New Year comes around each year, unsurprisingly, and we get bombarded with information on how to change ourselves. More often than not this is around diet and exercise, after all, who does not want to be thinner or fitter?
This time of the year reminds me of my favourite quote. It is a gem by Albert Einstein,
"The definition of Insanity is doing the same thing twice and expecting a different result"
How many times have we made resolutions, read the 10 top tips to achieve them, bought the latest celebrity-endorsed exercise plan, and then given up a few weeks later.
This article is going to break it down for you - and help you understand that real change requires a dynamic and individual approach with lots of support!
We love talking about the 'obesity gene'. Well, I don't. I'd rather talk about poo. But it does seem to be a topic of great intrigue to the rest of the world for a pretty good reason.
If we could find this gene, we could figure out how to switch it off, and save the world.
Unfortunately, scientists have instead found a complex myriad of genes which code for many different obesigenic factors such as hunger, satiety, exercise tolerance, fat storage, and so on.
Due to this genetic complexity of obesity, we will most likely never have one gene we can manipulate to make a huge difference. The real surprise is that research is showing us that these genes only account for 5% of our risk of being overweight or obese.
Wow - even I was surprised how low that is!
This is both good and bad news. The bad news is we will have to stop using the excuse 'it is just in my genes'. The good news? That 95% of making a change is in your hands!
If you want to read more about genes and their role in obesity the oxford journals have some great information.
When I was first starting out, many years ago, I attended a conference where this was pioneering research.
I was blown away. It changed the course of my career in Nutrition.
Most of us will understand that we are created from the meeting of our mother's egg and our father's sperm. What this means is the health of our parents at the time of our conception impact on the health of our genetic code.
More on from that, as a woman is born with all the eggs they will ever have - the health of our mother's mother (our Grandmother) when our mother was conceived plays a role.
Well when our mother was conceived, the egg that made us was also created. Half our genetic code existed decades before we were even born.
Woah! I know crazy.
The research in this area is growing exponentially. But basically, one of the biggest factors was your mother's weight and dietary intake when you are in the womb.
This contributes to your risk of being overweight in later life. So women who are in famine or who eat a calorific diet (both ends of the scale) are more likely to have obese children.
This we are less sure on. However, it is hypothesized that women who are undernourished trigger 'thrifty genes' in their unborn infant, which helps that child put on weight with less food.
It is the body's way of protecting us in times of famine.
On the other end of the scale, women who are overweight when pregnant tend to give birth to larger babies who have a higher risk of metabolic syndrome (diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke).
Further on from that, we are also exploring how different infant feeding methods impact on obesity risk.
I will not dwell on this area as it is hotly debated and requires an article of its own. In a nutshell, there is some research to suggest that formula fed babies have a higher risk of obesity compared with breastfed babies.
Whether formula is causative or breastmilk is protective...or neither...is yet to be fully understood.
Either way - your start in life plays a small role in your weight today.
In my opinion - with experience and research - one of the biggest contributers if not THE biggest is our family and community environment.
Researchers have been trying to find a strong family genetic link to obesity due to the likelihood for obesity to be common amongst family groups. As of yet, whilst genes have been discovered, their strength in causing obesity is relatively weak.
The strong predictor seems to be learned behaviours.
Our family and friends' eating habits closely relate to our own feelings around food and body image. I will explore this in more detail at a later date - along with the dangers of the 'big is beautiful' message.
However, for the time being, think of how your family approaches food.
It is about fun and love? Is it used to control or manipulate? Does coming together for a gathering mean lots of cooking and baking? Or is it used as a reward, a motivator for good behaviour?
All these uses of food get carried with us into adulthood - it is what makes us devour a tub of ice cream after a bad day at work. These associations with food and 'good', 'bad', 'sad', 'happy', are ingrained in us from a young age.
Our family and friends are also our support network.
If they are telling us how we eat is normal or fine we will be less incline to change. Or if they get upset or challenge us when we try to change our eating behaviour we will also be less able to come up against that resistence.
Why did I mention community? What does community have to do with it?
Well, again, research has shown us that our postcode can determine our risk of obesity - often with great accuracy!
Is it time to move house to help your cause? What should you look for?
Well densely populated, lower socioeconomic areas tend to have fewer green spaces (if any) - which means less access to areas for kids and adults alike to play and exercise. There is often more traffic and it is less safe or comfortable to go for a walk or run along the streets.
General neighbourhood safety also plays a role, as people are less likely to let their kids go outside to play or are less likely to want to exercise outdoors themselves.
The cost of food differs too between suburbs. In studies across the UK and USA it was found that fruit and vegetables were more expensive in lower socioeconomic neighbourhoods and convenience foods (chips, soft drink, sweets) were cheaper when compared with wealthier suburbs. There is also a higher number of fast food outlets per square area. So even your community can be against your new year resolutions!
No! The point of this is to show you the complexity that goes into behaviour change. All the things that mean just saying "I'm going to eat better and go for runs" often doesnt work.
Perhaps the most important question that it all boils down to is - Do you really want to change?
Because after all, the desire to change is the biggest motivator there is.
Hopefully what this has shown you is that we all possess the ability to change our behaviour. It is about getting access to the right tools and support. People who understand what your barriers may be and can keep you on track
. Real sustained change requires committment and bravery.
We need to be brave to attempt goals in the first place, as for most of us the fear of failure is worse than actually giving something a go. If we never try we never fail....but hey you never succeed either!
- Question your motives - are they strong enough to get you through the tough times?
- Get a good support network - will they be there for you? Do you need professional support too?
- Spend a little time planning - have you thought through previous problems and how you will overcome them this time?
- Get started - forget the outcome, any step towards your end goal is progress. Slowly does it. You just need to start.