Diet and the holistic approach to physical and mental health

When we are trying to lose weight, it is easy to become so fixated on this goal that we loose the perspective and fail to look at the bigger picture. And in this case, the bigger picture is absolutely huge. What is this “bigger picture” I am talking about? It is your mental and physical wellbeing as well as your overall health. In principle, losing weight should be a piece of cake (pun intended). As long as you consume less calories than your body is using, you should become slimmer and slimmer. So why is it that people find it so complicated to lose weight (and indeed maintain the hard-earned new body afterwards)? And why is it becoming increasingly clear that we should we adopt a more comprehensive approach to our weight loss goals?

“Diets don’t work”. A sentence heard very often at gyms, fitness classes, even everyday conversations. Why is it that they don’t work? In a vast majority of cases it is likely due to one simple concept: sustainability. Any diet that has you starve yourself on a large calorie deficit is certainly not sustainable. You might lose a bit of weight at the beginning, but as soon as you return to your regular diet you will gain all of that weight right back on (and possibly even more). This is due to the evolutionary adaptation of your body which dates back to the times when we were all hunters and gatherers. After a period of starvation, when the body starts receiving food, it will immediately store it in order to allow us to survive the next time the food is scarce.

Furthermore, any diet that excludes a certain food group or a type of nutrient (most of the time its carbohydrates) will not be sustainable. Following such a way of eating for a prolonged amount of time is likely going to lead to health problems associated with deficiencies in the excluded nutrients. In the case of low/no carbohydrates diets, this usually results in headaches, extreme fatigue and reduced ability to perform any physical exercise. Additionally, substituting a diet rich in a variety of whole grains, vegetables and fruit for protein shakes and chicken with rice is likely to result in micronutrient deficiencies. While these kind of diets might work for certain people if implemented very carefully and for a short amount of time, they are definitely not sustainable.

Similarly any diet, no matter how well designed in terms of nutrition, which causes you to feel miserable, depressed and induces the feeling of guilt inside you every time you have a sweet treat or a small “cheat meal” is also unsustainable in terms of mental health. This can result from adhering to the diets similar to the two examples given above and mental wellbeing is notoriously overlooked when people go on various eating plans. The notion that one has to be miserable and suffer in order to shed a few pounds is a very dangerous one as it makes it very easy to blame any failure of the diet to produce results on the person dieting. These people would often hear: “you don’t want it enough”, “you didn’t do it properly” or “you are just not mentally tough enough to lose weight and be fit” and it will make them feel like failures (which they are certainly not!).

It is therefore clear that designing a successful and balanced diet requires determining what approach is sustainable and most likely to succeed for each person on a case-by-case basis. It also should take into consideration all of the factors mentioned above – hence the “holistic” rather than “one-dimensional” approach. Lastly, I would like to put the importance of all of this into an even bigger, global picture.

Why is it more important now than ever to take a more holistic approach to diet? It is because we are currently dealing with disease epidemics on a global scale. Obesity rates are skyrocketing at terrifying rates. I won’t try to list all of the statistics, but two quotes from the World Health Organisation website paint a scary picture: “Worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975” and “39% of adults aged 18 years and over were overweight in 2016, and 13% were obese”. This means that we are approaching the moment where a fifth of the world population will be obese!

However, this is not nearly as bad as it gets. Obesity is at a centre of a group of interlinked conditions termed the “metabolic syndrome”. These include elevated blood pressure and sugar levels, abnormal lipid levels in the blood and resistance to insulin (which is a state that predisposes sufferers to development of type II diabetes). This means that obese individuals are likely to develop, or already suffer from, one or more of these conditions.

Crucially, suffering from the metabolic syndrome increases your chances of developing, among others, multiple types of cancer, type II diabetes, atherosclerosis, polycystic ovary syndrome and sleep apnea. It is estimated that around 20-25% of the worldwide adult population is suffering from the metabolic syndrome. However, possibly most importantly for the purposes of the article, in the vast majority of cases, obesity is completely preventable!

Mental health problems are also becoming more and more prevalent. As an example, depression is known to affect over 300 million people worldwide and it is predicted that by 2030 depression will be the leading cause of disease burden globally.

I hope that through this essay I have managed to highlight the importance of why we need to shift the way we think about dieting and physical and mental health. For those interested in doing further reading on the subject, below are some websites and articles to get you started.

References and further reading

1. WHO website fact sheets about obesity and depression:
http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight
http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression

2. A very good review describing causes, molecular mechanisms and treatment approaches for metabolic syndrome:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3966331/

3. A summary article from a scientific meeting organised to discuss the links between metabolic syndrome and the associated diseases I mentioned above:
https://academic.oup.com/toxsci/article/162/1/36/4585010

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