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Reaching Your Ideal Fat Percentage: Does Diet or Exercise Matter More?

woman at one with her body and surrounded by healthy foods

Written by Prof. Monique Marks

We are all sick of body shaming and the hype about being slim. And the evidence supports our intuition that being thin does not equate to being healthy. While our body mass index might be in range, it is possible that other markers such as sugar levels, and body composition are not. Given this it is important for all of us to be up to date on our health markers, and to ensure that these are in good range.

Unhealthy weight (fat) does matter though. An excess of visceral fat around our organs, mostly visible in abdominal fat, signals cardio-vascular risk. So, while we don’t need to be thin, we do want bodies that carry us through life with zest and vigour. Knowing that all our biomarkers are in range allows us to release stress about our longevity and our feeling well.

The question remains: Do we focus more on what we eat or what how we move?

Diet trumps exercise!

Up until recently, it was commonly believed that if we exercise enough, we can eat pretty much what we like. The idea here was that what we gain in food we can lose as we sweat. The evidence now shows that this is not the case. In fact, there might even be an increased risk of premature death if we over-exercise but neglect healthy eating. Many of us have lost friends and family (mostly men) in the forties and fifties who known to be ‘very fit’. When we drill down to what was going on in the lives of the ‘fit who died young’ we often find that their diets were not as nutritious as they could or should have been. Easy to access processed foods, energy drinks, and questionable quality protein shakes might provide a temporary boost of energy allowing for a good workout. But they lack the nutrition to leave us feeling satiated and energetic throughout the day. In addition, processed foods that metabolise into sugar are stored as fat, often around our organs (our visceral fat).

Regardless of how long we spend in the gym or out on the field, if we aren’t getting the right nutrients, it is very difficult to build muscle mass or to recover from a tough workout. The latest research also indicates that our bodies plateau so that working out doesn’t necessarily translate to burning extra calories.

Recent research suggests that reaching and maintaining our optimal body weight is 80% about what we eat and 20% about keeping fit.

Of course, if we eat right and lead a sedentary life, it is extremely difficult for our bodies to register movement. Without movement we find that our ‘set weight’ remains difficult to alter. So, keeping moving is critical. Doing exercise also impacts positively on our mood. It creates a ‘good feel’ which not only boosts our ‘happy hormones’, but also allows us to enter a more resourceful state. And of course, the more we are active the more calories our body uses for energy. Physical activity is not the key to weight loss, but it certainly fast-tracks it and helps us to keep weight off once it is lost.

The rule of thumb with exercise is 15-20 minutes a day or 45 minutes three times a week.

What exercise should I be doing?

There are many different viewpoints on this. Some argue for high intensity exercise, others for a focus on weights, and yet others on strength and flexibility. There is not absolute right answer to this. What is most important is getting into a regular physical fitness regime. The only way to do this is by identifying what type of exercise you like best. Once you find the one or ones you love, keeping active becomes fun and exhilarating. Explore through experimentation or get a health coach to assist in surfacing what fitness regime best suits you. Find the activity that brings you joy and is easy to get to. Enjoyment is a major factor in sticking with a fitness regime.

A multi-disciplinary team looking at why some people live healthy and longer lives than others (the Blue Zones Team) argue that in localities where healthy longevity is found, people stay fit and healthy through everyday physical activity. These include walking to events and paces, gardening, climbing stairs, and dancing. The idea here is that being fit does not necessarily mean going to a gym. It simply means keeping moving rather than being sedentary. Walk up steps rather than using a lift. Walk to a friend rather than drive. Take time to do your own garden. Play music at home and dance around your own space in your own time. Play a group sport with friends and family.

For those of us who do like to go to the gym, it is advisable to do a combination of cardio, strength, and flexibility training. But we don’t need to do this in excess. Work out for yourself what makes you feel good. And find a gym buddy to workout with or join a class so that there is social connection as part of your fitness regime. Including some form of aerobic exercise is a great way to reduce cardiovascular risk but does not need to be intensive or daily. It can be brisk walking, swimming, jogging, cycling, or dancing.

