Daniel Finkelstein shares the secret of how he got from fat to fit.
Ineed you to help me solve a mystery. When people say that they forgot to have lunch, how does that happen?
I have lived for 19,167 days and I have never, not once, forgotten to have lunch. The number of lunches I have had will be bouncing around the 19,162 mark. And the missing ones, well, I am sure there was a reason, but I can tell you that the omission wasn’t the result of a lapse of memory. Actually, I don’t think the whole thing is quite as mysterious as I am pretending it is. The truth is that other people – the lunch forgetters, my friends, pretty much anybody, really – just don’t care about lunch as much as I do. Which isn’t hard, because I care about lunch a lot.
I am not sure when I first realised this. I think it was actually relatively recently. Certainly within the last decade. But I don’t eat like other people eat. I start and I just keep going. I’m like a sentence without a full stop.
At a party with canapés, I began to notice that the number I ate didn’t correspond to the number consumed by everyone else. Now, I am sure that some of you are nodding and thinking, ‘Yes, I know what he means. I do that too’. You don’t. You don’t do that too. Without wishing to sound like I am a schoolboy in a competition, I do it more than you.
It’s like when people say to me, ‘It’s really odd. I eat whatever I want and I don’t get fat’. That is because eating whatever you want doesn’t involve eating enough to make you fat. You, my friend, for all your boasting about eating whatever you want, are a classic lunch forgetter.
I ate whatever I wanted and I got fat. It’s embarrassing to write that, but I may as well, since everybody who has seen me knows it anyway. At my fattest I was 108kg, maybe a little more. And I am only 180cm tall, maybe a little less.
I knew it was happening, but other things were happening, too, and they always seemed more important. I’ve got a lot of work on; I will do something about my weight after that. I am going on holiday; I’ve spent a fortune on it; I don’t want to spoil it by cutting back on food. I am going to a dinner to give a speech; it’s humiliating to tell the host I am watching the calories.
So on I went, until one day someone took a picture. It was me, on holiday, photographed side on, playing tennis with my seven-year-old. Wearing a polo shirt and a pair of shorts.
I looked – I was – unbelievably fat. You know those people who can’t quite fit in one seat on a train? I looked like one of those or, perhaps being slightly less hysterical, I looked like I was about to become one of those. Any moment.
Because my son looked cute in the photo, everyone kept looking at it. And each time they did, I flushed with shame. I knew I was overweight. But not as bad as that. I realised then that something would have to be done. That I couldn’t put things off any longer.
Now, I have never regarded my weight as being a moral issue. Or anyone else’s business. Nothing is ruder or smugger, in my view, than saying to someone in a pointed way, ‘Goodness, you are looking prosperous.’ A surprisingly large number of people take it into their heads to do this. They can’t possibly appreciate how unwelcome it is.
Yet at the same time, people’s opinions were definitely mixed up with my feelings.
I didn’t like being judged as a ‘fat person’, however much I might regard that judgment as being intrusive and rather pathetic. A bit of me was infuriated by people thinking their waistlines made them morally superior, while a bit of me shared the view that it did. I realise this is a muddled explanation, but it’s the best you are going to get.
It provided me – or at least I think it did – with a small insight into how women feel, while recognising that for women the experience is more intense.
It’s not true that people only notice women’s appearance and weight. [British Conservative Party politician] George Osborne is a good friend of mine, and people more often ask me about his 5:2 diet – which involves eating normally for five days out of a seven-day period and vastly restricting the amount of food eaten on the other two days – and his haircut than they do about his economic policy. Seriously.
Yet it is undoubtedly worse for women. The comments about them are made more openly and more often.
The flip side of this is that, as a man, you feel ridiculous talking to others about your weight, or admitting that you are worried about it. So you feel uncomfortable about it, physically and mentally, but you keep it in.
These feelings were particularly strong when buying clothes. When you have a waist that is bigger than 44 inches, it becomes very hard to find anything to buy. And asking for a bigger size is agonising. Some time ago I had a suit made, which circumvented the problem. But an informal jacket and trousers? I had to go to the outsize clothiers, High and Mighty. I’m not high. And mighty? I think we all know what that really means. I can’t believe I am telling you this but, oh well, here goes. Before I left the shop, I turned the plastic bag inside out so that it didn’t read High and Mighty as I walked down London’s Oxford Street.
And then there was the health issue. My father was diabetic. Being 108kg was basically killing me. So what
I didn’t like being JUDGED as a ‘FAT PERSON’. It gave me an insight into how WOMEN feel. It is undoubtedly WORSE for them. The COMMENTS about them are made more OPENLY and more OFTEN
should I do? Almost every day there is a new diet in the paper. You can eat as much protein as you like, but don’t eat any fat or carbohydrates. You can eat as much carbohydrate as you like, but don’t eat any fat or protein. You can eat all these things without limit, but not on the same day. I used to joke that I was on all these diets at the same time.
