What’s really the best way to shift a stone in midlife? 


A breathalyser that nudges you into burning fat. A ban on tomatoes. And an anti-stress eating plan. These are the diets everyone’s talking about. So… What’s really the best way to shift a stone in midlife?

  • Three writers were keen to drop some pounds before their summer holidays 
  • Their methods included testing a metabolism-tracking breathalyser
  • Another tried eating to combat stress and another ditched lectin

Holiday season is finally here and, for every body-positive woman who has no qualms about merrily stripping off, there is another hiding behind a towel.

In an era of body positivity, it may be almost taboo to admit it but many of us feel more confident in our lovely new swimsuits if we’ve lost those lingering lockdown love handles.

Here, three writers, all keen to drop a few pounds ahead of their summer breaks, tried a different plan for 30 days. Their methods ranged from testing a new metabolism-tracking breathalyser, to eating to combat stress, to ditching lectin (the new gluten, apparently). All three got impressive results, but which was best . . ?

DANCING IN SHIRLEY BALLAS‘S FOOTSTEPS

Susannah Jowitt, 53.

DIET: The Plant Paradox

WHAT IT ENTAILS: Mostly plants, but no nightshades (potatoes, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes).

POUNDS LOST IN ONE MONTH: 12

I hate diets. Their artificiality, their restrictions and the basic misery. But I am clearly not eating right: I am overweight, I creak every time I stand up and I bloat uncomfortably. So I decided to follow The Plant Paradox: The 30 Day Plan To Lose Weight, Feel Great And Live Lectin-Free, a bestseller by cardiologist Steven R. Gundry.

I’ll be dancing in the footsteps of Shirley Ballas, who recently revealed she’s a Plant Paradox fan. She’s 61 and has the cha-cha-cha of someone in their 30s, so I’d like some of what she’s having.

The premise is that, although a mostly plant-based diet is healthier than a meat diet, some plants are harmful to your gut health. These are the plant paradoxes — the charlatans that lurk in your fridge pretending to be good for you.

Step forward brown rice, wholegrains, most fruit and legumes — yes, that’s you, peas, beans, pulses, even quinoa. Most shocking of all are the deadly nightshades, the might-be-a-clue collective name for potatoes, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes.

Susannah Jowitt (pictured) before trying the plant paradox diet

Susannah after trying the diet. She lost 12lbs in one month

The diet entails mostly plants, but no nightshades (potatoes, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes). Susannah Jowitt before and after the diet (left and right)

Gundry believes the main villain is lectin. It is gluten’s bigger, badder brother: a large, sticky protein that likes to bind to sugar, compromise your healthy microbiome, sneak out through the gut wall and create havoc in your bloodstream by triggering the body’s immune system, resulting in inflammation.

Lectin makes you fat, too, not just because a weak microbiome doesn’t function well, but because the immune system needs fat for its battle with lectin: fat cells are summoned to supply the white blood cells that are fighting the lectin invaders. Once there, fat is hard to shift, hence the classic ‘apple’ shape of the modern fatty.

Told to eat lectin-rich foods — all that quinoa and wholegrain bread — we just opened the gates and let the bad guys right in.

But the leaky gut wall that is the weakened frontline of our body’s defences is easy to fix. Stop eating lectins, glutens, starches and sugars and those microscopic holes seal up, the immune system clocks off for a rest, and the inflammation will ebb.

Susannah ate lots of green leafy plants such as bags of spinach, watercress and brussels sprouts as part of the diet

Susannah ate lots of green leafy plants such as bags of spinach, watercress and brussels sprouts as part of the diet 

Gundry advocates the intermittent fasting approach — after eating supper, you leave at least 16 hours until the next meal — so my eating day starts at noon. Green leafy plants are my midday friends — bags of spinach, watercress and brussels sprouts eaten raw with seed toppers and vinaigrette or cooked in the microwave. 

I pepped up my leaves with pesto, avocado, olives, nuts, chunks of sheep’s or goat’s cheese (cow’s milk products are banned because their milk is loaded with casein, a lectin-like protein).

For dinner, I slavishly followed Plant Paradox recipes at the back of the book. They’re also available for free online at humanfoodbar.com.

