If you’ve ever fantasized about having abs like a Marvel superhero – and who hasn’t? – you’ve probably heard this bit of wisdom: You get awesome abs in the kitchen, not the gym. In other words, if you want a well-defined midsection, what you eat is more important than how many crunches you do. Makes sense. After all, what good are toned, bulging muscles if they are hidden under a layer of belly fat?
In recent years, scientists have come to a similar conclusion about weight loss in general. The real key to slimming down is restricting calories, not increasing exercise.
In fact, exercise itself doesn’t really lead to weight loss. Regular physical activity has lots of benefits. It reduces the risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia and some cancers by at least 30%. But unless it’s coupled with reduced caloric intake, it won’t make the pounds melt away.
As evidence, researchers point out that in the last 30 years, exercise levels have stayed about the same, while excess weight and obesity have skyrocketed. Nutritionists blame the food we eat – the highly-processed sugary foods and sodas that too often dominate today’s diet.
Our processed diet is so dangerous that even normal-weight people who eat too much junk food can be at very high risk of chronic illness and early death, regardless of how much they exercise. Up to 40% of people with a normal body mass index have food-caused metabolic abnormalities typically associated with obesity, including hypertension, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and cardiovascular disease.
Sugar and other carbohydrates are the worst culprits. Sugar calories promote fat storage and hunger. For every additional 150 calories in sugar (the amount in a can of soda) a person consumes per day, the risk for diabetes rises 11-time, regardless of exercise.
So, the single most effective thing people can do for their weight, the experts have said, is to restrict calories – especially from carbohydrates. Fresh, natural, unprocessed foods should account for as many of your daily calories as possible.
Some radical food activists believe the obesity crisis is so severe that we need to limit the advertising of snacks and other processed foods, just as tobacco marketing is tightly controlled.
I think that’s going too far.
But I do think most of us could make better choices with our freedom. Even if you are currently at an acceptable weight, eating better and getting regular exercise can pay dividends in the form of good health and longer life.
That’s a retirement benefit you can really build on.