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.
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.
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.