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

The Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES -

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

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