Physical fitness is my passion, so exercise has always formed a major part of my healthy weight-loss programs and, let's face it, exercise is non-negotiable when it comes to losing a lot of weight.
It's also important for mental health: studies show it can improve your mood, boost your concentration and alertness, and even help you develop a more optimistic way of looking at the world, all of which influence your mindset and eating habits. Personally, I can't imagine my life without exercise; I just feel so good when I move!
Yet, I've always maintained that you can't outrun a bad diet -- that what you eat has a far greater influence on your weight and health than exercise alone.
Without a doubt, diet is the number-one factor in weight loss.
Even with all the training in the world, if you eat sugary, fatty, processed food, you are going to put on weight. Conversely, eating the right foods in the right amounts will mean you maintain a healthy weight or lose weight (if you have weight to lose). Not only that, it will contribute to your overall health and wellbeing. Certain nutrients can help us to ward off disease, live longer lives, boost cognitive power, ensure optimal operation of our physiological functions and improve our mood.
Now, I'm not saying that you should eat lettuce and sit on the couch for the rest of your life -- exercise is still critical for a whole range of reasons, not least of which is being able to step out of the shower without breaking your hip when you're over 60 -- but if you understand a little bit more about how what you eat affects your body, I know that it will inspire you to make healthier food choices. And this is key: what you eat is your choice.
It sounds so easy, doesn't it? Yet what we choose to eat depends on a stack of complex and interrelated factors, including the eating patterns we learned in childhood; the prevalence of cheap fast food; our consumer lifestyle (bigger, better, faster, more -- 'I want it all and I want it now'); aggressive marketing by the big food giants; aisles of unhealthy food in supermarkets; our ethical principles (whether we eat animals, sustainable food, biodynamic or organic food), and, most importantly, our stress levels and emotional state.
When we feel anxious or depressed, many of us look to food (especially sugary or fatty foods) to make us feel better. And there is a biological reason for this. Sweet foods activate the reward pathways in our brains ('This is GREAT! Gimme more!'), which makes sense because our brains run on glucose and we need it for all of our bodily functions. However, when we have too much sugar, it not only gets stored as fat (hello heart disease), it also messes with our insulin levels (insulin resistance), which can lead to type 2 diabetes.
Fats are a bit different. We still love the soothing and satisfying feeling we get when we eat high-energy foods like nuts, avocado, coconut, dairy foods and animal protein, but because our bodies have evolved an 'off switch' (the energy-balancing hormone leptin) to tell our brains that we've had enough fat, it's harder to eat too much of it. Unfortunately, if we are already overweight or obese, our appetite-controlling hormones are already out of whack, and the messages that we've stored enough fat are not getting through.
Of course, the most lethal combo is fat and sugar, which happens to be present in pretty much every processed food you can buy -- chocolate, ice cream, cake, pastries, biscuits, spreads, dressings, sauces, even crackers and bread.
Now, I could give you a whole bunch of scary statistics about the connection between obesity, diabetes and heart disease, and how many of us are playing with fire when we eat so much processed food, but that's not going to help you make better food choices. I know from experience that long-lasting change won't come from fear. It has to come from a place of acceptance. You will only care about what you eat when you care about yourself. This amazing collection of molecules and particles that makes up your body is uniquely yours, and you have the opportunity to look after it, nourish it and honour it any way you choose. I'm inviting you to put your health first because it all starts and ends with you.
I often heard The Biggest Loser contestants standing on the scales telling the world they need to lose weight and they're doing it 'for my kids' or 'for my husband'. While their hearts are in the right place, their minds are not. Other people's happiness is not your responsibility. In any case, you will always be better able to look after others when you have taken the trouble to look after yourself. How can you take care of your kids if you're chronically unwell yourself? Or enjoy your grandchildren if you're constantly in and out of hospital? Or support your family if you're too sick to work?
All too often I see people using food as a means of reward or punishment: "If I get through this I'm having a treat" or "If you don't eat your veggies you can't have dessert". Parents who use dessert as a bribe are teaching their children that veggies suck and sweets rock, a mindset that will help to create the next obese generation.
For me, food is nourishment for the body and mind. It's also a celebration of the little pleasures that make up a happy life -- the aroma of basil freshly picked from the herb garden, the vibrant colour of a freshly tossed salad, the joy you feel when your family or friends tell you how much they love your cooking. The most important thing is that you get basics in the kitchen and try new things. More than this, it's about enjoying nutritious food with people you love for the rest of your long, happy and healthy life.
Food for Life by Michelle Bridges is published by Pan Macmillan, RRP $39.99.
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