I jogged 15km a week, so why did I keep getting fatter?
I found myself becoming part of the overweight statistics in the early 2010s. I was gaining weight every year and I had to keep buying bigger work pants. It was puzzling. I jogged 15km a week, so why did I keep getting fatter?
After some research and ruling out genetics, I discovered that my weight gain happened because I had never questioned the popular narratives around health and nutrition. For example, like many people, I believed that exercising regularly was enough to burn off excess weight gain.
I also believed that getting heavier was part and parcel of ageing. It was only when my waistline went from 30 to 34 inches in five years that I started to question my deep-set beliefs. In 2013, I changed my diet, reduced my weight from 74kg (BMI 25.3, “overweight”) to 63kg (BMI 21.5 “normal weight”), and I have maintained my weight since then.
I did not discover any miracle diet. I simply dealt with the narratives that were making me fat.
Are We Headed Towards Becoming A Fat Nation?
The topic of obesity has come under the spotlight lately, emerging as a pressing concern necessitating action and greater public awareness. According to the World Obesity Federation, around half of the world’s population (over 4 billion people) will be overweight or obese by 2035 if action is not taken. This could cost the world US$4.32 trillion annually by 2035 – nearly 3 per cent of global GDP – on par with the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Individuals who have a body mass index (BMI) of 25 and above are considered overweight, while obesity is defined as having a BMI of 30 and above. Right now, about one in seven people globally are obese; this number is expected to rise to one in four by 2035. Compared to other countries, Singapore has a relatively low obesity rate, but it is creeping up. According to the National Population Health Survey 2022, the obesity rate in Singapore last year was 11.6 per cent, up from 8.6 per cent in 2013.
One common misconception about obesity is that it is solely the result of poor personal choices and lack of willpower. But it’s not only about overeating or being too lazy to exercise; obesity can also be caused by genetic factors. It’s essential to note that addressing obesity is not about shaming individuals but rather promoting health and well-being as it can increase the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and certain cancers. To turn the tide on this, it helps to rethink the common narratives about health and nutrition.
Exercise More To Lose Weight
Regular exercise is critical for building strength, stamina and improving blood circulation. Many people believe that if they exercise regularly, they will not gain weight. However, we may not realise how hard it is to burn off excess calories from a heavy diet. For example, if you run 2.4km, you will only burn about 150kcal, or the equivalent of a can of soft drink. It has been said that “you cannot outrun a bad diet”.
Indeed, it is difficult to burn off the excess calories from a night of drinking and eating. I also discovered that after years of jogging three times a week, my body has acclimatised and no longer burns as many calories with each run. So, it is primarily my diet that decides my weight now. We must exercise regularly, but first, we must eat healthily.
Do Numbers Mean Anything?
When was the last time you weighed yourself? We live in a world that is driven by data, yet do we track the numbers that measure our health and nutrition? Many of my friends do not weigh themselves regularly. They tell me they dread seeing the numbers. I weigh myself every morning because my weight data drives my eating habits.
If I see my weight trending upwards, I simply eat more bland, low-calorie food that day. This is how I have kept my weight near my ideal target of 63kg for 10 years. But what types of food contain fewer calories? Should we count calories? Regardless of your view on calorie counting, there is rich data on the calories of our local dishes (for example, chicken rice has about 600kcal).
Knowing more data can help us make informed eating decisions, and that is why I study the nutritional labels at the supermarket and avoid eating char kway teow. The data is out there, why not use it?
It’s OK To Gain Weight As I Get Older? Not Really
Adulting is stressful. Singapore is a food paradise. There are many snacks in the office pantry. Once we realise our environment makes it easy to overeat, we should ask if our growing paunch is due to age or our eating habits. My schoolmates and I are now in our late 40s. While many have put on the pounds, some have maintained a youthful figure through healthy eating and regular exercise.
I recognise that our metabolism will slow down as we age. Some of us have medical conditions or lack of access to healthy food. But we need to dispel the notion that becoming overweight is an inevitable part of ageing. Instead, we need to remember that being overweight or obese increases our health risks. That means we must work harder at managing our weight as we age.
Do Diets Work?
There are many different types of diets out there: Mediterranean, keto, intermittent fasting and so on. Each has its proponents and naysayers, but I have come to learn that everyone must find the diet that works for them and stick to it. With proper medical advice, of course. I follow the standard medical advice: Eat in moderation, consume more vegetables, and reduce intake of carbohydrates and red meat.
I do not claim that my diet will work for everyone, as we all have different physiologies or perhaps, medical conditions. But we should not assume that diets do not work. We just need to find one that is safe and suitable for us.
I Have To Stop Eating Nice Food
No, we do not have to stop eating our award-winning local delicacies. We can eat smaller portions by sharing with friends or family. Also, we should remember that the first bite of any good food often tastes the best. The pleasure diminishes with each additional bite, so why not stop when we are at a high? The global obesity problem is a complex one. The World Obesity Federation says it is “caused by a variety of factors, including biology, mental health, genetic risk, environment, healthcare access, and access to ultra-processed food”. It is also clear that our modern lifestyle habits are making the problem worse. To change our lifestyle, we need to question the narratives that shape our health and nutrition before it is too late.
Article by Ian YH Tan, lecturer in strategic communications at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University.