#3rd world problems. Obesity too?

For some reason, people are making more noise about the rising rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease in Africa. The irony isn’t lost on anyone that, even as many people on our continent struggle to feed themselves properly everyday, we now have another section that seems to be eating themselves to an early grave. We are going through a ‘nutrition transition’ as the UN puts it.

The statistics, in my opinion, are a bit dodgy but we are definitely on an upward swing. And no, its not just South Africa and the Northern states.

If you live in a city anywhere in Africa, it’s pretty obvious that people are getting larger. We are still a long way from reaching the terrifying proportions found in some places, namely the US of A, land of the free and land of refined carbohydrates and sugar and additives and everything that is wrong with industrialized agriculture, but we aren’t safe.

Do we really need to worry about extra inches round our middles, or what we eat? The thing is, there isn’t much social stigma attached to being overweight in Africa. Here, you are rarely fat. You are big, you are healthy, you carry a ‘wide load’, you are plump, you have a big booty, etc. You will never lack suitors just because you don’t look like a Cosmo cover girl.

Only problem is, being overweight carries the risk of developing type 2 diabetes later on in life. Diabetes is basically when your pancreas give up after riding the sugar train for too long. Blindness, amputations, kidney failure and other nasty side effects are basically glucose poisoning. My grandma has diabetes. I can count at least two relatives who succumbed to it, and it’s not a pretty way to go.

Living in Africa (yes, I said Africa, with its many countries and diverse peoples and I know how many countries there are) means that, to some extent, we are protected from some of the more atrocious food crimes, such as antibiotic soaked meat, e-coli in salad vegetables and we aren’t exactly being avalanched by nutritionally worthless but calorie dense fast foods.

And of course there is the idea that our ‘traditional’ diets are very healthy, and that if we eat like this then we will live to be 120 like our great grandparents. Except that it’s not very true anymore. (Interesting study that compared Maasais with rural and urban Bantus and their overall body composition of Maasais, urban and rural Bantus to find out who would be the chubbiest.)

Living and working in a typical African city usually means wasting huge chunks of your day stuck in traffic, getting home late, and basically checking out in front of the tv or with a beer. Which is fine, because trying to go for a jog in Nairobi is ridiculous.

But it also means that we probably did not notice the creep in our diets: more refined carbs, more junk food, more options to eat out, more beer, more processed foods that contain hidden sugar, more soft drinks, etc, all the while buying bigger and bigger pants. 

Our diets, already pretty heavy on the starches: I’m talking about maize in all its disguises, which isn’t as traditional as we are led to believe: ugali, sadza, paap, whatever you want to call it, its the same.

And now we  have even more added carbs that turn into sugar in our bodies: living on wheat and maize and potatoes and cooking oil does not constitute being on our ‘traditional’ diet.  (Pdf on history of food in East Africa)

The  thing is, with the amount of pure carbohydrates and sugar we eat, and the lack of movement, we start to exhaust our pancreas.

Over the short term, an appetite out of whack, weight gain and inexplicable cravings.

Long term?

Diabetes and ‘lifestyle diseases’.

Learn about proper nutrition. Take charge of your health today.

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Weight management programs that go against conventional wisdom (Part 1)

Everyone knows that a healthy diet is the key to looking good, feeling good and being skinny. We have all been taught that we must eat lots of vegetables and fruit, healthy grains, and that red meat is bad and fat is even worse. And if you have a few kilos to lose, then exercise a lot and practice something known as ‘moderation’.

For many people, this works just fine. But for others, no amount of balanced dieting and treadmill running seems to do the trick. And for them, there exists a whole host of alternative plans to choose from. I will talk about some of the popular weight loss plans out there today, starting with the big daddy of them all:

1. The Atkins Diet

Dr Atkins was an overweight cardiologist who managed to normalize his weight by limiting carbohydrates and increasing his consumption of meat and fat. He published a book in 1972 and another in 2002 that became very popular but also very controversial.

