More Useful Stuff
As kids, we’d get in trouble for making excuses. And if, on reflection, we’re honest with ourselves, probably 19 times out of 20 we deserved it. Truth is, there would have been a way to finish our homework or help dad clear the garage if laziness – or a more instantly gratifying alternative – hadn’t got the better of us.
With adulthood comes a raft of responsibilities and as the years pass, life can seem ever less an exercise in what we can get away with. But is it? Really?
If the lithe teenager you once were has matured into a well-padded grown-up, chances are you’ve justified this change in your own mind with some weight loss excuses.
Likewise, if your resolutions to slim down have tended to come to naught, you’d have found ways to live with those failures that didn’t involve writing yourself off as a weak-willed goodfornothing.
But the time comes when you need to play headmaster to your own excuses. Evaluate them. Do they stand up to scrutiny? What follows will clear up whether you’re pudgier than you might be by necessity or choice. It will also point the way forward to achieving a more streamlined version of yourself – one who spends less time crafting excuses and more time responding, “Thanks, that’s kind of you” to women who compliment you on how good you’re looking.
EXCUSE NO. 1: HEY, I’M NOT A TEENAGER ANYMORE!
WHAT’S BEHIND IT? Your Matric dance suit now grips you like a boa constrictor, even though your diet hasn’t changed much.
THE COLD, HARD TRUTH: The idea guys stop growing at 18 is bogus. “Your body matures through your twenties,” explains Dixon, your bones getting denser and your chest thicker. Even if you haven’t gained a gram of fat since high school, that suit will still feel like a hand-me-down from Tobey Maguire.
Nothing wrong with “filling out”. But from around your 30th birthday something else happens: your body starts making less testosterone, with production rates falling by 1% a year.Technically speaking, very few men become testosterone deficient. But having less T makes it a little harder for your body to build or retain muscle mass – which, in turn, makes it more disposed to storing fat. That’s because you expend more energy maintaining muscle than lard.
YOUR MOVE: Sarcopenia, the term for age-related muscle loss, can be kept at bay by lifting weights and supporting your workouts with moderate-to-high protein intake. Protein is crucial whenever you’re in kilojoule-deficit with the aim of shedding fat, says Dixon. “It’s very easy to churn up muscle otherwise, but the protein will help you preserve it.”
If weights aren’t your thing and the thought of middle-aged spread appalls you, you need to downsize your meals, says Dixon. Loss of muscle mass since your twenties means that even if you’re the same weight now as you were then, your body composition has a higher percentage of blubber.
Your energy needs peak in your late teens before declining slowly over time, says Dixon. “People who dream about eating as they did in their early twenties are thinking of another world.”
EXCUSE No. 2: I’VE GOT A SLUGGISH METABOLISM
WHAT’S BEHIND IT? You and a mate seem to eat roughly the same amount of food. But you’re soft around the edges while he looks like a Tour de France cyclist.
THE COLD, HARD TRUTH: Your basal metabolic rate is the amount of kilojoules your body burns everyday to function: breathe, pump blood, stay warm – the basics for survival. And, yes, there are a couple of disorders that interfere with its capacity to harness energy, with unused fuel getting stored as fat. But hang on – let’s look at them.
Hypothyroidism, where the thyroid gland doesn’t produce enough of certain fat-burning hormones, strikes mainly women over 60 (is that you, sunshine?) and fewer than one in 1 000 men.
Cushing’s syndrome, where levels of the fat-storing hormone cortisol are chronically through the roof, is even less likely to be your problem, affecting roughly 13 in every one million people.
“We’re not faced with an epidemic of hypothyroidism or Cushing’s,” quips Tim Crowe, associate professor of nutrition at Melbourne’s Deakin University.
Reality check: variations in basal metabolic rate are generally negligible when comparing men of roughly the same age. What’s more, being bigger actually accelerates your metabolism, as your system is servicing a larger area.
Which leaves just one factor that may allow you to shift some of the rap for your spare tyre onto physiological forces outside your control. When most people overeat – at Christmas lunch, say – their body responds by fidgeting more and suppressing the appetite for hours and even days afterwards, to the effect their weight remains stable. But in some people, this “brilliant and entirely subconscious regulatory system” goes awry, for reasons we don’t fully understand, says Professor John Dixon, head of the weight assessment and management clinic at Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Melbourne.
Over time, a few extra kilojoules consumed regularly – think a dollop of whipped cream on your dessert, or an extra teaspoon of sugar in your coffee – can apply serious pressure to your belt buckle. “The amount of surplus-to-requirements food you need to eat to become overweight or obese is tiny, almost immeasurable on a day-to-day to basis,” says Dixon, “and therefore two people who will appear to be eating exactly the same can end up looking entirely different.”
YOUR MOVE: Although there’s an equation for calculating your basal metabolic rate, forget about it. Even if you do burn energy fractionally slower than the next guy, you would also feel the need to eat less. So be guided by appetite rather than habit.
Also, keep in mind that while exercise certainly burns energy, it probably burns less than you think.
“In one minute, even if you were sprinting like Usain Bolt, you might burn up 80kJ,” says Crowe. In contrast, you take in three times that amount from a single piece of bread.
