Where Has All The Fat Come From?

During the time that I have been a student at Athabasca University I have noticed that I have put on a few extra pounds, even though I have not changed my exercise or eating habits. Like most people I was not happy about this extra weight, so I became determined to find out where it was coming from. I thought very long and hard about what it was that had changed in my life that would make me gain weight. Finally, I figured out that it was walking. That thing that most people do every day and often take for granted was actually providing me with a lot of exercise. Unfortunately, one of the reasons I don’t walk as much anymore is because I am now a distance education student.

When I attended Capilano College in North Vancouver I had to go to class everyday. This meant that I had to walk to the bus stop and walk to and from class everyday. Now I don’t have to go to classes, so I don’t have to walk as much either. But that is not the only reason why I don’t walk as much anymore. During this same time I had also moved from the big city of Vancouver, British Columbia to the tiny little town of Kingston, Ontario. Since this town is smaller I usually don’t have to walk as much. For instance, in Vancouver I had to walk for 30 minutes to get to work whereas in Kingston I only have to walk for 10 minutes to get to work. Kingston is also unbelievably cold, so it is unfortunately not as inviting to walk in as the nice warm Vancouver weather is. I actually walked to the mall in Kingston the other day, which is a 35 minute walk, and I thought I was going to die before I got there. A bit of panic rushed over me when I re-entered the heat and waited to see if I would actually thaw out or if I would be making a trip to the payphone to phone an ambulance. In the end I survived the ordeal and decided that I would try to walk more, but only on the moderately cold days and not for very long and with lots of layers of clothes on.

So how is my story of narrowly escaping death and gaining weight from a lack of walking supposed to help you? Hopefully, it has shown you, as it has shown me, that when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight every little bit of physical activity can help. While “the best activities for weight management are a combination of resistance training and aerobic training : 2 to 3 times per week, 20-60 minutes per session at 60-90% of maximal heart rate” (YMCA), not everyone is motivated enough to exercise quite this much. It is unlikely that people who are physically inactive or who do not necessarily enjoy exercise are going to follow these guidelines. These people are more likely to look at the guidelines and think “if that is what I have to do to be physically active then I am not going to even bother trying”. But Health Canada has begun to promote the concept of Active Living, which values all forms of physical activity and recognizes that any and all physical movement is good for our health and overall well being.

If you can’t bring yourself to vigorously exercise 2-3 times a week you can still increase your level of physical activity by doing simple things like walking to places that are nearby instead of driving, using the stairs instead of the elevator, going out to dance socially and gardening. The more active you become the more you will improve your health and feel good about yourself. You may even begin to value physical activity more and eventually be able to work your way up to more vigorous exercise (Health Canada).

It seems as though I am not the only person who has been thinking about weight lately. The general public is being bombarded more than ever with ads for fad diets, low fat foods, exercise equipment and gym memberships. Most of the magazine covers you read lately seem to contain headlines like, “Buh-bye Pooch! Cosmo’s Flat-Tummy Plan. Easy Workout and Food Tips (Cosmopolitan), 721 NEW IDEAS to flatter your figure” (Marie Claire), and “Lower-fat comfort meals” (Chatelaine). McDonald’s has introduced a “Lighter Choices Menu” and now Subway has an Atkins (Atkins is a diet) wrap. There are also news articles about how fat Canadians are getting. 32% of Canadians are overweight one article tells us (Stubbs) and Canadian Pharmacies dispensed more than 400,000 prescriptions for anti-obesity drugs in 2002, according to another (The Montreal Gazette).

The diet industry has even come out with pills and powders that will stop 66-75% of the calories in starch from entering your digestive system. Some fast food companies like Domino’s pizza are even thinking about putting these starch blockers in their food (Huszar). The message being sent is clear; Canadians are getting fatter and it is time to do something about it before it gets out of hand.

If you are thinking that excess weight is not something that you need to worry about then I would disagree. Research has shown that obesity may put people at a higher risk of developing diseases such as cardiovascular disease, heart disease, diabetes, dyslipidemia, gall bladder disease, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, sleep apnea, cholelithiasis, venous thromboembolism and certain cancers (breast, colon, endometrial, ovarian and prostate) (Heart and Stroke Foundation, McCarger). A recent study, published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, concluded “:that almost 10 per cent of all premature deaths in Canada can be associated with being overweight or obese:” (CBC).

