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February 2021

Change your environment to lose weight

We all know that to lose weight you have to “eat less and exercise more”. This has been constantly drummed to us. However, the prevalence of obesity in the western world more so in the UK and USA are still on the rise. There are several reasons for weight gain. Foresight report published more than 10 years ago revealed that there are hundreds to reason for weight gain. It is like huge jigsaw, exercise and eating less are two just small pieces in the whole jigsaw. No wonder people struggle to lose weight and keep it off.

Does environment contribute to weight gain?

The Cambridge English dictionary defines environment as:

“The conditions that people live, work, or spend time in and the way that they influence how they feel, behave, or work”.

The above definition pertains to external environment. There is also the internal environment, which is our mind. Mind plays an important role in weight management and interacts closely with the external environment.

Managing environment is a huge topic, and hence I will discuss only about the external environment which has a bearing on weight management.

Graphical representation of the system of factors identified by Foresight that contribute to the prevalence of obesity.

 

Foresight’s Tackling Obesities: Future Choices report 

(https://foresightprojects.blog.gov.uk/2017/10/04/dusting-off-foresights-obesity-report/)

The figure above shows the major factors contributing to weight gain. If you look closely, within each bubble you will see there are several other causes and each of them is related to another cause. If there are so many reasons, why are we expecting to lose weight by just eating less and exercising more?

What constitutes external environment?

External environment could be anything, starting from your room to house to street to your own town. Within this external environment, there are different components, which I have listed below:

Is it your bedroom?

  • How dark is the room at night?
  • Do you have a television?
  • Is it next to the kitchen?
  • Do you have a fridge in your room?
  • Do you have water in your room?
  • How far is the goody cupboard?
  • Who else shares your room?
  • Does this person sharing your room follow a healthy life style?
  • Does this person’s food/drinks preferences suit you?

Is it your House?

  • Does your house have occupants who follow a healthy life style?
  • Are you free to eat what you want?
  • Are you the one who cooks?
  • Are you the one who shops?
  • Do people in your house support you?
  • Do you have a dog?
  • Is the house well heated and ventilated?

 Is it your Street?

  • How many fast food restaurants are there in your street?
  • How far away are the takeaways from your house?
  • Is there a gym on your street?
  • Is there a park on your street?
  • Do you have a walking track next to your street?

 Is it your town?

  • Does your town support healthy living?
  • Is there a cycle track on the roads?
  • Is there an exercise on referral scheme?
  • How many swimming pools are there in your town?
  • Does your town support women and children’s health?
  • Are the health care professionals in your town trained to deal with weight management? 

The above list does not cover all the aspects which would have an impact on the way you lose weight.

I am sure the questions I have asked you under each of the categories above will stimulate you to think. Are any of these of concern? Are these the hindrance to your weight loss?

I am further going to narrow down and help you focus on a couple of factors which play an important role in weight loss. These two factors include:

  • People
  • Immediate surroundings.

Making appropriate changes to your immediate surroundings and the way you deal with people play a very significant role in weight loss. Concentrating on just these two factors in the first instance along with a healthy life style can bring in more dividends.

How do people around you influence your weight loss?

There is an old saying: “Tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are.” People around us dictate how most of us behave. We find that after people get married they start to gain weight. This may be because one of the partners adapts a habit of snacking and consuming energy dense food of his/her partner.

People tend to eat what is being cooked and consume what is laid on their plate. The choice of food and portions size is determined by one person in the house and the rest follow. In the book “The tipping point” by Malcolm Gladwell, whilst talking about how suicide has been increasing among teenagers in Micronesian island, he explains that people do not always make rational and conscious decisions. Sometimes we make subtle decisions and we do not know why we did that.

Gladwell provides a scenario to explain a circumstance in our daily life. Whilst waiting for the green man at the pedestrian crossing, we see some crossing even when there is a red man. We find ourselves following that person and then more people following you. You suddenly feel that you have a permission to engage in this deviant act. When our family is watching a movie and having popcorn and muffins, they liberally share with everyone. Even though you do not want those snacks because you have just had a big meal, you still have a few mouthfuls of popcorn and a helping of muffin.

I do not know why people feel good sharing chocolates, snacks and alcohol but they would never share their bank deposits!

We inadvertently get influenced by people around us. Even with the best of our intentions, we somehow adapt the habits of the people who live with us. The trick is to openly express your need to change to a better and healthy life style and shift this responsibility to the person living with you. Ask for help, say “please can you help me and can you ensure I do not snack in between meals”. On most occasions you will find that person goes out of the way to help you lose weight and he /she will be accountable to your needs.

How does your immediate surroundings dictate, how much weight you lose?

 Like the people around you, our surroundings also dictate how fast or slow we lose weight. Let us not delve into the nearby streets or the town you live in. Let us just analyse our immediate surrounds.

Best-selling author James Clear, who has written the book “Atomic Habits”, explains how surroundings helps change our habits. He quotes a real-life incident, where in it was found in 1971 that about 35% of the US troops in Vietnam had tried heroin and 20% were addicted to heroin. However, on returning home within a year, approximately nine out of ten soldiers who used heroin in Vietnam eliminated their addiction nearly overnight.

We all know that people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, relapse and the relapse rate is very high. This research among Vietnam war veterans showed that addictions could be corrected if there is a radical change in the environment. These soldiers were constantly subjected to triggers for heroin addiction. They lived in a stressful environment with no recreation and also had easy access to heroin.

Removing any triggers from the immediate environment helps lose weight. Do not just follow a diet or a fitness programme, try and change the following:

  1. Change the way your furniture is arranged
  2. Move your television set
  3. Label your fridge racks and keep changing them
  4. Move your goody cupboard far away from your bed room and TV room.
  5. Move around the items to different cupboards in your kitchen

Keep moving things around so you do not have easy access to snacks or food ingredients.

When you want something to eat or drink, it is usually an emotional discussion. Your emotional brain works much faster than our rational brain. By delaying the time to get hold of junk food, you allow your rational brain to catch up with your emotional brain. This helps to make decisions based on your knowledge and your analytic brain will tell you what is good and what is not good. Your will also have the time to question your decision to eat or drink.

Take home message for successful weight loss

To lose weight adapt a healthy life style by eating healthy and increase your physical activity.  Change your environment by

  1. Changing your immediate environment
  2. Changing the way to deal with people close to you.

As mentioned above these two recommendations are part of the bigger jigsaw. To learn more about effective and sustained weight loss, read evidence based blogs on simplyweight.co.uk and see the simplyweight online plan.

Author

Dr C. Rajeswaran FRCP(UK);MSc
Consultant Physician
Obesity, Diabetes & Endocrinology

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