If you’ve been following health news or have been on any fitness journey, you’re probably familiar with the phrase “eat less, move more”.
But recent research suggests that this advice might not be the magic solution we thought it was.
In fact, there’s something unseen that has its foot on your scale and you don’t even realize it: your basal metabolic rate.
Let’s dive a bit deeper into this newly uncovered issue impacting obesity.
Table of Contents
What is Obesity?
Obesity, which is characterized by having an excess amount of body fat, has turned into a global health crisis.
It’s a serious medical condition that can lead to various complications, from heart disease to diabetes and even some types of cancer.
This issue affects millions of people worldwide, and it’s usually measured using the body mass index (BMI).
When a person’s BMI exceeds 30, they’re classified as obese.
The Energy Balance Hypothesis of Obesity
The energy balance hypothesis of obesity proposes that weight gain, and obesity, arises from an imbalance between the calories we consume and those we burn through physical activity.
Essentially, if you’re consuming more energy than you’re expending, weight gain occurs.
Conversely, burning more calories than you consume leads to weight loss.
But here’s the kicker, this energy balance isn’t as simple as it seems.
It’s a delicate interplay between diet, physical activity, and genetics.
And our modern environment—with a myriad of unhealthy food choices readily available, the widespread marketing of processed foods, and the shift toward more sedentary lifestyles—has made it increasingly challenging to maintain this balance.
Let’s take a minute to talk about energy expenditure.
This refers to the calories your body burns during your day-to-day activities and at rest.
When your energy expenditure decreases—say, from spending too much time sitting in front of a screen—it becomes easier to tip that energy balance towards weight gain.
Increased physical activity can ramp up energy expenditure, promoting weight loss and maintaining a healthy weight.
But we also have to understand that obesity isn’t just about an imbalance in energy intake and expenditure.
It’s a complex condition with multiple contributing factors, like genetics, environmental influences, and lifestyle choices.
New Research Uncovers a Decline in Basal Metabolic Rate
Just when we thought we had a handle on what’s causing obesity, a recent study published in Nature Metabolism threw us a curveball.
This study looked into changes in daily energy expenditure components, aiming to shed light on the escalating obesity epidemic.
The study discovered a relationship between obesity, energy expenditure, and activity levels. But that’s not the shocking part.
They observed a decline in our basal metabolic rate, meaning we’re burning fewer calories at rest than we used to.
Also, the energy spent during physical activity has decreased, leading to a lower total daily energy expenditure.
As obesity becomes more prevalent, our body composition changes—we’re seeing a higher proportion of fat mass and a lower proportion of lean mass.
In addition to this, lower physical activity levels contribute to the decline in daily energy expenditure, further fueling the obesity epidemic.
Why is Basal Metabolic Rate Declining?
The decline in our basal energy expenditure is due to several factors.
Advancements in technology have led to more sedentary lifestyles, reducing the energy we burn during rest.
As the population ages, metabolic rates naturally decline, contributing to reduced energy expenditure.
But this phenomenon is occurring now in younger people.
And that underlines a critical finding that challenges our previous understanding of energy balance and obesity.
It suggests that our bodies’ intrinsic metabolic rates, often compared to a ‘thermostat,’ have been decreasing over the past few decades.
The thermostat analogy refers to the metabolic rate at which our bodies burn calories at rest to maintain essential functions, much like how a thermostat maintains a steady temperature in a room.
Interestingly, this decline in metabolism seems to be happening despite an increase in physical activity levels, which typically ramp up our metabolic rates.
Said another way, “eat less, move more” is… well, not accurate anymore to put it nicely.
Our bodies require energy to carry out daily activities, from the most strenuous tasks to maintaining basic physiological functions like heartbeat, breathing, and maintaining body temperature.
The latter is our basal metabolic rate (BMR), the energy our body expends while at rest, and it’s this rate that we refer to as the ‘thermostat.’
The BMR accounts for about 60-70% of daily energy expenditure in sedentary individuals.
Interestingly, recent findings suggest that this ‘thermostat’ has been gradually lowering over the past several decades, leading to an overall decline in human metabolism.
In essence, our bodies have been burning fewer calories at rest than they used to, even when we adjust for factors such as age, sex, and weight.
And as a result, this decrease in our metabolic rate may be contributing to weight gain and obesity, even in individuals who are physically active.
It’s the Fat (But Not the Kind You Think)
The main culprit behind this decline according to the new research?
The type of fats we consume.
