Sunday, May 02, 2010

No magic to weight loss - just eat less

One of my friends is an avid reader of the TC’s “Celebrations” section, that Saturday feature where people turning 50 or marking double-digit wedding anniversaries send in photos of themselves from back in the day. She says nobody is ever overweight in those photos.
It’s true. People weren’t nearly so likely to be heavy in those years. Children were virtually never overweight.
But that was then. Nowadays, the kids are getting fat and the adults are getting fatter, and the many health ailments and societal costs related to obesity just keep stacking up higher around us.
What happened to change things? A lot. Still, there’s only one key difference that matters: While previous generations consumed the right amount of calories for their energy needs, ours doesn’t.
True, there were many things about life in the 1950s or ‘60s that made it easier to keep your weight down.
For starters, everybody smoked. (Sure, nicotine is evil, but it does have an effect on body weight.) People were also much more likely to have jobs that required physical work.
Families were more inclined to order their children out of the house to play, which meant children were more active. There was less money for eating out, and far less “fast food.”
Moms didn’t work outside the home as much, so families sat down for regular meals together more often. Most families had only one car, which meant a lot more walking for everybody in the household. Everything was just a little more physical, even changing the TV channel.
In food terms, it’s all just calories burned. People in those years burned as many calories as they ate, so they didn’t accumulate fat.
Our generation’s calorie intake, on the other hand, is profoundly out of whack with our activity levels.
Blame it on societal change. Blame it on corporate food production. Blame it on poor parenting, higher levels of anxiety, and food science manipulating our taste buds, because it’s about all those and more.
But for all that, it’s a simple enough problem to resolve. We just need to eat much less.
How many of us even know how many calories we eat in a day, let alone how many we burn? Until I got my first Big Book of Food Counts a few years ago, I didn’t have a clue about the caloric content of most of what I ate and drank.
I don’t imagine our thin predecessors were particularly well- informed either. But for all the reasons listed above, they didn’t have as much need for awareness. They kept busy enough to burn off the calories they ate, and didn’t have anywhere near the access that we do to cheap, high-calorie foods.
The Vancouver Sun provided a marvellous public service late last year with the creation of the “Fatabase,” a searchable database of 64 restaurant chains operating in B.C. If you haven’t given it a try yet, visit for a disturbing insight into your favourite restaurant meals.
As you might expect, the most horrifying counts are at fast-food chains. A Burger King Triple Whopper with cheese, for instance, weighs in at a whopping 1,240 calories - representing more than half the calories and all the fat that an average person needs for a whole day. Throw in a large order of fries and a 12-oz pop, and that’s pretty much your daily caloric max in a single meal.
But don’t think that eating more upscale will save you. A dinner of parmesan-encrusted sole at the Macaroni Grill is 1,710 calories. It contains almost enough fat to meet two days’ worth of dietary needs, and more sodium in one meal than you should eat in an entire day. God help you if you finish things off with a cheesecake dessert.
Maybe humans needed calories like that in our hunter-gatherer days. But we’re a long way from those days. Pecking away at my computer for a full eight hours only burns a scant 240 calories. That’s one piece of buttered toast and an apple.
People like to think that their exercise programs are taking care of their caloric indulgences. But I’d have to run for two full hours just to burn off the calories from a single Triple Whopper with cheese.
Buy a food-count book. Browse the Fatabase. Learn the caloric content of the foods you and your family eat, and how that number stacks up against the calories you burn in a typical day.
That’s how we’ll get a grip on global obesity. One smaller mouthful at a time.

1 comment:

Ceeinbc said...

Perhaps one more item which adds to the modern-day calorie count: the enormous serving sizes for both food & drinks? Although I can't convince my husband to do so, both my adult daughter & I generally eat only half portions, opting to take the extra home for another meal + more often than not, tap water as the beverage of choice.