Thursday, 12 January 2017

Mirror Man

There are very few mirrors in our house, and the ones we do have are small, bathroom cabinet-style affairs, I did buy a full length mirror for our daughter, with every intention of hanging it on the back of her bedroom door, but there it is, still lurking in the entrance hall, still swathed in its protective wrap. I'm just not a great one for the DIY. Occasionally my partner will prop it against something to check her ensemble before leaving the house, but through the clear plastic it returns a rather misty, rippled reflection, more like polished steel than a mirror. I suppose on the positive side you could say we're not particularly vain.

However, a while ago I was in Marks and Spencer, buying a shirt.  I thought I'd better try it on, as the fashion for close-fitting tops, whilst looking superb on whip-thin youngsters like my son, has made anything smaller than XXXXXXL impractical for the middle-aged man with a liking for food and largely sedentary habits (like, um, eating). So I went to the fitting room, took off my shirt and saw myself in the multiple mirrors. Oh dear. Not a pretty sight. Multiplied to infinity.

I resolved to lose weight. Lots of weight. I might not be vain, but there are limits.

Now, nutrition is one of those areas where the word "science" really has to be said with scornfully ironic, heavy quote marks, as in nutritional "science".  Every few years, it seems, nutritional "science" reverses its polarity and recommends the complete opposite of what was being urged on us shortly before. There's a nice scene in Woody Allen's Sleeper where he is woken from cryogenic storage, 200 years after the early 1970s, and his progress is being monitored by two doctors:
Dr. Agon: For breakfast he asked for something called wheat germ, organic honey, and tiger's milk!
Dr. Melik: Yes, those were the charmed substances that, some year ago, were felt to contain life-preserving properties...
Dr. Agon: You mean,,. There was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or hot fudge?
Dr. Melik: Those were thought to be unhealthy, the precise opposite of what we now know to be true!
But weight loss, unlike longevity, has an obvious, objective, short-term metric against which to be measured. Have you or have you not lost weight? As they say, it's not rocket science (although it seems rocket has recently fallen out of the superfood category); kale science, maybe?

I first tried giving up wheat, as there are various theories about "wheat belly" out there, and it seemed painless enough, especially compared to vigorous exercise. To my surprise, it worked! By switching to rye bread, oat-based muesli, and various other substitutes, I quickly lost about 5 kilos. This was largely, I suspect, because rye bread, though tasty enough, is never going to tempt you to pop another couple of slices in the toaster, or saw off another six inches of baguette, the way wheat bread does (might as well finish it, it'll be stale by tomorrow!). Rye is quite filling, less "more-ish", and I was simply eating less. But then it stopped working, and I was stuck at my new weight.

Now, I'd been keeping the "5:2" or "fast" diet in my (still over-tight) back-pocket as a next step. This is the one where you fast for two days a week, and eat normally for the other five. I'd heard good things about it, but the idea of fasting seemed a bit drastic. Still not as drastic as vigorous exercise, but nonetheless on the demanding side. But when I looked into it, I realised it would actually be far from painful. When they say "fasting", what they really mean is eating a quarter of the amount of carbohydrates needed by a person of a particular gender, age, height, weight, and activity level to sustain basic life processes, twice a week. Typically, you need around 2000-2400 calories to keep soul firmly attached to body, so a quarter is – fetch me a calculator! – around 500 to 600 calories. It doesn't sound much, but a two-egg omelette with mushrooms plus some green vegetables is only around 200 calories, and a bowl of soup even less. Forget breakfast (or have a couple of rice crackers with your morning tea) and a fast-day doesn't look so bad.

Suddenly, all that "nutrition information" printed on our food packaging made sense. Especially once I'd realised that "kilocalories" are the "calories" everyone is talking about, and not a thousand of them. Aha! I'd become ... a calorie-counter! Also, inevitably, I became a calorie bore, going on about the relative calorific merits of various foods. But: it works. After six months another ten kilos have gone, relatively painlessly, and assuming it continues to work I can see no reason to stop until I've actually disappeared or attained the weight I had when I was in my twenties, whichever is the sooner. Or more realistically, perhaps, my thirties, around the time I gave up smoking and took up biscuits.

Slim's Christmas visit home, ca. 1978

In the interests of full disclosure I should add that, although my aversion to any exercise more vigorous than running up the stairs continues, I also decided it was time to counteract 30 years of sedentary occupation, and start walking everywhere again. I've always walked a fair bit, but with the help of Google Maps I've worked out some handy circular routes – for example, 1.5 miles to Sainsbury's and back, 3.6 miles to the university campus and back, 5 to the university via the Sports Centre and back – and try to do one of these on as many afternoons in the week as I can. It's quite addictive, and the benefit of the loss of weight is very noticeable going up hills.

Now, in recent years I've been in and out of the consulting rooms and clinics of GPs, consultants, and physiotherapists with a series of complaints, as a result of which I have been X-rayed, had my circulation checked, made to lie rigidly immobile in MRI machines, given various samples, and submitted to a range of inconclusive tests and observations ("Hmm, you've got a bit of a funny walk..."), and so far not one medical practitioner has ever said to me: "Listen, porky, you could stand to lose a few pounds". Not one. And yet, for example, the agonizing "shin splints" that actually prevented me from cycling and eventually even walking to work have now simply gone away. Coincidence? Possibly, but I doubt it.