While it cannot be emphasized enough that weight is a major health concern we must be careful not to put too much emphasis on the actual act of losing weight and not enough emphasis on achieving and maintaining a healthy weight in a way that will improve our health. There are numerous diets, treatments and surgeries that will make you lose weight quickly and easily. While these methods may be good for people whose weight has become completely unmanageable by any other means, I would encourage other people to look carefully at whatever weight loss method they choose. When you are looking at new weight loss methods keep in mind that just because it helps you lose weight does not necessarily mean that it is healthy. It is a good idea to research the method before you try it.

Now after all of this talk about fat, many of you are probably wondering if you would fall into the healthy weight, overweight or obese category. One method of determining the status of your weight is the Body Mass Index (BMI). Yes the BMI, the dreaded weight chart that haunts our memories of high school where most of us were probably first exposed to it. If you are one of the people who has an unpleasant memory of the BMI it is likely because it told you that you were overweight or underweight when you clearly were not. How can this happen you ask? This happens because the BMI does not take body composition into account, rather it determines your weight category on the basis of your height and weight alone. Our bodies are made up of fat, muscle and bone, and we cannot tell what percentage of each is in our bodies using only weight and height. The ideal percentage of fat for men is 12-15% and for women it is 18-25%. Since the BMI does not take body composition into account it is not recommended or accurate for people who are very muscular or extremely non-muscular (YMCA).

Don’t start worrying if the BMI doesn’t work for you because there is another method that determines whether your weight is creating a health risk by looking at where you carry your weight. Studies have shown that people who are shaped like pears (carry their fat on the hips and thighs) are less likely to develop heart disease, stroke, diabetes, high blood pressure and gall bladder disease than people who are shaped like apples (carry their weight around the abdomen and chest). In order to find out if you are an apple or a pear, and to find a copy of the BMI, visit: http://ww1.heartandstroke.ca/Page.asp?PageID=1366&ArticleID=1710

There are also more precise and complex methods of determining your percentage of body fat, including taking skin fold measurements, hydrostatic weighing and bioelectrical impedance. While they are more accurate these methods are not used by the average person as much as the BMI and the Shape Testing methods (YMCA).

If you think that you need to lose weight try to remember that it is more important to lose weight to improve your health rather than your looks. Many weight loss methods may take advantage of your desire to become thin immediately while still eating whatever you want, whenever you want. My advice would be to steer clear of such a method and look for one that promotes weight loss through increasing physical activity and developing normal and healthy eating habits.


CBC. (2004, January 13). Obesity kills prematurely, Canadian survey shows. Cbc.ca. Retrieved January 14, 2004 from http://www.cbc.ca/stories/2004/01/12/obesity_kills040112

Health Canada. (2003). The vitality approach – A guide for leaders. Hc-sc.gc.ca. Retrieved 5 January, 2003 from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/hpfb-dgpsa/onpp-bppn/leaders_living_e.html
Heart and Stroke Foundation. (2001, September 24). Healthy Living: Risk Factors-Obesity. Heartandstroke.ca. Retrieved 5 January, 2003 from http://ww1.heartandstroke.ca/Page.asp?PageID=33&ArticleID=617

Huszar, S. (2004, January 6). Lose weight eating carbs! New starch blocking pasta, pancakes and pizza keep your body from absorbing the calories. Woman’s World, 18-20.

McCarger, L. (2000, March 31). Should the 1988 Canadian guidelines for healthy weights be updated? Hc-sc.gc.ca. Retrieved 5 January, 2003 from http://hc-sc.gc.ca/hpfb-dgpsa/onpp-bppn/why_review_healthy_weights_cp_e.html

The Montreal Gazette. (2004, January 5). It’s time to tackle our obesity problem. Canada.com. Retrieved 5 January, 2003 from http://www.canada.com/search/story.aspx?id=457f7060-e085-4ee4-8a2f-76971b5ed836

Stubbs, D. (2004, January 03). The fat of the Land. Canada.com. Retrieved 5 January, 2003 from http://www.canada.com/search/story.aspx?id=7cd1a921-abfb-4519-9bc8-8cb4c8ec5cee

YMCA. (1999). YMCA Canada fitness leader’s basic theory manual. Toronto: YMCA Canada.