The Way To A Man's Heart...

18th October 2008

Heather Harris looks at a weighty subject: male dieting.

Male dieters are very thin on the ground (if nowhere else).

Despite the fact that estimates suggest that one in three men in the UK will be clinically overweight by 2010, finding one who’ll admit to cutting calories is about as easy as eating a dry Ryvita (cardboard by any other name).

Okay, so in the early days of New Year a few determined chaps might forgo their post-Christmas pre-breakfast dip into the Quality Street, but statistics show that men are only about half a likely as women to make a conscious effort to lose weight. Slimming is a woman’s world – a fact illustrated by the size of the headlines when a male only slimming club opened in Chippenham, Wiltshire. As one local resident commented, “You’d think we’d built the first NASA space centre, not a weight watching centre!”

For decades, companies have made fortunes selling health and diet products to the fairer – and, ironically, the predominantly thinner – sex. Vast amounts of pounds – mostly financial – have been lost over the years as us females have yo-yoed our way through puberty and into adulthood with a Slim Fast shake in one hand, and a Gin and Slimline in the other.

Meanwhile, the hunter gatherers of society have been steadily expanding their girths and moving the buttons on their trousers more often than they moved any part of the rest of their body.

Just look at the membership of any gym: a few grunting bodybuilders amid a sea of stretch pink Lycra and hair bobbles. Even squash, that last bastion of acceptable male bonding, has become passé, with many a Leisure Centre replacing the courts with Spinning Studios (bicycles cemented to the ground) or Juice Bars (£4.99 for a cup of apple and beetroot pulp).

But times are changing. As a recent BBC Money Programme investigation discovered, there are companies that are now actively (key word) trying to capture the ‘fat pound’ – money that is currently sitting in the straining pockets of the two thirds of British men who have a Body Mass Index outside the healthy range: 20-25. (Curiously, BMI, the international standard for assessing the healthiness of one’s weight, is based on an observation by a Belgian astronomer in 1869 that in people of a normal build weight is proportional to the square of their height. Quite why Adolphe Quetelet was studying beer guts rather than the Great Bear is sadly not recorded, but his BMI index has been adopted worldwide).

John Allert of Interbrand knows that the male diet market is notoriously difficult to crack. “Men are in denial of the whole dieting and slimming phenomenon. As soon as you start talking to them in words like diet and slim, men will run a mile” (or, more probably, reach for the remote control, or another pie).
This is backed up in research by on-line slimming service eDietsuk. Of the 2,500 people surveyed, over 25 per cent of men preferred to use the word ‘detox’ rather than ‘diet’. The reason being that ‘Dieting isn’t seen as a very masculine trait’.

And women tended to agree – 40 per cent said that although they are the ones who nag their loved ones to lose their love handles, in reality they find men who watch their waistline ‘not very macho’.

Businesses therefore have to find ways of putting their weighty messages across in a way which men will find easier to swallow. Nimble launched a campaign for its low calorie bread that featured a builder being tricked into slimming by his wife, while Coke Zero or ‘bloke Coke’ was launched using testosterone-laden jokes.

Male obesity expert and counsellor Jane DeVille-Almond is well aware that fat chaps are reluctant to seek advice, so she goes and finds them. In pubs. “And I never use the diet word when speaking with my clients,” she says.

Chef Tiny Deol also recognised that the male dieter is a very different animal than the carrot-crunching female. Believing that the way to a man’s shrinking stomach was through his biryani, she came up with a range of low-calorie curry sauces and ready meals called ‘Curry Slim’… but while men loved the idea of guilt free vindaloo, they still couldn’t bring themselves to buy something with the S word in the title, even if it was alongside the word Curry. So last year she relaunched her product under the name ‘Tiny Lite’, and is hoping that, soon, “Do you want a Nan with your Tiny Lite” will be as common a cry on a Friday night as “Peanuts or Crisps?”.

Meanwhile, the country’s largest on-line diet service, which, bizarrely, is run by Tesco (are there any pies in which they haven’t poked their fingers?) is also going unisex. Recognising that their language and imagery was very female-orientated they now have ‘For Him’ pages, specifically designed for men who want to lose weight. Their research shows that men like to be told in exact detail what to do.

The American company NutriSystem has gone one step further, literally spoon feeding their male dieters. Customers sign up for a month’s supply of calorie- and portion-controlled meals, which are delivered to their doorstep. It’s become a massive business success in America, topping Forbes 200 Best Small Companies list in 2006 with a turnover of $568m, up from $212m in 2005.

And the good news – for all the men reading this while sucking in their stomachs and balancing on one leg on the bathroom scales – is that similar schemes exist here in the UK. No nagging; no effort… just the ultimate Saturday night take-away – now that really is a weight off all our minds.

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