By Brendan Moyle 05/12/2016

Much has been made recently of the growing obesity rates in NZ.  And the “obesogenic environment” is attributed as one of the underlying causes.  We are collectively less active than optimal, have too much food readily available, and many eat inadequate quantities of fruit and vegetables.  Fad-diets rise and wither away as the promised short-cuts to lose weight can’t be sustained.

While I am of an age where nobody is ever going to ask me to be an underwear model[1], I’ve managed to dodge the whole obesity thing. Even the over-weight transition stage.  All without ever having gone into a gym.  It’s gotten harder over the last decade though.  There’s been times when my activity levels have waned. That’s really been the most important point.  My weight fluctuates with physical fitness, which comes back to activity levels.  So I’ve had to manage fitness up and weight down (a little) this year.  Most of it has come from just making sure I stay more active.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

Being active for the sake of being active is hard.
It’s easy to be active if you’re doing something else.  Going for a bike ride is easier if it’s part of a commute, or you’re running an errand.   Going for a walk or hike is easier if you’re taking photos, or walking the dog, or catching Pokemon.  Just going out and being active, simply to be active is actually not easy.  Even if you are used to being active.  There’s lots of distractions at work or at home.  And it’s easy to find excuses. You’re too tired, the weather is too cold or it might rain etc.  We are really good at finding reasons to avoid exercise.   Gyms know this. That’s why a large percentage of members quickly give up.

It helps to be a vegetarian
Basically, finding a good diet early in life and sticking to it helps.  One of the unintended benefits of becoming a vegetarian decades ago, is it instantly closed off most fast-food outlets as an option. With that, I also dodged the soft-drink habit. Vegetarians also tend to have a diet that has all the things we’re supposed to eat lots of. The vegetarian diet isn’t the only ‘healthy option’- the Mediterranean sic [2] is also supposed to be good. But the common element is that these diets are higher in fruit and vegetables than modern Western.  And they have less red meat.

So if there is a need to wind the calories down a bit, these diets make it easier.  You tweak the meals to bulk them up with more say, vegetables.  It’s not a dramatic shift.

Embrace your inner salad

Soups and salads are wonderful.  And by salad, that doesn’t mean some tired bits of iceberg lettuce tossed around with some chopped tomatoes.  Salads (and soups) can be quite balanced meals, and tend to pack less calories than other meals.  Just eat them more often. Bulk up on those rather than energy-dense foods.

Two wheels good, four wheels bad

I’ve been commuting to work on a bicycle for a long time.  I started in the late 1990s.  Even running errands on a bike (where you can) works.  Cars are really convenient in many ways. But they’re not going to give you much of a workout. Nor are they particularly good for the environment.  One correlate with rising obesity levels is the level of car ownership.  Households own more cars now than they did 20 years ago, or 40 years ago.

Variety matters

I switch between several forms of physical activity.  Partly because this keeps exercise interesting. The main options are cycling, running, hiking and the rowing machine.  I’ve even taken to running as a commuting option.  It does take a lot longer, but it’s nice to have the variety.  The rowing machine is the least interesting, but provides a bad weather option. It ‘s also a pretty good workout for many muscle groups.

It’s a lifestyle change

It’s more about setting up permanent changes to eating habits and behaviours.  It’s about a healthier, more active lifestyle than obsessive, behaviour you can’t sustain.  Weight loss and maintenance is a consequence of being healthier.  So minor things like eating fruit as a snack instead of an indulgent pastry during the day adds up.

Set yourself goals

This feeds back into the motivation.  So for example, one of my goals this year has been to limit driving work to once per week. Every other day I try to bike or run. Or set goals with running. Try to get the 5km run down to a (realistic) time.  They’re something to aim for.

It doesn’t have to cost a lot

You can spend a lot of money on being healthy sic.  Gym memberships, quinoa salads, carbon-fibre road bicycles etc can produce a big financial hit.

But the important thing is you don’t have to spend money on these things.

Some forms of exercise like running or hiking doesn’t have to cost a lot. Sometimes you can pick up good gear second-hand in markets like Trade Me.  And healthy food doesn’t have to cost a lot either [3].  One of my staples since almost forever, is porridge (oatmeal) for breakfast.  It was a habit from when we were kids and my parents wanted something, well, cheap.  We might have dreamed of sugary breakfast cereals back then, never appreciating that oats was in fact a superfood [4] :).  Many vegetarian meals aren’t based on expensive and exotic ingredients, but basic staples (like pulses) that are very cheap.


[1] Technically speaking, this hasn’t happened to me at any age. So maybe not quite the achievement I’m making out.

[2] The Mediterranean Diet is one of these made-up diets, as it cherry-picks a subset of Mediterranean countries to create it.  In the popular sense it means using olive oils over animal fats, and emphasizes vegetables at the expense of red-meat. Pretty much any diet that results in eating more vegetables and less meat than the modern Western comes across as healthy.

[3] Appreciating that in many cases, healthier food options do cost a little more.  That not withstanding, it’s possible to cook some vegetarian dishes using rice and legumes (chickpeas, lentils) that are very economical.

[4] I don’t actually believe any food is an actual ‘super food’. That’s more about marketing hype. Porridge just is a basic, nutritious food with a good profile of nutrients and fibre.

0 Responses to “Surviving Obesogenic NZ”

  • You are right on the money Brendan, my lifetime observation is that those who are reasonably active, whose lifestyle includes regular exercise such as you describe, (and not the artificial stuff one engages in at a gym) do maintain a healthy weight through their lifetimes. I am a failed regular exerciser, although my dog does her best, and gets me out every day, but some days it is a shorter walk than optimum. I have noticed, thanks to my phone app, that a visit to the local mall can add several thousand steps to the daily count! Especially if you actively don’t park close to the shops. So shopping does have benefits, although not in one’s bank balance!

    • Ah, well I’m not one of life’s natural shoppers so I will trust your expertise on that one :).