Last year, I had been writing a piece on the fascinating BBC series, How to Stay Young, in which a cross-section of ordinary people had their “body age” measured. In every case, it was far older than their birth age, due to poor diet and too little exercise. Purely in the spirit of research, I gamely went through the same tests — and discovered I had a biological age of 70, compared with my actual age of 51. This shocking differential was down to my weight, which was placing me at increased risk of cancer, dementia and Type 2 diabetes. “But I’m not fat!” I yelped. “I mean, I could be slimmer, but I’m not fat.”
On casting his eye over my results, Michael Trenell, a professor of movement and metabolism at Newcastle University, quietly impressed upon me that, at 5ft 3in, I was very overweight for my frame. He advised me to go home and go on a diet.
So how much, exactly, did I weigh? That secret will go to my grave — where I would swiftly be joining it, if I didn’t start taking responsibility for my health.
Readers of my weekly online diary will know that I then devised the Squirrel Plan, based on nutritious meals and snacking on nuts and fruit twice a day. Sad yes, but it worked a treat. At first. As my enthusiasm petered out, I tried the 16:8 diet — which involves fasting for 16 hours from 8pm until noon. This meant only eating during an eight-hour window every day. In theory, it was easy. In practice, it led to bingeing and, having shed 11lb, I suddenly found it a struggle to keep off the weight I had lost.
Six weeks in, and nearing despair, I knew I needed help. So I called upon the elite services of Louise Parker, the “body whisperer” who helped Emma Thompson, 58, lose more than a stone in six weeks, and drop from a size 14 to a size 10. She also reportedly helped the Duchess of Cambridge get rid of her pregnancy weight. Initially, I felt a bit ashamed. How hard can dieting be? My lack of willpower seemed pathetic. But even as my toes curled in humiliation, Prof Trenell’s eminently reasonable words rang in my ears. “There is no need to be embarrassed about asking for help,” he told me. “If you were learning a language, or any other new skill, you would be foolish not to turn to an expert. Living healthily in a society where most people are overweight and unfit, and accept it as normal, is a real skill.”
And so, for the past six weeks I have been trying Parker’s Method — an eating and exercise plan based on metabolic science and founded on four principles: think successfully, eat beautifully, work out intelligently and live well. It has been embraced by 10,000 clients in 28 countries, who pay from 1,600 pounds (Dh7926.7) to 4,500 pounds for a six-week intensive course. Parker, whose staff are all dietitians (I am assigned my own, Reshma) has also penned a cookbook. From the outset, you are told what ingredients to buy to make your three meals a day and two small snacks. The odd glass of wine is even allowed. The whole thing has involved more food than I could have imagined. But, crucially, it was the right sort of food: protein, vegetables, tiny amounts of fat. It was also in such magical combinations — 100g of lean chicken, vast amounts of green veg with a dash of oil — as to literally make me lose up to a pound, or more, overnight. I was given support in the form of weekly meetings and phone calls, and it was a comfort to know that someone actively cared about my diet, long after family and friends had, rather disloyally, lost interest.
Sometimes, I managed to be virtuous all day. On other occasions, I succumbed to temptation; the usual culprits were pasta or caramel digestives. But, thanks to the relationship I had built up with Reshma, I may have teetered, arms flailing, on the edge — but I never technically fell off the wagon.
I had over-optimistically hoped to lose almost 3 stone (19kg) before Christmas. This was because I had no concept of how much energy and effort it would take to lose just half a stone. But I have stuck it out, as best I could. Over the past couple of weeks I have scrupulously avoided the scales, body swerving them like a boring guest at a drinks party.
I know I’ve lost weight, but is it enough? Which is to say, enough to lower my biological age? So here I am, once again being assessed by Prof Trenell and his staff, comprising the top qualified clinical physical activity and exercise team in the UK.
Their groundbreaking research is funded by Newcastle University and the Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust — and, by using the notion of “body age”, they hope to change perceptions and, indeed, lives.
“I’ve looked at your results,” says Prof Trenell, with a serious face, as I anxiously search his expression for clues. “And you’ve done stonkingly well!”
I’m not sure that is a medical term, but it should be. He tells me that I should be very proud of myself, because, drum roll ... I have lost 22lb, or 10kg.
“Your fitness has increased by 45 per cent, your risk of Type 2 diabetes has halved and your body age is now 55,” he continues.
Ta-dah! I feel like an Oscar winner. It was, after all, that scary figure I wanted to alter far more than my own. From the outset this was about health, not beauty. Both my parents were dead by the time I was 24 — and I would not wish that on my own two daughters, 15 and 9. But I would be lying if I claimed it isn’t just a little bit fabulous to look better, as well as brim with energy.
“When people come into the lab after a weight loss programme, the biggest question isn’t ‘How much do you weigh’ but “How do you feel?’ “ says Prof Trenell.
“Losing weight is empowering but it’s not easy. You could have lost more if you had been super-focused on a very low-calorie regime, but what would happen afterwards? It’s far better to set new patterns that fit in with your life.”
And I do feel that, over the past weeks, there has been a seismic shift — not only in my attitude to food, but in my attitude to myself. Like a lot of women who are mothers, I had grown used to finishing up leftovers and distracted snacking. Now I eat more mindfully. Where once I would have pounced on a slice of cake, now I pause and wonder (a) Do I really need a sugar and fat fix? And (b) Is it delicious enough to warrant the extra calories? If home-baked with love and enjoyed with friends, then it’s a resounding yes. If it’s on a glass shelf in a branch of a coffee chain, then no, thanks.
Life’s little pleasures should, of course, be allowed. But I’ve worked hard to lose weight and there’s no way I’m going to sabotage my success now. To my mind there’s no greater pleasure in life than feeling happy, healthy and fit for the future — for me and for my children.
—The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018
Judith Woods is a columnist and writes features for The Daily Telegraph.