The biggest problem I have with the endless diets I find myself on is that I tend to forget which regime I’m supposed to be following, and start applying the half-remembered slimming rules from 20 years ago: low carb, no carb, only carbs. At the end of every diet, I seem to end up eating yards of baguettes with cheese, olives and red wine.
Staring summer in the eye, and with my clothes cinching around me so that I bulge like a fully-weaned seal pup, I admit a need to restore some discipline if I’m not to disgrace myself on a foreign beach in six weeks’ time.
I arrange to meet the London-based Dr Xand Van Tulleken, host of Channel Four’s How to Lose Weight Well, who knows how hard it can be for a middle-aged man to lose his spread. Xand, a qualified doctor and scientist, has spent years studying what does and doesn’t work and has condensed his knowledge into a pithy book packed with healthy recipes.
Looking at him – a keen cyclist, with more than a whiff of Prince William about him – it’s difficult to believe that, once upon a time, he wasn’t in such fine fettle. Back in 2008, his weight ballooned after receiving some life-changing news – that, following an affair, he was to become a father. However, the mother of his child now lived abroad.
“I had to work out how I was going to have a relationship with my son living thousands of miles away,” he recalls. It was when he reached 19 stone that he realised he had taken to comfort-eating – and needed to fix not only his diet, but the issues causing his emotional responses to food.
This is the crux of the method he outlines in the book.
“It doesn’t have to be a set of dramatic stresses for you to end up managing with food,” he says. “Living in a house with another human, having children, trying to run a normal life and hold down a job is enough. And you must confront some of these horrible things about why we overeat.”
With a copy of Xand’s book in hand, I head home to face my own dad-bod. The first step was to weigh myself. Having avoided the scales for the best part of a year, the scene that plays out is similar to one in a horror movie when a minor actor pulls back a shower curtain, only to be murdered horribly.
The scales reveal I am a whopping 11lb heavier than when I last hopped on. The tape measure confirms the damage: my gut is now nudging 45 inches, which is as lethal as any movie villain if you consider that excess belly fat raises the risk of heart disease and dementia.
According to an online calorie calculator, as a 6ft-tall, moderately active 44-year-old male, I require about 2,400 calories a day. To lose up to 3lb a week, I will need to cut out at least 1,000 calories a day.
Which is where Xand’s regime comes to the rescue. Rather than prescribing what to eat, he merely sets down broad rules to live by.
And these are?
* Rule one is to ditch processed food, which puts paid to my daily bag of Monster Munch.
* Rule two is to stop boozing “if you can” (we’ll see).
* Rule three is to eat only home-cooked wholefoods: think miso and aubergine, steak salad, or roast carrot and goats’ cheese with lentils.
* Finally, rule four is about living well, which means, as well as getting active, confronting the things that play on your mind and encourage emotional eating.
Xand recommends eating either three meals a day if you don’t mind stretching your calories out (porridge for breakfast; cheese and dressed salad for lunch; steak and veg for dinner); two meals a day if you’d like to lose even more weight (ie, ditch the breakfast); or one meal a day for maximum weight loss (think a big dinner of fish pie and pea and parsnip mash, with avocado, fennel and asparagus salad). And if you can’t stand the hunger pangs, he says in the book that “you can manage them by snacking” – just make sure not to exceed your daily calorie intake.
It sounds like the kind of diet a bloke can stick to, and I find the two-meals-a-day plan suits me best. But a key part of Xand’s approach is to wrestle with your issues, or take on jobs you’ve been procrastinating about.
I start by decorating the hall, and the paint fumes put me off food, which comes in handy.
Ultimately, though, this diet is about being a grown-up.
As such, no food is off the menu. But if it suggests a “cheese and a dressed salad” for lunch, it doesn’t tell you how much to eat, or that you’re not to eat a wheel of brie with two lettuce leaves on the side.
It’s up to you to understand what you are eating and how much (really, how little) you need.
Every day I keep a food diary, and make a quick plan of what I am going to eat – knowing what to eat and that you have all the ingredients is crucial.
If I have a big event coming up, I make sure I have two fast days in the run-up to compensate. “Fasting,” as Xand writes, “in terms of dieting, can mean going without food for between 14 and 24 hours.”
Day to day, dumping breakfast for a big black coffee feels like the easiest way of shaving calories and meeting my daily target.
Whether I eat breakfast or not, I am always starving by lunch.
If I really need a snack, I have a cube of cheese and a handful of almonds.
Lunch is a lightly-dressed salad, or veg and brown pasta with lean protein such as grilled salmon.
At about 4pm, I get hungry so eat defensively – another handful of nuts with an espresso and, if desperate, a square of very dark chocolate or another cube of cheese. If I am out and about and hungry, I have water, a banana and a black coffee.
Dinner is always a healthy blowout of veg, salad, pasta, or a few boiled potatoes with lots of protein.
Part of the regime is to get more active, so I’m playing more tennis and wall-climbing, dialling up the calories a little to compensate for extra activity.
And after just four weeks – even with ridiculously poor self-control over portion sizes at weekends and the occasional beer-fuelled evening – I find that I have lost 10lb.
That’s a full inch off my waist in four weeks.
Mercilessly recording everything I have eaten in the food diary, and planning meals, have been vital. And if this diet has done anything, it’s made me crave black coffee and the simplicity of greens with olive oil and lemon juice.
Now I’m really looking forward to my fortnight in the Mediterranean.
This article appeared on Independent.ie