A Brief Fat Loss Guide for Men (or Women)

Yesterday, the Weekend magazine of The Times newspaper here in the UK were kind enough to run a piece I wrote for them about weight loss. It went into a special feature they’d put together on matters male. The piece is, essentially, a precis of my book Waist Disposal – the Ultimate Fat Loss Manual for Men. While this book was specifically written with men in mind, the nutritional, exercise and psychological recommendations are utterly appropriate for women too.

Inevitably, the article in The Times was edited a little. Here’s the unedited (longer) version:

The Anti-Paunch Diet

For many men, the New Year ushers in a desire to shed the fat laid down over the festive season. Efforts here usually make use of the calorie-centric strategies of ‘eating less’ and ‘exercising more’. Such thinking will see masses of males eschewing beer, chocolate and crisps, while they take to park tracks or the treadmill to notch up the miles.

Yet, while there’s something reassuringly straightforward about the ‘calorie principle’, the evidence that its deployment succeeds in the fight against fat is actually quite thin on the ground. In fact, a mound of research attests to the fact that while reducing calorie input or enhancing expenditure can bring short-term benefits, the problem is these are very rarely sustained over time.

The blame for faltering fat loss is usually laid at the feet of the would-be slimmer. However, there are fundamental reasons why taking a calorie-based approach is not the certain winner in the weight loss stakes theory makes it out to be. Moreover, taking a conventional approach can doom many men to fat loss failure and the frustration of burgeoning weight in the long term.

The good news is that successful, sustained weight loss is genuinely achievable. Even better, it requires none of the extensive exercise or dietary deprivation commonly resorted to at this time of year.

The Calorie Trap

One potential pitfall of a calorie-based approach to weight loss relates to the conscious cutting back on food this usually entails, and the fact that this can put a dent in the metabolism (if we put less fuel on a fire it burns less brightly, and the body is no different). And even when calorie intake is stepped up again, the metabolism may not recover in a timely fashion. It is this phenomenon that helps explain why after abandoning a strict diet, many men eventually end up significantly heavier than they were when they embarked on the diet in the first place.

Of course, we can mitigate this effect on metabolism to some degree by upping our exercise. The problem is that the number of calories burned during, say, brisk walking jogging is pretty paltry unless we’re making heroic efforts in this department. Plus, exercise can ‘work up an appetite’, and any resultant increased eating can so easily wipe out the calorie deficit induced by our exercise endeavours.

It is perhaps no surprise then that for many men, taking a conventional calorie-centric approach leads to relatively minor losses before the dreaded ‘plateau’.

The diminishing returns typical of a conventional approach to weight loss are compounded by the hunger that usually comes with it. Many men will be able to summon up some force of will and discipline for a while, but once weight loss starts to stall, the resolve tends to weaken. And once hunger bites, any dietary indiscretions will usually to be in the form of particularly fat-making foodstuffs. The plain and simple fact is that most men will not willfully or willingly go hungry for extended periods of time.

The solution? To fill up on truly satisfying foods that tend not to encourage fatty build-up in the body.

Hunger No More

I sometimes advise men seeking to shed fat that the less hungry they are, the more weight they’ll lose. This statement may seem utterly counter-intuitive on first reading, but trust me when I tell you that this is exactly what my experience with literally thousands of men tells me.

At the heart of this strategy is the fact that, for a given number of calories, not all foods sate the appetite to the same degree. Basing the diet on foods that do a sterling job of satisfying the appetite makes it possible to induce a calorie deficit without hunger, deprivation or sense of sacrifice. In other words, this approach is sustainable. Plus, the absence of undue hunger is generally a sure sign the body does not think it’s starving, thereby reducing any tendency to put a brake on the metabolism.

Science has revealed two major factors that determine how satisfying a food is. One is its glycaemic index (GI) – a measure of the rate and extent to which a food releases sugar into the bloodstream (lower GI foods are more sating than higher GI ones). The other is its protein content as, calorie for calorie, this sates the appetite more effectively than either carbohydrate or fat.

