In between all the other mayhem going on in the world, the international media have made a big thing about a Lancet article on obesity trends in the UK and US. According to the headlines, 50% of the population of the two countries will be obese by 2030. A less excitable view is that this extrapolation based on limited data is very much the worst-case scenario. Even so, the current situation is horrific: 30% of Americans and 25% of Brits are obese as it is, and increased expenditure on diabetes drugs alone threatens to bust health budgets.
I had my own brush with this problem at my first-ever annual health check at Bangkok’s Bumrungrad Hospital in late May, at which the impertinent, visually impaired doctor claimed I was overweight. Surrounded by tiny 4ft 10in nurses and massively fat Arab patients, he was probably confused. But I decided to humour him and his assertion that I had a body mass index of 27.5; over the previous year or so I had become aware of a gradual apparent tightening of my clothing, so it would do no harm to trim a few inches off to spare me the trouble of demanding my money back for shrinking apparel.
In the following eight weeks I shed 22 pounds, resulting in a BMI of 24.5, which gets me back into ‘normal’ range (to be classified as ‘obese’ you need a BMI of 30). And I did it without really cutting back on beer, a substance that, as Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said, is proof that God loves us and wishes us to be happy. I also did it without doing extra exercise, since the idea is for the weight loss to be permanent, and flab lost through a sudden spate of visits to the gym simply reappears as soon as the physical regime ends.
It was easy. And the looser clothing feels great. When I mentioned this to a couple of slightly portly acquaintances a few weekends ago, they expressed great puzzlement. Constant efforts to diet had resulted largely in failure. How did I do it?
When I asked the doctor in Bumurungrad what I should eat less of, he said “everything except vegetables and fish.” My diet was already pretty healthy, with hardly any sugar and limited amounts of fat, dairy and meat. But I simply ate too much; my and my amah’s culinary skills are such that the healthy food I eat is delicious, and the bigger the serving, the greater the pleasure.
My new regime was essentially about cutting quantity, especially of starch. Cut the amount of rice, bread and potatoes by half, already limited meat by a bit less, and bulk up these smaller portions with whole rather than refined grains and all-you-can-eat greens. With less starch, you might feel hungry for 10 minutes after you finish the meal, but then, interestingly, you feel full. Most of us, without realizing it, overeat because we don’t stop shoveling stuff into our mouths in time.
My acquaintances have tried it, but with no luck so far. Their challenge, I suspect, is that they eat mainly Western (indeed, US/UK) meals, named for the lump of meat occupying much of the plate (‘lamb chops’, ‘steak’ ‘roast pork’) with plant-based items added almost as an afterthought. For a couple of decades, purely out of taste, most of my meals have been Asian. That’s not automatically less fattening – look at all the tubby Southeast Asians tucking into curries full of coconut cream. But Asian dishes seem a lot easier to scale down, not least because meat is more of an optional garnish. Restrict yourself to half a lamb chop for dinner and you feel deprived; a spicy gado-gado with tofu is at least as good to eat and filling.
My rotund acquaintances face the same hurdle as Western vegetarians, who fixate on the need for a ‘meat substitute’ and end up eating processed, packaged meat-free burgers and other disgusting travesties full of salt and fat. Most Western-style dishes seem to need quite a substantial quantity of meat to be gastronomically balanced. Maybe those who think a meal isn’t a meal unless it needs gravy or ketchup poured on it are condemned to tubbiness. Or cutting out the beer.