Specifically, the shift from saturated to unsaturated fats that has occurred in our diets over the past several decades.
Yes, you read that right.
Saturated fats are mainly found in animal products like butter, cheese, red meat, and other high-fat dairy products.
They were once believed to be a leading contributor to heart disease and were subsequently vilified in dietary guidelines.
This led to a global dietary shift towards unsaturated fats, found in seed oils, fish, nuts, and seeds, touted for their heart-healthy benefits.
However, this shift towards unsaturated fats could be one of the significant contributors to our declining metabolic rates.
Certain unsaturated fats, particularly polyunsaturated fats, can suppress thermogenesis, the process through which our bodies produce heat (and expend energy).
This suppression can reduce our basal metabolic rate, effectively lowering our body’s ‘thermostat.’
This surprising connection implies that our metabolic fate may not be as directly tied to our physical activity levels as we once thought.
Even if we’re exercising more, our bodies may be compensating by decreasing the number of calories we burn at rest.
This complex interplay between diet, metabolism, and physical activity further highlights the multifaceted nature of energy balance and obesity.
Of course, this is not to say that we should revert to consuming large amounts of saturated fats or decrease our physical activity. It’s about understanding that our body’s metabolic processes are not static and can be influenced by various factors, including the types of fats we consume.
As fascinating as these findings are, we need more research to fully understand the complex interplay between energy metabolism, thermogenesis (our body’s heat production), and the role fat cells play in energy regulation.
We also need to accept the fact that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution to managing energy expenditure or addressing obesity.
Solving the Obesity Puzzle
Obesity is a complicated issue.
One that has often been (over)simplified to a matter of energy balance – consuming fewer calories than we burn.
However, the reality is far more complex.
It’s not just a problem of too many calories consumed and too few burned. Rather, obesity is an intricate puzzle composed of multiple elements, including genetics, environmental factors, and lifestyle choices.
So how can we address this multifaceted problem of obesity?
It’s evident that single-dimension strategies are not sufficient.
Reducing caloric intake and increasing physical activity are crucial, but we now know they aren’t the silver bullet.
We need a comprehensive approach that tackles all the aspects involved in obesity.
One that takes genetics, environment, and lifestyle interventions. So, let’s explore that.
The field of genetics has the potential to revolutionize how we approach weight management and overall health.
Consider this: each one of us is unique, right down to our DNA. This genetic uniqueness influences not just our physical appearance, but also how our bodies process foods, respond to exercise, and even how we store fat.
For instance, research has indicated that certain genetic variations can make some individuals more predisposed to gain weight than others.
Some people might be genetically inclined to crave high-fat or sugary foods, while others may be naturally more resistant to weight gain even if they consume a high-calorie diet.
Similarly, certain genes can influence how effective exercise is for weight loss for different individuals.
Now, imagine if we could use this genetic information to create personalized diet and exercise plans?
That’s the exciting potential that genetics offers.
Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach to weight management, we could tailor our strategies to each person’s unique genetic makeup.
Suppose you have a genetic predisposition towards craving sweet foods.
In that case, your personalized plan could include strategies for managing these cravings or substituting healthier alternatives.
Or if your body responds more positively to a specific type of exercise, that could be the mainstay of your physical activity plan.
Understanding your genetic predisposition towards obesity could also assist in early intervention and prevention strategies.
It could enable healthcare professionals to identify who might be at risk of developing obesity and put preventative measures in place before the issue becomes a problem.
Of course, the interplay between genes, environment, and lifestyle is complex, and genetics is just one piece of the puzzle.
But with further research and advancements in genetic testing, we could be looking at a future where weight management is a much more personalized, effective, and nuanced endeavor.
That’s an exciting prospect!
Shaping Our Environment
Now let’s talk environment.
Our environment profoundly shapes our behavior, including our eating habits and activity levels.
By shaping our environments to promote healthier choices, we can make a substantial difference in tackling obesity.
Consider the influence of our immediate environments like schools and workplaces.
They are where we spend a significant portion of our time and, consequently, consume a good portion of our daily calories.
If these environments offer healthier food options and prioritize nutrition, they can foster healthier eating habits.
For instance, imagine school cafeterias that serve fresh, nutritionally balanced meals instead of the usual fast food fare.
Or think about workplaces that provide fruits and veggies in the break room or vending machines that dispense nuts and yogurt instead of candy and chips.
Such changes could guide individuals to make healthier choices, even without realizing it.