It is these facts that help explain why a handful of nuts (low GI, relatively rich in protein) will usually work well to keep hunger at bay, while scoffing a bucketful of popcorn (high GI and low in protein) the size of our head fails to even touch the sides.

Apart from nuts, other properly-filling foods include meat, fish, eggs and full-fat plain yoghurt. Couple these with plenty of low-GI non-starchy vegetables (e.g. green and salad vegetables) and some fruit and we have a diet that meets all of our nutritional needs, while at the same time will have us eating less, but without any need for portion control or hunger.

In a recent study published in the online journal Nutrition and Metabolism, individuals were instructed to eat either a diet similar to this one or a Mediterranean diet. The diets were ‘ad libitum’, meaning that individuals could eat as much of them as they wanted. Quite naturally, the individuals on the former diet ate an average of about 500 calories less each day than those eating the latter. Other evidence published this year in the New England Journal of Medicine found that after an initial period of weight loss, a higher-protein, low-GI diet proved the most effective for preventing weight regain.

Carb Loading

Another boon of high-protein diets is that they are naturally lower in carbohydrate. This has relevance because carbohydrate is the primary driver of insulin – a hormone that stimulates the accumulation of fat in the fat cells while at the same time slowing the breakdown of fat too. In theory at least, eating a carb-rich diet (as conventional weight loss advice usually urges us to do) actually encourages fatty build-up in the body. Gluts of insulin seem to particularly predispose to fat deposition around the midriff as well as hazardous fatty infiltration in and around the internal organs (see ‘Toxic Waist’).

Cutting back on foods that disrupt blood sugar (including many starchy carbs such as bread, potatoes, rice, pasta and most breakfast cereals) will help temper insulin levels, which in turn can speed the rate at which our cells give up their fat.

Surges of insulin can also drive blood sugar to sub-normal levels some time after eating, which can provoke pangs of hunger, particularly for sweet and/or starchy foods. A move from carb-crammed fare to a diet richer in protein and fat tends to stabilize blood sugar levels, and is usually effective in quelling any false hunger and carb cravings. Coupled with its superior appetite-sating and insulin-lowering effects, a higher-protein, carb-controlled diet ticks all the boxes for those seeking to kiss their love handles goodbye – for good.

Make a Meal of it

The eating of breakfast tends to be important for sustained fat loss, but the usual morning fare of cereal, toast or a croissant on the way in to work won’t do here on account of their insulin-disruptive and non-satisfying nature. Far better to start the day with some full-fat plain yoghurt with added berries and nuts or, if time will allow, some eggs (say with smoked salmon, mushroom and tomato) or an omelet.

Sandwiches are ideally foregone at lunch, in preference for a meat or fish soup (e.g. bacon and lentil, pea and ham, smoked haddock chowder), a meat, fish or egg-filled salad (avocado will provide some satisfying protein here too), meat or fish with vegetables (excluding potatoes) or an omelet and salad. Butter and olive oil can be used to dress vegetables and salad respectively.

Evening meals may follow a similar format, but might also branch out into stews, casseroles and roasts. As long as you come to your evening meal ‘ready for food’ but not ravenous (see below), you’ll be amazed at how easily it is to do without piles of potato, rice or pasta (or pudding, for that matter) and still feel well and truly satisfied after a meal.

Graze, Don’t Gorge

Going too long between food fuellings can cause the appetite to run out of control in a way that can derail our healthy eating habits. A common problem time for many men is between lunch and their evening meal. For most of us this is just too long to go after a soup or salmon salad without getting ravenously hungry before our dinner. This situation is easily cured by snacking on something healthy and satisfying in the late afternoon or early evening. Bear in mind that while we’re generally encouraged to eat fruit as a snack, it usually does a lousy job of sating the appetite. Nuts, on the whole, do a far better job.

Claim your Steak

Red meat is perhaps the most vilified food of all, and a good part of its unhealthy reputation is based on the fact that it has a rich stash of saturated fat, which boosts cholesterol levels, and so risk of heart disease. Or so the story goes. The impact of a foodstuff on cholesterol levels is, though, largely irrelevant: it’s the food’s impact on health that counts. Despite what we’ve been assured for more than 30 years, science simply does not support a link between saturated fat and heart disease, and there’s no convincing research that eating less saturated fat reduces the risk of disease or death either.