This is because he basically said carbs make you fat, but saturated fats don’t, so you can eat them as much as you want with no negative effects on your health. Dietitians and doctors were outraged that a fellow colleague could promote such an irresponsible approach to weight loss, and he was ostracized by the medical community.

Science sort of agrees with him now: a diet high in protein not only makes you full, it also increases satiety, making it more natural and easy to control how much you eat. (Light read from Women’s Health and deeper stuff as to why exactly.)

The diet is pretty simple, and requires people to cut down ‘carbs’ to the bare minimum, that is, lots of vegetables and some fruit, while eating as much meat, fish, eggs and healthy fats as desired.

It is executed in 4 stages, gradually allowing the dieter to increase the amount of ‘carbs’ they eat until they find a level that lets them maintain their body weight at the desired level. You can read all about them on their official website

From the picture above, it honestly doesn’t look so bad. But humans have the capacity to turn good things into not so good: initially people took this diet as licence to gorge on processed meat. The market soon followed, with an increase in low carb ‘products’ such as bread, cookies, and everything else in between, causing even more controversy and complaints that Atkins is not a good weight loss program.

The downside

People struggle with this approach because:

  • It is very difficult to believe that you cannot eat all the things you were told were healthy- bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and anything that contains wheat
  • Your diet choices are pretty limited, and there is a lot of pressure from society to eat high carb foods.
  • Your alcohol tolearnce may suffer and the intensity of your hangovers may surprise you
  • Interpreting this as licence to eat grade A steaks at every meal rapidly becomes unsustainable
  • Obviously, some people get bored because the food choices seem limited. How many eggs can you honestly eat in one day?
  • It takes some time to forget the ‘stuffed’ feeling you associate with having eaten enough
  • If you are vegetarian, then, well you need to get super creative
  • Some people also report feeling unwell, especially in the beginning. Low-carb enthusiasts call this the ‘low carb flu’ and it usually goes away after 2 weeks or so.
  • Going back to a diet of 60% or more carbs will result in serious weight gain, so if you are in, then you are in for the long haul

The upside

  • You will lose weight and you will lose it fast, especially during the first two weeks
  • You lose water and fat and get to keep your muscle. This is a good thing
  • You don’t need to exercise (but it’s recommended)
  • You don’t need to count calories
  • It is a nutrient dense program that doesn’t require the buying of protein powders, pills and other gimmicks
  • You won’t experience the hunger swings that come with calorie counting
  • Your cravings for sugar, sweet drinks, chocolate and junk will slowly but surely all go away
  • You could get used to not eating bread and eventually realize that starches are devoid of taste anyways

 Verdict

Is it sustainable? 

This depends on individual preferences and tastes. Atkins is pretty flexible after the initial phase and is not a zero-carb diet. Also, you don’t need to buy any special stuff. You could start right away and keep on keeping on.

Is it healthy?

The jury is still out on whether or not humans need starches as an integral part of their diet, but many people think that, actually we don’t.  The emphasis on lots of vegetables, fruit and high quality protein is a solid win, but many people are suspicious of eating meat. Does it rot in our systems? Does being vegetarian save the planet? Neither here nor there.

There is also a debate about whether or not saturated fat causes heart disease. The debate is swinging in favour of the fat heads, and more specifically, understanding that you only need to avoid manufactured fats and not be scared of the good stuff.

I should say that I’m not a health expert. But I do find the controversies surrounding weight loss, health and diet very interesting, and I want to share this information in case anyone out there is interested in a dose of self experimentation…

5 reasons why strength training works for me

For a long time, I thought that the best and fastest way to lose weight was to do some serious cardio.

So I dutifully went to the gym, ran on the treadmill until I nearly destroyed my knee, cycled on the stationary bike while reading Cosmo magazine and worked out my anger issues by jumping around to cheesy music during aerobics.

I would feel great after my workouts, sleep better and generally enjoy the post work-out rush.

But I never lost any weight. Not a single kilo. Not even a few centimeters off my generous middle.