Similarly, the availability of safe and accessible recreational facilities in our communities plays a crucial role in promoting physical activity.
Well-maintained parks, walking trails, and public sports facilities encourage people to incorporate more physical activity into their daily routines.
They offer spaces for kids to play, adults to exercise, and communities to engage in active, health-promoting activities.
We also can’t overlook the impact of marketing on our food choices.
We are bombarded daily with advertisements for high-calorie, low-nutrition foods, which influence our eating behaviors, especially among impressionable children.
Implementing policies that limit the marketing of such foods, especially to children, can play a crucial role in shaping healthier dietary habits.
A more systemic approach could include urban planning that encourages physical activity, such as building pedestrian-friendly roads, cycling lanes, and easy access to public transportation.
Cities could also invest in community gardens that not only provide a source of fresh produce but also promote physical activity and community interaction.
Lastly, government policies can have a significant impact on public health.
Policies that subsidize healthier food options can make them more accessible and affordable to the public, encouraging healthier eating patterns.
In essence, creating health-promoting environments requires a multi-pronged approach that spans individual settings like schools and workplaces, broader community infrastructure, and national policy.
It’s not a quick fix, but it holds the potential for significant long-term benefits in the battle against obesity.
Lifestyle interventions are a vital component of the multi-pronged approach to address the obesity epidemic.
It’s not merely about understanding what to do but more about learning how to incorporate these practices into our daily lives, making them habitual and sustainable.
Education is the bedrock of any successful lifestyle intervention.
Empowering people with the knowledge they need about healthy eating habits is key.
This involves not just understanding the nutritional value of different foods but also learning about portion sizes, meal planning, and preparation techniques that preserve or enhance nutritional content.
This education shouldn’t be limited to adults. Implementing nutrition education in schools can sow the seeds of healthy eating habits from a young age, which can have a long-lasting impact.
Physical activity is another crucial piece of the puzzle.
Education about the importance of regular exercise, and its numerous benefits, can be highly motivating.
This isn’t just about organized sports or gym workouts.
It’s also about everyday activities like walking or cycling to work, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or doing household chores.
Encouraging a culture of physical activity within families and communities can also contribute significantly to an active lifestyle.
Sleep and stress management are often overlooked elements of a healthy lifestyle, yet they are just as vital.
Sleep education should emphasize the importance of quality and quantity of sleep, good sleep hygiene, and how to address common sleep problems.
Stress management education should focus on teaching practical techniques such as mindfulness, yoga, or simple breathing exercises.
It should also highlight the importance of work-life balance and encourage the pursuit of hobbies and activities that foster relaxation and pleasure.
Healthcare professionals play an indispensable role in lifestyle interventions.
They are positioned not only to provide expert guidance but also to monitor progress and address problems along the way.
This could be in the form of a dietitian planning a personalized meal plan, a physiotherapist guiding an exercise regimen, or a psychologist providing cognitive-behavioral therapy to address emotional eating.
Regular follow-ups can also offer the opportunity to celebrate successes, which can boost motivation and adherence to lifestyle changes.
Community health initiatives can supplement these efforts, offering group classes on cooking, physical activities, or stress management techniques, which can provide peer support and make the journey towards a healthier lifestyle more enjoyable.
Finally, digital technology offers exciting opportunities for lifestyle interventions.
Smartphone apps can help track diet and physical activity, provide educational content, or facilitate virtual support groups.
Each of us can make a difference by understanding our energy balance, practicing healthier eating habits, and increasing our physical activity.
Personalized approaches to weight management, informed by research, can lead to effective solutions. And that’s the main reason the Wellness Watchdog exists!
Small Changes; Big Impact
It’s essential to remember that small changes can have big impacts.
By making healthier food choices, incorporating more physical activity into our daily routines, and understanding how our bodies burn and use energy, we can work towards achieving a healthier weight.
Understanding the relationship between obesity and energy balance is crucial in fighting this global issue.
The energy balance is not a simple “calories in, calories out” equation but a dynamic process influenced by many factors.
To truly tackle obesity, we need to foster healthier environments, make informed food choices (know your fats!), and encourage regular physical activity.
With the right information and personalized strategies, we can make strides towards improving our health and combating obesity.
So let’s all strive to keep our energy balance in check.
Small changes in our diet, activity levels, and understanding of energy balance can lead to significant results. It’s time to shift the paradigm from a blame game to empowering each individual with the right knowledge to make healthier choices.
The power is in our hands—we can change the course of this obesity epidemic.