Do you want to get rid of your gut? Follow Dr John Biffra’s guide and banish your belly for good
Dr John Briffa is a man with a mission. He has declared war on our waistlines — or rather, the male waistline. His new book, Waist Disposal, reveals how to get rid of an unsightly paunch — “I want to get rid of the gut for good” — and, as a government-commissioned report shows that eight out of ten men will be obese by 2020, it comes not a moment too soon.
“I think that men are a hugely under-catered for demographic,” Dr Briffa says. “Lots of diets and weight-loss clubs have a feminine slant and yet men have weight issues too. The way men store weight around their middles is very strongly linked with heart disease and diabetes — the health problems are much more acute than for women.”
There is, he says, an aesthetic element too. “When men have concerns about their appearance, that’s the area that worries them. They tend to grab their bellies and say ‘that’s the bit I want to get rid of’. Having a paunch is almost as unacceptable as being bald these days.”
Attitudes towards paunches were more relaxed even ten years ago — for some expense-account diners they were almost a source of pride. However, these days there’s much more awareness about health and, Dr Briffa says, “a bit more male vanity generally”.
* What you should eat to lose your paunch
“Look at David Cameron or Nick Clegg — if they took off their suits, you feel they’d still look all right, they’re not covering anything up.”
So why, if male muffin tops are so unacceptable, do his clients keep coming to him needing to get rid of them? Because, says Dr Briffa, they have been misinformed. “It’s not for want of trying; it’s faulty information. The diet industry doesn’t necessarily want people getting lifelong solutions to problems. They’re told ‘eat less, exercise more’, and that doesn’t work; calories burnt during exercise are depressingly small.
“The tyranny of eating fewer calories doesn’t work either.You just get hungry and end up eating rubbish, or you become completely obsessive and who wants to live like that? When I see someone with a gut I want to say to them ‘you need to stop eating all those carbs if you want to get rid of that’.
Eating too many carbohydrates causes fat deposits around the middle — it’s a simple biological fact. Unfortunately for men, this “toxic” fat around their middlesisn’t just external.
“The fat under your skin and around your abdomen is usually accompanied by visceral fat, which reaches around your internal organs. That fat encourages an inflammatory state in the body, which predisposes you to chronic illness. Elsewhere on your body, fat doesn’t have such an impact on your health. That’s why even if you’re relatively skinny, and the scales say you’re OK, if you’ve got a bit of a paunch, you could still be damaging your health.”
The good news, Dr Briffa says, is that it’s relatively easy for men to shift this excess fat.He suggests following his advice for 30 days to start with, to see the benefits for yourself, from a trimmer waistline to increased energy and feelings of wellbeing.
“Men’s physiology is very uncomplicated. Perhaps because of hormonal factors,perhaps because of repeat dieting, perhaps because, evolutionarily, it was more important for child-rearing women to be able to survive times of relative famine, women generally experience rather less impressive fat loss. But get 100 men, show them how to do the right thing, and 99.9 per cent of them will lose weight.”
Waist Disposal: The Ultimate Fat Loss Manual for Men (Hay House, £9.99) is available for £9.49, free p&p. To order, call 0845 2712134 or visit timesonline.co.uk/bookshop
Dr John Biffra’s guide
1. Don’t count calories
For more than half a century, conventional weight-loss advice has been based on the calorie principle. Essentially, this states that if we consume fewer calories than the body burns , weight loss will result. This principle has led to the idea that people who want to lose weight just need to “eat less or exercise more”.
However, despite decades of calorie-focused advice and the expanding range of calorie-reduced foods at our disposal, rates of obesity are burgeoning. The dominance of the calorie principle in our thinking has been a dismal failure.
Low-calorie diets can lack vital nutrients and can include foodstuffs that are toxic to health. They can cause the metabolism to slow down, which can make weight control harder in the longer term; and they can leave us hungry, which can make them unsustainable.
Whether a food is fattening depends not only on the calories it contains, but also on the form those calories take, as well as how good the food is at sating the appetite.
Forget about counting calories and concentrate instead on eating a diet that is rich in foods that counter the accumulation of fat in the body and, at the same time, quell the appetite most effectively.
In practice, this needs to be one that is high in protein, low in carbohydrates, and with enough fat to satisfy you.
Eat enough (in terms of volume) and at frequent enough intervals to satisfy your appetite fully. In particular, ensure that you do not let your appetite run out of control. This may require healthy snacking (perhaps on nuts) between meals, especially between lunch and dinner.
At the same time, ensure that you eat only when you are truly hungry (not when bored or in need of distraction).
2. Foods to avoid
It can be helpful to understand why your gut has been growing. Instead of viewing excess weight as a consequence of too many calories, some scientists have suggested it might be useful to consider it as a “disorder of excessive accumulation of fat in the body”. So what leads to this accumulation?