Strength training is vogue now. That because it contributes significantly to building muscle and to weight loss. Strength training not only helps with toning, it has also been associated with positive aging. This type of exercise involves subjecting your body to some form of resistance through lifting and moving heavy objects. Be careful when doing strength and aerobic training not to get to a point that you are completely winded. The idea is to still be able to hold a conversation while feeling a little out of breath.

As we age, flexibility becomes more important. Including yoga and pilates into your regime is a great way to ensure that your joints remain able. People who focus on flexibility tend to have less injuries, lower stress, and good posture. And don’t be fooled that yoga and pilates are not tough; they can be an excellent workout while building core strength and flexibility.

Start small and build up. Begin by walking or stretching for 15 minutes a day, and then continue to build up from there. Fit your exercise regime into the things you already do so it doesn’t feel disruptive or onerous.

Moving is important. But it is only 20-30 percent of the solution to being at our ideal and healthiest weight. What we put into our bodies is what counts most.

Tips for good eating practice to reach our goal weight and reduce visceral fat

There is a lot of public information available about ‘good eating’. In fact, there may be too much information, leaving us confused and uncertain. So how do we decide whether to go keto, vegan, Mediterranean, Paleo – the list is endless. When deciding on what nutrition plan to follow, we need to recognise that no one eating plan or diet fits all. When making a choice about our nutrition plan, we must consider lifestyle, preferences, religious and cultural practices, as well as our personal belief systems.

Eating well is intuitive, but most of us have lost our intuition because of the barrage of information that is abound or because we don’t listen to our inner wise voice. The rule of thumb here is to go back to what our ancestors ate, mostly unprocessed foods that are easily available and seasonal. A good rule of thumb is to also be mindful of what foods make us feel energised for a few hours, and which ones make us feel a slump. Stick with energising foods and listen to your body. Like fitness, the only way to maintain healthy eating is to keep it simple and aligned to our lifestyle.

In keeping it simple, there are a few simple rules for good eating that are easy to incorporate into our daily lives:

·Make protein a part of every meal and snack. Protein not only builds muscle, it also increases feelings of fullness and satiety.

·Eat a variety of vegetables – the more colours in our diet the better for our gut health and for optimal nutrition of macro and micro-nutrients.

·Eat fruit but not more than three servings a day. Fruit does contain sugar, and sugar is inflammatory. But fruits do have multiple health benefits and should not be excluded.

·Prepare meals at home. Meal planning is strongly associated with improved diet quality and reduced obesity risk.

·Eat foods rich in fibre. Fibre increases satiety and stimulates weight loss. It also keeps our bowel movements regular, reducing the discomfort associated with constipation and gassy stomach.

·Drink water regularly. Water is critical for hydration, and for transmitting water soluble nutrients. Drinking water before meals also reduces feelings of hunger and therefore decreases the amount of food we consume.

·Take small portions at a time rather than filling your plate to the brim. This will allow you to monitor your intake and to feel more in control of your eating.

·Chew your food thoroughly and slowly. Your brain needs time to process that you have had enough to eat.

·Limit your intake of added sugar. Read your food labels carefully as sugar is often embedded in processed food that we think is healthy. Sugar is now known to be the number one cause of body inflammation which is often the basis of chronic illness.

·Eat snacks that are nutrient dense and easy to take on the go. Some examples of this are nuts, yoghurt, humous, hard-boiled eggs, and air fried chickpeas. Add to this cut up our favourite fruit and veggies.

·Reduce alcohol to one or two units a day. If possible, reduce further. Alcohol contains a lot of sugar and is high in kilojoules. The area that alcohol affects most is abdominal fat – the fat that most compromises our health. Red wine is generally considered the healthiest alcohol to consume. But here again, choose what you enjoy and savour it rather than indulge.

·Ensure that carbohydrates are complex and take up no more than one quarter of your plate. Opting not to eat carbohydrates is fine, but don’t feel guilty if you do eat carbs. Carbohydrates are an important source of fuel and if eaten in the right proportion an assist in controlling weight, providing fibre, and sleeping better.

·Avoid transfats generally found in processed foods. These fats are generally man-made and are associated with a range of chronic illness onset and even with mortality. Check for transfats on the labels of the food you buy.

