It was when his wife Una, looking at last year’s holiday snaps, exclaimed in horror at the sight of his overweight body in swimming shorts that Alan Manley knew it was time to take action. Wincing at his rounded face, overflowing paunch and “man boobs”, the 32-year-old care home manager decided enough was enough.
In his 20s, he’d been perfectly trim but at 27 a six-month period spent in a wheelchair and on crutches after an accident in which he fractured both ankles saw the weight pile on.
“I’d just met Una and we were going out for meals and drinks all the time,” he recalls. “I was contented and didn’t really think about my weight.” By the age of 30 – a few months after their wedding – Alan’s weight hit 17st 9lbs. At 5’8” that made him obese. “I had tried various low carb diets and although I lost weight it always crept back on. I tried a WeightWatchers group but found it too female-oriented. It was such a relief when I found a men-only diet programme.”
In July, Alan joined an online group run by Man v Fat, a weight loss website aimed squarely at the male market. With support from other men – members have weekly weigh-ins and have to post details of their food intake and exercise twice a day – and the website’s free diet plans, he lost 10lbs in 30 days. It is early days but so far the weight has stayed off.
“It’s the accountability that motivates you. Being in an online group, you feel like you’ve let the other men down if you haven’t lost any weight at the weekly weigh-in,” he says.“Everyone in the group wants to lose weight, and if you’ve splurged and had a burger and fries that day, your fellow members spur you on to do an extra run or 10 more minutes on the exercise bike. That support really makes you really persevere.”
Alan, now a father to eight-week-old daughter Grace, is far from alone in his struggle with weight. Over two thirds of men in the UK are currently overweight (a Body Mass Index of 25 to 29.9) or obese (a BMI of over 30). And being overweight is a key risk factor for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and some cancers – all major killers.
Unlike many men, Alan at least acknowledged he had a weight problem. One 2013 study from the University of London found that while two thirds of men and around half of women in their early 40s were overweight or obese, the men were far less likely to realise they were carrying excess weight– or to do anything about it.
It concluded that for men, being overweight has become “normalised” and is more socially acceptable.
For some men, weight issues are a “female thing” says weight loss surgeonDr Sally Norton from the Spire Hospital in Bristol. “Women are more traditionally focused on their image, whereas men only take it seriously when it’s starting to impact on their health or they can’t play with their kids without getting out of breath.”
Yet research conducted on behalf of Alpha Man magazine and published last month found that 82 per cent of men “feel more stressed about not having an impressive physique than they did five years ago”. The survey of over 1,200 men found that 69 per cent of respondents would give up alcohol forever in return for a perfect body, and 30 per cent said they would even sacrifice a year of their lives if it meant having their dream physique.
So what help is out there for men like these, who are eager to win the battle of the bulge?
“In general,” says Professor Kate Hunt, head of Glasgow University’s research programme on gender and health, “there’s a lack of support for men, who find dieting clubs and weight loss programmes a feminised space.”
When a men-only alternative is offered, research finds that men’s weight improves dramatically.Football Fans In Training (FFIT), a study by Glasgow University researchers, began in June 2011. The 12-week programme to get overweight, middle-aged fans in shape, run by 13 clubs in the Scottish Professional Football League, has been hailed a breakthrough. The 374 men who participated in the scheme lost on average 4.94 kg more than those who were simply given a weight management booklet.
“The FFIT study shows that men are keen and able to make positive changes to their health in the right circumstances, and the football club is a great setting for health initiatives for men,” says Prof Hunt.
Photo: STONE SUB
The problem is that so far there are very few such men-only diet clubs in the UK. Of the 152 local authorities that responded to a Freedom of Information request from the Men’s Health Forum charity in November 2014, only 47 offered the option of men-only weight loss services, although the Man V Fat clubs have been funded by a few enlightened local authorities.
Researchers from the Universities of Aberdeen, Bournemouth and Stirling who analysed evidence from weight loss trials all over the world found that men prefer the use of simple “business-like” language and humour (used sensitively) in strategies to tackle obesity, and also benefit from the moral support of other men. Weight loss programmes specifically designed with men in mind could well be more effective at helping them lose weight, they concluded.
“We’re not aiming to be chiselled hunks, like in some men’s fitness magazines and websites – all we want is to not be fat,” says Alan. “It’s a lot easier for men to talk to men, like guys in a pub, and we don’t judge each other. The tone of the site is all about man defeating fat, and that’s what we like about it.”
Man V Fat is the brainchild of journalist and entrepreneur Andrew Shanahan, who has had weight issues himself. His site and online magazine were crowd-funded, with support from Jamie Oliver, theNational Obesity Forum and the British Dietetic Association. “Men get a lot from talking to other men” says Shanahan. “Owning a weight problem and showing they are doing something about it is empowering.”
Railway contractor Garry King, 46, from Hove also knew that mixed sex diet clubs were not for him. “At 21 stone I was dangerously obese,” he says. “Cutting down on my eating was difficult as I used food to cope with stress and anxiety brought on by work, but also by my weight. I was eating for comfort and needed support, but the thought of mixed diet groups put me off.”
The perceived “Marjorie Dawes Syndrome” of some weight loss clubs is a problem. “The thought of discussing my weight in a big group of mainly women with a patronising group leader like in Little Britain filled me with dread,” says Garry, a married father of two. In September 2012 he joined a men-only group run by LighterLife and went on to lose nine stone in eight months. Lighter Life provides weight loss centres throughout the UK, led by a counsellor who helps participants tackle the causes of their overeating; it also offers meal replacement plans and advice on healthy food choices to keep the weight off.
While weight problems affect both sexes there are specific issues that make men vulnerable. For some, a night out with friends can involve several pints. “The beer belly is a symbol of manhood. If a man can still get his trousers on he’ll fool himself he’s still slim, even if his gut hangs over the waistband,” says Dr Norton.
Portion size is also an issue. “Appetite has been codified as a male attribute. So we hear expressions like ‘he just has a healthy appetite’, which you’d never hear to describe a woman,” says Andrew Shanahan.
Shift work – undertaken by 33% of men – can impact negatively on digestion and weight-regulating hormones meanwhile. And there are larger numbers of men whose work involves being on the road, relying on takeaways and processed food.
Nutritional advisor and personal fitness trainer Rachel McGuinness says a lot of her male clients follow the “Sumo Diet”. “They don’t eat all day, but have a massive meal in the evening like a sumo wrestler. They may be super fit but have very slow digestion as a result and put on loads of weight. Many single men will rely on high-fat, high sugar processed foods.”
Photo: Universal Pictures
Marriage is well known to lead to male weight gain but according to a recent study by Northwestern University in Illinois, so does fatherhood. And while the “dad bod” has become desirable on social media, it’s dangerous to wear your paunch with pride. “These are men who kept fit in their teens and 20s by playing sport,” says Rachel. “In their 30s and 40s, they’ve given up the rugby and football but remain part of the club culture – drinking and eating as if they were still players. This means they continue drinking and eating far too much,” says Rachel. “The ‘dad bod’ label is almost an excuse to let themselves go.”
But while the male culture puts men at greater risk of obesity, they do find losing weight easy once they decide to tackle it – far easier than women. Men have a higher ratio of lean body mass than women, which means weight loss is faster.
Andrew Shanahan points out that in the world of public health, using the word “fat” is often taboo. “But men don’t want weight issues couched in euphemisms,” he says. “They like a more blatant approach. The first question asked as you land on the site is, ‘are you sick of being fat?’ – and users don’t shy away from answering.”