No, I suspect the latitude medics are allowing themselves before declaring a patient "obese" has become rather too generous; not surprising, I suppose, given the competition from the human mountains of adiposity that waddle into the surgery these days. But a short man – even one genetically built to carry weight, like me – who can afford to lose 20 kilos is surely a man who is a long way from a healthy weight.

Some men set themselves the challenge of attaining their "wedding suit weight". Never having married, never mind possessing a suit, that would be a problematic target. However, hanging deep in a wardrobe is a paint-spattered, brown corduroy jacket I bought when I was seventeen, and which accompanied me on many adventures over many years, and I would dearly love to be able to wear it again, even if only on ceremonial occasions. Intriguingly, when I had a rummage through its pockets, among various items of ancient curiosa to emerge, I found a slip of paper on which an attractive French girl I met at a party at a German exchange-partner's house in Easter 1971 had written her address. It seems the old slim me had something good going for him. Ah, well, too late now... I may not be married, but I am most definitely spoken for. C'est la vie!

But, should I be able to get into that jacket without ripping the seams – and in my current optimism about and enthusiasm for weight-loss I see no reason why not – I will have myself formally photographed in it for your admiration and amusement. I might even get a decent mirror in the house. Now, what was that song I used to know when I was seventeen? Something about preferring to be a thin man?

Excuse me, though, today is a five-mile day, and the sun is shining.


seany said...

Hilarious Mike, I'd love to have been a fly on the wall as you observed you shape in the mirrors of the fitting room,this may well be the inspiration I need to shed a few kilos myself.
Keep up the good work Mike, I'm sure it's been a good bit more difficult than you've made it sound. Wonderfully comic piece Mike you've made my day.

Mike C. said...


The down side, of course, is that your clothes no longer fit... My aim is to drop three or possibly even four trouser sizes, which means I've been unusually keen on visiting the January sales this year, buying "provisional" kit. I'm finding it less hard to believe I was once a 28" waist, but that is a target too far.

The 5:2 diet is shockingly effective, though, and I recommend it.


Anonymous said...

Take it easy with dieting, Mike! Beware of the "Yo-Yo Effect" - your metabolic rate will decrease during dieting since our animal heritage interprets your diet as famine. As soon as you're back to normal eating, your body will store any excess calories as - fat. This acts as a precaution against any future famines. Evolution arranged it this way since during most of human history, food supply was unpredictable.

So, in order to keep your lower weight, you probably shouldn't return to your old eating habits again. If you're back to normal eating, try to shave 100 kilocalories from your daily meals - e.g. one slice of toast less, or skip the cookie which usually goes with the tea. Sorry, but exercise is best, since muscles burn more energy than fat.

Re "wedding suit weight": Some years ago, I had to attend a conference on behalf of the company for which I work. The dress code for this is tie'n'suit. Now I possess only one suit - my wedding suit (my usual dress code is "hobo", as far as my wife is concerned). As I put on my suit in the conference hotel, I made two surprising observations:
1. I've lost a couple of kilos since my wedding
2. I forgot my waist belt at home
In consequence, I've spent the conference defending my trousers against gravity.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Thomas, I'm aware of the yo-yo problem, but have resolved to make daily walks and (eventually) one weekly fast day part of my ongoing ordinary routine, so with any luck will keep it off. The big plus of 5:2 is that you can eat perfectly normally on the other 5 days (remarkably, this has included Christmas binges), so it's really easy to do. I find I actually look forward to a fast day, as it seems to enhance mental clarity and a sense of well-being.

Having some well-established walking routes is good for photography, too! Just one of my 5-milers takes in some wasteland, an outdoor sports centre, a municipal golf course, the university campus (stop for espresso), and then a final mile or so of Southampton Common (with possible deviations to several areas of woodland, lakes, and a Victorian cemetery)...


Zouk Delors said...

You're going to look pretty stupid if there is a famine, aren't you? Anyway, I'm sure you'll still beat me rolling down a hill, Not-So-Fat Man.

"The doctor will see you now. Walk this way."

"If I could walk that way, I might have less cheek from the doctor!"

"Hmmm. Nice jacket, btw"

Mike C. said...


Didn't Leonardo da Galileo (or one of those guys) prove that rolling a short man and a tall man down the steps of the Vatican takes exactly the same time, especially in the tourist season? Something to do with Mass (or maybe Vespers, the celebration of wasps)?


Zouk Delors said...

Quite right, Mike. Ian Anderson obviously bunked off Physics as well as RE.

amolitor said...

I got a dog. Turns out the needy buggers need to get walked all the time.

I'm down 4-5 kilos and holding!

(Before that I got kids, which dropped me to "5-10 kilos overweight" so this is actually just about right for a gentleman of my years)

Mike C. said...


Yes, kids will do it. Babies and little kids are BORING for long stretches of time (hope mine aren't reading this) but you don't want to smoke or get drunk around them, so you take to the biscuits... Next thing you know, you're dumping the Levi's and buying trousers with elasticated waists.