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Big fat lies
First as a student and then as a junior doctor, I felt the most important scourge of mankind in the future would either be heart disease or cancer. Later, I thought that perhaps some new form of germ, like an extremely resistant form of tuberculosis, or a born-again germ like smallpox would emerge as the biggest killer. Amazingly, mankind showed me how unpredictable it is as a species, emerging as its own destroyer. It is obesity today that is killing more people in the world than cancer.
For the non-believer, there are many statistics staring at us bleakly. About 50 per cent of urban women and 30 per cent of urban men are overweight or obese. Up to 50 per cent of urban school children were found in a study to be fatter than they should be.
Moreover, we don't need a study to tell us that the number of people on a diet, those going to gyms and others who are consciously eating healthy food is at an all-time high. Ironically, while 45 million Americans are members of some gym or the other, two-thirds of the entire population is overweight or obese. No wonder, the second most popular surgery in the country after gall-bladder removal is bariatric surgery - the keyhole surgery on the stomach that causes weight loss.
So, it's safe to say that there are many weighty issues plaguing us. In fact, we are justified in asking, "Why do I, an individual, fail to lose my belly fat if I am doing what you experts have been saying all along?" The reason is because you have been fed myths for years together. While it is not possible to debunk the entire weight-loss phenomenon in one article, we will identify the top 10 fat loss myths and how they can be changed:
1. EXERCISE MAKES YOU THINNER |
This is perhaps the biggest myth of all. It is not your workout that will make you thin. Can what you do in the gym for one hour, undo what you do in the remaining 23 hours? I know many young men who blissfully consume alcohol and eat junk every other day because they believe they will gym-off the extra kilos over the next three days.
What does science say? It has been shown repeatedly that the most important (or even the only way) to get thinner is to incur a caloric deficit. This means you eat fewer calories than you burn. While an hour of exercise can burn anywhere from 100 to 300 calories, a meal or snack (say a burger, Coke and fries) can add 1, 500 to 2, 000 calories or more. A samosa and jalebi feast at your favourite sweet shop after the Sunday morning walk in the park (during which you probably burnt an impressive 100 calories) could give you around 800 to 1, 500 calories. In truth, it is impossible to out-train or out-exercise a bad diet.
Let us take an extreme example. A 65-kg marathoner running 42 km burns around 2, 600 calories. Every runner consumes sports drinks, energy drinks or sugary water all the way. If he or she averages five drinks of 200-300 calories each, the intake adds up to 1, 000 to 1, 500 calories. In effect, the person has run 42 km and burnt only 1, 000 calories. Add just one carb-rich meal and the caloric deficit is wiped out and not one gram of fat is lost.
2. AVOID EATING FATS |
To this I say, 'eat fat to fight fat'. For the layman, this would sound counter-intuitive, if not downright scandalous. The reason why we get fat is because we eat more. Why do we eat more? Because we have cravings. Why do we have cravings? Because we eat too many carbohydrates and not enough healthy fats. The presence of proteins and healthy fats in a meal helps achieve satiety. You feel less hungry. On top of that, these fats (fish oil, olive oil, egg yolks, nuts, ghee, butter, cheese, mustard oil, coconut oils) carry vitamin D and other fat-soluble vitamins. Deficiency of vitamin D is linked to obesity, cancer and heart disease. Consuming fats may ultimately lead you to eating less often and consuming fewer calories.
3. DRINKING FRUIT JUICE OR DIET COKE IS HEALTHY |
Who can find fault with fruit juice? Even a child knows it is good to drink his juice every morning. Unfortunately, there are issues here. Most commercially available juices contain added sugars and preservatives which do nothing to your body except give you calories and some chemical insults. On top of that, preserved fruit juice is devoid of all its natural vitamins that fresh juice has.
So, is fresh juice good? Not if you are keen to get slimmer. Fruit juices contain natural sugars that are quickly absorbed into the system. The increased glucose load triggers an insulin spike from the pancreas to control it. Insulin's action is to convert glucose into fat - specifically belly fat. If you eat whole fruits instead, the fibre in the fruit slows down absorption of the sugars. As far as diet sodas are concerned, while they contain zero calories, they do nothing to fix the underlying problem of craving sugar. There is some evidence, though, to suggest that the sugar substitutes may still create an insulin response that leads to fat deposition.
