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Expert Comment: Healthy Eating Versus Exercise

Fitness 150x150 Thursday 30 April 2015

Dr Peter Angell, Lecturer in Sport and Exercise Sciences, discusses the latest suggestions that changes in diet alone are enough to cause a drop in weight and reduce the level of obesity in an individual.

It will come as little surprise that physical activity, diet and obesity are once again making the headlines. However, the focus may not necessarily be what you would expect when you consider these topics.  BBC News reported on an editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, examining the role of physical activity in combating obesity. 

In their article, Malhotra et al (2015) assert that changes in diet alone are enough to cause a drop in weight and reduce the level of obesity in an individual. They also suggest that with the right dietary modifications it is possible to not only reduce levels of obesity but also reduce the risk of developing, and aid the management of, type 2 diabetes. 

Whilst the role of diet and the ideas around what surmounts as the ‘healthiest’ form of diet has been changing in recent years, it is becoming clear that there are serious questions about the food industry. This isn’t just the obvious ‘junk’ food industry which has often been the focus of examinations into poor diets, but also those products which fall into the ‘health food’ industry. In addition, drinks companies are also highlighted as one of the main protagonists in causing an increase in individual’s sugar intake over recent years.  

There is a growing body of evidence that suggests that the form in which we get calories plays a role in the actual physiological impact and it may not be the overall quantity of calories alone which impacts the development of obesity and type 2 diabetes (Basu et al, 2013). Despite this, the article by Malhotra et al doesn’t highlight that in order to lose weight/adiposity it is necessary to be operating in a calorie deficit. 

Although this can be achieved through diet alone, it is important to highlight that this is far easier to achieve with an increase in physical activity.

Further, whilst obesity is of ever-increasing concern, it is not obesity per se that results in death and disease. Rather, it is the effects that obesity has on cardiovascular disease risk (still the world’s number one killer) and insulin resistance/metabolic dysfunction that are the principal concerns (Meigs et al , 2006). What Malhotra et al overlook is the plethora of positive effects that exercise can have on an individual regardless of any changes in measures of obesity. 

An individual that is ‘thin’ but unfit is much more likely to be harbouring underlying health problems than a ‘fat’ person with a greater level of fitness (Fogelholm, 2010) Physical activity has long been linked to a decreased risk of developing cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndromes, independent of significant weight loss (Fogelholm, 2010). In addition, it has also been shown on numerous occasions that a combination of both exercise and diet modifications leads to a much greater adherence to any lifestyle modifications as well as resulting in greater changes to mortality/morbidity risk (Anderssen et al, 2007). 

Whilst any information that helps to inform the public of the need to be aware of not only their overall calorific consumption but also where those calories come from is welcomed, it should be highlighted that headlines like those generated from this article have the potential to be very damaging. The general public are bombarded with conflicting and contradictory messages regarding exercise and nutrition on an almost weekly basis. 

By focusing this message on to obesity alone it negates to highlight the overall importance of having an active lifestyle. The general public need to be given a consistent message that in order to reduce the risk of developing numerous health complications it is important to maintain an active lifestyle with a balanced and well-rounded diet. 

Dr Peter Angell - full profile

Sport and Exercise Science

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