Why we should forget losing weight and focus on healthy habits

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It’s hard to powerwalk 10 paces at this time of year without being exhorted to “get lean”, “drop two dress sizes” or “lose 30 kilos in 30 days”.

For people whose body mass index is above the “normal” range, losing weight is touted by mass media and health professionals alike as the cure for a range of health issues, from diabetes and heart disease to untimely death.

But some experts say focusing on weight loss as the ultimate goal gets it back-to-front, and that promoting a consistent set of healthy behaviours would see the whole population healthier in the long run.

What are these four or five things? Well, a 2012 study found people who consistently had the following behaviours had a lower risk of mortality — that is dying over the course of the study:

  • Regular exercise (more than 12 times a month)
  • Diet rich in vegetables and fruit (at least five serves a day)
  • Moderate alcohol intake
  • Avoiding or quitting smoking

In this study, people who kept up with all four behaviours had similarly low risk of dying, regardless of whether they were classed as normal weight, overweight or obese.

To this list, Professor Wittert adds getting enough good-quality sleep, eating at regular times, restricting eating to daylight hours and reducing stress to optimise health.

An endocrinologist at the University of Adelaide, Professor Wittert leads a long-term research program into appetite, diet and other lifestyle factors in men.

“People should not focus on weight, people should focus on health. Then you don’t engage in these diets where you restrict your nutrients, and where people get depressed because they regain weight, which is almost an inevitability.”

If not weight loss, then what?

When people followed healthy habits for enjoyment and wellbeing rather than weight loss, they were more likely to stick to the lifestyle changes, staving off weight gain later, Professor Wittert said.

“If you switch the debate and say, ‘stay the same weight if necessary, but there are four or five things you can do to improve your health’ — then the pressure and distress is relieved.

“People do lose some weight but you also prevent further weight gain across the population.”

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