“You can’t get past this fundamental: no matter what your metabolism is, if you’re put in a locked room and given water and nothing else, in two weeks time you will have lost weight – I don’t care what genes you have,” says Crowe, who happily is not recommending that course of action, just pointing out that losing weight is within your power if you’re prepared to feed your face less.
EXCUSE No. 3: I’M A SOCIABLE GUY
WHAT’S BEHIND IT? The desire to eat, drink and be merry when out with friends.
THE COLD, HARD TRUTH: Frequent boozy nights and torching fat go together like mustard and ice-cream. Why? For starters, your body oxidises alcohol ahead of other fuels, effectively putting fat metabolism on hold. It also reduces testosterone levels while upping cortisol – a double blow to your six-pack ambitions.
A 2007 study in the journal Obesity found a robust association between alcohol consumption and greater body mass generally, and a higher waist circumference specifically – the latter a proven risk factor for heart trouble.
YOUR MOVE: If you feel obliged to drink regularly with mates, Boyer says her “kindest advice” is to man up and stop self-sabotaging.
“Athletes I design nutritional programmes for all abstain from alcohol during periods where high performance is required.”
Need the odd night out? For containing kilojoules, wine is better than beer, which is better than spirits and liqueur. Let’s drink a toast to your new ripped body.
EXCUSE No. 4: GUT-SHRINKING MEALS ARE AS TASTY AS CARDBOARD
WHAT’S BEHIND IT? Previous experience of dieting based on unflavoured meat and rabbit food.
THE COLD, HARD TRUTH: Some combination of ignorance, laziness and D-grade cooking skills is fastening that lard to your belly.
YOUR MOVE: Time to visit an area of the supermarket you’ve been sailing past en route to the pasta shelves.
“You can bring any dish to life with fresh herbs,” says nutritionist Sally Boyer, wife of (and cook to) world champion power lifter immortal Derek Boyer.
To add zing, drop two cups of roughly torn basil, coriander, mint or parsley onto meat simmering in tomatoes, garlic, sea salt, pepper and stock. While ramping up the taste quotient, herbs contribute almost no kilojoules to what will fill your plate.
Spices providing “punchy flavours that dance on your taste buds” are your other allies, says chef Teresa Cutter, author of 101 Ways To Lose Weight. Her picks: chilli, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, coriander, lime and black pepper.
Deploy these natural flavour-enhancers in place of the jars of sugary glug that a lot of guys empty onto their concoctions in search of an edible meal. If you crave sweetness, chorus Boyer and Cutter, toss pumpkin or sweet potato into the mix.
EXCUSE No. 5: MY BODY’S PROGRAMMED TO BE A CERTAIN WEIGHT
WHAT’S BEHIND IT? According to research by the Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria, 95% of people who go on weight loss diets regain everything they’ve lost and more within two years. Set point theory contends that everybody is biologically programmed to stay around a certain weight and will fight attempts at maintaining a weight more than two to three kilos below that set point.
THE COLD, HARD TRUTH: It’s not that your body becomes attached to being a certain weight. It’s that it gets used to being fed a certain amount of energy each day and when some of that energy is withdrawn, you feel peckish. Famished even.
YOUR MOVE: Keep taking in the same amount of energy as you have been, but get it from different sources.
At least as key to weight loss as how much you eat is what you eat, argues Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories (R187, Kalahari).
By subbing out high-carbohydrate foods (rice, bread) for high-protein foods (meat, eggs) or even high-fat foods (coconut, avocado) you largely bypass the process by which your body coverts energy into fat.
“Obesity is not a disorder of energy imbalance,” says Taubes. “It’s a disease of fat accumulation” traceable to a high-carb diet.
EXCUSE No. 6: I’M TOO BUSY TO EXERCISE
WHAT’S BEHIND IT? A demanding job; a family, perhaps – and a warm bed.
THE COLD, HARD TRUTH: This is first-order blame-shifting, says Craig Harper, author of Pull Your Finger Out – 101 Ways To Stop Wasting Time & Start Living Your Best Life. (R167, Kalahari, eBook). It’s good intentions substituting for action. It’s wanting something without being prepared to pay the cost.
Guys are forever crying to Harper that they’re strapped for time. His response: there are 168 hours in a week; four x 30-minute workouts would take up 1.19% of that allotment.
“Ultimately,” he says, “it comes down not to how much time you’ve got, but how you choose to use it.”
He’s spot on. It’s like when someone’s asking to see you. If it’s your mum wanting help moving the piano, you’re suddenly really busy. If it’s that pretty girl from the other night, you drop everything.
“Getting fit is inconvenient and we don’t like inconvenience,” says Harper. “We like quick, easy, painless and free. But the reality is that getting your body into shape – and I mean really in shape: big, strong, functional and lean – and keeping it that way, requires consistent effort over time. It’s not sexy, it’s not fun and it’s not always convenient. So just get your head around that.”
YOUR MOVE: If all else fails, build your training into your TV time, advises Harper. During every ad break, hit the floor for high-intensity sets of push-ups, crunches, burpees – whatever. If you watch two hours of TV a night – and a lot of guys do – that’s a half-hour workout. Long enough to make inroads into that belly.