What was encouraging was the inclusion of meat and eggs, with the proviso that they had to be from free-range, grass-fed animals, plus double cream, which could be added sparingly. I was even allowed the odd glass of red wine or champagne. Suddenly this didn’t feel like a diet.

A fortnight in, my bloats, aches and pains have gone. For the past two years I have been plagued by inflammation, causing stiff ankles, hips, hands and wrists, plus knee injuries that won’t heal. Suddenly, all I am left with is a twinge in my knee. This is quality-of-life-changing.

The second is that I am broke. Grass-fed meat and fancy cheese don’t come cheap and snacks such as cauliflower chips, kale crackers and cashews cost a small fortune.

Cauliflower at 90p becomes my staple: not just raw florets, but as mash, steamed cauli-rice and even griddled ‘steaks’. I eat good meat, but smaller portions at half the cost.

For 30 days, I drink my green smoothies, lunch on leaves and resist sugary evils, bread, rice and potatoes with surprising ease. I eat at friends’ houses and go to restaurants, foraging successfully for food that fits the Plant Paradox bill.

The result? I have beaten the bloat and can now move if not like a gazelle then a fairly limber gnu. I’ve also lost 12 lb and 3.5 inches from my waist.

So I shall stick with it. I am not just persuaded by the science of evil Hannibal Lectin, but can also imagine a world of eating where I don’t crave the lectin baddies: except for the dastardly tomatoes, which still call to me from their little copper bowl on my kitchen top.

BREATHALYSER THAT BOSSES YOU SLIM

Claudia Connell, 57.

DIET: The Lumen

WHAT IT ENTAILS: Breathing into a gadget that can help you burn fat and lose weight.

POUNDS LOST IN ONE MONTH: 9

The last two decades of my life have been lost in a cycle of yo-yo dieting. Slimming down to a slender size 12 one year, only to eat my way back up to a nicely padded size 16 the next. My weight crept up in lockdown and at 5 ft 5 in, I was 12 st 9 lb (my heaviest ever). So, it was with a deep breath — literally — that I embarked on my latest attempt at weight loss.

The Lumen is a handheld breath analyser (from £249, lumen.me) that looks a bit like a vaping device, and claims it can help you burn fat, lose weight and increase energy.

It’s the invention of Israeli twin sisters Merav and Michal Mor, who both have Phds in physiology. Their goal was to design a tool that can tell people how efficiently their metabolism is working, allowing them to tweak their eating and exercise habits accordingly.

The metabolism is how our bodies turn the calories we consume into energy. We primarily burn two sources for energy: carbohydrates and fat. Our bodies will always choose to burn carbohydrate over fat, so the only way to change that is to reduce our carb intake.

Claudia Connell pictured before trying the breathalyser

Claudia after the diet. She lost 9lbs in one month

Claudia’s diet entailed breathing into a gadget that can help you burn fat and lose weight called the Lumen

To activate the Lumen, you need to pair it to the app on your phone. I fill in the app questionnaire regarding my age, height, weight and diet.

Then the Lumen needs to measure my breath.

It works by measuring the concentration of carbon dioxide, thanks to an integrated sensor. It then calculates the Respiratory Exchange Ratio (RER) — which indicates the fuel source the body is burning. A high carbon dioxide reading means the body is predominantly burning carbs for fuel. A low reading means it’s in a fat-burning state.

A video instructs me to keep inhaling until a purple circle on my smartphone turns green. I wouldn’t have thought there were many ways to get this wrong, but I do. ‘Try again’ pings up repeatedly.

Finally, I get it right and then have to hold my breath for ten seconds before exhaling slowly until I get a message to stop. It takes me seven attempts to get it right, by which time I feel dizzy. With my breath analysed, the device advises a weight-loss plan of 1,200 calories a day, consisting of 60-75g of carbs, 125g of protein and 45-51g of fat.

Claudia used the lumen to see whether the results were effective. She was recommended foods such as courgette and carrot pancakes as part of the diet

Claudia used the lumen to see whether the results were effective. She was recommended foods such as courgette and carrot pancakes as part of the diet 

My nutrition plan will tell me exactly what to eat each day according to my metabolism score. The most important reading is first thing, before breakfast.

