New Year, New You - why having less of you can help your health
The turkey has been eaten - roast, sandwiches, curried leftovers - and the wrapping paper cleared away. Now our purses are many pounds lighter and our scales tell us we're a few pounds heavier. As we start the New Year, why should losing weight be top of our agenda?
High blood pressure
Despite all the medical progress we've made in recent years, heart disease is still the single biggest killer in the UK. And high blood pressure is one of the biggest risk factors for heart attack, as well as for stroke. The danger of having raised blood pressure is that you very rarely know you've got it - but that doesn't mean it isn't putting you at risk. Regular exercise can help lower your blood pressure, and so can reducing the salt content of your diet. But losing about 10% of your body weight - say, just over a stone if you weigh 11 stone - will drop your blood pressure by about 10 millimetres of mercury. To translate that from medical into English, that's equivalent to reducing your risk of dying from a stroke by a massive 40%, and a pretty impressive 30% fall in your risk of a fatal heart attack.
Heart disease and cholesterol
Raised cholesterol is another major risk factor for heart attack and stroke. A 10% weight loss not only cuts your 'bad' cholesterol by about 15%, it also increases your 'good' cholesterol, which actively protects you against heart disease. Of course, reducing the saturated (largely animal) fat in your diet also helps. But the great thing is that saturated fat is extremely high in calories - so by cutting down the fat in your diet you can reap double rewards by losing weight as well!
We have an epidemic of diabetes in the UK, and most of it is down to excess weight. The number of people in the UK with diabetes has doubled in the last 20 years - exactly mirroring the proportion of people in the UK who are obese. Diabetes is another big risk factor for heart attack and stroke, as well as putting your eyesight, kidneys and nervous system at risk. In a big study of people at high risk of diabetes, a combination of weight loss and regular exercise cut the risk of diabetes by more than half over five years. This is one area where prevention is definitely better than cure - because while you can treat diabetes, there is no cure.
It's not rocket science. Osteoarthritis, the most common cause of joint pains, happens largely because of wear and tear on the joints. The most common joints affected are the hips, knees and spine - the ones we put most pressure on when we walk. The more you weigh, the more pressure you put on those joints. Even small amounts of weight loss can reduce pain, and slow down the progression of osteoarthritis.
Dieting - what works and what doesn't
We live in a world of plenty, with too much food and too little time to exercise - so it's not surprising all too many of us are tempted by the 'quick fix' of a crash or fad diet.
On the whole, crash diets don't work - if you're eating less than about 1,000 calories a day your body starts burning muscle rather than fat, and you're more likely to feel tired and constipated. They also don't teach you to retrain your 'normal' eating habits, so you may be more likely to put the weight on again. Some, like Jenny Craig, offer support and counselling which help you keep weight off long-term - but they don't come cheap. Your practice nurse can offer advice and follow-up. Group programmes like Weight Watchers and Slimming World, where like-minded dieters meet regularly and share their highs and lows, seem to be even more effective than the nurse!
With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.