What You Need to Know about Obesity and Overweight

(English Transcript of Interview of Nastaran Habibi on SBS Persian Radio on 19 September 2017)

(Peyman Jamali – SBS Radio): Fifty years ago obesity and being overweight were not really discussed as health issues. However, there are now 65% of Australian adults who are either overweight or obese.
In your opinion, as a dietitian, what are the causes of obesity? Do you believe individuals are responsible for their own obesity (due to lack of physical activity and poor eating habits) or do you believe it is caused by other factors such as genetics?
(Nastaran Habibi): In my opinion, obesity is a complex disease and there are many contributing factors such as genes, the environment and lifestyle choices. Some studies have shown that genes are responsible for between 45 and 75% of cases of obesity. However, this does not mean you will become obese if you have the genes. However, weight loss and maintenance are more difficult if you have the genes.
Similarly, genetics also plays an important role in the development of cancer, but not everyone with cancer implicated genes will develop cancer. In fact, the risk of developing cancer can be significantly reduced by following a healthy life style.
(Peyman Jamali – SBS Radio): Is there a common dietary advice for weight loss management or as a dietitian do you give different advice to different clients?
(Nastaran Habibi): People differ from each other depending on their age, gender, genetic makeup, level of physical activity and their life style. Therefore, the dietary advice should be different to meet an individual’s needs and to enable them to be able to follow the advice for a long time.
Usually, as we get older we tend to put on more weight because of a reduction in our physical activity and muscle. Due to the significant drop in estrogen in women’s bodies, and the reduction in testosterone hormones in older men, they both tend to store fat in their abdomen which in turn increases the risk of development of diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Women and shorter people have a lower metabolism than men and taller people respectively, so they need less food intake to meet their energy requirements. Therefore, weight loss is more challenging for women and shorter people but not impossible. In addition, some diseases and medications may contribute to weight gain and make weight loss management much more difficult.
(Peyman Jamali – SBS Radio): Many people try different diets to lose weight and in many cases, they can reduce a significant amount of their weight. However, after a while they gain the weight back or even more. What is the main reason for this weight gain, especially after working so hard and success to lose it?
(Nastaran Habibi): We need to acknowledge that obesity doesn’t happen overnight and it takes a quite a long time for people to gain their excess weight. Therefore, we can’t expect to lose the weight in a short time and permanently.
There are different factors making weight loss management more challenging. For instance, with weight loss also comes both the loss of fat and muscle. Unfortunately, loss of muscle is not desirable as it affects the metabolism negatively – the body needs less energy to maintain weight and any extra energy creates weight gain. This makes it important to also do resistance and weight lifting exercises to prevent that muscle loss.
Another factor, is that fat cells increase during weight gain but are not destroyed during weight loss – they only shrink in size. It only takes a small increase in food intake or a small reduction in activity level for those with successful weight loss, to gain the weight back much quicker.
A final factor is the role of hormones such as Leptin. Leptin is produced by fat cells and is responsible for satiety. After weight loss, less Leptin is produced and therefore the person feels hungry and finds it more difficult to lose more weight or even to maintain their weight.
(Peyman Jamali – SBS Radio): In recent years, we witnessed many popular diets all promising a miracle cure for obesity. However, they soon lose their popularity and give way to other diets as they don’t deliver what they promise. In your opinion, do you think the key is following a diet or obesity needs to be treated with other means?
(Nastaran Habibi): The most effective way to lose weight is to reduce energy intake and increase physical activity and this is how most popular diets work even if they don’t explicitly state that. However, reducing food intake in an environment where we are surrounded by easily accessible food is not an easy task. Some of these diets encourage people to avoid certain foods or food groups which in the long term may cause nutritional deficiency. Recent studies have shown that reduced energy diets which include more protein, healthy fat and fibre reduce your hunger level and make the weight loss journey more sustainable. It should be noted that before following any diet, the patients particularly those with other diseases should consult with their physicians and dietitian.
(Peyman Jamali – SBS Radio): What is your advice to our listeners who would like to lose weight?
(Nastaran Habibi): As I just said, the most effective way to lose weight is to reduce calorie intake and increase physical activity. The majority of people, especially those with excess weight should avoid empty energy foods like soft drinks, pastries, cakes, biscuits, lollies and fried foods, which provide a lot of energy but lack nutritional value.
They need to be mindful while eating. Mindful eating is a strategy which helps us not to eat when we are not hungry and to have control over our eating habits. For example, before putting food in my mouth, I should ask myself whether I am hungry, do I really need this food, and whether I can make a healthier choice.
Food preparation and cooking is very important in healthy weight loss management. It is common to hear that a busy lifestyle and a lack of time is the reason for relying on fast food or making poor dietary choices. We usually spend time on things that are important to us. If we give importance to eating healthy and nutritious foods, we can surely make time for meal planning and preparation.
Finally, people who would like to lose weight and maintain it for a long time, need to follow a diet which is customised to their lifestyle, likes and dislikes and provides all the nutrients they need for a healthy and fruitful life.