Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Freewheeling my way from tubby to trim

There's no secret to shedding the pounds. You just have to take it gently, says Malachi O'Doherty

The strangest thing about a Government minister trying to stop people dieting for the New Year is the department she represents.

Jo Swinson last week wrote to editors urging them not to promote quick-fix diets. She knows that most people will be tempted to commit to New Year resolutions and that the most common of these will be a resolution to lose weight.

Ms Swinson says, sensibly enough, "encouraging you to lose weight at a miracle speed, or cutting out food groups, or skipping meals, any kind of these fab diets actually can have negative health consequences."

But this is a business minister talking, not a health minister, which suggests she is acting outside her brief and expertise.

Still, she has a point. And I am speaking as someone who has succeeded in losing weight and thinks an awful lot of people would be better off if they could do the same.

Ms Swinson's objections are twofold. She is concerned about a fixation on body image as a motive for trying to get from tubby to trim and she thinks it is dangerous to encourage people to sign on for diets which promise rapid results.

My concern was health, rather than image. I think a man may look quite distinguished when he is portly.

But two years ago, I shed a fifth of my body weight in six months simply by following the guidance my GP gave me and it cost me nothing.

That guidance was to eat balanced meals in smaller portions and to aim for a reduction of around two pounds a week - no more. And to walk more.

I stuck to that. If I still felt peckish after a reasonable meal, I would drink water, or suck a lemon. Even without that, the peckishness would pass. What I left out entirely was the chocolate snacking I had loved so much.

Reading about weight-loss, I discovered that there is substantial disagreement on what actually makes you fat. The traditional answer is that fat makes you fat, so don't eat fatty foods.

Others argue that this is a complete misreading and that carbohydrates are the problem: spuds, pastas and bread. Some diets say you can eat all the protein you like if you stay away from these.

And others trace the United States obesity epidemic to the growth in consumption of sugar. Sugar, they argue, is toxic and should be registered as a poison.

That argument impresses me, but what dazzles me more is that there appears not even to be a medical consensus on which of our foods are filling us out.

I still have the occasional piece of chocolate, though never a whole bar and never a fizzy drink, though often a couple of glasses of wine with dinner.

In other words, I am not ascetic, or even remotely abstemious, just careful. And this works.

What nearly threw me off-course was the discovery that the two pounds-a-week trajectory was not consistent. Weight goes off in stepped stages. Suddenly, after about half-a-stone with me, it stops, for weeks. Then it resumes.

But do the sums. Two pounds a week, give or take a pound, is half-a-stone a month.

That's two stone in four months.

Anybody who wants to lose two or three stone for the beach this summer has enough time to do it in without crash dieting, or starving. But this is not dieting, in the sense that a diet is a temporary measure to readjust your body shape; it is a changed lifestyle.

Diets are useless because people bounce back from them and end up heavier than they were before. Then they fret and try again and the cycle of slimming and ballooning depresses them.

That's where Jo Swinson comes in.

Though her campaign, if it succeeded, could reduce obesity and therefore health expenditure, her primary concern is for women who are being encouraged to obsess about body image. A full-bodied woman herself, she says that women should lay off and stop guilt-tripping each other over size and shape, ignoring "the true diversity of beauty that's out there".

Well, the ideal image for a man, if there is one, has him with swollen pectorals and a stomach like an egg box.

Men's jackets are designed on the assumption that we all have waists, when most of us haven't.

I can't be bothered with thinking about whether I am handsome, or normal-looking. I'm balding and I'm short. But I am concerned about my health and lifespan and I want to have a life filled with pleasure.

After I lost weight, I got back on my bike and cycled round much of the country. I wrote a book about that. Racers on the road leave me far behind, but I get to where I'm going.

I faced into many New Years in the past thinking that there was no point in trying to shed that wadge of fat that settles on a man's tummy at a certain age, the most intractable obstacle to health and comfort.

But it can be got rid of. There is no secret way of doing it. Jo Swinson is right about that.

You just have to do it very gradually and get used to the fact that you will never eat another pavlova, or drink another cola, as long as you live.

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