By David Schipper
Three months before my wedding, I had a realisation - I don't want to be a fat groom.
After all, a cummerbund can only help so much. And besides, what kind of man would marry a beautiful woman knowing he's going to die young?
Sadly, that's no exaggeration. My 175-centimetre frame tipped the scales at 105 kilos, easily qualifying me as obese - a designation that advanced my biological age of 26 by two decades, according to a University of California study.
More disturbing, a blood test showed that I was on the verge of diabetes, despite having no obvious symptoms (other than a bulging belly). For the first time, being fat felt irresponsible. But dramatic change doesn't take as long as you might think.
In 12 weeks, I lost 15kg and whittled 13cm off my waist - just in time for our big day. And, even better, my latest blood work came back nearly normal. How did I do it? Keep reading.
THE TIPPING POINT
Like most overweight blokes, I wasn't proud of carrying the extra flab, especially since I work at US Men's Health. But it wasn't until I feared for my life that I became fully committed to change.
That day arrived when I met with Dr Keith Berkowitz, Medical Director of the Centre for Balanced Health, in New York City. His specialty: making the obese thin. When I showed up at his office, Berkowitz analysed a blood test I'd had in preparation for our meeting.
My triglycerides - a measure of the fat circulating in my bloodstream - were more than double what's considered normal. I was also insulin resistant.
That means my body was having to produce 10 times the amount of insulin - a hormone that signals your body to store fat -normally secreted by a healthy guy my age. Both of these measurements are key predictors of future heart disease. Can you say "instant motivation"?
If you're overweight, chances are your blood work may look similar. Research shows that heavier men have higher cholesterol, triglycerides and blood pressure than their leaner counterparts.
And, according to Berkowitz, almost half the population is insulin-resistant. The most telling physical sign of this is abdominal fat.
Still need a kick in the pants? Ask your physician for a complete blood profile - fear is a great motivator.
THE ACTION PLAN
To my horror, Berkowitz recommended I immediately go on a "controlled-carbohydrate diet".
That doesn't mean cutting out carbs altogether, but you have to restrict the types that significantly raise your blood sugar and thus your insulin levels. For example, those in soft drinks, lollies and foods made with flour, which happen to be the carbs I like the most.
And, surprisingly, my don't-eat list even included multi-grain at first. The reason? Although healthy for men with normal insulin function, multi-grain foods still raise insulin levels.
For me, that made them foods to avoid until I lost weight and saw improvements in my blood work, at which time I could reintroduce them into my diet slowly in the form of high-fibre crackers or flaxseed bread.
The upshot is that this plan limited my carbs to those found in vegetables and fruit, which was a drastic change from my regular, carbohydrate-laden diet. After all, it meant I had to give up Krispy Kremes. So I wasn't sure I could stick with it.
Enter Valerie Berkowitz. While Keith Berkowitz served as general manager of my diet, his wife, Valerie - a registered dietian and Director of Nutrition at the Centre of Balanced Health- took the job of head coach.
She helped me create an eating plan that was user-friendly and required no kilojoule counting.
Essentially, my instructions were to eat only when hungry and to the point of feeling full. I could consume as much meat and vegetables as I wanted and was allowed 85 to 140 grams of cheese and two servings daily of low-glycaemic fruit, like berries, melons, peaches, plums, apples, oranges and kiwifruit.
I was also advised to drink two litres of water a day. Use these guidelines yourself and you'll also lose 15 kilos in three months.
Here are the five simple rules:
For the most part, these are sugary treats and highly processed cereals like white bread. Potatoes and Calrose rice are also high GI, but Basmati and Doongara rice and pasta have a lower GI. Foods that have a high glycaemic index (GI) tend to raise blood sugars quickly.
"This is the trigger that signals your body to release a flood of insulin," according to Valerie.
Eliminate these foods and insulin levels stay near rock bottom. And that simultaneously improves your health and speeds up fat loss.
In fact, when a study by University of Connecticut researchers in the US analysed why low-carb dieters were so successful, they calculated that 70 per cent of their weight loss stemmed from low-insulin levels.
And because milk has a significant number of carbohydrates, it was also off-limits until my blood profile showed I was healthier.
2. Eat more vegetables.
This may be the ultimate diet cliché, but there's no question that it works.
In fact, a study of more than 2000 low-carb dieters found, on average, the biggest losers were eating four servings of non-starchy vegetables a day.
That's virtually any vegie of your choice other than potatoes (white, sweet or fried), carrots and corn.
"Eating more produce increases the amount of fibre in your diet, which helps keep you full," reveals Valerie.
For an even greater fibre boost, I added a daily glass of Metamucil (the sugar-free version). If you've never taken Metamucil, its effectiveness in reducing your appetite is nothing short of amazing.
3. Have protein at every meal.
This is especially important at breakfast and with snacks, when guys are most likely to skimp on this muscle-building nutrient. (Thanks a lot, cereal.)
Case in point: US research at the University of Illinois found that, on average, people consume 65 per cent of their protein after 6pm.
More importantly, the scientists report that to optimally preserve muscle as you lose weight, you need to take in protein at each meal throughout the day.
"Besides nourishing your muscles, the added protein will help prevent you overeating," explains Valerie.
The best sources are beef, chicken, fish, dairy and eggs.
4. Don't be afraid of natural fat.
That's right, the kind that's found in meat, avocado, olives or olive-oil-based dressing. Because fat alone doesn't raise your insulin levels, it has little to do with making you fat, contrary to popular opinion, says Valerie.
High amounts of carbs, coupled with high levels of fat are the real culprits, she explains, since they stimulate the release of insulin, causing your body to store fat instead of burning it.
But what about heart health? In a review of 13 studies published in the Journal of Nutrition, researchers determined that low-carb diets - all of which provided at least 50 per cent of daily kilojoules from fat - were more effective at reducing heart-disease risk than traditional low-fat diets.
5. Forget about processed foods.
Pre-diet, I lived on processed meat. But Valerie dumped them quickly, because most contain added salt (affecting weight and blood pressure) and sugar, as well as nitrates, which are associated with an increased risk of cancer.
Instead, I ate ground beef and turkey. (Both take only a few minutes to cook and taste great cold the next day.)
However, I did slip up. On my 15th day on the program, I discovered Terra vegetable chips. "A delicious potpourri of exotic vegetables," the bag said.
Sounded healthy to me, so I crunched on them hard during long days at work. A week later, when I told Valerie about my new favourite addiction, a sharp scolding followed.
I'd been suckered by the word "vegetable". These chips are made from starchy root vegetables, so their carb count is similar to that of potato chips and they're loaded with salt. The scales reflected my mistake.