Your body has been fasting and it’s now you really learn how efficiently it’s burning fat.

A score of one (which I never achieve) means you are in ‘serious fat-burn mode’; two means you’re mostly burning fat; three is a mixture of fat and carbs; four is mostly carbs and five is only carbs.

I’m delighted when my first morning reading is a two. I look at my breakfast recommendations and they’re seriously unappealing. The ginger and chia smoothie sounds foul, as do the courgette and carrot pancakes. I decide to have a flat white coffee. I log it and am alarmed to see it accounts for 18g of my carb allowance.

Sure enough, my next reading (you do it eight times per day) has shot up to four. I’m no longer burning fat. The app recommends I have a turkey wrap for lunch — which sounds nice, until I learn the ‘wrap’ is lettuce. My dinner is a steak and egg salad and by the time I go to bed my reading has gone down to a three. The next morning I expect my post-fast reading to be one, given that I end the day well within my carb allowance. Instead it’s a four!

I feel cheated.

For the next fortnight I eat mountains of salad and goodness knows how many eggs, yet my readings never waiver from a three. But when I weigh in after the second week, I have dropped 5lb, so something is happening.

By week three it occurs to me that my Lumen might be stuck on three so I attempt an experiment — I consume a bag of Haribo. When I do my next reading, my metabolism has slowed to a four. Haribo ‘experiment’ aside, I stick to the programme. After four weeks I’ve dropped 9lb and have lost three inches off my waist.

I feel more energised, but the constant breath-taking is fiddly, the desire to see a low number on your reading becomes obsessive — and there really are only so many eggs a girl can eat.

RESET YOUR STRESS TO CURB CORTISOL

Jane Alexander, 62, mother of one.

DIET: The Stress Reset Plan

WHAT IT ENTAILS: Lower cortisol, lower weight

POUNDS LOST IN ONE MONTH: 14

I look in the mirror and flinch. My arms and legs are lean but, if I let out my stomach, I could be eight months pregnant. ‘It’s classic stress weight, all focused on your middle,’ says Juls Abernethy, co-founder of The Body Retreat. I’m on a seven-day residential stay in Somerset to kickstart a month testing out their anti-stress diet.

When your body is in stress mode, it’s not just a case of cutting calories; it’s all about curbing the stress hormone cortisol — it gives us our get up and go, but when it’s out of balance it can trigger sugar cravings.

Cortisol stimulates the release of insulin and slows down our metabolism. It also impacts the hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin that tell our brains we’re hungry.

When I try to lose weight, which I’ve done time and again over the years, I usually plump for a strict diet and up my time on the treadmill. Big mistake, says Juls.

Deprivation causes stress, as do high-intensity workouts. More stress means the body panics and lays down more fat. Restricting food groups creates cravings. It’s time for a ‘stress reset’.

The food at the Body Retreat is suspiciously normal — three tasty meals a day plus a 4pm snack. It’s nutrient-dense, gut-friendly and balanced. Half your plate is veg and the other half divided between protein and complex carbs with a slice of healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocado).

Jane Alexander pictured before she tried the diet

Jane Alexander pictured after she tried The Stress Reset Plan

Jane Alexander, pictured before and after, tried the The Stress Reset Plan in a bid to try and lower cortisol and lower her weight. She lost 14 pounds in one month

Exercise is distinctly chilled: a 20-minute circuit class before breakfast and an hour’s walk in the afternoon (steady state cardio, designed to work the body without stressing it). Plus restorative yoga, Pilates and swimming.

At the end of the week, I’m stunned to find I’ve lost 9lb and five inches from my middle. I resolve to carry on for the next three weeks and make it a full month plan.

Back home, I get up earlier for a 30-minute HIIT workout on YouTube. When walking the dog, instead of our usual leisurely stroll, I up the pace.

I use the Body Retreat website (thebodyretreat.co.uk) and cookbooks Conscious Cooking and More Conscious Cooking (both around £20, amazon.co.uk) for recipes.

I usually blitz up a protein smoothie for breakfast, but, come the weekend, I cook buckwheat pancakes or avocado toast.

