Kick weight with the football diet
New year, new diet. But what about one that can lose you six stone in a year, without obsessive calorie counting? Naledi Lester reports on an innovative Israeli weight-loss programme in which teamwork is achieving big goals
So, you have tried Weight Watchers, Slimmers World and the Atkins Diet and still cannot seem to shed those excess pounds. Well, maybe it is time to try a revolutionary new regime from Israel — the football diet.
There are only three rules on the programme devised by cardiologist Dr Ilan Kitzis: no flour, no sugar and plenty of dribbling.
In fact, the words “no flour, no sugar” are printed in Hebrew script on the shirt of one of the gedolot — the “big ones” participating in the programme. The women, who come in all shapes, sizes and ages, train on a floodlit football pitch in Tel Aviv. Some walk, others jog. Leading them, calling out encouragement or expressing theatrical disdain for any slackers, is Dr Kitzis.
Twice a week, he is a football coach to the women participating in his ground-breaking programme. Dr Kitzis has practised as a cardiologist for 20 years, and works at the Sorasky Medical Centre in Tel Aviv. He has seen countless overweight and obese people come into clinics with weightrelated conditions such as diabetes and congestive heart failure.
“Time and time again, they are told: ‘You need to lose weight,’” he says. “And they get sent to a dietician, and they don’t lose weight, and then they’re back with the same problems.”
Frustrated at watching this unhappy cycle, Dr Kitzis decided to initiate a programme that would provide an original perspective. The gedolot scheme started as a pilot in March 2005, and now involves 45 women. They are divided into three groups who meet twice a week for football training and once a week for group therapy,, when they talk to a psycholo-psychologist about anything except food. The nutritional guidance is limited to the T-shirt slogan.
It works for Nadine Cohen, a 45year-old mother and businesswoman. She has been part of the group since it started, and in that time has lost two stone. “I’d been actively looking for something like this for two years,” she says. “Before, I’d tried just about everything. This diet, that diet. Weight Watchers worked for me, for a while. But you have to focus on it. This is completely different. You get to put the focus on something else. For example, I’ve never liked telling people I’m on a diet. With this, I can say: ‘I play football.’” Dr Kitzis explains why he thinks most diets fail. “Dieticians’ advice is sound — they say count calories, or separate carbohydrates from proteins, or whatever. There’s nothing wrong about these rules in terms of science. But we make emotional choices, not rational ones. And what we all want is not to focus on the details but just time to live, fall in love, all that.”
The three components of the gedolot programme are not revolutionary — they are diet, exercise and support. But the doctor’s take on each of these elements differs from more traditional approaches, as exemplified by the “not another word about food” motto.
There are no weigh-ins. The exercise is not body-focused, as it would be in a gym or an aerobics class. Instead, the emphasis is on fun, exertion, and skill. Some of the women are discovering they are football naturals, and a few have even been offered opportunities to join teams.
The no sugar and no flour rule is there to keep things simple. Avoid these ingredients, reckons Dr Kitzis, and you will be avoiding the foods which tend to cause weight gain.
“If you place foods on a scale of generally good to bad, you’ll find that people with no difficulty in controlling their weight naturally eat from all ends of the scale. Overweight people tend to eat too much at the wrong end of the scale,” he says. But why football as a means of losing weight? Says Dr Kitzis: “I thought of the need for sport, and asked myself — what can a seriously overweight woman do? The answer, basically, is walk. And then, walk a bit faster. And at first, that’s all you need for football.”
Most of the women on the pitch have long since moved on from walking, and some show impressive skill as they move with the ball.
Some participants come to the programme through referral by doctors, but most come through word of mouth, or because they have heard about it through the media. The selection criteria are simple — women who are overweight and healthy can take part. The youngest at the moment is 18, and the eldest 61.
Dr Kitzis says that in Israel, 25 per cent of people are obese, and a further 30 per cent overweight. These figures are slightly worse than those in the UK, and not far behind obesity rates in the US.
The health risks of excess weight are well-documented, but Dr Kitzis understands that the realities of weight problems go far beyond the health, and that losing weight brings something greater than extended life expectancy — better quality of life.
Or, as the doctor says: “They lose weight, and they get their life back. And when that happens, I am so proud and thrilled for them. They’ve done something amazing.”
At this stage, it is too soon to say if those who lose weight keep it off long-term. But the signs are good — a number of women who have long since reached a weight they are happy with continue to participate in the programme.
Liat Musaki is the 39-year-old celebrity in the pack. She has lost over six stone in the past year. She now looks healthy and strong, and works hard on the pitch. She explains that “100 per cent of the success comes from the group. There’s friendship and support. We’ve become close. And the coach — he doesn’t let me rest.”
She is enjoying the change in her life — going out and buying clothes are more enjoyable. And she feels great. “I live on the fourth floor. I used to really struggle to just get into my own home. Now, I walk 14 kilometres every day.”
Philip Feingold coaches the other two groups of women on the programme. A former athlete who spent three years coaching the junior Tel Aviv Maccabi football team, he sees little difference between his professional clients and the gedolot women.
“They work just like top sportsmen. They have incredible motivation and dedication. And it’s working — they lose weight, and I watch it happen.”
One of the women, 30-year-old Shirley, beams as she explains what the programme has meant to her. She has been part of the group for three months, during which time she has lost almost a stone-and-a-half.
“Of course I’m very happy to have lost the weight,” she says. “But in a way, the weight loss is a bonus. My dream was to run. I couldn’t, and I didn’t think I would be able to. And now, I can run. I’ve already had a dream come true. And that makes me believe more can come true too.”
The “big women” go through their paces on the football pitch in Tel Aviv and line up with the founder of their weight-loss programme, Dr Ilan Kitzis (above left)
Photos: Tomer Appelbaum/Baubau