Red meat is for most men a deeply satisfying food, and can be an integral part of a high-protein, low-carb diet for those who like it. Such diets, by the way, compared to ‘healthy’ low-fat, carbohydrate-rich ones, lead to superior changes in disease markers such as blood pressure, blood sugar and triglyceride (blood fat) levels, as well as measures of inflammation (which is believed to be a key underlying process in chronic disease including heart disease). The truth is, eating a steak, roast beef or some lamb chops needn’t be a guilty pleasure at all (just a pleasure).

Toxic Waist: It’s a Man Thing

Men and women can differ in many ways, including body shape, and these differences become especially pronounced when we gain weight. For men, fatty accumulation tends to be focused around the middle of the body or ‘midriff’, as well as internally including within the liver (known as ‘fatty liver’). On the other hand, women of childbearing age usually find their ‘problem areas’ to be the buttocks and thighs. These differences in fat distribution are not merely aesthetic: Research shows that excess weight around the middle – known as ‘abdominal obesity’ – is strongly linked with an increased risk of an increased risk of conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. On the plus side, it’s precisely this form of excess weight that seems to respond most readily to a lower-carbohydrate, relatively protein-rich diet described here.

Fat Fallacy

For some, it’s hard to get out of their minds that eating fat is inherently fattening – it’s called fat, after all. Plus, as we’re often reminded, fat contains about twice as many calories as carbohydrate or protein per gram. Remember, though, that the chief driver of fat accumulation in the body is insulin. And fat doesn’t stimulate insulin secretion. Now you know how it’s possible for men to have their fill of fatty foods such as meat, eggs, Hollandaise sauce and nuts, only to drop weight like a stone.

Easy Does it

The nutritional advice here is appropriate for women, but my experience in practice is that it works particularly well for men. Men, on the whole, lose weight more readily than women, and this may be at least in part due to evolutionary factors (some fat stores are an advantage for child-bearing and rearing). Also, though, compared to women, men are less likely to be encumbered by a sluggish metabolism related to, say, low thyroid function. In short, what this means is that when men follow the dietary recommendations here (expanded upon and accompanied by plenty of practical guidance in my book Waist Disposal), they rarely fail to lose copious quantities of fat without the need for gritted-teeth determination or hunger. For the great majority of men who eat according to these principles, satisfaction is guaranteed.

26 Responses to A Brief Fat Loss Guide for Men (or Women)

  1. Nigel Kinbrum 9 January 2011 at 11:10 pm #

    While a calorie-based approach alone is not enough, not enough, not enough (to quote the Manic Street Preachers), neither is a low carb-based approach alone. The two need to be combined.

    Exercise is for fitness, not weight loss (except for athletes). It’s still necessary, though. Excessive sedentariness leads to insulin resistance in skeletal muscle.

  2. Jenny 9 January 2011 at 11:17 pm #

    I’d like to see an article called “A Brief Fat Loss Guide for Post-Menopausal Women (or Men) Who’ve Been Struggling on Low-Carb for Three Years.

    Why does everyone center weight-loss articles around MEN, when most of them can drop weight fairly easily compared to women?

  3. Soul 10 January 2011 at 1:41 am #

    Nice article, and congrats!

  4. Galina L. 12 January 2011 at 2:57 am #

    To Jenny:

    I am almost there as a premenopausal female 50 years old. In order to loose weight I had to eliminate snacking (it is manageable on the low-carb)and late-evening eating . Cut-off time is 6:30 pm. If I want to put something in my mouth in-between meals I drink jasmine tee with a slice of a lemon without sugar or a sugar substitute.Typical day for me looks like 2-3 eggs with a Tbs of butter at 7:30 am, palm-sized stake with 1 cup of shredded cabbage at 1:30 pm, 2 cups of green salad with a tuna or a boiled egg. No grains, sugar, fruits.
    When I am not loosing weight, I add to all that some nuts, occasional small serving of fruits or berries, coffee with real cream and sugar substitute.
    Exercise is important in order to keep your body and spirit healthy but not essential for a weight loss. Low-carbing at the ketogenic level also works as a very good mood-swings remedy.

