Monday, June 27, 2011 | Categories: Dr. Brian's Blog
Typically, we only pay attention to weight gain when we've gained enough that we notice or others notice and when our clothes don't fit. At that point, you're up maybe 5, 10 or 15 kilos. You go to your doctor, fitness instruction or registered dietician asking for help losing all of accumulated weight gain like it's a sudden catastrophe. It isn't. Most people gain weight incrementally - say, a pound a year. So, it takes quite a number of years to gain 5 or 10 kilos. Therefore, for most of us, it's pointless to try and figure out why we gained 10 kilos and what we have to do to lose it. Far better to figure out why we gain a pound a year and go from there.
Researchers at Harvard followed large groups of nurses and other health professionals every 4 years for anywhere between 12 and 20 years. All told, they followed nearly 100,000 women and more than 22,000 men - none of whom were obese at the beginning of the study. They found that really small changes in foods eaten and activity levels caused a slow but steady weight gain. Potato chips were the worst offenders. One increased daily serving of chips caused participants to gain 1.7 pounds every 4 years. Sugar sweetened beverages; another pound every 4 years. In general, people who changed their diet the most tended to gain the most weight. Small changes in activity level also made a big difference. Adding an hour of TV or computer time at the expense of walking or other form of exercise likewise made a big difference. So did sleeping less than 6 hours or more than 8 hours a night.
The sobering truth is that those fairly minor changes in lifestyle resulted in small but steady incremental increases in weight. Those studied gained on average 1.5 kg or 3 and a third pounds every 4 years and 7-8 kg or nearly 17 pounds over 20 years. Those are the average figures. The more of the bad behaviours they adopted, the more weight they gained. But the point is, each bad habit was fairly minor and didn't cause sudden weight gain. It was only after years that it became noticeable. And if you focus on the total number of calories you consume each day, you might miss these subtle but crucial trends.
Several foods were associated with less weight gain. That means if the person increased that food during the study period, they gained less weight from that point onward. If you ate more vegetables, you lost .22 pounds over 4 years. If you ate more whole grains, you lost .37 pounds over the same period. More fruit meant a loss of half a pound. More nuts: a weigh loss of .57 pounds. More yogurts meant losing .82 pounds over 4 years.
If little changes cause slow steady weight gain, then it stands to reason that little changes can prevent and slowly reverse weight gain. The most useful things you can do are eat less sugary drinks (e.g. pop) and other sweets, as well as fewer starches (especially potatoes) and fewer refined grains like white bread, white rice, breakfast cereals low in fibre, and other refined carbohydrates). It's also really good to focus on eating more minimally processed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and yogurt. Making a resolution to use the stairs at work and to walk several blocks instead of taking the bus or taxi can also make a big difference. Bottom line: when it comes to weight gain, it's far easier to prevent than deal with it.
The way to prevent weight gain is to remember that it's the small things not the big ones that make the biggest difference.