some short term weight loss, but it will always be an uphill battle, your body constantly trying to revert to its median state. Rather than trying to control how much food goes into your body, focus instead on what food goes into your body. Make sure you have a diet with a huge variety of (real, not fake) foods, with a focus on eating for holistic health rather than weight loss.
EXERCISE TO BE FIT NOT THIN: If asked outright, most people would probably claim that increased fitness is the reason they exercise. In reality, however, there are probably few who only exercise for health reasons without first having made the conscious decision to do so; the majority of us, at least subconsciously, exercise because we want to be attractive. According to the dieting industry (watch The Men Who Made Us Thin), the fashion industry and much of celebrity culture, thinness is now synonymous with attractiveness. How often do we see the girl in the movies who will forgo the chocolate bar or attend a last-minute gym session so she will fit into the cute dress for her date on the weekend? Don’t underestimate how pervasive the image of the ideal body is. The trick is to re-frame the goal; exercise to be fit not thin.
Moving from a short to long-term perspective on body health requires active decision making, and after watching The Men Who Made Us Fat and The Men Who Made Us Thin, I decided to change the relationship I had with my body. Perhaps a slightly unconventional next-step, I made the decision to not weigh myself anymore, and I have not stepped on a set of scales since. It is amazing how such a seemingly small act three years ago has had such a drastic impact; without the constant pressure of every kilo lost or gained, I have learnt to listen to my body, and together we have rejected the mainstream ideal of thinness to focus instead on being healthy, fit and strong.
And I am.
Strangely enough, though, most people would probably also consider me thin, toned and muscled. Surprise, surprise; a balanced, healthy diet of real food and lots of exercise will do that to you. Pity being thin is no longer my goal…
Being able to do a 700km bike ride through Vietnam, on the other hand? Yes please.