The Department of Health's report "Healthy Lives, Healthy People" has been released and the spotlight has been on Health secretary Andrew Lansley emphasising the need for the nation to cut calories to fight the obesity epidemic. I might be alone in this, but I think this message was useful because:
1. It highlights the importance of calories. While there are so many diets talking about the value of low fat, low carbs and all manner of different combinations of foods, what weight ultimately comes down to is calories. You need to either consume fewer calories or burn off more of them if you want to lose weight.
2. When it comes to emphasis on eating less versus exercising more, you get far more effect from cutting back what you eat than being more active. That's not to say exercise isn't important (for many more reasons apart from weight) but eating less has to be the cornerstone of any weight management programme.
3. The Chief Medical Officer stated that people are eating approximately 10% more calories than they need. Think about this for a second. It's only 10%. You don't need to subsist on a boiled vegetables and salad diet to have a recommended calorie intake. You don't need to make drastic changes as most diets would have you believe; you just need to cut back your calorie intake by 10%. That is achievable.
But this message has copped a lot of flak because people (including Jamie Oliver) have deemed the essence of the advice: "eat less" as being too simplistic. Indeed, most overweight people have probably been told at least once in their life, that all they need to do is "eat less and exercise more".
To be blunt, I rank "just eat less and exercise more" alongside "just try harder" and "just be more confident" in the pantheon of useless advice.
A similar example would be asking someone how they ran a marathon and them replying: "I just put one foot in front of another until I got to the finish line". Yes, it's true, but it doesn't help anyone.
On a practical level, when we talk about weight loss, it's more useful to think about it as involving three different aspects.
The first is reducing calories you take in. This is all about what you eat and more importantly how much you eat.
The second is burning calories. This is not just about exercise in a gym but any and all physical activity.
However it's the third aspect that doesn't get much attention and yet it is equally important. It's how to make changes to your lifestyle (reducing what you eat and being more active) so that they become a habit.
Contrary to popular opinion, willpower is not enough to make lasting permanent change to your lifestyle. Unfortunately the willpower myth has left many people despairing that they don't have the necessary self-control to achieve a healthy weight.
The fact is you lose weight and keep it off to the extent that you can change your lifestyle. When new healthy behaviours become second nature (a habit), you become a healthy person who maintains a healthy weight.
While many people will tell you which diet to go on and which exercise programme to try, how many people tell you how to make these changes part of your lifestyle?
And therein lies the challenge. Telling people to eat less and exercise more and that they just need to use more willpower doesn't work. We need more people talking about how to achieve the changes for the long term.