By Leah Lewis, MPH
In my previous article, I gave my view on the somewhat sensitive issue of obesity, highlighting the effects of ‘fat shaming’ on people’s mental states and their probable resulting behaviour from such humiliation. I want to continue a bit down that path today. Let us talk about the importance of behaviour change, using obesity as the primary example.
As a reminder of my suggested solution to the obesity epidemic, I proposed that we encourage lifestyle change on the basis of improving health rather than on the basis of losing weight for the prevention or reduction in the prevalence of chronic non-communicable diseases, also known simply as, lifestyle diseases. We have already established that obesity is a health risk, one that increases a person’s chances of developing conditions such as hypertension, high cholesterol and cardiovascular diseases, like high blood glucose and its resulting type II diabetes inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, infertility and the perpetuation of certain tumours and more.
Obesity, although complex in its causes, has a greater impact upon the burden of the health system in any country where its prevalence is high, more so than when populations are less overweight or obese. These facts cannot be disproved nor can they be ignored.
Awareness does not work.
Now, encouraging healthy lifestyles sounds ideal, but the truth remains that people are less likely to adopt new behaviours just because they are constantly told that it is the right thing to do. That approach is known in health promotion as awareness. If we’re truly looking to improve the health of the population, and reduce the prevalence of lifestyle diseases linked to obesity, then solely telling people all the wonderful reasons why they should live a healthy lifestyle will give as much results as telling a cat to stop chasing mice. It won’t work. Awareness efforts on their own, rarely bring about behaviour change. However, when such efforts are combined with the right strategies of mindset change and the right environment is created to support that change, then and only then, will we begin to see results that will last for the long term.
The case for a weight loss camp.
For example, take a look at what some call “fat camp” (remembering that “fat” is not a bad word as stated in my previous article – refer to @healthplusthemag). Fat camp, also known as weight loss camp, is a type of health and fitness programme where overweight and obese persons enrol to lose weight and adopt healthy lifestyle practices. Now imagine this: a camp that specifically caters to overweight and obese persons, held at a secure, accessible venue, where campers exercise multiple times daily and are provided with healthy lunches and snacks. They also learn how to prepare healthy food for themselves and care for their health through nutrition and health education classes. Their minds are stimulated often through self-esteem coaching and individualised attention, and they receive frequent inspiring talks from local influencers. These campers are also free to have fun and fully enjoy their time in the programme. In the end, they lose weight, improve their health, boost their confidence and are inspired to live brand new, healthy lifestyles. Sounds too good to be true? Well, it isn’t. These types of programmes are real and are well established in countries like the United States of America and the United Kingdom. Such a programme also took place for the first time, right here in Trinidad and Tobago in 2018. I know, because I designed it. This type of programme combines elements of awareness with behaviour change and supportive environments. If you were given the opportunity to enrol in such a programme, would you choose to do so?
Change is a choice.
When people are given the opportunity to make a change and feel fully supported in doing so, when the benefits of making that change (in this instance, making healthier food choices and becoming more physically active) supersede the negative consequences of that change, then are new behaviours adopted. When people are encouraged to believe that they are able to do something and achieve what, for them, may seem to be impossible, only then would they be inspired to make the choice to try.
Shift the culture.
For obesity to decrease, persons must not only be verbally and visually encouraged to improve their health, but they must be given the opportunity to do so and given long term support in their decision. This requires a change in our culture – a shift in the way that we think and therefore, behave. How can we achieve such a feat? Stay tuned, as I’ll be sure to share more on the topic of behaviour change in my next article.
Until then, best wishes on your journey to better health.