  5. Galina L. 12 January 2011 at 3:01 am #

    Sorry, I didn’t make it clear that the mentioned green salad is eaten for a supper at 6 p.m.not as a part of my lunch.

  6. J Williams 12 January 2011 at 2:57 pm #

    I’ve just finished reading Waist Disposal and really enjoyed your common sense approach. I intend to give it a go as soon as I’ve managed to get rid of all the carbs in the house. However, one problem I always hit up against when trying to eat more healthily is that I really can’t stomach most pulses – in fact it would be more accurate to say I can’t swallow them as they seem to trigger my gag reflex, as do sprouts and spinach – and I wondered whether you could suggest some alternative to the lentils that seem to feature quite highly on your list of reccommended healthy foods?

  7. Robbo 12 January 2011 at 10:09 pm #

    @ Jenny,
    Is the struggle you have had on Low-carb the struggle to keep the carbs down ? Or is it about disappointingly little weight loss despite keeping the carbs down ? The suggestions will be different in each case.

  8. Mike Salvino 14 January 2011 at 3:08 pm #

    I read Dr. Briffa’s “Waist Disposal” in October of last year.
    To date I’m 16 pounds lighter, 2 trouser sizes smaller and a lot, lot happier.
    I strongly recommend this ” eating life style” to all men. Especially we older fellows.
    Thanks Doc!!!!

  9. Calum Beatt 15 January 2011 at 1:13 am #

    I bought John’s book last summer and after an initial difficult 2 weeks am 2 stone lighter and have lost 18% of my body weight. More importantly I have more energy,sleep better and my waist is 3 inches smaller. I have no desire to go back to my old diet of carbs and dairy -I haven’t felt this great in years and my self confidence is great. This book really works.

  10. Jentana 15 January 2011 at 1:20 am #

    I am looking forward to a Waist Disposal for women. I know that your book has worked well for men I know but sadly not really for me. I wonder where the difference may lie.

  11. Judith 15 January 2011 at 1:29 am #

    I’m with you, Jenny! Post-menopausal here too. I’ve been low-carbing (mostly Paleo) for two years. I lost weight (20 kilos) over the years but it was slow going. Now I am still low-carbing but weight loss has stopped, though I need to lose another 10 kilos. I’ve been the same weight for a year now. It’s no struggle keeping the carbs down – it’s second nature to me now. But I wish I could shift some weight!

  12. Pat Lamb 15 January 2011 at 1:57 am #

    Great idea Jenny, here’s another request for a book specifically for the post menopausal woman.

  13. Rachel 15 January 2011 at 3:06 am #

    Judith, have you had a blood test to check Iron levels? I have had static weight for years but have now lost 1.5 inches off my waist in the last 2 weeks. Following low carb/high protein diet as I have before. the difference this time is I am taking Spa-Tone, Iron-rich water to correct an extremely low ferritin level. This may get missed by your doctor as it seems to be less important for men!

  14. Liz 15 January 2011 at 3:22 am #

    Low carb in the past used to make me feel very good. However I have diverticular disease (acquired while doing Atkins!) It’s triggered into diverticulitis if I eat nuts and seeds, though ground almonds are OK. So I’m not sure how I can do this diet. I also need a lot more more fibre than I’d get with just the veggies, which I currently get with wholegrains. Any ideas?

  15. John Walker 15 January 2011 at 1:48 pm #

    I do eat pulses, but I am not overly fond of them.Thus, my alternatives to pulses are cauliflower and broccoli. And plenty of nutty pumpkin seeds!