Really, my starting point was quite different. The idea that I can eat as much of anything as I like is a fraud. What had made me fat was eating as much as I liked, and that very thing was what I had to stop.
I wasn’t fat as a child. Not at all, really. So while I still lived and ate at home, I wasn’t overweight.
Then I got my first job as a journalist, working in a magazine company in Soho, and I moved out of home and I started eating. And eating. And eating.
I worked on the edge of Chinatown, in central London, and I can tell you exactly where I first became fat. It was in the Wong Kei restaurant in Wardour Street. I ate there almost every day. Occasionally, I ate there more than once a day. The fact that I had eaten a large lunch never stopped me from having a large dinner.
There is probably a genetic element to my eating, but even so it is something I could have controlled. The size of my appetite, bigger than most people’s by far, makes control more difficult. But it doesn’t make it impossible by any means.
I would try from time to time, but not very hard. Sometimes hard enough to lose a few pounds before gaining it again. More often, hard enough to remain stable for a while. But never hard enough to shift a lot of weight and keep it off. And my weight drifted up and up until I found myself playing tennis while looking like [English comedian] Bernard Manning. So my diet plan was unsophisticated. I would just stop overeating. And that, in one tiny sentence, is it.
Here’s what I did. I don’t drink anything except Diet Coke, which is calorie-free. And, oddly enough, I have never really had much of a thing for desserts either, which also helps. At home as I grew up, we hardly ate dessert, and I am perfectly happy without it. Nor am I a big one for sweets. I try to walk 10,000 paces a day, but I don’t do much exercise – and I don’t think that is about to change. I find it too boring. All of which tells you that I managed to become more than a hundred kilos just by eating very large main courses. And I have shed a large amount of it just by stopping doing that.
I find a lot of diet advice too fussy – have only this, weigh that, don’t touch the other. So I just use common sense. I have a rough idea of what is fattening and what isn’t – who doesn’t? – and I don’t eat those things, in general.
I start the day with a plain sandwich – perhaps with chicken in, bought from the place across the road from the office – or a scrambled egg, if I have more time. And at lunch, I might have a plate of smoked salmon and a bit of salad with a banana.
My aim is, very broadly, to keep below 1,300 calories a day. That isn’t much at all, so I often find that by the time supper comes, I can’t really eat anything. If I can eat at all, I still try to keep it very light.
And I drink a lot of Diet Coke. I am embarrassed by how banal this advice is. I can say that it does work, as you might imagine that it would. I am on week 37 of this regime and I am now 93kg. I intend to keep going until I am about 80kg.
There is quite a way to go, but I feel much better and look much better.
Perhaps slightly less banal is that my diet isn’t based on any eating tricks. It is based – as I think, in the end, all successful diets must be – on will power.
To start with, I had to decide that dieting was more important than anything else. That nothing – important meetings, a holiday, a family event – was an excuse to forget about the whole thing and eat. My wife was critical in making me understand the centrality of this, and it helps a huge amount to have that sort of support.
Iweigh myself at least once a day; sometimes once in the morning and again at night. I realise this isn’t accurate, because it fluctuates randomly, but it forces me to remember my diet and not run away from my weight, to be sure I am not fooling myself about progress.
You have to tell others you are dieting. If you don’t, you end up overeating just to avoid your fellow diners questioning you. I think this admission is quite hard for men, because we are embarrassed to admit that we struggle with our weight. The whole thing makes me feel deeply silly, but I do it anyway.
Instead of allowing other people – unbeknown to them – to embarrass me into breaking my diet, I use them – again without their knowledge – to help me keep on track. By telling people that you are on a diet, you are committing yourself to it publicly. That helps increase your resolve. This commitment, and the desire not to break it, is what makes you return to your diet at dinner, when you broke it at lunch.
In fact, this article isn’t about my diet at all. It is my diet. That’s why I put the goal weight in. Once this article appears I will have no choice but to keep going and then to stay thinner once I arrive at my destination.
You, I’m afraid, have been used.
TELL OTHERS you are dieting, or you’ll end up overeating just to AVOID your fellow diners questioning you. I think this is DIFFICULT for MEN – we are EMBARRASSED to admit that we struggle with our weight
I ate whatever I wanted and I got fat. It’s embarrassing to admit that. But I always had an excuse – work, a holiday, offending the host…
I decided that nothing – from important meetings to family events – was more important than dieting. And it worked