An easy way to lose that beer boep
London - On the first day of my diet, a Sunday, I got a text message from my wife asking me to stop at the supermarket on my way home from playing tennis.
“We need double cream for the crumble,” Jane wrote.
I’d set myself the target of losing 12lb (about 5.5kg) in 30 days, but that short sentence encapsulated the challenges ahead.
From the outset Jane was sceptical about my intention to lose weight, reckoning that I would probably be half-hearted about it, but also feeling that if I did take it seriously, she might suffer collateral damage.
It wasn’t that she was trying to sabotage my plans with the double cream order, but family life had to go on, and food looms large in our house. Two of our three children have grown up and left our Herefordshire home, but mealtimes are still venerated. There are religious shrines accorded less reverence than our elderly Aga.
But Jane’s wonderful, nurturing cooking wasn’t the only reason I thought it would be hard to lose weight. There was also my sedentary lifestyle as this paper’s film critic.
Moreover, when I’m in London to see movies, I tend to stay with my 90-year-old mother, and feeding me is one of her pleasures in life. She and my late father adopted me as a baby and I grew up as an only child, enjoying adult portions.
From the age of nine I was a fat child. Though I later shed a lot of my boyhood blubber, I have never, except for a brief time in my late teens, been what anyone would call svelte. Yet, revealingly, when my biological mother tracked me down in the Nineties and I met the five half-siblings I never knew I had, they were all perfectly slim. It was nurture rather than nature that had made me chubby.
Between the ages of 11 and 15, I was downright rotund, what might now be called obese.
On a family holiday, in Bournemouth, I overheard a man say to his wife: “That boy has breasts like a woman.”
It cut me to the quick, of course, but it didn’t make me lose weight: I didn’t know how.
I did slim down over time, but more because of puberty and increasing height, and only to a state of general pudginess.
For years I was careful to keep my T-shirt on in outdoor swimming pools.
Anyway, 40 years after my lardy adolescence, my old mom still doesn’t care much for diet talk.
Every time I tried to raise it, she changed the subject and asked me what films I was off to see. There was one marvellous misunderstanding when I mentioned The Hunger Games. She thought I was trying to switch topics back to my calorie-counting regime.
It is a strange business being a man on a diet. As well as women wanting to feed you, there’s the social stigma that wafts around you like the smell of a pungent cheese.
Twice during the 30 days I met up in pubs with friends who, like me, are in their 50s and far too grown up, you might think, to look askance at a bloke for refusing a pint of bitter and asking instead for a sparkling mineral water with lime cordial.
But you’d be wrong. If I’d explained I was driving, they would have understood. But staying off the beer to lose weight? That was unfamiliar and even faintly threatening.
Fortunately, I had an all-male support network already in place. This was an organisation with the defiantly unambiguous name Man v Fat, set up by a journalist called Andrew Shanahan.
Getting out of bed one morning in 2011, Shanahan, then in his mid-30s, took a ‘guttie’ - a selfie of his expansive bare stomach - with the intention of sending it to a friend to make him laugh. But there was something about that image that horrified him.
He started to look for help in losing weight, but quickly found the multi-million-pound dieting industry is overwhelmingly geared towards women.
Over time, by making significant lifestyle adjustments and selling a stressful business, he lost 5st (32kg), dropping from 17st (about 108kg) to 12st (about 76kg).
The man boobs disappeared. But he felt isolated. One evening, as the only man at a Weight Watchers meeting, he listened for an hour to an animated discussion about how menstruation causes bloating.
It was an extreme example of men and women being on different wavelengths, but even at a basic level there is a gender divide that the dieting industry does not even try to bridge.
On the whole, men are taller than women, with a higher muscle mass. We have bigger appetites and require more energy to sustain us. Our needs, like our bodies, are different.
Not unreasonably, Shanahan’s mind wandered during that discussion about bloating, alighting on the idea that eventually became Man v Fat. If there was no one out there targeting men’s weight problems, he would do it himself.
In Britain, no fewer than 67 percent of men are technically overweight or obese, as opposed to 56 percent of women, but when did you last see an ordinary, middle-aged man gazing out from the front of a slimming magazine.
Men aren’t supposed to diet in our society. Unlike women, we feel no cultural pressure to be skinny. In fact, there’s cultural pressure not to be. That’s why a third of men who do go on a diet are secretive about it.
In June, Shanahan launched a Man v Fat free online programme, whereby groups of five men, in private forums accessible only to them, shepherd each other through 30-day campaigns to lose weight, each using whatever strategy he likes.
Shanahan thinks that men, unlike women, tend to be resistant to prescriptive regimes such as the Atkins Diet (low-carb), the 5/2 Diet (fasting for two days a week) or the Cambridge Weight Plan (strict calorie control). Like Frank Sinatra, we prefer to do it our way.
Most men do not have a candid “Does my bum look big in this?” relationship with their mates. But to virtual friends, who are predisposed to understand your weight and hunger issues because they have plenty of their own, you can say anything.
It’s a brilliantly simple idea, and has yielded impressive results. Eighty percent of men who have tried it have lost weight, with 9lb (4kg) the average over the 30 days.
I started by adopting an online name. I chose Chubster, reckoning that its faint echo of playground cruelty might spur me on.
Having declared my starting weight, my target and a little about my lifestyle, I was then required to post twice a day, revealing what I’d eaten, what exercise I’d managed and the progress I was making, as well as pitfalls I’d encountered.
The idea is that you draw inspiration from your ‘team’ members, while also dishing out encouragement. Moreover, men are competitive beasts. I didn’t want to be the least successful dieter in my group, the Aston Villa of the division.
