The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 15: Dieting, Fitness and Nutrition – do you know the difference?

This is the fifteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

(Note: If you like this, you might also like Lesson 7 and Lesson 11.)

Young adults, you cannot get online without see articles on dieting, fitness and nutrition. Do you know the difference?

I confess I find it confusing at times. I know people think dieting must make them healthier. It can, but it can also make you sick. In some cases, if done without medical supervision, it can even kill you. So dieting is not necessarily healthy. I also know people who eat very nutritiously and yet it hasn’t made them any healthier. In addition, I know people who get plenty of exercise yet who are unhealthy. All these practices contribute to good health, but none of them guarantee health. Each has their pitfalls and misconceptions. Voluminous media reports on the latest scientific studies only muddles answers. I may be able to help you see through the mist a bit.

Let’s start with dieting. My bet is that any one time, most Americans are either on a diet or wish they had the willpower to go on a diet. They want to lose weight because the media drums it into them that being overweight or obese is unhealthy. They figure: if I can get to a normal weight, I’ll be healthy!

This is not necessarily true. I see many skinny things that are not healthy at all. Maybe it is because they smoke, take narcotics, are anorexic or never exercise. Having normal or below normal weight does not mean you are healthy and dieting to achieve a normal weight may or may not leave you healthier. You can be morbidly obese and still be healthy, with low cholesterol and blood pressure. However, a normal weight combined with good nutrition and regular exercise dramatically raises the probability that you will enjoy a healthy and a long life. Yet, there are never any guarantees. Even the healthiest person can contract a cancer or pick up a virulent infectious disease. Dieting alone is not a solution to your health. It is one of many means that may allow you to be healthy.

A legitimate diet followed rigorously will lower your weight. Nothing else is guaranteed. Losing weight is simple, but not necessarily easy. You must burn more calories than you take in. Diet plans merely offer different approaches for losing weight, but they can only succeed if you burn more calories than you ingest. Losing weight is often associated with reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels, among other welcome changes, but there is no guarantee that these healthy goals will be achieved by losing weight.

Dieters often make the mistake of thinking they can lose weight by exercising more while they diet, reasoning they will burn more calories and thus take off weight more quickly. The research is now compelling: exercising has a number of healthful benefits but it may defeat your attempts to lose weight, at least if done to excess. If you do a lot of heavy work, like chopping wood, your blood sugar is lowered. This may cause your body to taunt you to eat more food to make up for the extra calories you burned. You may end up healthier from the exercise but your diet may fail. Over the years, I have experienced this, and I have seen it happen to too many of my friends as well. If you really want to lose weight, I would avoid the heavy cardiovascular exercises until after I was at my desired weight. Especially if I were obese, I would check with my doctor first about doing any heavy cardiovascular exercises.

Exercise, while a healthy practice, is actually a very inefficient way to burn calories. The vast majority of your calories are engaged in a much more Herculean task: maintaining your body. How inefficient is exercise? Men’s Health Magazine recently estimated that to consume a popular six hundred calorie entree, you would have to walk the stairs from the ground floor of the Empire State building to the observation deck twice. So counting calories to lose weight is much more effective than vigorously exercising and dieting, as it is more likely to succeed. Choosing mild, moderate or even no exercise is probably more effective at succeeding at dieting than heavy exercising. The most effective way to lose weight is actually simple: consume many measured, small mini-meals during the day so you never get hungry.

Is there a point to fitness given that it may not help you lose weight? Yes! Assuming you are exercising correctly, not overdoing things and not overly stressing joints and such, you are likely to have fewer aches and pains, you will feel a lot better and will have more energy to engage in life. If it’s been a long time since you have felt that way, you will be amazed how wonderful you will feel after a couple weeks of moderate exercising. In fact, the value of exercise arguably increases with age. What is the key factor for living to ninety and still being in good health? Good genetics certainly helps, but falling is what often kills or disables old people who haven’t succumbed to other disease. What causes most falls? It is a lack of exercise, both walking religiously and strengthening the muscles that maintain your balance, such as your thigh and hip muscles. My father, age 84, remains an avid and religious walker. He may be 84, but he goes to the gym regularly. That he walks without a stoop is proof of the value of regular exercise late in life.

While exercise is in general good, exercise is vastly improved by marrying it with good nutrition. Eating healthy while not exercising and being obese may help a little, but if you suffer from problems like high blood pressure, it is likely not a cure. As I mentioned in Lesson 7, nutrition is about giving your body the right stuff so that it can work optimally. If you are overweight or don’t exercise, it may make symptoms like adult diabetes less chronic, but it will probably not solve the problem. Proper nutrition does help you think clearer, feel better about yourself and aids all parts of the body.

Putting this all together: diet to lose weight but as a part of a plan to keep yourself at a healthy weight for life. Yo-yo dieting is not healthy, and may be worse than not dieting at all. Exercise to feel better and so that you can live a long life with minimal health issues. Eat nutritiously so that your body is primed to work optimally.

While these are foundations to health, there are also many other factors that contribute to health. Washing your hands regularly, flu shots, dental checkups, physicals, getting eight hours of sleep a night and avoiding many of the preventable stresses in life, like toxic bosses also contribute enormously to your good health. Your goal should be optimal mental and physical health. All these strategies help achieve it but none of them by themselves guarantees it.

 

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