For people worried about their weight, obesity specialist Arya Sharma offers some unexpected advice. Quit dieting.
We’re confronted with constant messages about losing weight: ads for weight-loss plans and gym memberships, reports of the growing obesity epidemic, lunchroom conversations about our coworker’s latest diet. Many people are searching for one quick fix to create a perfect figure and perfect health.
We should quit obsessing about weight and focus instead on our health, says Sharma. There are far more important numbers for health — cholesterol, blood sugar, hours of sleep, minutes of physical activity — than the number on the scale.
He has made it his mission to educate people about weight loss and health. The family physician and professor holds the Chair in Obesity Research and Management at UAlberta and founded the Canadian Obesity Network in 2006. Sharma spreads the word about obesity, weight loss and health through any means possible: his blog, Dr. Sharma’s Obesity Notes, social media and online talks — even a one-man show he has performed at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival.
Here are four surprising things he has to say, plus five steps to health.
You can’t tell if a person is healthy just by looking at their weight.
Many of us don’t know what a healthy weight really is.
“We have this whole weight and fitness industry telling us that weight is something we can actively control and should be actively controlling — that it’s an important factor for health — when, in fact, research shows there are a lot of other things that are far more important for our health,” Sharma says.
His research with the Edmonton Obesity Staging System, a five-stage system he co-created to assess obese patients’ health risks, has found that people categorized as obese can still be in remarkably good health. (Slimmer people can have their own set of health problems, he adds.) He emphasizes that a weigh scale alone is not a good measure of health. Many other factors are important, including regular physical activity, a healthy diet, adequate sleep, managing stress and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
“You cannot step on a scale and say that, based on the number, I’m healthy or I’m unhealthy. That's personally why I don’t like the term ‘healthy weight.’ We don’t know what that is.”
Exercise is good for a lot of things, but weight loss isn’t one of them.
You can’t go anywhere without seeing some sort of ad promoting exercise as the key to a trim, lean body, but those ads are selling exercise for the wrong reasons, Sharma says. People who exercise without changing their diet rarely lose weight and might even gain. (The average exerciser will easily eat back the 200-300 calories they burn off on the treadmill.)
Physical activity is essential for health, but exercising for the wrong reasons can backfire, he says. If someone is expecting to lose weight and doesn’t see results, they often quit.
So do take to the walking trails or hit the gym, but do it for the health benefits: improved physical fitness, cardiac health, better mood, stress levels, sleep and self-esteem. (And all these benefits can eventually lead to better eating habits and, yes, gradual weight loss.)
We’ve heard it before but …
There’s no one perfect weight-loss diet.
One of the biggest misperceptions is that you need a special diet plan to lose weight, and if you find the right one, the pounds will melt off. Not true, says Sharma. “It doesn’t matter what the diet is, whether you lose the weight slowly or you lose the weight fast or whether it’s high protein or low protein or high carb or low carb. All weight-loss diets will more or less help you lose weight.”
The problem with most weight-loss plans is that they’re restrictive, he says, and the stricter the plan, the harder it is to sustain. A strict diet might bring about dramatic results but it’s almost impossible for most people to maintain.
Don’t expect miracles
Most people have unrealistic expectations of how much weight they can lose, and how quickly, through diet and exercise. While most can fairly easily lose about five per cent of their total body weight, about nine to 10 pounds for a 180-pound adult, anything beyond that becomes increasingly difficult and requires ever greater changes, Sharma says. “They would have to really restrict their calorie intake, cut it down to less than 1,400 to 1,500 calories a day. They’d have to be doing 300 to 400 calories of exercise every day. It almost becomes like a full-time job.”
It’s the perfect recipe for the dreaded yo-yo effect — gaining all the weight back. Sharma points out that the goal isn’t about losing as much weight as possible as quickly as possible; it’s about how much weight can you keep off in the long term.
The good news is that it doesn’t take drastic weight loss to see a big improvement in health. Most research shows a loss of as little as five per cent is sufficient to create significant changes in well-being and markers of health.
5 steps to health
1) Get a checkup. See your doctor and get an annual exam done. If your blood pressure is fine, your blood values for things like glucose, insulin and cholesterol are OK and there’s no real health problem evident, then you’re good.
2) Start weighing yourself regularly. People who weigh themselves more frequently are less likely to gain weight, possibly because they are able to see trends and get them under control.
3) Don’t get heavier. Identify the reason for the weight gain and address it. Look for simple improvements. Can you get more sleep, eat a more balanced diet, lower your stress, maybe move a little more?
4) If you can change your behaviour and maintain a stable body weight over several months, then you can consider introducing a gradual weight-loss plan.
5) Above all, don’t obsess about your weight. Be aware of the scale but don’t allow it to rule your life. As Sharma says, “At the end of the day, it’s just a number.”
Check out Arya Sharma’s website and Facebook page for more information.