There are so many articles and TV programmes about obesity and what we can do to reduce it, personally society-wide. I have some thoughts, based upon extensive non-academic reading and personal experience. Neither method is scientific or foolproof; neither method proves anything. However, it's a contribution to a debate.
Everyone knows that the way to lose weight1 is to eat fewer calories than you expend.
It's not quite that straightforward, because the body deals with different nutritional elements in different ways. I'm not doing science, but it's probably fair to say that if I am currently eating 2500 calories a day (say) made up largely of vegetables, pulses, fish, dairy and wholemeal bread, and replaced it with 2400 calories of pure sugar, over time I'd lose weight, but before that happened I'd be dead. If I continued to consume 2500 calories by cutting out alcohol, cakes, white pasta and replaced those with more veg, pulses and fish, I think I'd be healthier but I'm not sure I'd lose (much) weight, all other things being equal.
It annoys me when people write in Guardian comments "I reduced the amount of lard I ate and started walking so it's simple and people who don't do that are lazy and stupid". I think that developing insight and demonstrating empathy are easy, so I don't know why they can't!
It's a truism that any sort of weight loss diet is successful for 3 or even 6 months. This therefore doesn't mean that people should pursue the latest fad diet promoted in the media to earn someone a nice little fortune. This is because of novelty and focus. If you start a new hobby, job or relationship, it tends to be the centre of your enthusiasm for a while.
As time progresses, your fervour changes. You might stay in the job or relationship for years, or the hobby becomes a frequent activity. But it's not consuming your attention all the time. If you've been with your partner a long time you spend less time thinking 'he (or she) is utterly marvellous, I hate it when we're apart, I'm the luckiest person alive to be with them' and more time thinking 'what shall we have for dinner tonight, must remember to get the car serviced, we're invited to someone's party at the weekend'.
Or 'stuff' gets in the way - a busy or stressful time at work, a close family/friend hospitalised, a different hobby becoming prominent (eg political activists leading up to an Election, opera fans when their favourite singer's in town, the arrival of better weather for walking/cycling/open swimming).
It's easy to maintain a healthy, calorie reducing diet for a time. Spring and summer - you don't feel a need for so much stodge; cutting out beer is no big deal; it's enjoyable to cook meals from scratch. Hyper-awareness of everything you eat. Then, you go on holiday, it's Christmas, or you've been invited to a series of parties in close succession, and one or two puddings, some more wine, a cheese sauce won't make much difference. Your favourite singer is in town or the Election is imminent, and you have time only to grab take-aways or Ready Meals. And more drink, because of being sociable is nice. You go for a long cycle ride. You deserve cake at the half way point, and fish and chips and cider at the end. Calories eaten on holiday or at Christmas don't count.
You plan your meal: nutritionally balanced, calorie counted. Appetising, delicious. You eat it, but you still don't feel full. I saw something years ago that people with a specific gene mutation have difficulty feeling full even after apparently stuffing themselves. I identified with that. I'm not saying that I have that gene mutation, or even that I feel less full than the average person. But it was a pause for thought - maybe wait 20 minutes before having seconds, extras, pudding.
That's fine when you're feeling good. I'm lucky that I don't have chronic mental illness - I'm only depressed as a result of an easily identifiable event. But if I'm low with a cold or fed up that things aren't going my way, I find it easy to comfort myself with food. Not necessarily whole packets of Mr Kipling cakes, not nowadays, and I'm not an emotional drinker, but sometimes a cheese sandwich is easier to make than a vegetable soup. So I assume that that is also true for people with clinical depression, especially that which takes a hold or recurs.
Having fibromyalgia, and more especially, chronic fatigue, has the same effect. The sensible voice in your head tells you the benefits of a fish and veg dinner but when you don't have the energy to shop or cook, ordering a pizza delivery is far easier and less draining.
Fibro and CFS affect my ability to move around. So do lots of other medical conditions. Some of them may only be temporary - broken bones, twisted joints - and others may be more entrenched - eg rheumatism, asthma. I know that exercise is good for fibro (but, confusingly, not good for CFS), and I assume that a moderate amount of appropriate gentle exercise is advised for many other medical conditions. Easier said than done.
If you already hurt, why on earth would you do something that hurts even more. Similarly for fatigue. Fear of either becomes a mental block. If you get over that mental block, you're less fit and your exercise session will be shorter and less intense and have fewer benefits than habitual challenging exercise.
I saw a video of some psychopath American personal trainer who yelled at the camera thinking he was refuting everyone's excuses for not working out. It was funny and sad, because he clearly lacked emotional intelligence, and didn't know that not everyone is like him. If your excuse for not working out is that you've kids to look after, you should work out, because if you die young from not working out your children will suffer. But life doesn't work like that. 'Not working out' is unlikely to kill many people before their kids are old enough to fend for themselves. On the other hand, not attending to the immediate basic needs of children now - supervision, food (and everything else) - is unconscionable to any decent parent. As humans we make choices, often driven by necessity. If we risk assess, we prioritise imminence and probability over impact. So, yes, if I'm fit and healthy it will lengthen and increase my earning power in decades to come, but if I don't finish this report tonight, I will definitely suffer consequences tomorrow.
Many of us under-estimate what we consume, and over-estimate how active we are. I speak for myself and from observing people. When I go out walking I see people gathering in a central point. I read a walker's blog (she's a retired GP), and she commented that most people don't venture more than a hundred yards from the car park. I saw her point, but felt she was exaggerating for dramatic effect. Until I noticed the same.
On occasion, individuals have valid reasons for only taking a small stroll...indeed what other people do in this respect is not my business. But I think many will talk of how they went for a walk or took the kids to the park and genuinely believe they are being active.
I filled in a quiz that classified me among the most active third of the population. I reckon that there is a third of people (ie half of those less active than me) who are inactive for very good reasons - age and other mobility limiting medical reasons. But I did wonder about the other half of people who are less active than me. I recognise the constraints of working full-time or longer (plus commute), of child care, of elder care. People with time-consuming hobbies, often contributing to the community, who are far from lazy. But I thought, it's only expecting you to do 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, or 20ish minutes of brisk walking a day.
I aim to do 20ish minutes of brisk walking or similar a day, but I know it can sound daunting to people. It's daunting to me, on off days or recovery days. If you don't think you can manage 20, try 10. If not 10, 5 as a starter. I've broken off writing this to do my weights and sit-to-stands in my living room. Actually, I haven't. I'm lying, but you get my point! And, anyway, I know I am more active in March - October, providing it's not raining, so I might not be in the most active third of population.
I live in Inner London so am surrounded by easily accessible public parks and commons, busy enough to make me feel safe. If I lived in the country half a mile from a public footpath, would I use it if I have to walk down a 60mph bendy road with no footway. It's raining, I leave for work in the dark, come home in the dark, and I'm anxious that the only person I'll meet will be a crazy with a knife looking for a lone female who's gone out walking because some moron in the Guardian comments has declared that people who don't eat a little bit less and move a little bit more are lazy and stupid.
So, as everyone knows, losing weight just requires a bit of discipline about what you eat and a bit of will power to exercise. So what's the big deal about obesity, it's only a problem for stupid lazy people!
1 I think I actually mean 'lose fat' because reducing muscle is generally not a good idea; furthermore someone who eats less and moves more may well increase their muscle mass and increase the numbers on their scales. But I'll say 'lose weight' because most people know what it means in a general sense.