I would give up by the third week, start making excuses about why I could not go to the gym,  experience crushing guilt because I had paid so much for the damn membership, then go back for another three week spurt of intensive exercise, all leading to nothing.

But after I got my diet sorted out and actually started losing weight, I started working out at home. With videos that I found on the internet because I knew, at the back of my mind, that I would never live up to my gym membership expectations.

Since I  had really enjoyed doing yoga in India, that’s what I started with.

Here are 5 reasons why I love strength training (aka everything that isn’t cardio):

1. Fewer reasons not to do it

Some people enjoy the whole gym routine. Getting your bag, rushing from the office/school/home to catch your favorite class. Secretly competing with the guy next to you.

Me, not so much.

I find that there are too many built in excuses (too much traffic, I have that assignment due tomorrow, I’m going for a drink with my friends…) in this routine. Working out at home, on the other hand, is different.

Sometimes when I’m feeling really lazy I will do a ten minute power yoga session. Other days I will do 20 minutes of core work, or 35 minutes of weights. The point is, it’s easy to find little gaps of time to work out.

My favorite is as I wait for my dinner to get ready, or just before I take my evening shower.

Also, the fact that you begin to see improvements in your performance, flexibility and muscle tone almost immediately is a strong incentive to keep doing what you are doing.

2. Value for your time

To be honest, it is not very easy losing weight just by exercising alone. Especially if you are a woman. But strength training is different, because your body is very good at responding by packing on some muscle.

Mind you, I’m not talking about looking like a body builder here.

I’m talking about toned arms, that line that runs down your back, and an ass that has reclaimed its natural, perky as a peach  shape.

Another benefit is that you can also ditch those firming creams meant to get rid of the ‘orange peel’ effect.

You will not get that by running on a treadmill. You could, from playing basketball. (But be honest, we aren’t in high school anymore.) Or, more realistically,  just by doing 20 to 30 minutes a week of strength training two or three times a week.

Assuming, of course, that you are watching what you eat.

3. Variety

I’m using the word strength training here to include all the stuff that involves working your muscles by exhausting them, either with added weights or using your own body weight, which has lots of benefits.

So, yoga, power yoga, hot yoga, yoga-lates, pilates, circuit training, HIT, HIIT, tabata, metabolic training, the Women’s Health workouts, the list is endless.

And if you have a decent internet connection, you can find something out there that you will like and that will suit your level of fitness. (I’m still on that thing that came before fiber optic. Do you even remember what that feels like???? smh)

4. You won’t get rabidly hungry

If you ever played sports in high school, trained for a marathon or otherwise committed yourself to some serious exercise, you know that intense hunger is your body’s natural reaction to increased physical activity.

This is also one of the reasons why exercise alone will not really help you lose weight (unless you are a young male producing oceans of testosterone…and in that case go away, we hate you.)

Add that to the fact that we vastly overestimate how much we actually burn while working out, and  feel entitled to a post-work out treat and you can see how this whole thing could rapidly become an exercise in futilty.

For example, eating a pack of ‘medium’ fries is enough to erase all the hard work you did during your 45 minute aerobics session)

Check out more comparisons here and here.

However, by no stretch of imagination can I reward myself after a 10, 20 minute work out.

Especially if I barely broke into a sweat.

5. You become more aware of your body

This is especially true if you incorporate some yoga, Pilates or some other form of exercise that emphasizes on repetition and relaxing your body. When I do yoga, my posture naturally improves, the tension around my neck and shoulders disappears and I can literally feel that my muscles are stronger as I go about my daily activities.

I don’t know if that makes sense.

This awareness is also a powerful incentive to keep working out, and often, to push yourself further either by lengthening the duration, trying out something new, or increasing the amounts you do. Mostly without forcing yourself.

The bottom line is, working out is an important part of managing your overall health. Being consistent can be a challenge, especially if you seem to be doing it all for nothing.

That is why it is important to find something that you love doing, and that you can easily incorporate into your lifestyle. For me, that is lifting weights, walking a lot and doing some yoga.

What’s worked in the past?