The broad goal with food is to feel satiated and to ensure that what we eat keeps our blood sugar levels balanced throughout the day. Once we have this right, we are well on our way to attaining our ideal weight and to preventing chronic illness that are rooted in inflammation such as diabetes.

When managing chronic illnesses that require more specific eating plans, please contact a health coach, dietician, or nutritionist for guidance. Make sure the practitioner is up to date on evidence-based practice and is willing to work with your individual lifestyle and personal preferences.

What about fats?

It is now almost common knowledge that fats do not make us fat. There is overwhelming evidence that shows that low-carb, high-fat diets can help people lose weight, improve their blood sugar, and address other metabolic issues. Despite this evidence and the ongoing research being done globally to support this, the widely held belief that high fat diets are harmful to the heart.

A recent and very rigorous trial led by Boston based Dr David Ludwig, a physician and researcher, found that there is strong evidence supporting low-carb, high-fat diets for both cardiovascular and metabolic health. Metabolic health is critical to attaining and maintaining optimal weight.

In the trial, patients were randomized to 1 of 3 weight-loss diets that they then followed for 20 weeks.  The diets all contained 20% protein but differed in carbohydrate and fat content as follows:

  • Low-carb: 20% carbohydrate, 21% saturated fat

  • Moderate-carb: 40% carbohydrate, 14% saturated fat

  • High-carb: 60% carbohydrate, 7% saturated fat

Participants in this trial received fully prepared, customized meals that they could either eat in the cafeteria or take to go.

Here’s what the researchers found: People on the low-carb, high saturated fat diet experienced better improvements in all their significant health markers including triglycerides, blood pressure, and lipoprotein in comparison with people on the moderate- and high-carb diets. The high fat diet was found to have no negative impact on cholesterol or cardiovascular markers. Moreover, fats are critical for helping cells communicate; absorption of fast soluble vitamins (A,D,E,K); and supporting hormone production. The fat-free trend is fading. The latest research affirms that full fat dairy may assist with managing weight loss, diabetes, and heart disease.

This study is one of a growing number of studies with similar outcomes. In short, fat dos does not make us fat either on the inside or the outside. The greenlight is now on for consuming full-cream dairy products, fat on protein, and including healthy oils into our diets while cooking and preparing foods. Stay away from oils that are liquid at room temperature such as seed and nut oils, including sunflower oil. These fats are prone to oxidation and produce damaging free radicals.

There are two caveats here. First, when cooking at high temperature use butter, lard, ghee, and coconut oils. When cooking at low temperatures, use extra virgin olive oil and other extra virgin oils. These unsaturated fats have many health benefits (including the regulation of weight) and can be poured over salads and cooked foods.

The second caveat is that there are certain medical conditions that require low-fat diets due to the body’s inability to absorb and process fats adequately. If you have been diagnosed with fatty liver, or have had bariatric surgery, your ability to process and metabolise saturated fats is limited. In such cases, low fat diets are recommended. If you are managing health conditions like this and want guidance, link up with a health coach, dietician, or nutritionist who is evidence-based and committed to providing individualised eating plans.

As with our diet and fitness regime, there is no one size fits all. What we do know, though, is that science is constantly changing and improving, as it should.

Stepping into the bodies we like and want

We all want to feel energised, happy in our bodies, and in optimal health. What this means to each of us is highly subjective. What is considered beautiful is determined by cultural and social norms. It is not an absolute. Neither can we determine accurately someone’s health simply by looking at them. Slim does not always equate to healthy. What we do know though is that visceral fat, the fat around our abdomen, is indicative of cardiovascular risk and a predisposition to diabetes.

Our duty to our fellow human beings is to recognise each person’s value and attractiveness. Our duty to ourselves is to live healthy, fulfilled, purposeful and connected lives. What we put into our bodies counts most, with being active a very close second. This is contrary to the popular belief that we can eat what we want if we put in the time to exercise.


We hope this article gives some pointers as to where and how to focus going forward as we step into the bodies we want and need to carry us through healthy longevity.

Please feel free to contact me if you are keen to develop your own personalised fitness and eating plan.

Written by Prof. Monique Marks

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