Clodagh Finn’s diary of a non-dieter

A nutrition course targeting the toxic fat around the waist is not a diet but a way of living, says Clodagh Finn.

LET’S cut right to the chase: I shed 12lbs in 12 weeks, lost four inches from my waist and hips and resolved never to go on a diet again after completing a nutrition programme called ‘Lose Fat Around The Middle’.

In general, I believe numbers should be kept as far away from the body as possible. The route to misery is paved with constant measurements and our constant failure to ever quite measure up to some unobtainable goal. The multi-billion-euro diet industry feeds on that destructive numbers game.

And yet, this time last year that well-worn pair of comfy jeans weren’t comfy any more and I found myself Googling ways to lose the post-Christmas spare tyre. It didn’t go much further than that. The once-comfy jeans went to the back of the wardrobe along with anything else that had shrunk in the wash (denial is a wonderful thing).

I went on like that for months, feeling under par, overweight and slightly disgusted when another zip groaned while I tried to coax it to do its job. It was my age, I thought, but there was cold comfort in that. Who wants to admit to middle age, not to mention the middle age spread?

The problem with losing weight, I’ve found, is that it always seems to find me again. And no matter what I did, I’d still find myself slumping in the afternoon and reaching for chocolate. As a pal of mine says: “If I have the right change for the vending machine, God wants me to have a Twix.” .

Enter ‘Lose Fat Around The Middle’, a nutrition course based on Dr Marilyn Glenville’s best-selling book that promises to help you balance blood sugars and beat cravings.

Four years ago, Dublin nutritionist Heather Leeson adapted it to run as a 12-week course because she found people were more likely to change their eating habits if they had ongoing group support.

Research shows it takes at least three months to replace poor diet and lifestyle habits with healthier ones. Now, courses run in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Kildare and the average participant loses about 10% of their body fat, drops up to a stone in weight and shaves some four inches off the waist.

But this is not a diet; it is a way of living designed to target the toxic visceral fat around the waist that increases your risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, even cancer.

That seemingly innocent muffin top is not just a blot on your body beautiful, it is bad for your health.

And so to work. The first evening was hard. Who wants to be weighed, measured and assessed by a machine that can, using bioelectrical impedance analysis, read your metabolic age, your body fat and, it seems, what you ate for your tea? I was pushing the upper limits of normal for just about everything.

If you think you need to lose weight, try this test at home. Simply measure your height and your waist: Your waist should be half of your height, or less.

Course nutritionist Assumpta Dunne was the woman who motivated me to change my ways.

It was a blessed relief to find that the 12 weeks of guidance would be dispensed with humour and humanity as well as an in-depth understanding of what makes us unhealthy. This is not boot camp — it is a research-led journey into the world of nutrition that could change the way you eat for ever.

The first step and the programme’s central focus is to help you balance your blood sugars by eating little and often — every three hours or so.

I thought I was doing that but when you start to keep the recommended food diary you soon realise that inhaling three biscuits at elevenses isn’t exactly what they had in mind.

We’re furnished with lots of nourishing recipes, sound advice, tips (beware the routine cuppa and bun in your local café; it could ratchet up 900 calories, or half your daily allowance) and sample menus. A typical day might be:

Breakfast: Half a grapefruit and 1 slice of wholemeal toast with nut butter.

Mid-morning snack: Pear and a handful of mixed seeds.

Lunch: Mixed vegetable frittata with green salad.

Mid-afternoon snack: Vegetable sticks and a third of a tub of hummus.

Dinner: Roast vegetable ratatouille with cod and butterbeans.

The key is to add protein to every meal or snack and to cut out sugar and artificial sweeteners.

A study in the Lancet found that people who used artificial sweeteners tended to gain weight and in particular weight round the middle that is notoriously hard to shift.

All participants already have a folder full of facts and figures which I start to quote to myself and others. For instance, Interesting Fact #1: There are 12 spoons of sugar in a packet of Skittles. Ouch.

Exercise is another vital programme component. Fitness expert John Sweeney explains that three short resistance workouts a week (including, say, squats, push-ups and the plank for core strength) will improve body shape, target tummy fat and increase your metabolic rate.

He also explodes some common exercise myths, such as the persistent belief that muscle turns to fat when you stop exercising.

“It doesn’t,” he explains, “muscle and fat are completely different tissues that are not interchangeable. Muscle goes floppy when it is not used. It also decreases in size, hence the saying: ‘use it or lose it’.”

I file away Interesting Fact #2: Muscle burns more than two and a half times as many calories as fat and I try to walk more and actually do some yoga rather than think about it.

Keeping an exercise diary motivates me — I can’t leave those little squares blank and soon start walking briskly four or five times a week and doing a regular yoga routine.

The course continues with a focus on portion size, reading food labels and the role of stress in weight gain.

It’s not rocket science to figure out that bigger portions will make bigger bellies, yet who would have thought a portion of movie popcorn in the 1950s measured three cups and had 174 calories but today measures a staggering 21 cups and has 1,700 calories?

I manage to keep that interesting fact to myself while watching Interstellar without popcorn (I don’t like popcorn anyway), but I couldn’t help telling any poor soul who would listen about the hidden sugar in food.

I’ve started to read food labels and take the advice of Michael Pollan, the bestselling author of Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual: “Avoid food products containing ingredients that no ordinary human would keep in the pantry.”

I’ve also started counting spoonfuls of sugar — 4g of sugar is a teaspoon. You’d be horrified to see how many spoons of sugar are in so-called healthy yoghurts and cereals. Sometimes, you’d be better off eating a bar of chocolate and — admission number three — sometimes I did.

I fell off the wagon and climbed back on again several times in the 12 weeks. Even so, my body started to respond. The changes are radical on the inside, but not so much on the outside. I feel better, have more energy and try to make healthier food choices.

Christmas was a little different this year. When I ate out, I started with soup and skipped dessert.

Interesting Fact #3: Eating soup stops the cells in the stomach producing your hunger hormone ghrelin and turns off appetite.

I’ll be keeping my little insights to myself in 2015 but I will be telling everyone that this is an exceptional programme that works if you put a little work into it.

Would I recommend it? Unreservedly. A 12-week course costs €297. That includes classes, recipes, menus, food diaries and weekly texts and emails.

Courses run in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Kildare and start again in January. For full details, see glenvillenutrition.ie.

Ten things that will help you change your life

1. Eat little and often (every three hours) to keep your blood sugar stable.

2. Eat breakfast within an hour of getting up.

3. Eliminate sugar and refined carbohydrates, such as white rice, bread and pasta.

4. Add (vegetable) protein to all meals and snacks: it slows the release of sugar into the blood.

5. Eat essential fats, including oily fish at least three times a week.

6. Don’t eat on the run.

7. Limit your caffeine intake. Coffee can play havoc with blood sugars.

8. Drink 1½ litres of water throughout the day.

9. Manage your stress.

10. Get moving. Exercise for at least 45 minutes four times a week.


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