Later, I enjoy Juls’s super salads — rice, black bean and sweet potato is satisfyingly filling. There are also healthy variations of old favourites, from Mexican tortillas to sausage tray bake.

Portion size is key: I use a side plate, not a dinner plate, to ensure my portions don’t creep up.

The mid-afternoon protein snack (eg oat cakes with nut butter or hummus) is a game-changer: I usually nod off at my desk, but that one tweak keeps me going. I even get into yoga before bed.

Before, my stress levels were bouncing along near the ceiling. But the mindfulness sessions on the retreat are geared towards balancing stress.

Back home, whenever I feel my stress levels rise, I focus on my breathing and bring myself into the present, feeling my feet on the ground. It’s simple but it works.

I do, however, lose the plot on a few occasions.

An unseemly chocolate binge comes to mind, as does a pizza and wine blow-out. But I feel so awful (heart racing, stomach griping) afterwards that I actually fantasise about salad.

At the end of the month I’ve lost a stone and a whopping seven inches from my waist, I’m sleeping better and my mood is even approaching perky.

I’ve still got a way to go but now I’ve got a clear road map.

Fiona Golfar, 60, mother of two. 

AND A FIVE-DAY PROGRAMME THAT MIMICS FASTING… 

WHAT IT ENTAILS: The Prolon Programme tricks your body into thinking it’s fasting.

 POUNDS LOST: Approximately 5 in five days. 

I’m going to Greece on holiday with old friends soon and, recently, one of the other guests told our host she was nervous about her bikini body.

 ‘You don’t need to worry,’ he replied. ‘Fiona’s going to be there!’ It was funny, but only a bit. To be fair, the only reason he would ever tease me about my weight (I’ve known him since I was 14) is because I make a joke of it myself.

 When you feel fat, sometimes the best way to deal with it is make the joke first. I’m 60 and I have been on some kind of a diet ever since I can remember. I’ve tried them all. I love food, I cook and my parents were constantly on diets, too. 

Fiona Golfar, pictured, tried a five-day programme which mimics fasting. She lost 5lbs in five days following the programme

Fiona Golfar, pictured, tried a five-day programme which mimics fasting. She lost 5lbs in five days following the programme 

We don’t have any slim genes in our family, so I have to try to keep things under control via a healthy diet and doing regular exercise. I don’t weigh myself, I let my clothes tell me if I need to make a change. I yo-yo between a size 12 to a 14.

 It may not be much to others, but it’s enough to bother me. I’d tried Prolon about five years ago and was pleased with the results. Ahead of my Greek odyssey, I decided to give it another whirl. Prolon insists it’s not a diet product, but a fasting programme which supports gut health. The programme was designed by Dr Valter Longo at the Longevity Institute at the University of Southern California, who discovered how cells sense food, and then devised a plan that tricks the body into thinking it’s fasting. 

Fiona says that she felt she could put a swimsuit on after five days without having to make herself the punchline of her own joke

Fiona says that she felt she could put a swimsuit on after five days without having to make herself the punchline of her own joke 

On the first day, you eat 1,100 calories, while on days two to five you reduce to between 700 and 800 calories and then you slowly reintroduce food to your normal diet. The sleek white box, costing £199, is delivered to my door containing everything I need to eat for five days. Think plant-based energy bars, powdered soups such as vegetable, minestrone and mushroom, vegetable quinoa, plus snacks such as olives and crispbreads.

 While I wouldn’t choose to eat the soups in my everyday life, they are palatable. There are chewy breakfast bars and a sweet snack on the first couple of days, so I don’t suffer much from sugar withdrawal. But on day three, I feel weak, and drink endless amounts of herbal tea.

 By day four my head is much clearer and I can see the finishing line. The final day is the hardest, but I hang in there. My clothes feel much looser and my belt is two notches tighter, I would guess I’ve probably lost 5lb. 

My face has lost its puff and I feel pleased with myself. Prolon suggests that for optimum effect, you do this for one week a month over three months, and I can see this could really work. But after five days, I already feel I can put a swimsuit on without having to make myself the punchline of my own joke. 

  •  Always consult your doctor before making dietary changes.

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