The hormone insulin is the chief driver of fatty accumulation in the body, promoting the deposit of fat in fat cells, while slowing fat breakdown. Foods that release substantial amounts of sugar into the bloodstream generally cause the body to secrete large quantities of insulin. In the short term, this can cause blood sugar levels to drop, leading to symptoms such as fatigue and cravings. In the long term, it can promote weight gain and increase the risk of conditions such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Lowering insulin levels is, therefore, a key strategy for effective weight loss, and you need to beware of foods that cause the body to produce it. Fortunately, the extent to which a food destabilises blood-sugar levels can be measured and is expressed as its “glycaemic index” (GI).
Many starchy carbohydrates are very destabilising; indeed, many staples, notably cornflakes, wholemeal bread and baked potatoes, have GIs even higher than table sugar (sucrose).
Studies have shown that low-carb diets are most effective for weight loss, as well as having the most favourable effect on measures such as fat, sugar and insulin levels in the bloodstream. Adopting a low-carb diet means cutting down on, or possibly even eliminating, starchy foods as well as those that are rich in sugar, either naturally (eg, honey, fruit juice, bananas and grapes) or unnaturally (chocolate, biscuits and soft drinks).
Do not worry that your body will run short of the sugar it needs to fuel itself. Even if you ate nothing but protein and fat, the body has the capacity to convert both into glucose. It is a plain and simple fact that the body’s absolute requirement of carbohydrate is none at all.
3. Foods to enjoy
The good news is that you can still eat many of the things that you like. Fat’s calorific nature has been used to paint it as the most fattening element of our daily diet, but not all calories have the same propensity to cause weight gain; and fat stimulates the secretion of the hormone cholecystokinin, which slows the rate at which the stomach empties itself and can prolong feelings of fullness.
In addition, certain fats (such as omega-3 fats, which boost the cardiovascular system and brain) have distinct health benefits. Fats to avoid include refined vegetable oils (in excess) and industrially produced fats such as trans fats, which are found in heavily processed food (in any amount). Otherwise, eat fat freely.
Protein has superior appetite-sating properties to carbohydrate and causes less insulin secretion, so a protein-rich diet can actually assist fat loss. Protein is also essential for the maintenance and growth of muscle tissue, which is important for improved body composition. So protein — eg, meat, fish and eggs — should also be eaten freely.
Apart from potatoes, vegetables are on the whole nutritious foods that tend not to cause much disruption to sugar and insulin, so they should be eaten freely. Some vegetables, such as carrots, parsnips and squash, have a higher carbohydrate content and should be eaten in moderation.
Fruit may be rich in carbohydratebut is very nutritious and releases its sugar slowly into the bloodstream. Berries and avocado pears can be eaten freely because they are relatively low in sugar — all other fruit in moderation.
4. Keep motivated
Adopt a positive mental attitude regarding the changes that you’re making, and maintain a positive image and a sense of the transformation you’re seeking to achieve. Don’t think of this as a diet.There’s an old adage: “What you resist persists.”
The idea here is that if you tend to focus on the things in your life that you don’t want, then the very act of focusing on them causes them to perpetuate. Instead of concentrating on not being overweight, put your energy into being slim. If you want a trimmer waist, that’s the image to keep in mind as you go through the process of change. Rather than focusing on what not to eat, concentrate on what to eat.
Embrace exercise. It may not burn many calories, but it will do wonders for your general health and muscle tone. Incorporate brisk walking, even in short bursts, into your daily schedule as much as possible, and engage in resistance exercise regularly.
And always keep in mind the “primal principle”: the idea that the most healthy behaviours are generally those that are in accordance with our evolutionary past. We’ve been on this planet for nearly 2.5 million years and have subsisted mostly on a diet of meat, fish, eggs, fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Condense the whole of human evolution into a year, and we only started eating grains a day and a half ago.
5. Weight loss is not the goal — fat loss is
How do you know if your new way of eating is working? As tools to help you to gain a trimmer waist, calculating body weight and your body mass index (BMI) aren’t as useful as you might think, because they do not reflect body composition and body fat levels.
It’s possible, for example, to have a muscular, healthy individual whose BMI marks him out as overweight or even obese. So estimations of body fatness and waist circumference are more relevant in terms of assessing health and fat-loss progress.
In a Europe-wide study, men with the highest waist circumference had a more than twofold increased risk of death compared with those with the lowest. Abdominal obesity is generally defined as a waist circumference of 94cm (37in) or more for men.
When measuring your waist, remember that what is really important is not where you take this measurement, but that you take it in the same place each time. I advise measuring waist circumference at the level of the belly button, which serves as a useful landmark.
Make sure the tape is horizontal with the ground all the way round (check in a mirror). It’s an important measure, but not one that you can expect to change on a day-to-day basis, so check it no more frequently than once a week for the first few weeks after embarking on this plan, and less frequently after that.
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