EXCUSE No. 7: I’VE GOT AN INCURABLE SWEET TOOTH
WHAT’S BEHIND IT? A craving for sugar.
THE COLD, HARD TRUTH: You probably do crave it. Why? “Because it’s highly addictive. It’s as hard to give up sugar as it is to give up smoking,” argues David Gillespie, author of Sweet Poison: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat.
An addiction to brussels sprouts would be harmless, if a little strange. But white-as-snow sugar is a Trojan horse in which a bad guy infiltrates your system. That’s because it’s half fructose, a monosaccharide that interferes with two hormones (insulin and leptin) that regulate your appetite control system, explains Gillespie.
Fructose tells you that you need energy when you don’t. It’s like having a broken fuel gauge in your car that says your tank is empty even though it’s half full. “Except in the case of the human body, we’ve got the capacity to whack another fuel tank on our arse,” says Gillespie.
Make no mistake: sugar is your enemy No.1 in your quest to get lean.
YOUR MOVE: Get off the stuff. By doing just that, Gillespie shrunk from 128kg to 85kg in the space of a year.
“Once the weight comes off it stays off without you having to do anything, as long as you never go near the sugar again,” he says. You don’t have to exercise and you don’t have to diet. Just obey your appetite. “Without the sugar craving driving everything, you won’t feel like eating unless you need to, anyway.”
Quitting sugar means bidding adios not only to treats like biscuits, cakes and soft drinks, but also fruit juice, dried fruit, most sauces, condiments and yoghurts (especially low-fat versions made tastier with sugar) and nearly all commercial breakfast cereals. Nor do you get a free pass with fresh fruit. Two pieces a day is your limit under Gillespie’s plan.
EXCUSE No. 8: I’VE GOT THE BLUES
WHAT’S BEHIND IT? Research suggesting a link between ongoing feelings of melancholy and obesity.
THE COLD, HARD TRUTH: Not every misery guts gets fat. Some men lose weight along with their love of life. But the black dog is a proven risk factor for stacking on the kilos.
Depression makes some guys crave high-carb, high-sugar and high-fat comfort foods, while simultaneously wiping out any drive they had to exercise, says Dr Julio Licinio, strategic professor of psychiatry at Flinders University in Australia.
YOUR MOVE: “Treating the depression first is critical, but as soon as that improves, a very concerted effort needs to be made to improve lifestyle aimed at weight loss,” says Licinio.
Best treatment method? Your doctor will make a call on that, based on symptom severity. A complication is that not all clinical trials have found antidepressant medication to be spectacularly effective, while animal studies suggest it can cause weight gain.
“Antidepressants are actually very effective for clinical depression, though less so for the worried well,” clarifies Licinio. “It is self-defeating not to take them, because without addressing the depression it is highly unlikely that the person will have the mental capacity to be more physically fit and eat better leading to weight loss.”
EXCUSE No. 9: HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHAT TO EAT?
WHAT’S BEHIND IT? All the contradictory tips you’ve heard from nutritional experts.
THE COLD, HARD TRUTH: It’s fair comment – to a point. If you take even a passing interest in nutrition, there’s every chance you’re confused about the merits or otherwise of a bunch of foods. Here are some staples that receive spectacularly mixed reviews:
bread: it’s either a great source of fibre, or dead carbs loaded with six-pack-wrecking gluten?
meat and dairy: ideal for muscle-building and weight control, or IGF-1-promoters that render you a time bomb for cancer?
fruit: vitamin-rich packages of natural goodness, or fructose-laden insulin-spikers that initiate fat storage?
That said, the confusion excuse goes only so far, since you wouldn’t claim to be puzzled about the place of soft drinks, cheesecake or chocolate bars in a fat-stripping diet.
YOUR MOVE: For his book In Defence of Food (R165 eBook, Kalahari), Michael Pollan assessed the evidence for the healthiest-possible diet before condensing it into seven words of advice: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
Even though nutritionists approach diet from different angles, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single one who’d quibble with the broad strokes of Pollan’s prescription.
“Food” means meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds – produce that makes it from nature onto your plate with little or no processing along the way.
“Not too much” nods to the advantages for health and weight control of eating to satiety and not beyond, and of fasting intermittently.
“Mostly plants” translates to dividing your lunch and dinner plates into quarters and filling at least two of those with a kaleidoscope of nutrient-dense, kilojoule-light vegetables.
You could read Pollan’s tips as an endorsement of the Paleolithic diet, which Boyer reckons is the best way you can eat. By abstaining from dairy and foods containing gluten, she argues, you’re well on your way to achieving “a lean, energised physique”.
But don’t be a slave to paleo’s rigidities, she advises. Allow yourself occasional servings of milk, cheese, bread and legumes, because taking any diet to extremes won’t work. “Go paleo but do it 80% of the time,” she says.
Bonus tip Smoothies made with water rather than milk can taste thin. The answer: “Adding a frozen banana will give it a creamy, thick-shake consistency,” says Boyer.
– Daniel Williams