Durban - The best purchase you can make for your health is a simple tape measure.
Measure your waist once a month and if it is bigger than 80cm (women) and 95cm (men), you need to take action, says Professor Nola Dippenaar, a physiologist and biochemist by training, who now heads Health Insight, a health coaching company in Pretoria.
“Waist circumference is more important than weight or body mass,” says Dippenaar, who was in Durban to give a presentation to members of the South African Association of Food Scientists and Technologists. “It is the best predictor of what lies ahead for you.”
Because of their testosterone levels, men are more prone to belly fat. In women, oestrogen causes fat to be deposited on hips and buttocks, until menopause, when their shape changes because of diminished oestrogen and increased testosterone.
Fat cells, says Dippenaar, have a marked effect on general health. It was once thought that all they did was store energy for when the body needed it, but research now shows that fat has a massive influence on health – for good and bad.
“Fat cells are now known to produce many different hormones and growth factors, and thus fat is now called the largest endocrine gland in the body because it does so much,” says Dippenaar.
“And don’t blame your parents for your ‘fat genes’. Our genes account for only 25 percent of our health.
“The remaining 75 percent is due to lifestyle factors that are within our control.”
Here are some of the strategies for good health, outlined by Dippenaar. More can be seen on her website: www.healthinsight.co.za.
This is better than any drug, and physical activity is the most important thing you can do to improve your health. The British Medical Journal published a study in which 339 000 health records were analysed, and which found that exercise was as effective as prescription drugs for treating heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Exercise worked just as well as drugs for controlling blood sugar, but the most impressive results came from patients who had suffered strokes. Never stop or change your medication without the approval of your doctor. Seek medical advice on exercise too.
Eat good food
Eating in the car or at your desk means you will eat more.
“Eat slowly and at the table. Signals go from the mouth to the satiety centre in the brain and if you eat fast and hardly chew your food, fewer signals will be sent and you will eat more.”
Two-thirds of your plate should be plant material and one-third animal protein. Avoid high fructose intake.
Essential fatty acids are an essential part of good health and the ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fats is important. Most people consume too much Omega 6, found in seed oils and processed foods, and too little Omega 3, found in olive oil, nuts, oily fish and seafood.
Cholesterol needs a rethink too. For years we have been told to restrict intake of dietary fat to keep cholesterol levels in check and millions of people take statins to reduce cholesterol.
But Dippenaar says inflammation and damage in the artery wall is the real problem. “Inflammation causes cholesterol to be trapped – without inflammation, cholesterol will move freely in the blood stream, as it is used by all cells in the body.
“Chronic inflammation is driven by the regular, high intake of simple, processed carbohydrates like sugar, sodas, fruit juices, flour and products made with them, as well as the high intake of omega-6 vegetable oils, like sunflower, corn and soyabean oil, found in most processed foods.”
Have a glass of water on your desk and sip throughout the day.
Cavemen were hunter gatherers. They walked about 10 to 16km a day and there were two things that mattered: finding food and staying safe. They lived on plants and berries and the occasional lean animal. If they were in danger, the flight or fight response kicked in.
“Today, we have that same response, but we have it 24/7. Messages are sent to the adrenal glands to release stress hormones. The greater the stress, the more messages are sent and cortisol floods the system. We feel out of control.
“Cortisol also causes us to retain fluid and makes us bloated. We get back pain, skin irritations and mouth ulcers. Our immune system is affected and we become prone to colds and flu, as well as stomach ulcers and cancers. We can’t remember things.”
When you increase your heart rate with exercise, you stop cortisol secretion. You give off endorphins, the feel-good hormones and you start to feel better.
During sleep, the body does its housekeeping. Sleep deprivation is a major stressor for the body.
During the initial light sleep, the vast amount of information received that day is erased and only the memories of importance are kept. If light sleep is disrupted, you battle to remember what happened the previous day and you become disorientated.
Then you go into deep sleep, during which growth hormone is released, and bodily repair and housekeeping is performed. If deep sleep is disrupted, people become very unhealthy very quickly.
Have a laugh
We gravitate towards people who make us laugh. Laughter and social interaction are so important to our health that “congeniality” has been included on the new Mediterranean food pyramid, emphasising that sharing meals and having fun are vital to health.