4. EATING BANANAS (OR NUTS) MAKES YOU FAT |
A banana will give you 70 to 120 calories, depending on whether it is the tiny yellow one or the big green one. It will also give you potassium (a vital element), minerals and vitamins. It will not make you fat, even if you eat two of them. What will make you fat is the packet of chips, or the bhajiyas you had in the office canteen, or the Maggi you made for yourself at home when you had a hunger pang. Similarly, nuts, which are rich in minerals and vitamins are sources of good calories. An ounce of nuts (equivalent to 22 almonds) will give you around 175 calories, while a plate of three puris and alu sabji will cost you around 500 calories, totally devoid of vitamins and minerals.
5. WORKOUT ON THE TREADMILL, 45 MINUTES DAILY, AT LEAST 4-5 TIMES A WEEK |
This regime will help you burn around 500 calories a week, which will be made up with one serving of chicken bharta, or two gulab jamuns. Why waste an entire week on a boring activity if you can't burn off all your fat? If you have to burn energy, do multiple exercises in a circuit. This, as your trainer will tell you, strings together three to five major compound movements like squats, jumps, push-ups and the like in one full exercise without any rest period in between. Three to five sets of circuits should leave you lying on the floor. The total exercise time is a maximum of 15 to 20 minutes. This will boost your metabolism (called an afterburn) and burn calories even if you are at rest. It is rather like a bank interest earned daily after a deposit of cash. This does not mean walking is bad. By all means walk every day. Just use the park and not the treadmill.
6. MORNING WALKS HELP YOU LOSE WEIGHT |
The morning walk is like one's mother - you can never find anything wrong with it. It is good for your body, heart, brain and limbs but does not do much for fat loss (for the same reasons as the previous point). On top of that, the body quickly adapts to the energy requirements of a walk or jog. So, after an initial spurt of fat loss, you will see a plateau because the body now allows you to do the same exercise spending less energy.
7. SOME PEOPLE GET FAT EVEN IF THEY DRINK WATER |
Also known as, 'But I don't eat anything, believe me!' A very big myth. The fact is that everyone under-reports his/her intake. Many people only remember the major meals they take and forget about the soft drinks, alcohol, chanachur, mishti doi and cutlet they had while working. To diagnose the problem, a food journal is necessary to keep track of every single thing you eat and monitor your daily calorie intake.
8. WEIGHT TRAINING WILL MAKE ME MUSCULAR AND UGLY LIKE A BODYBUILDER |
Can you ever be too rich? It's the same with muscle. Women will never become manly by doing weight training because they lack the male hormone testosterone. It is another matter that the totally shredded and beefy look is often the result of steroids more than the weights.
9. DO MORE CRUNCHES AND AB EXERCISES TO GET RID OF THAT POTBELLY |
A universally applicable, silly myth. There is, as every sensible trainer should tell you, no such thing as spot reduction. In other words, you can't choose to just slim down your thighs or reduce those love handles. Fat is lost overall, not from any specific site that is exercised. Doing ab crunches are a waste of time in more ways than one. If you need to train the abs, the best exercises would be heavy squats (with a weight on your back) or planks (a posture where you hold the flat body rigid and parallel to the floor, resting on your forearms and toes. Another fantastic exercise is called a hanging leg raise, where you hang on your hands from an overhead bar (like the monkey bars in a children's park) and slowly try to touch your feet to the bar. Overall, abs training is not necessary for having six packs or a flat tummy. Diet is what will give you that.
10. YOGA WILL MAKE ME THINNER |
A truly great Indian tradition that is being taken over by the West, yoga restores flexibility and balance, is great for feeling good, but unfortunately, it does nothing for fat loss in most cases. To burn significant calories through yoga would need you to do something like Bikram Yoga or Prasara Yoga, popularised in the West by coach Scott Sonnon in various forms like Circular Strength Training and IntuFlow. In the latter system, various ordinary bodyweight exercises are altered to create a complex movement that most people would find tough. For example, a simple exercise like the walk is converted to an extremely demanding one called the Kong, where you walk like an ape. You squat on your hands and feet, like an ape, and then try to walk or canter on the ground, like one. Using four limbs for walking like an animal is really an experience. Prasara Yoga is a very sophisticated form of bodyweight exercise that could help you achieve fitness if combined with a good nutritional plan, but is not a walk in the park. Bikram Yoga is also known to burn fat because it is an intense 60 to 90-minute workout that stresses your whole body.
The writer is an advanced laparoscopic and bariatric surgeon based in Kolkata
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