How to stop Millennials becoming the obese generation

Millennials are on track to become the most overweight generation on record when they hit their mid-30s. Fitness mag editor Tony Sarno argues they’re being given the wrong advice.

You’d think Millennials, the digital natives who live on social media, would be getting the message on how avoid becoming obese. Blogs, Facebook, Instagram and websites scream from the same song sheet: that exercise isn’t as effective for weight loss as dietary intervention.

Are Instagram friendly burgers making Millennials fat?

No refrain in health fitness is louder and clearer and more consistent. As a magazine editor, I see it almost every day in the posts of various wellness experts, dietitians and even personal trainers. But the message is not working and the opposite is happening: the Western world is getting fatter.

Millennials are on track to become the heaviest generation ever. Just last week Cancer Research UK released their projection that an astonishing 70 percent of Millennials in the UK are on course to become overweight when they hit their mid-30s, increasing their risk for conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular problems and some types of cancer. That’s 70 percent. The majority. Incredible.

In fact, the most informed generation is now also the heaviest generation since weight records began, so much so that obese 30-40 something Millennials threaten to become the new normal according to the statistics. So what’s going so catastrophically wrong with our war on obesity?

Does smashed avocado pack far more energy than we think? Is the Millennial hatred of fat-shaming resulting in the normalisation of obesity? Are Millennials eating way too many extreme burgers that were created for Instagram posts?

None of the above.

We’ve got it all wrong

What’s going wrong is that we’re prioritising the wrong treatment for obesity, that’s what. Millennials are simply the latest generation that’s getting the wrong advice. Changing one’s diet and eating less calories to lose weight is just too hard for most people and it’s even harder for a generation faced with even more boutique food choices and sophisticated social media marketing of food.

Dieting for weight loss is torture and while it may provide short term results, it does not  work in the long term, and on a global scale in Western countries it’s a grand failure. It fails because dieting is just too awful an experience to last long term. And more gentle dieting, in which you try to cut out just a few calories takes too long to see results for many of us who are impatient.

No-one gets addicted to dieting for weight loss (unless you count deadly conditions like anorexia as an addiction) but you can get addicted to exercising. That’s what happened to me when I weighed 110kg and was desperate for a solution after years of trying to eat for weight loss, which gave me plenty of short term results and none for the long term. Not only did exercise remove the kilos and speed up my metabolism, but it just made me feel good and want to keep going back to the gym.

Focus on exercise instead

What we should be telling Millennials, or anyone for that matter, is to exercise more and to eat for wellness rather than for weight loss. Cut out processed foods and fizzy drinks, eat more fruit and veggies. But mostly, stop worrying about food and counting calories, and let exercise do the rest. You’re much more likely to stick with this than a weight loss diet.

Even if you can’t give up on a big calorie intake, exercise will minimise many of the diseases associated with obesity, which is the real point here. York University’s School of Kinesiology and Health Science measured 853 obese participants for the cardiovascular fitness with a treadmill test and found that even those with a high Body Mass Index (BMI) could be fit and have many bio-markers of good health, such as  normal blood pressure, normal blood glucose levels and good lipid metabolism.

This was the case as long as the obese individuals maintained a physical fitness program. In other words, if you are obese and exercise, you can still get many of the health benefits of exercise even without losing weight.

So my argument is simple: we should stop telling people that dietary action is more effective than exercise for losing weight. Yes, dieting or massive calorie reduction does work better, in a lab, but not in real life. Over the long term, consistent exercise is a far more effective for losing weight and getting healthier if accompanied by sensible changes to one’s eating patterns (not to be confused with dieting), because it’s easier to stick to. 

And if the will isn’t there to give up on the food (hey, let’s account for the real world), exercise will still give you many of the health bio-markers of a less obese person, according to that the York University study. Being healthy is more important that what you look like.

*No I’m not a dietitian, so don’t take the above as some kind of health advice, but I’ve tried every trick in the book and exercise is the only true way forward.