At 13st 12lb (about 88kg), aiming to get down to 13st (82.5kg), I was the least heavy. In fact, my weight on the starting blocks was the finishing line ambition of the largest of my teammates (online name, CatManDo).
He had reached an enormous 22st 7lb (142.5kg) in August, but was already almost down to 19st (120kg), having given himself until his 50th birthday in May 2017 to shed nearly half his body weight.
His somewhat radical way of doing this was to endure three 36-hour fasts every week, interspersed by normal eating and one weekly “cheat” day.
This, CatManDo rationalised, would mean that he wasn’t depriving himself of anything.
As a result, his typical consumption on those cheat days was formidable: a breakfast fry-up so hearty it included fried potatoes, a hefty sandwich for lunch, then pizza with a baked potato for dinner.
It didn’t sound all that scientific to me, but it worked for him, and by the end of the 30 days the rest of us were cheering him on through his 36-hour fasts and even through his cheat days.
The camaraderie was touching. On my birthday, one of my teammates sent me a cartoon cake and Jane told me, with disapproval, that my face lit up more than it did when I opened her lovingly crafted home-made card. Andrew Shanahan thinks that, for men, the secret of weight loss is 70 percent about diet, 30 percent exercise.
So I made a priority of my food and drink intake, while attempting to move more vigorously.
I played more tennis. I took our dogs for brisker walks. In London, I played a silly game with myself at Tube stations, taking the stairs rather than the escalator, while identifying some person ahead of me on the escalator and trying to overtake them.
I didn’t give myself a specific daily calorie count, but simply tried to moderate consumption of all the things I knew were fattening, or cut them out completely.
For the first two weeks I gave up wine and beer. Except for an occasional slice of dry toast, I stopped eating bread and my beloved puddings. I denied myself second helpings.
I almost wish I could say that this made me miserable, but it didn’t. It made Jane grumpier than me.
At first, she and the children were greatly tickled by the notion of me on a diet. But when she saw that I was going at it with rampant enthusiasm, she became downright snippy.
I overheard her saying to one of her friends on the phone: ‘Who wants a husband who eats less than you do?’
That was the nub of it, I think. A bit like my old mates, she felt threatened. Like so many women, she also thought that the whole domain of managed weight-loss is an all-female club. Indeed, she told me as much.
In the meantime, surprisingly, I found myself embracing hunger. In a vaguely masochistic way, I positively enjoyed the sensation.
One evening I also found myself in Marks & Spencer, carefully scrutinising the calorie content on packs of sushi. What I chose in the end contained 197 calories; what it actually comprised of, I have no idea. It didn’t taste of much, but I didn’t care - the calorie count was all that mattered.
But the thing is that I adore food. It was obvious my diet was turning me into someone I’m not.
I didn’t fully realise this until I started boasting to Jane and saw her eyes glaze over.
After that, I kept my smugness to myself and my fellow Man v Fat adherents, and also tried to diet in a way that would be more sustainable.
So I didn’t skip meals, but did eat off smaller plates. I didn’t deny myself the odd glass of wine during the week, but eked out one, rather than pouring myself a second.
Perhaps fancifully, I thought about the difference between weather and climate: weather being the conditions of the atmosphere over a short period, climate being its longer-term pattern of behaviour.
I decided that my diet would fail if I changed the ‘weather’ of my eating habits. I needed to address the climate.
And I have. I lost 9lb (4kg) in that first fortnight and added 2lb (900g) in the second. So I didn’t quite make my target, but I still lost half a stone overall in 30 days, which I’ve continued to keep off.
When I next do a Man v Fat 30-day programme, I’ll target the other half-stone. And I will do it, whatever domestic tension it causes.
Besides, Jane concedes now that I look better as a result of my 30-day diet. She has even admitted that she’s quite proud of me.
But I might use another name next time. I’m not so sure that I want men fatter than me calling me Chubster again.
BRIAN’S WIFE JANE says..
We laughed at the notion of Brian on a diet. He’s just not a weight-watching kind of chap, nor is he vain.
As long as I’ve known him, he’s never aspired to anything other than his familiar, comfortable physique. Sometimes he’d turn side-on to the mirror and pull in his stomach, but that was about as self-critical as he ever got. Plus, he really likes pudding.
So when he announced his new Man v Fat regime there was much merriment. He would never forsake a cheeky late-evening chocolate in front of House Of Cards or wave away crumble and custard at Sunday lunch.
But he did, and I have to admit, it wiped the smile right off my face.
In the first week, he went at it like a man with a borderline eating disorder and dropped 5lb. He skipped meals, didn’t eat bread, picked potatoes out of a Salade Nicoise and gave up alcohol.
And instead of being supportive, I found myself being a bit catty.
One night in the early hours, he went to the bathroom. I assumed he’d gone for a pee, but when he came back to bed he said, with smug wonder: “Thirteen stone seven.”
I started to panic. We like food, Brian and I. And who wants a husband who eats less than you do?
Of course we women know that it’s folly to crash diet, because you just put it all back on again. But Brian, being a dieting novice, didn’t heed my wise counsel. He was getting high on his early success, buying into that annoying slimmer’s mantra that Nothing Tastes As Good As Thin Feels. I hated it.
Thankfully, he moderated his behaviour after week one. But by then, he’d fallen into a bromance with his fellow dieters. They were much kinder than me, but... well, it was kind of excluding, him tripping off every night to write to his friends.
But I sound like a curmudgeon. He threw himself into the task with admirable enthusiasm and self-discipline. He lost 9lb. He looks great. So now, can we all just have a chocolate?
* For more information, visit manvfat.com.