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BBC's Stephen Nolan says insane diet is killing him

A new documentary on BBC NI tonight gives a shocking insight into the star’s deadly late night junk food binges and private torment over his obesity. Ivan Little reports

Published 09/11/2015

Descent into food hell: Stephen Nolan in scenes from the new programme, Food on the Brain
Descent into food hell: Stephen Nolan in scenes from the new programme, Food on the Brain
Descent into food hell: Stephen Nolan in scenes from the new programme, Food on the Brain
Descent into food hell: Stephen Nolan in scenes from the new programme, Food on the Brain

Standing in a Las Vegas junk food diner which revels in the sick title of the Heart Attack Grill, where they serve up 9,903 calorie burgers and where 25 stone-plus customers eat for free, heavyweight BBC presenter Stephen Nolan plaintively concedes that his eating habits are killing him.

And in the world capital of casinos and slot machines, Nolan admits that if he continues to indulge his passion for junk food he will literally be gambling his life away.

"I'm dying. It's self-inflicted. That's the most frustrating part about it for me. I'm killing myself," he says after the Heart Attack Grill owner sets a bag on his table beside his monster burger and tells him that it contains the cremated ashes of a man who did what it said on the junk outlet's tin - he keeled over and died.

"How long is it going to be before I am in one of those bags?" asks 41-year-old Nolan, whose nightmarish visit to the Grill is the shocking centrepiece of a new BBC documentary.

The footage of the Grill is like a descent into food hell for most normal people though the junk junket is obviously heaven for the fat folk in the film who give themselves high fives as they proudly tip the scales at button-popping weights to ensure that they don't have to get their wallets out of the pockets of their XXXXL trousers.

Nolan is only marginally too light to earn himself a free meal but his disgust at what's on the menu is clear to see as he listens to the owner of the Grill, Jon Basso, who's dressed in doctor's whites beside waitresses in nurses uniforms, defend his oversized portions.

In the documentary Food on the Brain, Nolan travels to New York, Philadelphia and Boston as well as Las Vegas to find out how the brain feeds people's hunger for food. And the statistics from the programme are hard to digest. For the latest World Health Organisation survey reveals that nearly two BILLION male adults are overweight in what is a global epidemic. In America they reckon that the average man and woman consumes 22 teaspoons of sugar every day - nearly three times the recommended amount.

And the projections are that by 2030 around half of Ireland's adult male population could be morbidly obese too.

In the show, Nolan meets neuroscientists and other leading American academics to discuss their theories on how the brain reacts to and influences the food people eat and if the compulsion to overeat can be reversed.

The programme includes archive film of an autopsy on an obese woman and an exploration of a new transplant procedure involving faeces and which also sees the prescribing of what are euphemistically called 'poo pills'.

Nolan meets a shrink in New York in a bid to find out if it's a problem in his brain which causes him to over-eat. But on a rooftop in Manhattan with his shirt straining to contain his bulging stomach, he manages to make even the non-judgmental psychiatrist emit an involuntary gasp as he outlines the horror story of his daily food intake.

Dr Ramsey is renowned for what Nolan calls his revolutionary approach to treating his patients.

"Instead of prescribing drugs to change brain behaviour he prescribes food," says Nolan.

He asks the Radio Ulster and Radio 5 Live presenter to tell him what he eats in a typical day. Nolan admits that he takes nothing for breakfast - not even hot drinks pass his lips. "I don't like coffee. I don't like tea," he says.

The first things he eats most days around 2pm are two packets of crisps and a bar of chocolate. "Sometimes I would have a proper meal," says Nolan "Chicken and chips. Steak and chips. Lasagne and chips. Stew."

He has another big meal around 7pm or 8pm but two or three hours later he would eat again. And it's his disclosure that he would take five or six packets of crisps plus chocolate every night that finally causes an amazed Dr Ramsey to go "Oh, wow".

Nolan acknowledges his nocturnal eating habits are madness but says that he convinces himself every night that he is going to start a diet in the morning and that his latest binge is his last one. "It's insane," he admits. "Crisps, chocolate, ice cream, fast food."

Nolan challenges Dr Ramsey's assertion that he is a successful man. Patting his massive stomach he says: "You can't be successful and have this. I don't feel successful. I feel like a failure."

He says that his visit to America has shown him how 'screwed up' he is in terms of what he is eating. "I know I couldn't be harming my body more," he says of the 'poison' with which he is feeding himself.

Other experts tell Nolan that his personal issues with weight and food could have been pre-determined. Dr Felice Jacka from Deakin University says that her research has shown that pregnant women who eat too much processed food could be putting their unborn child's health at risk and leaving them open to behavioural problems, immune deficiencies and depression.

"I'm going to blame my mother for everything," jokes Nolan. "It's the Crunchies my mother has been on, the yoghurt, the crisps."

In Philadelphia leading nutritional scientist Dr Jennifer Nasser wires Nolan up to infra-red technology to assess how his brain responds to him eating broccoli, chicken sandwiches and yoghurt. His brain activity during the vegetable course is unremarkable but his beaming smile gives away his contrasting attitude to the yoghurt and his brain shows no sign of wanting him to stop. "This is like heaven," he beams.

Nolan admits that he loves junk food. But Dr Jacka tells him that studies have shown that people who have better quality diets are much less likely to suffer from depression whereas people with unhealthy diets are more likely to suffer from it.

She says: "This is a disaster because it's like having free drugs on every corner so people everywhere, all over the States where they have got crazy rates of obesity, they are just committing suicide by junk food. We know that even people who are highly educated who are wealthy all across the globe are consuming these foods."

Talking about the large multi-national food industry, Dr Jacka says: "I think they are evil b******s and they are allowed to act with impunity. I really mean it because there is no doubt that so much of the tidal wave of ill health that the globe is experiencing is a function of unhealthy diets."

Neurosurgeon Dr Nicole Avena says that studies with rats show that rodents who have been used to bingeing on sugars suffer tremors, depression and anxieties after they are deprived of the 'highly addictive' additives.

She also says that artificial sweeteners can encourage humans to eat even more food.

Back with Dr Ramsey, Stephen talks - and the documentary shows film -of how he lost seven stone on an extreme diet last year when he says he felt great about himself. But now he says he's even heavier than he has ever been.

The psychiatrist says Nolan's diet, which was based on him eating three energy bars a day, was doomed to failure because it wasn't sustainable.

Instead Dr Ramsey tries to encourage Nolan to eat other healthier food like fish and kale which the presenter admits he likes because it tastes like ready salted crisps.

Nolan says: "Before this programme I didn't know what a massive part your brain plays in all this.

"These experts have helped me understand more than ever than being overweight is more than just having a bad diet or being greedy or lazy or whatever - food can affect how we think, how we behave and can have a serious impact on our mental health - and some of us could be on an unhealthy path before we're even born."

In the documentary, however, the most chilling comments don't come from Nolan at all.

The first comes from one of the humongous customers in the Heart Attack Grill who comforts himself that at nearly 26 stone he isn't "too bad" compared to some people in the diner who are 10 stone heavier.

With a perfectly straight face he says: "At least I can still walk."

But even more alarming are the words of the boss of the Grill Joe Basso who says: "I sell death and I sell fun. And those two happen to go hand in hand."

Food on the Brain, which is made by Third Street Studios, is on BBC 1 NI tonight, 9pm

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