  16. Deborah Booth 15 January 2011 at 2:57 pm #

    Ah…at last talk of the unmentionable species of the planet, The (Post)Menopausal Woman. I have followed you John Briffa for years, so generally low carbs, tried every remedy over the years but not HRT,plenty of excercise as have large garden, walk a lot,canoe and cycle a bit, now at 61 I am short, dumpy,and still plagued with hot flushes at least every hour, worse in the eraly hours, plus other unmentionable symptons! So John, there’s lots of us would like to see you research our problems!!

  17. Daisy 15 January 2011 at 3:45 pm #

    Hi, Absolutely with you on the book request for post menopausal women. It’s incredible how my body is bulking out while my back’s turned, despite cutting down on the carbs (not easy in a work situation)& reintroducing meat after years of being veggie. Keeping slim, fit and, indeed, regular is an ever-increasing challenge, and some advice would be greatly appreciated!

  18. Erin 17 January 2011 at 10:08 pm #

    Hey post-menopausal ladies! Have you ever had your thyroid antibodies checked? Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (an autoimmune condition) is very common and very underdiagnosed! Your thyroid tests may be normal (although most docs are using outdated lab ranges and thus are missing a lot of hypothyroidism). Check out http://www.thyroidbook.com

    Also, many people benefit from a once every week or two carb re-feed day so that their body doesn’t down-regulate the conversion of thyroid hormones and metabolism too much. Many have found that milk and cheese (more than cream or butter) stalls weight loss due to dairy being insulinogenic, even despite its lack of carbs. It helped a lot me to cut out cheese.

    Another aspect of difficult weight loss is adrenal issues. To much cortisol causes wight gain around the midsection and too little cortisol (from adrenal fatigue) can make it hard to lose the belly fat. Getting a 24-hour Adrenal Stress Index saliva test is a way to tell what’s going on. Blood tests only show adrenal disease.

  19. Carroll 19 January 2011 at 1:53 am #

    Hi Liz,

    You don’t need wheat fibre. Apart from vegies and fruit, try coconut, it’s a high fibre food. You can also buy coconut flour too, although get some good recipes because using it is a bit of an artform.

    Coconut oil is also worth researching.

    Generally I find a high fat diet keeps things moving along.

    There’s a place for safe starches in the LC diet. To find out why you should read ‘Perfect Health Diet’ by Paul & Su-Ching Jaminet.

  20. maria 22 January 2011 at 11:58 pm #

    informative and very interesting article

  21. Andy 28 February 2011 at 7:36 pm #

    I have read the Waist Disposal Book cover to cover and loved it, so I have in the last 2 weeks stuck to the recommendations to the letter, but nothing good has come of it, if anything my jeans a re a little tighter (and I promise I did not cheat once)…would anyone that has done this approach be able to tell be what sort of timescales are required. I’m no quitter but if it aint gonna work for me then I need to try something else……here’s hoping I’m just being impatient. cheers

  22. Snibbor 28 February 2011 at 11:13 pm #


    I am reading this book now, and have been using the advice in my Lifestyle change. I have dropped 19lbs in less than 8 weeks, and have way more energy All of the time.


  23. David 15 July 2011 at 11:51 pm #

    Enjoyed reading this article by Dr. Briffa. I too have been eating a Paleo diet and while not needing to lose weight actually needed to gain weight. I increased the amount of protein, fats, and carbs (re:eating approx. 4 to 8 ounces of sweet potatoes a day). I gained 27 lbs. in 9 months. Lifting heavy and crossfit each week. Now, I want to keep the strength but lose the new love handles and tummy fat. Would eliminating the sweet potatoe, being just 4 to 8 ounces a day, reduce the love handles and belly fat? I do not eat dairy nor any other starches.

  24. kathleen stewart 16 January 2012 at 8:53 pm #

    As a sport and exercise scientist who is developing an exercise programme for peri- and post-menopausal women (I am post-menopausal myself), I firmly believe that an appropriate, structured exercise programme is essential for weight loss in women like myself. Exercise recommendations for this client group are far too conservative in my view and do little to encourage fat loss. The dietary recommendations are reasonable, but I feel too extreme for me (I love my carbs!) Exercise and nutrition are two sides of the same coin – you can’t optimise weight (and more critically fat) loss by using only one strategy!


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